Tag Archives: Walker Percy

‘For God’s sake, be a storyteller’

Acclaimed author Walter Isaacson on the late, great writer Walker Percy:

“I had a friend of the family, an uncle of a friend, Walker Percy…

“He was a kindly gentleman. From his face you could tell he had known despair, but his eyes still smiled. And he had a lightly worn grace to him….

“He would say that two types of people came out of Louisiana, preachers and storytellers. He said, ‘For God’s sake, be a storyteller. The world’s got too many preachers.’

“He thought that too many journalists, and writers in general, feel they have to preach. He said it was best to do it the way the best parts of the Bible do, by telling a wonderful tale, and people will get the message on their own.”

I realize I’ve been guilty of preaching, too.

On ‘Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide’ from The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss is one of the most interesting guys out there. In this long and worthwhile post, he talks about a time of depression and suicidal ideation.

I’m linking to and excerpting the post not merely as a public service announcement, although that aspect is certainly critical.

Ferriss’s post fits with the overall purpose of my blog. Unfortunately, the research is consistent and clear: for many who have suffered religious authoritarianism, spiritual abuse, or cult dynamics, suicide can be a real, substantial temptation.

Ferriss doesn’t seem to be a religious man in any traditional sense of the word, but he makes an interesting observation:

I personally believe that consciousness persists after physical death, and it dawned on me that I literally had zero evidence that my death would improve things. It’s a terrible bet. At least here, in this life, we have known variables we can tweak and change. The unknown void could be Dante’s Inferno or far worse. When we just “want the pain to stop,” it’s easy to forget this. You simply don’t know what’s behind door #3.  — via Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss.

Read the entire post: Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss.

Some Christian beliefs make matters worse, insisting that God ordains each sin (and suicide is considered a sin).

However logically and systematically consistent some theological thinkers might be, the idea of God ordaining horrible things is abhorrent.

At very least we could acknowledge that an impassible God becoming incarnate to die in place of his creatures is anything but logical. Perhaps loving, but not logical.

Here one of G.K. Chesterton’s quotes pops into mind: “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Maybe some theological thinkers have been orthodox and mad.

Logical and insane.

Logic and analysis are good. Problems come along when a mind becomes so focused on and so obsessed with the parts that it can no longer see the connections and the wholes. No one can live while seeing only fragments and pieces.

Which reminds me of a thought that, I think, came from C.S. Lewis: for the modernistic scientist, a real bird is a bird opened on the dissection table, pinned down and pulled apart. In an earlier time, a real bird was a bird on the wing, with its song.

Everyone knows the bird has guts. But even in a natural order sparked by a blind watchmaker, who would think the bird exists merely in relation to the functioning of its internal organs? The bird exists in relation to the rest of the natural order — bugs, fish, soil, water, and trees, as well as humans and human culture. We appreciate these relationships — they’ve been there as long as we can remember, as far back as we can see in art and literature.

Endless dissection is useful, even helpful, but discoveries made through analysis are never for themselves, but for better understandings of wholes.

Over-analysis of a single situation leads into a singular focus, a mental microscope on a single cell, with no context for its wider circumstances, its situations and connections. The suicidal person might feel like this one bad circumstance is all there is. But there is so much more.

So for some scientists and some theologians, reasoning has been a force for good, for making connections and seeing wholes, for continuing to live in spite of extraordinary difficulties.

They use reasoning to see the connections and the wholes — in other words, the meaningfulness of everything that exists.

Also see:

Walker Percy’s passage on “the ex-suicide” from his book Lost in the Cosmos.

Southern Christendom, as it was in the 1980s, is now, and evermore might be

Walker Percy knew how to capture the South, as well as American culture, within his characters and stories. In this passage near the end of his 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome, Percy’s narrator observes Southern-fried American Christianity through his wife and his region. I dare say his observations seem fresh today:

Later Ellen experienced a religious conversion. She became disaffected when the Southern and Northern Presbyterians, estranged since the Civil War, reunited after over a hundred years. It was not the reunion she objected to but the liberal theology of the Northern Presbyterians, who, according to her, were more interested in African revolutionaries than the divinity of Christ. She and others pulled out and formed the Independent Northlake Presbyterian Church.

Then she became Episcopalian.

