Walker Percy At The Present Moment
A couple of you have sent to me this lovely essay about how Walker Percy can help us understand the present political moment. Excerpts:
Consider one such sign: Americans are a sad people, and we commonly approach our sadness with the goal of eradicating it, rather than understanding it as a clue to what we’re doing wrong in our lives. Instead, what we do is seek wisdom from experts, whose theories of life and self-help we place our hope, and we try to escape through our wealth.
Because of these attitudes, Percy went so far as to label the end of the twentieth century the age of theory and consumption. He thought the experts we take refuge in were flawed because they tend to hold up partial pictures of human life and use them as a comprehensive way of ordering existence. The self-help aisle in bookstores always seems to grow, populated by “thought leaders” selling stories about human life that flatter the American sense of individual self-creation.
At the same time, we relentlessly pursue comfort and pleasure in the way we consume an ever-increasing variety of goods and services. But it isn’t just our “stuff” we accumulate or experiences that we purchase that count here. Percy thought we consume people and places, too. We go on vacation and do “vacation things,” that help us to escape our troubled selves, filling them with hours and hours of activities. Rather than engaging in rest, it seems like our days on vacation need to be occupied by doing something. What are we trying to avoid? Ourselves.
Percy remains a guide to our times he offers us help in how to muddle through our ideologically divided times. He reminds us that we can never secure lasting victories in politics, indeed that the entire language of “problems and solutions” that we indulge in is a category error. Politics is the world of tensions and dilemmas that never fully resolve themselves. Indeed, Percy predicted that the great dangers of our world might come from the effort to eliminate politics entirely, which we see played out every time crowds left and right stifle free speech, every time politicians speak of debates being entirely settled, and whenever experts seek to evade the messiness of political compromise in favor of administrative power. Without this sort of awareness, these deranged times can’t be seen for how they really are.
Reading Percy’s work can help remind us that no matter how we work to transform our world into one of comfort, safety, and prosperity, it will never truly feel like home, and this is a reminder we need more than ever.
I was e-mailing the other day with a young Millennial reader, three years out of college, who doesn’t know what to do with her life. She said that most of her friends are like her in that they have no real direction. One of her friends has a job in Manhattan, but she isn’t happy. The reader said that to be honest, I don’t seem happy either.
I could tell after a few exchanges that the reader seems to believe that life should be experimental, and that “happiness” is a state of being in which all anxieties and uncertainties cease to exist. I told her that I actually am pretty happy, despite how things come across on this blog.
(A side note: Nobody wants to read frequent posts about contentedness, and besides, this is a blog whose purpose is to comment on the intersection among culture, politics, and religion. As I’ve said here many times, the “Rod Dreher” who writes this blog is not the same guy you meet in real life. I’m not playing a character or putting up a façade, mind you, but you only get to see one side of me if the only me you see is through these posts. In real life, I’m pretty laid back. Little makes me happier than eating and drinking with funny, smart, talkative, humane people, whatever their views on politics, religion, or whatever. I would a thousand times rather have dinner with secular liberals of a certain temperament than with a group of religious conservatives who agreed with me about most things, but who have no sense of humor or irony.)
Anyway, it’s almost a banality to point out that the only way to find happiness is to quit looking for happiness. But it’s a truth that is especially hard to grasp in our therapeutic American culture. There is no way to escape tensions and dilemmas forever, but there are ways to live with them, and even to thrive within them. But yes, as Percy knew, this world will never feel completely like home. And you may find that the things around you that make you feel more at home in the world blind you to reality in destructive ways.
Here’s what I’m talking about. I’m immersed right now in The World Of Yesterday, the 1942 memoir by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who wrote it in exile from the Nazis. Zweig was born in 1881 in Vienna, and grew up in a prosperous Jewish family. His opening chapter makes fin-de-siècle Vienna seem like paradise on earth, at least for a wealthy, cultured kid. The title of that chapter is “The World of Security,” where everything had a precise place. You read that chapter, knowing what’s coming (the destruction of that world by the Great War, the economic turmoil afterward, and then the coming of Hitler), and you understand how illusory it all is.
Well, “illusory” not in the sense that it didn’t exist — it certainly did, and Zweig hymns the glories of that culture — but that its permanence was an illusion. In Chapter Two, Zweig talks about schooling, and about how deadening the rigor mortis-like educational system in Habsburg Austria was. He’s such a detail-oriented writer that he makes you feel the restlessness of his generation, chafing under the oppressiveness of the culture’s substantial weight. His third chapter is about erotic life in the Vienna of his youth. I’ll be writing about all this in a separate post, but I wanted to bring it up here because Zweig makes a profoundly affecting case about the personal and social cost of the intense social conservatism governing relations between men and women. I was especially struck by how that conservatism, in Zweig’s view, distorted art and literature of the era, in the sense that social and moral conventions demanded that reality must be concealed.
