Interviews

Walker Percy, The Art of Fiction No. 97

Interviewed by Zoltán Abádi-Nagy

This interview was conducted by mail, from May to October, 1986, at an enormous geographical distance; but the interviewer does cherish the memory of a personal meeting. It was on May 4, 1973, a warm Louisiana evening, at Percy’s home in Covington, a small town at the northern end of the causeway running above Lake Pontchartrain (New Orleans is at the southern end). The house is in a wooded area by the bayou, along the Bogue Falaya River. Percy was a tall, slender, handsome man, with a distinguished and thoughtful mien. His manner that day was unassuming, gracious, and gentle. Even later, judging from our correspondence, he was still the same warm, helpful, generous, and patient person, as the very existence of this interview, carried out under such difficult circumstances, will testify.

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you spend your seventieth birthday?

WALKER PERCY

An ordinary day. I went with my wife and some friends to a neighborhood restaurant in New Orleans. I think I had crawfish. What distinguishes Louisianians is that they suck the heads.

INTERVIEWER

You and your wife recently celebrated your fortieth anniversary. Is it easy, do you imagine, to be married to a writer?

PERCY

Mine has been a happy marriage—thanks mainly to my wife. Who would want to live with a novelist? A man underfoot in the house all day? A man, moreover, subject to solitary funks and strange elations. If I were a woman, I’d prefer a traveling salesman. There is no secret, or rather, the secrets are buried in platitudes. That is to say, it has something to do with love, commitment, and family. As to the institution, it is something like Churchill’s description of democracy: vicissitudinous yes, but look at the alternatives.

INTERVIEWER

What are the decisive moments, turning points, that you regard as the milestones of those seven decades?

PERCY

What comes to mind is something like this: one, losing both parents in my early teens and being adopted by my uncle, a poet, and being exposed to the full force of a remarkable literary imagination; two, contracting a nonfatal case of tuberculosis while serving as an intern in Bellevue Hospital in New York, an event that did not so much change my life as give me leave to change it; three, getting married; four, becoming a Catholic.

INTERVIEWER

If you had the chance, would you decide to be reborn or to flee back into William Blake’s “the vales of Har”?

PERCY

No vales of Har, thank you. No rebirth either, but I wouldn’t mind a visit in the year 2050—a short visit, not more than half an hour—say, to a park bench at the southeast corner of Central Park in New York, with a portable radio. Just to have a look around, just to see whether we made it and if so, in what style. One could tell in half an hour. By “we” of course, I do not mean just Americans, but the species. Homo sapiens sapiens.

INTERVIEWER

Once you said that if you were starting over, you might like to make films. Would there be other decisions that would be different?

PERCY

I might study linguistics—not in the current academic meanings of the word, but with a fresh eye, like Newton watching the falling apple: How come? What’s going on here?

INTERVIEWER

Apropos of your fascination with film, most of it finds its way into your novels on the thematic level, especially in The Moviegoer and Lancelot. Does it happen that film or television influences you in less noticeable ways as well, such as cinematic structuring of material and so on?

PERCY

I can only answer in the most general way: that what television and movies give the writer is a new community and a new set of referents. Since nearly everyone watches television a certain number of hours a day (whether they admit it or not), certain turns of plot are ready-made for satirical use, namely the Western shoot-out, one man calling another out, a mythical dance of honor. In my last novel I described one character as looking something like Blake Carrington. Now you may not know who Blake Carrington is—though sooner or later most Hungarians will. A hundred million Americans do know.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell me how you feel about your inspiring beliefs, how faithful you have remained to them?

PERCY

If you mean, am I still a Catholic, the answer is yes. The main difference after thirty-five years is that my belief is less self-conscious, less ideological, less polemical. My ideal is Thomas More, an English Catholic—a peculiar breed nowadays—who wore his faith with grace, merriment, and a certain wryness. Incidentally, I reincarnated him again in my new novel and I’m sorry to say he has fallen upon hard times; he is a far cry from the saint, drinks too much, and watches reruns of M*A*S*H on tv.

INTERVIEWER

As for philosophy and religion, do you still regard yourself as a philosophical Catholic existentialist?

PERCY

Philosophical? Existentialist? Religion? Pretty heavy. These are perfectly good words—except perhaps existentialist—but over the years they have acquired barnacle-like connotative excrescences. Uttering them induces a certain dreariness and heaviness in the neck muscles. As for existentialist, I’m not sure it presently has a sufficiently clear referent to be of use. Even “existentialists” forswear the term. It fell into disuse some years ago when certain novelists began saying things like: I beat up my wife in an existential moment—meaning a sudden, irrational impulse.

INTERVIEWER

Is it possible to define your Catholic existentialism in a few sentences?

PERCY

I suppose I would prefer to describe it as a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding—all of which he is, but not entirely. It is the “not entirely” I’m interested in—like the man Kierkegaard described who read Hegel, understood himself and the universe perfectly by noon, but then had the problem of living out the rest of the day. It, my “anthropology,” has been expressed better in an earlier, more traditional language—e.g., scriptural: man born to trouble as the sparks fly up; Gabriel Marcel’s Homo viator.

INTERVIEWER

You converted to Catholicism in the 1940s. What was the motive behind that decision?

