In his 2011 film, Walker Percy: A Documentary Film, Win Riley sheds some intimate light on the enigmatic life of Walker Percy, Louisiana doctor-turned-philosopher-turned-novelist. Mr. Riley was kind enough to sit down with The Curator and answer some questions about Percy, the film, and what they both can mean for us today.
I think a lot of our readers are familiar with Percy, at least by name. But for those that aren’t it would be nice to get a sort of bird’s eye view of who he was, what he wrote, why he did it, etc.
Sure. Percy was a novelist and philosopher. His very first novel was published sort of late in his life, in his mid-forties. He was a doctor, um, who contracted tuberculosis as a young man…
Which he got while he was in medical school, right?
That’s correct. Tuberculosis basically ended his medical career before it began.He spent about 20 years of his life just reading and writing philosophical essays before his first novel came out. He wrote The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award, and went on to write The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins—six novels in total—and several collections of essays, as well as his correspondence with Shelby Foote.
After watching your documentary I started thinking it might have been his family life that got him exploring the kind of philosophical questions that he did.
Yeah, I think that’s right. You know, Percy’s mother and father died when he was young, both very tragically. Both his father and grandfather killed themselves. His mother died in a car accident that Percy witnessed. And then he got tuberculosis and sat out WWII. I think his mind turned to matters more challenging during convalescence. He had a lot of time to think about philosophy and his own role in the world, his purpose, and I think he really struggled with that.
Hence being so drawn to the European existentialists…
I do find it interesting that he was asking the same kinds of philosophical questions as Camus and Sartre and Kafka but without giving over his writing to that kind of obscure, absurdist fetish that was all the rage. Like, he presents the same sort of ideas, without…
Exactly, yeah, Walker’s protagonists, like Binx from The Moviegoer, suffer more from the inability to act, from a particular kind of malaise, rather than from some kind of existential terror. I think like many authors, he didn’t enjoy categorization but a few people have categorized him anyway as being a Christian existentialist, which is a very strange idea.
But that’s part of what’s interesting about him. He lived in a very small town in Louisiana. You know, it’s intriguing…this former doctor living in Covington—a “non-place,” as he called it—who was equally knowledgeable and interested in semiotics and Kierkegaard.
So I guess there are like three possible entry points to Percy’s work. Either through Percy’s fiction, or his philosophical essays, or, like me, kinda working backwards from the philosophy he was interested in. Which route did you take?
Initially I read The Moviegoer as a teenager, and either completely missed or misunderstood the sort of philosophical undercurrents of the novel. But something about it drew me in. The setting. The tone. And then later in college I reread it and had a slightly better idea of the philosophical undercurrents, so I became more intrigued and more curious about it and Percy…because there are seeming contradictions in the novel and in Percy’s life that on the surface, if nothing else, are intriguing. The more I read about Percy the more questions I had about him.
And he was a real philosopher, too.
That’s right, yeah. He was really interested in language and wrote a slew of academic essays.
Right, and not just because he was an abstract thinker, either. It all came back to a very real, everyday thing: his daughter’s struggle with hearing.
Exactly. He and his wife, Bunt, worked to find ways to communicate with her—to teach her to speak, to read lips. He became fascinated by the human capacity for symbolic communication. He was intrigued by how his daughter was able to pick up things without her being able to hear. He worked out his fascination in many of those philosophical essays. Incidentally, it was also this existential/linguistic insight that led him back to God. It’s a complicated notion best accessed through his essays, but it had to do with this idea of consciousness of the world through language, through naming—what he and others called thirdness.
Was he taken seriously as a philosopher?
Well, we hear more about Percy the novelist than Percy the philosopher, right? I think he thought that his legacy would be based off of those essays in the end. But he was also drawn to the idea of having a wider audience for his ideas, so I think that’s what drove him to write novels. What’s interesting about Walker is that in many ways his interest in philosophy was driven by genuine curiosity. In other words, I’m not sure he cared so much about his standing among academic philosophers. He was driven by his desire for answers.
