Death Genes
The Second Coming

by Walker Percy

Book Excerpt

December 13, 2004   


Percy, Walker; The Second Coming, original edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1980. Paperback edition, Picador USA, September 1999, ISBN 0-312-24324-3, 360 pages, $15.00. This excerpt is from the paperback edition, pages 270-274.

Well then, does anything really change in a lifetime, he asked the sly sidelong-looking Andrea del Sarto in the Mercedes mirror? No, you are the same person with whom I struck the pact roaring out old U.S. 66 through the lonesome towns and empty desert. You don't ever really learn anything you didn't know when you were thirteen.

And what was that?

All I knew for sure then and now was that after what happened to me nothing could ever defeat me, no matter what else happened in this bloody century. If you didn't defeat me, old mole, loving father and death-dealer, nothing can, not wars, not this century, not the Germans. We beat the Germans, nutty as we are, and now drive perfect German cars, we somewhat frazzled it is true, and shaky, but victorious nevertheless.

Ah, but what if the death is not in the century but in your own genes, that you of all men are a child of the century because you are as death-bound by your own hand as the century is you and you of all men should be most at home now, as bred for death as surely as a pointer bitch to point, that death your own death is what you really love and won't be happy till you have, what then?

Then we'll know, won't we?

Grinning and shivering on the back seat thirty years later, teeth clacking, this raddled middle-aged American sat in his German car in the mountains of North Carolina hugging himself and making shoulder movements like a man giving body English to a pinball machine except that he was thinking about J. E. B. Stuart and Baron von Richthofen and World War II and fighting the Germans, which he had not done. Instead, he took two quick drinks from the gold-lined silver jigger and waited until the warmth bloomed under his ribs and the shaking stopped.

Something occurred to him. Excitedly he jumped out of the car, paying no attention to the cold drizzle which had started again, paced back and forth beside the silver Mercedes, smacking his arms around his body and now and then kicking the Michelin radials. If the girl in the greenhouse a few hundred yards away could have seen him, she would have shaken her head. Though it was she who had been the mental patient and he the solidest citizen of the community, early retiree, philanthropist, president of United Way, six-handicap golfer, surely it was he not she who was deranged now, who, after holing up in a cave for two weeks, now paced up and down the parking lot of the Linwood Country Club in the pre-dawn darkness, kicking a German car, while sane folk snored in their beds. Now he snapped his fingers and nodded to himself, for all the world like a man who has hit upon the solution to a problem which had vexed him for years.

Ha, there is a secret after all, he said. But to know the secret answer, you must first know the secret question. The question is, who is the enemy?

Not to know the name of the enemy is already to have been killed by him.

Ha, he said, dancing, snapping his fingers and laughing and hooting ha hoo hee, jumping up and down and socking himself, but I do know. I know. I know the name of the enemy.

The name of the enemy is death, he said, grinning and shoving his hands in his pockets. Not the death of dying but the living death.

The name of this century is the Century of the Love of Death. Death in this century is not the death people die but the death people live. Men love death because real death is better than the living death. That's why men like wars, of course. Bad as wars are and maybe because they are so bad, thinking of peace during war is better than peace. War is what makes peace desirable. But peace without war is intolerable. Why do men settle so easily for lives which are living deaths? Men either kill each other in war, or in peace walk as docilely into living death as sheep into a slaughterhouse.

Why do men walk like sheep straight into the slaughterhouse? Why are people content to stand helpless while their lifeblood is drained away?

Men in this century are no different from the Jews at Buchenwald who did not give themselves leave to resist death.

I know your name at last, he said, laughing and hooting hee hee hooooee like a pig-caller and kicking the tires, and you are not going to prevail over me.

Old father of lies, that's what you are, the devil himself, for only the devil could have thought up all the deceits and guises under which death masquerades. But I know all your names.

Here are the names of death, which shall not prevail over me because I know the names.

Death in the guise of love shall not prevail over me. You, old father old mole, loved me but loved death better and in the name of love sought death for both of us. You only kissed me once and it was the kiss of death. True, death is a way out of a life-which-is-a-living-death. War and shooting is better than such a peace. But what if there is life?

