Identity, Abortion and Walker Percy

Article excerpt

When a number of books about the American Civil War appeared in the late 1950s, including Bruce Catton's This Hallowed Ground and Shelby Foote's Shiloh, the novelist Walker Percy (1916-1990) accounted for the resurgent interest in the long-ago war by surmising that "the whole country, the South included, is just beginning to see the Civil War whole and entire for the first time. The thing was too big and too bloody, too full of suffering and hatred, too closely knit into the fabric of our meaning as a people, to be held off and looked at - until now."1 Percy wrote that four years before the publication of his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), which won the National Book Award. Nevertheless, it broached a theme that he would tackle again and again in his six novels: how we understand our identity, claim the inheritance of our fallen nature. In his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), he returned to this theme by considering what he called "the widespread and ongoing devaluation of human life . . . under various sentimental disguises: 'quality of life,' 'pointless suffering,' 'termination of life without meaning,' etc."2 The form of devaluation with which Percy became most concerned was abortion, though he also decried the related rise of eugenics, euthanasia, and pharmacology.

Since Western society is still waging its war against unborn children, it is not possible to step back and grasp the full import of this war. Still, Percy recognized that the grounds of this development are, in their way, as inscrutable as the grounds for the Civil War. "Not being a historian, I don't know what the cause of that war was," he admitted in one article, "whether it was fought purely and simply over slavery, or over states' rights, or, as Allen Tate once said, because the South didn't want to be put in Arrow collars."3 What he did know was that the war against unborn children could not be understood simply as a political or even a moral debate between the pro-life and the pro-choice - if anything, it was the consequence of an even bigger and bloodier division than the one that pitted Yankees against Confederates. Beginning with Descartes in the 17th century, this division tore body and soul completely asunder and saddled the Western mind with misconceptions about the nature of human identity that have almost entirely derailed philosophy. Percy described the circumstances in which these misconceptions arose in terms that are fairly indisputable:

The old modern age has ended. We live in a post-modern as well as a post-Christian age.... It is post-Christian in the sense that people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble, and whose salvation depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ. It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos, which itself is understandable by natural science - this also has ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century. The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage, which, in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia. As the century draws to a close [Percy wrote this in 1990], it does not have a name, but it can be described. It is the most scientifically advanced, savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.4

Here is the philosophical context in which Percy placed the emergence of abortion on demand. Before looking at how he treated the subject in his writings, I should say something about his life.

No one can read of Percy's life without seeing that his solicitude for unborn children had deep roots in his personal history. He was descended from English Protestant planters and lawyers who arrived in the South in the 18th century and settled in Birmingham, Alabama. …