Friday, November 28, 2014

Tracy Daugherty on Walker Percy's Thought Experiments

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Tracy Daugherty, author of Empire of the Dead (Johns Hopkins University Press), analyzes Walker Percy's diagnostic approach to fiction in The Moviegoer.

What makes fiction unique? Worth preserving? What does fiction do that no other form of human expression accomplishes? Walker Percy conceived of fiction as a kind of laboratory report crossed with a thought experiment. Place a person, imaginatively, in a situation and determine—through dramatization, speculation, and reflection—his options and responses. The result will be an on-the-ground bulletin about what it is to be human.

Percy’s first and best novel, The Moviegoer, disarms the reader with humor, a hapless but likeable narrator, and a casual pace. But its set-up is fierce and methodical, strict as science. Every writer can learn from it.

The Situation: Contemporary America (the novel was published in 1961): site of Life, Liberty, and Happiness; the Bomb; conformity in the suburbs; the deadening effect of personal rituals and work habits; spiritual ennui.

The Subject: Binx Bolling, average white male, Southern.

The Subject’s Dilemma: Whether to settle for the “Little Way,” the “sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car,” or chase the “Big Happiness,” Beauty and Bravery, escape from the trap Kierkegaard mapped in The Sickness unto Death: “The specific character of despair is precisely this: It is unaware of being despair” (this quote serves as the novel’s epigraph).

Alternate Responses to the Subject’s Dilemma: Repetition— that is, seeking to replicate past experiences that gave The Subject joy, in an effort to locate the true root of happiness. Examples include driving a sporty car or flirting with a secretary in the office (Linda or Sharon, it doesn’t matter). Or Rotation—that is, seeking a new experience with potential for surprise, the unexpected, the wonder of life. The problem with Repetition is habit. It can kill the original joy. The problem with Rotation is the need for extremes, an escalation of novelty leading to very real danger.

The (Possible) Solution: A Search, beginning with the admission that despair is despair. “Just getting by” will no longer suffice. The Search requires seeing The Situation clearly in order to reject Alternate Responses that are circular or unsustainable. Seeing the Situation Clearly requires reading The Situation’s clues, a form of:

Semiotics: What does a sporty car or a pretty new secretary really mean to us? What aspects of secretary or sporty car (physical, cultural, social) are we responding to? Why do we think they give us joy? Where do our notions of joy even come from? Why does a rush of happiness often occur in the vicinity of danger? Does the intense feeling of “being alive” require the immediate risk of not being alive?

Using Semiotics, The Search can be conducted:

Vertically—Leaping into the depths of history, books, the Wisdom of the Ages, or:

Horizontally—Taking one step after another with no set purpose (other than The Search), discovering Wisdom along the way.

Either direction requires movement through three distinct stages (here again Percy takes his cue from Kierkegaard): The Aesthetic, The Ethical, and The Religious, testing the efficacy of personal gratification, the gratification of life with others in a system of equitable laws, and transcending the need for gratification.

Percy’s Subject, Binx, enters and exits these categories in his thirtieth year, a time of transition from relative youth to early middle age, under pressure, personally and professionally, to “get serious” and “settle down.” Though large changes occur as the year passes, by the end of the novel his Search remains incomplete, inconclusive. At least he has become less isolated and more responsible in caring for members of his family.

This schematic summary does not do justice to the richness and complexity of Percy’s novel, but it is, I think, an accurate rendering of the novel template Percy used and continued to use, more or less, in all his fiction.

As a fiction writer, Percy was a diagnostician, probing the mind’s and body’s afflictions, our culture’s malaise, seeking causes and possible cures. In the course of his experiments, he mixed philosophy and linguistics, just as a medical chemist tinkers with multiple compounds hoping for potent combinations. The combustibility of drama: for Percy, this was fiction’s unique quality as a form of expression: its capacity to contain and set in motion observation and ideas, the outer and inner lives of an individual. Time and again, this quality made fiction his preferred investigative method, the basis of his diagnoses.

And his prescription for robust health? Well, who can read a doctor’s writing?