Relieving Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea: Semiotics, Suicide, and the Search for God in Walker Percy's the Second Coming
Hamner, Everett L., Christianity and Literature
Walker Percy's interest in existentialism and especially the work of Jean-Paul Sartre is no secret among literary critics. Kathleen Scullin has argued that Lancelot is "in effect Percy's response to Sartre in fiction" (110); other scholars such as Lewis A. Lawson and Martin Luschei have considered Percy's first three novels--The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins--along similar lines. (1) However, Percy's fifth novel, The Second Coming, has not been examined from this perspective, despite its many references to Sartre's Nausea and its status as loose sequel to The Last Gentleman. (2)
I will argue that Nausea and Sartre's existentialism more generally provide a crucial context for understanding The Second Coming. First, we will see how Percy's own statements in recorded conversations and speeches demand this comparison. Then, close attention to both novels will evoke The Second Coming's presentation of the interdependence of transcendence and immanence, especially as explored in Will's gradual confrontation with his father's suicide, his developing relationship with Allie, and his ongoing query about God's existence. Finally, a comparison of Percy's novel with Nausea will elucidate two widely debated attributes of Percy's fifth novel: its unusually well developed female character, Allie, and its uniquely "happy ending." Ultimately, I aim to demonstrate how The Second Coming honestly and soberly re-presents the "nausea" of Sartre's novel while also offering a more hopeful evaluation of both individual and communal life.
Percy's interest in Sartre is regularly apparent not only in his written work but also in speeches and interviews. Among the thirty or more references to Sartre indexed in Lawson and Victor A. Kramer's Conversations with Walker Percy, we find this statement: "Maybe one of the most influential novels I ever read was Nausea. That was a real revelation. It's funny how something can be that important and influence you that much and be that valuable to you, and yet you can diametrically disagree with it" (275). Percy's profound appreciation of Sartre's novel and its unyielding examination of the tenuousness of "reality" is evident here, but we also taste his dissatisfaction with Nausea's ultimate cynicism. Signposts in a Strange Land finds Percy describing Nausea more specifically as an example of the "peculiar diagnostic role of the novel in this century" (147). Percy had a particular regard for Sartre's ability to portray individual experience, and especially Sartre's "onslaught on the 'normal' or what is ordinarily taken for the normal" (147-48). Sharing Sartre's interest in questioning common assumptions about the good life, Percy appreciated that in Nausea "the apparently well are sick and the apparently sick are on to the truth" (150). Nevertheless, his interest in Sartre always remained critical. In his unique "self-interview" in Conversations, for instance, Percy explained his contentment with an obscure life: "If one lived in a place like France where writers are honored, one might well end up like Sartre, a kind of literary-political pope, a savant, an academician, the very sort of person Sartre made fun of in Nausea" (161-62).
Perhaps the clearest historical evidence of Percy's wish to both honor and distinguish himself from Sartre is found in a 1977 lecture at Cornell University. As a conclusion to that address, Percy read and commented on a passage from The Last Gentleman. In this scene a young Will Barrett runs his hand over the bark of an oak tree and wonders about his father's eventually successful suicide attempts. Will quietly asks, "Is there a sign?" As Percy noted to his audience, "He feels he's on to something, a clue or sign, but it slips away from him." Then, Percy said something quite significant about the relationship between The Last Gentleman and Nausea:
I chose [to read] this passage because of its resemblance to the famous scene in Sartre's Nausea--in fact, it was written as a kind of counterstatement--where Roquentin is sitting in a park in Bouville and experiences a similar revelation as he gazes at the roots and bark of a chestnut tree. Sartre intended the scene to be a glimpse into the very nature of the being of things, and a very unpleasant revelation it is, described by Sartre by such adjectives as obscene, bloated, viscous, naked, de trop, and so on.
The scene to which Percy refers is among the most quoted in Sartre's work: Roquentin stares down at a chestnut tree and "sees through" his concept of the tree to its very materiality. Horrified by the confrontation, he becomes convinced that the world is alien and that meaning is impossible. Percy's comparison is worth following further:
Will Barrett, too, sees something in the bark, the same extraness as he calls it, gratuitousness, but for him it is an intimation, a clue to further discovery. And it is not something bad he sees but something good. In terms of traditional metaphysics, he has caught a glimpse of the goodness and gratuitousness of created being. He had that sense we all have occasionally of being on to something important. As it turned out, he missed it. That was as close as he ever came. (Signposts 221)
According to Percy, then, the young Will Barrett has the same sort of existential moment that Roquentin has with the chestnut tree. The great difference, of course, is in the characters' reactions: what Roquentin regards as obscene, Will perceives as a clue. Intriguingly, Percy tells us that Will fails to follow the sense that he is "on to something important." Instead, "he missed it. That was as close as he ever came." But was it really? Although Percy's words may have been true in 1977, by the time his speech was first published in 1985 The Second Coming had appeared. Here an older Will thoroughly uncovers the "something important" that he had missed at the oak tree years earlier, a revelation that suggests new status for The Second Coming as the culmination of Percy's novelistic responses to Sartre.
Several basic affinities between Nausea and The Second Coming cannot be called coincidental. That both novels contain a strong sense of the sheer contingency of things, the sense that the world does not have to be, is noteworthy. That this experience leads characters in both novels into states of depression, which inevitably occur in the late afternoon, suggests more than mere happenstance at work. For Antoine Roquentin, "Three o'clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do. [...] Today it is intolerable" (14). On another day three o'clock finds Roquentin deciding that "things are entirely what they appear to be--and behind them ... there is nothing" (96). In Nausea the late afternoon is the despairing hour, the time when nothing happens and significance seems most distant. It is the time when immanence--an immediacy, temporally and physically, of one's being-in-the-world--seems wholly incompatible with transcendence or a trust that one's life is caught up in some greater purpose.
