- Walker Percy’s Search for Community
At a time when prominent critics have called for a renewal in approaches to literature that are attuned to religion, the fiction of Walker Percy seems particularly ripe for reexamination. Walker Percy’s Search for Community, however, is not shaped by the most recent trends in literary fashion. Nor does it repeat the claims of earlier studies highlighting Percy’s explicit concerns as a Catholic novelist. Rather, John Desmond has taken up the crucial task of analyzing the novelist’s lifelong engagement with the thought of philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, an engagement that shaped Percy’s own philosophical essays as well as his fiction. In doing so, Desmond has written a study that speaks directly to critics with an interest in semiotics as well as religion. He has also written the most comprehensive study of Percy’s oeuvre yet, one that via its emphasis on Peirce helps to place Percy in specifically American intellectual contexts as well as broader philosophical and theological ones. It also yields persuasive and insightful readings of Percy’s six novels which do justice to Percy’s own desire to reconcile art, religion, and science–particularly the science of humanity. Percy believed that this last was in essence the science of language, itself inadequately explained via the reductive understandings of the human person so prominent in modern Western culture.
“Community” is no vague buzzword in Desmond’s study. He emphasizes the profound doubt Percy and Peirce alike felt regarding the possibility for true community in the United States. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Percy recognized a radical American individualism as intrinsically linked to the Cartesian underpinnings of US culture; Peirce, too, regarded the “rampant individualism of nineteenth-century America as antithetical to the goal of genuine community” and saw such individualism “as metaphysically rooted in nominalism, at odds with the fundamental truth of relation” (14). That fundamental truth became the basis of Peirce’s semiotic theory, which in its insistence on the reality of human community as revealed by language’s “triadicity”–ultimately explained by Peirce in relation to the Christian Trinity–became in effect a “theosemiotic” theory (22), as Michael Raposa has demonstrated. Percy was drawn to Peirce’s semiotics less by its occasionally overt forays into the theological, [End Page 374] however, than by its grounding in a realist (vice nominalist) philosophical tradition, one consistent with Percy’s own Roman Catholic commitments. Hence also Percy’s differences with Peirce, perhaps most crucial of which was his rejection on “both scientific and theological grounds” of those idealistic elements in Peirce’s thought suggesting that matter is merely “effete mind” and that individuals exist only as “bundles of semioses” (25).
Desmond begins by concisely but carefully elucidating such correspondences and divergences in the thought of Percy and Peirce–and places both in dialogue with George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989) and Grammars of Creation (2002), a dialogue developed further in Desmond’s reading of The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) in particular. Rejecting Kieran Quinlan’s portrayal of Percy as a “reactionary religious conservative,” Desmond sets out to examine the “evolutionary” character of Percy’s notion of community, his essentially “progressive” search–with the help of Peirce–to “find a way out of an epistemological predicament that would ultimately lead to solipsism” (4–6). Accordingly, he demonstrates how Percy’s concern with community and language alike, and his engagement with Peirce, became more pronounced over the course of his career.
Hence The Moviegoer (1961) ends with the establishment of only a solitude à deux, and The Last Gentleman (1966) is in many respects even less optimistic about the possibilities of real human community in the late twentieth-century USA. Yet Percy’s second novel also introduces his interest in the possibility of a saving “remnant” community, and it ends with a striking adult baptism scene that embodies, through the befuddled protagonist’s vicarious participation, a “quintessentially Peircean triadic relation” (114). In Love in the Ruins (1971), a Peircean semiotician–and potential euthanasia candidate–figures directly in the narrative, marking Percy...