Postmodern Conservative

Homeless and at Home in St. Francisville

So, in case you’re wondering, I got home safely from St. Francisville, despite Delta canceling my flight home (because it was insufficiently full) and bumping me to the indignity of a middle seat of a later one. There’s rapacious capitalism for you.

That inconvenient change had the upside of Rod Dreher himself, worn out as he must have been, volunteering to drive me to the airport. As real men, we got right down to a public-policy discussion about what small towns really need these days — including more jobs and more money and often a healthy dose of non-rapacious capitalism. It turns out we didn’t disagree much at all. Even on the Walmart issue, we agree that whether a town welcomes Walmart or not depends on its particular circumstances. For St. Francisville, the rejection of Walmart made sense given its history (and its reliance on its compelling display of its historic district), but also partly because there is a superstore not far down the road in Zachary. It’s not like the languishing commercial life of St. Francisville is providing many of the goods and services offered by Walmart some other way.

It’s always good, of course, when local communities are political or assertive enough to be able to make their own judgments on what changes they believe in, when they don’t mindlessly defer to economic forces allegedly beyond their control. That’s also true of states and the country as a whole. But here’s one force that’s hard to control: Guys like Rod and me are undermining the local economy by buying our clothes online.

The festival transcended the pomocon/porcher divide. To sample from Walker Percy’s description of the man who raised him, it was one of a kind, and I’ve never been to anything remotely like it. I’m grateful to have been included.  Its magnetic charm depended most of all on being about Percy, although also on the way Percy in St. Francisville was branded by Rod’s blogging.

People came from far and wide because they either loved the writing of Walker Percy (most cases) or loved the idea of loving the writing of Walker Percy. For most people, it was a kind of vacation, with lots of couples and more than a few kids. There were doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors (but not that many), members of the clergy, editors, think-tankers, retirees, businessmen and businesswomen, entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial public intellectuals, an architect or two, an assistant principal from the Bronx, an official with the SEC (a football conference), and many others I didn’t get to meet. And I should probably say more than a few words of about the extraordinary religious diversity of the participants.

Hardly anyone was on the make or even networking. Nobody was cynical about the significance of the event. So everyone was taking a vacation from the despair of diversion, the despair one of Percy characters smelled on the people he saw in museums and surely he would have smelled on the tourists who come to St. Francisville to tour the plantations in the area. No one thought that Percy was an historical period piece or had diminished relevance because he is dead or was white or male.

Sounds a lot like some Chautauqua thing, you say. But there are big differences — gourmet Louisiana food, an emphasis on drinking both bourbon and beer, and country music. It was a very southern or completely unpuritanical experience. It was, in the precise sense, an aristocratic or leisurely experience, the South at its finest. Leisurely means, of course, highly relational and somewhat mannered. I enjoyed every moment, but it is a struggle for me to be relational all day and all night long.

Another difference: The festival wasn’t about being edified in general but about a particular man who was about telling us what we most need to know to live well. He’s also the one who tells us what almost no one else does: why it’s better to be a dislocated human being than a contented chimp.

Percy said that we’re all called to be searchers and seekers who wander because we wonder, and that a really adequate science would be centered on wondering about the strange and elusive being who wonders and wanders. For some, Walker Percy is a novelist, others a scientist or psychiatrist or diagnostician, others still a religious (or evangelical in the original sense) writer, and for everyone in some sense or another the one who’s on to what it means to have a self or soul, to be stuck with the predicament of having a particular human life.

All in all, the festival was southern, but not too southern. Everyone knows that the South is the most relational part of the country. At its best it thoughtfully opposed the displaced abstractness of intellectuals and their theories. Percy adds that’s both good and bad. It’s good to have the common sense to oppose theory with your personal experiences in relation to others. But it’s bad to confuse the rejection of the scientism of theory — as in an neuroscientific or evolutionary or economic explanation of everything — with the rejection of science as the truthful joy of shared discovery.

So Percy tells fundamentalists: Evolution happened, get over it, there’s plenty of evidence. And he tells theorists of evolution: You’re just willfully ignoring the evidence for the discontinuity in evolutionary development that was the emergence of the being who wonders and wanders. I was twice cornered during the bourbon walk to say a lot more about evolution, once by a Darwin affirmer and once by a Darwin denier.