In seeming contrast, The Second Coming begins with a quite dramatic late-afternoon event: Will Barrett is accidentally shot by a neighbor hunting on his property. This event, however, is something that Will needs to have happen in order to break up the "minatory ordinariness of midafternoon" (17). Such late-afternoon ennui is most poignant in Percy's other main character, Allie. After escaping from the psychiatric hospital in which she had been imprisoned, Allie cares for herself quite ably in an abandoned greenhouse. When she does begin to "slip a little" however, it is in the late afternoon: "Only in late afternoon did she miss people." Or, as her refreshing syntax renders it, "In this longitude longens ensues in a longing if not an unbelonging" (272). As in Nausea, the late afternoon is the occasion for yearning for an unknown, indefinable something; it is the time of day when Allie's normally quite immanent character longs for the transcendent--an experience of something more, something or someone outside oneself, one's time, one's place.
The novels' use of the word "something" is itself worth comparing, especially if we wonder what Percy meant in saying that the young Will Barrett had been "on to something important." Roquentin's first sentence in the diary that serves as Nausea's narrative premise is, "Something has happened to me, I can't doubt it any more" (4). The "something" turns out to be difficult to describe: "these sudden transformations [...] a crowd of small metamorphoses [...] a veritable revolution" (5). Essentially it is a "seeing through things" to pure, raw existence, an experience that Roquentin paradoxically both desires and finds revolting. His diary is full of this unease: "Something is beginning in order to end" (37); "It is gone so quickly and how empty I am once it has left" (56). Late in the novel, even after seemingly exhausting every potential source of meaning, Roquentin still asks, "What if something were to happen?" (158). Finally he decides that the something, the "seeing through," is to be avoided, and the only way to ensure this is to do nothing. "I know very well that I don't want to do anything: to do something is to create existence--and there's quite enough existence as it is" (173). Roquentin ultimately decides that the duality he experiences between the self-that-is and the self that observes the self-that-is cannot be escaped; as he puts it early in the novel, "You have to choose: live or tell" (39). Immanence and transcendence are irreconcilable.
Percy uses the phrase "something happening" even more than Sartre. A few instances among many: the novel's first sentence refers to Will's awareness of "the first sign that something had gone wrong" (3); when Allie is first introduced, she observes bumper stickers and asks herself, "Wasn't this something newt" (25); returning to Will in chapter three, the first sentence is, "Undoubtedly something was happening to him" (51), a statement repeated three pages later and then again later in the chapter. "Had something happened? Was something about to happen?" (78). As we shall see, this becomes a crucial question in The Second Coming because Percy agreed with Sartre that humanity was missing "something" Percy's characters differ from Sartre's, however, in their conclusions about whether that "something" can ever be attained. Whereas Roquentin abandons the quest to unite his two selves, Will Barrett ultimately decides that he must have both transcendence and immanence and that one is incomplete without the other.
Having surveyed the historical rationale for seeing The Second Coming as a response to Nausea, and having suggested the novels' divergent treatments of immanence and transcendence, I turn now to a close reading of The Second Coming that depends on regular comparisons to Nausea. As we examine three crucial developments in the novel--Will's immersion in Allie's "sign language," his confrontation with his father and the past, and his questioning of God's existence--we will also see how reading The Second Coming as a response to Nausea casts new light on Percy's unusually central female character and uniquely happy ending.
As an increasing number of critics recognize, Allie's importance in The Second Coming can hardly be overestimated. Lawson, for example, points out that "always before, Percy has created his Eve out of Adam's rib; the female has been seen only through the male's eyes. This time, though, the narrative structure consists of counterpoint" ("Walker Percy's" 255). Elinor Ann Walker demonstrates the particular importance of Allie's gender through research on Percy's personal papers: in early notes he represented the novel's two main characters with symbols for male and female rather than names (104). Interpretations of Allie, nevertheless, have been divided. Is she truly a fully realized female character, or does the male perspective ultimately dominate this novel? Mary Grabar helpfully surveys this debate and offers her own conclusion that "Whatever her inherent goodness and sincerity, Allison is still not a religious wayfarer; her role is to help Will on his search" (123). Because so many readers share this interpretation, I want to show how comparison of the novel with Nausea suggests that, far from subjugating the female to the male, Allie's lack of overt "religious" questions is more than compensated for by her questions about language and human relationship.
Indeed, considering The Second Coming as a response to Nausea demands that we compare not only Roquentin and Will but also Anny and Allie. Anny, Roquentin's former lover, lives in "a dry despair, without tears, without pity" (144). She is admittedly selfish, and, when Roquentin meets her after a four-year separation, she treats him with forthright contempt. The "perfect moments" (143) she once sought no longer amuse her; now she "live[s] in the past" (152). When Roquentin observes that this "wouldn't satisfy [him] at all," she sarcastically responds, "Do you think it satisfies me?" (153). Army is essentially a woman whose life is behind her, and, since this is unsatisfying, she recasts her memories at whim. By contrast, Allie's life is all before her. Having escaped a psychiatric hospital that had stripped her of all sense of personal agency, she is now delighting in choosing for herself. Whereas Anny attempts to transcend all experience, always remaining aloof, Allie is the cheerful epitome of immanence. She is wholly present to the task at hand, whatever it might be.
The opposition of these characters is clearest when we consider questions of language, an area in which Percy thoroughly separates himself from Sartre. In observing Roquentin's and Anny's brief time together, we see that language has failed them. It is impossible to truly signify, for every hint of meaning is only a joke. True communication is replaced by posturing, guesswork, and manipulation. Roquentin thinks to himself, "Do I have to question her now? I don't think she expects it. She will speak when she decides it will be good to do so" (141). He is not fully present to the situation; like Anny, and in contrast to Allie, he uses words to seek a transcendence that is devoid of immanence. By the time the conversation is over, Roquentin has lost hope: "I can't convince her, all I do is irritate her" (151). Ultimately he realizes that "Anny is sitting opposite to me, we haven't seen each other for four years and we have nothing more to say" (153). For Roquentin and Anny, the silence that ensues is not the genial peace of genuine friendship but the quiet desperation of profound loneliness.