In other words, the illusion of a happy, well-ordered culture and empire depended to a large degree on repressing anything that contradicted the narrative. This might sound to you like a cliché, but Zweig makes you feel in your bones how frustrating this was to live with. He’s making me grasp why the Great War completely discredited that social order. But what followed it, as we know — and as Zweig would discover at enormous personal cost — was chaos that ended by summoning Hitler. Writing in his sixties at the beginning of the 1940s, Zweig praises the sexual and social liberties of his time as more natural. Had he lived to see what we have today, it’s hard to imagine that he would have thought it healthy.
Again, I’m going to write about that in more detail later, but why am I bringing it up with regard to Walker Percy, the essay I cite above, and my exchange with the reader?
Because it is a powerful reminder that there is no such thing as utopia on this earth, and that so very many of us believe that utopia is achievable, even if they say they don’t. People who think they understand The Benedict Option wrongly assume that I’m trying to restore some version of Zweig’s youthful Vienna — an idealized past. The best we can do is approximate. Zweig quotes a saying to the effect that in life, we can usually have either the wine or the cup, but rarely both at the same time. What a great image to describe the constant tension between freedom and restraint — a tension that is irresolvable in life.
I think that my young Millennial reader labors under the illusion that anxiety about one’s direction in life is a problem to be solved, not a condition to be lived with. When I was her age, almost all my anxiety was about finding my One True Love, because I was certain that if I did, all the meaningful problems in my life would be solved. It was only when I read a letter Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher, warning him against idealizing women, and how destructive that would be if he did, that I began to rethink things.
This is true about anything in life — religion, politics, all of it. Flannery O’Connor said: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” To expect that life will make you “happy” in the sense of being liberated from all anxiety is to set yourself up for a thousand misadventures that can only end in bitterness and brokenness. The Christian faith, properly understood, is a consolation not because it is an escape from life, but because it offers meaning amid inexplicable suffering. (I can imagine that other religions do this too, in their own ways.) Christianity, traditionally, construes our journey through life as a pilgrimage — a voyage of meaning, headed in a specific direction — not as a tourist itinerary subject to constant revision, as suits the whims of the traveler. The fact that so much contemporary Christianity has abandoned the pilgrimage for a tourist’s holiday makes it hollow, fraudulent, and, to be honest, escapist.
Percy’s insight that we can never be truly at home in this world is a way of ordering things. St. Benedict had it too, as do all Christians who understand what the faith teaches. We are all wayfarers; it’s in our the nature. The only way we can feel any sense of right order in this life is by setting our eyes on the Eternal, and understanding ourselves as living in a flawed world that is but a shadow of the world to come. I would say to the young reader that she is looking for something that doesn’t exist: the thing that will answer every question and resolve every tension. If she believes she can find it in this world, she will be on a grail quest that will inevitably end in bitterness.
The solution, however, is not to believe the other absolutist lie: that there are no answers, and that one way to live is as good as any other, because there is no such thing as objective meaning, or a real destination for the pilgrim.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” So said St. Paul. This is profound, profound advice for life. All solutions in this life are only partial, temporary solutions. All truths can only be partly known this side of eternity. All attempts to banish evil from this world once and for all will not only fail, but could bring even greater evils into being.
This is not relativism — the denial of truth — but a prompt to humility, cognitive and otherwise. And, as Percy said in his own work, in his own way, you will always be a mystery to yourself. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either lying to you, or lying to themselves.
Percy said, in his Laetare Medal acceptance speech at Notre Dame:
In my last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, I tried to show how, while truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another. If only one kind of truth prevails, the abstract and technical truth of science, then nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of and a destruction of human life for what would appear to be reasonable short-term goals.It’s no accident that I think that German science, as great as it was, ended in the destruction of the Holocaust.The novelist likes to irritate people by pointing this out. It’s his pleasure and vocation to reveal, with his own elusive and indirect way, man’s need of and openings to other than scientific propositions.The novelist, I think, has a special calling to truth these days. The world into which you are graduating is a deranged world. It is his task to show the derangement.
The search for truth may or may not make you happy, but it will make you more free than those who deny some truths so that the ones they prefer should dominate.