Walker Percy Wednesday 162



THERE is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a literature of alienation. In the re-presenting of alienation the category is reversed and becomes something entirely different. There is a great deal of difference between an alienated commuter riding a train and this same commuter reading a book about an alienated commuter riding a train. (On the other hand, Huck Finn’s drifting down the river is somewhat the same as a reader’s reading about Huck Finn drifting down the river.) The nonreading commuter exists in true alienation, which is unspeakable; the reading commuter rejoices in the speakability of his alienation and in the new triple alliance of himself, the alienated character, and the author. His mood is affirmatory and glad: Yes! that is how it is!-which is an aesthetic reversal of alienation. It is related that when Kafka read his work aloud to his friends, they would all roar with laughter until tears came to their eyes. Neither Kafka nor his reader is alienated in the movement of art, for each achieves a reversal through its re-presenting. To picture a truly alienated man, picture a Kafka to whom it had never occurred to write a word. The only literature of alienation is an alienated literature, that is, a bad art, which is no art at all. An Erie Stanley Gardner novel is a true exercise in alienation. A man who finishes his twentieth Perry Mason is that much nearer total despair than when he started.

I hasten to define what I mean by alienation, which has become almost as loose an epithet as existentialism (if you do not agree with me, it is probably because you are alienated). I mean that whereas one commuter may sit on the train and feel himself quite at home, seeing the passing scene as a series of meaningful projects full of signs which he reads without difficulty, another commuter, although he has no empirical reason for being so, although he has satisfied the same empirical needs as commuter A, is alienated. To say the least, he is bored; to say the most, he is in pure anxiety; he is horrified at his surroundings-he might as well be passing through a lunar landscape and the signs he sees are absurd or at least ambiguous. (It will not be necessary at this point to consider the further possibility that commuter A’s tranquillity is no guarantee against alienation, that in fact he may be more desperately lost to himself than B in the sense of being anonymous, the “one” of “one says.”)

Alienation, in its turn, is itself a reversal of the objective-empirical. This is a purely existential reversal and has nothing to do with art. It is very simply illustrated in the case of the alienated commuter. This man-though he will have met every “need” which can be abstracted by the objective-empirical method-sexual needs, nutritional, emotional, in-group needs, needs for a productive orientation, creativity, community service-this man may nevertheless be alienated. Moreover he is apt to be alienated in proportion to his staking everything on the objective-empirical. By his alienation, the objective-empirical categories are reversed. What causes anxiety in the one is the refuge from anxiety in the other. For example, speaking objectively-empirically, it is often said that it is no wonder people are anxious nowadays, what with the possibility that the Bomb might fall any minute. The Bomb would seem to be sufficient reason for anxiety; yet as it happens the reverse is the truth. The contingency “what if the Bomb should fall?” is not only not a cause of anxiety in the alienated man but is one of his few remaining refuges from it. When everything else fails, we may always turn to our good friend just back from Washington or Moscow, who obliges us with his sober second thoughts-” I can tell you this much, I am profoundly disturbed . . . “- and each of us has what he came for, the old authentic thrill of the Bomb and the Coming of the Last Days. Like Ortega’s romantic, the heart’s desire of the alienated man is to see vines sprouting through the masonry.

The real anxiety question, the question no one asks because no one wants to, is the reverse: What if the Bomb should not fall? What then?

The estrangement of the existing self is not capable of being grasped by the objective-empirical method simply because the former is specified by the latter as its reverse. I would like to avoid a polemical tone here. I do not wish to be understood as attacking the objective-empirical method and contemning its truth and beauty and fruitfulness-which the European existentialists do indiscriminately while at the same time living very well on its fruits but as stating the fact of the reversal: It does happen that the Dasein or existing self characteristically reverses objective-empirical sociological categories and discovers in them not the principle of its health but the root source of its alienation.

To illustrate the specific character of the reversal: it is just when the Method tries to grasp and categorize the existential trait that it is itself reversed and becomes a powerful agent not of progress but of alienation. It is just when the alienated commuter reads books on mental hygiene which abstract immanent goals from existence that he comes closest to despair. One has only to let the mental-health savants set forth their own ideal of sane living, the composite reader who reads their books seriously and devotes every ounce of his strength to the pursuit of the goals erected: emotional maturity, inclusiveness, productivity, creativity, belongingness-there will emerge, far more faithfully than I could portray him, the candidate for suicide. Take these two sentences that I once read in a book on mental hygiene: “The most profound of all human needs, the prime requisite for successful living, is to be emotionally inclusive. Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis were emotionally inclusive.” These words tremble with anxiety and alienation, even though I would not deny that they are, in their own eerie way, true. The alienated commuter shook like a leaf when he read them.

To go back to the aesthetic reversal of alienation by art: Literature, like a polarizing crystal, makes a qualitative division among existential traits accordingly as it transmits some more or less intact, reverses some, and selectively polarizes others, transmitting certain elements and canceling others. Alienation is reversed: There can no more be a re-presenting of alienation than Kierkegaard’s category of trial, for it, like trial, absolutely transcends the objective-empirical; Job’s and Abraham’s trials are lost in the telling. The categories, rotation and repetition, on the other hand, not being purely existential but aesthetic-existential, are transmitted. Yet they are transmitted with a difference. Rotation is conveyed more or less intact, whereas repetition is accomplished only by a mediate act of identification. Thus, reading about Huck going down the river or Tenente Frederic Henry escaping from the carabinieri in A Farewell to Arms is somewhat like going down the river and escaping. It is by virtue of the fact that rotation is the quest for the new as the new, the reposing of all hope in what may lie around the bend, a mode of experience which is much the same in the reading as in the experiencing. But repetition, in order to occur, requires a more radical identification. Thus when Charles Gray in Marquand’s Point of No Return returns to Clyde, Massachusetts, or when Tom Wolfe’s hero returns to the shabby boardinghouse in St. Louis, the reader can experience repetition only if he imagines that he too is a native of Clyde or has lived in St. Louis. (He doesn’t have to imagine he is Huck-it is he, the reader, who is drifting down the river.)