PERCY

There are several ways to answer the question. One is theological. The technical theological term is grace, the gratuitous unmerited gift from God. Another answer is less theological: What else is there? Did you expect me to become a Methodist? A Buddhist? A Marxist? A comfortable avuncular humanist like Walter Cronkite? An exhibitionist like Allen Ginsberg? A proper literary-philosophical-existentialist answer is that the occasion was the reading of Kierkegaard’s extraordinary essay: “On the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle.” Like the readings that mean most to you, what it did was to confirm something I suspected but that it took Søren Kierkegaard to put into words: that what the greatest geniuses in science, literature, art, philosophy utter are sentences which convey truths sub specie aeternitatis, that is to say, sentences that can be confirmed by appropriate methods and by anyone, anywhere, anytime. But only the apostle can utter sentences that can be accepted on the authority of the apostle, that is, his credentials, sobriety, trustworthiness as a newsbearer. These sentences convey not knowledge sub specie aeternitatis but news.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed that you rarely refer to other converted novelists like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh when discussing your ideas. Or if you do, it is rarely, if ever, in this context.

PERCY

Maybe it’s because novelists don’t talk much about each other. Maybe this is because novelists secrete a certain BO, which only other novelists detect, like certain buzzards who emit a repellent pheromone detectable only by other buzzards, which is to say that only a novelist can know how neurotic, devious, underhanded a novelist can be. Actually I have the greatest admiration for both writers, not necessarily for their religion, but for their consummate craft.

INTERVIEWER

Can we discuss the “Los Angelized” and re-Christianized New South? Is there anything new in the way the South is developing in the 1980s or in the way you read the South or your own relation to it?

PERCY

The odd thing I’ve noticed is that while of course the South is more and more indistinguishable from the rest of the country (Atlanta, for example, which has become one of the three or four megalopolises of the U.S., is in fact, I’m told by blacks, their favorite American city), the fact is that as Faulkner said fifty years ago, as soon as you cross the Mason-Dixon line, you still know it. This, after fifty years of listening to the same radio and watching millions of hours of Barnaby Jones. I don’t know whether it’s the heat or a certain lingering civility but people will slow down on interstates to let you get in traffic. Strangers speak in post offices, hold doors for each other without being thought queer or running a con game or making a sexual advance. I could have killed the last cab driver I had in New York. Ask Eudora Welty, she was in the same cab.

INTERVIEWER

Have your views concerning being a writer in the South undergone a change during the past decades? Is being a writer in the South in 1987 the same as it was when you started to write?

PERCY

Southern writers—that’s the question everybody asks. I still don’t know the answer. All I know is that there is still something about living in the South that turns one inward, makes one secretive, sly, and scheming, makes one capable of a degree of malice, humor, and outrageousness. At any rate, despite the Los Angelization of the South there are right here, in the New Orleans area, perhaps half a dozen very promising young writers—which is more than can be said of Los Angeles. It comes, not from the famous storytelling gregariousness one hears about, but from the shy, sly young woman, say, who watches, listens, gets a fill of it, and slips off to do a number on it. And it comes, not from having arrived at last in the Great American Mainstream along with the likes of Emerson and Sandburg, but from being close enough to have a good look at one’s fellow Americans, fellow Southerners, yet keep a certain wary distance, enough to nourish a secret, subversive conviction: I can do a number on those guys—and on me—and it will be good for all of us.

INTERVIEWER

Apropos of Southern writing, does regionalism still apply?

PERCY

Sure, in the better sense of the word, in the sense that Chekhov and Flaubert and Mark Twain are regionalists—not in the sense that Joel Chandler Harris and Bret Harte were regionalists.

INTERVIEWER

You studied science at Chapel Hill and became a medical doctor at Columbia. In your recently published essay “The Diagnostic Novel” you suggest that serious art is “just as cognitive” as science is and “the serious novelist is quite as much concerned with discovering reality as a serious physicist.” Art explores reality in a way that “cannot be done any other way.” What are some of the ways that are specific to artistic as opposed to scientific exploration of reality?

PERCY

The most commonplace example of the cognitive dimension in fiction is the reader’s recognition—sometimes the shock of recognition—the “verification” of a sector of reality that he had known but not known that he had known. I think of letters I get from readers, which may refer to a certain scene and say, in effect, yes! that’s the way it is! For example, Binx in The Moviegoer describes one moviegoing experience, going to see Panic in the Streets, a film shot in New Orleans, going to a movie theater in the very neighborhood where the same scenes in the movie were filmed. Binx tells his girlfriend, Kate, about his reasons for enjoying the film—that it, the film, “certifies” the reality of the neighborhood in a peculiar sense in which the direct experience of the neighborhood, living in the neighborhood, does not. I have heard from many readers about this and other such scenes—as have other novelists, I’m sure—saying they know exactly what Binx is talking about. I think it is reasonable to call such a transaction cognitive, sciencing. This sort of sciencing is closely related to the cognitive dimension of psychoanalysis. The patient, let’s say, relates a dream. Such and such happened. The analyst suggests that perhaps the dream “means” such and such. It sometimes happens that the patient—perhaps after a pause, a frown, a shaking of head—will suddenly “see” it. Yes, by God! Which is to say: in sciencing, there are forms of verification other than pointer-readings.

INTERVIEWER

As for your view that it is a mistake to draw a moral and be edifying in art—is Lancelot’s naive-fascistoid idea of the Third Revolution illustrative of this?

