"I would meet you upon this honestly.""Gerontion," T. S. Eliot
"I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what's more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves."Narrator, Notes from Underground
Both in his personal life and in his writings, Walker Percy was deeply attracted to the idea and practice of confession. When he and his wife, Mary Bernice, converted to Catholicism in 1947, Percy told his friends and fellow converts Jidge Minyard and Sal Milazzo, "This is one of the main reasons I've become a Catholic."1 At the time, private sacramental confession was widely practiced in the Catholic Church the Percys were joining. The ritual of confessing one's sins to a priest, expressing repentance, and receiving penance and absolution would have been profoundly important to someone with Percy's tragic family past—his father's suicide, his mother's untimely death (and suspected suicide), his struggle with tuberculosis, and [End Page 126] his troubled search for his vocation and a meaningful life. Sacramental confession could be a help in his struggle to come to terms with the burden of that past. After his conversion and throughout his life as a Catholic, Percy made more than twenty retreats at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Manresa, Louisiana, during which all retreatants could avail themselves of sacramental confession.2
Percy's faith and his writings were strongly influenced by two prominent confessional works in the Catholic tradition: Pascal's Pensées and St. Augustine's Confessions. His first published novel, The Moviegoer, was based partly on the initial draft of Diary of the Last Romantic, the first chapter of which was titled "Confessions of a Moviegoer." That chapter eventually evolved into the novel, which is the "confession" of moviegoer Binx Bolling, a religious skeptic. In the novel, a crucial scene between Binx and his half-brother Lonnie Smith, a devout Catholic, centers on a discussion of Lonnie's recent confession, on his concern with the sin of envy, on overscrupulosity, and on absolution. In Percy's third novel, Love in the Ruins, a first-person novel like The Moviegoer, Dr. Tom More confesses his wayward life during a time "near the end of the world" when America is falling apart. At the end of the novel, with his career and dreams of medical fame in tatters, Dr. More goes to confession to Father Rinaldo Smith, receives absolution and penance, and celebrates his return to grace by attending Christmas Mass, receiving the Holy Eucharist, and enjoying a holiday barbecue.
Percy's fourth novel, Lancelot, is a somber, chilling first-person confession spoken by murderer Lance Lamar to his friend Father John, a priest struggling with his vocation. In his monologue Lance undertakes a "search for sin" as an ironic way, he argues, to prove God's existence. Percy saw Lance's search as analogous to Augustine's search for God in his Confessions by understanding his own sin.3 As we shall see, Lance's complex search challenges the meaning of confession in modern culture and of the confessional mode in writing. Finally, in Percy's last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, the disturbed priest Father Rinaldo Smith made a painful confession to [End Page 127] Dr. Tom More (set off in the text as "Father Smith's Confession") of his misanthropic view of humanity except for "children and the dying, who do not lie," and of his youthful infatuation with the Nazi Schutzstaffel and their romantic cult of war and death.4
It is useful to view Percy's concern with confession, both sacramental and secular, and with the confessional mode in writing in the light of his concern with the predicament of the modern self, that is, ordinary citizens living in a technological society. Two inter-related issues are especially relevant here. The first is Percy's belief that modern man has suffered a "loss of self," due to the dominance of scientism—the scientific perspective elevated into an all-consuming ideology—in the culture. Scientism has largely alienated...