[percy-l] LITR - Five Years Later

Karl M. Terrell kterrell at stokeswagner.com
Mon Aug 4 09:26:14 EDT 2014

Precisely.  Here's to the charm of the man.  His wit, his observations on the human condition, and those wonderful sentences.

Thanks to everyone for sharing thoughts & ideas on LITR (myself, been busy of late).


From: Percy-L [mailto:percy-l-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Garic Barranger via Percy-L
Sent: Saturday, August 02, 2014 3:23 PM
To: janetcantor37 at yahoo.com; Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion
Subject: Re: [percy-l] LITR - Five Years Later

The answer to your question: The charm of the man.

On Aug 1, 2014, at 11:00 PM, janetcantor37--- via Percy-L wrote:

It is five years later.
We now find Tom married to Ellen, two children asleep and another on the way. He is satisfied with only one woman to his name. Tom no longer drinks. Ellen would not approve.
Moira married Buddy Brown and Lola is also married and now plays cello for the Atlanta symphony and shows horses in Marietta Georgia.

"The young who already know everything, hate science, bomb laboratories, kill professors, burn libraries." Must have been familiar to Percy.

The Bantus are no longer interested in violent overthrow of the status quo with them in charge. Now they own property. They are rich on the oil discovered on their property. They play golf.
And, so funny, Uru has become impatient with the south, has given up on his dream of kidnapping and violence, and has returned to Ann Arbor to rejoin the Black Studies department where life is simpler.
Many knot heads and lefts went elsewhere, too. Those who stayed did so because they didn't fit in anywhere else. And the blacks and whites liked it better when all was calm so they gave up on fighting.
The murderers who were terrorizing the area were not the black guerillas, nor the white knot heads but the "love" community of the swamp whose leader says his family believes in love, the environment and freedom of the individual. Percy is so funny.

As I read the novel I couldn't help thinking about  James Madison's  warnings in the Federalist Papers about the dangers of factions. The way the book ended brought me back to that Civil War essay of Percy's, which instigated this whole enterprise of the slow read, where Percy celebrated that after all the mayhem of that horrible war, the Union held.

I kept wondering about those repeated phrases of light reflections throughout the text. Here is one idea offered me from Jay Tolson:

The light reflections?  Hard to determine authorial intent, but reflected light suggests soul to me.  That it is reflected means that the soul is dependent on the source of that light.  Whether Percy intended it or not, was aware of it or not, the fact is that these reflected lights are everywhere, speaking to us at a subliminal level, suggests that Percy was showing that we are not autonomous creatures but dependent on the source of our being.

I like that.

So, alright, Janet, enough. Get to the point. You are doing the final section. What was this all about, already?

Before I give my final thoughts I am going to spend time turning to some descriptions of existentialism and I will offer some tiny things from Pilgrim in the Ruins, the indispensable biography of Percy by Jay Tolson.

In light of the fact that humans know that we are all going to die, the existentialist asks why do we exist? How should I live knowing I am going to die? Where does meaning come from?
Kierkegard, the Christian existentialist, says stop trying to force the world to make sense and instead embrace the obscurity of Christian faith. This will inform the final section of the book.
Heidegger says to know something isn't as important as to care about it, see the possibilities and take responsibility for our choices.

Some things paraphrased from Pilgrim in the Ruins:
Percy's life forms the basis for his stories in his novels. He went from trusting science completely as having all the answers, to studying philosophy, to studying semiotics to understand how we communicate (this was because his daughter was deaf).  He became curious about Catholicism, found comfort in the Church, and moved away from trusting science as having all the answers.
Percy saw his work as a form of knowledge, an essay toward understanding what would help him live his life, says Tolson. He became and remained a moralist and decided art is a gesture toward the truth that would make him free.
Tolson quotes Percy as saying, perhaps the craft of the religious novelist consists mainly in learning how to shout in  silence. He promised that one of his novels will be mainly given to ass kicking for Jesus's sake.

When he came to write LITR, Percy was afraid of the violent blacks like Stokely Carmichael. Percy was anti communist and in favor of the Viet Nam intervention, but feared the way the country was divided into groups hiding behind their labels. He did not sympathize with those who talked about the perfectibility of society. He was in despair over the breaking apart of the civilized aspect of society, which meant Percy was ready for some satire.
He described this novel as being about a bad Catholic at the end of time. Percy used Tom, a psychiatrist to tell his tale, as Percy decided to diagnose what was wrong with the country and help us to figure out what the cure was. In Tolson's book, the chapter on LITR is entitled Apocalyptic Mirth.

 I urge you to read Pilgrim in the Ruins, as well as Lanterns on the Levee, which will give you a good idea of what it was like to be a Southern Gentleman in the early 20th century. This latter book was written by "Uncle Will" who raised the three Percy Boys when their parents were gone. He wanted to give them some principles to follow.

