In his essay, “Walker Percy’s Devil,” Thomas LeClair contends that Art Immelmann, the devil figure in Love in the Ruins, represents a temptation not only for Tom More, the novel’s protagonist, but also for Walker Percy himself. LeClair argues that Immelmann and his relationship with Tom More represent Percy’s own failure to live up to proper experimental literary forms, such as the ones Percy used in The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman.
LeClair puts it like this: “More has ideas and can diagnose, but his ‘breakthrough’ is only partial. He stops experimenting and depends on old-fashioned Art Immelmann for the working physical form of his invention, the ionizer that (like literary form) makes it possible for ideas to affect people” (12). Here, LeClair is referring to the moment when Art Immelmann provides Tom More with the practical scientific solution needed to allow More’s invention to treat people’s mental troubles; the promise of worldly success is enough to motivate More to hand over the rights to his invention.
But LeClair is also talking about the way in which Percy has depended on an inferior, popular literary form to communicate his ideas, his “breakthrough,” in Love in the Ruins. LeClair writes, “Genius, devil, and apostle–each of these central concepts has an Existential source. Yet the form Percy chooses for Love in the Ruins is disappointingly conventional and inconsistent with the Existentially-influenced aesthetic he has said he works from” (8). LeClair argues that the novel is too predictably plotted, too action-oriented, and too satirical—it is not the kind of exploratory, Existentialist, meditative, and internal fiction that he admires and expects from Percy (10-11).
In a word, the book is not literary enough to suit LeClair. LeClair’s comparison between More/Immelmann and Percy/literary form is admittedly ingenious. But is it sound? Is Art Immelmann really a metafictional representation of the novel’s own weaknesses, or does he play some other role?
I would argue that the issues are not as simple as LeClair has tried to make them. It’s true that Art Immelmann offers Tom More worldly success and a practical application of his lapsometer in exchange for the patent, and More eventually capitulates (Love in the Ruins 165-70, 208-18). More gives into the temptation—he loses his integrity through his desire for his ideas to be acknowledged. But later, he regrets his decision (240-41), and at the end of the novel he rejects Immelmann entirely and banishes him (363-64, 375-77). These encounters require a closer look.
Art Immelmann comes to Tom More out of a literal thunderstorm and says, “‘Doc, the trouble with your invention has always been that you could diagnose but not treat, right?…Now you can treat,’” and he provides More with a means of making the lapsometer a therapeutic device (210). Art then demonstrates on More himself by stimulating the “musical-erotic” area of More’s brain. Art explains,
We are speaking here of happiness, joy, music, spontaneity, you understand. Fortunately we have put behind us such unhappy things as pure versus impure love, sin versus virtue, and so forth. This love has its counterpart in scientific knowledge: it is neutral morally, abstractive and godlike…in the sense of being like a god in one’s freedom and omniscience. (214)
The connection between art, sexuality, and godlikeness that Art Immelmann makes here is especially significant because it is a connection that Percy himself makes in a 1977 self-interview entitled, “Questions They Never Asked Me.” In describing the knack of writing, he says,
The other thing about the knack is that it has theological, demonic, and sexual components. One is aware on the one hand of a heightened capacity for both malice and joy and, occasionally and with luck, for being able to see things afresh and even to make things the way the Old Testament said that God made things and took a look at them and saw that they were good. (164)
In Love in the Ruins, Percy gives us a literal demon, who has stimulated Tom More’s musical-erotic (art and sexuality) side, and he describes to Tom More how art and invention combined with knowledge make one feel like a god. It is the oldest temptation, the one that goes back to the Garden itself, the knowledge of good and evil that makes one “like God.” And at the same time, Immelmann’s speech encapsulates precisely the elements of the writing “knack” that Percy outlined in his self-interview quoted above: theological, demonic, and sexual. What is Percy trying to communicate here? He is describing the artist’s temptation, which is not primarily, as Le Clair has suggested, a commercial temptation, a temptation to “sell-out” for the sake of monetary gain, but a much subtler and more metaphysical temptation: the temptation to view oneself as a kind of god, a creator, who constructs art that is “neutral morally and abstractive,” art that is self-sufficient. It is the temptation presented by Art Immelmann —“Art Immolated to Man.” Within the context of More’s invention, Immelmann describes to More the possibility of artistic and scientific knowledge that is purely human-centric, purely meant to please. As Art asserts, “It doesn’t matter, as long as you feel good” (215). Art urges the artist to be irresponsible with his invention.
