Walker Percy’s Gracious Obscenity


Walker Percy Weekend is kicking off about now in Louisiana and, once again, I’m not there. I will be pouring myself a bourbon at the end of this post, though, and i did just get back from the Gulf, albeit the Texas part, where I vacationed with my family all week.

So what better occasion to share this challenging (paywalled) article from Lutheran pastor Franklin A. Wilson, published in Renascence 59.3, Spring 2007? After looking through the pencilled-in notes Percy left in his personal Bibles, Wilson connects Percy’s fascination with passages on the obscenity of God-made-flesh to what he terms Percy’s sense of “gracious obscenity,” which, he says, runs through all of Percy’s fiction. That is, Percy seems to see grace as arising especially from low places, from the obscene. Wilson focuses especially on Percy’s notes on John 9:6 (”With that, he spat on the ground, and made clay with the spittle; then he spread clay on the man’s eyes”). Next to that verse, Percy wrote: “Power, obscenity, belief.” As Wilson puts it:

Percy graphically notes the relationship between Christ’s power displayed via the earthy combination of spit and dirt applied as clay to the man’s eyes. This he terms ‘obscenity.’ The obscenity manifests itself in the use of spit and dirt in the communication of divine grace in the form of healing. In the Fourth Gospel, earthy-human stuff becomes the medium of divine power leading to the insight that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. Thus, in John 9, divine grace operates within an obscene nexus of human bodily fluid, dirt, blindness, the divine power of a heterodox rabbi, and faith.

More than that, Wilson says that Percy sees grace as inseparable from low places. Which is logical if you take seriously the Bible’s insistence that in the crucifixion all that is high is made low and all that is low is lifted up, an insistence that Wilson ties to The Moviegoer protagonist Binx Bolling’s observation that, in his existential search, “Everything is upside down for me.”

But the specifics! To be clear: Wilson pulls no punches, and when he says obscenity he means obscenity. His article is kind of shocking. He points out that Percy gives one of his characters, Lawyer Barrett, a very low view of human anthropology: “A man is born between an asshole and a peehole. He eats, sleeps, shits, fucks, works, gets old, and dies.” The line actually comes from Augustine (Inter faeces et urinam nascimur) and has been used for centuries as an illustration of our sinful nature. But Percy turns that low state into an occasion for grace. As Wilson observes:

Lancelot Lamar later notes the same scandal [the scandalous continuity between the Holy and the obscene], as he stumbles upon his wife and her lover embraced in an adulterous polarity of blessing-curse (‘God. Sh– God. Sh–’): ‘Who else but God arranged that love should pitch its tent in the place of excrement?’”

What to do with this thesis?

I don’t know.

Is Percy making the mistake that Paul warns against in Romans 6:1, suggesting that we should continue in sin that grace may abound? No, I don’t think so.

But the article does reflect Percy’s suspicion of high places, of self-righteousness: remember that Tom More, in Love in the Ruins, said, “God, if you recall did not warn his people against dirty books. He warned them against high places.” And Wilson does put Percy’s work in line with what Father Andrew Greeley called the Catholic imagination. “Catholics see the Holy lurking in creation,” Greeley wrote. “As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.”

Mostly it just captures why I like Percy. Rather than running from squalor, Percy starts looking for grace in it. To repurpose a phrase from my internet friend Michael Boyle, Percy demonstrates a real version of visceral catholicity: he sees sacramental potential not just in the everyday, the mundane, but everywhere–even in the rejected and abject.

Anyway, cheers, and happy Walker Percy Weekend!

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