Brought to Themselves in a World of Signs
The Semiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce and the Problem of the Faith Community in the Writings of Walker Percy

In a used bookstore in downtown Portland, Oregon, back about 1983, I discovered the novelist Walker Percy. I was fascinated to find that, in his novels as well as in his philosophical essays, Percy employed a slant on signs and symbols which resonated with some of my own thinking going way, way back. In fact, it was Walker Percy who eventually led me on to study the forbiddingly technical semiotic writings of logician and philosopher of science Charles Sanders Peirce.

But what follows here is not nearly so technical, if you skip past the housekeeping in the introduction. In fact, this 1988 piece of mine is a tolerable introduction to just what is at stake in this whole business of "signs & symbols"... with René Descartes as the goat.


We have seen this semester, in Josiah Royce's The Problem of Christianity, an attempt to apply the semiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce to the problem of the nature of the faith community. The ideal community according to Royce, the community toward which the Church is aiming as an end, is the Beloved Community, Royce's idealization of the faith community as portrayed in Paul's epistles. To Royce, this community is one of love and of loyalty to a corporate ideal larger than the individuals who compose the community.1

Whether considered as an ideal end or as a present means toward that ideal, the faith community is for Royce a community of interpretation, each of whose members, driven by a will to interpret, can say:

"Alone I am lost, and am worse than nothing. I need a counsellor, I need my community. Interpret me. Let me join in this interpretation. Let there be community. This alone is life. This alone is salvation. This alone is real."2

It is this process of interpretation, which Royce develops from Peirce's semiotic, that forges individuals together into a community. Interpreting each other one to another, Interpreter, Interpretant, and Interpreted, the members of the community engage in a seamless process in which each act of interpretation both bases itself on interpretation preceding, and elicits further interpretation beyond itself.3

Interpretation binds the individuals together in love and loyalty:

No one who loves mankind can find a worthier and more significant way to express his love than by increasing and expressing among men the Will to Interpret... When Christianity teaches us to hope for the community of all mankind, we can readily see that the Beloved Community, whatever else it is, will be, when it comes, a Community of Interpretation.4

Royce's project has been the object of criticisms which can best be summed up in the words of M.L. Briody: "Royce was surprisingly optimistic about the realization of his hope."5 Royce delivered the lectures which became The Problem of Christianity in 1913, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Today, two world wars later, with the Apocalypse a scriptural vision seemingly more likely of realization than the Kingdom of Heaven, Royce's effort may seem almost quaintly antique.6

Is Royce's project flawed beyond salvage? Or can one today give a credible description of the faith community, building on the semiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce?

We will argue in this paper that the answer to this second question is "yes": Peirce's semiotic can still serve today as an avenue to a credible and veridical account of Christian community.

Our approach will be to survey an actual example of such a present-day project, in the works of the American writer Walker Percy. We will begin with a look at the philosophy of language which undergirds Percy's novels, a philosophy which Percy bases on the semiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce. We will continue with a study of Percy's application of his Peircean semiotic to the problem of the faith community in one of his novels, Love in the Ruins. And we will conclude with a consideration of a criticism which Patricia Lewis Poteat has directed toward Percy's project.

The reader is directed throughout to the footnotes, not only for references but also for supplementary information.

Walker Percy's Peircean Semiotic

Walker Percy unfolds his philosophy of language at length in his two non-fiction works: The Message in the Bottle, a collection of essays originally published over a span of more than twenty years; and Lost in the Cosmos, a more recent work. The subtitle of the former book indicates the twin foci around which Percy's semiotic interests revolve: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do With the Other.

"How queer language is": Why, asks Percy, have we today not even a sketch of a comprehensive theory of language which deals with language nonreductively as a fully human phenomenon? "What happens when people talk, when one person names something or says a sentence about something and another person understands him?"7

From various quarters come various explanations and models of language, each sophisticated and fruitful in its own way, but the proponents of each seem unable or unwilling to come to grips with language as the full, unreduced phenomenon of human language:

It is as if neither Dr. Harvey nor anyone else had ever discovered that the heart is a pump and that the blood circulates but in the past three hundred years scientists had amassed huge quantities of data about the chemical reaction of heart muscle, and the composition of blood... had made comparisons of the blood systems of thousands of mammals, and, finally, had developed a sophisticated computerized method for calculating the velocity and pressure of the blood in any given artery.8

