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The term “existentialism” denotes such a broad range of social, cultural, and intellectual phenomena that discussing any one of its manifestations becomes nearly impossible without excessive, tangential digression. Nonetheless, the intersection of existentialism and Southern letters is a fascinating example of the interiorization of culturally implicit problems; the Southern novelist, as a general type of thinker, seems to exemplify a number of facets of existential thought, some ancillary and some critical.

From William Faulkner to Walker Percy, there is a tradition among Southern intellectuals to be catastrophically miserable, especially when dealing with questions of authenticity and transient identity. Faulkner, as well as W.J. Cash, utilized narrative style and character constructions to address the impossibility of maintaining a singular, static identity (see: Faulkner’s Light in August and Cash’s The Mind of the South). Percy’s life and writing demonstrated the instability of identity: shifting from studying medicine and science to a Kierkegaardian interest in Christianity and existence, Percy’s bipolarity was as much a component of his aesthetic as it was a psychological condition (although presumably not for him).

If, as W.J. Cash and Lillian Smith have argued, the South is a region awash in both illegitimacy and facticity, almost entirely self-fabricated and only tenuously connected to itself, in essence a transcendent fallacy, both glorious and impossible, then one might see a relationship between the area’s social structures and the cognitive structures of her intellectuals. Sensitive as they were, they fell apart as she did: with brilliance and suicidal depression, a deep skepticism and discomfort with sacred myths simultaneously felt with Christian beliefs and traditionalism, and irreducible personal dilemmas. And their characters reflect this interiorization, particularly Percy’s protagonists (in The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins).

Extant and not (as a cultural construct), the South continues to constitute a profound problem: how to resolve its contradictions? It is a distinct and wonderful place, the source of jazz and the Southern novel; it is also the site of slavery, lynchings, and hyper-conservative delusions of Christianity. In short, it is a bipolar culture suffering a grave existential crisis, and her residents posses the same fragmentation of identity, the same duality of existence, which makes the South such a difficult place to consider without anxiety. But it makes for some damn fine books.

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