From the point of view of a pure evolutionary naturalism, it would be better if members of our strange species just disappeared. And nothing is worse for us than thinking of ourselves mistakenly as ghosts or free beings looking down on bodies — including one’s own body — from an undisclosed location. The truth is that we’re “hardwired” as natural beings to have excellencies and perversities the other animals are incapable of having; we’re naturally not minds or bodies or minds stuck in bodies or bodies that can use minds to satisfy their needs. Our selves or souls can’t be reduced to mind or body or even some combination or the two. And so most of our behavior is not that of the “pure mind” of the transcendent scientist or the “pure body” of the calculating, highly materialistic consumer.

We’re the only animal that can be totalitarian or trash the planet; we’re the only species graced by poets, philosophers, priests, princes, preachers, and so forth. We’re singular in our ability to both tell the truth and lie (and when we ever stop doing one we’ll stop doing the other). The temptation of scientism is to obliterate the real distinction between truth and lie for our own good, but if those scientists ever succeeded, that would be the end of science and scientists, as well of priests, philosophers, and poets.

Some other benefits of the focus on Percy: There was remarkably little contention over today’s political controversies. Leo Strauss never came up; Wendell Berry, as far as I know, only once. The American Founders, including Mr. Jefferson, were discussed a bit, but neither iconically or dismissively. Here’s the problem they gave us, in Percy’s view: People in a free country have a problem with place, and it might even be the case that they have a semi-pathological tendency to restlessly wander away from their civilized inheritance.

But it’s also true, Percy shows, that people in an unfree country have a problem with being displaced; they tried too hard to lose what they really know about themselves by becoming part of some whole greater than themselves. We can talk here about the extreme cases of the Spartans and the Nazis, but also about those American intellectuals these days who are distorted by envy for the Greek polis. And insofar as Louisiana is an unfree state, it’s because of its fanaticism on behalf of LSU football. Everyone’s trying too hard to be a Tiger.

There’s a third point: Displaced people in a free country too readily defer to experts who begin their sentences with “studies show.” It turns out it’s impossible to figure yourself out all by yourself — without even asking for help you can’t supply for yourself — as an “autonomous” being. So free people often stop thinking for themselves about themselves and defer to whatever “they” say. Because their radical displacement is psychologically unsustainable, Americans are in many ways both the freest and the most banally conformist people ever. American conformism is the cause and result of our impoverishment of real human relationships.

Our untraditional times have their advantages for novelists or authentic Christians or for anyone wanting to see things as they really are or for being open to signs or for experiencing anew the goodness and gratuitousness of created being. But our untraditional world also has plenty of people who are just miserably displaced. They experience their lives in freedom and prosperity and with safe sex as the hell of “pure possibility”; they have no idea who they are or what they’re supposed do. They’re clueless and, thank God, they know it, and all the stuff, expertise, and recreation money can buy can’t give them what they really need. So Percy called his Lost in the Cosmos the last self-help book, and he really meant it to be, above all, for them.

I will try to write more later about festival personalities, but remember that blogging randomly is not my job.

One more thing: Rod Dreher really has a modest but tasteful and homey front porch. And I sat on it for several hours doing my best to be relational. I probably should also get all porcher and talk about all the festival’s places or locations. The formal intellectual conversations were held in the beautifully restored Temple Sinai and the parish’s (which is Louisianan for county) courthouse, which highlighted, of course, Percy’s deeply scientific and Biblical philosemitism and his invincible dependence on the South’s Stoic philosopher-lawyers (such as his Uncle Will).  I wish I knew enough to speak with authority on these two neglected humane and civilizing influences on the postbellum South of southern literature.

Walker Percy, I think, would have especially approved of a festival in his name raising money to restore the building that was the Julias Freyhan High School, built in 1907 by the local Jewish philanthropist Freyhan to be his community’s first public school. Percy would approve just as much, of course, of a festival in Greenville, Miss., that would restore the memory of Uncle Will’s contribution to the amazing excellence of public education in his community under his watch, but that’s not likely to happen unless Rod changes places and moves over to Greenville.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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