PERCY

I was speaking of the everyday use of the words moral and edifying—which is to say, preachy—in the sense that, say, Ayn Rand’s novels are preachy, have a message, but may in the deepest sense of the word be immoral. So is Lancelot’s “Third Revolution” in the deepest sense immoral and, I hope, is so taken by the reader. To tell the truth, I don’t see how any serious fiction writer or poet can fail to be moral and edifying in the technical non-connotative sense of these words, since he or she cannot fail to be informed by his own deep sense of the way things should be or should not be, by a sense of pathology and hence a sense of health. If a writer writes from a sense of outrage—and most serious writers do—isn’t he by definition a moral writer?

INTERVIEWER

The influence of Dostoyevsky, Camus, Sartre, and other novelists upon you has often been discussed. Is there any literary influence that joined the rest recently?

PERCY

Chekhov reread—in a little reading group we have here in Covington. His stories “In the Ravine” and “Ward Six” are simply breathtaking. Also recently, the German novelist Peter Handke whose latest, The Weight of the World, is somehow exhilarating in the spontaneity of its free-form diary entries. The accurate depiction of despair can be exhilarating, a cognitive emotion.

INTERVIEWER

What is your attitude towards the reader?

PERCY

I hold out for some sort of contractual relationship between novelist and reader, however flawed, misapprehended, or fragmentary. Perhaps the contract is ultimately narratological, perhaps not. But something keeps—or fails to keep—the reader reading the next sentence. Even the “antinovel” presupposes some sort of contractual venture at the very moment the “antinovelist” is attacking narrativity. Such a venture implies that the writer is up to something, going abroad like Don Quixote—if only to attack windmills—and that the reader is with him. Otherwise why would the latter bother? The antinovelist is like a Protestant. His protests might be valid, but where would he be without the Catholic Church? I have no objection to “antistory” novels. What I object to is any excursion by the author that violates the novelistic contract between writer and reader, which I take to be an intersubjective transaction entailing the transmission of a set of symbols, a text. The writer violates the contract when he trashes the reader by pornography or scatological political assaults, e.g., depicting President Nixon in a novel buggering Ethel Rosenberg in Times Square, or LBJ plotting the assassination of JFK. Take pornography, a difficult, slippery case. It is not necessary to get into a discussion of First Amendment rights—for all I know it has them. And for all I know, pomography has its uses. All I suggest is that pornography and literature stimulate different organs. If we can agree that a literary text is a set of signals transmitted from sender to receiver in a certain code, pornography is a different set of signals and a different code.

INTERVIEWER

Can it be said that in your case the primary business of literature and art is cognitive whereas with John Gardner it is “to be morally judgemental”? It is clear that you and Gardner are not talking about the same thing.

PERCY

I expect there is an overlap between Gardner’s “moral fiction” and my “diagnostic novel.” But Gardner makes me nervous with his moralizing. When he talks about literature “establishing models of human action,” he seems to be using literature to influence what people do. I think he is confusing two different orders of reality. Aquinas and the Schoolmen were probably right: Art is making, morality is doing. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, which is to say making something. This is not to say that art, fiction, is not moral in the most radical sense—if it is made right. But if you write a novel with the goal of trying to make somebody do right, you’re writing a tract—which may be an admirable enterprise but it is not literature. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is in my opinion a work of art, but it would probably not pass Gardner’s moral test. Come to think of it, I think my reflexes are medical rather than normal. This comes, I guess, from having been a pathologist. Now I am perfectly willing to believe Flannery O’Connor when she said, and she wasn’t kidding, that the modern world is a territory largely occupied by the devil. No one doubts the malevolence abroad in the world. But the world is also deranged. What interests me as a novelist is not the malevolence of man—so what else is new?—but his looniness. The looniness, that is to say, of the “normal” denizen of the Western world who, I think it fair to say, doesn’t know who he is, what he believes, or what he is doing. This unprecedented state of affairs is, I suggest, the domain of the “diagnostic” novelist.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any trends or authors in contemporary American innovative fiction that you regard with sympathy?

 PERCY

Yes, there are quite a few younger writers whom I will not name but whom I would characterize as innovative “minimalist” writers who have been influenced by Donald Barthelme without succumbing to him, which is easy to do, or as young Southern writers who have been influenced by Faulkner and Welty without succumbing to them, which is also easy to do.

INTERVIEWER

If I were asked whose work I feel to be closest to yours—the whole terrain of contemporary American fiction considered—I would choose Saul Bellow.

PERCY

Why?

INTERVIEWER

Because of the philosophical bent, because both of you are satirical moralists, because Bellow’s is also a quest informed by an awareness that man can do something about alienation, and because philosophical abstraction and concrete social commentary are equally balanced.

PERCY

I take that kindly. I admire Barth, Pynchon, Heller, Vonnegut—you could also throw in Updike, Cheever, and Malamud—but perhaps Bellow most of all. He bears the same relationship to the streets of Chicago and upper Broadway—has inserted himself into them—the way I have in the Gentilly district of New Orleans or a country town in West Feliciana Parish in Louisiana.

INTERVIEWER

What exactly moves you to write? An idea? An image? A character? A landscape? A memory? Something that happened to you or to someone else? You have said about The Moviegoer that you “liked the idea of putting a young man down in a faceless suburb.”

