Book Review: Lanterns on the Levee, by William Alexander Percy

William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee reads like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (which I have not read), with the first twelve chapters resembling an innocent rhapsody and the latter fifteen a world-weary dirge. The turning point comes with Percy’s father’s involvement in politics in 1910-12, with World War One, conflict with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922, and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 making any return to Innocence impossible. Adding a jarring element to the chapters on Experience is Percy’s rather defensive discourse on race relations.

(As for the supposedly unique traits of a certain subset of the Mississippi population, listed in the aforesaid discourse, I find them to be rather universal. For example:

The last time I saw Mims I asked him how he and his wife were getting along. He poked out his mouth: ‘Pretty good, pretty good, I reckon. Cose I always goes up the front steps whistlin’.’

I praised his cheerfulness.

‘That ain’t it, Mr. Will. I want to give anybody what’s in the house and don’t belong there time to git out the back way. You know I never did like no rookus.’ [pp. 301-302]

The same principle is outlined by Fielding:

It hath been a custom long established in the polite world, and that upon very solid and substantial reasons, that a husband shall never enter his wife’s apartment without first knocking at the door. The many excellent uses of this custom need scarce be hinted to a reader who hath any knowledge of the world; for by this means the lady hath time to adjust herself, or to remove any disagreeable object out of the way; for there are some situations in which nice and delicate women would not be discovered by their husbands. [Tom Jones, X/ii])

I liked the first part, concerning Innocence, much better. It’s amazing that Percy, writing at the experienced age of fifty-five, is able to recreate so pristinely the intoxicating wondrousness of his youth:

To climb an aspen sapling in a gale is one of those ultimate experiences, like experiencing God or love, that you need never try to remember because you can never forget. Aspens grow together in little woods of their own, straight, slender, and white. Even in still weather they twinkle and murmur, but in a high wind you must run out and plunge among them, spattered with sunlight, to the very center. Then select your tree and climb it high enough for it to begin to wobble with your weight. Rest your foot-weight lightly on the frail branches and do most of your clinging with your arms. Now let it lunge, and gulp the wind. It will be all over you, slapping your hair in your eyes, stinging your face with bits of bark and stick, tugging to break your hold, roaring in your open mouth like a monster sea-shell. The trees around you will thrash and seethe, their white undersides lashed about like surf, and sea-music racing through them. You will be beaten and bent and buffeted about and the din will be so terrific your throat will invent a song to add to the welter, pretty barbaric, full of yells and long calls. You will feel what it is to be the Lord God and ride a hurricane; you will know what it is to have leaves sprout from your toes and finger-tips, with satyrs and tigers and hounds in pursuit; you will never again need to drown under the crash of a maned wave in spume and splendor and thunder, with the white stallions of the sea around you, neighing and pawing. (p. 55)

While looking back, again, with a seamless fidelity to youthful feeling, on how he expanded his consciousness in youthful Arcadia (meaning the liberal arts), Percy is conscious, with the advantage of hindsight, of Arcadia’s true meaning:

Neither from experience nor observation can I quite say what they learn in their Arcadia, though they gad about freely with books and pads. Indeed, many of them attempt to assume a studious air by wearing black Oxford gowns. In this they are not wholly successful, for, no matter how new, the gowns always manage to be torn and insist on hanging from the supple shoulders with something of a dionysiac abandon. Further, even the most bookish are given to pursuing their studies out under the trees. To lie under a tree on your back, overhead a blue and green and gold pattern meddled with by the idlest of breezes, is not – despite the admirable example of Mr. Newton – conducive to the acquisition of knowledge. Flat on your stomach and propped on both elbows, you will inevitably keel and end by doting on the tint of the far shadows, or, worse, by slipping into those delightful oscillations of consciousness known as cat-naps. I cannot therefore commend them for erudition. So it is all the more surprising that in after years the world esteems many of them learned or powerful or godly, and that not infrequently they have been the chosen servitors of the destinies. Yet what they do or know is always less than what they are. Once one of them appeared on the first page of the newspapers because he had climbed with amazing pluck and calculated foolhardiness a hitherto unconquered mountain peak, an Indian boy his only companion. But what we who loved him like best to recall about that exploit is an inch cube of a book he carried along with him and read through – for the hundredth time, likely – before the climb was completed. It was Hamlet. Another is immortal for cleansing the world of yellow fever, but the ignorant half-breeds among whom he worked remember him now only for his gentleness, his directness without bluntness, his courtesy, which robbed obedience of all humiliation. Still others I understand have amassed fortunes and – to use a word much reverenced by my temporal co-tenants – succeeded. That success I suspect was in spite of their sojourn in our greenwoods. The Arcadians learn here – and that is why I am having such difficulty telling you these things – the imponderables. Ears slightly more pointed and tawny-furred, a bit of leafiness somewhere in the eyes, a manner vaguely Apriline – such attributes though unmistakable are not to be described. When the Arcadians are fools, as they sometimes are, you do not deplore their stupidity, and when they are brilliant you do not resent their intellectuality. The reason is, their manners – the kind not learned or instilled but happening, the core being sweet – are far realer than their other qualities. Socrates and Jesus and St. Francis and Sir Philip Sidney and Lovelace and Stevenson had charm; the Arcadians are of that lineage. (pp. 100-101)

