“There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s
life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish
daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled
adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to
make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about
orcs.” – “The Value of Nothing” by Raj Pate
Today is the twentieth anniversary of Walker Percy’s death. He
died at home in Covington, Louisiana on May 10, 1990 following a
two-year bout with prostate cancer. He left us six novels and two works
of nonfiction, as well as numerous essays, some of which were later
collected in the posthumous Signposts in a Strange Land.
Along with Flannery
O’Connor, he is often considered one of the leading Catholic writers of
the South in the twentieth century. His work—from the National Book
Award winning The Moviegoer to the fast-paced The Thanatos
Syndrome—captures the malaise and potential absurdity and horror of
a post-Christian America with compassionate aplomb. Yet, while interest
in O’Connor continues to grow, interest in Percy has plateaued
somewhat. There is, of course, the new Walker Percy Center at Loyola
University in New Orleans, and, hopefully, the soon to be completed film by
Win Riley, but according to these and other measures—works of
criticism, biographies, and collected works—the day clearly belongs to
Percy brooded over the labels
“Catholic” and “Southern,” aware of the fact that both, particularly the
former, could be used to dismiss his work as another manifestation of
what he pejoratively called the “triumphant Christendom of the Sunbelt.”
Terrence Rafferty did write a somewhat overheated, though not entirely
wrong-headed, review of The Thanatos Syndrome, which he tagged
“[e]schatology made simple,” but this rarely happened. While his Roman
Catholicism is perhaps more essential to his work than it is to
O’Connor’s, it seems unlikely that interest in Percy is less than
interest in O’Connor because of this.
Southernness was also an advantage to him—as he himself recognized. The
northern writer, Percy once observed, no longer has anything to write
about. Having dismissed Christianity and sharing no common culture with
his readership, he finds himself writing “dirty,” “not by design, but by
default.” The Southern writer, by contrast, still has the remnant of a
tradition (or, at least, he did during Percy’s time). He details “the
crumbling porticos, the gentry gone to seed, like Faulkner’s Compsons”
or is nourished by “the extravagant backwoods Protestant fundamentalism
No, it seems to me—and it pains me to say this
because I am an ardent Percy fan—that interest in O’Connor outstrips
interest in Percy because she is simply the better fiction writer. She
is a purist and he is a hodgepodge of novelist, essayist, philosopher,
and man of science. Or, to put it another way, he is the Samuel Taylor
Coleridge to her William Wordsworth. The fact is, when it comes to plot
and character—the touchstones of fiction writing—O’Connor excels where
Percy sometimes struggles.
While it is easier to structure a
short story than a novel, O’Connor’s stories are nevertheless carefully
wound for effect and efficiency of movement, even if they are somewhat
limited as far as subject matter is concerned. Percy’s plots, however,
can sometimes stall and are occasionally tarnished by errors of
chronology and coherence, particularly in Thanatos, which is far from
his strongest work.
But the biggest difference between the two
authors is their characterization. O’Connor’s range and nuance surpasses
even that of Faulkner. From the childlike and, at the same time,
grotesque brutality of Hulga’s secular atheism in “Good Country People”
to the tragic innocence of Bevel in “The River” and the simplistic
morality of the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor’s
characters shimmer with vitality and complexity.
In his novels,
Percy focuses primarily on the protagonist, who often tends to be a
version of Percy at the time of the novel’s composition. In The
Moviegoer it is the adrift thirty-something, Binx Billing, and in Love
in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome< it is the
middle-aged, then older, Tom More. Minor characters are rarely
developed, some dropped unexpectedly.
Yet, O’Connor cannot match
Percy’s philosophical engagement and his scathing critique of a
reductive scientism. It is significant in this respect that one of
Percy’s best works after The Moviegoer, at least in my opinion,
is Lost in the Cosmos—a hybrid of fictional and nonfictional
satire that cuts to the core of American, if not Western,
dissatisfaction. Indeed, Percy is at his best when he speaks directly to
the reader. In Lost in the Cosmos, for example, Percy proposes
to explain: “Why it is that of all the billions and billions of strange
objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are
beyond doubt the strangest.” Or:
How it is possible for the man who designed Voyager 19,
which arrived at Titania, a satellite of Uranus, three seconds off
schedule and a hundred yards off course after a flight of six years, to
be one of the most screwed-up creatures in California—or the Cosmos.
His response, of course, is that we do not know who we are because we
have rejected our sole point of reference: God.