Percy notes that most current explanations of language tend in one of two directions, which he typifies as "behaviorism" and "idealism." The stimulus-response model of the behaviorist is "simple, elegant, and fruitful," but runs aground in its attempt to reduce the symbol to a combination of dyadic elements. The other approach, which "runs from Plato through Kant to Ernst Cassirer," deals successfully with the symbol, but meanwhile "that which it symbolizes, the great wide world, gradually vanishes into Kant's unknowable noumenon." Rather than finding a convincing explanation of human language, remarks Percy, "What I found was two kinds of thinking on the subject with a narrow but impenetrable terra incognita in between... a split in human knowing."9

Percy had originally been trained as a medical pathologist, and so his first inclination, he relates, was toward a behavioral explanation:

Yet the natural scientists, with all their understanding of interactions, energy exchanges, stimuli, and responses, could not seem to utter a single word about what men did and what they themselves were doing: observing and recording, telling and listening, uttering sentences and hearing sentences, writing papers and reading papers, delivering lectures, listening to the six o'clock news, writing a letter to one's daughter in college.10

The thought experiment which first led Percy in the direction of Peirce's semiotic involved an incident in the life of Helen Keller. In her autobiography, Helen describes how, at the age of eight, she had discovered language from her teacher, Miss Sullivan, at the water-pump:

Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten-- a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! ...I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.11

What had happened here? What was the relationship among Helen, the word water, and the water from the pump? Here certainly was an event that straddled that "impenetrable terra incognita," and went to the very heart of it: "Before, Helen had behaved like a good responding organism. Afterward, she acted like a rejoicing symbol-mongering human."12

For a long time, Percy attempted to analyze the event in terms of stimulus and response, and the semantics of Ogden and Richards. The breakthrough came for him when he realized, in a flash of insight, "that the triangle was absolutely irreducible."13 In Peircean terms, the relation among Interpretant (Helen), Sign (the word water), and Object (the liquid water) could not be collapsed down into the categories of Firstness and Secondness alone.14

Motivated by this insight, Percy turned to the semiotic of Peirce and began to develop "a triadic theory of meaning," asking the question, "What would happen if we took Peirce seriously?"15

Percy notes that, in his approach:

There are two main departures from Peirce's theory. (1) No account whatever is given here of Peirce's ontology of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness in terms of which his semiotic is expressed. This omission I take to be justified by the desirability of using only those concepts which have operational significance... (2) The emphasis is clinical, that is, upon mistakes, misperceptions of sentences in their transmission from sender to receiver.16

This latter emphasis is the bridge to Percy's other characteristic concern in The Message in the Bottle: "how queer man is." For integral to the Peircean semiotic is the "seamlessness" of the symbolic process, in which each interpretation both evokes a further interpretation and is itself the evocate of antecedent interpretation. It is here that Percy locates the crux of the human predicament.

For, on the one hand, it is this interpretive process of "metaphor as mistake" by which, for Percy, words and statements are "filled" with the meaning which their speakers give them. Percy relates that, as a boy, he was told by a hunting guide that a certain bird was a "blue-dollar hawk." "Later, my father told me the Negroes had got it wrong: It was really a blue-darter hawk. I can still remember my disappointment at the correction."17 Percy expands on the almost mythopoietic role of such interpretations:

Blue-dollar is not applicable as a modifier at all, for it refers to something else besides the bird, a something which occupies the same ontological status as the bird. Blue darter tells us something about the bird, what it does, what its color is; blue-dollar tells, or the boy hopes it will tell, what the bird is. [This] "error" of identification or word and thing is the only possible way in which the apprehended nature of the bird... can be validated as being what it is."18

Without such interpretive transpositions, language becomes empty and slack; with them, taut with apprehended meaning.19

But, on the other hand, it is also at this "seamless" interpretive juncture that something can fracture, and the semiotic "world" of the speaker go awry. For among the "signs" in this semiotic "world" of which the interpretant and others try to give further interpretations... is the interpretant himself or herself. However:

The signified of the self is semiotically loose and caroms around the Cosmos like an unguided missile... As soon as the self becomes self-conscious-- that is, aware of its own unique unformulability in its world of signs-- from that moment forward, it cannot escape the predicament of its placement in the world.20

The community to which the speaker belongs may, through its shared interpretations, "place" the speaker, in one way or another, in a world of signs. "But a self must be placed in a world"-- that is, provided with an ongoing interpretation of itself.21 In Western society today, observes Percy, traditional interpretations of the self no longer really function for most people, and thus placement of the self tends to slide to one side or the other of the semiotic terra incognita, the "split in human knowing," which Percy had originally apprehended in modern theories of language. The interpretation of the self slips away from the breach at the center, toward the angelic or the apelike, talking head or talking animal, Cartesian ghost or Cartesian machine, transcendent or immanent.22