PERCY

The spark might have come from Sartre’s Roquentin in Nausea sitting in that library watching the Self-Taught Man or sitting in that café watching the waiter. Why not have a younger, less perverse Roquentin, a Southerner of a certain sort, and put him down in a movie house in Gentilly, a middle-class district of New Orleans, not unlike Sartre’s Bouville.

INTERVIEWER

If every writer writes from his own predicament, could you give a few hints as to how The Moviegoer illustrates this point?

PERCY

After the war, not doing medicine, writing and publishing articles in psychiatric, philosophical, and political journals, I was living in New Orleans and going to the movies. You can’t make a living writing articles for The Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. The thought crossed my mind: Why not do what French philosophers often do and Americans almost never—novelize philosophy, incarnate ideas in a person and a place, which latter is, after all, a noble Southern tradition in fiction.

INTERVIEWER

Did you model any character on your brothers, wife, children, grandchildren?

PERCY

Not in any way anyone would recognize.

INTERVIEWER

In connection with Message in the Bottle, a collection of essays that had been published over two-and-a-half decades, what attracted you to linguistics and semiotics, to the theories of language, meaning, signs, and symbols?

PERCY

That’s the big question, too big to answer in more than a couple of sentences. It has to do with the first piece of writing I ever got published. I was sitting around Saranac Lake getting over a light case of tuberculosis. There was nothing to do but read. I got hold of Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key in which she focuses on man’s unique symbol-mongering behavior. This was an eye-opener to me, a good physician-scientist brought up in the respectable behaviorist tradition of UNC. and Columbia. I was so excited, I wrote a review and sent it to Thought quarterly. It was accepted! I was paid by twenty-five reprints. That was enough. What was important was seeing my scribble in print!

INTERVIEWER

Can you recollect what was involved in your getting started with The Last Gentleman?

PERCY

I wanted to create someone not quite as flat as Binx in The Moviegoer, more disturbed, more passionate, more in love, and, above all, on the move. He is in pilgrimage without quite knowing it—doing a Kierkegaardian repetition, that is, going back to his past to find himself, then from home and self to the West following the summons of a queer sort of apostle, mad Doctor Sutter. “Going West” is U.S. colloquial for dying.

INTERVIEWER

Love in the Ruins?

PERCY

Love in the Ruins was a picnic, with everything in it but the kitchen sink. It was written during the Time of Troubles in the sixties, with all manner of polarization in the country, black vs. white, North vs. South, hippie vs. square, liberal vs. conservative, McCarthyism vs. commies, et cetera—the whole seasoned with a Southern flavor and featuring sci-fi, futurism, and Dr. More, a whimsical descendant of the saint. After the solemnities of The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, why not enjoy myself? I did. Now I have seen fit to resurrect Dr. More in the novel I just finished, The Thanatos Syndrome. He is in trouble as usual and I am enjoying it.

INTERVIEWER

Lancelot?

PERCY

Lancelot might have come from an upside-down theological notion, not about God but about sin, more specifically the falling into disrepute of the word sin. So it seemed entirely fitting that Lancelot, a proper Southern gent raised in a long tradition of knightly virtues, chiefly by way of Walter Scott, the most widely read novelist in the South for a hundred years, should have undertaken his own sort of quest for his own peculiar Grail, i.e., sin, which quest is, after all, a sort of search for God. Lancelot wouldn’t be caught dead looking for God but he is endlessly intrigued by the search for evil. Is there such a thing—malevolence over and beyond psychological and sociological categories? The miscarriage of his search issues, quite logically I think, in his own peculiar brand of fascism, which is far more attractive and seductive, I think, than Huey Long’s.

INTERVIEWER

Let me ask about The Second Coming, too, since although it developed into a sequel to The Last Gentleman, originally it was not conceived as a sequel.

PERCY

The Second Coming was a sure-enough love story—a genre I would ordinarily steer clear of. What made it possible was the, to me, appealing notion of the encounter of Allie and Will, like the crossing of two lines on a graph, one going up, and other down: the man who has “succeeded” in life, made it, has the best of worlds, and yet falls down in sand traps on the golf course, gazes at clouds and is haunted by memory, is in fact in despair; the girl, a total “failure,” a schizophrenic who has flunked life, as she puts it, yet who despite all sees the world afresh and full of hope. It was the paradox of it that interested me. What happens when he meets her? What is the effect on his ghostlike consciousness of her strange, yet prescient, schizophrenic speech?

INTERVIEWER

Nonfiction. Lost in the Cosmos?

PERCY

Lost in the Cosmos was a sly, perhaps even devious, attempt to approach a semiotic of the self. Circumspection was necessary here, because semioticists have no use for the self, and votaries of the self—poets, humanists, novel-readers, et cetera—have no use for semiotics. It was a quite ambitious attempt actually, not necessarily successful, to derive the self, a very nebulous entity indeed, through semiotics, specifically the emergence of self as a consequence of the child’s entry into the symbol-mongering world of men—and even more specifically, through the acquisition of language. What was underhanded about the book was the insertion of a forty-page “primer of semiotics” in the middle of the book with a note of reassurance to the reader that he could skip it if he wanted to. Of course I was hoping he, or more likely she, would be sufficiently intrigued to take the dare and read it, since it is of course the keystone of the book. Having derived the self semiotically, then the fun came from deriving the various options of the self semiotically—the various “re-entries” of the self from the orbits most people find themselves in. Such options are ordinarily regarded as the territory of the novelist, the queer things his characters do. The fun was like the fun of Mendeleyev who devised his periodic table of elements and then looked to see if all the elements were there. Technically speaking, it was a modest attempt to give the “existentialia” of Heidegger some semiotic grounding—this, of course, in the ancient tradition of Anglo-Saxon empiricism administering therapy to the European tendency to neurotic introspection. It was also fun to administer a dose of semiotics to Phil Donahue and Carl Sagan, splendid fellows both, but who’s perfect?

