We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves, and so we have made democracies, to know ourselves writ large.
When people ask for authors that can give them insight into the peculiar politics and ideas that animate us today, I often point them to Walker Percy (1916-1990), the author of six novels, a satirical self-help book, and dozens of essays—all of which aimed at grappling with the human condition in these deranged times.
Percy often suggested that his calling as a writer involved being attentive to signs. He likened his role to that of the canary in a coal mine. In an essay on the peculiarities of writing novels in an “apocalyptic” age, Percy said that what interests the novelist, “what they are mainly good for, is not such large topics as God, man, and the world, but rather what he perceives as fault lines in the terrain, small clues that something strange is going on, a telltale sign here and there. Sign of what? A sign that things have gotten very queer without anyone seeming to notice it….”
Consider one such sign: Americans are a sad people, and we commonly approach our sadness with the goal of eradicating it, rather than understanding it as a clue to what we’re doing wrong in our lives. Instead, what we do is seek wisdom from experts, whose theories of life and self-help we place our hope, and we try to escape through our wealth.
Theory and Consumption
Because of these attitudes, Percy went so far as to label the end of the twentieth century the age of theory and consumption. He thought the experts we take refuge in were flawed because they tend to hold up partial pictures of human life and use them as a comprehensive way of ordering existence. The self-help aisle in bookstores always seems to grow, populated by “thought leaders” selling stories about human life that flatter the American sense of individual self-creation.
At the same time, we relentlessly pursue comfort and pleasure in the way we consume an ever-increasing variety of goods and services. But it isn’t just our “stuff” we accumulate or experiences that we purchase that count here. Percy thought we consume people and places, too. We go on vacation and do “vacation things,” that help us to escape our troubled selves, filling them with hours and hours of activities. Rather than engaging in rest, it seems like our days on vacation need to be occupied by doing something. What are we trying to avoid? Ourselves.
We do the same thing with other people, particularly romantic partners. Rather than spend our days and nights alone, Percy worried about the ways that we cannot help but occupy our time with others, consuming them like we would a place. If that sounds too extreme, just consider Tinder and other “dating” apps.
Americans use theory and consumption as distractions from our sense of anxiety and alienation, and no technical fix exists that will end those feelings. The typical fix that apostles of community propose is Tocqueville’s: the civic association, close relational bonds, and religious life. Percy doesn’t disagree with this. Peter Lawler used to say that Percy was the greatest inheritor of Tocqueville’s style of analysis and concerns for community. Yet Percy takes on his own special importance as a cultural pathologist when it comes to the defective way we Americans throw ourselves into some of the very institutions that might help most: our circles of family and friends, our communities, and our churches.
In his essays and novels, Percy depicted the kinds of extremes Americans engage in when it comes to our commitments: we throw ourselves into marriage but often grow bored; we join social movements and political causes with enormous energy, only to find they don’t provide a lasting form of sustenance; even our churches become a kind of idol in the sense that it is all too easy to get wrapped up in the politics of the parish or congregation while losing sight of the faith that might actually sustain us.
In his 1971 novel Love in the Ruins, Percy offers a tragi-comic parable for our deranged times. Set in the “near future,” the novel depicts Americans driven to extremes in much the same way we are today. Percy wrote:
The old Republican Party has become the Knothead Party, so named during the last Republican convention in Montgomery when a change of name was proposed, the first suggestion being the Christian Conservative Constitutional Party, and campaign buttons were even printed with the letters CCCP before an Eastern-liberal commentator noted the similarity to the initials printed on the backs of the Soviet cosmonauts and called it the most knotheaded political bungle of the century—which the conservatives, in the best tradition, turned to their own advantage, printing a million more buttons reading “Knotheads for America” and banners proclaiming “No Man Can Be Too Knotheaded in the Service of His Country.”
The old Democrats gave way to the new Left Party. They too were stuck with a nickname not of their own devising and the nickname stuck: in this case a derisive acronym that the Right made up and the Left accepted, accepted in that same curious American tradition by which we allow our enemies to name us, give currency to their curses, perhaps from the need to concede the headstart they want and still beat them, perhaps also from the secret inkling that our enemies know the worst of us best and it’s best for them to say it. LEFT usually it is, often LEFTPAPA, sometimes LEFTPAPASAN (with a little Jap bow), hardly ever the original LEFTPAPASANE, which stood for what, according to the Right, the Left believed in: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-Pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia.
Percy often said that the novelist aspires to be a prophet in reverse: he hoped that telling the truth about ourselves now might spare us future heartache. The comic sadness here is that this is a paragraph you might see today satirizing our own political life.
But the story itself offers more hope than this couple-paragraph snapshot of politics suggests: the protagonist, Dr. Thomas More, takes the reader on a wild ride through Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. A scientist with a tragic family history, More believes he’s stumbled upon a world-changing invention with the possibility to save humanity or destroy it. And while that sounds like the groundwork for a dystopian thriller, Percy uses a few days in More’s life to remind us that all the technological and medical fixes for our alienation evade what we really need from our family life, our community, and our churches—places of rest that give us the capacity to live well. From clues in the book and some help from Wikipedia, you can determine the main action of the novel is meant to take place on July 1 through 4, 1984. Percy’s sense of humor here is telling: Tom More earns himself a new birth of freedom on July Fourth, one against Orwell’s prophecy.
Percy remains a guide to our times he offers us help in how to muddle through our ideologically divided times. He reminds us that we can never secure lasting victories in politics, indeed that the entire language of “problems and solutions” that we indulge in is a category error. Politics is the world of tensions and dilemmas that never fully resolve themselves. Indeed, Percy predicted that the great dangers of our world might come from the effort to eliminate politics entirely, which we see played out every time crowds left and right stifle free speech, every time politicians speak of debates being entirely settled, and whenever experts seek to evade the messiness of political compromise in favor of administrative power. Without this sort of awareness, these deranged times can’t be seen for how they really are.
Reading Percy’s work can help remind us that no matter how we work to transform our world into one of comfort, safety, and prosperity, it will never truly feel like home, and this is a reminder we need more than ever.