In fact, Roquentin has lost faith in language even before meeting Anny. His experiences with the bus seat and the chestnut tree are particularly memorable. In each case it is as if the surface of things peels back for a moment and Roquentin is able to stare, horrified, at pure existence. First, looking at his bus seat, he murmurs to himself, "It's a seat." However, "the word stays on [his] lips: it refuses to go and put itself on the thing." With horror Roquentin realizes that the bench "could just as well be a dead donkey [...]. Things are divorced from their names" (125). Later that evening he stares at a root of the chestnut tree, but he "couldn't remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things" (126-27). Roquentin decides that "the diversity of things, their individuality, were [sic] only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder--naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness" (127). A divorce between word and world--Roquentin's sudden inability to categorize and objectify his experience, to transcend it--leads to a far greater divorce between world and meaning. Faced with the undeniable immanence of the material world, Roquentin responds with revulsion.
Turning to Will and Allie in The Second Coming, we find a different premise about such encounters: true communication, true entrance into language, requires that immanence and transcendence be held together. For Percy, one must engage others authentically and simply, in a specific time and place, without posing as what one is not; only then may such engagement take the participants out of themselves--or, as Allie puts it, take her "away from my everlasting self sick of itself to be with another self" (295). This is nevertheless a gradual development. When we first meet Allie, it is significant that the narrator describes not her features but those of the mountain at which she gazes. It is
[...] shaped like a head and covered by gold and scarlet trees except for two outcroppings of rock. One outcropping could be seen as an eye but the other outcropping was too close to the center to be seen as the other eye and too high and too far to one side to be seen as a nose. The wrong placement of the second eye caused her a slight unease, enough for her to tilt her head from time to time so that the outcropping would line up either as eyes or as nose and eye. (25)
This one-eyed mountain is the antithesis of the wholeness that Allie eventually finds with Will. Along with various one-eyed characters that we meet in the novel, the mountain's misalignment reminds us of Roquentin's dilemma between living and telling, and it acts as a sign throughout The Second Coming for the disjunction of immanence and transcendence. (3)
The possibility that Percy is aiming to critique a "one-eyed" existentialism is furthered by Allie's physical situation: she is seated on a bus-stop bench. Unlike Sartre's bus seat, this bench does not threaten to turn into a donkey; rather, Allie thinks of it as "home base." She rests on it as she reads her notes to herself, gradually reentering the world. Allie's bench is thus a setting for the recovery of language, not its loss. The scene parallels Nausea quite closely in another way. Like Roquentin, Allie is finding herself isolated from other people. As she makes her forays from the bench onto the busy sidewalk, she is unsure of how to avoid running into other pedestrians. Her question becomes an essential problem of the novel: why do people "miss" each other, and how might authentic encounters be possible? For the moment Allie imagines that "it must be a trick, an exchange of signals which she must learn" (37). These terms begin to suggest the importance Percy places on semiotics as a response to Sartre's existential dilemma. "Signals," we see, are used not to effect personal encounters but to allow people politely to ignore one another. Signals, as Sartre feared, objectify their listeners rather than promote genuine conversation.
On one occasion, just as Allie is about to return to "home base" we see a clear example of such objectification: a woman confronts Allie with a distinctly evangelical invitation to "have a personal encounter with our Lord and Saviour" (37). Here we see that, while Percy aims to critique Sartre, he is equally dismissive of any sort of pious, simplistic solution to the problem of existence. No less than Roquentin or Anny, this woman is seeking to circumvent immanence in her enthusiasm for transcendence. Allie is confused about her intentions and rightly objects to being categorized without being known. She tells the woman, "I'm not sure what you mean by the expression 'a person like yourself.' Does that mean you know what I am like?" Clearly Percy affirms Sartre's valuing of individual personhood. Allie thinks to herself that "the question did not sound like a question and the promise did not sound like a promise" Sitting back down, she realizes that she has a unique understanding of language and its purposes: "She took words seriously to mean more or less what they said, but other people seemed to use words as signals in another code they had agreed upon" (38). Again, "signals" here are something less than authentic speech. They are for manipulation, not authentic encounter, a fact that is especially ironic when we consider what the woman is using language to offer. (4)
While it might be tempting to join Grabar in viewing Allie's semiotic inquiries as less important than Will's religious questions, perhaps curiosity about language and human relationships is no less "religious" an enterprise than descending into a cave to seek a theophany. Allie, as much as Will, is seeking a new way of being-in-the-world, and, while it may be argued that she approaches it more steadily and less dramatically than Will, her search is no less crucial to the novel's resolution. (5) Indeed, as we turn to Will and Allie's first meeting, we see the seeds being planted for their complementary discoveries of the "somethings" that they seek. These revelations occur in a sacred space set apart from the larger world, a place where triadic signmaking takes precedence over dyadic signaling and where immanence and transcendence are interdependent, not mutually exclusive. The transformations of the world of the greenhouse eventually extend beyond this space: the novel implies that, ultimately, the barrier between secular and sacred space must be overcome.
The geographic distance that Will first travels to enter Allie's world is not great, since her greenhouse is quite close to his golf course. Figuratively, however, Will must go "out-of-bounds" in the eyes of his culture; it is only due to a bad golf shot in his country-club world that Will meets Allie at all. The narrator's description of this "mistake" gives us further reason to think that Percy has Sartre in mind, particularly his expression "bad faith" (mauvaise foi) or "self-deception" (Stumpf 515). Lewis Peckham, the local golf pro, says that he "can watch a man swing a golf club and tell you more about him than a psychiatrist after a hundred hours on the couch" (173). Indeed, Will's swing has become "an emblem of his life, a small failure at living, a minor deceit, perhaps even a sin. One cringes past the ball, hands mushing through ahead of the club in a show of form, rather than snapping the club head through in an act of faith" (53). Will is not quite fitting into his world anymore; he is no longer able to believe that it means anything. It nevertheless seems that "bad faith" in his country-club world is a prerequisite to Will's discovery of other possibilities. He must leave behind the golf carts that with their "white canopies move, one behind the other, as silently as sails" (59), for they are no different from the ants that Allie watches in front of her bench, holding their green leaves "aloft like a sail" (36) and following "the same path, climbing over the same granules of concrete, then descending into a crack at the same place, then climbing out of the crack at the same place" (43).