Building off of Percy’s description of the writing knack, John F. Desmond is another critic who has accused Percy of certain demonic tendencies in his writing. In his essay “Where is That Voice Coming From? Walker Percy and the Demonic,” Desmond argues that Percy’s writing voice contains elements of judgement and accusation, and Desmond equates these elements with the demonic and the activity of the demonic. “It is not difficult to see this demonic force—this will to accuse, to render harsh judgment—as an essential element in Percy’s narrative voice as he himself acknowledged” (626). Unlike LeClair, Desmond identifies the demonic not in form but in style, specifically ironic and satirical style that ultimately serves judgment, a style that is conspicuous in Love in the Ruins. But Desmond suggests that at the same time another thread of Percy’s voice is the divine. “This voice of truth, charity, and compassion embodies what Percy called the ‘theological component’ in the creative process” (628). This voice exists in the characters and ideas in Percy’s novels who advocate nonviolence and reconciliation, and, importantly, who tell the truth.
Desmond explains for us the demonic and theological components Percy described as part of writing and art. According to Desmond, the demonic element is the voice of accusation. The divine element is the voice of truth. These artistic voices relate back to Art Immelmann and his tempting of Tom More. Part of the temptation Art presents is the possibility of art that is amoral, spontaneous, and purely meant to please. Whether or not such an art form takes an accusatory voice, what is truly demonic about it is that it is unconcerned with what is true. “It doesn’t matter, as long as you feel good,” (215) says Art—“the art doesn’t matter as long as it flatters humanity and comfortable beliefs.” Percy, in a 1980 interview, responds,
My theory of literature and art is that the best transaction that can take place is when the reader or viewer is told something he doesn’t know he knows. The good thing that happens is that the reader has the shock of recognition. He says, “Oh yeah, that’s the way it is.” (42)
And also in an essay from Signposts in a Strange Land he writes,
“But what is a good writer up to when he’s writing a book that will give the reader pleasure? First of all, he’s telling the truth. Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition” (364).
And, finally, maybe most eloquently, Tom More responds to Immelmann,
“Sir Thomas More, kinsman, saint, best dearest merriest of Englishmen, pray for us and drive this son of a bitch hence” (376).
The trouble with LeClair’s criticism then, is that he has missed the point. He is all out of sorts over the particular form of the novel, which he sees as too mainstream (a debatable claim in itself), when the real glory or damnation of the novel rests with the question: Is it true? Percy has gone to great lengths to explore this question within the novel itself, largely through the use of Immelmann; he has, in a sense, given us the key by which we are to measure his own book’s success. Has the novel told the truth in some way? Have we experienced the shock of recognition? Have we found ourselves admitting “Oh yeah, that’s the way it is”? That, of course, is the subject of a much longer essay.
LeClair asserts, “Percy’s devil as a writer, then, is his betrayal of his own literary faith to a shopworn literary form, just as More’s devil is his betrayal of his religious faith to a banal ‘love in the ruins’” (LeClair 12). But implicit in this statement is the assumption that a shopworn literary form is, by definition, a thing to be looked down on, that it can’t possibly support the complex philosophical ideas “literary” writers want to explore. Further, LeClair has misunderstood Percy’s real aim as a writer. Percy’s “literary faith” is not in any particular literary form—experimental, existentialist, mainstream or otherwise (he even seems to disdain the idea of working within a particular school)—rather, his literary faith is in the truth and the telling of truth.
Desmond, John F. “Where Is That Voice Coming From? Walker Percy and the Demonic.”
Christianity and Literature, vol. 51, no. 4, 2002, pp. 621-95. MLA International Bibliography, DOI: 10.1177/014833310205100408.
LeClair, Thomas. “Walker Percy’s Devil.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 1977,
pp. 3-13. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20077573.
Percy, Walker. “Interview.” Interview by William Starr. More Conversations With Walker
Percy, edited by Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, University Press of Mississippi,1993, pp. 36-43.
___________. Love in the Ruins. 1971. Picador, 1999.
___________. “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself.” Conversations
With Walker Percy, edited by Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, University Press of Mississippi, 1985, pp. 158-81.
___________. “A View of Abortion, with Something to Offend Everybody.” Signposts in a Strange Land. Picador, 2000. Google Books.