It is clear
from Percy’s gently prodding wit and humor that he had fun writing this
book and that the genre suits him. It highlights his great strengths as a
writer—his humor, philosophical insights, and prophetic voice. If
O'Connor has excelled in the stuff of fiction writing, Percy has done so
in the stuff of nonfiction, even if the material is sometimes presented
through the medium of fiction.
We will read Percy for many years
to come, and rightly so. I, for one, recommend him to anyone I can.
Unlike the intellectual impotence found in so many contemporary
novelists, Percy takes risks in his work. He asks and answers
important questions, which, despite its other flaws, gives his work a
sharpness and vigor.
However, like Coleridge with respect to
poetry, I think Percy will ultimately be remembered for his ideas rather
than for the execution of those ideas in his novels. He will not be
remembered for the plots or the characters he gave us, but for his
diagnosis of “the modern malaise,” presented in those plots and those
characters, and expounded in his works of nonfiction. If O’Connor is the
better fiction writer, he is the great thinker, satirist, and
apologist, and it is for his unflinching assessment of the essential
emptiness of modern secular life that he deserves to be read.
Mattix is an assistant professor of English at Louisiana College and
author of the forthcoming book, Frank O'Hara and the Poetics of
Saying 'I' (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press).
I enjoy the consistently beautiful pictures posted on the Athos Agion Oros blog. ESPECIALLY ones focused around the books/libraries found on Mt. Athos!
"To end day one I will show the pictures of the library of Mylopotamos.
First of all I have to thank father Ioachim for taking the time to show
us this special place and secondly our thanks go to Giannis, who used
his influence to make this possible.
The library of Mylopotamos, Father Ioachim and pilgrim Bas
For me this visit to the library brought back memories to that
special day in 1986, when my friend Pieter and I visited the library of
Docheiariou, accompanied by a Greek professor from Thessaloniki, who
explained us everything about the very old books we were allowed to hold
in our hands and look though it. Most of the parchment books were eaten
by bookworms and had holes in it........ The professor put the books on
book: Akolouthia 1901
(notice the dolphin and anchor- this is the symbol of the Aldine Press, a famous Renaissance printer. Erasmus, yes the Erasmus, even lived with them for a time)
The work of the 20th century Russian iconographer
and monk, Fr. Gregory Krug (1908-1969), is rather interesting,
particularly as it is an example that is clearly rooted within the
Byzantine iconographic tradition, and yet there is also something of a
contemporary sort of quality to it as well.
Fr. Krug, born
Georgii Ivanovich Krug in St. Petersburg, the son of a Swedish Lutheran
Father and Russian Orthodox mother, as a young man emigrated from his
native Russia to Paris, where he attended the Academy of Arts which was
opened in Paris, and there met and established a friendship with
another man who would also become a well known 20th century
iconographer, Leonid Ouspensky. His time as an iconographer began when
he studied the iconographic tradition under Federov, Stelletsky and
Sister Jean Reitlinger.
In the latter part of the 1930’s, Krug
(along with Ouspensky) joined an association of Eastern Orthodox
theologians, intellectuals and artists which established itself in
Paris known as the “Stavropegial Brotherhood of Saint Photios” of whom
another member was the respected Byzantine theologian, Vladimir Lossky
(author of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church).
Krug would eventually move to the Skit du Saint-Esprit
near Mesnil-Saint-Denis, France, to function as a reader and eventually
become a monk. This skete is particularly associated with Krug's work,
since the icons within were substantially painted by him. (Sadly, a
photograph of the full interior has not been forthcoming.
Returning to the particular stylistic qualities of Krug's iconography, the well respected contemporary iconographer, Aidan Hart (whose work has a similar quality in its own right), has this to say of Krug's iconographic work:
Gregory’s icons are stylistically unique. While remaining true to the
principles of the icon tradition, he has his own unique way of
expressing these principles. One such feature is his use of darts of
pure white highlights, which float over a sea of uneven colour. Also,
the over-sized irises and pupils of his eyes give an impression of
tenderness, sadness devoid of sentimentality, and of a deep interior
Fr. Gregory’s icons stand above all for a marriage of
freedom within and a deep respect for the Church’s iconographic
tradition. His work is devoid of that unhealthy type of fear which so
easily leads to lifeless copying, but nor is it disdainful of the
Church’s wise traditions.
You must excuse this moment of slightly sappy indulgence, but in finding this image it was all too clear that this may be a perfect opportunity to share this sweet little anecdote that may provide some insight into our daily life as the Greesons, since that is what is stated as the subcategory of this blog, as well as being very fitting for the approaching holiday. O SO many books, but O so much love!! :)