Walker Percy and Suicide

By Desmond, John F. | Modern Age, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Walker Percy and Suicide


Desmond, John F., Modern Age


IT HAS NOW COME TO PASS in American secular culture that the choice to end one's own life--suicide--is tacitly accepted as an inalienable right of every person. Although the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, and the American Nurses Association continue officially to oppose physician-assisted suicide, there exists a widespread sentiment in favor of individuals' absolute right to determine their own end. This attitude, of course, contravenes both the Hippocratic Oath and the centuries-old proscription against suicide in Judeo-Christian societies. Nevertheless, in the popular secular view, the choice of suicide is taken to be an act which is uniquely and absolutely "mine."

The southern novelist and philosophical essayist Walker Percy (1916-1990) was no stranger to suicide. His family legacy included a long line of ancestors who had taken their own lives, including Percy's grandfather John Walker Percy in 1917, and his father Leroy Pratt Percy in 1929. In his later years Percy himself expressed amazement and some pride in having "outlived" almost all of his male ancestors, though he did suffer from an inherited disposition toward melancholy. (1) A key factor in Percy's personal rejection of suicide was his Roman Catholic faith. When he was suffering from terminal cancer, he expressed his belief in a letter to his closest friend, novelist Shelby Foote. "Dying, if that's what it comes to, is no big thing since I'm ready for it, and prepared for it by the Catholic faith which I believe.... [I]n this age of unbelief I am astounded at how few people facing certain indignity in chronic illness make an end to it. Few if any. I am not permitted to." (2)

Percy's interest in the question of suicide, however, extended far beyond his family history and his personal religious belief. As a philosophical novelist Percy acknowledged the strong influence of Albert Camus on his writing, especially Camus's formulation of the problem of suicide as the central philosophical question in the twentieth century, an age he saw as being in the twilight of Judeo-Christian belief. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus argued that the option of suicide was a philosophical consideration central to the meaning of life. "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest--whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories--comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer." (3) Camus finally rejected suicide in that essay, but not on the traditional Christian grounds of divine prohibition. Rather, he rejected it as part of the existential revolt against the absurd, against the awareness that we are all condemned to death in an inexplicable universe, a revolt that paradoxically gives life its value.

Camus's emphasis is on each individual's recognition of his fate. Awareness and the choice to revolt are matters of personal consciousness and will; they are not particularly communal concerns. In fact, in Camus's writings such as his novel The Stranger (1942), individual revolt is often set against the community and its norms. It is predicated upon one's sense of exile from the world, an awareness of unmitigated existential solitude. Although Camus rejected suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus, in his emphasis on personal autonomy he can be seen, ironically, as one of the intellectual fathers of the ethos of individualism that informs the current atmosphere regarding the "right" to suicide.

Percy shared Camus's sense that in an age of waning belief the question of suicide is central to the meaning of life, but his response to the matter was radically different. When asked once about the influence of fellow Southern novelist William Faulkner on his writing, Percy said: "I like to think of beginning where Faulkner left off, with a Quentin Compson who DIDN'T commit suicide.

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