“Waking wide-eyed dreams come as fitfully as swampfire.”*
Years ago artist George Rodrigue owned a camp in Butte la Rose, Louisiana on the Atchafalaya Basin. He purchased it as a small, cabin-like structure on stilts and quickly built on bedrooms, extending a raised walkway to the river and over the swamp.
-click photo to enlarge-
(“With Swamp Dogs,” says the artist about his recent large-scale works on chrome, “I combine these mysteries, the loup-garou and the feux follets.” Read more here-)
In those pre-internet and (in our case) cell phone days, the early 1990s, we hid out easily, escaping society, gallery commitments, and even well-meaning family and friends, as we searched for something undefined, yet irresistible, a new path in our lives. Between Carmel, where I worked at the Rodrigue Gallery
, and this camp, we sought a new, unaffected reality.
I thought of this search, a lifelong commitment, really, renewed recently on our West Coast pilgrimage
, as I read at last Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer
, my choice during a celebratory week
within the surreal city of Las Vegas. (As we watched the Bellagio fountains, we admired the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, while wondering if the full moon, too, was contrived for our pleasure).
(pictured, Walker Percy
, 1982 by George Rodrigue, painted for the Flora Levy Lecture Series
at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette-)
Unexpectedly, I found The Moviegoer
familiar, “the sudden confrontation of a time past, a time so terrible and splendid in its arch-reality,” reminding me of my father
’s comments in the National World War II Museum. He noted, without expression, that the equipment, bunkers, and weapons were the same he used in the Vietnam War, where he served twenty-five years later in the United States Air Force.
“Dislocated is perhaps the proper state of Binx Boling and man or woman…”*
…wrote Walker Percy about his Moviegoer protagonist, and about himself and all of us.
Rodrigue photographed Percy (1916-1990) at his daughter’s Kumquat Bookstore in Covington, Louisiana, near New Orleans, where Percy lived for most of his adult life.
“It was a tiny wooden structure,” recalls Rodrigue, “so I posed him on the front porch where I took about thirty slides.
“He was very serious and commented that he was at the bookstore part-time to help out his daughter. I sensed an unhappiness or confusion in him. But at the same time, he was agreeable regarding my instructions for placement and posing. The whole session took about ten minutes.”
Did you get his autograph? I asked.
“Honestly, I didn’t know who he was. And I don’t think he knew me either.”
Partial to science and the arts over fiction, George never read Percy’s books and, although he attended the lecture at USL, he recalls nothing of its content. However, the two express a similar interest in philosophy and a lifelong search for meaning, one through humanity and words, and the other through humanity and art.
To my surprise, as I searched on-line, I discovered another link between Percy and Rodrigue, an interview
with Harvard University Professor of Psychiatry, Robert Coles (b. 1929). I recognized the name, also from George’s series of ten Flora Levy Lecture paintings
, but as the expert on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces
(pub. 1980, LSU Press), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, twelve years after Toole’s suicide. Walker Percy wrote the foreword for the famous story of Ignatius J. Reilly and was instrumental in the book’s publication.
(pictured, Robert Coles, 1981 by George Rodrigue; a portrait of John Kennedy Toole hangs on the oak-)
Coles, it turns out, is an expert not only on Percy and Toole, but also on the Medical Humanities, surely a weighty subject for Percy, who abandoned the medical profession following a lengthy illness after contracting tuberculosis during a lab autopsy. Like other great writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf
, and John Kennedy Toole, suicide haunted him, in this case with the early deaths of his parents.
“Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real?”*
George Rodrigue and I discuss often today, as we did within the swamps, of our dreams and of things much bigger than ourselves. We talk of black holes and space exploration. (As I write these words, in fact, unable to paint as he nurses a cold, George watches a documentary on comets.) We ponder past lives and the idea that all humanity, in one way or another, seeks meaning. We discuss the importance of our words and actions as they affect others, and as they affect the future.
“…she might now become what they had been and what as a woman had been denied her: soldierly both in look and outlook.”*
And we recall our song, the one we sought on and off Broadway, the VCR, and Netflix, the one we sang countless times as we crossed the country
in our truck, and the one we made ours when, unable to sleep, we danced
beneath a full moon on the Atchafalaya Swamp.
Eudora Welty, who spoke at Walker Percy’s memorial service in 1990, speculated once that the South spawns great writers because not only are we talkers, we are talkers who are used to having listeners.
“In the Rocky Mountains,” she observed, “a person might talk all day and get nothing back but an echo.”
*unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this post are from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, 1961; the book, published when Percy was age 45, was his first novel; it won the National Book Award the following year-
-the first annual Walker Percy Festival will take place June 6-7, 2014 in St. Francisville, Louisiana; read more here–
-Rodrigue’s original paintings of Walker Percy, Robert Coles, and other notables are on view through August 31, 2013 at the State Library of Louisiana. Details here–
-for a Toole-related essay, see the post, “Lucky Dog,” featuring, among other things, Rodrigue’s paintings of hot dogs-
-for more art and discussion, please join me on facebook–