Walker Percy’s Two Classes of Maniacs

As the Mental Health Issue is coming together, it is becoming quite apparent that one […]

Ethan Richardson / 7.19.16

As the Mental Health Issue is coming together, it is becoming quite apparent that one of our chief navigators in the strange land of the human mind will be the one and only Walker Percy. This passage comes from his wildly original and heartwarming novel, The Second Coming. It is a portion of a letter written by the novel’s leading man, Will Barrett, a successful and well-respected retiree who has recently taken a fall into the “mentally unstable” category…by the grace of God. For Percy, his salvation can come only by way of the absurd–by truly examining the absurd existence he finds himself inhabiting. You will notice here that Percy isn’t just describing atheists when he describes “unbelievers.” What he means instead are those who believe nothing, examine nothing, and walk through life without wondering what the point is. Fair warning: potty words abound.

7037If the good news is true, why are its public proclaimers such assholes and the proclamation itself such a weary used-up thing? 

If the good news is true, the God of the good news must be a very devious fellow indeed, fond of playing tricks. 

…The present-day unbeliever is a greater asshole than the present-day Christian because of the fatuity, blandness, incoherence, fakery, and fatheadedness of his unbelief. He is in fact an insane person. If God does in fact exist, the present-day unbeliever will no doubt be forgiven because of his manifest madness.

The present-day Christian is either half-assed, nominal, lukewarm, hypocritical, sinful, or, if fervent, generally offensive and fanatical. But he is not crazy.

The present-day unbeliever is crazy as well as being an asshole–which is why I say he is a bigger asshole than the Christian because a crazy asshole is worse than a sane asshole.

The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion of how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps, shits, fucks, works, grows old, gets sick, and dies, and is quite content to have it so. Not once in his entire life does it cross his mind to say to himself that his situation is preposterous, that an explanation is due him and to demand such an explanation and to refuse to play out another act of the farce until the explanation is forthcoming. No, he takes his comfort and ease, plays along with the game, watches TV, drinks his drink, laughs, curses politicians, and now and again to relieve the boredom and the farce (of which he is dimly aware) goes off to war to shoot people–for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all.

On the contrary. The more intelligent he is, the crazier he is and the bigger an asshole he is. He becomes a professor and forms an interdisciplinary group. He reads Dante for its mythic structure. He joins the A.C.L.U. and concerns himself with the freedom of the individual and does not once exercise his own freedom to inquire how in God’s name he should find himself in such a ludicrous situation as being born in Brooklyn, living in Manhattan, and being buried in Queens. He is as insane as a French intellectual.

It has taken me all these years to make the simplest discovery: that I am surrounded by two classes of maniacs. The first are the believers, who think they know the reason why we find ourselves in this ludicrous predicament yet act for all the world as if they don’t. The second are the unbelievers, who don’t know the reason and don’t care if they don’t. 


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