Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Canary in the Coalshaft

Peter Leithart has written a great article on novelist Walker Percy. I commend it to you.

A choice selection:

What roused Percy’s malice most often was the ennui of modern life. In the lead essay in his collection, Message in a Bottle, he explores the paradox of men existing in perfect comfort, every need fulfilled, yet deeply unhappy, violent, and overshadowed by inexplicable malaise. How can that happen?

Trained as a medical doctor, Percy pointed an accusing finger at the scientific worldview. Science claims to explain everything, but cannot account for the peculiarities of individual life. It leaves out what is nearest and most interesting to us; it leaves out life. Pressured by scientism, we live “dyadic” lives, split between individual life and the mechanistic universe outside. We are, as the title of another essay collection has it, “lost in the cosmos.”

The worst of it, though, is that all our comforts keep us from recognizing just how desperate our situation is. Before we can be healed, we need to admit our sickness, and that required shock therapy. Percy tried to provoke a “shock of recognition” in the reader: “That’s me. I’ve felt like that. I’m not the only one.” On the surface, Percy’s novels resemble the existentialist “novels of alienation” from the mid-twentieth century. But that’s just the surface. Percy believed that “novel of alienation” was a contradiction: A novel is a communication, and if there is communication then alienation is already overcome.

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