[percy-l] Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes

Jim Forest jhforest at gmail.com
Tue Sep 12 04:59:35 EDT 2017

The New York Times / Aug. 4, 2015

*Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes*


Walker Percy had a theory about hurricanes. “Though science taught that
good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him
that the opposite was the case,” he wrote of Will Barrett, the
semi-autobiographical title character of his second novel, “The Last
Gentleman.” “Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if
ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people
felt better in hurricanes.”

Percy was a medical doctor who didn’t practice and a Catholic who did,
which equipped him to embark on a search for how we mortals fit into the
cosmos. Our reaction to hurricanes was a clue, he believed, which is why
leading up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina, it’s worth taking note not
only of his classic first novel, “The Moviegoer,” but also of his theory of
hurricanes as developed in “The Last Gentleman,” “Lancelot” and some of his

Percy lived on the Bogue Falaya, a lazy, ­bayou-like river across Lake
Pontchartrain from my hometown, New Orleans. He was a kindly gentleman
whose face knew despair but whose eyes often smiled. With his wry
philosophical depth and lightly worn grace, he was acutely aware of his
alienation from the everyday world, but he could be an engaged companion
when sitting on his porch sipping bourbon or holding court with aspiring
writers at a lakefront seafood joint named Bechac’s. “My ideal is Thomas
More, an English Catholic . . . who wore his faith with grace, merriment
and a certain wryness,” he once said. That describes Percy well.

Will Barrett’s hurricane insight is prompted by the recollection of a date
he had with a girl named Midge. Driving through Connecticut, they are
caught in a Northeastern hurricane and seek shelter at a diner. When the
wind breaks a window, they help the counter attendant board it up. “Midge
and the counterman,” Percy writes, “were very happy. The hurricane blew
away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky
and Midge no longer felt obliged to keep her face stiff. They were able to
talk. It was best of all when the hurricane’s eye came with its so-called
ominous stillness. It was not ominous. Everything was yellow and still and
charged up with value.”

Percy’s diagnosis was that when we are mired in the everydayness of
ordinary life, we are susceptible to what he called “the malaise,” a
free-floating despair associated with the feeling that you’re not a part of
the world or connected to the people in it. You are alienated, detached. As
Percy put it in “The Moviegoer,” “The malaise has settled like a fallout
and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the
bomb will not fall.” The heroes of his books, each in his own way, embark
on a search for the cause and cure of this syndrome. “What is the nature of
the search?” wonders Binx Bolling, the narrator of “The Moviegoer.” “The
search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the
everydayness of his own life.”

A real-world crisis can provide a respite from the malaise. Binx first
became aware of the possibility of overcoming alienation when he was
wounded during the Korean War. “I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix,
I would pursue the search,” he recalls. “What are generally considered to
be the best of times are for me the worst times, and that worst of times
was one of the best.” He is reminded of this when he has the good fortune
to get into a minor accident when driving with a girlfriend on the Gulf
Coast. “How, you might wonder, can even a minor accident be considered good
luck? Because it provides a means of winning out over the malaise.”

That’s what makes hurricanes therapeutic. “Why is a man apt to feel bad in
a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, N.J., on an ordinary
Wednesday afternoon?” Percy wrote in one of his essays. “Why is the same
man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key
Largo during a hurricane?” Part of the answer is that when a hurricane is
about to hit, we no longer feel uncertain about our role in the world.
Everyone is focused, connected, engaged. We know what we’re supposed to do,
and we do it.

But Percy’s theory about the redemptive power of hurricanes goes beyond the
fact that dangerous situations allow us to become action heroes or saints.
“True, people help each other in catastrophes,” he wrote in “Lancelot.”
“But they don’t feel good because they help each other. They help each
other because they feel good.” The hurricane blows away our alienation. “I
knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other,
hated their own lives, and were generally miserable — except during
hurricanes,” Lancelot recounts. “Then they sat in their house at Pass
Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness,
were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke,
drink, even make love.”

The problem with storms is that they pass. After the winds subside and the
earth begins to heal, the malaise and alienation creep back. The last time
I saw Walker Percy, he made that point. He was fighting prostate cancer,
but he faced his end with the inner calm of the deeply faithful. As he sat
on his dock, his face was as placid as the Bogue Falaya, rippled
occasionally by a smile. He reminded me of what had happened with the
couple in Lancelot. “After the hurricane they took a good hard look at each
other on a sunny Monday morning and got a divorce.”

But I think that Hurricane Katrina, which struck 15 years after Percy died,
was an exception to the second part of his theory. It jolted New Orleans so
brutally that even a decade after the waters receded, the malaise has not
crept back in. Instead, the memory of Katrina and the excitement of having
to rebuild something better continues to keep people in New Orleans engaged
and connected. There’s an edgy creativity that comes from the shared
aftertaste of danger, a sense of community that comes from knowing you’re
in the same boat.

The city is still “charged up with value,” to use Percy’s phrase, and
remains a mecca for creative and purpose-driven young people from around
the country seeking to avoid the malaise and everydayness of ordinary life.
A new type of school system is flourishing based on autonomy for innovative
school leaders and choice for parents. A start-up culture thrives, and a
celebration known as New Orleans Entrepreneur Week has carved a position
alongside Mardi Gras and Jazz Festival on the cultural calendar. This year
attendance doubled to more than 10,000 registrants.

At the end of “The Moviegoer,” as Mardi Gras gives way to Ash Wednesday,
Binx’s vulnerable fiancée, Kate, asks him about his search, the leap of
faith it has occasioned, and how he now makes his way in the world. “There
is only one thing I can do,” Binx replies, “listen to people, see how they
stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark
journey and be handed along.”

That spirit still lingers in New Orleans these days, even though it’s been
10 years since the levees broke.

* * *

Walter Isaacson, chief executive of the Aspen Institute, is the author of
biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. He was
vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority after Katrina and is on
the executive committee of the New Orleans Tricentennial Commission.

* * *

due out in November:
*At Play in the Lions' Den: a biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan*

winner of the International Thomas Merton Society’s “Louie” award:
*The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers  *

*books in print: *http://jimandnancyforest.com/books/
*web site: *https://www.jimandnancyforest.com
*photos: *https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/
*Amazon author page*: https://www.amazon.com/author/jimforest
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