Athenaeum Meeting Minutes – December 14th, 2002 – Dog & Duck Pub

Attending:   John Mays, Bob Hardister, Alan Hunt, Hugh Rudolph

Welcome to new Athenaeum member Hugh Rudolph

Book for Discussion:   The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy

Secretary’s Corner: I apologize ahead of time for these sad excuse for minutes. At the time this is written, two months have passed since our discussion. We have since that cold December evening discussed Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (the minutes for which I have just completed) and Dante’s Inferno (for which I took no minutes at all). These notes have never been a recitation of actual comments, but rather a “close approximation” of what was said, usually attributed to the correct Athenaeum brother, though I can not even guarantee that. And since my incoherent scribbles during the course of the evening are barely passable for English, the minutes themselves have to be reconstructed mostly from memory. Therefore the temporal gap between discussion and reproduction is directly proportional to their accuracy. So please forgive me my tardiness and don’t be too disappointed if they are less accurate than usual.


John: Dr. Sutter’s commentary is detailed in Percy’s non fiction work Lost In The Cosmos. Sutter is a reflection of Percy himself. Val is the other side of Percy.

Bob: Sutter is an archetype of Christ in the sense that the sheer force of his presence makes things happen.

John: Barrett is similar to Dostoevsky’s Myshkin, and as such is also a type of Christ. Both characters are amazingly perceptive.

Bob: Walker Percy says everything seems possible to Barrett. In Sutter, we see a man who knows how things will be. One is unsure, the other is too sure.

Alan: “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe every possibility is open to him”

John: Barrett’s perception is symbolized in the telescope, an instrument that enhances his ability to see. His journey starts while he gazes through the telescope in Central Park.

Alan: The Last Gentleman and The Moviegoer are essentially the same book. The telescope is analogous to the movie. Just like movies legitimize the world for Bolling, so the telescope does for Barrett.

John: How is it we live in a world with self help books, individualism and psychoanalysis, and yet are still completely lost? How can technology bring us closer together, and yet we still feel separated? For 15 Billion years communication was symmetric. That is, information was a didactic or two-way avenue between the things interacting. Since the ascendance of humans, communication occurs through signs, or tridactically.

Bob: Because we have souls.

John: Exactly Percy’s point! That is Percy’s theory, he just doesn’t come right out and say it in his literature.

Bob: Barrett has problems, and he knows it. He goes to see a psychoanalyst and gets bad advice, and he knows this too.

Eli: Percy comments on the difference between the North and the South throughout the novel. He comments that even though the South lost the Civil War, it had won after all, because everyone in the South is happy. Percy’s intimacy with South, his descriptions of the many places Barrett travels, permeates the story and engenders warm and nostalgic reaction to the southern reader.

John: In this scene Barrett remembers sitting on the porch with his father listening to music, “Out poured old Brahms, the old spoiled gorgeous low-German music but here at home surely and not in Hamburg. “What do they expect,” said [his father], now westbound…”Now they,” he went on, nodding to the east. “They fornicate, and the one who fornicates best is the preacher.” The Great Horn Theme went abroad, the very sound of the ruined gorgeousness of the nineteenth century, the worst of times.” Here, the author refers to the smugness of men like Durant and Gibbon, 19th century historians who think they have it all figured out, but live in a moral morass.

Bob: Kierkegaard influences the author. The introductory essay in the Modern Library Series compares Barrett to the “Knight of Faith”.

John/Alan: Barrett is afflicted by flashbacks and “dislocations”. Usually when he recovers from these episodes he finds himself in a place that reminds him of the past, like an old battlefield. It is a commentary on the weirdness of the twentieth century.

Eli: Percy does not shy from tackling the terrible stain on the south, slavery and race relations after the Civil War. Percy comments on the “innocence” of blacks, and how it will ruin them all. Their innocence will be taken advantage of by people who otherwise are “not that bad”. His father fights for civil rights, and through him Barrett feels redeemed.

John: The author laments the behavior of the South.

Hugh: Percy’s uncle and great uncle were a powerful figures in Louisiana during the 1920s. This book partly recognizes that way of life was coming to an end.

Eli: From the introduction, “Dostoevsky’s Myshkin and Percy’s Barrett are also Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith”, each almost shameless in his trust of others, each utterly determined to pursue an idiosyncratic, vulnerable, confounding journey-a moral pursuit of those who resist any substantial human engagement.”

John: Barrett is on his own, a common theme in existential literature. He is led by what is revealed to him.

Bob: In the fourth chapter, Barrett is faced with a South he does not recognize, “The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him, He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt bad. True, there was happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy. And certainly the north was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut off to them selves and he, the engineer, had got used top living among them.

Eli: Barrett is transformed once his travels begin.

John: The journey is another focal point of the story. Even the name of his vehicle, the “Trav-L-Aire” rings of a quest, and a journey.

Alan/Hugh: Walker uses certain catch phrases that stick with the reader. Little phrases we read over and over like, “holding her charms in his arms” and “a bar turning in his head” and “ham-rich”.

John: There are a number of character parallels between Gentleman and Moviegoer. Boling and Barrett are both seekers of truth, and a little strange. Both identify with quirky women in Kate and Kitty. Lonnie and Jamie are ill relatives that needs care and ultimately die. And Aunt Emily and Rita is harsh critics (also a relative) who do not fully appreciate the hero’s perspective. Notice the names are even similar.

