Walker Percy's Devil

Article excerpt

It is Saturday afternoon, July 1, 1983, and Dr. Tom More, the hero of Love in the Ruins, sits in his office thinking: "If only my lapsometer could treat as well as diagnose." Don Giovanni plays, lightning flashes, and Art Immelmann, Walker Percy's devil, appears. He's an odd-looking fellow, curiously old-fashioned. His "old-style flat-top haircut," white shirt, and neat dark trousers make him look like "a small-town businessman in the old Auto Age." In bureaucratic jargon he promises Dr. More funding for his lapsometer. More balks at the contract. But two days later, Immelmann raises his stakes: he offers the disappointed doctor the ionizer that will make the diagnostic lapsometer therapeutic. Weakened by the brain massage Immelmann gives him with the new device, Tom More succumbs to the devil's temptation. It is only after several days of devilish chaos roiling toward apocalypse that More repudiates Immelmann and recovers himself and, just possibly, the world. In this retelling, the devil loses and, with God's grace and the help of St. Thomas More, man wins.

Percy's devil is a modern avatar of the Faust and Don Juan myths so prominently alluded to in Love in the Ruins, but the details of Immelmann's appearance and method also owe much to the devil in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, a book which helped lead Percy into a systematic study of Existentialism. The ideas and terms that Percy borrows from Existential novelists like Dostoyevsky and Sartre and from the philosophers Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Marcel give his fiction an interesting allusiveness and, at times, a real philosophical depth. However, in Love in the Ruins the way Percy uses Existential ideas--the form of their presentation--is at odds with the Existentially-influenced aesthetic he has articulated in interviews and essays. While Love in the Ruins is the work of a ranging intellect and observant eye, I think it is the least succesful of Percy's four novels. Its weakness is a disturbing incongruity between intelligence and imagination, an incongruity I hope to demonstrate by identifying several important Existential sources of the book and by showing how the ideas they supply are embedded in a narrative form Percy once attacked as obsolete. I call this essay "Walker Percy's Devil" because Art Immelmann represents both Percy's philosophical allusiveness and the aesthetic inconsistency of the novel. Immelmann's temptation of Tom More is the internal analogue of Percy's temptation by an old-fashioned art. Briefly put, Walker Percy's devil is Existential material in an un-Existential novel.

The primary terms in which Percy presents Tom More's psychological condition are angelism-bestialism--terms derived from Maritain's The Dream of Descartes. Tom More has both a Faustian abstractive pride and a Don Juanian absorption in carnality, and his fall issues from both. Immelmann promises a hedonistic life and encourages More to "`Develop your genius.'" While the latter can be read as a call to scientific pride, it is also more specifically an allusion to a Kierkegaardian essay, "Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle," that Percy has said "was more responsible than anything else for my becoming a Catholic." (1) Kierkegaard wrote the essay to combat his contemporaries' tendency to speak of Christ as a profound thinker or of Paul as a clever stylist rather than as figures with a wholly different kind of authority, that of the "absolute paradox" of divine appointment. The genius, despite his knowledge and appeal, is necessarily limited to the sphere of immanence. His message has its own intrinsic authority to be evaluated aesthetically or ethically; thus his originality is soon assimilated by history. The genius has a "humorous self-sufficiency": "the unity of a modest resignation in the world and a proud elevation above the world: of being an unnecessary superfluity and a precious ornament." (2) The Apostle, says Kierkegaard, has his authority from God; his message remains news because of its transcendent nature and authority. …