In Japan’s chronically suicidal (and, in 1948, eventually successful) Osamu Dazai’s slowly-burning melancholic The Setting Sun, aristocrat-in-spite-of-himself, Naoji, tells his sister, Kazuko, that they are “[v]ictims of a transitional morality.” However, given the circumstances that have led to their victimhood, he can confidently confess that “[i]n this present world, the most beautiful thing is a victim.” Set in early postwar Japan, these siblings, along with their mother, struggle to come to terms with the ideologically-violent social transition that has left few options for impecunious aristocrats other than to engage in perceived plebeian debauchery or to resign oneself to a dignifying death.
Ever since I finished this novel a few weeks ago while sitting on my back porch listening to a summer rainstorm [That particular detail seems pertinent for reasons only inchoately known to me], I have had the elegant spectres of these characters haunting my mental hallways, attic, and basement. As enduring literature resists containment to both time and space, ghosts of literary merit tend to wander freely across regional and periodic boundaries as well. Though the majority of William Alexander Percy’s life was spent in the Mississippi Delta, his influence, much like Will Percy himself when he was a young man, has traveled far beyond “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”
In the introduction to Will Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (though non-fictional, unlike The Setting Sun, like it one reads about the melancholic displacement of those caught in a time of transitional morality), his nephew and writer, Walker Percy, contrasts his uncle’s adopted Stoic vision to the Catholic one that Will left behind as a child but one that Walker would adopt later in life as an adult. In describing this contrast, Walker writes:
While granting the prescience of much of Lanterns on the Levee’s pessimism, we must, I think guard against a certain seductiveness which always attends the heralding of apocalypse, and we must not overlook some far less dramatic but perhaps equally significant counterforces. Yes, Will Percy’s indictment of modern life has seemed to be confirmed by the holocaust of the 1940s and by American political and social morality in the 1970s. But what would he make of some very homely, yet surely unprecedented social gains which have come to pass during the same terrible times? To give the plainest examples: that for the first time in history a poor boy, black or white, has a chance to get an education, become what he wants to become, doctor, lawyer, even read Lanterns on the Levee and write poetry of his own, and that not a few young men, black and white, have done just that? Also, that for the first time in history a working man earns a living wage and can support his family in dignity. How do these solid social gains square with pronouncements of decline and fall?
Walker wrote his introduction in 1973. Will’s work was first published in 1941. All any of us can do, based upon some degree of historical knowledge and a fundamental understanding of human nature and a willingness to call life as we see it, is chart where things currently stand and make predictions to the best of our abilities. Most of us probably will not have the luxury to see our predictions vindicated–or the opportunity for mortification if they should fall short of the reification mark. I suppose that it is for the best either way. [I must say, though, back in 2005 when I was working in the kitchen of Red Lobster–What else does one do with a master’s in philosophy? –I was raving about the coming dissipation of the US based upon a loss of social cohesion, idiotic military adventures in the Middle East, and a burgeoning astronomical deficit. Gee–who is now very likely to be elected on that platform? Petty as it now may seem, I will gladly take all those “You’re unpatriotic–don’t you believe in America?!” comments in regard to my opposition to the US’s immoral and delusional warmongering in the Middle East and gleefully say that I told you so. Well, gleefully if we were not talking about the destruction of Christianity in the Middle East and the non-refugee immigrant/terrorist/rapist invasion of Europe–along with its attendant displacement of native white populations and local cultures. //Rant finished//] However, based upon what I think I know and what I think I see, Will’s measured pessimism seems more vindicated than Walker’s cautious optimism. In other words, decline and fall. Yes, civil rights have come a long way since the 40s. However, what do we see now in the US? A racial utopia characterized not only by a rainbow-colored playing field of equal opportunity but also by a leveling of achievement among the harmoniously-living races? Like one of those gleefully post-racial BBQ pictures in a JC Penney’s Memorial Day Sales catalog? How about the knockout game and an incipient race war. Yes, women now, despite the persistent myth to the contrary, make as much as men and can support themselves and their families. The result? Women, by and large, are just as unhappy as their wage-slave male counterparts, and the largely-manufactured tension between the sexes only seems to have reached an all-time high. Granted, I suppose that in theory climbing the economic ladder is still possible in the US, but according to this wage calculator from MIT, if a man in Mississippi (a state-by most reckonings, I would presume–in which it is not very expensive to live and my home state as well) wanted his wife to stay home with their, let us say, three children, he would need to make at least $25.32 an hour. How many people do you know anywhere who are making this? In particular, what jobs in Mississippi–and how many of them–give workers hope that they, if they can keep their noses to the grindstone, can and will achieve this wage? Also, in the meantime, what about that wife and three children? Furthermore, most of us have yet to begin considering what is going to happen to most people–skilled and unskilled–as automation begins to replace them. Oh, but you should, dear reader, you should.
I suppose that I can go on, but if I make a habit of always composing long blog entries, then I will be even less inclined than I currently am to post regularly. I wish that I could honestly say that I still had–at least in any significant way–the Christian virtue of hope concerning our species and where we are headed. I do not. Let us say that my morality is currently in transition. While I do not think that it would be entirely accurate to say that I have abandoned the Faith, my Christian beliefs have begun to wane, and I am finding more solace than I ever thought that I would in Stoic bullheadedness. Decline and fall. Yes, the sun is setting, but there is still much that can be done before the coming darkness. Why? Perhaps is there is no truly satisfying answer–some will, some will not. Yet, in a world that seems to be increasingly populated by those who will not, those who still will seem to coming to their own personal Naoji’s dilemma.
Postscript: As of Lent 2018, I am finding my way (for it was never truly lost) back into the bosom of the Catholic Church. Despair still remains at the gates, but the Church is an even greater gate–that of mystery and of grace.