INTERVIEWER

Which of your novels do you expect to weather time best and why?

PERCY

I’ve no idea.

INTERVIEWER

Would you rewrite any of your works from any aspect at any point if you could?

PERCY

No, I hardly think about them. Sometimes in the middle of the night, however, something will occur to me that I would use in a revision. For example, in the chapter called “Metaphor as Mistake” in The Message in the Bottle I wish I had used this example: In Charity Hospital in New Orleans, which serves mainly poor blacks, the surgical condition, fibroids of the uterus, an accurate if somewhat prosaic definition, is known to many patients more creatively as “fireballs of the Eucharist.”

INTERVIEWER

Is it correct to say that your oeuvre forms an organic whole and that there is a consistent logic that takes you from one work to the next as you explore reality step by step?

PERCY

Yes, I hope so—though the organic quality, if there is any, occurred more by happenstance than by design. The “fruits of the search” are there—to the extent they are allowed in the modest enterprise of the novel. That is to say, the novelist has no business setting up as the Answer Man. Or, as Binx says in the epilogue of The Moviegoer: “As for my search, I have not the inclination to say much on the subject. For one thing, I have not the authority, as the great Danish philosopher declared, to speak of such matters . . .” But the novelist is entitled to a degree of artifice and cunning, as Joyce said; or the “indirect method,” as Kierkegaard said; or the comic-bizarre for shock therapy, as Flannery O’Connor did. For example, a hint of the resolution of Binx’s search is given in a single four-word sentence on page 240. The reader should know by now that Binx, for all his faults, never bullshits, especially not with children. In Lancelot the resolution of the conflict between Lancelot and Percival is given by a single word, the last word in the book. Which holds out hope for Lancelot.

INTERVIEWER

Hope in what sense? Isn’t he beyond reach for Percival anyway?

PERCY

No, Lancelot is not beyond the reach of Percival and accordingly Lancelot is not beyond hope. The entire novel is Lancelot’s spiel to Percival. Percival does not in the novel reply in kind. At the end Lancelot asks him if he has anything to say. Percival merely says, “Yes.” Lancelot, presumably, will listen. It is precisely my perception of the aesthetic limitations of the novel-form that this is all Percival can say. But the novelist is allowed to nourish the secret hope that the reader may remember that in the legend it was only Percival and Lancelot, of all the knights, who saw the Grail.

INTERVIEWER

I guess Lancelot was meant as your bicentenary novel. But the two radical points of view, Lancelot’s “pagan Greco-Roman Nazi and so on tradition” and Percival’s orthodox Christianity, are unacceptable for most people, as you once explained. So, another guess, what you could teach America in Lancelot was what was wrong, and what you could work out in The Second Coming was what you could recommend to the nation.

PERCY

If you say so, though I had nothing so grand in mind as “recommending to the nation.” I never lose sight of the lowly vocation of the novelist. He is mainly out to give pleasure to a reader—one would hope, aesthetic pleasure. He operates in the aesthetic sphere, not the religious or even the ethical. That is to say, he is in business, like all other artists, of making, not doing, certainly not lecturing to the nation. He hopes to make well and so sell what he makes.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t it safe to say, though, that Lancelot and The Second Coming are twin novels in the sense that while Lance embarks on a quest to meet the devil, Barrett’s quest is to meet God? The latter’s physical journey downwards seems to be an ironic counterpart to his yearning, which is upward. Barrett’s route leads him—through his fall into the greenhouse—to a different reality, perhaps the correction of direction you recommend to the South and to America. Is this stretching things too far?

PERCY

Yes, indeed. Will Barrett falls out of the cave into Allie’s arms, i.e., out of his nutty gnostic quest into sacramental reality. I liked the idea of falling out of a cave. I permitted myself a veiled optimism here, that one can in fact fall out of a cave, i.e., despair and depression, when aware of themselves as such, can be closest to life. From cave to greenhouse, courtesy of Søren Kierkegaard and Dr. Jung. Some reservation, however, about “a message to the South.” The South is by and large in no mood for messages from Walker Percy, being, for one thing, too busy watching Dallas, The Love Boat, and the NFL on the tube. Or Jimmy Swaggart.

INTERVIEWER

Do the times have anything to do with your reaching this breakthrough to eros, affirmation, and celebration in 1980 and not before? In other words, could The Second Coming have been written in the fifties or sixties? Or was your own age and life experience needed to reach this stage?

PERCY

Yes, no, yes. Also artistic development. Also luck—as I said before. You’re sitting at your typewriter, nine in the morning, a bad time, or four in the afternoon, a worse time. Sunk as usual. In the cave. What’s going to happen to these poor people? They’re on their own. I’ll be damned if I’m going to impose a solution on them, a chic unhappy existential ending or an upbeat Fannie Hurst ending. What does this poor guy do? He falls out of the cave, what else?

