Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Walker Percy

American Author on Philosophy and Semantics

"The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. "

"A good rotation. A rotation I define as the experiencing of the new beyond the expectation of the experiencing of the new."

"A great scientist once said that genius consists not in making great discoveries but in seeing the connection between small discoveries."

"All arguments between the traditional scientific view of man as organism, a locus of needs and drives, and a Christian view of man as a spiritual being not only unresolvable at the present level of discourse but are also profoundly boring...From the scientific view at least, a new model of man is needed, something other than man conceived as a locus of bio-psycho-sociological needs and drives. Such an anthropological model might be provided by semiotics, that is, the study of man as the sign-using creature and, specifically, the study of the self and consciousness as derivatives of the sign-function."

"A good title should be like a good metaphor: it should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious."

"A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle."

"An organism exists in its environment in only one mode, that of an open system responding to those segments of its environment to which it is genetically programmed to respond or to which it has learned to respond. But a self must be placed in a world. It cannot not be placed. If it chooses by default not to be placed, then its placement is that of not choosing to be placed."

"At that time the only treatment of angelism, that is, excessive abstraction of the self from itself, was recovery of the self through ordeal."

"But the expectation of the self, to be informed in its nothingness--if only I can get out of this old place and into the right new place, I can become a new person--places a heavy burden on travel."

"But there is much to be said for giving up ... grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable."

"Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something. They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment of a malaisian's life can be the moment when he manages to sin like a proper human (Look at us, Binx — my vagabond friends as good as cried out to me — we're sinning! We're succeeding! We're human after all!)"

"As for hobbies, people with stimulating hobbies suffer from the most noxious of despairs since they are tranquilized in their despair."

"Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion."

"Comes again the longing, the desire that has no name. Is it for Mrs. Prouty, for a drink, for both: for a party, for youth, for the good times, for dear good drinking and fighting comrades, for football-game girls in the fall with faces like flowers? Comes the longing and it has to do with being fifteen and fifty and with the winter sun striking down into a brick-yard and on clapboard walls rounded off with old hard blistered paint and across a doorsill onto linoleum. Desire has a smell: of cold linoleum and gas heat and the sour piebald bark of crepe myrtle. A good-humored thirty-five-year-old lady takes the air in a back lot in a small town."

"But there remains the one unquestioned benefit of science: the longer and healthier life made possible by modern medicine, the shorter work-hours made possible by technology, hence what is perceived as the one certain reward of dreary life of home and the marketplace: Recreation. Recreation and good physical health appear to be the only ambivalent benefits of the technological revolution."

"Can good come from evil? Have you ever considered the possibility that one might undertake a search not for God but for evil? You people may have been on the wrong track all these years with all that talk about God and signs of his existence, the order and beauty of the universe--that's all washed up and you know it. The more we know about the beauty and order of the universe, the less God has to do with it. I mean, who cares about such things as the Great Watchmaker? But what if you could show me a sin? a purely evil deed, an intolerable deed for which there is no explanation? Now there's a mystery. People would sit up and take notice. I would be impressed. You could almost make a believer out of me. In times when nobody is interested in God, what would happen if you could prove the existence of sin, pure and simple? Wouldn't that be a windfall for you? A new proof of God's existence! If there is such a thing as sin, evil, a living malignant force, there must be a God! I'm serious. When was the last time you saw a sin? Oh, you've seen quite a few? Well, I haven't, not lately. I mean a pure unadulterated sin. You're not going to tell me that some poor miserable slob of a man who beats up his own child has committed a sin? You don't look impressed. Yes, you know me too well. I was only joking. Well, half joking."

"Do you know what he told me after lying under a cliff for thirty six hours with two inches of his femur sticking out? He said: 'Queenie, I think I'm going to pass out and before I do, I'm going to give you a piece of advice' - God, I thought he was going to die and knew and was telling me what to do with his book - and he said quite solemnly: 'Queenie, always stick to Bach and the early Italians' - and passed out cold as a mackerel. And by God, it's not bad advice."

"Consciously cultivate the ordinary."

"Fiction doesn’t tell us something we don’t know, it tells us something we know but don’t know that we know."

"During my last year in college I discovered that I was picking up the mannerisms of Akim Tamiroff, the only useful thing, in fact, that I learned in the entire four years."

"For me, certain signifiers fit you, and not others. For me, all signifiers fit me, one as well as another. I am rascal, hero, craven, brave, treacherous, loyal, at once the secret hero and asshole of the Cosmos."

