Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer
by Brian A. Smith.
Lexington Books, 2017.
Hardcover, 195 pages, $91.
Reviewed by Emina Melonic
By nature, we are restless and distracted beings. Feeling empty, isolated, disconnected, and unhappy is nothing new. Even early Christians, such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers have felt the deep pangs of interior meaninglessness, which they called acedia. We may not call it that today, but we have taken this state of being to a new level.
Despite all the connectedness we are experiencing through social media and other forms of global networks, the persistence of alienation looms over us like a cloud. Our instant reaction is to attempt escape, but is that really the answer? Is there a theory or practice that can answer all our existential questions, which will once and for all rid us of this unpleasant visitor? Is there an overarching, one-size-fits-all spirituality that can cure us of the unhappiness?
Walker Percy answers no to such questions. Instead, he tells us that being human is not an easy task, and that the most radical act a human being can do is to accept alienation as a normal part of life. What all of this entails and how it is connected to both public and private spheres of life, is explored in Brian A. Smith’s book, Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer.
Smith’s project, a true labor of love and mind, aims to illuminate Percy’s work in another light by focusing on Percy’s notion that any human being is a wayfarer—a traveler through regions of being who is often marked by restlessness and constant wandering. Lamenting that we are unhappy and rejecting or escaping this state of being is a foolish endeavor, according to Percy. As Smith writes in his introduction, “Alienation opens a door to understanding this state of affairs in some unlikely ways. The feeling of being anxious and misplaced that is so central to alienation actually fades away in what we normally consider the most unpleasant of situations.” But this is not just a philosophical or theological project. Rather, Smith shows how this definition of the human person connects to our concrete world of politics and society.
The chapters in the book follow the theme of what it means to be a wayfarer and explore how different facets of both an individual and a community relate to this concept and metaphor. As if following Percy’s previous profession of medicine, Smith first diagnoses the malaise, then explores patterns of how American society attempts to cure itself from alienation, and finally offers Percy’s visions of how to cope with alienation. The book takes into consideration the entirety of Percy’s thought and life, which is marked by fullness. Percy did not remain on the surface but has lived in moments, which were always a potential opening toward a renewed meaning of who we were, who we are, who we might be.
In a 1990 essay published just after his death in Signposts in a Strange Land, Percy writes that “The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which, in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia.” He might as well be talking about today’s society, and Smith is correct to point out not only this important quote but also the perennial wisdom and prophetic quality of Percy’s character. Percy understood the problems of the world inherently. Knowing the frailties of human nature made him not only a lucid observer of the state of affairs that he was exposed to but also an insightful critic of society’s fluid trends. The idea of globalism may not have been an issue during Percy’s life but he saw clearly that the world around him was beginning to take the shape of a post-Christian society. At least among elites, we may even call this a postreligious society. Certainly the sense of alienation has only grown since Percy first asserted these ideas.
It’s impossible, of course, to overlook the fact that Percy is a Southern writer and to be a Southern writer in America is already a strange and alienating experience. On top of it, to be a Southerner and a Catholic is even stranger. It is precisely this strangeness, and this being viewed by others as grotesque and unpleasant (which was also experienced by Flannery O’Connor) that led Percy into a form of self-reflection wholly different from a writer that lives in other parts of America.
Smith illuminates these well-known aspects of Percy, especially in his discussion of Southern character and Percy’s view of community. In a chapter titled, “Stoicism and the Honor-Bound South,” Smith explores how the South and especially Southern history shaped Percy’s character and view of the world. Honor was important to Percy because it inevitably deals with codes of ethics. But as Smith rightly points out, “Percy viewed the South through the lens of its great sins; at the same time, he believed that the South had retained a culture that respected place and community in a manner much of the nation did not.” This love of the South is tinged with an awareness of its uneasy history, and it only makes sense that Percy himself would remain in contradiction, or at the very least, in tension.
We all want to have a sense of belonging, even if we practice extreme individualism, especially in America. We wish to have a sense of community and togetherness with a desired group of people, who share common beliefs. Percy doesn’t find anything wrong with this deeply human desire, but he warns that if we rely so much on community to define our identity, we will be on the sure road toward collectivism. As Smith writes in a chapter titled, “Individualism, Community, and the Longing for Place,” “For individuals, the longing for escape from ordinary life can deprive them of sanity; for society as a whole, the ideologies and practices that tend to spring up as a way of satisfying our longings make recognizing the prudent limits of community far harder.”
Community may be a helpful guide for an individual, but for the most part, human beings are looking less for meaning than for comfort. To be a wayfarer is to not only be free but, most of all, courageous and willing to accept one’s mission. This is a deeply Christian message but Percy’s insistence on the validation of humanism means that his voice speaks not only to Christians but to others as well.
Smith’s conclusion, “A Defense of Moderate Politics and Human Dignity,” brings together several aspects of Percy’s character and very clearly connects his work to the political and public spheres of life. Today, we are obsessed with various -isms, and Percy rejected this vehemently. As Smith writes, “His stance was anti-ideological in part because ideology just as much as social science requires its adherents accept an excessively shorthand vision of human beings …” For Percy, politics is about the entirety of the human person. This means that not only do we need to be viewed and view others in a humanizing way, but also that we have a responsibility toward this world and we must always be attuned to the mission. Smith’s point is that to be political is not merely to concern ourselves with daily occurrences of various political players. On the contrary, it is about taking into consideration the entirety of our own being as well as that of our fellows.
We are all traveling on this both tragic and comical journey, and Percy certainly knew this. What Smith has done in this deeply felt and thought-out book is to reaffirm Percy’s standing not only as a giant in the American literary canon but also as a philosopher and a reluctant prophet—a man who questions, a man who is restless, a man who experiences brief moments of relief and God’s grace, a man who is able to lift the veil of uncertainty and become vulnerable in the face of constantly revolving darkness.
Emina Melonic is a writer based in East Aurora, New York. Her work has been published in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, The New Criterion, New English Review, Law and Liberty, American Greatness, VoegelinView, and Splice Today, among others.