Apparently, Percy is drawn to trees, especially the familiar species of his youth, and when among them, he is drawn to the second person! However, when among scenes of foreign beauty, as on his year abroad, the familiar second person is beyond his reach, and thus he discovers a superlative form of loneliness. (This is a real 於我心有戚戚焉 for me, who discovered loneliness on the coastal highways and in the art museums of remote realms, desperately missing a sharer or co-appreciator of all the beauty I found):

At the sight or sound of something unbearably beautiful, I wanted desperately to share it. I wanted with me everyone I’d ever cared for – and someone else besides. (p. 112)

There are racist words in this book, so don’t read it.

My Views on Education

The value or benefit of an education depends upon its content. If, for example, a certain kind of education conditioned its subjects to servitude, then I would call the uneducated better off than the educated. In general, I would never deem educated people to be necessarily smarter or better than uneducated ones.

At American liberal arts colleges, students are trained in abstract or associative reasoning. Therefore, graduates of American liberal arts colleges are capable of abstract thought, and non-graduates are not. The reality was made clear to me on the day that I, a liberally-educated history professor, began lecturing my class of first-generation college students about Genghis Khan. As I explained how Genghis broke up Mongol tribes and redistributed its members among military units called hundreds, I associated his policy with that of Cleisthenes, the Athenian reformer who broke up Athenian tribes and redistributed its members among political units called demes. I was pleased with myself for having established the linkage, yet when I turned to face my class, I saw only puzzlement. They could not fathom why my lecture on the Mongols had suddenly detoured to ancient Athens. It occurred to me that they could not follow the abstraction, that to them, x would always equal x and could never equal y.  Their approach to history is “Genghis Khan was born in 1162 and died in 1227 and was a Mongolian conqueror; Cleisthenes lived from 565 to 492 BC and was an Athenian statesman” and never the twain shall meet. I tried to sever Genghis and Cleisthenes from their particular contexts and to locate their policies on higher planes of abstraction, to persuade my students that although Genghis reorganized Mongol tribes into hundreds and Cleisthenes reorganized Athenian tribes into demes, both reoriented loyalty to higher social units, both sought to replace tribal association with political. My students were polite, but it was as though the football game they were watching had been interrupted by a commercial for a product they didn’t want.

Indeed, they don’t want it. No matter how many times I’ve returned to Genghis and Cleisthenes over the years (I never give up), my attempts to place them in the same abstract category always fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, I have never been able to explain to my students the superiority or even the advantage of my abstract way of looking at history. It is not in me, however, to bewail my inability to enlighten the benighted history students of Mobile, Alabama. On the contrary, the more I’ve thought about my failure, the more I’ve come to accept the possibility that my abstract way of looking at history really isn’t superior to my students’ way and really doesn’t confer on them any advantage.

Is the abstract view necessarily the correct view? Is it possible that someone might become over-educated, so thoroughly skilled in making associations that he loses his ability to draw distinctions? Sometimes x is only equal to x. Sometimes concrete thinking is better than abstract.

Consider the intellectual Susan Sontag and her disapproval of the display of the American flag after 9/11. It seemed to me at the time that she was incapable of seeing the flag-flying as an expression of solidarity at a moment of national hurt and that she could only view it as symptomatic of a dangerous ultra-nationalism. Her perception, in other words, was determined, perhaps even limited, by her education, her ability to associate one reality with another and, perhaps, her inability to perceive the reality at hand more concretely. Many of the categorizations encouraged at our finer schools are somewhat predictable, as almost everything is associated with Nazism, sooner rather than later. If you were to show someone like Susan Sontag a Boy Scout picnic, she’d probably think she was looking at the Nuremberg rally.

My students, however, would know that it was a Boy Scout picnic, and they would be right, or at least more right than Susan Sontag. I find myself in a strange position, having more in common culturally with the Susan Sontags of the world but feeling far more trusting of my students’ common sense.

And so, for choosing a movie, a restaurant, or an Aram Khachaturian CD, I will consult someone like Susan Sontag. But for understanding what’s what, I’m going to ask my students. The intellectual doesn’t understand what’s what: He understands what something is like, because that is what he’s been trained to do. The liberally educated serve the function of alerting their fellow citizens to the unseen, but sometimes they distract their fellow citizens with visions of the unreal. There is no good reason to desire that more of our population become educated along these lines.