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. …