Some Random Thoughts, Largely Unrelated, Based on Previous Discussions and Readings

Karey L. Perkins karey at
Mon Jul 1 13:52:28 EDT 2002

Our listserv seems to have been quiet, philosophically that is, ever since
our discussion of the Catholic priests -- too controversial?

At any rate, in an effort to spark some more conversation, I wanted to post
some thoughts.  As I continue on with my reading of Percy (again, his
philosophy is slower going than the fiction, but I'm making some progress),
many observations related to previous comments we've made come to mind.
Here are some of them, not necessarily related to each other, but pick and
choose as you will:

**1) Regarding Nikki's question a few weeks ago related to our discussion of
"consciousness", and I don't remember it exactly, but something to the
effect of, "Why bother with this conversation at all?" or rather, "What is
the importance of this conversation?" that received only one or two replies:
I wasn't sure if it was intended as a rhetorical point (i.e.: this
conversation is unimportant), or if it was intended didactically (i.e.:
here's something you should be thinking about first before you ramble on
about this topic), or if it was intended as face-value question (i.e.:
literally, why is this conversation important?)....but, I'll
take it as the latter, and offer my observations:

I think the topic and conversation, that is, Percy's idea of consciousness
as it relates to language and "who" or "what" man is, as well
as a materialistic or dualistic or monistic view of man, is extremely
important.  I think it is at the root of Percy's fiction, and that his
"Theory of Man" drives all of his fiction.  To decipher what that is is to
unravel the DNA code of what he was saying, you could say.  Percy seemed to
write from a "plan," mapping out the plot and the book based on what he
wanted to say philosophically, and sticking to that, unlike other authors
like Flannery O'Connor, who may have had some kind of plan in the beginning
but ended up letting the book write itself.

Percy differentiated man from the animals (as a scientist, he understood the
world - and items in the world - in terms of classification (finding
similarities) and differentiation) based on his capacity for language --
symbol-mongering ability is an indication of consciousness, in Percy's mind.
Symbol mongering ability, a triadic event, is also what creates a "world" as
opposed to "environment" of merely behaviorist physical organisms relating
in a stimulus-response dyadic mode.  A world has "magic" and "myth."  This
is mostly from Message in the Bottle, but I found it interesting that Percy
uses these words, as he was a scientist, but especially as it relates to a
conversation with a physical-materialistic friend of mine, who believes the
physical world is all there is -- when the body dies, consciousness ends --
then, upon further questioning, proceeded to describe "consciousness" as
some kind of "magic" (same word as Percy) that arose as the physical world
(and man) evolved.

Another point: what man is, as would be described in a "Theory of Man" not
only drives Percy's fiction and all of his interests, but it determines our
purpose and meaning for living, and therefore, all our actions and decisions
in how we live our lives.

By the way, I mentioned the article on autism as it provided a scientific
view of the mind, rather than just philosophical, and how language related
to that, which relates to Percy's theories.  That notwithstanding, I was
interested to hear Wade's account of his illness, which seemed to me rather
eerily similar to Percy's themes -- esp. in Thanatos Syndrome. Something's
"wrong with the water"... or more accurately, in today's (postmodern) world,
our means of sustenance, our world, is from anonymous sources -- our
community is one created and provided by strangers, who provide us food and
water, who create and build our homes and businesses, and we share all of
that with other strangers.  Great stuff for a novel -- but more true than
Percy realized?

**2)  If Percy is a "monist" as he seems to be -- did he ever identify
himself as such?  If not, why not?

**3)  Percy and gender:  Percy, like most good writers, was a product of his
culture:  a well-to-do, aristocratic Southern white male living in the
latter half of the twentieth century (or rather, most of it, as he was born
and raised in the early half, just wrote in the latter half) -- but his
comments/views/themes/ideas rise above his demographics (and especially so
for Percy as his concern was what it means to be human) to say something of
importance to everyone.  I think specifically here, as an example, of Ralph
Ellison's Invisible Man, which was about a black Southern male, and while as
a white female (not Southern), I could not identify with many of the
SPECIFICS of his experience, because Ellison's work was true and good, it
speaks on many levels of many truths about life, society, culture, what it
means to be human (which is why it is a classic).