When Will actually steps "out-of-bounds," he must duck under a barbed-wire fence that his partner politely holds up but does not offer to pass through as well. (6) It is in this transition that Will is recalled into his past to face a memory that he had suppressed since childhood. Will finds himself clutching his club like the Greener shotgun, remembering the day when his father had tried to kill them both. Soon he no longer cares about having sliced out-of-bounds, and "in two seconds he saw that his little Yankee life had not worked after all [...]. The whole twenty years could just as easily have been a long night's dream" (84-85). His mind is in two places, at once "gaz[ing] at the figure which seemed to come and go in the trembling dappled light of the poplar" and, in the same moment, addressing his father: "You were trying to tell me something, weren't you?" Will is beginning to realize that his father had decided life was not worth the trouble and that, in aiming his shotgun at Will, had thought to save his son from future suffering. We see here the first example of how closely tied are Will's honest reconstruction of the events decades earlier with his father and his present potential to move toward an intimate sign-making relationship with Allie. On this occasion Will's memory only goes so far, but he does understand that he is "back where we started and you ended, that there is after all no escaping it for us" (85).
Once Will and Allie actually approach each other, the scene foreshadows a great deal about the development of their relationship. Before speaking, Will is able to see the greenhouse where Allie has been staying. This sacred space is "as big as an ark" and looks as if it had a "cathedral porch" (86); eventually it will carry Will and Allie above the flood of signals into a relationship of signs. For the present, however, we immediately hear the dissonance between triadic and dyadic approaches to communication. Allie can be understood in two senses when she says, "Hogan woke me up" (87): she was awakened from sleep, but Will's appearance in her life also "wakes her up" figuratively. We should appreciate again how she understands words to "mean more or less what they said"; in this case, the name for Will's golf ball is written right across the thing itself, and unlike Roquentin she has no difficulty holding together signifier and signified. Will, on the other hand, is accustomed to a world of signals in which people do not need to encounter each other as individuals in order to exchange goods. He simply offers Allie a dollar for finding his balls (a phrase often read figuratively) and then, upon learning that one broke her window, grudgingly digs in his pocket for more. She does not respond, and through this disinterest in money he becomes truly aware of her as an individual for the first time. In fact, she shocks Will into a new awareness of himself. He realizes how he must look with his "belt less slacks, blue nylon shirt with the club crest, gold cap with club crest, two-tone golf shoes with the fringed forward-falling tongues, and suddenly it was he not she who was odd in this silent forest" (89).
Even as Will and Allie's relationship evolves alongside Will's reconstruction of his past, a third story line involving Will's questions about God continues to develop. This strand of The Second Coming's braid has often been marginalized in criticism on the novel. W. L. Godshalk, for instance, decides that "the narrator prefers reentry to transcendence" (40), arguing that "Will Barrett's quest for selfhood becomes his misguided quest for God" (41). Susan V. Donaldson is similarly concerned that it is "Will's own sense of manhood" and confrontation with his father's ghost that is "the real focus of the narrative [...,] not Will's comical sojourn in the cave waiting for God's sign" (74). Finally, Doreen A. Fowler says that Will is only "ostensibly [...] searching for God"; the real "object of his quest is [...] a return to an original unity with the maternal body and the world" ("'Cave'" 82). While each of these interpretations points toward important aspects of the novel, all shy away from a serious consideration of Will's search for God.
Admittedly, one of Will's original questions, one that has driven him since The Last Gentleman, is whether or not his father was right to kill himself. However, Will explicitly ties the question to his debate about God's existence, and this is no mere curiosity inserted into the novel by an overzealous Catholic author. While the question of God emerges only gradually, we have already seen that Will has been wondering if "something" is going to happen since the novel's very beginning. Even then he wonders if there is such a thing as a sign. He imagines that the Jews have departed from North Carolina and wonders if this is a sign; he falls down in a sand trap and wonders if it is a sign. Ultimately Percy blurs the line between religious, existentialist, and scientific epistemologies by allowing Will to decide that his question requires a "scientific experiment": he will descend into a cave and simply wait. If there is a God, Will decides, God will have to do something extraordinary to save his life. If there is no sign and thus no God, then Will can at least upstage his father, who failed to plan his suicide well enough to ensure payments on his life insurance policy. (7)
As we follow Will into the cave, we should also see that he regards his experiment as the only alternative to either "believing everything" or "believing nothing" (153). The former constitutes a pursuit of transcendence divorced from immanence; the latter is an immanence that is lost within the self, seeking nothing beyond it. Regarding life under either assumption as "preposterous," Will intends to demand "an explanation" (220). Of course, as events develop, Will's determination proves insufficient. His resolve is broken by a toothache, a teasingly ambiguous outcome to Will's quest for certainty. However, we should also pay close attention to the nausea that comes with the toothache:
There is one sure cure for cosmic explorations, grandiose ideas about God, man, death, suicide, and such--and that is nausea. I defy a man afflicted with nausea to give a single thought to these vast subjects. A nauseated man is a sober man. A nauseated man is a disinterested man. What does a nauseated person care about the Last Days? (247)
The significance of the narrator's repetition of the term "nausea" here is considerable. On one hand, Will is like Roquentin in all of his sobriety and disinterest. Percy agrees with Sartre that nausea, literal or figurative, can indeed sap one's interest in questions about God. However, Percy does not make "nausea" the title of his novel; instead, he replaces Roquentin's steadily shrinking vision with Will's expanding awareness of both world and self, his "second coming." For Roquentin, nausea is only something to be escaped, and it leaves him convinced like Anny that meaning exists only in the past. For Will, though, nausea is a brutal but ultimately gracious response to his demand for answers, and the impetus toward something more rather than evidence of a dead end.
