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.


= 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

Irvin D. Yalom. “When Nietzsche Wept”, a Teaching Novel

Yalom1yalomcoverFntYalom’s virtuosity has resided in a particular capacity to meld philosophy, literature and psychiatry into a corpus of work that illuminates life-as-lived for all” wrote his colleague and biographer Dr. Ruthellen Josselson. Yalom’s books on psychotherapy are widely read around the world and one of his most well know theoretical books on mental health practice, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy has been translated into seventeen languages and together with Existential Psychotherapy is considered a classic in its field, making Yalom a highly acclaimed scholar.

Yalom has also been internationally recognized as a fiction writer for his novels, particularly When Nietzsche Wept, a best seller translated into more than 20 languages. In this novel Yalom’s experience as a therapist is manifested together with his knowledge of philosophy, a field that he has cultivated since his early years as a student at the university.

Yalom’s novels could be considered historical fiction, a literary genre that has been popular since ancient times. The Iliad by Homer about the Trojan War and Shakespeare’s tragedies are some examples of old classic texts. In modern times, Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann, based on the Book of Genesis, The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder about the last days of Julius Caesar and more recently The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a well-acclaimed novel about a manuscript of a monk describing convent life in the Middle Ages and the struggle between different church orders, as well as The Medici Boy, a novel by John L’Heureux published a short time ago, about the life of Donatello, the famous Italian artist in the 15th century, provide other relevant examples.

In this type of novel, the characters are historic figures appearing with their real names and the plot is built around well documented historic facts, including descriptions of epoch, location, situation, background, physical appearance of the characters and, in some cases, complete texts from published books or letters. This genre is so demanding that its writers not only have to be good at fiction, but also need to equipped with research skills to create a sense of historical reality.

Regarding When Nietzsche Wept, its principal characters include Nietzsche, the famous philosopher, and Dr. Joseph Breuer, the prominent Viennese therapist who has been considered as one of the founders of modern psychoanalysis, together with Lou Andreas Salome, a controversial Russian writer with whom Nietzsche was obsessively in love. Sigmund Freud also appears in the novel as a close young disciple of Breuer’s at the time. The roles and conversations of the characters, although mostly based on actual events mentioned in their biographies, published letters and writings, mainly Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, are partly fictionalized.

The novel begins with a meeting in October 1882 at a cafe in Venice where Lou Andreas Salome, then a young good looking and sophisticated Intellectual woman, asked Dr. Breuer to help her friend Nietzsche as he was deeply depressed and would probably kill himself. “It would be a great loss for me, and a great personal tragedy because I would bear some responsibility,” she pleaded. Andreas explained that Nietzsche was madly in love with her and after living together in a “chaste” ménage à trois which also included Paul Rée, another philosopher and Nietzsche’s disciple many years before. The “intellectual honeymoon of our unholy Trinity was also brief. Fissures appeared”, Andreas explained that Nietzsche was deeply hurt when she refused his marriage proposal. This affair briefly mentioned in the novel happened in real life and is well documented, including a famous photograph taken in Lucerne showing Nietzsche and Rée pretending to pull a cart with Lou Andreas inside brandishing a small whip —- many attributed this moment, regarding the problem with Lou Andreas to a famous quote from Thus Spake Zarathustra, First part XVIII. Old and Young Women: “Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!”

PhotoLASDr. Breuer seemed reluctant to take the case but became interested in the story and offered to recommend other doctors. Salomé insisted. “Nietzsche has exhausted the medical resources of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. No physician has been able to comprehend his malady or relieve his symptoms” and she added, “you are a doctor for despair”. Breuer replied, “Despair is not a medical symptom, Fraulein.” Already hinting to a future therapy for mental illness, Salome, undeterred by the answer, reminded Breuer that her brother had attended Breuer’s classes, in which he, as a practitioner described how “uncovering of the origin of each symptom somehow dissolved it. ”

To make the case more complicated and at the same time appealing to Breuer, Lou Salome told him that Nietzsche “doesn’t know that I’m speaking to you. He is an intensely private person and a proud man”, therefore Breuer had to conceal any previous knowledge of the situation of his future patient and his relationship with her.

At the end of a long intriguing conversation, Lou Andreas’ description of Nietzsche’s ideas and work together with exceptional circumstances made Breuer accept the challenge. “my dear lady…, I will see your friend. That goes without saying. After all, I am a physician”.

The framework of the story is now set and the plot centers around the meetings, conversations, notes and internal dialogues between the two brilliant minds of Nietzsche and Breuer, both suffering from the despair born from impossible obsessive love with younger attractive women.

The story shows how the roles of the therapist and patient blur when the fictional Nietzsche starts to take notes about Dr. Breuer’s obsessions and how he can best help him, turning the philosopher into a healer or a therapist. We can assume that the same kind of experience happened to Yalom in his own professional practice since he regularly refers to his passion for stories about old healers particularly to Hermann Hesse’s novel Magister Ludi, which tells a tale about two renowned healers and indirectly touches on the nature of the patient-therapist relationship. In his own words, “.. the echoes of these tales ring throughout the pages of the novel.”

By choosing a psychotherapist and a philosopher with historical relevance as the main characters of When Nietzsche Wept makes it possible to uncover other elements in Yalom’s biography. In her book Irvin D. Yalom: On Psychotherapy and the Human Condition, Ruthellen Josselson reveals how Yalom “was intrigued by the links between philosophical reflection and the healing that takes place in psychotherapy, implying that, like in the story “the philosophers were covert therapists.”

Making Nietzsche a therapist was one of the ideas that inspired Yalom to write the fiction novel, a possibility which, he thought, “could have happened”, quoting Andre Gide: ‘history is fiction that did happen. Whereas fiction is history that might have happened.”

When Nietzsche Wept clearly shows Yalom’s talent as a fiction writer, a philosopher and one of the most admired psychotherapists of our time, particularly displaying his knowledge and imagination to vividly portray Nietzsche’s broken relationship with Lou Andreas Salome, the torments that followed and the path to recovery.

At the end of the story, Yalom included a special section titled “On Writing a Teaching Novel”, where he describes in some detail the sources that inspired his book together with some of the ideas underlying the novel, written in a style that allows the readers to become acquainted with some important moments of the history of psychotherapy: the terminology and the healing process for despair and depression, ailments that afflicted Frederich Nietzsche. Clearly Yalom has achieved his goal by making up a story of a complex relationships, an exciting thriller full of interesting insights into philosophy, psychology, and the fragility of the human being.

Excerpts From:

Irvin D. Yalom. When Nietzsche Wept. Basic Books 1991 & HarperCollins Publishers 2011

Ruthellen Josselson. Irvin D. Yalom: On Psychotherapy and the Human Condition. Jorge Pinto Books, Inc. 2007 Available in iTunes iBook