Sunday, March 6, 2011

Southern Writer: Walker Percy

Walker Percy is a Catholic novelist and philosopher who devoted his life to examining how assumptions concerning application of the scientific method have led to an increased alienation. He also saw how this reduction of reason provides the foundations for the modern culture of death. In the Thanatos Syndrome, he wrote "Do you know where tenderness leads? leads to the gas chamber.... More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together." This statement is very similar to Flannery O'Connor's "When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber." These two Southern writers published almost identical observations independently of each other. Percy is very different from O'Connor and he did not publish his first novel until he was in his forties. He was a medical doctor educated at Columbia and came from a family with a rich Southern heritage. His work is valuable as Percy saw the dangers that were created by the modern cultural transformation: the reduction of what it means to be a person. We were less able to recognize the uniqueness and unrepeatability of each person and the consequence was alienation. Percy's strength was that he spent years considering the cultural change that led to our current reality. As a novelist, his work is worthy of attention.

Here is a very brief collection of four interviews with Percy available online, a lecture he gave, and a lecture about one of his works.

(Self-interview) From "Questions They Never Asked Me" by Walker Percy
Q: Do you regard yourself as a Catholic novelist?
A: Since I am a Catholic and a novelist, it would seem to follow that I am a Catholic novelist.
Q: What kind of Catholic are you?
A: Bad.
Q: No, I mean are you liberal or conservative?
A: I no longer know what those words mean.
Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
A: I don't know what that means, either. Do you mean, do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q: Yes.
A: Yes.
Q. How is such a belief possible in this day and age?
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That's what I mean.
Q: To say nothing of Judaism and Protestantism.
A: Well, I would include them along with the Catholic Church in the whole peculiar Jewish-Christian thing.
Q: I don't understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A: Yes.
Q: Why?
A: It's not good enough.
Q: Why not?
A: This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer "Scientific Humanism." That won't do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e. God. In fact, I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don't see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and wouldn't let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: Grabbed aholt?
A: Louisiana expression.

(Thanks, Fr Carucci for showing me this interview)

C-SPAN has Percy's lecture "The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind" which was given May 3, 1989 is available online in its entirety.

Four Interviews with Percy:

1 Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 97, Walker 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."

The Modern Prognosis: An Interview with Walker Percy "The trouble is the sciences for the last two hundred years have been spectacularly successful in dealing with subhuman reality, subhuman creatures, chemistry and physics of matter, and with extraordinary progress in learning about the cosmos; but also an extraordinary lack of success in dealing with man as man, man qua man. I think it's very curious--here the scientists know a tremendous amount about everything except what he or she is. Despite the extraordinary successes of science, we do not presently have even the rudiments of a coherent science of man."

Doubletake Interview "Also: writers are the "Protestants" of art, with nothing but their Scripto pencils and Blue-Horse tablets; painters are the "Catholics," with concrete intermediaries, clay, paint, models, fruit, landscape, etc. This is why writers drink more and painters live longer."

4 Orthodoxy Today Interview "The nihilism of some scientists in the name of ideology or sentimentality and the consequent devaluation of individual human life lead straight to the gas chamber."

Friday, March 4, 2011

The King's Speech

The Italian weekly newsletter ClanDestino Zoom, published a very good commentary on the recent Academy Award Winner Picture The King's Speech.

Below is a translation in English:

W Colin Firth who, in a wonderful movie, make us love the father of Queen Elizabeth and with him an important piece of European History.

The duke of York, second son of George V, King of the United Kingdom, unsucessfully consults many specialists for the stammer that has been affecting him since childhood, until he meets Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist. The relationship between the two is not easy and immediate. "Stammer is not a physical problem, " sustains Lionel, pressing the duke to know its causes. Despite this and with great fear, after the death of his father and the abdication of his older brother, he becomes King George VI. He cannot refrain from talking to the people and radio has become the most effice means of communication. "Forget everything else, just say it to me, a friend." These are the words Lionel tells the King before the beginning of the speech in which he announces to the English people that England has declared war to nazi Germany.

What makes it possible to face everything, the impossible, the scary, the bitter delusions, the rightful fears, the anguish, the weaknesses, limits, and anxieties? King George encountered and chose, first with rebelliousness but then with tenaciousness, a friend, someone who showed him that behind the huge microphone of the 1930s there wasn't an enemy from which to run away.

You can find the Italian text by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Aesop: The Wolf and the Shepherd

Aesop and a Parable for Today

A WOLF followed a flock of sheep for a long time and did not attempt to injure one of them. The Shepherd at first stood on his guard against him, as against an enemy, and kept a strict watch over his movements. But when the Wolf, day after day, kept in the company of the sheep and did not make the slightest effort to seize them, the Shepherd began to look upon him as a guardian of his flock rather than as a plotter of evil against it; and when occasion called him one day into the city, he left the sheep entirely in his charge. The Wolf, now that he had the opportunity, fell upon the sheep, and destroyed the greater part of the flock. When the Shepherd returned to find his flock destroyed, he exclaimed: "I have been rightly served; why did I trust my sheep to a Wolf?"

(Aesop's Fables are public domain and available free online)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review: Lapsed Agnostic

It is rare to find a book that presents a personal account describing the misunderstanding and suffering caused by the Irish Church's failure to understand today's cultural reality. John Waters, a columnist with The Irish Times, describes a journey that originated in a Catholic childhood, following the promise of freedom in the pop culture that led to his rejection of the faith, and his long and difficult return to the Church. Waters offers Lapsed Agnostic as a long voyage that addresses the cultural reality in Ireland where the Church leadership failed to respond to the challenges modernity presented and reduced the Christian message to morality and political dominance. The Irish Church never developed a coherent response to the Enlightenment and after independence was satisfied merely preserving external political realities. The local church dominated society in a way similar to the British colonial experience where it sought legal positions and moralistic behavior and was unable to show how Christ mattered to daily life. The dualistic tendencies that weakened the entire West were particularly destructive in Ireland and the life proposed by the Church was unattractive compared to the freedom promised by rock musicians and the wider pop culture. Waters followed the road where he thought he would find happiness and left the faith to embrace a life of 'freedom,' but this promise failed and ultimately led him to alcohol as a means to survive. He lived through the destruction of traditional culture and had nothing but superficial ideas to replace what was lost. His human needs were present but unfulfilled and he drowned his heart in drunkenness. Eventually he found his way to AA and rediscovered his faith through a long and difficult process that required him re-think his relationship with Christ and re-enter the Church. This process was particularly painful as it required him to discover where the Irish Church had reduced the faith and had failed to propose Christ. The cultural problems are still present in Ireland and Waters tells how he has difficulty talking to people who ask him questions about what he believes because they normally come from ideological positions that are unable to comprehend his responses.
This is a beautiful work where the author places before us the reality of his childhood and the consequences of a faith that is unable to generate a culture. “The Irish Church has not yet woken up to the scale of the anthropological and existential crisis that besets Irish society precisely because of the particular nature of its historical faith experience and its recent rejection of this.” The outcome was the people leaving the Church and embracing a shallow culture that left them unable to deal with the problems of life. Yet, the answer for Ireland remains Christ and Waters own experience shows why this return is the only response that corresponds with the human heart. Ireland has suffered a loss of its tradition and is hungry for something that can address our reality now. This can only come from an encounter with a Presence that is able to generate a culture.

John Water's recent column in The Irish Times: Freedom at Last to Think for Yourself