Indeed, from this point in the novel onward we must ask whether or not Will actually received a sign in the cave. At least one thing is now clear: God has not offered Will a signal. Although Will enters the cave in hopes of cornering God, of finding undeniable evidence of His existence or nonexistence, he learns that if such communication is ever to occur it must be triadic, not dyadic. The novel implies that, if God exists, He desires that the meaning of His language be held together by both parties, and thus refuses to force a signal upon Will that would merely demand acquiescence. Will can approach this sort of faith only gradually. In abandoning his experiment, he feels that he has failed even to kill himself according to plan. Still, he cannot simply return to his pre-cave existence; he becomes disoriented in Lost Cove and discovers that "it is hard to get lost going down. Going up is something else" (260). Ironically, it is only now, after he has abandoned his pursuit of "God, [...] suicide, [...] or the Last Days" (257), that he begins to approach answers to his questions. After the toothache and the nausea disappear, he wonders, "Does fear supplant nausea as nausea supplanted God?" His "elegant scientific question" (258) has returned only a "muddy maybe" (246), yet he is about to receive the help he needs from an entirely unexpected direction.
Falling through the hole that provides Allie's greenhouse with its unique mode of ventilation, Will arrives in a "tacky heaven" and, upon regaining consciousness, decides that he is in "church." Like Allie's oven, which she has already hoisted out of oblivion, he is destined to be made "new, transformed, reborn" (264). This religious language is not a coincidence, for as Will and Allie's relationship is renewed he is subtly compared with Christ, while her actions resemble those of a disciple on the night after Christ's crucifixion. Allie thinks to herself that Will smells of a "grave" (268). As she cleans him before he regains consciousness, his "abdomen dropping away hollow under his ribs, the thin arms and legs with their heavy slack straps of muscle, cold as day, reminded her of some paintings of the body of Christ taken down from the crucifix" (270). This passage recalls Will's second visit to the greenhouse, before his descent into the cave, when, as Allie watched Will approaching, "his eyes were cast into deep shadow but as she watched they seemed to open and close, now shut and dark, now open and pale, like a trick picture of Jesus" (123). Taken together, these scenes evoke Will and Allie's mysterious interdependence: they fluctuate between saving and being saved, with Allie giving Will new capacity to live in the present and Will giving Allie the words and eventually the physical intimacy that she needs to transcend her self.
However far one extends this imagery, it is at least clear that Will and Allie are good for each other. As Michael Pearson puts it, they are "thesis" and "antithesis": "Will remembers and Allie forgets; he falls down, she hoists" (95). They meet now at a sort of spiritual nadir. As Allie says, "I go round and down to get down to myself"--to rediscover her sense of immanence--while Will responds, "I went down and around to get out of myself"--to pursue the possibility of transcendence (302; my emphasis). Interestingly, Percy subverts the common association of "up" with "good" and "down" with "bad." Throughout the novel Allie has spoken of her need to get down to herself, something that the greenhouse has allowed but that the psychiatric hospital did not. As she once told her doctor,"I have to go down down down before I go up. Down down in me to it. You shouldn't try to keep me up by buzzing me up" (103-04). Essentially she feels that she must be allowed to face her depression, rather than being artificially "buzzed" into unfeeling conformity. When this freedom is disallowed, she rebels all the more. As she says, "My mother refused to let me fail. So I insisted" (108). In contrast, when she explains to Will on his second visit to the greenhouse that "I was somewhat suspended above me but I am getting down to me" (125), he responds with encouragement. We might note that this affirmation of immanence is quite different from Roquentin's and Anny's attempts to exist somewhere above themselves, always watching but never experiencing.
Both Will and Allie require a step down from society's norms of communication--down from signaling into sign-making. Increasingly we see how well they fit together. When Will collapses on the way to get a drink of water, and Allie mistakenly thinks he has simply left, we should notice that she feels "nauseated" (291). The fear that Will has abandoned her affects Allie both physically and emotionally. After she has helped him to recover once more, her response to him remains holistic. Although Will and Allie do not engage in intercourse, we should not miss the significance that Allie finds in their intimacy: "Is this it then (whatever it is) and what will happen to myself [...] and will I for the first time in my life get away from my everlasting self sick of itself to be with another self and is that what it is and if not then what?" (294-95). This is the "something" that Percy suggests his characters have been seeking all along, the thing that Roquentin seeks but does not know he seeks. It is not merely one's physical response to sexual intercourse but the full emotional and spiritual experience of being in communion with an Other. From Allie's perspective it is "as if her body had at last found the center of itself outside itself" (295). This is a much different sexuality from that of Roquentin and the restaurant patronne with whom he "play[s] distractedly [...] under the cover" (59). It is a sexuality that celebrates and enhances the joy of community rather than one that only temporarily assuages the pain of isolation.
At this point in The Second Coming, however, Will has not yet progressed as far as Allie. When Will was only twelve years old, his father's suicide had forced him into an early adulthood. This was the experience by which Will "found his center" (67), and he "grew up in ten minutes" (66)--or so he thought. The loss of his childhood meant the loss of immanence. Since that time he has unconsciously devoted himself to suppressing the memory of his father's actions, to transcending rather than facing them. Now, although he has had a tremendous conversion experience, he has yet to translate it from the world of the greenhouse into his own realm. This proves a difficult task, but the crucial factor is that Will is now asking a new question: "Who is the enemy?" What is keeping him from an authentic life?