Bob: The gorilla story is very funny! A gorilla is entered into the Masters, and hits the ball 400 yards out of the tee box, and within inches of the hole. The gorilla’s sponsor sees gold until the gorilla approaches the ball to putt in the eagle, and hits it another 400 yards…with the putter.

John: That gorilla is an example of didactic communication discussed in At Home In The Cosmos. The book is full of “monkey” stories, all with the same point. Applied here, you can teach a gorilla to hit a golf ball, but he’s going to hit it the same way every time.

Eli: Before Sutter takes off with Jamie, he hypnotizes Barrett, and tells him he will be there for Barrett when he needs him. This assertion seems absurd since Sutter hits the road the next morning, but he leaves his journal, which Barrett finds. It is through the journal that Sutter maintains his connection with Barrett.

John: In the journal is a story about a screamer. He seems to be a well adjusted guy, but one day he just starts screaming for no reason. Sutter tells Barrett he’s not going to scream like that man, but he’s not sure if that is better or worse.

Bob: Reacting to one of Sutter’s journal entries, Barrett contemplates religious people, “Where [Sutter] probably goes wrong, mused the engineer sleepily, is in the extremity of his alt ernatives: God and not-God, getting under women’s dresses and blowing your brains out. Whereas and in fact my problem is how to live from one ordinary minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon. Has not this been the case with all “religious” people?”

John: Sutter contemplates in his journal the perfect pornographer, “The perfect pornographer = a man who lives both in the anteroom of science (not in a research laboratory) and who also lives in the twilight of Christianity, e.g. a technician. The perfect pornographer = lapsed Christian Southerner (who as such retains the memory not merely of Christianity but of a region immersed in place and time) who presently lives in Berkeley or Ann Arbor, which are not truly places but sites of abstract activity which could take place anywhere else, a map coordinate; who is perhaps employed as psychological tester or opinion sampler or computer programmer or other para-scientific pursuit. Midwestern housewives look out! Hand-under-dress of a total stranger is in the service both of the theoretical “real” and the physical “real”.”

John: Later in the same journal entry Sutter responds to Val, “But I am not a pornographer, Val, like the optician, now a corpse. i.e: an ostensible liver of a “decent” life, a family man, who fancies conventions with smokers and call girls. I accept the current genital condition of all human relations and try to go beyond it. I may sniff like a dog but then try to be human rather than masquerade as a human and sniff like a dog. I am a sincere, humble and even moral pornographer. I cultivate pornography in order to set it at naught.’

Hugh: Southern culture is characterized by the ability to enjoy the everyday. At the same time we fall short of that enjoyment.

Bob/Eli: At the speak easy in Barrett’s home town, the hero takes charge and manhandles the cops. One he knocks clean out, the other he talks into inaction. This seems uncharacteristic for Barrett who often in the novel, up to this point, does not even know where he is. It implies a transformation that has resulted from his journey.

John: Sutter, again debates Val in his journal, “Where I disagree with you, Val, is in you people’s emphasis on sin. I do not deny, as do my colleagues, that sin exists. But what I see is not sinfulness but paltriness. Paltriness is the disease. This, moreover, is not a mistake you are obliged to make. You could just as easily hold out for life and having it more abundantly as hold out against sin. Your tactics are bad. Lewdness is sinful but it derives in this case not from a rebellion against God (Can you imagine such a thing nowadays-I mean, who cares?)-but from paltriness.” Sutter is saying lewdness is settling for paltriness instead of holding out for beauty.

Bob: The baptism scene on Jamie’s death bed is powerful. How does the sick boy know there is a God? Because the priest exists.

Eli: That is a terrible answer. From a rationalist sense, it is insufficient. But the scene is powerful. The abject humiliation of death is terrible to read. The palpable stench when the boy loses control of his bowels before death is heartbreaking.

John: The red mountains, the passing of a bread truck on the street are all sacramental images.

Eli: John commented earlier that Sutter and Val are two halves of the same person. Barrett is terrified at the command from Sutter to administer medical help to Jamie, and the command from Val to baptize him. He rails against them thus, “To the devil with this exotic pair, Sutter and Val, the absentee experts who would deputize him, one to practice medicine, the other to practice priestcraft. Charge him indeed. Who were they to charge anybody?”

Hugh: Engineering is held up as the archetype for rational 20th century philosophy.

Alan: What is the meaning of the end? Why does Barrett run after Sutter’s car? Could it be that he knows Sutter is going to attempt suicide, and he wants to prevent it? This ties in with the Moviegoer where Bolling saves Kate’s life. Perhaps he is trying to prevent Sutter from doing what he could not prevent his father from doing.

Bob: Agreed! Early in the novel he is lost and confused, open to all possibilities. After his journey and the existential moment of Jamie’s death he finds meaning and purpose. He knows he can help Sutter.

Voting for February:

Man Born to be King
The Cherry Orchard
War and Peace
Les Miserables
Heart of the Sea
Poisonwood Bible
Light In August
The Violent Bear it Away
The Man Who Was Thursday 

Next Meeting:

January 11th at the Dog and Duck Pub

January Inferno, Dante Alighieri

February The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton

Athenaeum Meeting Minutes