Foaks, this morning I’m headed up to West Feliciana for a Walker Percy Weekend 2018 planning meeting. Tickets are on sale here for the event, which will be on June 1-3 — as ever, the first weekend in June. We’re still working on some cool programming stuff for the festival, so stay in touch.
I’ve been meaning to post on Charlie Clark’s Fare Forward piece, titled “The Walker Percy Option,” and I’m glad to have a peg now. Excerpts:
In his book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher proposes that Christians ought “to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark.” I wish to offer a counterproposal. Dreher and I share a common interest in the work of Walker Percy, Dreher’s fellow Louisianan, and one of the great Catholic writers of the twentieth century. Percy’s novels and essays sketched a posture towards modernity that resembles Dreher’s own, but differs in certain key respects. While Dreher’s attention to the practices of literal Benedictines like the monks of Norcia can be valuable for modern readers (and would have been appreciated by Percy, himself a Benedictine oblate), I suggest that, in his quest for a new St. Benedict, Dreher would have been well advised to look somewhere very different. If St. Benedict offered a spiritual and cultural survival guide for the original Dark Ages, Percy has a plan for our own. But unlike St. Benedict, whose Rule was addressed to “the athletes of God,” a spiritual elite, Percy’s is meant for the common man, for the Christian and almost-Christian rabble. If the Benedict Option imagines a faithful remnant waiting out the flood, the Walker Percy Option imagines an unfaithful one, nonetheless borne up by grace.
Well, okay, but I don’t propose that lay Christians literally follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Anyway, let’s go on:
Whereas Dreher sees Christians and Christianity as uniquely threatened by modernity, Percy sees the modern condition as a common disaster for believer and unbeliever alike. Dreher can see the cracks in the secular; he knows it is unsustainable and inimical to human flourishing. Yet he seems to suggest that only Christians—or other “traditional religious believers”—are truly alien to it. However, Percy recognizes that, where the modern condition is concerned, we are all in the same boat. This is no one’s native country. The good news, though, is that no one is born secular, and no one is condemned to remain so. The gate to a fuller life is narrow and even hidden, but it is open. And this gate not being the one of Paradise, but only of “a kind of comfortable Catholic limbo,” it is open to people far less holy than those St. Benedict set out to form.
Again, this might seem like quibbling, but of course I believe that we are all struggling in modernity. I wrote the book for Christians, though. Had I wanted to write a book for everyone struggling with modernity, it would have been a different book. My point was to convince Christians that they (we) have become far too comfortable in modernity.
As Percy sees it, modernity birthed the malaise by splitting the human person in two, opening the “dread chasm” between body and mind. The individual is now forced to choose between living as an immanent self, sunk in everydayness, or as a transcendent self, perpetually in orbit. But Percy also sees the symptoms of the malaise extending beyond the individual, in the guise of what Binx names “scientific humanism.” Scientific humanism translates the chasm within the individual to the societal level, dividing mankind into an elite of transcendent conditioners and a mass of immanent consumers.
Under scientific humanism, says Binx, “needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle.” In other words, it is a regime under which the mass of humanity is intentionally kept sunk in everydayness. Absent a direct confrontation with the malaise, the main business of life for most people becomes maintaining a subjective sense of wellbeing, however tenuous, by satisfying the body’s felt needs and keeping the mind distracted. In such a society, power and authority are accorded to the scientists, technicians, and other experts who help keep ordinary people content through therapeutic conditioning, helping them adjust to an essentially animal existence.
Percy believes that the experience of having been reduced to an object of conditioning explains much of the distress of the modern subject. In Lost in the Cosmos, he observes that in spite of radically “improved” standards of living, the modern self is paradoxically impoverished, depressed, and anxious. He explains, “The impoverishment of the immanent self derives from a perceived loss of sovereignty to ‘them,’ the transcending scientists and experts of society. As a consequence, the self sees its only recourse as an endless round of work, diversion, and consumption of goods and services.” Scientific humanism deprives non-experts of agency; the secret to happiness in each of life’s dimensions is presided over by a particular expert, and the consumer’s only responsibility is to comply with their advice.