At the beginning of the novel, while rolling away from Ewell McBee's gunshots, Will had asked himself, "How do I know that somehow it is going to come down to this, should come down to this, down to me and a gun and an enemy?" (20). Now part of this prophecy has come true, for Will is recognizing his enemy--"not the death of the dying but the living death" (311). After stumbling from the world of the greenhouse into the country-club parking lot, Will launches into a "peculiar litany" (314) in which he lists all of the "names of death." Will defies death in all its disguises, ranging from "love" and "Christianity" to "marriage and family and children" (313). His point is that there is no substitute for authentic living--life lived in acknowledgment rather than denial of death. Like Jacob wrestling in Genesis, Will decides to keep demanding, "What is missing? God? Find him!" (314). Perhaps it is this determination to accept nothing less that most separates Will from Roquentin. Will's greater faith is evident not in traditional acts of piety but in his dogged insistence that God show himself.
The biggest impediment to Will's pursuit of a new life is indeed one of the "names of death" that he has identified: "the happy life of home and family and friends" (313). Will's former lover, Kitty, and his daughter, Leslie, subtly commandeer his life. After his cave experience Will awakes to a world much like the one Allie had to escape. He is stripped of his freedom, even as he is urged to find contentment. New clothes have been selected, and his wife's dying wishes have curiously expanded to include a new three-million-dollar "love-and-faith" community, which when built Will is to "supervise." Even more important in this signal-realm is that Will is now eligible for the Senior Tour, as long as he will enslave himself to a pH monitor. This is what the doctors decide is his problem: not "nausea," not schizophrenia, but a missing hydrogen ion. Amusingly, Percy's invented disease is the result of "wahnsinnige Sehnsucht" or "inappropriate longing" (346). "Longing" is indeed Will's "problem," but, as Percy suggests in Lost in the Cosmos, perhaps there is nothing actually wrong with the depressed self and, instead, "depression is a normal response to a deranged world" (73).
At first Will succumbs to his imposed convalescence, asserting that "things do not have significances" (329) and asking himself, "Did it all come down to chemistry after all?" (350). Ironically, he buys a Timex watch just like the ones Allie bypassed at the beginning of the novel. She had done so out of her determination to make her own decisions in life; Will, by contrast, is surrendering responsibility to others. Ultimately, what frees him is the realization that he has been dead for years without knowing it. Will has come to understand the "difference between feeling dead and not knowing it, and feeling dead and knowing it. Knowing it means there is a possibility of feeling alive though dead" (371). Even now he can become an "ex-suicide" rather than a "non-suicide"; having considered self-destruction, he can choose to live. This dawning recognition is a product of Will's increasingly direct approach to the three questions we have been tracing: Was his father right to seek suicide? What does Allie mean to him? And, finally, does God exist?
As the novel concludes, each of these lines of inquiry culminates in its own way; indeed, each climax makes the next one possible. First, Will leaves the rest home in which he had been deposited and goes to get Allie. It is time, he realizes, to leave the greenhouse; together, they will reenter the wider world, taking their "sign language" into places where only signals exist and reuniting immanence and transcendence in the institution of marriage. Appropriately, when Will reaches the barbed-wire fence, the same place that had provoked memories of the "accident" with his father, he does not stoop to crawl through as before. Nor does he merely "straddle it" as he had on his descent into the cave. Instead, he "kick[s] it down and walk[s] over it" (373), implicitly demolishing the boundary between the sacred and the secular. As Sue Mitchell Crowley notes, "the sacrament of Allie" is waiting for him (241), and the hotel that Will chooses is surely "one of Percy's etymological puns" (239). They will spend a "holy day in" a time in which "each tend[s] to the other, kneading and poking sore places" (390).
Before Will and Allie come together fully, however, Will has to complete his reconciliation with the past. As he sleeps, Will hears his father's voice suggesting that even his relationship with Allie will never satisfy. Significantly, the novel's title appears here for the only time. "Second coming" has many possible connotations: the novel is a sequel; it concerns Will's and Allie's new beginnings in life; several oblique references trope Will as a Christ figure; and Will and Allie's relationship eventually becomes sexual. However, suicide, Will's father's voice argues, is "the second, last and ultimate come to end all comes" (385). Will's response is defiant, and it is hard to miss the psycho-sexual implications as Will throws his father's guns over a cliff. Everything does come down to a gun and an enemy, and Will repudiates both: he will accept neither suicide nor the "living death." Not coincidentally, it is immediately upon his return to the hotel that he and Allie first engage in sexual intercourse. Only when Will decides finally that his father was wrong to try to kill him, and wrong to commit suicide, is he able to be fully present with Allie, thus making his "second coming" nearly complete. Here, as Gary M. Ciuba suggests, is a preeminent example of Percy characters making "tentative returns via signs. [...] Will and Allie finally come together in the Holiday Inn so completely that it is difficult to tell where incarnate words end and speakerly flesh begins" (448).
Percy's integration of sexuality and homecoming is also noteworthy: "Entering her was like turning a corner and coming home" (388). (8) Although now in a hotel room, an in-between place beyond the sacred space of the greenhouse, Will finds with Allie something much deeper than he knew in his previous home with his late wife. That home was "atop a pleasant Carolina mountain" (229)--the same mountain at which Allie is looking upon her first appearance in the novel, and the same "round one-eyed mountain [...] with an ironical expression" (6) at which Will gazes during the golf game that begins the novel. This is a height from which both Allie and Will had to descend, even if violently, again subverting more common interpretations of "up" and "down." Allie tells herself, "You fell off a mountain" (45), quite early in the novel; somewhat later she looks at Will's dirty, unconscious body and wonders, "What had he done, fallen off a mountain?" (270). Indeed he had, and in leaving the rest home and coming for Allie he escapes it once more. After his bus accident Vance Battle had told him, "Let's go back to the mountain, boy" (344), and again, "Let's head for the hills, son" (348). The realm of the signal, in which immanence and transcendence are divorced, is the realm of the one-eyed mountain, the world in which Will's infuriatingly pious daughter Leslie incessantly quotes Psalm 121: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help" (149). However, that world is incomplete, and, for his new job not as a lawyer but as a lowly clerk, he is finally confronting "the mountain with its skewed face and one eye out of place" (380).