The self as immanent may be either "the anonymous 'one'-- German man" or the "autonomous self," "more or less successful [at] interactions with other selves and with the world."23 The self as transcendent may raise itself into orbit above its semiotic world as a veritable "god" over that world, through masterful manipulation of science, art, or other sophisticated symbolic structures. But such a placement of the self is precarious for many, argues Percy, and the eventual decay of orbit is accompanied by destructive "re-entry procedures" involving drugs, escape, regression, conversion to "true beliefs," or even suicide.24

In either case-- "immanent" or "transcendent"-- the ultimate predicament remains for Percy the slippage, the Cartesian fracture within the interpretive process. On the individual level this slippage embodies itself as alienation, a sense that "something is wrong here"; on the communal level, it appears as something ambiguous and even ominous: a sense of an impending apocalypse gathering on the horizon.25

The ultimate goal remains the healing of this fracture-- but how? It would be tempting to try to bridge the Cartesian gap by science-- but that we find such temptations even plausible is itself part of our predicament.26 To get a handle on ultimate questions and apocalyptic apprehensions through religious language would seem more appropriate-- however Percy, both semiotician and novelist, remarks:

The American Christian novelist faces a peculiar dilemma today... His dilemma is that though he professes a belief which he holds saves himself and the world and nourishes his art besides, it is also true that Christendom seems in some sense to have failed... The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in.27

What then? Percy proposes nothing less than "a novel about the end of the world": a violent, comedic, bizarre narrative that tackles the Cartesian fracture and the failure of Christendom "through the conjuring up of catastrophe, the destruction of all Exxon signs, and the sprouting of vines in the church pews."28 Such a novel may bring the reader, the faith community, to themselves, in what Stanislaus Grabarek, writing of Percy, refers to as one of those

moments of recognition that can bind reader and author, and thereby offer an affirmation of our common humanity. Through their naming of our common perils ("naming," for Percy, is a sovereign human act), they would propose the hope that this may yet be a world "for you and me."29

It is just such a novel which Walker Percy himself has written in Love in the Ruins.30

Percy's Peircean Semiotic Embodied in Narrative

The subtitle of Walker Percy's novel Love in the Ruins is The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. The novel opens with the expectation of an impending apocalypse:

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself... and the question came to me: has it happened at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or another. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won't and I'm crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.31

The narrator, Dr. Thomas More, is the "bad Catholic" of the subtitle. The time is the near future, and the Cartesian fracture in society has widened into a chasm. The impending catastrophe is of Dr. More's own making, the unintended result of his attempt to heal the Cartesian rift as a man of science.

The Cartesian rift has become a chasm: "The center did not hold." The political spectrum has come apart into "Lefts" and "Knotheads": Lefts, with their angelic complaints of "sexual impotence, morning terror, and a feeling of abstraction of the self from itself"; Knotheads, with their animal-like "unseasonable rages, delusions of conspiracies, high blood pressure, and large bowel complaints."32 Blacks and whites hang on the verge of race war; believers and atheists are at one another's throats.33

The Roman Catholic Church has splintered into three fragments:

(1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois;
(2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God;
(3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.34

One typical A.C.C. congregation displays, on Property Rights Sunday, a banner showing "Christ holding the American home, which has a picket fence, in his two hands," and the priest preaches to the people: "Our Lord himself, remember, was not a social reformer, said nothing about freeing the slaves, nor are we obliged to."35 Young Father Kev Kevin, a "Dutch schismatic" in the novel, specializes in a new computerized form of sexual therapy at the "Love" clinic, where he "takes clinical notes, operates the vaginal console," and sits at the control panel, "reading a book, Christianity Without God."36

Tom More is one of the "Roman Catholic remnant," but he admits he is a "bad Catholic":

I believe in God and the whole business, but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally I do as I please. A man, wrote John, who says he believes in God and does not keep his commandments is a liar. If John is right, then I am a liar. Nevertheless, I still believe.37

Tom is currently involved with three women at once, and he admits that several years ago he "stopped eating Christ in communion [and] stopped going to mass."

Tom thinks back repeatedly to happier times, when he and his daughter Samantha would go to mass together, and afterward:

...we'd walk home... and I'd skip with happiness, cut the fool like David while Samantha told elephant jokes, go home, light the briquets, drink six toddies, sing Tantum Ergo, and "Deh vieni alla finestra" from Don Giovanni... invite [my wife] Doris out under the Mobile pinks, Doris as lusty and merry a wife then as a man could have, a fine ex-Episcopal ex-Apple Queen from the Shenandoah Valley.38

But then Samantha came down with a neuroblastoma, which toward the end "pushed one eye out and around the nosebridge so that Samantha looked like a two-eyed Picasso profile."39 Tom found he could no longer go to church. His marriage came apart, and Doris left with a pair of gay British theosophists to found a retreat center. When she died a year later, Tom found himself left with her share of a family fortune, a small medical practice, and his research work at the nearby medical research center.40

For Tom has high hopes that he can heal the Cartesian split in humanity through medical science (though it is his efforts which precipitate the catastrophe with which the novel opens). Recognized by his colleagues as a brilliant researcher, despite his eccentricities, bouts of depression, and a recent suicide attempt, Tom has been researching and publishing for years on the correlation between electrical activity in various brain centers and different behavioral and emotional states.

