- Walker Percy’s Search for Community
Readers of Walker Percy's texts who are interested in the important philosophical, semiotic, and theological ideas underpinning his work will no doubt benefit greatly from the wealth of learned analysis that informs Walker Percy's Search for Community by John F. Desmond. Desmond's stated purpose in writing this book was "to elucidate Percy's search for community as it unfolds in his novels" (4). That search, so ably chronicled by Desmond, was, for Percy, necessitated by the nature of modern life, a life characterized by a "solitariness" originating from the heightened sense of self-awareness of the post-Enlightenment era (3). As Desmond notes, "Both sides of the issue—alienation and separateness, hope and the possibility for communion—reflect the spirit of Percy's obsession . . . with community [End Page 599] throughout his career as a writer" (3). The search led Percy early on to the work of Charles Saunders Peirce and his views on philosophical realism and semiotics. From Peirce, Percy selected ideas that he reworked for his own literary purposes; he was, in his own words, a "thief of Peirce. I take from him what I want and let the rest go" (16). Regarding language, Percy appropriated from Peirce's semiotics the concept of "thirdness"—a mode of being that brings two other discrete modes of being in relation to each other. From this mode, Percy developed his view of human language as a "relation of meaning," dependent on a third factor to act as a coupler of sign and signified. Percy invested his "Triadic of Meaning" with belief in the "Jewish-Christian event," particularly its sacramental manifestation, the Eucharist. Peirce's other contribution to Percy's aesthetic—philosophical realism—was important to Percy because believing in something that existed as being real makes the Eucharist "not a symbol but a reality," so that God was "genuinely present as a person in the consecrated bread and wine" (5). For Percy, the "Eucharist is the essential sign of mystical community made real in human history." This idea, for Desmond (concurring with Patrick Samway), was the "central intellectual intuition" of Percy's life.
Percy's indebtedness to and appropriation of Peirce's philosophical and semiotic perspectives, and Percy's imbuing those perspectives with his theological views, are the central concerns of Desmond's introductory first chapter. Each of these has been considered discretely in other studies of the writer. The singular contribution of Walker Percy's Search for Community, however, is that it is, to the best of my knowledge, the fullest treatment to date of the significant contribution that Peirce made to Percy's thinking in combination with the religious dimension of Percy's work. In particular, Desmond's nuanced discussion of areas where Percy both assented and dissented from Peirce is noteworthy. For example, regarding Percy's departure from Peirce regarding ontology, Desmond points out that:
Percy disagreed with Peirce on a central point. Percy's disagreement was rooted in his understanding of a key Catholic doctrine, one that deeply affected his understanding of and search for community. This disagreement concerned Peirce's emphasis on mind as, ultimately, the basic reality, and the notion that "individuals" are relative. Peirce's philosophy contained a strong idealist element that inclined him to affirm that "mind is all" and that matter is, as he called, "effete mind." Percy felt that such an emphasis on mind disabled Peirce from truly resolving the Cartesian mind-body split.(24) [End Page 600]
Additionally, Desmond's analysis sheds light on the relationship between Peirce and Percy concerning language and personal belief:
Percy studied and absorbed Peirce's writings throughout his adult life, eventually making Peirce's realism the centerpiece of most of his own thinking on language. Nevertheless, there were crucial differences between Peirce's and Percy's thought, differences shaped by Percy's religious beliefs. . . . Percy's serious and continuous attraction to Peirce obviously stemmed from his own scientific interests particularly his desire to find a coherent philosophical view. In addition, as Raposa has shown, Peirce...