The goodness of what Will and Allie find together casts new light on the question of God's existence and the success or failure of Will's experiment. Will realizes that "the economy of giving and getting" may be different than he assumed, that somehow "2 cents = $5." Perhaps love-gifts are not as quantifiable as he imagined; perhaps God's existence cannot be determined with a calculator or proven with a mere signal. As Will asks himself, "Does goodness come tricked out as fakery and fondness and carrying on and is God himself as sly?" (399). His answer to this last question is evident in the novel's final scene, when Will approaches Father Weatherbee with the request that he marry Will and Allie. The concept of a "second coming" returns in Will's eager questioning: "Do you believe that Christ will come again and that in fact there are certain unmistakable signs of his coming in these very times?" (410-11). Will's intensity proves a bit much for the old priest, but Will refuses to let up. "The [priest's] bad eye spun and the good eye looked back at [Will] fearfully: What do you want of me?" (411). Will's gaze here is not a one-eyed stare but a two-eyed search--not, in Percy's words, the "supreme aggression" that Sartre feared (Message 285) nor, in Allie's language, a look that would "dart or pierce or impale" (270). Will's thoughts demonstrate that he has decided against suicide, and the sign that he finds depends upon both immanence and transcendence, upon both Allie and God:
What is it I want from her and him, he wondered, not only want but must have? Is she a gift and therefore a sign of a giver? Could it be that the Lord is here, masquerading behind this simple silly holy face? Am I crazy to want both, her and Him. No, not want, must have. And will have. (411) (9)
Critics familiar with the Percy corpus often observe that The Second Coming has an unusually happy ending. Percy himself said that it was his "first unalienated novel [...,] a very ordinary, conventional story that could even be seen in Hollywood terms: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl" (Lawson and Kramer 183). He also said that The Second Coming represents "a definite advance, a resolution of the ambiguity with which some of my other novels end: the victory, in Freudian terms, of eros over thanatos, life over death" (Lawson and Kramer 184).
While most reviewers have interpreted this "advance" favorably, others have been less pleased. Most notably, Harold Bloom calls the novel "problematic" (viii) and "tendentious" saying that it "hardly seems to be by the author of The Moviegoer" (1). Bloom is particularly concerned with the final paragraph's "theocentric anxiety" (2). Not surprisingly, Bloom chose a somewhat deprecatory essay by Fowler for his anthology of Percy criticism. Fowler argues that "in the end The Second Coming is not ambiguous but ambivalent" and that "Percy is poised between contradictory and seemingly mutually exclusive truths." She scoffs at Percy because, if "given a multiple-choice question, [he] would have to answer 'both of the above'" ("Answers" 123).
Ironically, Kieran Quinlan dismisses The Second Coming's ending not because it is "ambivalent" but because it is too clear. It is purportedly a "willed conclusion, more a manifestation of its author's own faith and intentions than an artistically achieved development." He goes on to assert that "it is hard to balance the seriousness of Will's questions against the ridiculous means (especially from an informed theological viewpoint) he uses to answer them" (172). Jay Tolson similarly laments:
We need to hear from the Christian ironist before this novel ends; but we don't. Instead, we have Adam going off to join his Eve. What one distrusts most about this in some ways brilliant and beguiling novel is that it serves too therapeutic an end rather than the harder truth as Percy saw it.
Quinlan and Tolson are slightly more respectful of Percy's achievement in The Second Coming than Bloom and Fowler but, as Tolson puts it, only because "adults need fairy tales as much as children do" (432).
What are we to make of these dismissals of Percy's ending? Does the"happy ending" indeed ruin his novel, or are the critics mentioned above perhaps missing the novel's very essence? (10) If we recognize The Second Coming as a response to Nausea, I would argue that nothing short of a happy ending would have sufficed. Consider Nausea's ending, which has Roquentin deciding to move to Paris, having lost any hope of resuming his relationship with Anny. He imagines himself writing a story there about
[...] something that could never happen, an adventure. It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence [...]. Then, perhaps, because of it, I could remember my life without repugnance [...]. And I might succeed--in the past, nothing but the past--in accepting myself. (178)
Roquentin decides to do exactly what he insisted to Army would "never satisfy": he will live in the past. If The Second Coming was to offer hope in response to Roquentin's despair, its ending had to be quite different. Indeed, while Roquentin and Anny recede into their separate pasts, Will and Allie pursue a future that honors both individuality and community. As Michael Kobre appreciates, Will and Allie's relationship grows beyond themselves to include others: "[Will's] decision to build a community of his own and to rehabilitate these cast-off men [Mr. Arnold and Mr. Ryan] in the process is only a larger version of Allie's determination to make a new future for herself in her abandoned greenhouse" (191). (11)
Even as we observe the disparity between the novels' endings, however, it is important to remember how much Percy appreciated Sartre's ability to provide "glimpse[s] into the very nature of the being of things." This may have been because Percy believed that the serious novel must explore "not only the nature of the human predicament but [also] the possibility or non [-]possibility of a search for signs and meanings" (Signposts 219). Percy felt that Nausea fulfilled this requirement quite powerfully; however, he wanted to write a serious novel that would show how meaning is possible. For this reason I wonder with Ted L. Estess whether "our discomfiture with Percy's language of affirmation, even celebration, signals the distance the contemporary sensibility has come from a stout embrace of the possibility of a happy ending for human beings and indicates how far progressed is the 'de-Christianization' of our literary sensibility" (79).