His latest invention, which he humorously calls the "ontological lapsometer" (a device to measure humanity's "ontological lapse" from grace!), is a remote, hand-held electroencephalograph which can focus in "stereo" on electrical activity in any given area of the brain. With it, Tom has learned to recognize the distributions of brain activity which correspond to angelic, transcendent abstraction from self, and to bestial, immanent, visceral rage. His diagnosis of one patient reveals a veritable Cartesian "ghost in a machine": abstracted from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Instead he orbits the earth and himself. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman.41

If only, Tom dreams, his device were not merely a diagnostic but also a therapeutic tool! "Suppose I could hit on the right dosage and weld the broken self whole!" What if the Cartesian fracture in the self's placement of itself in its semiotic world could be healed and "man could reenter paradise, so to speak, and live there both as man and spirit, whole and intact man-spirit"?42

Tom gets his wish when a Mephistophelean government bureaucrat, Art Immelman, visits him to strike a Faustian bargain.43 A government agency in Washington has been following Tom's research, and has discovered an improvement which will turn his lapsometer into a therapeutic device, capable of directly adjusting the brain's electrical activity. The agency is interested in potential "applications" of such a device; Tom can have fame and unlimited research funding, if only he will sign away everything on the dotted line.44

Of course, this leads to nothing but catastrophe. Several prototype models of the "improved" lapsometer get out into public hands, as Immelman sets up a real-life "field test" of the device's capabilities.45 Far from healing any Cartesian fracture, the lapsometers only produce chaos as restless factions, driven to total angelic abstraction and complete bestial rage by the device, exchange shots and torch suburban homes.46

Tom takes refuge from this apocalypse in a deserted Howard Johnson's motel, where by hilarious coincidence all three women in his life show up at once, and he has to cope with another minor apocalypse! The three women again exemplify the fracture with which Percy is dealing:47

Lola Rhoades, daughter of a conservative proctologist who wants to marry her off to Tom, is an earthy woman, a cellist and a horse-rider, who lives in a Southern mansion on the family estate of Tara; she is active in the Grand Colonial Dames.48

Moira Schaffner, an assistant at the "Love" clinic, is in a perpetual abstracted orbit, "into" Rod McKuen and tourist traps and moderately liberal causes; she is "not strong on history" or culture if it dates from before she can remember, and thinks the motels on the interstate were frequented by flappers during the Roaring Twenties.49

Ellen Oglethorpe, the nurse at Tom's private practice who has to argue him into seeing his patients instead of sitting locked in his office listening to the stereo and sipping whiskey, represents the "center" which did not hold: "a beautiful but tyrannical Georgia Presbyterian," honest, strict, unselfish, who "is embarrassed by the God business. But she does right."50

Percy does not detail the resolution of the apocalyptic catastrophe.51 But in a closing section entitled "Five Years Later," Tom and Ellen are married. Life is still for Tom sometimes a trial of terrors and depressions, but there is time to "want and wait and work." It is still the case that "the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man."52 But Tom has returned to the Church, and in the closing scene, he and Ellen go to Christmas Eve midnight mass, where he makes his confession, dons the sackcloth newly revived in the Church, and for the first time in eleven years, "I eat Christ, drink his blood."53

The semiotic world is still riven; Tom is a member of "a remnant of a remnant, bits and pieces, leftovers, like the strays and stragglers after a battle"; but it is precisely as a member of this faith community that he is "save[d] from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and his angels... eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh."54

Response to a Criticism of Percy's Project
(Or, A Further Interpretation of Poteat's Interpretation of Percy's Interpretation of...)

In her book Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age, Patricia Lewis Poteat makes a critique of Percy which bears significantly on Percy's project as we have sketched it in this paper. We will give here a brief account of the relevant dimensions of Poteat's critique, and attempt a response to her reading of Percy.

Poteat examines both Percy's philosophical essays in The Message in the Bottle, and several of his novels including Love in the Ruins. Her thesis in brief is that Percy's project succeeds when he is writing novels, or holds in his essays to "the concrete particulars of persons in predicaments." But when Percy tries to develop in the semiotic underpinnings for his project an "explanatory theory" of humanity, he fails in a manner ironically reminiscent of his character Dr. Thomas More.55

The problem is not, argues Poteat, that Percy's approach in The Message in the Bottle lacks in sophistication or competence. "Quite the contrary. The essays display a sophisticated grasp of complex philosophical and linguistic issues as well as a formidable array of stylistic and rhetorical skills."56 The problem for Poteat is rather simply that, by buying into this abstract conceptual scheme-- or any abstract "explanatory theory," for that matter-- Percy is attempting to "out-Descartes Descartes," and heal the fracture in humanity with the very tools which, in our society, are largely responsible for exacerbating that fracture in the first place.57

Poteat compares Percy in this regard to Tom More:

What More proposes to do with his lapsometer is to fight fire with fire using the conceptual tools of science... What Percy proposes to do in his [interpretive] triangle is... logically analogous-- namely, to "improve" upon an old therapy, an old way of thinking about the human creature rather than to develop a radically new therapy and so avoid the conceptual traps so well hidden in the old.58

For, for Poteat, the "old therapy" of explanatory theory-- as opposed to descriptive narrative-- is an endeavor poisoned at its roots.

There is certainly a good measure of insight in Poteat's observation that something of Percy himself is to be found in Percy's character Tom More. And it would indeed be a telling critique of Percy's project if his linguistic-semiotic approach is nothing more or less than Walker Percy's own "lapsometer"!

Yet it is at precisely this point in Poteat's critique that something puzzles. On this, reviewers of Poteat's book have been strangely unanimous, without being themselves able to resolve the puzzle.

Mark Johnson remarks: "Tarring Percy with the Cartesian brush, Poteat's primary strategy, finally fails to convince."59 Along similar lines, Ralph Wood states: "Poteat is quite correct to point out this contradiction in Percy's work. Yet she fails, in my view, to explain why Percy should be so deeply at odds with himself."60 Likewise, John Desmond: "It is difficult to accept completely her contention that Percy is a 'confused' and unwitting victim of Cartesianism in the essays. It may have been a mistake for Percy to adopt the language of the tribe in order to speak to them, but it is hard to imagine this as an unselfconscious decision."61 And finally, from Robert Brinkmeyer:

Another weakness in Poteat's analysis is her failure to provide a convincing explanation for Peircy's inability to recognize his own stumblings in his essays... Why couldn't Percy see this himself? ...Poteat's difficulty in answering this question surfaces most tellingly when she remarks in several different places that in his essays Percy "forgets" what he knew so well in his novels. Forgets? This is fudging, and fudging of an issue that is both terribly complex and absolutely crucial to understanding Walker Percy.62

Our contention is that this "blind spot" in Poteat's reading of Percy is due to her failure or refusal to take adequately into account the dimension of Peircean semiotics in Percy's project as detailed in this paper. Poteat only once makes more than glancing reference to Peirce, and deals with Percy's Peircean semiotic only qua instance of "explanatory theory" and never qua semiotic-- and does not even represent it accurately as an "explanatory theory," as we shall see! Poteat thereby wrongly locates where, for Percy, the Cartesian fracture lies.

This can be seen clearly in Poteat's analysis of Percy's Helen Keller illustration. As we have seen, Percy uses this illustration to introduce the reader-- as he himself was introduced through it-- to Peirce's irreducibly triadic concept of interpretation. Percy sees Peirce's approach as a genuine alternative both to "idealism" and to "behaviorism"-- to Percy, twin manifestations of the Cartesian "split in knowing." Yet Poteat characterizes the illustration as "Percy's surgery upon the behaviorist's triangle," and claims that in it "Helen Keller... is logically neither more nor less than a word or a liquid and accordingly occupies one undistinguished corner of a static, one-dimensional, atemporal geometric figure," a scheme in which even Helen's teacher Miss Sullivan has no place.63 Thus, to combat the "angelism of the idealists," Percy has turned to the "bestialism of the behaviorists."64

All this is to ignore completely the fact that-- as we have seen-- for Percy as for Peirce the interpretant is not "logically neither more nor less" than sign or object, and is interchangeable with sign and object only as participant in an open-ended, seamless process of ongoing interpretation which is fundamentally temporal and fundamentally communal. Who spelled "w-a-t-e-r" into Helen's hand if not Miss Sullivan? How was the event significant for Helen (and of interest to Percy) if not in the context of the further interpretations which came out of it? Nor by any stretch of the imagination does Percy consider the triad of Peirce reducible to the stimulus-response dyads of the behaviorists, as Percy himself time and again states in no uncertain terms:

Peirce's distinction between dyadic and triadic behavior has been noted before, but so pervasive has been the influence of what might be called dyadic behaviorism that Peirce's "triadic relation" has been recognized only to the degree that it can be set forth as a congeries of dyads... This is like saying that Einstein's special theory will be accepted only to the degree that it can be verified by Newtonian mechanics... What would happen if [instead] we took Peirce seriously?65

Mark Johnson, too, points to the imputation to Percy of behaviorist leanings as an example of how "Poteat distorts several of Percy's essays in order to discover the inconsistency she says is inherent in his method."66 By this point, it might be putting it mildly to say that Poteat's siting in Percy's work of the Cartesian fracture is problematic!

