It’s startling to realize that we’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Walker Percy’s death (May 10, 1990). Has he really been gone that long? What would he have to say to us today? I wish he were still here. By the way, I heard the other day from Win Riley, the New Orleans documentarian who’s working on a film about Percy. I’ve learned that he’s short of funds to finish the movie. If you’re a Percy admirer and can help, by all means follow the link in this item and contact Win. What a gift to his memory to mark the anniversary of the great man’s passing. Click here to watch two short clips from the as yet unfinished film. We’ve got to get this thing made, people!Below is a clip of the speech Percy gave at Notre Dame when he received the Laetare Medal. Here, an excerpt from that speech, and a point so important to us today:

In my last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, I tried to show how, while truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another. If only one kind of truth prevails, the abstract and technical truth of science, then nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of and a destruction of human life for what would appear to be reasonable short-term goals.It’s no accident that I think that German science, as great as it was, ended in the destruction of the Holocaust.The novelist likes to irritate people by pointing this out. It’s his pleasure and vocation to reveal, with his own elusive and indirect way, man’s need of and openings to other than scientific propositions.The novelist, I think, has a special calling to truth these days. The world into which you are graduating is a deranged world. It is his task to show the derangement.

UPDATE: Some remarks from an e-mail Win Riley sent me, about his fascination with Percy, below the jump:

I first read The Moviegoer when I was a teenager living in New Zealand, longing for New Orleans. The novel hit me like a depth charge. I quickly read The Last Gentleman, then a few essays– missing most of what Percy was up to, of course–and came away from it with a strong desire to know more about Percy, and a sense that I had much to learn. I finished up a degree in philosophy and found myself back in New Orleans as a documentary filmmaker, with an opportunity to spend a few years studying Walker Percy, talking to people about this man I’d been curious about for so long. George Steiner wrote of “the indiscretion of serious art, literature and music which queries the last privacies of our existence,” an invasion into “the small house of our cautionary being… afterward the house is no longer habitable in the same way.” If this is what serious art does then Walker Percy’s work is grave indeed. His words pointed to things previously ineffable to me, that I’d somehow thought but never given shape or voice to before reading his books–all tinged with his unique wry humor. And humor is key. “For him, by the way,” Robert Coles says in the film, ” humor was an instrument of introspection. That’s what he beautifully combined. That lighthearted sensibility merged with a grave, seriously introspective side. This takes a genius.”A few weeks into making the film about Walker I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic. I thought: but this is madness. How will I ever explain this doctor-turned-writer-and philosopher in one-hour, to people who may never have heard of Walker Percy? Years later, when the film was near completion and after talking to dozens of people who’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about Percy, I thought how fortunate I’d been. And then, in another sleepless night–there have been many– it hit me. I had been fortunate. But there was more to this. This community of Percy scholars, family and friends that had gathered to name the things that Walker Percy had done, offered a path through the thicket of ideas and contradiction and complexity of his work to a clearing beyond–relevant to not just those with an interest in literature or philosophy, but to any who’s ever wondered: Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? At least that’s my hope. Jay Tolson, in an interview for the film, sums up some of this:

“He took quite literally the words from the gospel of John: In the beginning is the word. The word for Percy is the clue: Language, symbolic behavior, is the clue to the mystery of the individual. Language, the freedoms of language, made him wonder about human freedom. Humans aren’t completely determined, and why are they free? And for him this became a theological question. It’s the core question for him. He came to the view that the divine, God, was the enabling condition of human freedom. It’s the source of human freedom. The source of human individuality. And that this was a unique thing expressed in our symbolic activity. Language. Written language, spoken language, yes, but also the language of art, music, dance–all symbolic forms that express meaning. That express being. That assert that we are. We exist. No other creature, in Walker’s view, engages in symbolic behavior like this. He took this symbolic behavior as the sort of indicator of a distinction and a difference that leads us to God.”

I’ve never had a good understanding of what people want to watch on television–I know, a strange confession from a tv and film producer–but I think even I have underestimated the difficulty of convincing programmers and funders of the importance of Walker Percy. I have a completed film, a rejection letter from the NEA, and several expenses yet to pay for before “Walker Percy: A Documentary Film” can be released. Looks like I’m in for a few more sleepless nights.

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