The novelist Walker Percy, before going to medical school, went to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He tells us that he “lived in an attic of a fraternity house with four other guys. God, religion, was the furthest thing from our minds and talk – from mine, at least. Except for one of us, a fellow who got up every morning at the crack of dawn and went to Mass. He said nothing about and seemed otherwise normal.”
In those days, Mass was usually at six or seven in the morning, not 10 or 11 at night. We Catholics remain “otherwise normal” if we attend at either time. It’s the not doing so that is abnormal.
Amusingly, Percy was asked to explain his conversion to Catholicism. The short answer, he thought, was that it was “a gift of God.” If, however, he were to be more thorough, Percy writes, he might explain it like this:
“One day I read what Kierkegaard said about Hegelianism, the science of his day: that Hegel explained everything in the universe except what it is to be an individual, to be born, to live and to die.”
In other words, Hegel explains everything in the universe except what is most important about us. On reflection, Percy thought that too was a pretty good answer.
What exactly college students talk about is of some interest to people other than sociologists and bartenders. G. K. Chesterton, for instance, would disagree with Percy at the Tar Heel attic. Chesterton thought that most folks of college age talked primarily of sex and religion, as, after all, these are the things most worthy of discussion.
College is a place where we can talk just for its own sake. Here, we hopefully learn to talk, not just to speak or spell words. Talk implies conversation. And conversation indicates that there is something to talk about. We are, as Aristotle called us, the animal who speaks. Percy himself, in his 1989 Jefferson Lecture, said that the very fact that we could speak at all is one of the most extraordinary things in creation.
How do we know, for instance, that the word “cat” means a somewhat strange critter, with slant eyes and a tail, that is kept as a pet by numbers of otherwise rational animals? More extraordinarily, how do we also know that the same word “cat” can also refer to a huge machine used to clear piles of snow?
But if we talk about religion and sex at 20, how is it that we have anything intelligent to say about either subject? In a lecture titled “Another Message in a Bottle,” Percy remarked that “if you don’t make the breakthrough into the delight of reading . no matter what you go into – law, medicine, computer science, housewifing, house-husbanding, engineering, whatever – you are going to miss out.” He was talking to the young about what to read. He recalled that as a boy he “read over 100 Tom Swift and, at least 200 Rover Boys books.”
These were not “great literature,” he acknowledged. He could only remember one line from any of them. But, Percy added, the “point, of course, is reading with pleasure. Later you can get to the great stuff, which, surprisingly enough, is even better and more fun than the Rover Boys.”
But how to wake the young man or woman up to the really “fun” reading, talking and thinking? Percy explained, “Here, it usually takes a teacher, someone to turn you on – unless you happen to be some sort of reclusive genius like Marcel Proust, who apparently read everything without anyone’s assistance. Or William Faulkner, also self-educated.”
During our memorable snow winter, I read a favorite book – one that I always assign – by Yves Simon on authority. It is an amazing book. While dealing with what you expect it to treat, it also covers everything else. Kierkegaard’s observation about Hegelianism made me think of it. It had struck Percy also – namely, that Hegel explained everything in the universe except what it meant to be “an individual, to be born, to live and to die.”
Simon wrote, in a remarkable passage, “A thing which is not God cannot be except at the cost of not being what is not.” The only way that you or I can exist as the unique person we are is if we are not someone or something else.
If, in all the things we do and talk about among ourselves, we do not come before this question, the question Hegel could not answer, we are not really “normal.” Our conversation does not get us to the ultimate things about which we begin to ponder because we are beings who speak, read, have fun, love, live and die. Such things are worth pondering even if we are not snowbound.
Fr. James Schall, S.J. is a professor of government. He can be reached at schalljgeorgetown.edu. As This Jesuit Sees It. appears every other Friday, with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.
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