Where, then, does the fracture lie? According to the reading of Percy developed in this paper, Percy himself, with eyes wide open, locates the fracture within the negative aspects of the interpretive process, wherein the self, unable to find a place in the semiotic world it inherits, becomes "lost" on one side of the fracture or the other-- either in transcendence or in immanence. By contrast, the positive side of the process, wherein interpretation "brings us to ourselves" and "places" us in our semiotic world, is for Percy a function of interpretations "surprising" us and so almost synaesthetically "filling" our semiotic world with meaning-- what Percy calls "metaphor as mistake."67

Of course, it is difficult if not impossible to see any of this in Percy through the paradigm-spectacles of "theory versus narrative." But focusing on Percy through his use of Peirce's semiotic suggests an answer both to Poteat's criticism of Percy and to several reviewers puzzled by a "blind spot" in Poteat's critique. Percy has not been caught unawares. He is fully aware of what he is up to, be it right or wrong, and what Percy is up to has to do with a Peircean semiotic view of individuals (such as Tom More) being "brought to themselves" in their semiotic world and as members of a community of faith.68

Among the reviewers, Ralph Wood comes nearest to it when he says:

Faith in Christ and his Kingdom has less to do with story-telling than discipleship. Percy's theorizing about language is not, therefore, a betrayal of his faith but an expression of it. [Percy is] a Catholic convinced that revelation completes and perfects reason.69

Conclusions and Further Questions

In this paper, we have examined some of the works of contemporary writer Walker Percy as an example of the application of the semiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce to the problem of the faith community. We have contended that Percy's work, seen in this light, may be taken as an arguable alternative to the project of Josiah Royce in The Problem of Christianity, and we have dealt with one criticism lodged against Percy's project by Patricia Poteat.

The reader will have gathered by now that your humble narrator is largely in sympathy with Percy, and finds Percy's undertaking, by and large, both engaging and convincing. But several issues do remain for further study.

First, although Percy's awareness of the modern human predicament is easily more realistic than Royce's optimism, is the result in Percy sometimes almost a detached, stoic resignation? Characters such as Tom More remain in the context of the faith community, and are drawn further into it through their experiences, but that community remains for Percy a "remnant of a remnant," cohering only with great difficulty, and even then hanging barely on the edge of critical mass. Is this realistic (some of us who have served as pastors would say yes!) or is it also somewhat fatalistic?

Secondly, these observations lead one to ask whether Percy remains liable to other criticisms which have been directed at Royce. What does Tom More-- or any other member of a Percian faith community-- do? What can Tom do besides marrying Ellen, "tending their own little garden," and "watching, waiting, and listening" with the other members of the community? Is anything more required of them-- and, if so, where are the resources for it in Percy's picture?

Finally, what further could be said about the "sacramental" dimension in Percy's writing, and the role this sacramental dimension plays for Percy in the building of community? Tom frequently stresses in the novel that it is only by "eating Christ's body, drinking his blood," that he, Tom, is enabled to "inhabit his own flesh" again and be neither angel nor animal nor spirit-body centaur, but healed and unriven human being. Conversely, Percy's view of the placement of the self in its semiotic world, the self "brought to itself," its world synaesthetically filled with meaning through the shock of "metaphor as mistake"-- all this has almost sacramental overtones! What further can be said about the semiotic import of sacrament and the sacramental dimension of semiotics in Walker Percy's writings?


Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. "Poteat on Percy." Southern Literary Journal, 18(1986):132-45.

Briody, M.L. "Community in Royce: an Interpretation." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 5(1969):224-42.

Desmond, John F. Review of Patricia Poteat's Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age. Christianity & Literature, 35(1985):73-74.

Gallie, W.B. Peirce and Pragmatism. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1952.

Grabarek, Stanislaus. Failures of the Spirit: the Institutional Church in the Fiction of James T. Farrell, J.F. Powers, Walker Percy. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1978.

