I’ve been doing some reading Walker Percy. Last night I read Linda Whitney Hobson’s Understanding Walker Percy, a great place to gain some basic biographical details and an introduction to Percy’s philosophical framework. I’ve been meaning to read up on Kierkegaard for a few months now, and may have to after this book. From Hobson’s book, Kierkegaard had this idea for three spheres of being — the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. In the aesthetic sphere, we’re in despair because of the meaninglessness of everything, but we might not realize we’re in despair. In the ethical sphere, we understand the meaninglessness but strive to live an ethical life anyway, stoically accepting it. In the religious sphere, we’re knights of faith striving to overcome the despair. (I’m not totally clear, but I think that’s the gist of Hobson’s synopsis.)
In terms of Percy, Binx Bolling is living in the aesthetic sphere. He’s a consumerist, and he moves from one secretary to the next, and he drives an MG, all in an effort to stave of the “malaise” of the “everyday.” These moves are a series of “rotations,” to use Kierkegaard’s term, an effort to avoid confronting the despair. But he is jolted out of his complacency and renews his efforts at “the search,” in which he becomes the knight of faith. He knows he’s been participating in rotations and now is willing to confront the truth.
The reason Percy speaks to us today is that our world has many more rotations to keep us from confronting the everydayness, the malaise, the despair: Facebook, blogs, cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle, video games, political histrionics, email surveys, retail VIP memberships, iPads, etc. So much stuff! And all of it keeps us distracted from any kind of spiritual questioning. Is it any wonder religion is an endangered species, carried on primarily by fringe lunatics with financial or political stakes? The real danger is that if we’re buried in the aesthetic sphere, what happens when the rug gets pulled out from under us? When the stocks crash or the housing bubble bursts? Then we see the facade for what it is, we get a glimpse of how fragile our worlds are and how we’ve been living in despair, and to deal with it we go crazy. That’s how the tea party forms. That’s why people blow up abortion clinics or have affairs or embezzle money from their employers. We perform risky behavior to serve some end, some manufactured meaning (to restore our nation’s finances or to restore morality or to get rich and pay off bills). Manufacturing some end, some meaning, is another rotation.
In many ways, the worldview of Percy shows up in DeLillo. Speaking about White Noise, DeLillo said he was trying to capture a “radiance in dailiness,” which seems very similar to this idea of rotations. The characters in DeLillo are distracted by the radiating media to the point where they become spiritual vacuums. It takes a disaster — an end-of-the-world-type scenario — for them to lift out of the malaise and rediscover life.