Walker Percy, American novelist and essayist, was an admirer of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Samway examines the spiritual lives of these two noted Catholic writers, one a priest and the other a physician. First, the Jesuit connection ...
Let me begin with an unambiguous statement: On several occasions, Walker Percy (1916-1990), the noted American novelist and essayist, told me how much he admired Gerard Manley Hopkins, though I doubt very much that he had ever studied Hopkins' poetry during his four years as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
By happenstance I did my graduate work in English and American literature at this same university. My first professor there, Harry Russell, had an academic influence on Percy as he did on me. I know from personal experience that Professor Russell admired the writings of James Joyce, though we never discussed the poetry of Hopkins in class. Conclusion: Walker Percy read Hopkins on his own, not in a literature class. In 1962, he said that Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, St. Augustine, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Hopkins, and Gabriel Marcel meant the most to him, in that order, though he sometimes altered the list of those who had influenced him.
The spiritual lives of these two noted Catholic writers, one a priest and the other a physician, intersect achronologically in two significant ways. First, the Jesuit connection. As a convert to Catholicism, Percy lived most of his adult life in Covington, Louisiana, and, as he was fond of saying, was less well-known than the Budweiser distributor. Here, in this small Catholic enclave deep within the Protestant Bible Belt, Percy fostered a deep spiritual life, which he repeatedly said he felt uncomfortable discussing, unlike the unabashed theological views Hopkins expressed in "God's Grandeur," Pied Beauty," and "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the Comfort of the Resurrection." In his essay, "Why Are You a Catholic?" Percy maintained matter-of-factly: "The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true." Hopkins could have written the same sentence, but one could hardly imagine Hopkins to have adopted Percy's laid-back repartee, as he dealt with the following redneck proposition: "Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is not only a foreign power but a fascist power." Percy was not hesitant about unpacking this loaded statement:
Or, when in a group of less educated persons, perhaps in a small-town barbershop, one of whom, let us say an ex-member of the Ku Klux Klan-who are not bad fellows actually, at least hereabouts, except when it comes to blacks, Jews, and Catholics-when one of them comes out with something like 'The Catholic Church is a piece of shit' then one feels entitled to a polite rebuttal in both cases, in the one with something like 'Well, hold on, let us examine the terms, power, foreign, fascist-' and so on, and in the case of the other, responding in the same tone of casual barbershop bonhomie with, say, 'Truthfully, Lester, you're something of a shit yourself, even for white trash-' without in either case disrupting, necessarily, the general amiability. (pp. 305-06)
If Hopkins plowed the high Victorian ground of "of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness," as he wrote in a letter to A.W.M. Baillie (September 10, 1864), Percy cultivated mid-to-late 20 th -century American soil where words and images about God had long ceased to provide vital nutrients, and for this reason he chose to portray in his novels characters who live on the margins of society, who, nevertheless, look beyond themselves, as if they might be searching for something or somebody. Yet Percy's Catholic faith was enhanced and deepened during the 23 traditional three-day retreats he made at two Jesuit retreat houses. Hearing, reflecting, reading, praying under the guidance of a passel of Jesuit retreat masters provided Percy moments-year in, year out-to come closer to Jesus the Christ. The charism of Ignatius of Loyola left a distinct imprint on Percy's spirituality, and it would not be too far-fetched to relate Hopkins' appreciation of Ignatian discernment, as expressed in his letter to R.W. Dixon (December 1, 1881) and in his address on the opening of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, with Percy's notion of diagnosing the malaise in modern society, under the wider umbrella, in both cases, of "finding God in all things."
Both Hopkins and Percy had a profound and articulate concern for language and how it functions in both ordinary and literary ways: Hopkins, from his background in Latin, Greek, Welsh, and English poetry and the writings of Duns Scotus, into the nature of metrical discourse, and Percy, from his reading of Kierkegaard and the French existentialists and his driving desire to interpret the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, a noted turn-of-the-century American philosopher, into what it means to be a distinctive human being. From different starting points, Hopkins and Percy wanted to formulate an intelligent and intelligible salvific metaphysics by focusing on dimensions of the English language as both revealing and participating in the fullness of a sacramental cosmology.
