Walker Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, begins with this apparently unpromising start: a nameless young man is lying on the grass in New York’s Central Park. He is referred to anonymously, as “the engineer,” and as a man who is lost in thought. How odd that the author does not identify him in any concrete way. We also might notice a curious fact; that this man is resting his head upon his jacket, which is folded inside-out. Given this small detail, that his jacket is wrongside-in, we may infer that the young man himself is in some way ‘outside-in.’ Unknown to us— he may also be unknown to himself. The mystery of his exterior personhood reflects the probable mystery of his interior identity.
Having bought a very expensive telescope, our young man oddly finds himself looking at other people in the park. Through the eyepiece, the engineer becomes an observer of others by means of a scientific instrument. Nevertheless, this approach to learning about other people, and therefore about himself, will never bear much fruit. For the self that he seeks is not accessible through scientific inquiry.
Walker Percy presents the young man as a cypher ~ that is, at first, he is a secret to us, as much as he is to himself. His life is like the proverbial blank canvas with its endless possibilities. But he has no freedom. Freedom only comes from knowing what you have to do, and then choosing to do it. And he does not yet know what to do. Instead, he has become a master at conforming to what other people think and do. A wise grandmother or mother will tell us, ‘remember who you are!’ Yet, struggling with bouts of amnesia, the engineer at times cannot remember who he is. And so he does not know what he has to do. For when we do not remember who we are, we cannot remind ourselves of what we are called to do.
Like all of us, in one way or another, this young man is on a journey ~ he is a kind of wayfarer through life. He is seeking to ‘get home.’ Getting home will require coming to know who he is.
This posting is based on my homily for Sunday, June 10, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. My focus on this book by Percy was inspired by my recent attendance at the Annual Walker Percy Weekend in my former community of St. Francisville, LA.