I picked up a couple of volumes of Walker Percy essays a few months ago as I started thinking about returning to Luther after my sabbatical, and in particular as I was thinking about teaching in Paideia again. I had also picked up some Richard Weaver on rhetoric (with a hat tip to the guys at the Christian Humanist podcast) and I’ve been moseying through these volumes as time permits.
One of the first essays I read from Percy was “The Delta Factor”, in which Percy looks at the question of (in his time – though it is to some degree a phenomenon that transcends time) the modern malaise that manifests itself in dissatisfaction with life or oneself, alienation from oneself and others, ennui, etc… the book itself, The Message in the Bottle, is a collection of his essays dedicated to the study of, as he puts it, “man’s strange behavior and man’s strange gift of language, and […] how understanding the latter might help in the understanding of the former.” (9)
Percy begins this essay by listing a number of probing questions that could very well lead to excellent discussion concerning the nature of man, our interactions with others, our language, our culture, etc.; many of these questions set out a contradiction – much in the same way Andy Rooney started off his segments on 60 Minutes with a “Have you ever wondered…” There are some really great questions in that collection, but a couple that stick out are these:
“Why is it harder to study a dogfish on a dissecting board in a zoological laboratory in college where one has proper instruments and a proper light than it would be if one were marooned on an island and, having come upon a dogfish on the beach and having no better instrument than a pocket knife or bobby pin, one began to explore the dogfish?”
“Why is it all but impossible to read Shakespeare in school now but will not be fifty years from now when the Western world has fallen into ruins and a survivor sitting among the vines of the Forty-second Street library spies a moldering book and opens it to The Tempest?” (5)
Yes, Mr. Percy, why is that? What is it about us that these things are such striking illustrations of something we’d probably all agree is true? What has happened to us as a culture that the fascination with either the natural world, or appreciation for the literary genius of a Shakespeare (or Eliot, or Kafka, or Wordsworth, or Dante) is either absent or deeply suppressed? Why is it that the exploration of the human condition in a dusty old work by an unknown Anglo Saxon poet isn’t worth our time? Why the study of a Turner or Constable land and seascape is something that elicits yawns?
Is the cause of this in our society in general? Among our educators? Parents? Genes? One certainly can identify a number of potential targets in Percy’s questions – and the questions he asks should set us pondering for a spell.
The picture I’ve included as an inset in this post is from the recent trip my oldest and I took back to Washington state to visit with my family on the occasion of my grandmother’s 95th birthday. There Abby stood – for the better part of a half hour – poking the dead flatfish (of whatever kind it was) with a stick, turning it this way and that, examining its teeth, underside, fins, etc. Could never have replicated that experience with a prescribed exercise on a lab bench (or worse, sitting at a computer screen Googling about the subject).
One more interesting ponderables from Percy’s essay to leave you with… certainly they would serve most ably as conversation starters with a good friend over a glass of wine or beer. (as long as it’s GOOD beer, not the pale yellow swill that most of America seems to think is worth consuming) This one touches more directly on Percy’s major theme of language… so here it is:
“Why is the metphor Flesh is grass, which is not only wrong (flesh is not grass) but inappropriate (flesh is not even like grass), better and truer than the sentence Flesh is mortal, which is quite accurate and logical?” (5)