All that is to say is that Percy's portrayal of women changes through the
years, indicating that he was affected by his times -- and he had the
attitude and view towards women that indicates his demographics.   In "The
Moviegoer" his female characters are flatter -- Kate is more well-developed,
but Sharon is stereotyped and seen from a preppy Southern white male
viewpoint (to stereotype about preppy Southern white men, that is).  While
she is true to type, she is an object.  This is right after the fifties -- a
decade where many intelligent women suffered from role restrictions (not
just professional but cultural and social) and a decade which brought the
inevitable sexual revolution of the sixties (it WAS a revolt, in fact).
Remember, many intelligent female writers went crazy and killed themselves
during this decade as they tried to stifle their intelligence and uniqueness
to conform socially.  "The Last Gentleman" doesn't improve much on female
roles (and I don't really like any of the women in LG, though I liked Kate
in MG).  Women still are primarily just "objects" of the protagonists'
emotional and sexual desire.  The same in "Love in the Ruins," where we have
three women who are objects of his desire -- but otherwise, largely
insignificant and unimportant - remaining on the periphery

However, ironically, at the end of Percy's books,
his protagonists find their resolution and "salvation" --
on earth, that is, and perhaps only temporary -- in the arms and home of a
"good" woman.  A "good" woman, for Percy, is practical, grounded,
traditional, and sexually and morally conservative.  In addition, these
"good" women "call" Percy's heroes on their faults (chastise them)...they
don't let them get away with anything.  This is something of a motherly
quality, so I'm wondering if any critics have written anything about a
madonna (mother)-whore complex or theme in Percy's writing.

Women are occasionally the carriers of the "fugue state" even more than the
men, if they are not "good" as defined previously.  Kate in MG, and Allison
in SC.  Perhaps Anna in Lancelot. I think this is when Percy is most
successful in his portrayal of women.  I think his other "type" of the good
woman that his protagonists end up with is influenced so significantly by
his culture that it has less universal truth than other things he has to

The Second Coming is the only book (that I noticed) in which he writes at
least part of it from a female point of view.  This is his second to last
book, and women are becoming more rounded, more realistic, and less
objectified in Percy's writing, as the society in general in which Percy
lives and writes becomes more liberated for women.  What surprised
me is that he wrote her (Allison's) point of view so well.

I've chosen not to do the dissertation on Percy's female characters -- not
only because there's already a book out (which I've not yet read) about that
topic that probably says it better, but because I don't think that's the
most important thing he has to say.

But I do have a question for the listserv -- how many of us are women?  I
think female Percy fans are greatly the minority -- he appeals more to men,
it has been my experience, despite the fact that he says something to

**4) Percy's theology:  It seems that Percy writes from a Christian
existentialist viewpoint.  Most of his books seem to be about deconstructing
all of our illusions about ourselves -- our habits, lifestyles, goals, that
we think are meaningful -- and deconstructing our "false" or temporary
reasons for living or being in the world, which, I take it, is anything
except God.   While he doesn't mention God or Christ too much (God
occasionally pops up, like Tom More "eating Christ" in LR, and Will Barrett
searching for a sign of God in SC), the books are focusing on that place
right before we find God -- before the leap -- when we realize what we ARE
living for doesn't really work, isn't really what it's all about.

That's all well and good.  I agree with him whole-heartedly.  But where I'm
struggling is that, after presenting to us this nice Christian
existentialist viewpoint, Percy has each of his characters end up with
some "good woman" in an idyllic type Garden of Eden -- whether a cabin in
Virginia (Lancelot) or a greenhouse community/business in NC (SC).  His
endings are more individual/couple in his first books (our hero with his
woman secluded from the world), and end in a more communal Garden of
Eden/"utopia" in later works (our hero and his woman creating the community
that helps others).  The only exception to this pattern is the Last

Is this a contradiction in Percy's message?  I'm not arguing that his
protagonists should all end up as a prophet/hermit in the desert, alone with
God, a voice crying out in the wilderness, having flung off the trappings of
the world, but it seems that Percy could be saying the purpose in life, the
road to bliss and sanity, is in settling down with a good woman in a
leafy enclave and living a moral life.  Where's God?

**5) Percy's reading and the Internet:  For an Internet project listing the
books Percy has read, I would suggest beginning by flipping through each
page of Message in the Bottle, and his other non-fiction too, but
especially MB.   He lists dozens of people he's read -- by no means
a complete listing but a good place to start.

**6) Books:  I can find "Thief of Pierce" on the Internet, but can't find
Ken Ketner's "His Glassy Essence" which was recommended earlier.
Any ideas on how to get a hold of a copy?

Just some thoughts.


Karey L. Perkins
Professor of General Education
DeVry University
2555 Northwinds Parkway
Alpharetta, GA  30004
770-521-4900  Ext. 3527

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