Reading a Percy novel is like going to an amusement park. You get intriguing things beckoning you in. There are thrills, chills, scary things, roller coaster plots, things that are larger than life; Percy holds a mirror up to life, but in the fun house the mirror distorts and mocks us. As you get ready to leave the park, you are exhilarated, and back to reality.
You are attracted from the start, the attraction builds and is mysterious, you are aroused, things go over the top, there is the climax and then the resolution at the end.

I chose to lead the discussion of the last section of the book because I love the way Percy ends his novels.

Spoiler Alert! I am now going to talk about the endings of the six novels. I will put the titles in Capital letters so if you haven't read that book, just pass over that paragraph. When you get to the paragraph that begins LOST IN THE RUINS, you can read to the end of my comments.

In THE MOVIEGOER, towards the end, Binx's half brother Lonnie tells him he is taking his communion for him. Lonnie has an influence on Binx that the reader expects to show up in Binx's future.
The book ends with a negro coming out of a church on Ash Wednesday. Binx sits in his car and watches the man in the rear view mirror and wonders is the negro here because he has been part of the business of coming up in the world or because he believes G-d is present here. Or is it for both reasons: "through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as G-ds's own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say." Binx, the searcher, the aimless, may be on to something.
But the book gives us more - an epilogue. Here Percy ties the whole book together. He recapitulates an episode early in the book when Binx's brother died and his aunt told him he had to be brave. Now Lonnie has died and Binx has to comfort his siblings. Also Binx's cousin Kate told Binx earlier that she knows how she can live, if Binx tells her what to do.
Binx is unable to do an important errand because he can't leave his siblings at the moment; he needs Kate to do the errand. He very specifically tells her what to do. And that's how The Moviegoer ends. It is captivating.

THE LAST GENTLEMAN is about another wanderer with no plans. At the end of the novel he is driving and offers a lift to a no hoper, Sutter Vaught. Vaught refuses, but then thinks again and accepts the lift. When this happens the reader gasps in happy wonderment. Sutter refuses his isolation and the hope is that Barrett and Sutter will help each other become the person each was meant to be.

The sister novel to The Last Gentleman is THE SECOND COMING. Some of the same characters and very small similar bits of plot are in both books. This one is a fairy tale, with Jungian reflections. It ends after a fantastical journey of the hero who emerges from a cave to reconnect with his perfect match. These are two misfits in the world. They will defy conventions and become a pair and the reader is delighted when they rediscover each other understanding that each will make the other  whole.

In LANCELOT, the ending is absolutely perfect. But you must not read ahead. I didn't understand it when I first came to it. But once I figured it out, it was explosive. Again, from an angry lost soul trying to justify himself, the lead in the book is going to get some good news and it will bring him down to earth.

The partner to LITR is THE THANATOS SYNDROME. Ellen and Tom, after a separation and some issues that had to be dealt with, come together again in calm and love with some spirituality to finish the deal.

And that bring us to LOVE IN THE RUINS.

In the last section of the book, Five Years Later, after mocking all of the fanaticisms of the factions of the novel, Tom and Ellen are comfortable, married and enjoying each other in everydayness; the everydayness is not a threat this time, but something to relish.

In a scene reminiscent of the one in The Moviegoer when Lonnie tells Binx he is taking his communion for Binx, Tom remembers when his daughter Samantha asks him why he doesn't go to mass anymore. She urges her father not to commit the sin against grace. "If G-d gives you the grace to believe in him and love him and you refuse, the sin will not be forgiven you."

Where does Slomo fit in? To me he would make a good character in any Percy novel. He would be a fitting part of the tapestry. But I don't think he could ever become the point of a Percy novel nor could he be the main character.

What DO we find in all of these novels? After the odysseys, the searches, the manic plots, the frantic dangers, the hilarity, the great writing with its glorious juxtapositions, the over the top plots and the goofy characters, all of the endings of the novels bring us to a safe place or the intimation that safety may be upon the main characters.

Here is what I think Percy's thesis is:
There are two things you must do to fit in in this world and be comfortable with yourself on a weekday afternoon:
You have to get over yourself and care for someone else.
And you can use science or reason or whatever you choose to try make your life have meaning but in the absence of a higher power, it will avail you nothing. So every novel ends with some form of recognition that the protagonist will be happier with someone to care for, and  he is going to be prepared to open himself up to accept  G-d's grace.

I want to thank Rhonda for suggesting the slow read and I want to thank all those who participated. It was a blast.

One more thing and then I turn it over to the rest of you.

I am not a Catholic; I am not a southerner; I know nothing about philosophy or semiotics. Why is it I should love Percy novels and what do they have to say to me?
But I do love them. And they do speak to me. And isn't that enchanting?

Now it is your turn. Let's have a big finish. Tell us what you make of this book and of this section. Let's hear from lots of you.

Janet Cantor

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