Walker Percy’s “Lancelot”: a Philosophical Novel

Screenshot 2014-07-04 11.01.59Lancelot is probably the most controversial of the six novels written by Walker Percy, who is considered one of the greatest provocative “existentialist” voices in American literature. His first novel The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award.

 Percy followed the philosophical path of Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and other relevant writers and philosophers. He was born in Alabama in 1916 and belongs to the extraordinary group of American Southern writers which includes William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Styron, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Tom Wolf, etc. Most of their works are marked by the “Southern Culture” which, for historical reasons, is different from the North and the West. New Orleans is one of the favorite places where some of the novels take place, as it is a multilingual city located in Louisiana, a State with a distinct culture breeding from a diverse ethnic population influenced by its background as a former French colony sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1812.

 Walker Percy’s life was full of tragedies. When Percy was 13 years old, his father committed suicide. Three years later, his mother was killed driving her car, which plunged into a river – many think it was intentional. He and his two brothers were then adopted by their uncle, a wealthy owner of a large plantation, a poet and a writer who was a friend of many important Southern writers including William Faulkner. His uncle, a lawyer graduated from Harvard, offered great help to the local poor and black people to get mortgage loans, which is noted by Peter Augustine Lawler in his anthology book titled A Political Companion to Walker Percy, the Percy family “..were vigorous opponents of bigotry and narrow-mindedness, especially when it was directed against Catholics, Jews, and Negroes”. His uncle was also openly against the Ku Klux Klan, which was at that time very powerful in the South.

With the support of his uncle, young Percy attended the most prestigious schools. After graduating from Columbia Medical School, he worked as an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he contracted a rare kind of tuberculosis. He was then forced to be in isolation for three years at the Trudeau Sanatorium near Saranac Lake in up-state New York. Under the influence of his uncle’s literary background, during this timePercy became a voracious reader of St. Thomas, St. Agustin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus and, for obvious reasons, Thomas Mann, whose Magic Mountain portrays people in a secluded situation similar to his. Due to this unexpected experience, Percy decided to abandon medicine and dedicated his life to writing, thus turning into a “confessed philosophical novelist preoccupied with the nature of the world and man’s purpose..”, according to Susan Lardner (Miscreants, The New Yorker, 02 May ,1997)

 Percy’s novels take place in New Orleans, where he lived most of his life, His main characters, like himself, are highly individualistic with a solitary nature and are inclined to explore their own existences, covering subjects such as social background, idiosyncratic traditions and religion, mainly Catholicism as Percy became a Roman Catholic since marrying his wife.

 Taking into account the number of suicides in Percy’s family, the issue of “suicide” cannot but be present, implicitly or explicitly, in some of his novels. For example, in The Moviegoer one of the characters contemplates suicide and in The Last Gentleman a suicide actually takes place.

 Percy’s experiences with the recurring hurricanes in New Orleans, some with deadly effects, also become a motif of his novels. Furthermore, Percy tends to include the notion of “accident” or “incident” that dramatically changes the lives of the main characters in his stories and therefore brings them into such a depressed state that they blame the situation on what they view as the corrupted “Zeitgeist” i.e. the spirit of their time.

Percy incorporates all these elements as the key parts in the plot of his fourth novel Lancelot, published in 1977. The protagonist Lancelot seems to be locked somewhere like a jail or a mental hospital. The novel is basically an elaborate and complex monologue that Lancelot has with Percival, who can be a friend, a psychotherapist or a priest that visits him and listens to his story and troubled past. “…whether prison or not, is not a bad place to spend a year he tells his attentive listener. By using the names of two of the most famous Knights of the Round Table involved in the quest for the Holy Grail, Percy seems to have drawn some parallels between the two stories. Lancelot, like the Knight, is associated with tragedy and adultery, ending up disillusioned in solitary confinement, seeking redemption after a series of calamities, whereas Percival is the Knight that represents the values of Christianity. Another relevant reference is that in the novel Percy briefly mentions Queen Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife who commits adultery with Lancelot.