Everybody has given up. Everybody thinks that there are only two things: war which is a kind of life in death, and peace which is a kind of death in life. But what if there should be a third thing, life?

Death in the guise of Christianity is not going to prevail over me. If Christ brought life, why do the churches smell of death?

Death in the guise of old Christendom in Carolina is not going to prevail over me. The old churches are houses of death.

Death in the form of the new Christendom in Carolina is not going to prevail over me. If the born-again are the twice born, I'm holding out for a third go-round.

Death in the guise of God and America and the happy life of home and family and friends is not going to prevail over me. America is in fact almost as dead as Europe. It might still be possible to live in America, said the nutty American dancing in place in old Carolina.

Death in the guise of belief is not going to prevail over me, for believers now believe anything and everything and do not love the truth, are in fact in despair of the truth, and that is death.

Death in the guise of unbelief is not going to prevail over me, for unbelievers believe nothing, not because truth does not exist but because they have already chosen not to believe, and would not believe, cannot believe, even if the living truth stood before them, and that is death.

Death in the guise of the new life in California is not going to prevail over me. Marin County and the Cupps are not going to prevail over me. But what if the Cupps and Marin County should prevail? Then the Germans and my father are right and war is better than peace, true death better than the living death. But it will not prevail over me because I know the names of death.

Death in the form of isms and asms shall not prevail over me, orgasm, enthusiasm, liberalism, conservatism, Communism, Buddhism, Americanism, for an ism is only another way of despairing of the truth.

Death in the guise of marriage and family and children is not going to prevail over me. What happened to marriage and family that it should have become a travail and a sadness, marriage till death do us part yes but long dead before the parting, home and fireside and kiddies such a travail and a deadliness as to make a man run out into the night with his hands over his head? Show me that Norman Rockwell picture of the American family at Thanksgiving dinner and I'll show you the first faint outline of the death's-head.

God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God's goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing. What is this sadness here? Why do the folks put up with it? The truth seeker does not. Instead of joining hands with the folks and bowing his head in prayer, the truth seeker sits in an empty chair as invisible as Banquo's ghost, yelling at the top of his voice: Where is it? What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest. Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!

Ross Alexander left his happy home in Beverly Hills, saying: I'm going outside and shoot a duck.

You gave in to death, old mole, but I will not have it so. It is a matter of knowing and choosing. To know the many names of death is also to know, there is life. I choose life. Hee hoo hee heee hooeee. He was shivering and dancing in place, hands in pockets like an Irishman doing a jig. Is it possible that a man in the last half of his life can actually learn something he didn't know before? Yes! Ha hee hooee.

Death in the form of death genes shall not prevail over me, for death genes are one thing but it is something else to name the death genes and know them and stand over against them and dare them. I am different from my death genes and therefore not subject to them. My father had the same death genes but he feared them and did not name them and thought he could roar out old Route 66 and stay ahead of them or grab me and be pals or play Brahms and keep them, the death genes, happy, so he fell prey to them.

Death in none of its guises shall prevail over me because I know all the names of death.

Having pronounced this peculiar litany, he hopped into the car, lay down on the back seat, covered himself with the lap robe, stuck his nose in a fragrant crease of leather, and went to sleep.

Percy, Walker; The Second Coming, original edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1980. Paperback edition, Picador USA, September 1999, ISBN 0-312-24324-3, 360 pages, $15.00. This excerpt is from the paperback edition, pages 270-274.

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On Attendance Of A Funeral In The Rural South: Empire, Jesus, And The Death Gene, by Phil Rockstroh

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Walker Percy (1916-1990), was a brilliant "philosophical novelist," in the like of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He originally studied medicine and became an M.D. But he contracted tuberculosis and during his long convalescent period read myriad philosophical books. Existentialism had a profound influence on him. He may well be most remembered for his 1961 novel The Moviegoer. You can learn more about Percy from ibiblio.org.

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This material is copyrighted, © Walker Percy 1980. All rights reserved.

Published under the provision of U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.
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Published December 13, 2004
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