Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Walker Percy on Violence and Alienation

I'm back at this comprehensive paper. Almost finished with section three. Then on to the final fourth section and lots of revisions and editing. Publishing an excerpt here will perhaps help me believe that this this is really almost finished (and it serves as a distraction). Can't say that I wasn't jealous of all those seniors who graduated on Sunday. It feels good to finish things.
I've selected this bit to share in light of the assassination of bin Laden. I've been struggling to decide what I think about it. Yes I feel a sense of relief, but should I? I was sick in bed at the end of last week with bronchitis and watched Die Hard on Netflix. I felt emotionally worn out afterwards and the next day. I'm not a pacifist, but I wonder if I'm getting close.

My overall argument in the essay is that music at its best draws people together. The argument that follows this section below is that in popular culture we largely use the technology of music according our fallen nature, to separate and alienate rather than to draw near and commune. Admittedly popular music is capable of drawing particular crowds, but how easy is it to gather a crowd? Instead, how difficult is it to form a communion of beings, a fellowship of saints? 

Comprehensive Paper To Be Submitted to Regent College
For the Completion of the Masters In Christians Studies
Interdisciplinary Studies
By Joshua Banner

From Section Three: Obstacles of Communion
Walker Percy is as insightful into the human condition as any. He articulates alarmingly the questions surrounding what has been known as the “Age of Anxiety.” He wrestles with the conundrums of modern existence, “why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?” And he follows it with several pages of similar revealing questions.

Why does man feel so sad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world to his own use?
Why has man entered on an orgy of war, murder, torture, and self-destruction unparalleled in history and in the very century which he had hoped to see the dawn of universal peace and brotherhood?
Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?
Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments?
Why does a man often feel better in a bad environment?
Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say, suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?
Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?
Why have more people been killed in the twentieth century than in all other centuries put together?
Why is war man’s greatest pleasure?
Why is man the only creature that wages war against its own species?[1]

This list of questions continues on for some eight pages as Percy subversively rants about the poverty of our existence. It would not be possible for us to alienate and exploit each other if there was not within us a common thread of violent unrest.  Lasch seems to acknowledge this violence in his sporadic reference to Thomas Hobbes’ reflections on a “war of all against all,” a state of nature where persons have retreated from the culture’s institutional supports. Lasch anticipates this as an understandable reaction to our “overorganized society” with its bureaucracy, its medical sophistication, and psychiatry that can foster a deeper animosity than the raw wilderness of a world Hobbes intended government to preserve us from.[2]

At the end of Percy’s list he restates his primary question: “why is it that scientists have a theory of everything under the sun but do not have a theory of man?” With all of our ‘overorganization’ and sophistication, violence—how we cut ourselves off from each other—turns out to be the most distinct example of our alienation. According to Erazim Kohak’s description of the modern condition, “Grief and remorse are reflected from [the artifacts of modern civilization], ever reinforced, until the human, crazed by pain, strikes out and kills those around him or himself, or both.”[3] The violence of the twentieth century has left us with little optimism and no ability to identify a coherent, unifying theory about ourselves. We can only agree on what is rhetorically present in Percy’s questions, that we are alienated, that what we share most is our isolation, our tendency to separate and even kill.

[1] Walker Percy. Message In A Bottle. 3,4.
[2] Christopher Lasch. Culture of Narcissism. 49.
[3] Erazim Kohak. From the Embers to the Sky. 45.

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