While Percy was laid up with tuberculosis, he read Thomas Mann and other “literature of the alienated self.” He also immersed himself in Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and more philosophers who were mulling over the same kind of existential questions that he was. Among other things, his father and grandfather had committed suicide, and increasingly this legacy preoccupied him.
Riley, the filmmaker, left this comment about Percy and the philosophical novel late last week:
… I would argue that all novels (at least the ones I like to read) are philosophical novels, works of ideas.
Here’s Walker Percy’s explanation:
“While it is true that a novel should have an action, it does not suffice for it to be a “good story.” Art tells some home truths about the way things are, the way we are, about the movement or lack of movement of the human heart….So my main assumption is that art is cognitive; that is, it discovers and knows and tells, tells the reader how things are, how we are, in a way that the reader can confirm with as much certitude as a scientist taking a pointer-reading.” For the deconstructionists or literary theorists among us this view of literature may seem dated or quaint. So be it.
A philosophical novel, for me, doesn’t need a “didactic agenda,” and if its ideas overshadow its art, it becomes something else entirely — a textbook, perhaps?
Walker Percy, for instance, wasn’t looking to answer philosophical questions, necessarily, with his novels. Asking the questions was enough.