Walker Percy's Bible Notes and His Fiction: Gracious Obscenity
Wilson, Franklin Arthur, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
IN The Moviegoer (MG), The Last Gentleman (LG), Love in the Ruins (LR), and The Thanatos Syndrome (TS), Walker Percy uses the unlikely images of a dung beetle, bowel movements, the deaths of children, and even genocide to express the sacramental presence of God in the often traumatic mess of human existence. This article will argue that Percy's use of the grotesquely obscene is explained in part by his reading of the Bible and the notes he made in the Bible and certain other related books that he owned. Taking off from a few of those annotations in the Gospel of John, the article explores Percy's literary uses of obscenity as a means of grace.
A survey of the Walker Percy Library in the Rare Book Collection at the University of North Carolina indicates at least the following biblical volumes: two paperback copies of the New Testament, one hardbound copy of the Douai-Rheims Bible, and one hardbound (two volumes of the Old Testament; one volume of the New Testament) Bible translated by Monsignor Ronald Knox. (1) All scripture references in this article will come from the three-volume Ronald Knox translation, hereafter referred to as the Knox Bible or Knox NT. Percy left more than 600 penciled notes, underlines, and marginal marks in his Knox Bible.
Reading Percy in light of the Bible is hardly original. Patrick Samway relates how Percy reported the importance of the Bible to his work (470). Gary Ciuba has considered Percy's novels in relation to biblical apocalyptic (23), and Lewis Lawson has noted the use of the Bible in Percy's introduction to "The Delta Factor" (3). Yet, little if any work has been done on correlations between Percy's Bible notes and his novels. While critics have examined Percy's sacramental orientation, no one has stressed Percy's juxtaposition of the sacramental with the obscene. Alan Pridgen has studied Percy's "sacramental landscapes," but has taken little notice of the obscene (23-24). For his part, Farrell O'Gorman has noted that Percy and Flannery O'Connor share a "sacramental vision" (146), but does little more than affirm that, "The here and now is worth writing about because God is present in it" (148). Commenting on Lance Lamar's loss of a sacramental view, John Desmond writes that, "A sacrament represents the interpenetration of the divine and the physical world, so that the physical becomes mysteriously an instrument or medium of grace" (69-70). This essay will carry these insights further by suggesting that the power of Percy's sacramental imagery derives, at least in part, from the scandalous interpenetration of the holy and the obscene as noted in his Knox Bible.
Following his notes in the Fourth Gospel, Percy stresses the issue of the Incarnation, God's participation in human flesh, including suffering, and death. Percy's notion of sacramental obscenity may derive from his reading of John 9--the story of "the man born blind." In his Knox NT, at John 9.6 ("With that, he spat on the ground, and made clay with the spittle; then he spread clay on the man's eyes ..."), Percy writes in the fight margin, "Sensible", and then with a line connects Sensible to the text ("made clay with the spittle"), and beneath Sensible he writes, "Power, obscenity, Belief." Percy graphically notes the relationship between Christ's power displayed via the earthy combination of spit and dirt applied as clay to the man's eyes. This he terms "obscenity." The obscenity manifests itself in the use of spit and dirt in the communication of divine grace in the form of healing. In the Fourth Gospel, earthy-human stuff becomes the medium of divine power leading to the insight that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. Thus, in John 9, divine grace operates within an obscene nexus of human bodily fluid, dirt, blindness, the divine power of a heterodox rabbi, and faith. In the Gospel, the confluence of grace and obscenity offends religious authorities who disassociate grace from obscenity and, moreover, assume such healing is not a sign of grace, but of sin. …