The Walker Percy Option


In his book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher proposes that Christians ought “to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark.” I wish to offer a counterproposal. Dreher and I share a common interest in the work of Walker Percy, Dreher’s fellow Louisianan, and one of the great Catholic writers of the twentieth century. Percy’s novels and essays sketched a posture towards modernity that resembles Dreher’s own, but differs in certain key respects. While Dreher’s attention to the practices of literal Benedictines like the monks of Norcia can be valuable for modern readers (and would have been appreciated by Percy, himself a Benedictine oblate), I suggest that, in his quest for a new St. Benedict, Dreher would have been well advised to look somewhere very different. If St. Benedict offered a spiritual and cultural survival guide for the original Dark Ages, Percy has a plan for our own. But unlike St. Benedict, whose Rule was addressed to “the athletes of God,” a spiritual elite, Percy’s is meant for the common man, for the Christian and almost-Christian rabble. If the Benedict Option imagines a faithful remnant waiting out the flood, the Walker Percy Option imagines an unfaithful one, nonetheless borne up by grace.

Whereas Dreher sees Christians and Christianity as uniquely threatened by modernity, Percy sees the modern condition as a common disaster for believer and unbeliever alike. Dreher can see the cracks in the secular; he knows it is unsustainable and inimical to human flourishing. Yet he seems to suggest that only Christians—or other “traditional religious believers”—are truly alien to it. However, Percy recognizes that, where the modern condition is concerned, we are all in the same boat. This is no one’s native country. The good news, though, is that no one is born secular, and no one is condemned to remain so. The gate to a fuller life is narrow and even hidden, but it is open. And this gate not being the one of Paradise, but only of “a kind of comfortable Catholic limbo,” it is open to people far less holy than those St. Benedict set out to form.

Like all Christians, Percy believed that man’s immortal soul had been jeopardized by his fall from grace, that his original connection to the divine had been severed by sin. But he saw the problem of modernity through a narrower lens. Influenced by existentialism, he saw that man had fallen not only from grace, but (more recently) from himself as well. Moderns were uncomfortable in their own skin, alienated from their daily lives, restless, angry—and this in spite of unprecedented wealth and leisure. Like the secular existentialists of his age, Percy became convinced that something about modernity hampered human flourishing. It blocked not just the special grace by which the monks attended to the counsels of perfection, it interfered with the common, everyday grace that makes an ordinary life feel worth living.

Percy’s anti-modernism is not reactionary. He does not propose to re-erect a premodern social imaginary “amid the high tide of liquid modernity,” as Dreher says. When his characters imagine a coming calamity that will usher in a new order, it is a sign of madness, not wisdom. Rather, Percy’s vision is forward-looking, synthetic—even syncretistic. It tolerates a high degree of imperfection, the rough edges that are the mark of all real and natural things. He envisioned a new humanism, one that combined an affirmation of animal life with an openness to higher perfections, and which could rescue believer and unbeliever alike from the common disaster of estrangement from their selves. This vision, Percy’s Bad Catholic Existentialism, may not promise eternal salvation, but it does create occasions for further in-breakings of grace. The cure for our modern ills can be found through cathedral doors—and not just behind monastery walls.

Meditations on the Malaise

Writing in the second half of the twentieth century, Walker Percy saw that even amidst external peace and prosperity the Western soul was haunted by anxiety and depression. In his first and most famous novel, The Moviegoer, Percy names this modern disease “the malaise.” The novel follows Binx Bolling, a scion of a well-to-do New Orleans family who tries—and fails—to content himself with a bourgeois existence of money making and philandering. He works as a stockbroker, dates his secretaries, and patronizes the local cinema. Yet Binx has a neurotic streak that keeps him at an ironic distance from his ordinary life and makes him a philosopher in spite of himself. His habitual “moviegoing” is, even consciously, an enactment of the distance between himself and his own daily life. He is a spectator trapped inside his own head, watching his bodily life like a projection on a screen, shrouded in a fog of malaise.

Binx’s neuroticism and irony are what make him conscious of the malaise and able to articulate its character: “What is the malaise? you ask. The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.” He is present, yet absent, alive, yet not alive, cut off from himself. Binx’s feeling of unreality is echoed by the novel’s other leading character, his cousin Kate Cutrer. Suffering from anxiety, depression, and bouts of mania, Kate too sees her daily life as ghostly and inauthentic. She finds any break from this “dim” existence—even a disaster, like the car wreck that kills her fiancé—a great relief:

Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real? I remember at the time of the wreck—people were so kind and helpful and solid. Everyone pretended that our lives until that moment had been every bit as real as the moment itself and that the future must be real too, when truth was that our reality had been purchased only by Lyell’s death.

