[percy-l] On the end of all things

Michael Larson Mlarson at SOUTHEASTMN.EDU
Tue Feb 26 21:03:23 EST 2008

Robert Eckert's Percy-question regarding the future:
>>In one interview, Percy, when asked a question concerning something about living at another time, said he would like to sit on a park bench in NYC in the year 2050 to see how we were doing. To see if we made it.

Will we?<<

My guess is that Percy is not actually wondering here whether the human race will avoid annihilation or even whether it will somehow find its own way out of this modern malaise. I suspect rather that he means, underneath the nonchalance of his answer, to remind the interviewer (and of course the readers of the interview) that ours is a tenuous existence, that our sustenance is well beyond our own powers, and that the time is likely to be later than we think.

Regarding de Chardin:
>>I wonder if Percy ever read DeChardin's "The Great Monad", written in 1918 when he was with his regiment in Champagne. Even during the horror of that war DeChardin found something positive that I believe applies to this current clash:

"Mankind in armed conflict with itself is a Mankind in process of solidification.... The whole of history teaches us this lesson, that after every revolution and after every war Mankind has always emerged a little more self-cohesive, a little more unified, because the links that hold its organism together are more firmly locked together and hope of a common emancipation has become strengthened." (p.184, The Heart of Matter)<<

I would be surprised if Percy followed closely the ideas of de Chardin, whose works were officially condemned by the Church in 1962. The above quotation, for instance, is indicative of the fundamental conflict between de Chardin's notion that the perfection of mankind is an evolutionary process achievable at some future point by the race itself as a whole, and the Church's doctrine that perfection is attainable only through the conscious cooperation of one's will with the salvific work of Christ, which has already been completed in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

Regarding peace:
>>In a peculiar way, war is how we get to know other cultures. Americans know much more about Islam now than they did in August of 2001. We can hope that this struggle will settle, that Jewish, Muslim and Christian people will learn to live together peacefully.

If we can survive the initial clash, we can converge.<<

Christ again is the stumbling block. If he is God, as the Church claims (and as Percy affirms), then his kingship is universal. Jews and Muslims cannot simultaneously accept this and remain Jews and Muslims. Multiple religions may be able to coexist in some circumstances, but they cannot converge. And the separate peace they sometimes share is often merely pragmatic, always tenuous, and inevitably temporary.

Regarding methods of killing:
Robert Eckert:
>>I would still argue that the sort of killer who would use an agent like small pox in an attack is not the same type of killer as a soldier who engages insurgents firing on a convoy just hit by an i.e.d.. The insurgent or the soldier may be your hero. But, who could have as their hero, who could conceive any possible good in the use of a deadly contagious disease to indiscriminately inflict harm?<<

Jim Forest:
>>Thanks, Robert. God knows you're right about the pure horror of inflicting indiscriminate harm, whether by bio-weapons or any of the numerous other methods that have been developed as a means of mass murder. Developments in killing methods this half century or so make Genghis Kahn look like Elmer Fudd.<<

Robert makes a poignant distinction. The soldier, especially if he is fighting a just war, evokes our respect and admiration because of his sacrifice. He puts himself in harm's way for the sake of others. The designers of bio-weapons (as well as other weapons of mass destruction) and the decision-makers who deploy them, however, kill largely without personal risk or sacrifice, without discrimination, and therefore without responsibility. 

True heroism, if not always a direct act of love, at least reminds us of some higher realm, some sacred virtue. By contrast, workers of iniquity--whether on the material or the immaterial plane--render the world desolate with love's privation.

Jim Forest: 
>>... there are heroes who are beloved across borders. Saints. Now there's an interesting word, one that meant a great deal to Walker Percy.<<

Yes. Heroes, every one.

Merton regarding Eichmann:
>>"The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared.... No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command." [Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), 45-53.]<<

Jim Forest:
>>Of course we regard ourselves as sane, not to mention good and decent and even God-fearing. In the Hollywood movie we make of ourselves, we're never the bad guys.<<

But in Thomas Merton's Hollywood movie of how the world ends, the sane ARE the bad guys. Percy did love to play with the malleable idea of sanity. He often posed the question: Who is actually crazy? The inmates or the attending psychiatrist? And it's true: many of those we perceive, by all outward appearances, to be sane, are not. Likewise many who, by societal standards, could be labeled crazy are actually in touch with a precious piece of reality. So the question is, What is sanity? And whose definition of it is to be trusted?

Karl Terrell:
>>Percy wrote about how the prospect of bad things happening -- like an impending war, or perhaps an approaching category-5 hurricane -- do not cause dread or anxiety.  We are instead filled with excitement.  We couldn't be happier.  

By contrast, WP saw a man who has everything going for him, sitting in his fine home in, say, Short Hills, N.J. on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, with no identifiable problems on the horizon, but who nonetheless finds himself ..... unsettled, anxious.

The subtitle of Dr. Strangelove was "How I Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb."  

The quote below [de Chardin] speaks of war in positive terms, as a means of delivering 'solidification' and the 'hope of a common emancipation.'  It seems to me that what's really going on is the pull of the death wish that we all share.

Isn't that what Percy was talking about?<<

I think it's not a wish for death per se but for truth, for the underlying heart of the matter. If death is necessary to see it, well, then so be it. But when a storm whips up suddenly on the horizon and we feel a surge of fear mixed oddly with hope, it is not death that we long for first. Rather, we wish to see what lies underneath, and we fancy that the storm might reveal it. We have come to know, perhaps without even realizing it, that the ordinary life we live Wednesday after Wednesday (and all the days in between) is but an intimation of some greater reality. When the storm arises, we are momentarily awakened from the malaise. There appears across the valley a symbolic threat that today of all days, the truth--and all its attendant beauty--might finally prevail, might finally wreck what's left of our illusory structures, lay waste to all that is false, and, last of all, break our hearts for Good.

Thanks to Robert Eckert for posing the great question, which has sparked much discussion of interest.

Best regards to all,
Michael Larson
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