Percy's developing interest in linguistics can be traced back to an review he wrote of Susanne Langer's book Feeling and Form , entitled "Symbol as Need," for the autumn 1954 issue of Thought . To prepare for this essay, Percy read Langer's earlier Philosophy in a New Key and traced the progress of her thought from her first book to the second, noting that Langer's new book in philosophy "is the universal symbolic function of the human mind." " Feeling and Form ," he noted, "is written with all the power and contagious excitement of a first-class mind exercising a valuable new insight. In brief, it is an application to art of a general thesis that the peculiarly human response is that of symbolic transformation." Percy was most attracted to the notion that each art form symbolizes not a series of abstract thoughts but the felt life of the artist, something echoed in Hopkins' letter to Robert Bridges (August 21, 1877), where he writes, "I may add for your greater interest and edification that what refers to myself in the poem ["The Wreck of the Deutschland"] is all strictly and literally true and did all occur; nothing is added for poetical padding." A commitment to truth and a belief that artistic expression encapsulates polyvalent realities as filtered through a personal imagination (not Coleridge's fancy) provided each author the desire to locate and discover the "dearest freshness deep down things."
Percy's passionate study of semiotics, culminating in the 15 essays on language theory published in his The Message in the Bottle , plus the handful published in a book I edited, entitled Signposts in a Strange Land, was based not just on the reading he had done, but on the felt difficulties he was having in his own living room, kitchen, and backyard with his deaf daughter Ann, who, when he published his essay "Semiotic and a Theory of Knowledge" in the May 1957 issue of The Modern Schoolman , was not yet three years old. Percy's interaction with Ann reminded him constantly of the importance of speech and human communication. It is not difficult to understand why Percy in this essay asked a basic question: "Why is it, we begin to wonder, the semioticists refuse to deal with symbolization, excepting only as it is governed by semantic rules?" Through lived experience, Percy felt the need to explore the Helen Keller paradigm, by stressing his belief that words were more than just signs, and specifically that the word "water" denoted and meant the substance water: " The irreducible condition of every act of symbolization is the rendering intelligible: this is to say, the formulation of experience for a real or implied someone else ." In much the same way, Hopkins believed that physical realities, such as his beloved bluebell, participate in a spiritual reality without diminishing their physical existence. As Bernadette Waterman Ward reminds us, "[t]he divine inscapes present in nature exist in reality but are brought into reality by the human mind" (p. 142). From his background in chemistry and biology, Percy believed that science as we know it cannot utter a single word about what is distinctive in human behavior, language, art, and thought itself-in short, what it is to be born, to live, and to die as a human being. Every sign-event, as Peirce and Percy held, created moments of endless intelligible possibility. In a Catholic Thomistic economy, the res et sacramentum signify "the thing-which-is-also-a-divine sign and inversely the divine sign-which-is-also-a-thing, a yoking dramatically captured in Hopkins' "At the Wedding March," where two-nay, three-become one in flesh. Above all, Percy and Hopkins believed that a creative writer's task is to select words so accurately that they go beyond evoking a dramatic sense of probability to re-present-ing the real. Like Hopkins, Percy delighted in the multiplicity of language through which the Logos is revealed and by which "relations of socially active meaning," as Ward puts it, can be discerned, grasped, and given a home, whose doors lead to further mansions filled with heart-warming mystery (p. 147).
Percy spelled out most clearly his interest in language in his magisterial talk delivered as the 18 th Jefferson Lecture in May 1989 entitled The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind. He wanted to find the linking entity between mind and object. "The task he set about in fiction and in his discursive writings was to demonstrate directly and indirectly," as John Desmond explains, "the epistemological coherence that he believed was attainable by the modern mind through the study of the human use of language. This attainable coherence would make possible a reunification of an authentic scientific viewpoint and the arts. In one sense, Percy's whole career can be seen as an attempt to undermine the regnant ideology of scientism on the one hand, and, on the other, to heal the rift between science and the arts by demonstrating that, although they approach the truth in different ways, science and the arts are wholly compatible because they share an integral metaphysical foundation. Both science and the arts are concerned with the search for truth, and truth, Percy said, echoing the Scholastics, cannot contradict itself." Hopkins, too, found in Scotus' Commentary on the Sentences a framework for considering theology as a science that can lead to intellectual certainty. Omitting a number of important dimensions of Peirce's philosophy, particularly its logical and mathematical components, Percy furthermore focused on the mind or coupler-a nonmaterial third element-that interpreted the complex signs within its purview. In his essay "The Principles of Phenomenology" Peirce vigorously attacked the nominalist position and in response offered his own concept of Thirdness to defend the validity of universals, a concept derived in part from the realism of Duns Scotus. It would be nice to think that Scotus provides the definitive connection between Hopkins and Percy, but that would be too presumptuous, at least for me, to accept that Percy mined successfully the intricacies of Scotus' thought, as he attempted, but failed to do, with the systematic writings of John of St. Thomas. Rather Percy desired to integrate what Descartes had separated, that is mens with res extensa , not necessarily in terms of a theological premise, nor as an item in a linguistic structure, but from the stance of natural science, the science of man, as something out there to be made sense of as one makes sense of a sunset or a bird migration. Through naming, human beings are capable of achieving truths that are independent of the mind, though they are known through mental and spiritual processes. Percy wanted to demonstrate through a study of Peircean semiotics, that is, from a scientific perspective (not through pseudo-scientism) "the epistemological root in the nature of being itself.." As he noted in his Jefferson lecture, the sciences of man are incoherent, though the solution would be found precisely in science itself, and not necessarily in the humanities or religion. Through the science of semiotics, which unites all dimensions of the human predicament, one could find the coherence that no one single discipline possesses in and of itself.
