In this important study, Kieran Quinlan examines the theological principles and religious views that underlay Walker Percy’s writingprimarily his belief in the validity and efficacy of the Roman Catholic faithand offers some new and controversial conclusions.
Quinlan grounds the writer’s concerns squarely in the context of the intellectual milieu of the 1940s, citing the influence of Jacques Maritain’s The Dream of Descartes and the conversions of prominent contemporaries such as Thomas Merton, Robert Lowell, and Allen Tate. In an illuminating discussion, Quinlan follows the future novelist through the events that would mold his sensibility: his father’s suicide in 1929; his rearing by William Alexander Percy, himself a former Catholic, who inculcated the young man with the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius; and his contraction of tuberculosis and subsequent long convalescence, during which he studied Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, and Heideggerthinkers pivotal in his own development as a Catholic novelist.
With a mind keenly attuned to philosophical nuances and an impressive grasp of semiotics and theology, Quinlan deftly presents close readings of the novels, from the muted Catholicism of The Moviegoer to the explicit agendas of The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, and The Thanatos Syndrome. He shows how Percy contrasts Catholicism with Stoicism in Lancelot and The Second Coming. He also sheds light on the dense and often abstruse arguments of the philosophical essays, asserting that Percy, despite his early attention to existentialism, was actually a neo-Thomist rationalist who rejected Kierkegaard’s irrational “leap of faith.” Lost in the Cosmos, Quinlan demonstrates, is an ambitious work requiring that its readers move beyond the realm of a comfortable skepticism.
Critical but respectful, Quinlan points out Percy’s confusion and frank lack of knowledge on the topic of linguistics. He also questions many aspects of Percy’s philosophical and theological views in light of current thinking in those disciplines, stressing in particular Percy’s failure to address the very real problems that an evolutionary view of the universe poses for the traditional revealed religions.
Quinlan presents here a searching, lucidly written examination of a spiritual pilgrim whose vision of the world, he finally maintains, is no longer tenable (thus making Percy “the last Catholic novelist”) yet is admirable in its steadfast dignity. It is a book that is sure to arouse controversy and debate in our understanding of an important contemporary novelist.
About the Author
Kieran Quinlan is associate professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the author of John Crowe Ransom’s Secular Faith.