INTERVIEWER

Can we look at much of what goes on in innovative fiction, when it is not self-indulgent and cynical, in light of what you call “defamiliarization” in Lost in the Cosmos? That is, the artist tries to “wrench signifier out of context and exhibit it in all its queerness and splendor”?

PERCY

Absolutely, but I would apply the principle even more broadly, indeed to much that is beautiful in poetry. Take Shakespeare’s lovely lines: “Daffodils that come before the swallow dares / And take the winds of March with beauty.” Surely the wrenching out of context and hence defamiliarization of such ordinary words as daffodils, swallow, dare, March, and even the curious use of take, has something to do with the beauty. Obviously Empson’s theory of ambiguity in poetry is closely akin.

INTERVIEWER

It is clear that once we are dealing with a “postreligious technological society,” transcendence is possible for the self by science or art but not by religion. Where does this leave the heroes of your novels with their metaphysical yearnings—Binx, Barrett, More, Lance?

PERCY

I would have to question your premise, i.e., the death of religion. The word itself, religion, is all but moribund, true, smelling of dust and wax—though of course in its denotative sense it is accurate enough. I have referred to the age as “post-Christian” but it does not follow from this that there are not Christians or that they are wrong. Possibly the age is wrong. Catholics—who are the only Christians I can speak for—still believe that God entered history as a man, founded a church, and will come again. This is not the best of times for the Catholic Church, but it has seen and survived worse. I see the religious “transcendence” you speak of as curiously paradoxical. Thus it is only by a movement, “transcendence,” toward God that these characters, Binx et al., become themselves, not abstracted like scientists but fully incarnate beings in the world. Kierkegaard put it more succinctly: The self only becomes itself when it becomes itself transparently before God.

INTERVIEWER

The second half of the question still applies: is it possible to describe Binx and the others in terms of your semiotic typology of the self?

PERCY

I would think in terms of the semiotic typology of self described in The Message in the Bottle. The semiotic receptor or “self” described here is perceived as being—unlike the “responding organism” of Skinner or Morris or Ogden-and-Richards—attuned to the reception of sentences, asserted subject-predicate pairings, namings, et cetera. There is adumbrated here a classification of sentences—not grammatically but existentially, that is, how the semiotic self construes the sentences in relation to his “world” (Welt not Umwelt), the latter itself a semiotic construction. Thus:

I. Sentences conveying “island news”: There is fresh water in the next cove; the price of eggs is fifty cents a dozen; Nicaragua has invaded El Salvador; my head hurts; etc.

II. Sentences conveying truths sub specie aeternitatis (i.e., valid on any island anywhere): two plus two equals four; E equals MC2 (mathematical sentences); to thine own self be true, et cetera (poetic sentences); wolves are carnivorous (scientific sentences, true of all known wolves anywhere).

III. Sentences announcing news from across the seas: The French fleet is on its way to Saint Helena to rescue you (a sentence of possible significance to Napoleon). Or: A certain event occurred in history, in the Middle East some two thousand years ago, which is of utmost importance to every living human. Presumably it was just some such sentence, however indirectly, obscurely, distortedly uttered, which might have been uttered or was about to be uttered to Binx Bolling, Will Barrett, at the end of these novels—by such unlikely souls as Sutter. Notice too that it is only this last sort of sentence, the good news from across the seas, which requires the credential of the newsbearer. Or, as Kierkegaard phrased the sentence: Only I, an apostle (that is, messenger), have the authority to bring you this piece of news. It is true and I make you eternally responsible for whether or not you believe it. Certainly it is not the business of the novelist to utter sentences of Class III, but only a certain sort of Class II sentence. Also, mutatis mutandis, it is Dr. Thomas More who, in The Thanatos Syndrome, hears the Class III sentence as a nonsentence, devalued, ossified, not so much nonsense as part merely of a religious decor, like the whiff of incense or a plastic Jesus on the dashboard, or a bumper sticker common here in Louisiana: Jesus Saves.

INTERVIEWER

Is it possible that the idea central to your semiotic theory of the self—namely, that the self has no sign of itself—has something to do with Jung’s idea in his Modern Man in Search of a Soul where he speaks about the difficulty man has expressing the inexpressible in his language?

PERCY

Actually I would suppose that my notions about the “semiotic origins” of the self are more closely related, at least in my own mind, to the existentialist philosophers, Heidegger and Marcel and Jaspers, and to the existentialist school of psychiatrists. Some years ago I published a paper which sought to do precisely that: derive many of the so-called “existentialia”—anxiety, notion of a “world”—from this very structure of man’s peculiar triadic relation to his environment: interpreter-symbol-referent.

INTERVIEWER

The Jungian idea in The Thanatos Syndrome is mentioned in the book—that anxiety and depression might be trying to tell the patient something he does not understand. Doesn’t this contradict the “semiotic-predicament-of-the-self” theory in Cosmos, i.e., its unspeakableness in a world of signs?

