Walker Percy Wednesday 166

Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too. It is fitting that he should shock and therefore warn his readers by speaking of last things-if not the Last Day of the Gospels, then of a possible coming destruction, of a laying waste of cities, of vineyards reverting to the wilderness. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often he is ignored. Or, if he writes a sufficiently dirty book, he might become a best seller or even be bought by the movies.

What concerns us here is his divergence from the usual views of the denizens of the secular city in general and in particular from the new theologians of the secular city.

While it is important to take note of this divergence, extreme care must be taken not to distort it and especially not to fall prey to the seduction of crepe-hanging for its own sake. Nothing comes easier than the sepulchral manifestoes of the old-style cafe existentialist and the new-style hippie who professes to despise the squares and the technology of the Western city while living on remittance checks from the same source and who would be the first to go for his shot of penicillin if he got meningitis.

Yet even after proper precautions are exercised, it is impossible to overlook a remarkable discrepancy. It would appear that most serious novelists, to say nothing of poets and artists, find themselves out of step with their counterparts in other walks of life in the modern city, doctor, lawyer, businessman, technician, laborer, and now the new theologian.

It’s an old story with novelists. People are always asking, Why don’t you write about pleasant things and normal people? Why all the neurosis and violence? There are many nice things in the world. The reader is offended. But if one replies, “Yes, it’s true; in fact there seem to be more nice people around now than ever before, but somehow as the world grows nicer it also grows more violent. The triumphant secular society of the Western world, the nicest of all worlds, killed more people in the first half of this century than have been killed in all history. Travelers to Germany before the last war reported that the Germans were the nicest people in Europe”-then the reader is even more offended.

If one were to take a Gallup poll of representative denizens of the megalopolis on this subject, responses to a question about the future might run something like this:

Liberal politician: If we use our wealth and energies constructively to provide greater opportunities for all men, there is unlimited hope for man’s well-being.

Conservative politician: If we defeat Communism and revive old-time religion and Americanism, we have nothing to worry about.

Businessman: Business is generally good; the war is not hurting much, but the Negroes and the unions and the government could ruin everything.

Laborer: All this country needs is an eight-hour week and a guaranteed minimum income.

City planner: If we could solve international problems and spend our yearly budget on education and housing, we could have a paradise on earth.

Etc., etc.

Each is probably right. That is to say, there is a context within which it is possible to agree with each response.

But suppose one were to ask the same question of a novelist who, say, was born and raised in a community which has gone far to satisfy the lists of city needs, where indeed housing, education, recreational and cultural facilities, are first class; say some such place as Shaker Heights, Pasadena, or Bronxville. How does he answer the poll? In the first place, if he was born in one of these places, he has probably left since. It might be noted in passing that such communities (plus Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, and Vassar) have produced remarkably few good novelists lately, which latter are more likely to come from towns in south Georgia or the Jewish sections of New York and Chicago.

But how, in any case, is the refugee novelist from Shaker Heights likely to respond to the poll? I venture to say his response might be something like: Something is wrong here; I don’t feel good.

Now of course, if all generalizations are dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous of all is a generalization about novelists, who are a perverse lot and don’t even get along with each other, and who, moreover, speak an even more confused Babel nowadays than usual. But if there is a single strain that runs through the lot, whether Christian or atheist, black or white, Greek or Jew, it is a profound disquiet.

Is it too much to say that the novelist, unlike the new theologian, is one of the few remaining witnesses to the doctrine of original sin, the imminence of catastrophe in paradise?

If, anyhow, we accept this divergence as a fact, that the serious American artist is in dissent from the current American proposition, we are faced with some simple alternatives by way of explanation.

Either we must decide that the artist is mistaken and in what sense he is mistaken: whether he is a self-indulged maniac or a harmless eccentric or the culture’s court jester whom everyone expects to cut the fool and make scandalous sallies for which he is well paid.

Or the novelist in his confused Orphic way is trying to tell us something we would do well to listen to.

Again it is necessary to specify the dissent, the issue and the parties to it. One likes to pick the right enemies and unload the wrong allies.

The issue, one might say at the outset, is not at all the traditional confrontation between the “alienated” artist and the dominant business-technological community. For one thing, the novelist, even the serious novelist who doesn’t write dirty books, never had it so good. It is businessmen, or rather their wives, who are his best customers. Great business foundations compete to give him money. His own government awards him cash prizes. For another thing, the old self-image of the artist as an alien in a hostile society seems increasingly to have become the chic property of those writers who have no other visible claim to distinction . Nothing is easier than to set up as a two-bit hippie Cassandra crying havoc in bad verse.

