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September 16, 1983 - Image 22

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1983-09-16

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

22 Friday, September 16, 1983

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

SAVE 1 00"

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ROBERT

546-6576

Walker Percy: The Southern Jewish Voice

By JOSEPH COHEN
NEW ORLEANS — In a
widely publicized talk
Walker Percy made in 1982,
the renowned Pulitzer
• • • • • • • • • • • • •

prize-winning novelist, a
Southerner and a Catholic,
noted a "common strain" be-
tween "the Southern novel
of a generation ago" and


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• "All that the name implies."
•••••••••• Goaas aa••••••••••••••••••••••

"the so-called Jewish
novel." Pondering that con-
nection, Percy found it
strange that "the Southern
Jewish voice, with a few ex-
ceptions, is yet to be heard."
The absence of a strong
Southern Jewish literary
tradition is strange, given
the close association in the
past of literary-minded
Jews with such well known
Southern literary adven-
tures as the Fugitive
Movement in Nashville and
the emergence of "The Dou-
ble Dealer" in New Orleans.
One recalls also the well
known work of David Cohn
in Mississippi and Harry
Golden in North Carolina.
Yet Southern Jewry has,
in a sense, had its voice, - an
enormously articulate and
eloquent one, emanating
from Covington. That voice
is none other than Percy's.
Out of the richly imagina-
tive, multilayered hemi-
spheres of his brain, the
landscapes of his poetic
heart, and the religious
tapestries of his soul, he has
for a generation now re-
corded his affection for and
his wonder over the special
role in history Judaism has
had.
You don't have to be Leily
to love Jewish wry bread.
Jewish "wry bread," to
stretch the metaphor
about as far as it will go,
provides much food for
thought in Percy's
novels. If casual Jews
appear to turn up acci-/

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dentally, as do Sidney
and Margot Gross in
"The Moviegoer,"
Perlmutter in "The Last
Gentleman," Ethel
Ginsberg and Max
Gottlieb in "Love in the
Ruins," Janos Jacoby
(Who "may be from the
Bronx") in "Lancelot,"
and Ethel Rosenbaum,
Sarah Goodman and Sam
Gold in "The Second
Coming," then Judaism,
itself, unlike these occa-
sional characters,
realistically turns up by
design.
In at least two of the
novels, "The. Moviegoer"
and "The Second Coming,"
Judaism directly influences
the protagonists' world out-
looks, and therefore their
actions.
Percy moves back and
forth between Jewish major
and minor chords. Jewish
characteristics and values
are sometimes praised,
sometimes criticized, in the
latter instance, by the bi-
goted rednecks and
roughnecks who people his
pages; and Old Testament
images and tenets are in-
voked by intense Southern
Christian fundamentalists.
Indeed, it is easy to think
of Percy himself in an image
he is fond of using for others,
that of Jacob wrestling with
the Angel of God, for Percy
wants nothing less than an
updated Covenant between
God and His worshippers. A
concern for Covenant is
pervasive, and it is attended
by the considerations of
Chosenness,
menschlichkeit, dispersion
and alienation, all em-
ployed by Percy to illumi-
nate his constant search for
the proofs of God's exist-
ence.
In "The Moviegoer,"
Percy's protagonist, Binx
Bolling, searching for
meaning in his life, moves
through what has been
described as Kier-
kegaardian existential
stages, from the aesthetic
to the ethical stage,
which is to say that he
comes to an awareness of
a contractual moral obli-
gation to be his brother's
keeper, to be a mensch.
An aunt gives him some
advice on that subject. She
says, ". . . one thing I be-
lieve and I believe it with
every fibre of my being. A
man must live by his lights
and do what little he can
and do it as best he can. In
this world goodness is de-
stined to be defeated. But a
man must go down fighting.
That is the victory. To do
anything less is to be less
than a man."
All this arises as much
from a Jewish context as
from a Kierkegaardian one.
This is confirmed by Bol-
ling's description of himself:
. . it is true that I am
Jewish by instinct. We
share the same exile. The
fact is, however, that I am
more Jewish than the Jews I
know. They are more at
home than I am. I accept my
exile."
That Jews are the key to
Bolling's successfully find-
ing himself is made clear by

his observation that ". . .
when a man awakes to the
possibility of a search and
when such as man passes a
Jew in the street for the first
time, he is like Robinson
Crusoe seeing the footprint
on the beach."
Again, in "The Second
Coming," the pro-
tagonist's objective is to
find the proof of God's
existence. His starting
point and constant rally-
ing cry is that Jews "are a
sign of God's plan" for
the universe and that
their presence on earth
confirms His existence.
When the protagonist
takes it into his head that
the Jews are leaving
North Carolina, he be-
comes convinced that
God is abandoning both
His plan and humankind
entirely.
The pro-Semitic position
Percy takes is predicated
upon his belief that the elec-
tion of the Jews, that is,
their Chosenness is, indeed,
part of God's master plan in
providing for salvation and
redemption achieved
through Judeo-Christian
history. The meaning of
Judaism is locked into the
meaning of Christianity,
and vice versa.
But religion is beset by
mysteries, and given Per-
cy's inquiring mind, it
might have been expected
that he would attempt at
some point to deal with the
complex mystery of sin. It is
the subject of "Lancelot."
Percy's search for the
proof of God's existence in
our time continues but with
a difference here. Lancelot
accepts as proof of God's
existence His shadow, or
sin. He sets out to commit
the perfect sin, ironically, as
an act of confirmation and
faith. This approach is con-
sistent with the strong tra-
dition of gnosticism in
Jewish mysticism. Because
it is so esoteric, few people
readily perceived Percy's
intention.
Percy's most recent
book, a work of non-
fiction entitled "Lost in
the Cosmos" (Farrar,
Straus and Giroux), reit-
erates the pro-Semitic
stance of the novels. In-
creasingly pessimistic
over humankind's poten-
tial for nuclear destruc-
tion, Percy gives us in
this last self-help book
two choices for survival.
One of these is based on
scientific rationalism, fol-
lowing B. F. Skinner's
theories of behaviorism, an
approach which seems to
provide for more univer-
sally free options yet one
strongly opposed elsewhere
in Percy's work ,because it
totally ignores human
yearning and it fails to pro-
vide expression for spiritual
longing.
The second choice is reli-
gious traditionalism in the
same contexts found in
the novels. Scientific
rationalists may view both
Judaism and Christianity
as preposterous, but from
Percy's point of view they
are our civilization's only
hope.

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