Johnson, Mark. Review of Patricia Poteat's Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age. Philosophy and Literature, 10(1986):129-30.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Hartshorne, Charles, and Weiss, Paul, Editors. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol. 1, Principles of Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931.

Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983.

________. Love in the Ruins: the Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971.

________. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Poteat, Patricia Lewis. Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age: Reflections on Language, Argument, and the Telling of Stories. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Royce, Josiah. The Problem of Christianity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Wood, Ralph C. Review of Patricia Poteat's Walker Percy in the Old Modern Age. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 54(1986):358-59.


1Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 92-98; see also M.L. Briody, "Community in Royce: an Interpretation," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 4(1969):226-27.

2Royce, p. 362; cf. Briody, p. 235.

3Royce is faithful to Peirce in this "seamlessness" of the interpretive process, which is inherent in the recursive definition which Peirce gives for the Sign:

"A Sign... is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object."

Or, in short: "A sign stands for an object by evoking some further sign of the original object." W.B. Gallie, Peirce and Pragmatism (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1952), pp. 120-21.

4Royce, p. 318; cf. Briody, pp. 228-30.

5Briody, p. 233. Cf. our own class discussion this semester concerning Royce!

6Royce's work somehow strikes me in tone as a Christian complement to H.G. Wells' Outline of History, which first appeared shortly after the War! In Wells' work, all of human history-- wars, struggles, intellectual and cultural endeavor-- indeed, all of cosmic history-- from the first life form through the dinosaurs up to Neanderthal man-- is portrayed as leading up to a grand culmination in... the League of Nations! I understand that in Royce such intimations are also present, though they tend to take the guise of something like a Worldwide Insurance Company! It is a sad and perhaps telling comparison that Wells' reaction to the Second World War was an anguished tract entitled Mind at the End of Its Tether.

Sad to say, the present-day reader of Royce lives in a world at or beyond the "end of the tether"-- not in a world that can be reconciled from Geneva, or from New York, or from Hartford, Connecticut!

7Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), p. 14.

8Ibid., p. 15.

9Ibid., pp. 30-33.

10Ibid., p. 34.

11Ibid., pp. 34-35.

12Ibid., p. 38.

13Ibid., p. 40.

14Cf. Royce, p. 277. Percy had first attempted, pp. 36-37, to analyze the event in terms of stimulus-response interactions between Helen and Miss Sullivan's finger-signed word "water," and between Helen and the sensation of water from the pump. His leap from this to the irreducible triangle of symbolization is formally similar to Peirce's move as described by Gallie, pp. 120-21:

"First let us write: (i) A sign stands for (ii) an object by (iii) stimulating some organism or person to (iv) some appropriate response which is (v) itself capable of signifying the object of the original sign. Now let us eliminate stages (iii) and (iv) as-- according to Peirce-- not essential to the distinctive character of sign-action. We shall then be left with: (i) A sign stands for (ii) an object by (iii) evoking some further sign of the original object.

"...Clearly the usefulness of this definition depends entirely upon the justifiability of eliminating stages (iii) and (iv) above."

Note that in Percy's example, to be precise, one sign (the finger-signed word "water") stands for, and evokes in Helen a further interpretation of, another sign (the sensory perception of water). But this is precisely the sort of process built into Peirce's definition of sign, and integral to its "seamlessness."

15The Message in the Bottle, p. 162. By "taking Peirce seriously," Percy means refusing to take Peirce's triadic relation as merely a convenient shorthand for what could as well be expressed in terms of dyadic stimulus-and-response relations. Such a stance, for Percy, would be "like saying that Einstein's special theory will be accepted only to the degree that it can be verified by Newtonian mechanics."

16Ibid., pp. 165-66. Percy also makes use of other elements in Peirce's thought-- for example, Peirce's theory of abduction, pp. 320-24, in Percy's attempt at a "theory of language" in transformational-generative terms, pp. 298-327. But this falls outside the scope of our present concerns.

17Ibid., p. 64.

18Ibid., pp. 71-72. Emphasis in the original.

19Ibid., pp. 80-81. Percy insightfully remarks, p. 81: "This relation is very close to the psychological phenomenon of synesthesia, the transsensory analogy in which certain sounds, for example, are characteristically related to certain [colors]: blue to the color blue-- could blue ever be called yellow?"

20Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: the Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), pp. 107-09.

21Ibid., pp. 109-112. Percy unfolds the examples of communal interpretation of the self according to totemistic, pantheistic, and personal-theistic modes.

22Ibid., pp. 113ff.

23Ibid., p. 113.

24Ibid., pp. 114-24, 158-59.

25The Message in the Bottle, pp. 101-09.

26Ibid., pp. 114-16.

27Ibid., p. 116.