"For 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...Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher."

"For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can."

"Hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upsidedown: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive."

"Have you noticed that the narrower the view the more you can see? For the first time I understand how old ladies can sit on their porches for years."

"Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real? I remember at the time of the wreck-- people were so kind and helpful and solid. Everyone pretended that our lives until that moment had been every bit as real as the moment itself and that the future must be real too, when the truth was that our reality had been purchased only by Lyell's death. In another hour or so we had all faded out again and gone our dim ways."

"He believed that there is no end to the mischief and hatred which men harbor deep in themselves and unknown to themselves and no end to their capacity to deceive themselves and that though they loved life, they probably loved death more and in the end thanatos would likely win over eros."

"Home may be where the heart is but it's no place to spend Wednesday afternoon."

"Having only learned to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies--my only talent--smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle."

"He registered a dizzy 7.6 mmv over Brodmann 32, the area of abstractive activity. Since that time I have learned that a reading over 6 generally means that a person has so abstracted himself 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. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman."

"He means that he hopes to find himself a girl, the rarest of rare pieces, and live the life of Rudolfo on the balcony, sitting around on the floor and experiencing soul-communications. I have my doubts. In the first place, he will defeat himself, jump ten miles ahead of himself, scare the wits out of some girl with his great choking silences, want her so desperately that by his own peculiar logic he can't have her; or having her, jump another ten miles beyond both of them and end by fleeing to the islands where, propped at the rail of his ship in some rancid port, he will ponder his own loneliness."

"How did it happen that now he could see everything so clearly. Something had given him leave to live in the present. Not once in his entire life had he come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself from some dark past he could not remember to a future that did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream. Is it possible for people to miss their lives the way one can miss a plane?"

"I am not ashamed to use the word class. I will also plead guilty to another charge. The charge is that people belonging to my class think they're better than other people. You're damn right we're better. We're better because we do not shirk our obligations either to ourselves or to others. . . .we live by our lights, we die by our lights, and whoever the high gods may be, we'll look them in the eye without apology."

"How strange to think that you cannot pass along the discovery."

"I had discovered that a person does not have to be this or be that or be anything, not even oneself. One is free."

"I couldn't stand it. I still can't stand it. I can't stand the way things are. I cannot tolerate this age."

"I had spent four years propped on the front porch of the fraternity house, bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the Spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place."

"I like to eat crawfish and drink beer. That's despair?"

"I have observed that it is no longer possible for one young man to speak unwarily to another not known to him, except in certain sections of the South and West, and certainly not with a book in his hand."

"I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see."

"I don't like to be described as a Southern writer. The danger is, if you're described as a Southern writer, you might be thought of as someone who writes about a picturesque local scene like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Gone With the Wind, something like that."

"If poets often commit suicide, it is not because their poems are bad but because they are good. Whoever heard of a bad poet committing suicide? The reader is only a little better off. The exhilaration of a good poem lasts twenty minutes, an hour at most. Unlike the scientist, the artist has reentry problems that are frequent and catastrophic."

"Is all niceness then or is all buggery? How can a man be forty-five years old and still not know whether all is niceness or buggery? How does one know for sure?"

"I stood up. Can a man stand alone, naked, and at his ease, wrist flexed at his side like Michelangelo's David, without assistance, without diversion, without drink, without friends, without a woman, in silence? Yes. It was possible to stand. Nothing happened. I listened. There was no sound: no boats on the river, no trucks on the road, not even cicadas. What if I didn't listen to the news? I didn't. Nothing happened. I realized I had been afraid of silence."

"In some evolving civilizations, for reasons which we don't entirely understand, the evolution of consciousness is attended by a disaster of some sort which occurs shortly after the Sy breakthrough. It has something to do with the discovery of the self and the incapacity to deal with it, the consciousness becoming self-conscious but not knowing what to do with the self, not even knowing what its self is, and so ending by being that which is not, and making others what they are not."

"In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good."

"In my new freedom I remember thinking: If one knows what he wants to do, others will not only not stand in the way but will lend a hand from simple curiosity and amazement."

"It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. I hear myself or someone else saying things like: In my opinion the Russian people are a great people, but-- or Yes, what you say about the hypocrisy of the North is unquestionably true. However-- and I think to myself: this is death. Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord."

"It is possible, however, that the artist is both thin-skinned and prophetic and, like the canary lowered into the mine shaft to test the air, has caught a whiff of something lethal."

"It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh."