Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Age of Suicide

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John F. Desmond
  • Washington, DC: 
    Catholic University of America Press
    , January
     2019.
     320 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780813231273.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

John F. Desmond’s interest in the theme of suicide in the work of Walker Percy goes back at least to his important 1992 article in The Southern Literary Journal, “From Suicide to Ex-Suicide: Notes on the Southern Writer as Hero in the Age of Despair” (Vol. 25, No. 1 (Fall), pp. 89-105).  There, Desmond uses Percy’s comment that he was interested in a Quentin Compson who did not commit suicide to distinguish Percy’s fiction from the work of earlier Southern writers such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. Desmond’s new book, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Age of Suicide, employs the theme of suicide to connect Percy to his great Russian mentor, Dostoevsky.

The 1992 article sets out difference; the new book emphasizes continuity. For Desmond, “suicide” designates the spiritual crisis identified by Dostoevsky and tracked into the late 20th century by Percy. The argument runs like this: the radical autonomy generated by a combination of Enlightenment rationalism, romantic individualism, and Cartesian scientism rendered the human self ontologically destitute though theoretically absolute. Cut off from others and estranged from itself, the human self is in a state of despair that it can only control by holding open the option of suicide—the ultimate godlike power of life and death over itself. Dostoevsky’s nihilist Stavrogin exercises this option in Demons and takes his own life. One might ask, if ours is indeed the “Age of Suicide” why don’t more people follow Stavrogin’s lead and take the final step? Desmond answers in Percy’s terminology. In addition to people such as Stavrogin, who might be called a pre-suicide, we of the late modern world fall into the categories of “non-suicides” and “ex-suicides.” The former are unconscious of their plight, and live in a kind of anxious ignorance. Ex-suicides are those who have faced the threat, come to the verge of the precipice, but somehow found the grace to choose life. Dostoevsky and Percy aim to make their readers ex-suicides.

From the point of view of Dostoevsky and Percy, the grace that enables this choice comes from the Christian God. Desmond endorses their analysis and conclusion, reading their major novels through the thought of Soren Kierkegaard, Charles Taylor, Rene Girard, and to a lesser degree, Charles Sanders Peirce.  Crucial here is Kierkegaard’s description of human selfhood as he draws it in The Sickness Unto Death (Princeton UP, 1941 [1849]). The only way to escape despair is to live in faith transparently before God. Conversely, a radical autonomy that rejects God is ultimately hopeless. In the novels of Dostoevsky and Percy, these stark alternatives are drawn in myriad permutations.

I hope my brief summary of Desmond’s project conveys that he means to carry on the prophetic task of these two writers whom he clearly admires. He makes this clear in the epilogue should the reader have been in any doubt. This book takes its place not only in the line of astute and precise literary criticism Desmond has written over the years on Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and more recently Seamus Heaney, but also in the line of Roman Catholic cultural analysis practiced by Taylor and Girard. Desmond’s is a welcomed voice promoting a coherent, committed Christian vision for a fractured time. However, the book has its weaknesses.

The comparison between Dostoevsky, while valid and important, can be taken too far. In the chapter on Percy’s The Moviegoer (Knopf, 1961) for example, within the space of a dozen lines Desmond compares Binx Bolling, to Prince Myshkin, Alyosha Karamazov, the underground man, and Raskolnikov. This quick tour through Dostoevsky’s fiction does little to show any real influence, and it does not advance our understanding of Binx’s honesty or his isolation, the major points of comparison. Why not Camus’ Mersault instead, for example? The connections to Dostoevsky at this point seem incidental. Another casualty of Desmond’s devotion to his thesis is attention to literary quality. Desmond assumes, with some justification, that both writers have stature and are worthy of extended explication. But no discerning judge, including Percy himself, would put the two on the same level of literary achievement. Desmond is not claiming otherwise, but the very structure of the book, equally divided between the novels of Dostoevsky and Percy, suggests a questionable equality. Similarly, no serious attention is paid to the relative merits of the novels of either author. This omission is most serious in the case of Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987) which to my mind falls noticeably short of the others in nearly every literary category. Any novel—including a novel of ideas—must make its first claim as a work of art. Desmond’s focus on the important philosophical and spiritual arguments pressed by the two writers sometimes obscures the literary dimensions of their work. This tendency aligns with what seems to be reluctance to criticize his authors. Desmond notes Dostoevsky’s slavophilic zeal and his questionable ideal of the submissive, suffering woman, but his regard for Percy’s views seems nearly unqualified.

Devoted readers of the two novelists will turn up bones to pick with Desmond—I balked at the characterization of Lance Lamar as a child molester, for example. And in the case of both authors, specialists might well wish for more of a conversation with the considerable body of criticism devoted to these works. Desmond has written such books before. Here his purpose is different, but important. Through its sustained, coherent argument concerning the spiritual ills inherent in our culture, this volume makes a worthy case that deserves a hearing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John D. Sykes, Jr. is Mary and Harry Brown Professor of English and Religion at Wingate University.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John F. Desmond is the author of Gravity and Grace: Seamus Heaney and the Force of Light; Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History; At the Crossroads: Ethical and Religious Themes in the Writings of Walker Percy, and Walker Percy's Search for Community.

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