Percy’s The Second Coming, a work only slightly more subtle than its title – though brilliant nonetheless – focuses on a depressed millionaire lawyer, Will Barrett, and an ECT patient, Allison. In one scene, Allison remembers freezing up at a violin concert in college, dropping out, failing at getting a job, failing at living alone – her mom found her in a closet, hugging her knees – and debates her psychiatrist (Dr. Duk), in his office at the sanatarium, about the merits of her treatment:
I have to go down down down before I go up. Down down in me to it. You shouldn’t try to keep me up by buzzing me up.
Down down I go, round and round I go. He twirled around, keeping hands in pockets. God, she thought, if I were him I’d be crazier than me.
Tacky-tacky, she said. I need to go down to my white dwarf.
You know stars? He did know stars, often spoke of the constellations. To stay sane, learn about wrens, mums, Orion.
What about stars?
A red giant collapses into a white dwarf. Hard and bright as a diamond. That’s what I was trying to do when my mother found me in the closet going down to my white dwarf.
Ah. Quite a speech, although I suspect you meant going down to become my white dwarf, I think.
I have to get down to it, to me. And you won’t let me. You want me to go up before going down.
Ah, but what if the star collapses all the way into a black hole? (This pleased him.) How will we find you in a black hole? (The more he thought about it, the more pleased he was.)…
Percy seems to suggest that Allison’s spiral downward is almost a good thing (within bad circumstances), something authentic: the psychiatrist applies the palliatives of hobby. His characters are often so sated with hobby, money, social standing, respectability, and general distraction that they can keep themselves mentally afloat for decades, but the fall is that much harsher when it happens. For him, a gradual working-out (in fear and trembling) of one’s failures and limits and emotional problems would be the ideal, but the modern world has made that difficult. So she has fallen too much too quickly, but she will persist:
One good sign: I can already feel myself coming down to myself. From giant red star Betelgeuse, Dr. Duk’s favorite, trying to expand and fan out and take in and please the whole universe (that was me!), a great gaseous fake of a star, collapsing down to white dwarf Sirius…
My mother found me in a closet… Now now, now now, this won’t do, what are you doing sitting in there? Go-ing, go-on, Gawain, go-way, gong, God, dog, I said, not knowing what I meant – do I have to mean something?… but she as usual insisting on making her own strong sense of everything even my nonsense (leave me my nonsense, that’s the way, the only way I’m going to get out and through – okay, Ducky, Dr. Duck, maybe you’re right, maybe I will collapse into a black hole, but if that’s the case then I have to and I will.) My mother: thinking I was saying going going gone, so she said: going going gone my foot (I like her old Alabama slang coming out), you’re not going anywhere but out of there… Stop trying to make sense of my nonsense.
My mother refused to let me fail. So I insisted.
Dr. Duk – wonder if WP had seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, five years before this book? To Percy, who’s reading Kierkegaard (especially, it seems, Sickness Unto Death here), the people on the golf course, the people speculating on real estate developments, are as crazy, but they can prevent themselves from “going down”, they don’t know they’re in despair. And the attempt to construct positive meaning, to make things better, only increases misunderstandings. We live in an age, he seems to suggest, that shunts failure aside; it’s great failure is its inability to tolerate failure. Allison breaks out and goes on the run, and in being allowed to vocalize her failures, to think about them, she begins gradually to speak again, forming sentences and questions, encountering the world as self-less and strangely curious as a child. Percy, as existentialist in this book as anywhere else, is big on freedom and exile, because if the center can’t work through failure, you go to the margins.