Percy and Royster: Two Voices From the Past

Vermont Connecticut Roysterwalker percyIt is one thing to be clever, quite another to be wise. These two traits – guile and wisdom – are often confused in our fast paced, hurly-burly success crazed world.

If you sound and act important or get yourself noticed, however you manage it, you are instantly elevated as someone of value and worthy of attention, even if only for a few minutes. The engines of capitalism, big government and mass media grind on, and the bread and circuses of our time play to much fanfare across television and digital screens that now outnumber human beings; wisdom meanwhile hovers out of reach, as elusive as time itself.  How refreshing, then, to find that two admirable men , who both happened to have attended the University of North Carolina, have been celebrated in recent months. (Full disclosure: I am a UNC grad).

First, we have a PBS documentary on the life and work of Walker Percy. Percy, an esteemed novelist and essayist of southern pedigree, wrote only six novels, publishing his first at the age of 46. He is best known for his novel, the Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award. Like his other fictional works, it explored the challenge of living between worlds – the modern world invented by science and consumerism and the traditional world bequeathed to us through tradition and nature.

Many of his characters are lost in this “no man’s land” of alienation and uncertainty. Science promises health, food, sex without responsibility, convenience – even as it threatens the very foundations of biological life; how to navigate this paradox and find meaning in the gray shades of normalcy – these were the themes that echo in Percy’s work.

He was a reticent man relative to most modern celebrities. Having spent three years recovering from tuberculosis, which he contracted while studying medicine, he mastered the art of introspection.   When as young men his friend and fellow writer Shelby Foote insisted that they stop by William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi, Percy declined to engage. As Foote chatted with Faulkner only a few yards away, Percy remained in the car. Faulkner nodded to Percy, Percy nodded back but they exchanged no words.

Percy refused to romanticize human beings. In his book, Lost in the Cosmos, he leaves no doubt that we are a complicated species, capable of great feats of beauty but also remarkable acts of self-indulgence and/or violence. We may long to be angels, but we struggle to escape our brutish and competitive instincts. Spirit and body, so often in conflict, are battlegrounds for the soul.

A hero to William F. Buckley and a close friend to Shelby Foote, Percy straddled the political and cultural divides of our nation. He was an enlightened conservative whose belief in humanity and human progress was tentative, but whose faith in the eternal things was strong. He turned to Catholicism when modern intellectual ideas, which he studied intently, failed to answer the most profound of questions: what makes human beings who we are and what is our place in the cosmos? He wrote whimsically about faith even as he took its pursuit seriously.

“Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.”

Then there is a short biography of Vermont Connecticut Royster. It is written by Chris Roush, a business professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where Royster spent his final years as a graduate school journalism instructor after a celebrated career at the Wall Street Journal. He was a reporter, editor and columnist, not to mention two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Royster, like Percy, attended UNC as an undergraduate – an interesting intersection of two like spirits.

Royster’s WSJ column, Thinking Things Over, gives the biography its title. While not hefty in intellectual content, the book does remind us of Royster’s rare virtues as a thinker and writer.

Thoughtfulness cannot be rushed. Royster wrote like a man sitting by a fire mulling over the complexities of life, whether they involved a random act of violence that took the life of a friend, or a political treatise on the trajectory of conservatism or an editorial on the meaning of Christmas.

He had conversations with his readers, not shouting matches, and he managed to infuse his words with wisdom without resorting to lecture or self-righteous judgment. Most notable among his editorial contributions is the annual In Hoc Anno Domini, which runs each Christmas season in the Journal and celebrates the liberty “wherewith God has made us free.”

It reads like Biblical wisdom, but it is tailored for the modern mind still capable of appreciating the importance of preserving the individual in the face of immense state power and the relentless pursuit of social engineering. Saint Paul 2000 years ago faced the same dilemma and saw a way out.

There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impresser to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

Royster was not defiant in his individualism. There was a communal tone to his writing that underscored the importance of human interaction and civility. Man is not an island, and Royster understood this even as he occasionally longed to row his own boat off shore, away from the self-importance that so often infects those seduced by power.

Our culture could stand to revisit the lessons these two men taught. There is plenty of bluster and storming about in our world; but it is the still small voice that brings wisdom and ultimately truth to the sorrowful yet rewarding journey of life.

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