Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Will Barrett under the Telescope

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Will Barrett under the Telescope

Article excerpt

It is, of course, possible to be both a physician and a scholar of consciousness, yet not write like either one. In his fiction Walker Percy has brilliantly illustrated that possibility. So when he creates a narrator who calls attention to his medical and psychoanalytic knowledge, as he does in The Last Gentleman (1966), (1) we had better pay attention to such an aberration.

Percy's narrator immediately introduces his main character, Williston Bibb Barrett, aged twenty-five, just at the moment ready to look through a telescope. The place is the Great Meadow in New York's Central Park; the time is early summer, 1964. Although the narrator occasionally reveals the thinking of other characters, he discloses nothing of significance by such omniscience. It is clear that his only real concern is to render both the subjective experience and the objective behavior of Will Barrett, to which he adds, in a kind of "voice-over" technique, his own commentary. Such interpretation can of course be made only after reflection--say a generation later. It is possible that the narrator is viewing his twenty-five-year-old self through forty-seven-year-old eyes.

There is another reason that Walker Percy does not merely use the technique of first-person point of view. As the narrator describes Will Barrett's business with the telescope, he also provides a medical history. As a child, Will

   had had `spells,' occurrences which were nameless and not to be thought of,
   let alone mentioned, and which he therefore thought of as lying at the
   secret and somehow shameful heart of childhood itself. There was a name for
   it, he discovered later, which gave it form and habitation. It was deja vu,
   at least he reckoned it was. What happened anyhow was that even when he was
   a child and was sitting in the kitchen watching D'lo snap beans or make
   beaten biscuits, there came over him as it might come over a sorrowful old
   man the strongest sense that it had all happened before and that something
   else was going to happen and when it did he would know the secret of his
   own life. Things seemed to turn white and dense and time itself became
   freighted with an unspeakable emotion. Sometimes he `fell out,' and would
   wake up hours later, in his bed, refreshed but still haunted. (11)

Will's adult condition cannot be said to have improved: "To be specific, he had now a nervous condition and suffered spells of amnesia and even between times did not quite know what was what" (11). There will be more, but at this point the narrator is content with this summary: "A German physician once remarked that in the lives of people who suffer emotional illness he had noticed the presence of Lucken or gaps. As he studied the history of a particular patient he found whole sections missing, like a book with blank pages" (12). The "German" physician was Sigmund Freud, who used not once but often the image of Lucken to characterize mental life. More uses of the image, more than a dozen, occur in The Interpretation of Dreams than in any of his other works.

Soon the narrator prefaces an assertion with the inclusive structure "as every psychologist knows" (29). Now "psychologist" is rather a modest title in the current hierarchy of mental health practitioners; it seems hardly a title to suggest that the narrator himself is a specialist in such matters or, at the very least, that he is a very knowledgeable layman. But he knows that when Freud wrote his classic work on dreams, which is the foundation of psychoanalysis, he was still referring to himself as a psychologist. And the narrator does want to tie himself to The Interpretation of Dreams, for he intends to use the famous telescope of Chapter 7, Freud's scientific model for the "psychic apparatus." (2)

At the conclusion of that long book, after all his analyses of dreams, desperate to be accepted as a scientist, Freud, in "The Psychology of the Dream-Process," offers an explanatory model, although well aware of the danger that it will be taken too literally. …

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