Then suddenly she joined a Pentecostal sect. She tells me straight out that she has had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, that where once she was lost and confused, seduced by Satan and the false pleasures of this world, she has now found true happiness with her Lord and Saviour. She has also been baptized in the Holy Spirit. She speaks in tongues.

I do not know what to make of this. I do not know that she has not found Jesus Christ and been born again. Therefore I accept that she believes she has and may in fact have been. I settle for being back with us and apparently happy and otherwise her old tart, lusty self. She is as lusty a Pentecostal as she was a Southern Presbyterian. She likes as much as ever cooking a hearty breakfast, packing the kids off to school, and making morning love on our Sears Best bed, as we used to.

She loves the Holy Spirit, says little about Jesus.

She is herself a little holy spirit hooked up to a lusty body. In her case spirit has nothing to do with body. Each goes its own way. Even when she was a Presbyterian and I was a Catholic, I remember that she was horrified by the Eucharist: Eating the body of Christ. That’s pagan and barbaric, she said. What she meant and what horrified her was the mixing up of body and spirit, Catholic trafficking in bread, wine, oil, salt, water, body, blood, spit — things. What does the Holy Spirit need with things? Body does body things. Spirit does spirit things.

She’s happy, so I’ll settle for it. But a few things bother me. She attributes her conversion to a TV evangelist to whom she contributed most of her fortune plus a hundred dollar a week to this guy, which we cannot afford, or rather to his Gospel Outreach program for the poor of Latin America. I listened to this reverend once. He’d rather convert a Catholic Hispanic than a Bantu any day in the week.

She has also enrolled Tommy and Margaret in the Feliciana Christian Academy, which teaches that the world is six thousand years old and won’t have Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye in the library.

At least it’s better than Belle Ame, and the kids seem happy and healthy.

But I worry about them growing up as Louisiana dumbbells.

I might have held out for the parochial school, which was good, but it folded. The nuns vanished. The few priests are too overworked to bother. Catholics have become a remnant of a remnant. Louisiana, however, is more Christian than ever, not Catholic Christian, but Texas Christian. Even most Cajuns have been converted, first by Texas oil bucks, then by Texas evangelists. The shrimp fleet, mostly born again, that is, for the third time, is no longer blessed and sprinkled by a priest.

Why don’t I like these new Christians better? They’re sober, dependable, industrious, helpful. They praise God frequently, call you brother, and punctuate ordinary conversation with exclamations like Glory! Praise God! Hallelujah! I’ve got nothing against them, but they give me the creeps.

— Walker Percy, from his novel The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)

The possibility of misinterpretations

Consider the following sentence:

“I think the spirits have gotten to him.”

If you’re a child, or a member of a tribe with an ancient mindset, you might think, “Supernatural forces have attacked him.”

If you’re a cosmopolitan fellow living in a big city, you might think, “Ah — this guy has had too much liquor.”

Except for the equivocal use of “spirits,” the syntactic and semantic structure is the same.

I was thinking through something I read earlier today: “Sentences exhibiting the same syntactic and semantic structure may be asserted in wholly different modes of identification.”

That’s Walker Percy in his essay, “The Symbolic Structure of Interpersonal Process,” which was published in The Message in the Bottle.

I’m not sure, however, equivocation (my above example) is exactly what he is getting at.

His example seems less a matter of equivocation and more a matter of understanding different processes behind the same central meaning of the sentence.

Percy’s example of a “syntactic and semantic structure … asserted in wholly different modes of identification” is as follows:

“My son John has become a roentgenologist.”

That sentence “has the logical form of the assertion of class membership,” Percy writes.

But this “sentence can be asserted in more than one mode,” he says.

Thus, if a psychiatrist should hear his patient utter the above sentence, he may very well understanding, knowing her as he does, that she is asserting a magic mode of class membership. Her son John has gone off to a scientific place where he has undergone a mystical transformation and emerged as a roentgenologist. Another patient may assert the same sentence and be quite clearly understood to mean that her son has acquired a skill which it is convenient to speak of as a class membership.

In poetry, the possibilities of multiple meanings are exciting. In journalism, multiple meanings are problematic.

However, the two patients in the above quotation are dealing neither with poetic language nor with a professional obligation to clarity in language.

The two patients above seem to represent two radically different mentalities which generate two radically different interpretations of a sentence.

Speaking in such a way that one absolutely cannot be misinterpreted might just be impossible.

Community and communion

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Intersubjective communication, 2

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Intersubjective communication

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Illustration from Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos