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At the time of his death in 1990, Walker Percy left a considerable legacy of uncollected non-fiction. Now assembled here, these essays on language, literature, philosophy, religion, psychiatry, morality, and life and letters in the South display the imaginative versatility of this legendary writer.
Life in the South
Why I Live Where I Live
THE REASON I LIVE in Covington, Louisiana, is not because it was listed recently in Money as one of the best places in the United States to retire to. The reason is not that it is a pleasant place but rather that it is a pleasant nonplace. Covington is in the Deep South, which is supposed to have a strong sense of place. It does, but Covington occupies a kind of interstice in the South. It falls between places.
Technically speaking, Covington is a nonplace in a certain relation to a place (New Orleans), a relation that allows one to avoid the horrors of total placement or total nonplacement or total misplacement.
Total placement for a writer would be to live in a place like Charleston or Mobile, where one's family has lived for two hundred years. A pleasant enough prospect, you might suppose, but not for a writer—or not for this writer. Such places are haunted. Ancestors perch on your shoulder while you write. Faulkner managed to do it but only by drinking a great deal and by playing little charades, like pretending to be a farmer. It is necessary to escape the place of one's origins and the ghosts of one's ancestors but not too far. You wouldn't want to move to Tucumcari.
Total nonplacement would be to do what Descartes did, live anonymously among the burghers of Amsterdam. Or do what Kierkegaard did, live in the business district of Copenhagen, popout into the street every half hour, and speak to the shopkeepers so one will be thought an idler. It pleased Kierkegaard to be thought an idler at the very time he was turning out five books a year. On the other hand, a writer in the United States doesn't have to go to such lengths to be taken for an idler. Another type of nonplacement for a Southern writer is to live in a nondescript Northern place like Waterbury, Connecticut, or become writer in residence at Purdue. This is a matter of taste. It works for some very good writers, like Styron (in Connecticut), for whom the placeness of the South becomes too suffocating. Indeed, more often than not, it is only possible to write about the South by leaving it. For me, I miss the South if I am gone too long. I prefer to live in the South but on my own terms. It takes some doing to insert oneself in such a way as not to succumb to the ghosts of the Old South or the happy hustlers of the new Sunbelt South.
A popular and often necessary form of nonplacement is to hook up with academe, teaching or visiting in universities. This works for some writers. Indeed, it can be a godsend for serious writers who can rarely support themselves by writing. It works if one (a) is a good teacher or (b) is a bad teacher who doesn't care or (c) can both teach and write. For me, teaching is harder work than writing. It is hard enough to deal with words but having to deal with words and students overtaken as they are by their terrible needs, vulnerability, likability, intelligence, and dumbness wears me out. How I respect and envy the gifted teacher!
Total misplacement is to live in another place, usually an exotic place, which is so strongly informed by its exoticness that the writer, who has fled his haunted place or his vacant nonplace and who feels somewhat ghostly himself, somehow expects to become informed by the exotic identity of the new place. A real bummer if you ask me, yet it has worked for some. Hemingway in Paris and Madrid. Sherwood Anderson in New Orleans, Malcolm Lowry in Mexico, Vidal in Italy, Tennessee Williams in Key West, James Jones on the Ile St.-Louis in Paris. Such a remove is a reasonable alternative to Northern ghostliness but unfortunately only a temporary one. Even James Baldwin and Richard Wright had to come home. Northern (by Northern, I mean upper North Hemisphere—North America, England, Sweden, Germany) ghostlinesstends to evacuate a Latin neighborhood, like a drop of acid on a map of Mexico.
There is a species of consumption at work here. Places are consumed nowadays. The more delectable the place, the quicker it is ingested, digested, and turned to feces. Once I lived in Santa Fe, a lovely placid place, but after a while the silver-and-turquoise jewelry, the Pueblo Indians, the mesquite, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, became as commonplace, used up, as Dixie beer, good old boys, and Nashville music. After a sojourn in the desert, memories of Louisiana green become irresistible.