28Ibid., p. 118.

29Stanislaus Grabarek, Failures of the Spirit: the Institutional Church in the Fiction of James T. Farrell, J.F. Powers, Walker Percy, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1978.

30Notice that Percy's strategy here is precisely what he outlines, under the rubric of "metaphor as mistake," as the positive function of interpretive seamlessness: an interpretation, in this case our current images of faith community, elicit further interpretation, in this case a "novel about the end of the world," which by its very strangeness is enlightening. The "blue-darter hawk" of the Church emerges as a "blue-dollar hawk."

Such an undertaking is not without its minor hazards! Percy, p. 102, tells an anecdote: "One day an angry lady stopped me on the street and said she did not like a book I wrote but that if I lived up to the best in me I might write a good Christian novel like The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson or perhaps even The Foundling by Cardinal Spellman." (!)

31Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971), p. 3.

32Ibid., pp. 17-20. "There are Left states and Knothead states, Left towns and Knothead towns, but no center towns... The most popular Left films are dirty movies from Sweden. All-time Knothead favorites, on the other hand, include The Sound of Music, Flubber, and Ice Capades of 1981, clean movies all."

33Ibid., pp. 15-17

34Ibid., pp. 5-6.

35Ibid., pp. 6, 181-82.

36Ibid., pp. 123, 195.

37Ibid., p. 6. Notice how the A.C.C. represents what Percy, in Lost in the Cosmos, describes as the immanent "anonymous mass-society consumer" way of dealing with the interpretive split, while Father Kev Kevin represents the transcendent "angelized" approach-- ironically, as a worker in sexual therapy!

38Ibid., p. 138.

39Ibid., p. 72.

40Ibid., pp. 64-72.

41Ibid., p. 34. Tom's diagnosis is precisely Percy's description, in Lost in the Cosmos, pp. 109ff., of the self which deals with the fracture in the interpretive process by "orbiting" his semiotic world in a transcendent mode.

Tom's prescription to the patient is to walk home from work the next day through six miles of swamp. He does so, and, "half-dead and stinking like a catfish, he fell into the arms of his good wife, Tanya, and made lusty love to her the rest of the night." (p. 37)

Note that this is precisely what Percy refers to as the positive use of the interpretive process, in The Message in the Bottle, pp. 71ff.-- namely, refilling the semiotic world with meaning and bringing the self back to itself through strange or unexpected "reinterpretations" of one's world.

42Ibid., p. 36. Note that what Tom proposes to heal is precisely what Percy describes in his non-fiction as the "predicament" of symbol-mongering humanity! Note also that Tom's approach is an updated version of Descartes' effort to find a junction of body and soul in the pineal gland!

43For a development of the Mephistopheles/Faust imagery, see Grabarek, pp. 126-27; Patricia Poteat, Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), p. 71.

44Love in the Ruins, pp. 165-70.

45Ibid., pp. 235ff.

46Ibid., pp. 318-19.

47As far as I know, no one has pointed out this significant aspect of Percy's novel before!

48Love in the Ruins, pp. 74-87.

49Ibid., pp. 235ff.

50Ibid., pp. 154-58.

51Cf. Grabarek, p. 127.

52Love in the Ruins, pp. 382-83.

53Ibid., pp. 395-400.

54Ibid., pp. 187, 254.

55Poteat, pp. 1-3. Poteat in fact opens her book with a comparison of Percy to Tom More!

56Ibid., p. 2.

57Ibid., p. 31.

58Ibid., p. 73.

59Mark Johnson, Philosophy and Literature 10(1986):130.

60Ralph C. Wood, JAAR 54(1986):358.

61John F. Desmond, Christianity and Literature, 35(1985):74.

62Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., "Poteat on Percy," Southern Literary Journal, 18(1986):134-35.

63Poteat, pp. 47-48.

64Poteat, p. 44.

65The Message in the Bottle, p. 162.

66Johnson, p. 130.

67Thus, for Percy, the theoretical accounts of Helen Keller at the water pump, and blue-darter hawk as "blue-dollar hawk," are just as much an instantiation of the "positive" side of interpretive process as is Percy's narrative of the adventures of "bad Catholic" Tom More-- because each ideally "brings us to ourselves" through a shock of self-recognition.

68One wonders, with John Desmond, what Poteat makes of Percy's second non-fiction book, Lost in the Cosmos, which must have come out about the time Poteat's manuscript went to press. Lost in the Cosmos is even less amenable to Poteat's critique than was The Message in the Bottle; it utterly demolishes any boundaries between "theory" and "narrative" by discussing semiotics in a guerilla-theater format, at times not unlike "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

69Wood, p. 359.