Who was the first Percy family member you were able to contact about doing the film?
It was Walker Percy’s wife, Bunt Percy. I’d been wanting to do a documentary about Percy for years. My brother and I were big fans of Walker. I knew it was going to be a difficult film to make—Percy is such a complex figure. So before I even knew the film was going to happen I wanted to find out more about him. I read his books and everything I could find. And then I met Percy’s daughter who introduced me to Bunt. Apparently Bunt had seen my previous film, about a painter named Walter Anderson. By some stroke of luck she had seen that and enjoyed it. And when I called her she said, “Why don’t you come on over and tell me what you have in mind?” So I went over to Walker’s house in Covington and sat down with her and talked with her about my ideas about the documentary on her husband.
How was that received?
I felt very fortunate. At that stage I thought I knew more about Percy than I really did. She was excited about the idea and said she would do everything she could to help, you know, like calling friends and people that would be good to talk to for the film.
That must have been encouraging, her support.
I don’t think I could’ve done it without her and her encouragement. It gave me confidence and got me thinking that the film was something worth pursuing.
What period or moment in his life did you find most interesting while you were making the film?
The most interesting part, to me, was his transition from doctor to writer-philosopher. While he was healing from tuberculosis, he basically changed his life.
Yes! What moment could possibly better encapsulate the life of an existential philosopher than something like that? Becoming, you know? “Existence precedes essence,” to use an overused phrase. Percy was restless, so he kept searching.
Totally. I think it was David Foster Wallace who said that great writing makes us feel less alone. I think Percy felt that strongly when he read the things that he read while he was ill. In some sense he found the same solace Wallace did and he wanted to provide that for others. So he wrote.
Did he ever. Speaking of his writing, say you’re trapped in a big city during a hurricane or snowstorm (can you tell I live in New York City?)…
All you have is candlelight and Percy’s entire collected works. What do you pick up first?
The Moviegoer. I think that’s his most important novel. But quickly followed by The Last Gentleman, which became chronologically just after The Moviegoer and just before Love in the Ruins.
I love that title. Love in the Ruins. I mean that kind of says it all in terms of his life. Hope in the midst of despair.
I think that’s a good way to put it.
Was there anything that you learned while making the film that you didn’t already know?
I discovered a great deal about Percy, that was one of the joys of making the film. You know, if you set out to make a film in which you already know everything about the subject it would be a great disappointment. Anyway, the complexity and consistency of his thought became so apparent after looking closely at his life. Most important though, I got a fuller picture of him as a man—not just as a thinker, or famous novelist–but as a father, a brother.
Like I said before I think most readers of Curator have at least heard of Percy, but there are probably some, what should we call ‘em, trollers, that have somehow landed on our page who have never read let alone heard of Percy…so what case can you make for Percy? Why do you think his literature matters today? What wisdom does he have for us?
Well I think Walker would probably laugh at the word “troller.” I think there are two ways to look at it. You can look at his novels from a purely literary perspective and look at the great things that his novels do—what they tell us about who we are and such. So you can read him on that level. But on a deeper level I think Walker can tell us important things about 20th century American life that apply today. In some sense he felt that the 20th century was some a sort of “desert of theory and consumption”, and he felt that it wasn’t enough.
What he wanted us to do was to search for something more meaningful. For him it was Christianity. I think at his best though he doesn’t point us in any particular direction, to do this or that, I think he’s encouraging us to be more engaged with the world around us, which I’m probably making sound more pretentious than he ever would have intended. [Before making the film] I had this picture of Percy as this sort of brooding existentialist on the banks of the river in the small town of Covington, because often when you look at photographs of him he looks sort of, you know, despondent. And the truth, after talking with his family and learning more about him, was that though he did have these moments of malaise but he also had a fulfilling and happy life with his family. His writing is a testament of his refusal to fall prey to the “desert of consumption”…or to the alienation it encouraged.