Another sort of nonplacement traditionally available to writers, and paradoxically felicitous, is enforced placement in a nonplace—that is, exile or imprisonment. I don't have to tell you how well Cervantes and some other writers have done in jail. My own suspicion is that many American writers secretly envy writers like Solzhenitsyn, who get sent to the Gulag camps for their writings, keep writing on toilet paper, take on the whole bloody state—and win. The total freedom of writers in this country can be distressing. What a burden to bear, that the government not only allows us complete freedom—even freedom for atrocities like MacBird!—but, like ninety- five percent of Americans, couldn't care less what we write. Oh, you lucky Dostoevskys, with your firing squads (imagine shooting an American writer!), exiles, prison camps, nuthouses. True, American writers are often regarded as nuts but as harmless ones. So the exile has to be self-imposed—which has its drawbacks. One goes storming off, holes up in Montmartre or Algiers, cursing McCarthyism, racism, TV, shopping centers, consumerism, and no one pays the slightest attention. Months, years, later, one saunters back, hands in pockets, eyes averted—but no one is looking now either. Mailer and Vidal write books reviling the establishment—and make main selection of Book-of-the-Month.
Free people have a serious problem with place, being in a place, using up a place, deciding which new place to rotate to. Americans ricochet around the United States like billiard balls. Swedes, Americans, Germans, and the English play musical chairs with places, usually Southern places (all but the French, who think they live in the Place). But for writers, place is a special problem because they never fitted in in the first place. The problem is to choose a place where one's native terror is not completely neutralized (like a writer who disappears into Cuernavaca and coke happily and forever) but rendered barely tolerable.
Here in Covington, one is able to insert oneself into the South, a region celebrated for its strong sense of place and roots, which most Southern writers can't stand and have to get away from and so go North, where they can sit in desolate bars and go on about how lovely the South looks—from there. Witness the writers of the Agrarian Movement in the South, nearly all of whom ended up in Northern universities. What makes the insertion possible is that Covington is a nonplace but the right sort of nonplace. Here is one place in the South where a writer can live as happily as a bug in a crack in the sidewalk, where he can mosey out now and then and sniff the air just to make sure this is not just any crack in any sidewalk.
The pleasantest things about Covington are its nearness to New Orleans—which is very much of a place, drenched in its identity, its history, and its rather self-conscious exotica—and its own attractive lack of identity, lack of placeness, even lack of history. Nothing has ever happened here, no great triumphs or tragedies. In fact, people seldom die. The pine trees are supposed to secrete a healthful ozone that has given Covington the reputation of being the "second healthiest place on earth" (I never found out what the first was). I thought this was part of the local moonshine until my friend Steve Ellis, judge and historian, showed me newspaper clippings for a year of a yellow-fever outbreak in New Orleans. Even though Covington received refugees by the hundreds that year, nobody died of yellow fever and only a few people died of any cause.
Covington is a cheerfully anomalous place. Its major streets have New England names—Boston, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rutland—and nobody seems to know why or care. It is the seat of the parish (what counties are called in Louisiana) of St. Tammany. This name, thought up by the first American governor of Louisiana, was probably a joke or a jibe at the French practice of using saints' names, like St. John the Baptist Parish.
When I first saw Covington, having driven over from NewOrleans one day, I took one look around, sniffed the ozone, and exclaimed unlike Brigham Young: "This is the nonplace for me!" It had no country clubs, no subdivisions, no Chamber of Commerce, no hospitals, no psychiatrists (now it has all these). I didn't know anybody, had no kin here. A stranger in my own country. A perfect place for a writer! I bought a house the following week.
Another attraction is Covington's rather admirable tradition of orneriness and dissent, its positive genius for choosing the wrong side in the issues of the day, and its abiding indifference to the currents of history. It is a backwater of a backwater. Yet the region was a refuge for Tories in full flight from the crazy American revolutionaries. Shortly thereafter, when several local parishes revolted against Spain to set up their own republic—capital at St. Francisville, flag with one star, which lasted three months—Covington was against it. It liked the Spanish. Then when the United States and Louisiana proposed to annex the Republic of West Florida, we voted against it. We didn't like Louisiana. When Louisiana voted to secede from the Union in 1861, we voted against that, too. We liked the Union. Yet when the war was over, slave owners kept their slaves as if the Emancipation Proclamation never occurred. During the years of Prohibition, the Little Napoleon bar served drinks.
Things have changed in recent years. We have joined the Sunbelt with a vengeance, are in fact one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. It is worrisome to be written up by Money magazine, but more ominous is the plan afoot to build a "theme park" here, like Walt Disney World but bigger.
