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Carl Elliott and John Lantos have brought together a collection of 12 essays that explore the complex work and person of Walker Percy. Personal reflections and stories capture the importance of Walker Percy in the lives and work of several of the essayists, while others offer commentaries on various aspects of Percy's life and work. All of the contributors reveal their affection and appreciation of Walker Percy as physician, novelist, and philosopher.
In addition to the editors, the contributors include Robert Coles, who was Percy's friend; Ross McElwee, the documentary filmmaker; Jay Tolson, Percy's biographer; author and historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown; scholars Martha Montello and Laurie Zoloth; and physicians Brock Eide, Richard Martinez, and David Schiedermayer.
The collection covers many topics and themes. Percy's biography is reviewed: the early losses of his father and grandfather by suicide, the early death of his mother, his medical education and subsequent struggle with tuberculosis, his turn from medicine to philosophy and literature, his marriage and conversion to Catholicism, and his long and productive life as a philosophic novelist.
The essays explore Percy as both physician and patient, and how, as diagnostic novelist, he gives us characters and stories that caution about the technologic-scientific worldview that dominates not only medicine but western life. The many wayfarers are discussed, including Binx Bolling from The Moviegoer, Will Barrett from The Last Gentleman, and Dr. Tom Moore from Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. [These novels have been annotated in this database.]
Percy's spiritual and religious views are reviewed, along with his moral concerns about a post-modern world before anyone had coined the term. The problems of isolation, alienation, and struggle for meaning are apparent in all of his works, and many of the essayists explore the connection between his novels and these existential concerns. The importance of Kierkegaard in his work, his theory of language, and his early essays are discussed.
The contributors give examples of how Walker Percy's life and work are incorporated in medical education and the practice of medicine, both in personal and theoretical terms. Percy's work reminds practitioners of the necessity for human connection in the midst of scientific and technologic paradigms that distance practitioner from patient. Likewise, medicine and medical education shaped Percy the novelist, where keen observation and sustained searching for answers are to be found in all of his fiction.
A feminist critique of Percy's development of women characters, reflections on physician characters in Percy's work, his personal struggle with a family history of depression, and his attitudes about psychiatry and psychoanalysis complete the collection.
In my dreams, now, in my re-imaginings, I leap away as easily as a deer, and with as little hesitation. My spandex-covered legs scissor the ditch, and my feet ride the ground instinctively. My brown hair sways as I dart off into the forest . . . In real life, I got into the truck. (p.25)
A young woman retells the story of her rape--to herself, to the reader, and to a therapist who possesses "no startling answers--just a quiet ability to receive and transmute pain." The art of transcending pain through communication is at the heart of this story. The narrator survives by talking to her rapist and challenging his human core, by revealing everything to caregivers, by allowing herself to replay and dissect the details of this trauma.
This poem of nine four-line stanzas reveals a father's observations as he sits in a support group for parents at the psychiatric hospital where his daughter is a patient. The poem moves from the nervous small talk shared by the parents to the half-heard sounds of a tennis match outside to the "hot potato" of pain that the parents, through their stories, pass around, bringing the reader into the immediacy of the blame, grief, and disbelief that these parents share. In this environment, words fail: "I don't know anything / That can help us all. Words alone / (How many words there were!) have come unstrung // And scatter everywhere."
The Hours begins with a reconstruction of Virginia Woolf's 1941 suicide by drowning. What follows is an exploration of despair and tenacity, of the reasons that some people choose not to continue living, and of the things that enable others to go on. Patterned as a kind of theme and variations on Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, this novel has three strands, each tracing a day in the life of a woman: Virginia Woolf herself, in 1925, as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway; a middle-aged 1990s New Yorker named Clarissa Vaughan, but nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by Richard, her ex-lover, an acclaimed writer who is dying of AIDS; and Laura Brown, a young mother in Los Angeles in 1949, pregnant, depressed, and reading Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.
Laura's small son, Ritchie, we gradually realize, has grown up to become the Richard in Clarissa Vaughan's story and, as the hours pass in the day-long story of each woman, patterns intertwine. Clarissa (living as a lesbian, so following a path that Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway was offered but chose not to take) is planning a party for Richard. Laura is preparing a birthday dinner for her husband but after a visit from the woman next door, whom she kisses in a moment of profound but disruptive empathy, she checks into a hotel room to read, and to consider suicide. Woolf, recognizing the deep connection between her mental illness and her writing, tries to flee from the faintly suffocating safety of her home and husband.
Each woman survives, and all three days end with a sense of qualified and temporary happiness, drawn together, I think, by the fictional Virginia Woolf's decision about her novel: throughout the day she has thought about her main character, and has intended the book to end with her suicide. Late in the evening, having returned home, Woolf decides to let Mrs. Dalloway live: "sane Clarissa--exultant, ordinary Clarissa--will go on, . . . loving her life of ordinary pleasures, and someone else, a deranged poet, a visionary, will be the one to die."
Megan was one of the best players on her school basketball team until she accepted a ride home on the back of a motorcycle that slid on gravelly surface, overturned, and left her with a spinal cord injury. Now, a few months later, in a wheelchair, with no sensation in her feet or legs, she is packed up with all her equipment to spend the summer with the family on the island where they've always vacationed.
At first she can hardly bear being confined to watching from windows or negotiating makeshift ramps where she once ran so freely in woods and rowed so happily on the lake. When a boy appears from the neighboring cabin and tries to make friends she resists at first, but is finally drawn into a friendship that gives her the courage to "pick up the pieces" of her broken life and try new ways of being active, including, at the end of the summer, a wheelchair race on the mainland.
