Walker Percy and Suicide - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Walker Percy and Suicide

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.

Kierkegaard’s concept of genuine selfhood under God through kenosis marks a crucial difference between Percy and Camus. What is evident, however, is that Kierkegaard’s concept of achieving authenticity through self-emptying offers a way out of the condition of radical solitude that Camus sketched out in his essay “An Absurd Reasoning.” Of course, Kierkegaard’s response is that of the Christian believer, not of the humanist skeptic. Percy’s thoughts on spiritual suicide would follow those of his Danish mentor, but without diminishing the importance of Camus’s vision. The world of unbelief Percy’s characters find themselves in is much closer to Camus’s spiritual landscape than that of Kierkegaard.

Percy was fond of calling serious writers, including himself, ex-suicides. He maintained that the writer does not create ex nihilo, but that “he starts with himself as nothing and makes something of the nothing with things at hand . . . a novelist these days has to be an ex-suicide.”6The writer as ex-suicide becomes a “nought” before the challenge of the blank page, which opens him to the possibilities of finding an authentic “self” by discovering a true voice and naming reality. For Kierkegaard, one form of despairing “suicide” is silence before reality, which he termed “shut-up-ness.” Thus, Percy saw writing as a way to overcome despair by emptying the egoistic self in order to create a bond of communion with the reader. For author and reader, literature that honestly names the truth of being can reverse—albeit temporarily—the death-in-life of alienation and despair. Writer and reader become “ex-suicides” in humility before the truth.

While affirming this hopeful possibility of overcoming despair through a bond of communion—Percy would significantly modify Kierkegaard by saying that the self only finds genuine identity “transparently under God” with another—he was most concerned with the general ethos of spiritual suicide or despair he witnessed in twentieth-century Western culture. It was possible for Percy to speak of an “age of suicide” or thanatos, as he does in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. With characteristic probity, he explored the roots of this destructive ethos, especially as manifested in America. For Percy, the suicidal culture of despair emerged through a complex intertwining of forces that included the redefining and devaluation of the self, the decline of religious belief, and the dominance of the ideology of scientism and technology. How these forces combined to help create a culture in which actual suicide comes to be regarded as an inalienable personal right bears scrutinizing through the Percyean lens.

Percy accepted Tocqueville’s insight that American society was, and is, fundamentally Cartesian in its philosophical orientation. “Tocqueville—an amazing fellow—said it 150 years ago: All the Americans I know are Cartesians without having read a word of Descartes. He meant that an American believes that everything can be explained ‘scientifically,’ can be reduced to the cause and effect of electrons, neurons and so forth. But at the same time, each person exempts his own mind from this, as do scientists. I see this endemic Cartesianism, and my criticism is that it leaves us without a coherent theory of man. Consequently, modern man is deranged.”7

The Cartesian “split,” Percy observes, reduces human beings to mere organisms (hence, not creatures of God) on the one hand, while positing a detached intelligence or cogito on the other. Hence no integral or coherent view of man obtains. Percy writes in Lost in the Cosmos: “What Descartes did not know: no such isolated individual as he described can be conscious.”8Like Tocqueville, Percy saw the Cartesian spirit manifested historically in America in the emphasis on individualism in all sectors of life. As Tocqueville stated in Democracy in America, “ . . . in ages of equality every man seeks for his opinion within himself . . . in the same ages, all his feelings are turned toward himself alone.”9

While the spirit of individualism led to the undeniable gains of political democracy, it was a more dubious proposition on the existential level. As Tocqueville and others have seen, it fueled the self-absorption, isolation, and loneliness that have been the downside of American democratic society for more than two centuries. Percy saw this Cartesian spirit manifested most prominently in the pagan stoic code of honor that shaped Southern aristocratic society, represented fictionally by Faulkner’s Compson family, and more personally by Percy’s own ancestral family. But he also saw this Cartesian spirit and its destructive consequences as endemic in “post-Christian” technological Western society as a whole. In such a society, with the decline or abandonment of traditional religious beliefs and the predominance of the Cartesian spirit of abtraction—res cogitans separated from res extens—there emerges what Percy calls the “autonomous self.”

The autonomous self is Tocqueville’s radical individualist, the one who lives essentially within a self-absorbing egotism, and who consciously or unconsciously rejects selfhood as a creature “transparently under God.” Although it was a belief system ostensibly held in common by Southern aristocrats, the stoic code posited an autonomy which Percy called “the wintery kingdom of the self.”10He also saw that, once the abstract ideal of stoic honor failed to match the intractable complexities and ambiguities of real individual existence, the “logical” end of such a code was suicide, as Quentin Compson’s case demonstrated. Tocqueville’s dictum that “every man seeks for his opinions within himself” comes inevitably to focus on the terminal choice, as Camus had argued in “An Absurd Reasoning.”

For Percy, when the modern “autonomous self” rejects identity as a creature of God, it falls prey to definition by the reigning forces of scientism and technology. So-called personal autonomy exists within an ideology that defines man in behavioral terms as an organism like any other, and not as a sacred child of God. This ideology, Percy saw, has the paradoxical effect of expanding individual autonomy while at the same time diminishing personal worth and the value of choice. In a culture in which a person feels increasingly subject to technological manipulation, where the self is viewed only as an organism—or “the sum of your data,” as Don Delillo sardonically phrased it in his novel White Noise (1984)—the sense of alienation from genuine being accelerates exponentially.