In the final analysis, Percy called himself as a realist, in the Scholastic-and, most importantly, Peircean sense of the word-thus affirming that a human being can know truth as mediated through symbols, which, at the same time, participate in the thing signified, and which find assurance ultimately in the presence of Jesus the Christ in the Eucharist. In this economy, the spiritual or non-material, as determined in a scientific way, that is, within science itself, is, as one might put it, really real. Percy left it too others, such as his mentor Thomas Sebeok and John Deeley, to provide the historical connections between medieval Scholasticism and Peirce's triadic theory. Suffice it to say, the human mind is capable of attaining universal truths that are ultimately rooted in the mind of God. "The realist position on language," as Desmond and countless Thomists have maintained, "is an essentialist one that affirms human language as the medium between mind and independent existent reality, whose intelligible form can be known--indirectly--and named. More specifically, Percy's linguistic realism is at the core of his belief in the intrinsic link between Christianity, a genuine scientific method, and the practice of literature, and hence at the center of his hope for a reintegration of science, religion and the arts." Through our participation in the Word-of-God-made-flesh, human beings are capable of making verbal symbols, both scientifically and artistically, that both express and embody ultimate ontological significance. Thus, for Percy, as for Flannery O'Connor, the sacramental (or sign) nature of Catholicism-its everydayness or matter-of-factness-does not hinder but rather promotes authenticity.
Percy often enfolded a Peircean sensibility into his fiction, as diverse as portraying a dying boy in The Moviegoer telling his half-brother, "I love you," to the creation of Allison Huger's schizophrenic speech patterns that enflesh new metaphors of love in The Second Coming (not dissimilar to the private code created by Anna in Lancelot ), to the depiction of Father Simon Rinaldo Smith in The Thanatos Syndrome , who locates fires high up in a tower through a process of triangulation. Father Smith knows from his experience that one locates destructive "bushfires or God by signs and coordinates." In another example, this time taken from Lancelot , Lancelot Lamar, a patient in the Center for Aberrant Behavior in New Orleans, looks out of his window to see not only a corner of Lafayette Cemetery, but a slice of the levee and a short stretch of Annunciation Street. Yet, if he leans into the embrasure and cranes his neck as far left as possible, he can also see part of a sign around the corner. With the utmost effort, he can make out the following letters:
Free & Easy Mac's Bowling or Free & Accepted Masons Bar -neither of which makes sense now or later in the course of the novel. What is important, however, is that Lance is trying to interpret the signs in his life, where one possibility leads to another. Percy is onto something here, but as the author he wont quite tell us what, less it mar the thrill of personal discovery. In a more direct way, Hopkins considered the physical sounds of words and the way they are positioned and stressed as revelatory of the Creator; a knowledge of creation finds its proper end, not in a poststructuralist linguistic quicksand, but in the knowledge of God. Yet each, to use Faulkner's image, cultivated a postage stamp of native soil, making sure that the language they used incarnated the soundest of human sense.
For a representative sampling of the letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, see his Selected Letters , edited by Catherine Phillips, Harriet Martineau, and Valerie Sanders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
I am indebted particularly to two of Bernadette Waterman Ward's essays, "Sacraments and Poetry" and "Duns Scotus: Formalitas and Inscape," World as Word: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins (Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), pp. 131-57, 158-97. See also A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy , edited by Patrick Samway, S.J. (Jackson: University Press of Mississppi, 1995).
See for example, Thomas Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok, The Semiotic Web (Berkeley: Mounton de Gruyter, 1989) and John Poinsot, Tractatus de Signis: The Semiotic of John Poinsot , with interpretative arrangement by John Deeley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), a work that Percy admired, as he once told me.
|| Scottish View of Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Explore other areas of The Hopkins Archive || Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Climb to Transcendence || Hart Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins | How Father Hopkins SJ Prays || Oscar Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Flannery O Connor and Hopkins || Levelling with God || || || Polish writer Norwid and Hopkins influence || Walker Percy and Gerard Manley Hopkins ||