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Percyscapes: The Fugue State in Twentieth-Century Southern Fiction
Robert W. Rudnicki. Percyscapes: The Fugue State in Twentieth-Century Southern Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999. xx + 167 pp.
Punning on the Cartesian cogito, Robert W. Rudnicki centers his account of Walker Percy's place in southern literary history on a character type Rudnicki calls the fugito, whose defining mode of existence comes in "fugue states" of migration, exile, forgetting, and restless flight. For Percy protagonists such as Will Barrett (The Last Gentleman, The Second Coming) or Tom More (Love in the Ruins, The Thanatos Syndrome), the fugue state may amount to a full-blown clinical pathology consisting of "vacillating states of amnesia and total recall," "a form of hysterical dissociation [. . .] characterized by a flight from usual surroundings, the mind becoming a virtual tabula rasa except for basic functions and general knowledge" until the subject once again "comes to" and the fugue period itself recedes into amnesia. But Rudnicki is ultimately less interested in the psychopathology of fugue than in teasing out its philosophical, semiotic, and spiritual implications in order to develop a southern literary genealogy for the fugito that reaches outward from Percy's own fiction to the work of Percy "ancestors" like William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Robert Penn Warren, and Ralph Ellison and to Percy "descendants" like Richard Ford and Cormac McCarthy.
According to Rudnicki, fugue emerges as a provisional response to the fundamental tension between immanence and transcendence in human existence: "the immanent self is caught in a loop of remembrance, mired in time and place; the transcendent self is amnesiac, unmotivated by history." Rather than acknowledging that this philosophical tension is "what give[s] life its meaning--and its dread," the fugito seeks to escape it in physical movement and/or psychic dissociation. Rudnicki finds a more adequate response in the "semiotic completeness" of language use and other intersubjective activities, a completeness sometimes glimpsed but rarely achieved by Percy's characters: whereas "fugue exiles, runs away, leads astray," "semiosis bonds, couples, leads together." Readers conversant with contemporary theory will find this last distinction overdrawn, even a little sentimental; surely poststructuralism has taught us that signs also uncouple, force apart, wound, sever their users from each other and their world. (A "banishing summons," Jacques Lacan called the [End Page 524] sign.) I should point out, however, that Percy himself saw the relationship between fugue and sign largely as Rudnicki presents it here.
Transcendence and immanence, so central to this study, are terms with a long history in Percy scholarship. So are related conceptual pairs like angelism/bestialism, rotation/repetition, triadic/dyadic, amnesia/memory, homelessness/everydayness, and so on. The harder Rudnicki leans on these terms in developing his model of the fugue state, the more he risks simply offering some very old Percy wine in a new critical bottle. No coincidence, then, that the most valuable section of Percyscapes, Rudnicki's powerful discussion of Allie Huger, co-protagonist of Percy's Second Coming, takes the fugue model toward a very different conceptual vocabulary, derived from contemporary research on discourse pragmatics. Drawing on the work of Deborah Tannen, Muriel Saville-Troike, and others, Rudnicki shows how Allie's difficulties with the social scripts governing sign use lend an appealing immediacy and strangeness to her discourse; she is the most consistently authentic, spontaneous, poetic user of language in the Percy oeuvre. Rudnicki goes on to argue convincingly that Allie's linguistic incompetence doubles as a cultural and moral critique of our contemporary linguistic competence; in our own "inability to use language authentically" he finds the symptoms of "a larger psychological ailment" that "not only depletes discourse of its vitality but robs humanity of an essential part of its being: its role as creative sign users." This is one of the best discussions of Allie anywhere in Percy criticism, so good that I found myself wondering what Rudnicki might have said about another beleaguered Percy sign-user and female co-protagonist, Kate Cutrer of The Moviegoer...