Percy’s and Kierkegaard’s belief that becoming an authentic self demands embracing the mystery of finite/infinite being (contra Descartes) “transparently under God,” and the power of spiritual freedom this entails, is rejected under scientism. As a consequence, the condition of spiritual suicide that pervades a technological culture of autonomous selves creates the atmosphere for the legitimization of actual suicide. Loss of a sense of autonomy and personal control, especially when the body begins to fail, may have the paradoxical effect of making the “right” to suicide seem the last significant option, the last chance to affirm a self. Such is the case in Percy’s The Last Gentleman, when Will Barrett’s father defiantly proclaims that he will no longer tolerate the moral corruption of the world and instead chooses to vindicate his “honor” one last time by commiting suicide. For him, suicide—the final stoic act of exemption—is preferable to life in a “value-free” society.

Far more ominous for Percy is the culture of thanatos, or spiritual suicide, that comes into being under the reign of the ideology of scientism. In both Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)Percy attacked the medical technocrats who both advocate and practice the “termination” of defective newborns and the aged, using government funding to support their activities at Fedville. Even when they do not directly administer the death sentence, they are complicit by fostering an ethos in which such killings are rendered acceptable for the general “good” of society and progress. These killings are glossed over with hypocritical phrases such as “the dignity of the person,” “the quality of life,” and “the right of the individual to control his own body.” In The Thanatos Syndrome, Percy linked this ethos in American culture to the activities of Third Reich German physicians and scientists whose experiments on humans were a precursor to the Holocaust. Percy’s prophetic priest in the novel, Father Rinaldo Smith, warns his fellow Americans that such an ethos eventuates in a culture of death. “You will end by killing Jews,” he somberly predicts.

What has occurred in secular humanistic culture, as Percy clearly saw, is the loss of a theological conception of the self—one that regards the person as a sacred child of God and not as an isolated autonomous individual. In the past, the Church’s proscription against suicide was based on the belief that, as children of God, we are not our own. Our deepest freedom and truest identity “transparently under God,” to use Kierkegaard’s phrase, is subject to our following the will of the Father-Creator. While we can, indeed must, meliorate the conditions of suffering of the sick and dying, we cannot appropriate God’s right as author of life to determine when it will end. Moreover, as children of God who are “not our own,” not autonomous individuals, we are creatures wedded in community with others, as Percy argued. Our very being is realized by our relations to others under God. Therefore, contrary to notions of individualism as defined by the current culture, the theological model of the person is that of kenosis or “self-emptying,” of finding oneself by dying to the egoistic self and becoming instead “the one for others.” The absolute model for this ideal of the self is, of course, Christ, who as God empties himself completely for others and follows the Father’s will to the end.

Percy’s fictional representation of this model of the kenotic self is Father Rinaldo Smith in The Thanatos Syndrome. An ex-suicide and an ex-alcoholic, himself terminal after a series of strokes, Father Smith runs a hospice for derelicts, dying AIDS patients, the aged, and other “defectives” who have been shunned by the general culture. His hospice is the antithesis of Fedville and the “qualitarian” doctors who wish either to exterminate those who are unable to “function” according to their secular standard of human behavior, or radically modify their personalities with powerful drugs, a form of spiritual suicide. Their violence against others is countermanded by his community of charity and his personal sacrifice as the one for others.

Through Father Smith, Percy shows that the situations of the sick, the dying, and the disabled are a call and a challenge to the rest of the community—not only a call to help, but a challenge to define our very humanity: natural organism, or sacred children of God? Father Smith asks his congregation, as Percy asks his readers, to see the sick and the dying as one of us, indeed as us. At the same time, The Thanatos Syndrome implicitly raises the challenge for dying persons to see themselves not solely as autonomous beings, but as intimately bound to the community of the living. Stated differently, the challenge is to see themselves not just as candidates for suicide, but as “dying for others” by offering others an opportunity to reveal their true humanity in charity.

Did Walker Percy understand the facing of death in this way? Probably so. When battling terminal prostrate cancer, Percy enrolled in a pilot study at Mayo Clinic to test the effects of the drugs Inferon and FU-5 in cancer patients. Although the side effects of this experimental treatment were debilitating, Percy, as biographer Patrick Samway reports, “had a revelation when he saw children with cancer waiting in the lounges. He knew then and there that he would continue the treatment at Mayo as long as he could, so that the results of his treatment might someday be of value to others.”11

Walker Percy, ex-suicide, died in his bed at home on May 10, 1990.


  1. 1. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family (New York and Oxford, 1994). 2. Jay Tolson, The Correpondence of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote (New York, 1997), 302, 303. 3. Albert Camus, “An Absurd Reasoning,” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York, 1955), 3. 4. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, eds., Conversations with Walker Percy (Jackson, 1985), 299, 300. 5. Sören Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death (Garden City, 1941), 147–166 passim. 6. Conversations with Walker Percy, 164. 7. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, eds., More Conversations with Walker Percy (Jackson, 1993), 232, 233. 8. Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York, 1983), 157. 9. Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II (New York, 1899), 104. 10. Walker Percy, “Stoicism in the South,” in Signposts in a Strange Land, edited by Patrick Samway (New York, 1991), 83–89. 11. Patrick H. Samway, Walker Percy: A Life (New York, 1997), 410.

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