Come into my cell.
So begins Lancelot, the fourth of six novels by the Birmingham-born author and essayist Walker Percy. The book was published in 1977, meaning it was conceived and written in the culmination and aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, a time of political polarization and economic uncertainty (if the reader can imagine such).
While no less immediately affected than the rest of the nation by the tenor of the times, the American South was already well into its ascendancy as the Sun Belt. Increasingly, business and industrial corporations were fleeing the cold temperatures and unionized workshops of the Northeast and Midwest — and, as the decade wore on and into the 1980s, the spiraling expense of living and doing business in California — for the temperate climes, ample suburban and exurban land, and cheap labor available throughout the Old Confederacy.
This influx of capital and people from outside the region gave rise to and perpetuated a phenomenon that Percy referred to more than once as the “Losangelization” of Southern culture. By this, he meant the compulsory — and, in most if not all senses, willful — sacrifice of the better angels of the transracial Southern nature at the altar of a homogenized, corporatized, commoditized version of progress that did little to address the region’s historic inequities of wealth and power (It is worth noting that in few, if any, places had those inequities been on such raw and constant display as in Percy’s home city and state).
“For the first time in a hundred and fifty years, the South and Southerners, and I mean both black and white Southerners, no longer suffer the unique onus, the peculiar burden of race which came to be a part of the very connotation of the word ‘South,’” Percy remarked in a lecture he gave at the University of Georgia in 1985, five years before his death of prostate cancer at the age of 73.
“I am not going to argue about what was good and what was bad about the South’s racial experience,” Percy continued. “We’re only interested here in what was uniquely oppressive for both black and white and which has now vanished. And to say that it has vanished is not to suggest that there do not remain serious, even critical, areas of race relations in all of American society, the South included.”
Given all of the societal elements in play, it seems reasonable to think that the environment in which Percy lived and worked contributed significantly to the fact that Lancelot is the darkest and most pessimistic of his novels by a considerable degree. In an almost shocking departure by a novelist whose devout, if critical, Catholicism was a distinct influence on his work, the book is shot through with sexual frustration and betrayal and contemplations of violence that finally explode into murderous deeds.
The book’s protagonist and narrator is the murderer himself, a disillusioned liberal lawyer named Lancelot Lamar. Scion of a prominent Louisiana family, a one-time college football star and Rhodes scholar, Lamar has by the time we meet him been remanded to a Center for Aberrant Behavior — or, as he calls it, “the nuthouse.” In what amounts to a book-length confessional to an old friend and classmate — now a priest and psychiatrist — he reveals a distinctly Southern disenchantment with the modern world that is older than the War Between the States, and finds echoes in such current political phenomena as the progressive degeneration of the Republican Party toward the exclusive province of aging white males whose bewilderment at the changing world around them is exceeded only by their howling intolerance for it.
There I sat, Lamar describes his life before two life-altering discoveries propel him toward madness, happy as could be, master of Belle Isle, the loveliest house on River Road, gentleman and even a bit of a scholar (Civil War, of course), married to a beautiful rich loving (I thought) wife, and father (I thought) to a lovely little girl; a moderate reader, moderate liberal, moderate drinker (I thought), moderate music lover, moderate hunter and fisherman, and past president of the United Way. I moderately opposed segregation. I was moderately happy.
In this, and despite the extremity of its manifestation in his character, Lancelot Lamar is the quintessential Percy protagonist — alienated from the world and himself, “in a state of confusion [and] spiritual disorientation,” as the author put it, “drawn in a sense to Christendom, but also repelled by the cultural nature of Christendom” in the post-modern age of the late 20th century. In his constant depiction of the inclination to sin and the yearning for redemption as two sides of the same existential coin, Percy’s work, in the words of one reviewer, “hypnotically draws the reader toward pangs of self-recognition.”
Percy’s status as a diagnostician extraordinaire of the human condition was fitting, given his training as a medical doctor. It was while recuperating from tuberculosis contracted while serving an internship at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital that he read the works — most notably Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Sartre — that shaped his personal philosophy and pushed him toward the decision to take up writing as a career. That was in the mid-to-late 1940s, and he would not produce his first novel — the National Book Award-winning The Moviegoer — until 1961.
In between, Percy wrote essays on philosophical, psychological and religious topics, many of which were published in various journals and periodicals. He developed a special interest in semiotics — the study of signs and symbols — and their relation to the development of language. He was fascinated by the famous story of Helen Keller and how this blind, deaf, mute young girl broke through the wall of her disabilities with her connection of water, the substance, to water, the idea, to “water,” the word being repeatedly spelled into her hand by her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Percy saw this as a metaphor for humankind’s “jumping of the gap” to linguistic communication, and was bewildered that we as a species failed to do more to apprehend the miraculous importance of this leap.
Here is an astounding fact, when you come to think of it, Percy wrote in a brilliantly self-deprecating “self-interview” in 1977. The use of symbols between creatures, the use of language in particular, appears to be the one unique phenomenon in the universe, is certainly the single behavior that most clearly sets man apart from the beasts, is also the one activity in which humans engage most of the time, even asleep and dreaming. Yet it is the least understood of all phenomena. We know less about it than about the back side of the moon or the most distant supernova — and are less interested.
That this lack of understanding and interest in the means of communication is a prime cause of both human conflict and individual alienation is an implicit message in all of Percy’s fiction and much of his non-fictional work. Like his creation Lancelot Lamar, Percy was a moderately liberal white Southerner of the moneyed class who became increasingly disenchanted with his fellow liberals; but he also was devout Christian who despaired of the failure of his Church to assert its doctrinal principles in the modern world — perhaps most particularly the South of the Civil Rights Era. Among other instances, he expressed this frustration in a 1965 essay titled “The Failure and the Hope.”
The default of the white Southern Christian was revealed in its proper ironic perspective by the civil-rights movement itself, Percy wrote. When the good people of the South did not come forward when they were needed, their burden was shouldered by, of all people, the liberal humanist, who, like the man St. Paul speaks of in his Epistle to the Ephesians, is stranger to every covenant, with no promise to hope for, the world about him and no God — but who nevertheless was his brother’s keeper. In the deep South of the 1960s, the men who nursed the sick, bound his wounds, taught the ignorant, fed the hungry, went to jail with the imprisoned, were not the Christians of Birmingham and Bogalusa, but…the young CORE professionals or COFO volunteers, Sarah Lawrence sociology majors, agnostic Jewish social workers like Mickey Schwerner, Camus existentialists, and the like.
In Lancelot’s invitation to his interlocutor — and the reader — to “come into my cell,” then, is not just the metaphor of alienation and isolation, but also a summons to join the author in examining the “cells,” the biological pathology, of human weakness and inadequacy. As in all of his work, Percy holds up a mirror to which all but the most self-critical among us might be sorely tempted to turn away, lest we become despondent. As for the author himself, he held to a cautious optimism that said yes, we may be rushing headlong down the path of irreversible decline, but the hope of salvation remains ever present, if we will but claim it.
Walker Percy’s writings have inspired the one-man, one-act play, Love in the Ruins: The Mind of Walker Percy. The play will be performed by the author, Lee Eric Shackleford, at Vulcan Park & Museum, March 15, at 6 p.m. Cash bar at 5:30 p.m. Advance tickets $10; at the door, $15. www.visitvulcan.com.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.