She also finds herself befriending the boy's grandmother, an aging actress turning alcoholic because she can't come to terms with aging and the loss of romantic leads in film. As Megan learns to come to terms with her own limitations, she is able indirectly to help the older woman come to terms with her own sense of loss.
Most of the thirteen stories in this collection portray interactions among pension guests in a German spa town; a few represent the lives of the town's permanent residents. The minor health problems (mostly digestive ailments, or unspecified "internal complaints") of the guests are not the crux of the plot but rather what gives it its texture. Talk about eating, "internal complaints," sexuality, body image, and pregnancy is the vehicle through which people try to relate.
Most of the stories are about failed communications: between men and women, for example, or between German and English people. Several stories are narrated in the first person by a young Englishwoman whose bodily and marital status (ill? pregnant? married or not?) are pointedly ambiguous.
Two stories represent childbirth from "outsider" perspectives. In "At Lehman's," a virginal serving girl sees her mistress's pregnancy as an "ugly, ugly, ugly" state; later, her sexual explorations with a young man are interrupted by her mistress's screams in labor. In "A Birthday," a man waiting for his wife to give birth focuses on his own suffering rather than hers. "The Child-Who-Was-Tired" follows a child-servant through a day of repeated abuses to body and spirit that culminates in infanticide.
The poet contemplates (metaphorically) an abandoned, overgrown garden. "What god is proud / of this garden / of dead flowers, this underwater / grotto of humanity?" he asks. He sees limbs waving, faces drooping, and voices clawing. He recognizes great medical figures like Charcot and Alzheimer. There are no gardeners. As he turns away, he tries to take solace in the thought that somewhere "there is another / garden, all dew and fragrance." [30 lines]
In July of 1986, author Andre Dubus was assisting some stranded highway motorists when he was struck by a car. After two painful months of hospitalization, one leg had to be amputated at the knee; the other leg, damaged and immobilized in a cast for many months, became virtually useless, but still painful. Dubus was forced to "accept life in a wheelchair." (106)
In meditating on events and people in his life before and after the accident, Dubus leads us to the interior space of his suffering, fear, moodiness, stoicism, and religious faith. Like the Hemingway character he describes in "A Hemingway Story," he has both gotten over and not gotten over the consequences of his accident.
"Sacraments" interweaves the receiving of religious sacraments with the concentration, care, and love associated with making sandwiches for his two young daughters, the emotional pain of carrying on a love relationship by telephone because of his limited mobility, the received sacraments of learning how to drive his specially equipped car, and of getting a bargain from a swimming pool contractor--"the money itself was sacramental: my being alive to receive it and give it for good work." (95) Concluding with the recollection of his father's death; Dubus notes that "I had not lived enough and lost enough" to recognize the grace that accompanied past pain.
Pain and grace continue to compete for his attention: "The memory of having legs that held me upright at this counter and the image of simply turning from the counter and stepping to the drawer are the demons I must keep at bay . . . So I must try to know the spiritual essence of what I am doing." (89) Similarly, mourning--for what he can no longer do-- and gratitude--for what he once was able to do-- go hand in hand as Dubus remembers the joy of running for miles in the countryside (" A Country Road Song").
The body's memory and the losses suffered figure importantly also in "Liv UIlman in Spring." In this powerful piece, Dubus describes his meeting with the actress, how he was moved to tell her "everything," how, bent low, "her eyes looking at mine" she said, 'You cannot compensate.' " (130) For her honesty and understanding Dubus was enormously grateful.
"Witness" relates the uncanny experience of meeting a woman who had witnessed his accident. Wonderment, fear, depression, inspiration, and writing about this incident were the result. As always, Dubus wrote in order to be led to some further understanding. The essay ends, "Today the light came: I'm here."
An engaging anthology of writings about illness, from over 330 sources, literary and medical, men and women, ranging from Deuteronomy and Hippocrates to Virginia Woolf and Oliver Sacks. Readable explication introduces the chapters devoted to various themes, a list of which will serve best to illustrate the scope.
1. Generalities; 2. Illnesses (greater and lesser); 3. Eyes, Ears and Teeth; 4. Doctors and Cures; 5. Hospitals and Patients; 6. Philosophers and Kings; 7. Intellectual and Spiritual Frets; 8. Strange Complaints, Mishaps, Embarrassments; 9. Imaginary, Feigned, Psychological; 10. Melancholy and Love Sickness; 11. Manias, Phobias, Fantasies, Fears; 12. Breakdown and Madness; 13. Young and Old; 14. Animals; 15. Invalids and Convalescents; 16. Short and Sharp (a collection of pithy aphorisms about illness).
Through a series of letters, the lover, Werther, narrates his story of finding love and losing it. The continuity of the piece is interrupted by the third person narrator to explicate certain segments of the tale and to describe the unsuccessful suitor's suicide.
Young Werther, an artist with independent means, meets and falls in love with a woman already betrothed. The letters he writes detail the development of his relationship with Lotte and eventually with her intended, Albert. As the date of Lotte's wedding approaches, Werther leaves the area and attempts to forget her by immersing himself in the work world.
Unsuccessful, he returns to the estate where Lotte and her new husband reside. Becoming increasingly more obsessed with the need to possess Lotte, he alienates his former friends and is banished from their presence. Suicide ideation appears on multiple occasions, and in his final agony of loss, Werther borrows Albert's pistols and kills himself.