The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 09, 2015

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Walker Percy and Suicide
(MA 47:1, Winter 2005) - 03/11/09

It has now come to pass in American secular culture that the choice to end one’s own life—suicide—is tacitly accepted as an inalienable right of every person. Although the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, and the American Nurses Association continue officially to oppose physician-assisted suicide, there exists a widespread sentiment in favor of individuals’ absolute right to determine their own end. This attitude, of course, contravenes both the Hippocratic Oath and the centuries-old proscription against suicide in Judeo-Christian societies. Nevertheless, in the popular secular view, the choice of suicide is taken to be an act which is uniquely and absolutely “mine.”

The southern novelist and philosophical essayist Walker Percy (1916–1990) was no stranger to suicide. His family legacy included a long line of ancestors who had taken their own lives, including Percy’s grandfather John Walker Percy in 1917, and his father Leroy Pratt Percy in 1929. In his later years Percy himself expressed amazement and some pride in having “outlived” almost all of his male ancestors, though he did suffer from an inherited disposition toward melancholy.1A key factor in Percy’s personal rejection of suicide was his Roman Catholic faith. When he was suffering from terminal cancer, he expressed his belief in a letter to his closest friend, novelist Shelby Foote. “Dying, if that’s what it comes to, is no big thing since I’m ready for it, and prepared for it by the Catholic faith which I believe. . . . [I]n this age of unbelief I am astounded at how few people facing certain indignity in chronic illness make an end to it. Few if any. I am not permitted to.”2

Percy’s interest in the question of suicide, however, extended far beyond his family history and his personal religious belief. As a philosophical novelist Percy acknowledged the strong influence of Albert Camus on his writing, especially Camus’s formulation of the problem of suicide as the central philosophical question in the twentieth century, an age he saw as being in the twilight of Judeo-Christian belief. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus argued that the option of suicide was a philosophical consideration central to the meaning of life. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”3Camus finally rejected suicide in that essay, but not on the traditional Christian grounds of divine prohibition. Rather, he rejected it as part of the existential revolt against the absurd, against the awareness that we are all condemned to death in an inexplicable universe, a revolt that paradoxically gives life its value.

Camus’s emphasis is on each individual’s recognition of his fate. Awareness and the choice to revolt are matters of personal consciousness and will; they are not particularly communal concerns. In fact, in Camus’s writings such as his novel The Stranger (1942), individual revolt is often set against the community and its norms. It is predicated upon one’s sense of exile from the world, an awareness of unmitigated existential solitude. Although Camus rejected suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus, in his emphasis on personal autonomy he can be seen, ironically, as one of the intellectual fathers of the ethos of individualism that informs the current atmosphere regarding the “right” to suicide.

Percy shared Camus’s sense that in an age of waning belief the question of suicide is central to the meaning of life, but his response to the matter was radically different. When asked once about the influence of fellow Southern novelist William Faulkner on his writing, Percy said: “I like to think of beginning where Faulkner left off, with a Quentin Compson who DIDN’T commit suicide. Suicide is easy. Keeping Quentin Compson alive is what I am interested in doing.”4We recall that, in Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury (1929), Quentin drowns himself in the Charles River when he cannot accept the dissolution of moral values he sees epitomized by his sister Caddie’s loss of virginity. For Quentin, it is not simply that she has transgressed a moral norm. Rather, his despair comes from an awareness of the collapse of the meaning of all traditional ethical values. The question that interested Percy, then, is how to live, day to day and hour to hour, in the constant awareness of this collapse of values. The initial predicament Percy is addressing echoes that of the strangers and exiles that populate Camus’s novels.

In Percy’s own novels many of his characters face the challenge of suicide. Some succeed in overcoming it, while others do not. In his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), Kate Cutrer contemplates suicide in Camusian fashion as a way of “keeping herself alive.” Her love for Binx Bolling helps her to contend with the temptation to suicide. In The Last Gentleman (1966), Will Barrett’s father commits suicide in despair over the collapse of the Southern code of honor and virtue, much like Quentin Compson. Will’s adoptive father-figure, Dr. Sutter Vaught, tries unsuccessfully to kill himself, and vows not to fail in his next attempt. In Love in the Ruins (1971), Dr. Tom More attempts suicide when his daughter dies and his marriage subsequently collapses. In The Second Coming (1980), an older Will Barrett makes a suicidal descent into a cave as a perverse Pascalian wager to force God either to reveal Himself and save him, or allow him to die—in which case the question of God’s existence would become a moot point, so he argues. Instead, an ordinary toothache drives Will from the cave and back to the world, where he finds a saving love with Alison Huger.

Beyond these specific representations of literal suicide, however, Percy was far more interested in the pervasive condition of spiritual suicide. Here the influence of Camus intersected with that of Sören Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian so crucial to the shaping of Percy’s thought. Spiritual suicide is the death-in-life existence of despair. For Kierkegaard, despair is the refusal to will to be a self, to be that union of the finite and the infinite who can find true identity only “transparently under God.”5The refusal to be a self is a denial of the spirit, or “suicide.” In addition, Kierkegaard argues that to be in despair is “not to be able to die”; it is to suffer a “sickness unto death.” Paradoxically, then, the affirmation of the self as spirit which is necessary to overcome despair and find true identity “transparently under God” requires an act of kenosis, or self-emptying. One must “be able to die” to overcome despair, the sickness unto death.

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