Kate describes the chaos in the wake of the accident as the happiest moment of her life. While that sentiment may seem morbid, Percy means to underscore how strongly the human soul longs to break free from the malaise.

To better understand the nature of the malaise, we must look beyond The Moviegoer to Percy’s later works. Percy first names Descartes in Love in the Ruins, referring to “the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man ever since the famous philosopher Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.” In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes undertook the project of establishing certain knowledge through subjecting all his beliefs to methodic doubt. He argued that our experiences of the physical world and of embodiment, because they are mediated through the senses, are ultimately untrustworthy. He famously concluded that the only absolutely certain knowledge was “I think, therefore, I am.” That is, while any belief he entertained might be subject to doubt, the simple fact of his entertaining beliefs in his mind could not be doubted. Descartes, or his mind at any rate, could be said to exist as a thinking thing.

As Percy saw it, Descartes’s new anthropology established a dichotomy of mind and body with the mind as the true seat of human personality and the body as just another object of observation by the immaterial mind. This closely mirrors the image of ghostliness and detachment that Binx describes as “the malaise.” It puts the human being in the position of not truly identifying with his body or his bodily life, yet being inextricably linked to it. What the human person ultimately wants is to feel reintegrated as a whole and healthy union of mind and body, but this desire is continually frustrated as long as one views the world through a Cartesian lens. And this divide within the self affects people all along the spectrum of belief to unbelief, righteousness to depravity. It is a problem of all moderns, Christian or secular.

As Binx and Kate attest, it is profoundly uncomfortable to be alienated from oneself. In fact, as Binx sees it, the characteristic features of the modern world, from the proliferation of entertainment to the prestige of science, are all defenses against the malaise. Binx describes two overarching strategies that modern subjects use to disguise or distract themselves from the malaise. Each can be thought of as choosing one horn of the dilemma between the person as body (immanence, bestialism) and the person as mind (transcendence, angelism). Neither of these strategies is ultimately successful, but their failures cast additional light on the problem they are meant to address.

The first path, the path of immanence, Binx refers to as being “sunk in everydayness.” Those who are sunk in everydayness are blind to the question of the meaning of life. They are thoroughly distracted by work, consumption, and entertainment. They learn to see themselves “on the model of organism-in-an-environment,” as bundles of drives awaiting satisfaction; they learn to understand their chief purpose in life as getting their needs (and perhaps the needs of others) met. The embrace of immanence and descent into bestiality has nothing to do with the alternatives between wealth and poverty, or highbrow and lowbrow aesthetics. As Percy writes in Lost in the Cosmos, “the compliant role-player and consumer and holder of a meaningless job… an Archie Bunker beer-drinking TV-watcher” and the person “who is savvy to all the techniques of society and appropriates them according to his or her discriminating tastes… creative cooking, moving out to the country, moving back to the central city”: both of these types are equally sunk in everydayness.

Binx has come to see the prospect of living sunk in everydayness with dread, and at the beginning of the novel, he advocates the path of transcendence, which he calls “the search.” He says, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life…. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” To be sunk in everydayness is to have forfeited one’s humanity, reducing oneself to a mere body or, as Binx says at one point, “an automaton.” Indeed, the total descent into immanence resembles death: “For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.” This is why he and Kate thrive amidst disaster, because it breaks the grip of everydayness and makes the search possible: “Everydayness is the enemy. No search is possible. Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength. Now nothing breaks it—but disaster. Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.”

The search, however, has its own problems. Percy compares transcendence to launching the self into orbit around the world of the everyday. From this distance, the searcher is engaged in generalizing about the world below. Binx explains, “as you get deeper into the search, you unify. You understand more and more specimens by fewer and fewer formulae.” But just as one sunk in everydayness risks losing his humanity by reducing himself to a mere organism, the searcher risks losing his humanity by jettisoning everything that makes him a particular and concrete individual. As Kate points out to Binx, “it doesn’t matter where you are or who you are… And the danger is of becoming no one nowhere.” This godlike distance is ultimately unsustainable, and more often than not the pendulum swings from the extreme of mental exaltation to the opposite extreme of physical indulgence: “even the best scientist and artist must reenter the world he has transcended and there’s the rub: the spectacular miseries of reentry.… It is difficult for gods to walk the earth without taking the form of beasts.”

So while the search may be preferable to being sunk in everydayness, while it may be the first step on the road to redemption, it cannot cure the malaise; it does not restore the human person to wholeness of body and mind. At best, the search allows the malaise to be discerned and described. Percy’s ultimate objective is to find a way beyond the search and beyond the dilemma of immanence and transcendence toward a renewed integral humanism.