Covington is now threatened by progress. It has become a little jewel in the Sunbelt and is in serious danger of being written up in Southern Living, what with its restored shotgun cottages, live oaks, nifty shops, converted depot. Its politics, no longer strange, have become standard Sunbelt Reagan. There are as many Carter jokes as there used to be Roosevelt and Kennedy jokes in Mississippi. The level of political debate lies somewhere between Genghis Khan and the Incredible Hulk. The center is holding only too well, about ninety degrees to the right of center—which is not necessarily bad. Whenever I get depressed about living in a place where the main political issue is Reagan versus Connally, I haveonly to imagine what it would be like to live in a McGovernite community. Southern conservatives, in my experience, are more tolerant than Northern liberals. That is to say, they put up with "liberal" writers with better grace than Berkeley would put up, say, with Buckley. A Southern writer is allowed his eccentricities. The prevailing attitude is a kind of benevolent neglect. As the saying goes in these parts: He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch. A minor cultural note: In my opinion, local Yankee racists are worse than Southern racists; they don't even like Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas. One can only wonder how Abraham Lincoln ever talked these people into fighting a war to free slaves. And the main difference between local country-clubbers (affluent, often Midwestern) and the local Klan (poor, Southern) is that the former tolerate Jews and Catholics, probably because there are so few Jews and the Catholics are generally as conservative as country-club WASPs.
But these are minor matters. The worst of it is that Covington may be in danger of losing its peculiar distinction of being a pleasant backwater lost, but not too lost, in the interstices of place and time. One of the first things to attract me to Covington was the complaint of a former resident: "My God, you could live back in those pine trees for twenty years and never meet your neighbor—it's as bad as New York." Hmm. Sounds like my kind of place. The best of both worlds: a small Southern town, yet one can live as one pleases. There are all manner of folk here—even a writer can make good friends—indeed, an unusual and felicitous mix of types, Mississippi WASPs, Creole Catholics, Cajun Catholics, natives, pleasant blacks (who, for reasons that escape me, have remained pleasant), theosophists, every variety of Yankee. Any one group might be hard to take as a majority, but put together the lump gets leavened.
Covington is strategically located on the border between the Bible Belt and the Creole–French–Italian–German South. The two cultures interpenetrate. Good old Mississippi types march in Mardi Gras parades. Cajun types drive Ford Ranger pickups and listen to Loretta Lynn. I FOUND IT! bumper stickers abound (in case you didn't know, IT is Jesus Christ). But there is also the sardonic Catholic rejoinder, I NEVER LOST IT. And then there are stickersin the old eccentric tradition: I LOST MY ANOMIE IN ST. TAMMANY. As well as: GOAT ROPERS NEED LOVE TOO. True.
So it is possible to live in both cultures without being suffocated by the one or seduced by the other. New Orleans may be too seductive for a writer. Known hereabouts as the Big Easy, it may be too easy, too pleasant. Faulkner was charmed to a standstill and didn't really get going until he returned to Mississippi and invented his county. The occupational hazard of the writer in New Orleans is a variety of the French flu, which might also be called the Vieux Carré syndrome. One is apt to turn fey, potter about a patio, and write feuilletons and vignettes or catty romans à clef, a pleasant enough life but for me too seductive.
On the other hand, it is often a good idea to go against demographic trends, reverse the flight to the country, return to the ruined heart of the city. When the French Quarter is completely ruined by the tourists—and deserted by them—it will again be a good place to live. I'm sick of cutting grass. Covington lies at the green heart of green Louisiana, a green jungle of pines, azaleas, camellias, dogwood, grapevines, and billions of blades of grass. I've begun to hear the grass growing at night. It costs $25 to get my lawn mower fixed. If my wife would allow it, I would end my days in a French cottage on Rue Dauphine with a small paved patio and not a single blade of grass.
A Chinese curse condemns one to live in interesting and eventful times. The best thing about Covington is that it is in a certain sense out of place and time but not too far out and therefore just the place for a Chinese scholar who asks nothing more than being left alone. One can sniff the ozone from the pine trees, visit the local bars, eat crawfish, and drink Dixie beer and feel as good as it is possible to feel in this awfully interesting century. And now and then, drive across the lake to New Orleans, still an entrancing city, eat trout amandine at Galatoire's, drive home to my pleasant, uninteresting place, try to figure out how the world got into such a fix, shrug, take a drink, and listen to the frogs tune up.
Excerpted from Signposts in a Strange Land by Walker Percy. Copyright © 1991 Mary Bernice Percy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 9, 2014
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