Questions from Walker Percy | John Wilson


YesYou may have heard the story of how I first read Walker Percy’s wonderful collection of essays. The message in the bottle, but again, you can’t (or you just can’t remember). In 1975 (almost fifty years ago!), when this book appeared, I read Hugh Kenner’s review in the pages of National exam. Even before I finished the play, I knew it was a book I had to read at the first opportunity. I called the Vroman Bookstore in Pasadena; no, they sent for him but they haven’t received him yet. Then I called B. Dalton in Hollywood. Yes, they had a copy. I asked them to hold it, promising that I would be there later in the day.

Wendy and I went to B. Dalton, and I paid for the book. On the way back Wendy mentioned she had to stop at Kmart. While she was in the store, I stayed in the car in the parking lot and started Percy’s book. When Wendy came back to the car, she saw that I had been crying and she was worried. I told him I was crying because the beginning of the first book essay was so wonderful. She was relieved and asked me if I would read the beginning of it to her when we got back. I said yes.

This (long) first essay is called “The Delta Factor”. It comes with a delightful caption: “How I Discovered the Delta Factor Sitting at my desk one summer day in Louisiana in the 1950s thinking about an event in the life of Helen Keller another day summer in Alabama in 1887.” You may be wondering what exactly the “delta factor” is; I invite you to read the essay. What I want to emphasize here is the striking way the essay begins: with several pages of questions, one after another. Here is the very first: “Why does man feel so sad in the 20th century? Here’s another one, a few pages into: “Why did when Franz Kafka read aloud to his friends stories about the sadness and alienation of life in the 20th century, everyone laughed until they cried? “

I hope you’ll check out this essay if you’ve never read it, or revisit it if you’ve read it before. But I mention it here for another reason. Recently, a young scholar, whom I do not know personally but who is respected by some people whom I hold in high esteem, circulated an observation which struck him as deeply insightful: “white evangelicals” are people who have no of questions. . It’s patently absurd, of course, but the comment has won the assent of others and continues to circulate.

Now you can say, well, he’s just trying to outrage people; he knows it’s silly. What would be worse: saying it just to poke people with a stick and excite them, or thinking it, attributing such an attitude to millions of people?

You could say, about now, that it’s all too common to fetishize “questioning” and depreciate strong faith. I agree. But the claim about white evangelicals goes far beyond that; it is a dehumanizing caricature. And that’s what made me think of Percy’s essay:

Why do the young people look so sad, the very young who, seeing how sad their elders are, have sought a new life of joy and freedom among themselves and in the green fields and forests, but who at the instead of finding joy look even sadder than their elders?

Towards the end of this year, my friend Dan Taylor (that’s Daniel W. Taylor to you, mate) has a novel from Slant Books, The mystery of iniquity. It’s a terrific book. Dan (who taught at Bethel University in Saint Paul for decades) has “questions”; he also has faith. It is the same, as Joseph Ratzinger observes in his superb Introduction to Christianity“unbelievers”, who wonder if they are wrong.

The “questioning”, of course, is not evenly distributed. Those of us who are less beset with “questions” than others have no reason to brag, nor can we assume that it will always be so. Which reminds me of another one of Percy’s questions: “Why does a man feel better reading a book about a man like him who feels bad?”

John Wilson is editor for The Englewood Review of Books and editor at The Marginal Review of Books.

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