In The Second Coming, then, Percy offers a novelistic response to Sartre's Nausea that conveys both homage and critique. Percy wanted to create a world in which not only would "something" happen but, ultimately, "something good" rather than "something bad." To do this, Percy sought to illustrate the difference between a mere environment of signals, as in Roquentin's and Anny's relationship, and a world of true sign-making. This purpose required Percy to bring all three of the novel's main questions to a hopeful fulfillment. Had Will or Allie abandoned the sign-making they had begun, had Will listened to the voice of his father and actually killed himself, or had he simply been content to give up his quest for God and spend the rest of his days in a rest home, The Second Coming would be a much less significant novel. It would not be the intricate response of one fiction to another but only a weak acknowledgment of the impossibility of meaning. Percy was determined to do better than that, and so in his novel's ending we find neither Sartre's disillusionment nor an empty triumphalism. Instead, Percy shows us that our use of language matters immeasurably, that we cannot choose life until we first confront death, and that pursuing God does not mean banking on a certainty. He invites us to recognize that "religious" questions involve the most ordinary encounters on the street and that genuine transcendence is possible only alongside authentic immanence--a combination for which we need the Other rather than isolation. Percy stands beside Sartre and sympathizes with Roquentin at the chestnut tree, but through that most extraordinary of responses, his own work of art, he asks whether the moments in which we "see through" things to their very materiality, when we realize that none of it has to be, are occasions not for horror but for gratitude. (12)
(1) See, especially, Luschei 6, 83n, 147n, 213-14.
(2) Allen even suggests that The Second Coming is the culmination of Percy's first five novels. He finds "a sense of closure at the end of The Second Coming, a feeling of the rounding off of an imaginative world" (xii). The relationship between The Second Coming and The Last Gentleman is more often observed, with many critics seeing the sequel as completing a story The Last Gentleman began (e.g., Sue Mitchell Crowley, Godshalk, and Lawson in "Will Barrett") and others seeing it as an awkward, unnecessary appendix (e.g., Schwartz).
(3) Percy may be thinking here not only of Sartre's philosophy but also of his physiognomy. Due to a childhood illness, Sartre had a strabismus--a wandering eye--that might well have appeared "too high and too far to one side" thus causing strangers a "slight unease" In any case, it is intriguing that nowhere in the novel is a character actually missing a second eye; rather, it is as if he (a male in each case) is not using it. In Will's memory of nearly being murdered, his father is described in terms of one "glittering eye [that] seemed to cast beyond him to the future" (62). Jimmy Rogers, who is all "plans and schemes and deals" (75), has a single eye that "had gleamed at [Will] for years" (77). Then there is Mr. Arnold, who retired too early and whose "one fierce eye gazed around the room" in the nursing home, with "one side of his face [...] shut down" (179). Finally, we see Will fallen on the path just beyond Allie's greenhouse, with a "one-eyed profile," an eye that "didn't blink" (292). In each case, the one-eyed character is overfocusing on either immanence or transcendence.
(4) In Lost in the Cosmos, Percy explains that signals involve "dyadic" communication, while signs are used to communicate "triadically." Dyadic transactions require that subject "a" manipulates object "b," but triadic transactions are fundamentally communal, requiring conversation partners to hold together Saussure's "signifier" and "signified" For Percy, a sign cannot exist without at least two agents and "two conjoined triadic events" (97). As Scullin notes, this differs sharply from Sartre, for whom "the self, alone and empty, can sustain itself only by seizing the freedom to create a self out of its own nothingness. Other persons constitute a threat to that self-creation" (110).
(5) I would join Shelley M. Jackson in pointing out that criticism of Percy's female characters sometimes misses that "many times in [Percy's] fiction, women, through language in intersubjective relationships, bring his male protagonists to an understanding of their humanity and ultimately save them from self-destruction" (100).
(6) See also Fowler's "'The Cave ... the Fence': A Lacanian Reading of Walker Percy's The Second Coming" and especially Kennedy's assertion that Will's crossing is "a sign of his own entrance into the world of death-anxiety and suicidal compulsion" that he has inherited from his father (213).
(7) As Sue Mitchell Crowley points out, Will's quest into the cave is essentially a Pascalian experiment. I would note only that Will assumes that, if there is a God, he will find out on this side of death rather than afterwards.
(8) Kobre interprets Will and Allie's lovemaking as "the triumph of immanence (being in the world) over transcendence (orbiting far above it in the posture of a detached observer)" (190). I would agree only if Kobre's negative understanding of transcendence is maintained. If the term is used positively to indicate a yearning for that which is beyond the known, Will and Allie's lovemaking is about the uniting of immanence and transcendence, not the triumph of one over the other.
(9) This conclusion stands in direct contrast to Will's earlier confusion: "He wanted what? Kitty's ass? Death? Both?" (194).
(10) Donald Crowley scathingly criticizes Bloom's collection for "the quickness with which religious belief is relegated to the status of nostalgia," and he calls its claim to preeminent status among anthologies of Percy criticism "far-fetched" (25).
(11) Percy explains that the error made by both empiricists and existentialists is "in positing an autonomous consciousness" (Message 282-83). This is essentially what Roquentin represents in Nausea; as he himself says, he is alone in the world. Percy's epistemology differs in being shaped not by "the isolated Cartesian awareness" but by a consciousness "defined by its etymology--'knowing with'" (Lawson, "Walker Percy's" 255). For Percy,"The I think is only made possible by a prior mutuality: we name" (Message 275).
(12) I would like to thank Loren Wilkinson of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, as well as two anonymous referees and editor Robert Snyder, for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
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Everett L. Hamner completed degrees at Johns Hopkins University and is finishing a master's program at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. This autumn he will begin doctoral studies in English as a Presidential Fellow at the University of Iowa. His research concentrates on the intersections of contemporary literature and film with philosophy, religion, and science.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Relieving Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea: Semiotics, Suicide, and the Search for God in Walker Percy's the Second Coming. Contributors: Hamner, Everett L. - Author. Journal title: Christianity and Literature. Volume: 52. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 2003. Page number: 181+. © 2009 Conference on Christianity and Literature. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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