It is the grossness of conventional distinctions which makes the case difficult. The other day I received a questionnaire from a sociologist who had evidently compiled a list of novelists. The first question was something like “Do you, as a novelist, feel alienated from the society around you?” I refused to answer the question on the grounds that any answer would be certain to be m isunderstood. To have replied yes would embrace any one of several ambiguities. One “yes” might mean “Yes, I find the entire Western urban-technological complex repugnant, and so I have dropped out, turned on, and tuned in.” Another “yes” might mean “Yes, since I am a Christian and therefore must to some degree feel myself an alien and wayfarer in any society, so do I feel myself in this society, even though I believe that Western democratic society is man’s best hope on this earth.” Another “yes” might mean “Yes, being a John Bircher, I am convinced the country has gone mad.”

The novelist’s categories are not the same as the sociologist’s. So his response to the questionnaire is apt to be perverse: Instead of responding to the questions, he wonders about the questioner. Does the questionnaire imply that the sociologist is not himself alienated? Having achieved the transcending objective stance of science, has he also transcended the mortal condition? Or is it even possible that if the sociologist should reply to his own questionnaire, “No, I do not feel alienated”-that such an answer, though given in good faith, could nevertheless conceal the severest sort of alienation. One thinks of the alienation Soren Kierkegaard had in mind when he described the little Herr Professor who has fitted the entire world into a scientific system but does not realize that he himself is left out in the cold and cannot be accounted for as an individual.

If the scientist’s vocation is to clarify and simplify, it would seem that the novelist’s aim is to muddy and complicate. For he knows that even the most carefully contrived questionnaire cannot discover how it really stands with the sociologist or himself. What will be left out of even the most rigorous scientific formulation is nothing else than the individual himself. And since the novelist deals first and last with individuals and the scientist treats individuals only to discover their general properties, it is the novelist’s responsibility to be chary of categories and rather to focus upon the mystery, the paradox, the openness of an individual human existence. If he is any good, he knows better than to speak of the “businessman,” as if there were such a genus. It was useful for Sinclair Lewis to create George Babbitt, but it has served no good purpose for bad novelists to have created all businessmen in the image of George Babbitt.

Here is the sort of businessman the “religious” novelist is interested in, i.e., the novelist who is concerned with the radical questions of man’s identity and his relation to God or to God’s absence. He sketches out a character, a businessman-commuter who, let us say, is in some sense or other lost to himself. That is to say, he feels that something has gone badly wrong in the everyday round of business activity, in his office routine, in the routine life at home, in his Sunday-morning churchgoing, in his coaching of the Little League. Even though by all objective criteria all is well with him, he knows that all is not well with him. What happens next? Of course he can opt out. But thanks to Sinclair Lewis, we now know better than Sinclair Lewis. One is not content to have him opt out and take up the thong-sandaled life in Capri. Perhaps we do have better sense in some matters. Or perhaps it is only that Capri is too available. As a matter of fact it would be easier nowadays to write a satirical novel about some poor overaged hippie who did drop out and try to turn on. But the present-day novelist is more interested in catastrophe than he is in life among the Rower people. Uncertain himself about what has gone wrong, he feels in his bones that the happy exurb stands both in danger of catastrophe and somehow in need of it. Like Thomas More and Saint Francis he is most cheerful with Brother Death in the neighborhood. Then what happens to his businessman? One day he is on his way home on the five-fifteen. He has a severe heart attack and is taken off the train at a commuters’ station he has seen a thousand times but never visited. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself in a strange hospital surrounded by strangers. As he tries to recall what has happened, he catches sight of his own hand on the counterpane. It is as if he had never seen it before: He is astounded by its complexity, its functional beauty. He turns it this way and that. What has happened? Certainly a kind of natural revelation, which reminds one of the experiences induced by the psychedelic drugs. (It is interesting to note that this kind of revelation, which can only be called a revelation of being, is viewed by the “religious” novelist as exhilarating or disgusting depending on his “religion.” Recall Sartre’s Roquentin catching sight of his own hand, which reminds him of a great fat slug with red hairs.) At any rate I cite this example to show the kind of character, the kind of predicament, the kind of event with which the novelist is nowadays more likely to concern himself than was Hemingway or Lewis. Is it not reasonable to say that, in some sense or other, the stricken commuter has “come to himself”? In what sense he has come to himself, how it transforms his relationship with his family, his business, his church, is of course the burden of the novel.

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