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Cross Purposes

ISSUE:  Summer 1977
Lancelot. By Walker Percy. Farrar Straus & Giroux. $8.95.

A THOUGH Walker Percy is a Christian novelist, he refuses to write mere sermons. He recognizes that he must find—or, better yet, create—striking patterns of imagery, structure, and voice to command our attention. Thus if we simply discuss his apparent attitudes toward faith, American violence, etc., we are fragmenting his work, using it as our platform for abstractions.

His new novel begins with these lines: “Come into my cell. Make yourself at home. Take the chair; I’ll sit on the cot. No? You prefer to stand by the window? I understand. You like my little view. Have you ever noticed that the narrower the view the more you can see?” We are introduced to the metaphors (based on “realities”) of enclosure: the cell and the window. Surely these suggest that the narrator is an imprisoned man; he is locked into his private structures and in the absence of comment from the second person, he must, in effect, continue to live a sheltered life. He is trapped in consciousness. But the narrator dislikes all such enclosures. He wants his “narrow view”—there is a play on words here—to be shared by someone else. Thus he talks incessantly, offering sermons, “favors,” excitements. He confesses not merely to unburden himself of his crimes, but to “seduce” the listener. (I am reminded of Poe’s narrators who also talk and talk, attacking and justifying their obscure motives.) It is ironic, of course, that the listener is, as we soon learn, a relatively silent priest-psychiatrist, another kind of truth-giver.

There is a “two-faced” quality to the narrator (and his listener); and the fact that they move about and change places in the cell—remember that the narrator offers a chair; the listener refuses and stands near the window—suggests the cross-purposes, the doubling, at work in the novel. Even in the first chapter the narrator tries to get straight to his past (and present troubles), but he is trapped by the narrowness of the chapter. He is locked in by short, abrupt sentences.

The narrator is named Lancelot Andrews Lamar. The name is double (as he himself informs us); it signifies the “great Anglican divine” and the knight searching for the Grail; fixed and uncertain faith. Perhaps there is even another meaning. “Lancet”: “a surgical instrument, commonly sharp-pointed and two-edged [my italics], used to open boils, etc.” The narrator considers himself a wounded man trying to open the wounds of our society—he is doctor and patient.

I have discussed a few metaphors which occur in the first pages, but I believe they underlie the complete work. Lancelot continually uses words as an instrument; he tells his listener (and reader) that he has committed murder and arson because he had discovered that his child doesn’t belong to him: “It is a mystery which I ponder endlessly; that my life is divided into two parts, Before and After, before and after the moment I discovered that my wife had been rendered ecstatic, beside herself, by a man on top of her.” He cannot state “facts”; he is awed by mysteries in which various “crimes” are never really solved, and he must see through matter-of-fact couplings. He is a visionary, but we are never completely certain that he is telling the truth. He attempts to create patterns—such as “Before and After”—which heighten events, turning craziness into cosmic consciousness. I mean to imply that the more Lancelot talks about his drama, the less he reveals; and he seems to be participant and creator of his “revenge tragedy.”

Whenever Lancelot discusses such things as Evil—his quest for the Unholy Grail—he offers split motives. He tells us at one point: “Things were split.” He mentions two scientists “who did the experiment on the speed of light and kept getting the wrong result. . . It took Einstein to comprehend that the wrong answer might be right.” He acts many roles— he’s perfected the Southern Gentleman for his wife—but he stands outside these very roles. Although he condemns the shallow actors—including his wife—and the fake lightning storm used to create effects (even when a “real” storm is threatening), he refuses to understand that he shares their theatrical lies. (There are some wonderfully comic Hollywood types, but they blend into his duplicitous role-playing and narration. Mirrors within mirrors!) And when he insists that he wants to speak honestly, he is so intent upon his purpose that it also seems a crazy (and sane) performance for his listener. Perhaps the most sustained use of this kind of “reflective” metaphor occurs when Lancelot photographs the sexual goings-on “off-camera” of the actors (including his wife and daughter). He calls it a “double feature” because what he views is symbolically linked not only to the trashy, pretentious film being shot at Belle Isle, his home, but to his desire to manipulate, to direct, and to create his artistic “mad” pattern: “Lights and darks were reversed like a negative, mouths opened on light, eyes were white sockets. The actors looked naked clothed, clothed naked.”

Some critics have discussed Lancelot’s sermons—his desire to find one sin; his destructive tendencies; his urge toward cleanliness—but they do not see that he transcends his savage attacks upon our watered-down, meaningless middle-states of mind. The sermons are, in effect, his starry projections. Although we may be offended (or pleased) by his ranting about weak-willed women, for example, we must realize that Percy is not Lancelot; he moves beyond and through him, exploring the psychology which compels Swiftian assaults.

The novel ends ambiguously. Lancelot is now a free man; he will try to be a prophet outside of cell walls. But he persists in claiming to the listener that “one of us is wrong.” Yes and no. Percy seems, after all the metaphors of distorted (and distorting vision), to emphasize that humanity is always at a midpoint, a crossroad, and that every design (or map), even a heretical, unholy one, is cloudy. I am fond of the priest-psychiatrist’s “Yes”—it can mean anything!—and the word does not finally conclude the narration or solve ultimate mysteries enclosed within.

I believe that Lancelot is, oddly enough, an open book— despite all the imprisonment metaphors—which offers hints, glimpses, omens. It fights the idea of logical patterns, “useful” knowledge. It offers faith as a possible answer, a view of hell and purgatory, but it stops short of final solutions, visions, Paradise itself.


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