Satire, Social Practice, and the Self in Percy's Lancelot
Lecouras, Peter, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
MANY readers would probably regard Lancelot as Walker Percy's most inviting novel without necessarily concluding that it is his best. In various interviews, Percy suggests that Lancelot is concerned with ideas--the philosophy of existentialism as well as his interest in semiotics by way of Peirce and Saussure--and that he had Camus' The Fall in mind when he wrote it. It would not seem that such material would lend itself to writing what might be viewed as a novel relatively accessible to a contemporary audience. Nor does Percy's interest in ideas about philosophy and language suggest ease of reading. Yet, Jonathan Culler's observation in "Man the Symbol-monger" about The Message in the Bottle, Percy's collection of essays about language and philosophy, holds just as true for Lancelot:
In brief, Mr. Percy raises a series of problems which are central to contemporary thinking about signs, representation, and symbolic systems, and ... his clear presentation and his skill in relating them to little dramas of ordinary experience make this a book to recommend. (264)
Although these "little dramas" make for easy reading because such "dramas of ordinary experience" are familiar, they become the occasion for philosophical insight, moral exposition, or satire, and are, therefore, central to the novel.
Lancelot interprets the "little dramas" of daily life, the social practices of the times, which have become distorted in the minds of those who live them. It satirizes characters constantly re-creating themselves or who are re-created by others. Instead of interpreting these "dramas of ordinary experience" within the context of a transcendental vision with established notions of good and evil that normalizes events even if they are found deficient, characters in Lancelot evaluate these events in their uniqueness. Interpretations of current social practices often end up more anxiety-producing and time-consuming than the events themselves; life for Lance becomes exhausting and trivial. Lance recoils from all of this and takes violent action, if only to convincingly respond to his own inertia and lifelessness. A sleeping adventurer awakened by his desire to find the truth, he embraces the Grail legend by reversing it into a negative quest to find a sin.
Early in Lancelot, Percy grants Lance the distinguished name of Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, a representative Southern last name that speaks for the South. The first and middle names allude to the great Anglican divine so admired by T. S. Eliot, thereby placing Lance at the source of southern culture, the 17th century. (1) The novel, however, goes even further back to stories about the Grail legend. Jessica Weston writes in From Ritual to Romance: "The poets and dreamers weave their magic words." But they were "not all myth, nor all fantasy; there was a basis of truth and reality at the foundation of the mystic growth.... The truth may lie very deep down, but it is there, and it is worth reading" (186). While Lance's name could stand for Lancelot du Lac of medieval chivalric fame, as well as the name of the weapon used by Arthurian knights, Lance himself is also a contemporary historian of manners and mores--in short, he is a walking embodiment of social practices in America of the 1960s and 1970s. Lance embraces contemporary social practices to transcend the Louisiana bayou and assimilate into modern America.
In the novel's opening, Percival quickly establishes himself, with Lance's help, as the intersubjective other. Because their friendship goes back to childhood, Lance is willing to speak to Percival, not to anyone else, stating that he noticed in him "an abstracted look in which I recognize a certain kinship of spirit" (4). Lance adds, "when I saw you yesterday, it was like seeing myself. I had the sense of being overtaken by something, by the past, by myself" (4). Percival encourages the emergence of the self that is Lancelot. Percival elicits Lance's awakening from his amnesia and the subsequent awareness of his selfhood, making it possible for him to know himself again. The phenomenological tradition has established from its beginning that "the other has been at the core of the self" (Oliver 117). Jay Tolson's biography, Pilgrim in the Ruins, suggests the extent to which the relationship between Lance and Percival is bound to the author and indicates their proximity to the context of Percy's life:
Percy was in fact writing a kind of Jungian drama between a self and a counterself, the self.... Both figures bear biographical resemblances ... to Percy. Lance, like Percy, has worked for civil-rights causes, drinks more than is good for him, feels increasingly contemptuous of the modern age and increasingly purposeless in his own life. Percival is linked most obviously to Percy by his name. He is even given the same college nickname, `Pussy,' that some of Percy's SAE brothers had given him.... The salient connection between them and Percy is their dramatization of his own internal conflict between despair and hope, selfishness and selflessness, contempt for the world and charity. (404)
Equally Percival and Lancelot, Percy separates himself from Lance's "despair" and "selfishness" through Percival's "hope" and "charity." Although Percival is silent, his presence provides the moral norm of the novel. Percy was theologically conservative, yet his political and social stance was liberal. Like Lancelot, Percy acted on behalf of racial equality in the South. Percy believed that acting on behalf of racial equality was positive and meaningful; Lance, however, is not so sure, since he seemed to lose his identity during his assimilation into the American political and social mainstream by way of his role as liberal attorney working for the NAACP.
In the novel's opening paragraph, Lance asks: "Have you noticed that the narrower the view, the more you can see?" (1). Lance makes additional references to the power of perception provided by the "narrow view" of the cell, suggesting the truth attendant to the exercise of the phenomenological reduction, which inevitably demands of him a kind of self-reflection that has not come easy to him. Lance relishes the semiotic indeterminacy of the sign outside his window that he only partially sees (2). He attempts to determine what the sign outside his window actually means. He has so little to view that he makes the most of it, taking none of it for granted. In one of his Conversations, Percy also commented on this opening scene:
Right now I'm trying to write a novel in which a man finds himself in …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Satire, Social Practice, and the Self in Percy's Lancelot. Contributors: Lecouras, Peter - Author. Journal title: Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature. Volume: 54. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2001. Page number: 67+. © 1999 Marquette University Press. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.