In the Center for Ethics and Culture’s ninth annual Catholic Culture Literature Series, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” Notre Dame professor of philosophy John O’Callaghan delivered the second lecture on the “philosophical novelist,” Walker Percy. On the evening of September 14, O’Callaghan explored the central themes that are found in the novels of Walker Percy, a convert to Catholicism.
O’Callaghan took the audience through a number of Percy’s greatest works to help shed light on his views, faith, and life. According to O’Callaghan, the key to understanding Walker Percy is to focus on the problem that Percy was constantly addressing: How could one be in the world, and not of it?
O’Callaghan explained that two extreme forms exist, both of which Percy rejected completely: the angel and the beast. The beast signifies a person who continuously tries to get back into the world, while the angel signifies one who is always trying to flee. Prof. O’Callaghan pointed out that what Percy was actually looking for was an authentic Christian humanism, and, in doing so, “Percy takes on a universal appeal rather than just [being] another southern writer.”
O’Callaghan also highlighted the way in which Percy was extremely critical of the stoicism that was common in the South and that he experienced in his own family. The southern stoic is “in the world” unsuccessfully, because he holds no compassion for the everyday human suffering around them. Percy thought Christians have the means to avoid this stoicism.
For Percy, two tragic examples of this stoicism were the suicides of his own father and grandfather. Once this pair of men lost control over their lives, they chose death as “an acceptable exit,” said O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan explained that Percy mocked this modern love of death and “the use of science to engineer our destiny.” Instead, Percy believed we can prepare for death, but ultimately as Christians, we should not turn our back on the world.
According to O’Callaghan, “Percy placed his literature in the great tradition of faith seeking understanding.” The man who strives to “be in the world but not of it” must do so by understanding the many signs through faith, and by suffering with the world.
In Percy’s view, O’Callaghan pointed out, man ought to love science as one of those signs, through which God speaks to humankind through nature. At the same time, one must also recognize the limitations of science.
As a Socratic philosopher, Percy lived his life as a preparation for death. He engaged in literature as a part of his quest to be in the world but not of it.
Vanessa Samaniego, a sophomore PLS/theology major, really likes to cook, but absolutely hates to clean up afterwards. Any volunteers? She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.