PERCY

I don’t think so. The concept of an unsignificant self stranded in a world of solid signs (trees, apples, Alabama, Ralphs, Zoltáns) is very useful in thinking about the various psychiatric ways patients “fall” into inauthenticity, the way frantic selves grope for any mask at hand to disguise their nakedness. Sartre’s various descriptions of bad faith in role-playing are marvelous phenomenological renderings of this quest of the self for some, any, kind of habiliment. This being the case, perhaps the patient’s “symptoms”—anxiety, depression, and whatnot—may be read as a sort of warning or summons of the self to itself, of the “authentic” self to the “fallen” or inauthentic self. Heidegger speaks of the “fall” of the self into the “world.” I am thinking of the first character you encounter in The Thanatos Syndrome through the eyes of Dr. More: the woman who lives at the country club and thinks she has everything and yet is in the middle of a panic attack. She is also the last person you encounter in the book—after being “relieved” of her symptoms by the strange goings-on in the book. So here she is at the end confronting her anxiety. She is about to listen to herself tell herself something. The last sentence in the novel is: She opens her mouth to speak. Jung, of course, would have understood this patient as this or that element of the self speaking to itself, perhaps anima-self to animus-self. Perhaps he is right, but I find it more congenial and less occult to speak in terms of observables and semiotic elements. Perhaps it is the Anglo-Saxon empiricist in me.

INTERVIEWER

One way to sum up The Thanatos Syndrome—without giving away the plot—is to call it an ecological novel. What made you turn to the ecological theme?

PERCY

I wasn’t particularly aware of the ecological theme. It is true that the Louisiana of the novel is an ecological mess—as indeed it is now—but this I took to be significant only insofar as it shows the peculiar indifference of the strange new breed of Louisianians in the novel. After all, chimplike creatures do not generally form enviromental-protection societies.

INTERVIEWER

Novels like Cheever’s Oh! What a Paradise It Seems, Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, and Don DeLillo’s White Noise are about the contamination of the environment. Were you influenced by those novels or by any others with similar topics?

PERCY

Not really. If you want to locate a contemporary influence, it would be something like a cross between Bellow and Vonnegut—aiming at Bellow’s depth in his central characters and Vonnegut’s outrageousness and satirical use of sci-fi.

INTERVIEWER

Did you make up the “prefrontal cortical deficit,” the Tauber test, and other things, the way you invented Hausmann’s Syndrome for inappropriate longing in The Second Coming?

PERCY

No, they’re not made up. There is just enough present-day evidence to make my “syndrome” plausible, or at least credible. One advantage of futuristic novel-writing is that it relieves one of restriction to the current state of the art of brain function. Another way of saying this is that, fortunately, the present knowledge of cortical function is so primitive that it gives the novelist considerable carte blanche.

INTERVIEWER

What about in The Thanatos Syndrome—is the pharmacological effect of Na24 on the cortex known?

PERCY

Not that I know of, but perhaps some shrink will write me, as one did about Hausmann’s Syndrome, and report that, sure enough, administration of Na24 to patients in the Veteran’s Hospital in Seattle has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve sexual performance both in quantity and quality and variety (for example, presenting rearward).

INTERVIEWER

What led you to the idea of cortex manipulation?

PERCY

Well of course the cortex is the neurological seat of the primate’s, and man’s, “higher functions.” But I was particularly intrigued by the work of neurologists like John Eccles who locate the “self” in the language areas of the cortex—which squares very well with the semiotic origins of the self in the origins of language—as that which gives names, utters sentences. It seems, despite the most intensive training, chimps do neither.

INTERVIEWER

The idea of man regressing to a prelingual stage must be a satiric device to get at what you experience in human communicative behavior today?

PERCY

Well, I might have had at the edge of my mind some literary critics, philosophers, and semioticians, who seem hell-bent on denying the very qualities of language and literature that have been held in such high esteem in the past: namely, that it is possible to know something about the world, that the world actually exists, that one person can actually say or write about the world and that other people can understand him. That, in a word, communication is possible. Some poets and critics outdo me in regression. I was content to regress some characters to a rather endearing pongid-primate level. But one poet I read about claimed that the poet’s truest self could only be arrived at if he regressed himself clear back to the inorganic level, namely, a stone.

INTERVIEWER

When at the end of the book you hint that earlier poets wrote two-word sentences, uttered howls, or routinely exposed themselves during their readings, I thought you meant the counterculture.

PERCY

I was thinking of Ginsberg and company—and some of his imitators who can be found in our genteel Southern universities. I do not imply that Ginsberg had been intoxicated by Na24, but only that such poets might suffer cortical deficits of a more obscure sort. The fact that American writers in residence and poets in residence often behave worse than football players does not necessarily imply that they are more stoned than the latter. There is more than one way to assault the cortex.

INTERVIEWER

You have said literature can be a living social force, that the segregationists could feel the impact of a satirical line about Valley Forge Academy in Love in the Ruins. Do you expect The Thanatos Syndrome to be effective in that way?

PERCY

I would hope that it would have some small influence in the great debate on the sanctity of life in the face of technology. For one thing, I would hope to raise the level of the debate above the crude polemics of the current proabortion/prolife wrangle. When people and issues get completely polarized, somebody needs to take a step back, take a deep breath, take a new look.

INTERVIEWER

Aren’t there more immediate ways besides writing satirical fiction? Have you ever been engaged in political activity?

PERCY

Only in a small way in the sixties. For a while I had the honor of being labeled a nigger-lover and a bleeding heart. One small bomb threat from the Klan and one interesting night in the attic with my family and a shotgun, feeling both pleased and ridiculous and beset with ambiguities—for I knew some of the Klan people and they are not bad fellows, no worse probably than bleeding-heart liberals.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any concrete issue that engages your attention most in connection with what is going on in America at the moment?