Percy imagines the logical conclusion of scientific humanism’s mission in the Qualitarian movement described in Love in the Ruins. In the novel, people accused of antisocial behavior and deemed in need of reconditioning are placed in “Skinner boxes” where they have electrodes installed in their heads that stimulate either the pleasure or pain centers of the brain. Those who do not respond to reconditioning are “shocked into bliss, soon learning to press the button themselves, off and dreaming so blissful that they pass up meals.” This is ultimately a passive form of euthanasia, but a more active form is being debated: does a person “not also have the right to throw a switch that stays on, inducing a permanent joy—no meals, no sleep, and a happy death in a week or so? The button vs. the switch.” The Qualitarians favor the switch, with or without the consent of the patient.
With but a little imagination, we can see the logic of scientific humanism behind the sociocultural dysfunction the Benedict Option is supposed to remedy or resist. Everywhere we see physical and emotional comfort treated as paramount and morality and meaning as relative, everywhere we see the overreach of a managerial class of technicians and social engineers: here are the marks of scientific humanism. But Dreher errs if he conceives of scientific humanism as a secular aggression against Christianity. The target of scientific humanism is not Christianity, but the malaise; like a dangerous, delusive fever, it is an immune response to the modern condition.
Though the malaise demands a response, the attempt to adapt humanity to its bifurcated condition is ultimately futile and destructive. While Percy hardly has a straightforward plan of salvation to offer, he shows us that scientific humanism is, if anything, a cure worse than the disease. We are not meant to be happy either as supine consumers within an artificial environment or as transcending conditioners of our fellow men. But however dangerous, scientific humanism is not the true enemy. Rather than merely fighting symptoms, our objective must be to treat the modern disorder at its roots.
Read the whole thing. Now I remember why I didn’t write about this earlier. It’s a good piece, with lots to chew on, but I was irritated that the author created a straw man version of The Benedict Option with which to contrast the Percy Option. I didn’t want to spend an entire post pointing this out. So I won’t.
But I will say — and I hope you find this encouraging — that the next book I’m working on is taking more of a Percyan (Percian?) approach. I don’t want to say too much now, but this bit from Clark’s essay is on point:
Tom More retires to a similarly quiet life after the events of Love in the Ruins. Five years later finds him in Paradise, Louisiana, hoeing collards in his garden while his wife Ellen stirs the grits for breakfast: “Poor as I am, I feel like God’s spoiled child. I am Robinson Crusoe set down on the best possible island with a library, a laboratory, a lusty Presbyterian wife, a cozy tree house, an idea, and all the time in the world.” A lapsed Catholic during the events of the novel, by its end he has returned to the Church: going to confession, even wearing sackcloth and ashes, and receiving communion.
Percy is especially interested in three practices Lost Cove and Paradise share, which we might loosely call Sabbath, Marriage, and Eucharist. The significance of these practices is that they are sacramental in character. Percy is only occasionally concerned with “the Sacraments” proper, but he is highly invested in a life characterized by “sacramentality.” The good life that he envisions is shot through with sacramental patterns of participation in nature and in other selves, and even directly in the divine. As signs, the sacramentals point to realities beyond themselves, and as participations, they draw the human person up into this higher reality. The elements are not merely consumed, appropriated by the individual to fill what Percy calls “the nought of self.” Their sacramental quality is marked by their not being used up or exhausted by observance. These sacramentals bridge the divide between body and spirit, and by participating in them, even as “bad Catholics,” Percy’s characters are gradually reintegrated into full and healthy human life.
My thesis involves exploring, in part, why a profoundly sacramental vision accords with human nature. I’m finishing the final draft of the book proposal today, in fact, and expect to get it out to publishers very soon.
Anyway, why don’t you come to St. Francisville in June and let’s talk about all of it? You too, Charlie Clark — lets you and me get a table at the Magnolia Cafe on Friday afternoon, and invite folks to come buy a cold beer and hear us talk about the Percy and Benedict Options.
If you haven’t seen this yet, readers, maybe this will convince you to come:
UPDATE: Here’s great news: Charlie Clark is coming to Walker Percy Weekend! I’ll set up an informal meet-up at the Magnolia Cafe on Friday afternoon. Anybody who wants to come buy a cold beer and listen to us talk about the Walker Percy Option and the Benedict Option, please do. You don’t have to have a ticket to the festival to do this … but Charlie’s going to be around all weekend, so why wouldn’t you want to hang out with him?