The Decline and Fall of the Therapeutic

As Percy sees it, modernity birthed the malaise by splitting the human person in two, opening the “dread chasm” between body and mind. The individual is now forced to choose between living as an immanent self, sunk in everydayness, or as a transcendent self, perpetually in orbit. But Percy also sees the symptoms of the malaise extending beyond the individual, in the guise of what Binx names “scientific humanism.” Scientific humanism translates the chasm within the individual to the societal level, dividing mankind into an elite of transcendent conditioners and a mass of immanent consumers.

Under scientific humanism, says Binx, “needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle.” In other words, it is a regime under which the mass of humanity is intentionally kept sunk in everydayness. Absent a direct confrontation with the malaise, the main business of life for most people becomes maintaining a subjective sense of wellbeing, however tenuous, by satisfying the body’s felt needs and keeping the mind distracted. In such a society, power and authority are accorded to the scientists, technicians, and other experts who help keep ordinary people content through therapeutic conditioning, helping them adjust to an essentially animal existence.

Percy believes that the experience of having been reduced to an object of conditioning explains much of the distress of the modern subject. In Lost in the Cosmos, he observes that in spite of radically “improved” standards of living, the modern self is paradoxically impoverished, depressed, and anxious. He explains, “The impoverishment of the immanent self derives from a perceived loss of sovereignty to ‘them,’ the transcending scientists and experts of society. As a consequence, the self sees its only recourse as an endless round of work, diversion, and consumption of goods and services.” Scientific humanism deprives non-experts of agency; the secret to happiness in each of life’s dimensions is presided over by a particular expert, and the consumer’s only responsibility is to comply with their advice.

Percy imagines the logical conclusion of scientific humanism’s mission in the Qualitarian movement described in Love in the Ruins. In the novel, people accused of antisocial behavior and deemed in need of reconditioning are placed in “Skinner boxes” where they have electrodes installed in their heads that stimulate either the pleasure or pain centers of the brain. Those who do not respond to reconditioning are “shocked into bliss, soon learning to press the button themselves, off and dreaming so blissful that they pass up meals.” This is ultimately a passive form of euthanasia, but a more active form is being debated: does a person “not also have the right to throw a switch that stays on, inducing a permanent joy—no meals, no sleep, and a happy death in a week or so? The button vs. the switch.” The Qualitarians favor the switch, with or without the consent of the patient.

With but a little imagination, we can see the logic of scientific humanism behind the sociocultural dysfunction the Benedict Option is supposed to remedy or resist. Everywhere we see physical and emotional comfort treated as paramount and morality and meaning as relative, everywhere we see the overreach of a managerial class of technicians and social engineers: here are the marks of scientific humanism. But Dreher errs if he conceives of scientific humanism as a secular aggression against Christianity. The target of scientific humanism is not Christianity, but the malaise; like a dangerous, delusive fever, it is an immune response to the modern condition.

Though the malaise demands a response, the attempt to adapt humanity to its bifurcated condition is ultimately futile and destructive. While Percy hardly has a straightforward plan of salvation to offer, he shows us that scientific humanism is, if anything, a cure worse than the disease. We are not meant to be happy either as supine consumers within an artificial environment or as transcending conditioners of our fellow men. But however dangerous, scientific humanism is not the true enemy. Rather than merely fighting symptoms, our objective must be to treat the modern disorder at its roots.

Strategic Retreat to Lost Cove, Tennessee

Percy’s stories never have more than a bittersweet ending. His characters’ victory over the malaise, even when real, is always partial. But some of them do manage to carve out an existence that is truly humane if yet imperfect. They are able to make some progress toward the reintegration of body and spirit, the healing of the “dread chasm” within the self. In Lost in the Cosmos, Percy employs Lost Cove, Tennessee as a metaphor for this partial recovery of a postmodern Eden.

In “A Space Odyssey (II),” a vignette from Lost in the Cosmos, Lost Cove is the ancestral home of Dr. Jane Smith, “the last Methodist in Tennessee.” Smith is one of four astronauts who, having been off-planet at the time, are among the few humans to survive a global nuclear war back on Earth. She describes Lost Cove as “a tiny valley of the Cumberland plateau sealed off by a ridge. No roads, no phones, no TV. Only three farms and a cave. Good water, sweet white corn, quail, squirrel, deer, fish, wild pig.” And passed over by the nuclear fallout.

Returning to the mostly dead planet, Smith marries Marcus Aurelius Schuyler, the captain of her spaceship, and convinces him to accompany her back to Lost Cove along with a small band of survivors including a Catholic priest and “an admixture of locals, strays, wanderers, refugees.” In Lost Cove, the survivors live simply, practicing subsistence farming, raising children, and keeping their faith. Smith becomes a devout Catholic, joining the abbot in his daily celebration of “Mass with corn bread and scuppernong wine.” Schuyler, like his imperial namesake, remains a virtuous pagan: “My cathedral is the blue sky. My communion is with my good friends.”