PERCY

Probably the fear of seeing America, with all its great strength and beauty and freedom—“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A.,” and so on—gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the communist movement, demonstrably a bankrupt system, but from within by weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed, and in the end helplessness before its great problems. Probably the greatest is the rise of a black underclass. Maybe Faulkner was right. Slavery was America’s Original Sin and the one thing that can defeat us. I trust not.

INTERVIEWER

In connection with what is going on in the world?

PERCY

Ditto: the West losing by spiritual acedia. A Judaic view is not inappropriate here: Communism may be God’s punishment for the sins of the West. Dostoyevsky thought so.

INTERVIEWER

You have often spoken about the postpartum depression you are in when you finish a novel. To put the question in Lost-in-the-Cosmos terms: Now that you have finished another novel, which re-entry option is open to you?

PERCY

Thanks for taking re-entries seriously. Probably re-entry travel (geographical—I’m going to Maine, where I’ve never been). Plus reentry anaesthesia—a slight dose of bourbon.

INTERVIEWER

In 1981 you spoke about a novel you were writing about two amnesiacs traveling on a Greyhound bus. You also said that you had been at that novel for two years. Thanatos is obviously not that novel. Did you give up on that one?

PERCY

I can’t remember.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any plans for future works?

PERCY

It is in my mind to write a short work on semiotics showing how the current discipline has been screwed up by followers of Charles Peirce and de Saussure, the founders of modern semiotics. The extraordinary insight of Peirce into the triadic nature of meaning for humans and of de Saussure into the nature of the sign—as a union of the signifier and the signified—has been largely perverted by the current European tradition of structuralism and deconstruction and the American version of “dyadic” psychology, that is, various versions of behaviorism, so-called cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, and so on. It would be nice if someone pursued Peirce’s and de Saussure’s breakthroughs. On the other hand, I may not have the time or the energy.

INTERVIEWER

Are there hopes that you would like the eighth decade of your life to fulfill?

PERCY

I was thinking of getting a word processor.

INTERVIEWER

The minimum a seventy-year-old man deserves is a birthday present. Since the person in question happens to be a writer, and since he has shown in a self-interview that he is the best man to answer the questions, the birthday present is that he can ask the last question.

PERCY

Question: Since you are a satirical novelist and since the main source of the satirist’s energy is anger about something amiss or wrong about the world, what is the main target of your anger in The Thanatos Syndrome?

Answer: It is the widespread and ongoing devaluation of human life in the Western world—under various sentimental disguises: “quality of life,” “pointless suffering,” “termination of life without meaning,” et cetera. I trace it to a certain mind-set in the biological and social sciences which is extraordinarily influential among educated folk—so much so that it has almost achieved the status of a quasi-religious orthodoxy. If I had to give it a name, it would be something like: The Holy Office of the Secular Inquisition. It is not to be confused with “secular humanism” because, for one thing, it is antihuman. Although it drapes itself in the mantle of the scientific method and free scientific inquiry, it is neither free nor scientific. Indeed it relies on certain hidden dogma where dogma has no place. I can think of two holy commandments that the Secular Inquisition lays down for all scientists and believers. The first: In your investigations and theories, Thou shalt not find anything unique about the human animal even if the evidence points to such uniqueness. Example: Despite heroic attempts to teach sign language to other animals, the evidence is that even the cleverest chimpanzee has never spontaneously named a single object or uttered a single sentence. Yet dogma requires that, despite traditional belief in the soul or the mind, and the work of more recent workers like Peirce and Langer in man’s unique symbolizing capacity, Homo sapiens sapiens be declared to be not qualitatively different from other animals. Another dogma: Thou shalt not suggest that there is a unique and fatal flaw in Homo sapiens sapiens or indeed any perverse trait that cannot be laid to the influence of Western civilization. Examples: (1) An entire generation came under the influence of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and its message: that the Samoans were an innocent, happy, and Edenic people until they were corrupted by missionaries and technology. That this turned out not to be true, that indeed the Samoans appear to have been at least as neurotic as New Yorkers, has not changed the myth or the mind-set. (2) The gentle Tasaday people of the Philippines, an isolated Stone Age tribe, were also described as innocents, peace-loving, and benevolent. When asked to describe evil, they replied: “We cannot think of anything that is not good.” That the Tasaday story has turned out to be a hoax is like an erratum corrected in a footnote and as inconsequential. (3) The ancient Mayans are still perceived as not only the builders of a high culture, practitioners of the arts and sciences, but a gentle folk—this despite the fact that recent deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs have disclosed the Mayans to have been a cruel, warlike people capable of tortures even more vicious than the Aztecs. Scholars, after ignoring the findings, have admitted that the “new image” of the Mayans is perhaps “less romantic” than we had supposed. Conclusion: It is easy to criticize the absurdities of fundamentalist beliefs like “scientific creationism”—that the world and its creatures were created six thousand years ago. But it is also necessary to criticize other dogmas parading as science and the bad faith of some scientists who have their own dogmatic agendas to promote under the guise of “free scientific inquiry.” Scientific inquiry should in fact be free. The warning: If it is not, if it is subject to this or that ideology, then do not be surprised if the history of the Weimar doctors is repeated. Weimar leads to Auschwitz. The nihilism of some scientists in the name of ideology or sentimentality and the consequent devaluation of individual human life leads straight to the gas chamber.

 

* He is John Forsythe’s character in the television series Dynasty.

* “He’ll be like you.”


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.