The moments of rotation and repetition are of such peculiar interest to the contemporary alienated consciousness because they represent the two obvious alternatives or deliverances from alienation. The man riding a train-or his analogues, Huck on a raft, Philip Marlowe in a coupe-is of an extraordinary interest because this situation realizes in a concrete manner the existential placement of all three modes, alienation, rotation, and repetition. The train rider can, as in the case of the commuter on the eight-fifteen, actually incarnate, as we shall see in a moment, the elements of alienation. On the other hand, the fugitive in the English thriller who catches the next available train from Waterloo station and who finds himself going he knows not where, experiences true rotation; equally, the exile or amnesiac who, thinking himself on a routine journey, suddenly catches sight of a landmark which strikes to the heart and who with every turn of the wheel comes that much closer to the answer to who am I?-this one has stumbled into pure repetition (as when Captain Ryder alighted from his blacked-out train to find himself-back in Brideshead).

To begin with, the alienated commuter riding the eight-fifteen actually finds himself in a situation in which his existential placement in the world, the subject-object split, the pour soi-en soi, is physically realized. In an absolute partitioning of reality, he is both in the world he is traveling through and not in it. Beyond all doubt he is in Metuchen, New Jersey, during the few seconds the train stops there, yet in what a strange sense is he there-he passes through without so much as leaving his breath behind. Even if this is the one thousandth time he has stopped there, even if he knows a certain concrete pillar better than anything else in the world, yet he remains as total a stranger to Metuchen as if he had never been there. He passes through, the transient possible I through the static indefeasible It. The landscape through which he passes for the thousandth time has all the traits of the en soi; it is dense, sodden, impenetrable, and full of itself; it is exactly what it is, no more, no less, and as such it is boring in the original sense of the word. It is worse than riding a subway through blackness, because the familiar things one sees are not neutral or nugatory; they are aggressively assertive and thrust themselves upon one: they bore. Whereas beyond the subway window there is nothing at all. As is especially noticeable on the subway, the partition exists as well between oneself and one’s fellow commuters, a partition which is impenetrable by anything short of disaster. It is only in the event of a disaster, the wreck of the eight-fifteen, that one is enabled to discover his fellow commuter as a comrade; thus, the favorite scene of novels of good will in the city: the folks who discover each other and help each other when disaster strikes. (Do we have here a clue to the secret longing for the Bomb and the Last Days? Does the eschatological thrill conceal the inner prescience that it will take a major catastrophe to break the partition?)

Actually the partition is closer than this. It exists as well between me and my own body. One’s own hand participates in the every dayness of the en soi and is both dense and invisible; it is only on the rarest occasions that one may see his own hand, either by a deliberate effort of seeing, as in the case of Sartre’s Roquentin, or through the agency of disaster, as when the commuter on the New York Central had a heart attack and had to be taken off at Fordham station: Upon awakening, he gazed with astonishment at his own hand, turning it this way and that as though he had never seen it before.

To illustrate the zoning of the alienated train ride: Suppose the eight-fifteen breaks down between Mount Vernon and New Rochelle, breaks down beside a yellow cottage with a certain lobular stain on the wall which the commuter knows as well as he knows the face of his wife. Suppose he takes a stroll along the right-of-way while the crew is at work. To his astonishment he hears someone speak to him; it is a man standing on the porch of the yellow house. They talk and the man offers to take him the rest of the way in his car. The commuter steps into the man’s back yard and enters the house. This trivial event, which is of no significance objectively- empirically, is of considerable significance aesthetically-existentially. A zone crossing has taken place. It is of extraordinary interest to the commuter that he may step out of the New York Central right-of-way and into the yellow house. It is of extraordinary interest to stand in the kitchen and hear from the owner of the house who he is, how he came to build the house, etc. For he, the commuter, has done the impossible: he has stepped through the mirror into the en soi.

Zone crossing is of such great moment to the alienated I because the latter is thereby able to explore the It while at the same time retaining his option of noncommitment. The movie It Happened One Night stumbled into this fertile field when it showed Clark and Claudette crossing zones without a trace of involvement, from bus to hitchhiking to meadow to motel. It is a triumph of rotation to be able to wander into Farmer Jones’s barnyard, strike up an acquaintance, be taken for a human being, then pass on impassible as a ghost. The reason the formula ran into diminishing returns was that this particular zone crossing created its own zone, and its imitators, instead of zone crossing, were following a well-worn track.

A more memorable zone crossing was Hemingway’s fisherman leaving the train in the middle of the Minnesota woods and striking out on his own. To leave the fixed right-of-way at a random point and enter the trackless woods is a superb rotation. Swedes know this better than anyone else. Travelers in Sweden report two national traits: boredom and love of the North country-alienation and rotation. This penchant for taking to the woods reverses the objective-empirical: when Swedish planners took note of this particular “recreational need” and provided wooded areas in the vicinity of Stockholm, the Swedes were not interested. And it is no coincidence that when the Swedish government did take measures to set aside the North country for hiking, there occurred a sudden increase of Swedish tourists in quaint out-of-the-way English villages.

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