The idea that hurricanes can be anything other than destructive might sound strange to many people. And the idea that they can be a source of redemption and healing probably sounds downright absurd.
But the novelist Walker Percy (1916-1990) believed just that.
To Percy, a writer and philosopher from Louisiana, modern man’s great struggle was the absence of great struggle. He believed malaise is the scourge of postmodernity, and violent storms are a respite from the dreary humdrum of our monotonous existence.
“I knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other, hated their own lives, and were generally miserable — except during hurricanes,” a character recalls in the novel Lancelot. “Then they sat in their house at Pass Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness, were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke, drink, even make love.”
There is something powerful about the passage, in part because it’s so believable. Hurricanes don’t just bring energy. They bring a powerful sense of danger, which reminds us that life is real. They sharpen us. As Walter Isaacson wrote in a New York Times article in 2015, for Percy there was only one problem with storms: they pass.
It’s important to understand that Percy was not using storms simply as a literacy device to advance a plot. A practicing Catholic, the Southerner held a healthy skepticism of existentialism and the fruit it bears. Percy saw “the dislocation of man in the modern age” as the primary struggle of our time.
In his celebrated work The Moviegoer (winner of the National Book Award in 1962), the protagonist’s battle is against the dragon of our age: meaninglessness. Binx Bolling, the narrator of the book, says the key to life is “the search.”
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life,” Binx says. “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Essentially, the search is a quest to find meaning in a world increasingly devoid of it.
Percy was hardly the only intellectual to observe the prevalence of our cultural malaise. The philosopher Charles Taylor discussed the topic in his book The Malaise of Modernity, published a year after Percy’s death. Taylor, a former Rhodes Scholar who is currently Professor Emeritus at McGill University, identified three causes of our malaise, which he argued is unique to modern times.
“The first fear is about what we might call a loss of meaning, the fading of moral horizons. The second concerns the eclipse of ends, in face of rampant instrumental reason. And the third is about a loss of freedom,” Taylor wrote.
Hurricanes offer modern man a break from quiet desperation, or at least Percy believed so. For a brief period of time, there is clarity. There is purpose. There is reality.
I’ve never been in a hurricane, so I can’t really say with any degree of certainty how I’d feel during such an event. And perhaps that’s not really the point. The point is that many of us can feel the suffocation of this malaise, even if only vaguely so.
Finding healthy ways to alleviate (and, better yet, cure) this malaise seems like a worthy goal. But this would require being aware of the condition. Are we? There is reason to believe that most of us are not
The philosopher Allan Bloom, in his bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind, wrote that he observed something distressing in his decades teaching at universities from Yale to Cornell to the University of Chicago.
“[The] gradual stilling of the old political and religious echoes in the souls of the young accounts for the difference between the students I knew at the beginning of my teaching career and those I face now. The loss of the books has made them narrower and flatter. Narrower because they lack what is most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what is and despairing of ever escaping from it. The longing for the beyond has been attenuated. The very models of admiration and contempt have vanished. Flatter, because without interpretations of things, without the poetry or the imagination’s activity, their souls are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around.”
Hurricanes are no trivial matter; the danger they inflict is real. But Percy would likely say that humans need to be reminded every once in a while that life is real.
[Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures]