The Impossible Task of the Poet: Walker Percy on Language, Despair, and Communion

Symbol and Existence: A Study in Meaning | Walker Percy | Mercer University Press

To begin this meditation on language, let us suppose that Shakespeare’s character Prospero is a symbolic representation of the Bard himself. Recall that Prospero is a wizard wordsmith, whose magical power of language keeps his island enchanted—in the negative sense of the word, in the sense that he subjugates subjects. But then in the final scene of the play, Prospero breaks his wand, the symbol of his magic, and renounces his craft.

“Now my charms are all o'erthrown,” he says, “and my ending is despair.” And then Prospero (and then Shakespeare) breaks the fourth wall, begs the audience for their merciful prayers: implores us, “let your indulgence set me free.”

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s later plays. Studying the play in college, my professor Dr. William Storm asked us to consider if Shakespeare is reflecting here on his corpus, seeing all the magic of language as mere corpse. What might it mean to be a poet, to be enchanted in language, and yet also filled with despair over its inadequacies?

This question animated my reading of a newly published collection of essays by Walker Percy entitled Symbol and Existence: A Study in Meaning (Mercer University Press). Percy is known for his existential novels like Love Among The Ruins, and though he is a hard novelist to classify (Catholic? Southern Gothic? Sci-fi?), a common thread in his work is his desire to probe the essence of the human person. In this collection of essays, Percy shows himself to be as capable a philosopher as he was novelist, adroitly blending analytic and continental philosophical influences. The central heartbeat of the collection is the realization that all knowledge of the world and of oneself is constructed in and through language. And the fully existential question, in response to this recognition, is this: Is it all just a language game, are we making it up as we go, or is an authentic encounter with the world and the self actually possible?

Percy labors honestly and rigorously to justify his conclusion that, yes, we can have such authentic encounters, but not in the manner of Prospero’s self-sufficient attempt to achieve mastery through wordcraft. This encounter is fraught, uncertain, humble. And yet we hope for it.  

“The glory and despair of human knowing” 

A radical nominalist, Percy argues that words merely signify, they do not directly communicate the reality to which they refer. In his understanding of the metaphysics of language, words are signifiers that point to a shared meaning that speaker and hearer must co-intend in order to successfully communicate. The statement, “this is water,” has no intrinsic meaning, no innate connection to water, no essential reality in itself to separate it from the statement “this is blue”—except that in public meaning, we have agreed that “water” signifies one thing, and “blue” another.

Reflecting on this, Percy writes that “the great vista which begins to open before us is the inkling that we know nothing directly and of itself,” but rather “only through the mirrors of something else.” On the one hand, this is a beautiful truth, for it means that truth is always mediated to us: “man’s orientation to the world is both sacramental and anagogic.” And yet this also means that there is an inescapable element of concealment and imprecision in our epistemic orientation because language is fallible, meaning can be deconstructed, and intention can be undone. As Percy notes, language is “both the indispensable means of arriving at the truth and also the snare by which we fall prey to error.”

I think here of T.S Eliot’s haunting lines in The Four Quartets:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Our plight is worse even than this occasional slippage of language. For language is opaque, and that means that when we think and speak about the world, we are not speaking directly about the world as such, but rather about our symbolic representations of it. As Percy explains, “in our everyday mode of knowing, the world is totally formulated” and “everything in the world is either construed . . . or is simply not known.”

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I want reality, and you offer me wordplay. I want reality, and you offer me enchantment. We can start to feel something of Prospero’s despair, to the exact measure with which we, being writers, being poets, being enchanters, understand how much is mere sleight of hand, a slight rolling of the tongue.

And it is worse still. For not only is there misdirection, our formulations and conceptions and constructions standing in for reality, language can also swallow up and conceal reality. To illustrate this point, Percy asks us to consider the naming of a previously identified bird, a sparrow. He writes: “once the new bird is identified as a sparrow, that is, in a sense, the end of the bird.” The end of the bird? A stark claim, to be sure. Percy explains:

. . . the singular living creature is completely swallowed up in the symbol-conception complex...That oak, that chair, I construe as being something through an intentional identification which constitutes recognition. And in doing so I inevitably give it the impress of my construction, a kind of discreteness, wholeness, autonomy, which operates not only as a means of knowing but also as a means of concealment.

All of this leads Percy to describe our epistemic reliance on symbols and language as “the glory and despair of human knowing.” It is this despair that throws us back into “the plight of the self surrounded by a gallery of dense-symbol-thing entities: this is water, that is a chair, you are Ralph, but what am I?”

This despair stretches into matters of faith, too. “There is no end to the making of books,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, and neither is there an end to the proliferation of religious language and symbols that slowly close in on themselves, ceasing to signify or represent anything more than the hackneyed formulations of the faithful. As Percy puts it, “a man hanging from a piece of wood is seen as everything but what he actually is.” And he explains that “in this sense, the passive believer shares the same disability as the unbeliever—a pious simulacrum can be quite as impenetrable as a hostile one.” 

But then one remembers the outrage over the Piss Christ exhibit or Scorsese’s Last Temptation film: the crucifix submerged in urine, Christ on the cross and fantasizing about marriage and sex. Pious or not, blasphemous or not, there is no passivity to this art, no muted and automatic response. There is reaction here, a seeing of old and familiar things in a new light. And it is this possibility of new vision that supplies hope, a way out of the despair Percy warns us about. 

“ year's words await another voice.”

Percy writes that “there are the memorable moments when, under special circumstances (usually that of ordeal), a man is vouchsafed a fresh glimpse of the common thing.” Consider the sparrow again, but now seen as “a kind of revelation...seen for what it really is.” Percy calls these glimpses. And here I am reminded of Derrida, and his traces, the indications of transcendence as lost meaning or meaning still to be discovered. And I’m also thinking of Eliot again:

the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning 
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply. 
That it is not heard at all . . .

Moreover, just as conscious speech and thought are social, so also are these revelatory glimpses social. Percy writes “it is characteristic of these ‘glimpses’, moreover, that they are always attended by a restoration of comradeship with others . . . The source of wonder entails by its very nature a need to be shared.” What if we imagine Prospero as happy, imagine that in reaching out to the audience at the end of the play, he is on the cusp of a glimpse, that indeed he is already participating in a glimpse?

Eliot again:

As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away . . .

I keep pairing Eliot with Percy because I think it is precisely in poetry, as distilled language, that we become receptive to such glimpses. And I think Percy agrees because he calls the work of providing glimpses the “impossible task of the poet.” And he writes of the poet’s experience: “No wonder the poet is seduced. Once he has savored this dangerous delight, it is enough to set him fondling words for life, turning them this way and that in the hope that one will catch this holy fire.”

And so here’s one more excerpt, fragment, trace from Eliot:

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.


At the end of my junior year, I underwent the Percyean ordeal of despair. Part of this was the fruit of my sustained engagement with the philosophy of language, postmodern lit theory, apophatic theology, the whole nine yards. (Doing close readings of Eliot was both poison and cure.) Part of it was failed love.

(It’s a terrible thing to be an English major, despairing of language. It’s a terrible thing to be a Catholic, deaf to the liturgy. It’s a terrible thing to be a poet, and to no longer believe in love.)

But the poet Christine Zubrod Perrin read poetry at my school, some of the best poetry I'd encountered all year. And during the Q&A afterward, I asked her: "As a poet, are you tortured by the inadequacy of language, of the way it breaks down or fails to deliver what it promises?" (Look at Dante say “words fail me,” look at the way Chaucer deconstructs the tales told by Chaucer the pilgrim!) And she said to me: "I'm so tired of talking about what language can't do. I want to talk about its abundance." 

Abundance. I cannot tell you why that word entered me, or perfectly describe how it lodged itself within, how it calmed the turmoil and gave tranquility. Abundance—a word that mediated to me exactly what it promised. Language fails, yes, often and painfully, but then, incredibly, unpredictably, sometimes it doesn’t. 

Anthony Barr is a graduate of Templeton Honors College at Eastern University where he studied History, Literature, and Orthodox Thought and Culture. He writes for Ethika Politika, University Bookman, and the CiRCE Institute.

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