Tom More retires to a similarly quiet life after the events of Love in the Ruins. Five years later finds him in Paradise, Louisiana, hoeing collards in his garden while his wife Ellen stirs the grits for breakfast: “Poor as I am, I feel like God’s spoiled child. I am Robinson Crusoe set down on the best possible island with a library, a laboratory, a lusty Presbyterian wife, a cozy tree house, an idea, and all the time in the world.” A lapsed Catholic during the events of the novel, by its end he has returned to the Church: going to confession, even wearing sackcloth and ashes, and receiving communion.

Percy is especially interested in three practices Lost Cove and Paradise share, which we might loosely call Sabbath, Marriage, and Eucharist. The significance of these practices is that they are sacramental in character. Percy is only occasionally concerned with “the Sacraments” proper, but he is highly invested in a life characterized by “sacramentality.” The good life that he envisions is shot through with sacramental patterns of participation in nature and in other selves, and even directly in the divine. As signs, the sacramentals point to realities beyond themselves, and as participations, they draw the human person up into this higher reality. The elements are not merely consumed, appropriated by the individual to fill what Percy calls “the nought of self.” Their sacramental quality is marked by their not being used up or exhausted by observance. These sacramentals bridge the divide between body and spirit, and by participating in them, even as “bad Catholics,” Percy’s characters are gradually reintegrated into full and healthy human life.

Sabbath represents the total reorientation of our attitude to work. As many critics of modern political economy have argued, when labor is reduced to a matter of production to finance consumption, the worker suffers as he becomes more and more alienated. The world is treated as raw material to be reshaped at will for the purpose of meeting human needs. Work characterized by Percy’s sacramental of Sabbath is able to rest in (as Marilynne Robinson calls it) the “givenness of things.” It does not concern itself with maximizing profits but rather is pleased to receive enough to subsist on. Sabbath means that the body and spirit are no longer at odds over work. It prevents the spirit from being sacrificed to the continuously expanding needs of the body, as it is for those sunk in everydayness, while it equally protects the body from being reduced to a despised slave of the mind.

Just as the sacramental of Sabbath transforms work, Marriage transforms sex. Sex speaks to mankind’s need to unite body and soul, but Percy recognizes how Marriage channels and perfects sexual love. Each of the marriages in Love in the Ruins, Lost in the Cosmos, and The Moviegoer has this sacramental quality, but Binx’s marriage to Kate provides an especially clear example. It takes Binx beyond his search, and leaves him content to “plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself.” Binx’s support and sacrifice for Kate as she struggles to find her peace is a participation in loving relationship that knits body and soul together.

For Percy, Sabbath and Marriage are accessible even to those who are not religious believers or whose faith is weak. Binx, More, and Schuyler are all able to experience these sacramental practices and so get partially beyond the malaise, everydayness, or search, closer to a complete humanity. But they also find the divine within the mundane: “through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate grace.” These lesser signs point toward the final sign, the true Sacrament of the Eucharist. Here mankind’s true hope for restoration and healing lies. As More says, “it took nothing less than… eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh.”

Neither Lost Cove nor Paradise is a fully realized Christian community. They lack the purity of either a monastery or the quasi-monastic intentional communities of the Benedict Option. Each remains pluralistic, and even their believing residents are far from perfect in their devotion or obedience. Yet these are Percy’s vision for the good life after modernity. Their practices unite saint and sinner in resistance to their common enemy, the malaise. Each offers opportunities for the healing of the self and, in turn, for the drawing of the self into the divine.

While the close-knit fellowship of Lost Cove is a helpful illustration of the good life of the bad Catholic, Percy doesn’t believe we have to retreat to remote villages to live sacramentally. For Percy, New Orleans is also a Lost Cove, a city that binds sinner and saint together, hoping that grace has just enough pull to open the doors of Purgatory. The “triumphant mediocrity” of such a community  can be built anywhere. Our call is to choose this distinctive life within our historical context. One of Percy’s most lost characters speaks more truly than he knows: “I like your banal little cathedral in the Vieux Carré. It is set down squarely in the midst of the greatest single concentration of drunks, drugheads, whores, pimps, queers, sodomists in the hemisphere. But isn’t that where cathedrals are supposed to be?”

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark lives in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Sarah. An alumnus of Dartmouth College and the University of Tennessee College of Law, he works in his family’s fourth-generation scrap metal recycling business. Charlie is a founding editor of Fare Forward and chairman of its board of directors.