 In the beginning of the novel Lancelot tells Percival that he decided to kill his wife after he “discovered purely by chance that my wife had been, and probably was still, unfaithful to me”. The “accidental revelationconveys profound outrage and disappointment with life, a feeling that makes it impossible for him to have any form of trust in others, including romantic relationships. He blames the prevailing decadent culture of his time, sermonizing like a madman, “I can’t tolerate this age.. Make love not war? I’ll take war rather than what this age calls love. Which is a better world, this cocksucking cuntlapping assholelicking fornicating Happyland USA.Lancelot also associates his anger and resentment with religion when he says “God’s secret design for man is that man’s happiness lies for men in men practicing violence upon women and that woman’s happiness lies in submitting to it.

 In addition to the moral and religious remarks to justify the brutal act of killing his wife, Lancelot also mentions the political context of his indignation, telling Percival that his country “is down the drain. Everyone knows it. The people have lost it to the politicians, bureaucrats, drunk Congressmen, lying Presidents, White House preachers, C.I.A., F.B.I., Mafia, Pentagon, pornographers, muggers, buggers, bribers, bribe takers, rich crooked cowboys, sclerotic Southerners, rich crooked Yankees, dirty books, dirty movies, dirty plays, dirty talk shows, dirty soap operas, fags, lesbians, abortionists, Jesus shouters, anti-Jesus shouters, dying cities, dying schools, courses in how to fuck for schoolchildren.Clearly Percy does not share Lancelot’s extreme opinions which, however, some people do embrace in the US till today.

Although Percy portraits Lancelot as a sophisticated thinker at times, in the end he looks like a deranged man so full of contradictions that he murders his wife without remorse. To make his character more complex, Percy adds the notion of “redemption” like the Knight of the Round Table. Lancelot tells Percival that once he is released from jail or the madhouse, he wants to marry the woman from the next door cell, who was gangraped and is recovering from the traumatic experience. Women must be saved from the whoredom they’ve chosen.”, he explains.Lancelot wants to lead a revolution with his future wife to save the world from decadence, “we had both suffered the worst that could happen to us and come through, not merely survived but prevailed…we were qualified as the new Adam and Eve of the new world. If we couldn’t invent a new world and a new dignity between man and woman, surely nobody could.he adds.

 When the novel was released, it received some negative reviews, especially one from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a novelist, political activist and editor of The New York Times Book Review. With the title “Camelot Lost”, the reviewer considers that Lancelot’s ideas are “downright upsetting. His treatment of an educated Negro as his family slave, his ridicule of the pretensions of modern art, his snobbery toward the socially inferior longing for acceptance and, most of all, his abhorrence of the liberated woman and his insistence that after his revolution “the New Woman will have perfect freedom. She will be free to be a lady or a whore”, ideasthat Walker Percy clearly didn’t share. It seems that Mr. Lehmann-Haupt treats the book as a non-fiction, forgetting that the characters are fictional and also deranged. As a Southerner, Lancelot experiences with race might be different from a Northern liberal, but he is definitely not a racist as Mr. Lehmann-Haupt seems to have implied. The reviewer takes out the context of Lancelot’s rants about blacks and women, showing bad faith by failing to mention that Percy was a socially concerned person and publicly criticizes any form of bigotry.

Written as a monologue in the “first person” p.o.v. enriched withphilosophical content, Lancelot is probably Percy’s most difficult book to read. The main character and the only voice in the novel seems to be mentally ill. At times itinconsistently recounts the storyof his life in the context of a well-cultivated man who frequently quotes movies, classic existentialist writers and philosophers whomWalker Percy knew so well after years of studying their works. Percy is not only highly recognized as an extraordinary fiction writer but also asan existentialist philosopher who wrote several essays on Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel etc. Just a few months before Lancelot was released, Percy published “The Man on the Train” —- an essay in which he explores some of the issues that Lancelot faces, particularly “alienation”, a lonely existence lost in the crowd and psychological isolation in modern life, which he calls “everydayness”. Lancelot deals with all these existentialist concepts; therefore,it can also be treated as a philosophical fiction.

Bibliography:

= Excerpts From: Walker Percy, Lancelot, iBooks.

https://itun.es/us/u3SHz.l  Originally published by Farrar, Straus, 1977.

= Patrick H. Samway, Walker Percy: A Life, University Press of Kentucky 410.

 = Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Camelot Lost, Books of the Times,The New York Times, February 17, 1977

 = Walker Percy. “The Man on the Train: Three Existential Modes.” Partisan Review, no. 23 (Fall 1956). Hobson, p. 64. Later published in 1975 with other essays in Walker Percy “The Message in a Bottle” ,New York, Picador, 19


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