A review of Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, by Walker Percy
It is a disastrous discovery, according to Emerson, that we exist: disastrous, because our own consciousness comes as such a puzzle at times. It is the gift of consciousness that marks man's distinctiveness from all other animals, but the exact nature of that distinctiveness is elusive. Man is the only animal who laughs and smokes, a cheerful observer might point out, while the dour-minded Dostoyevsky remained transfixed by his perception that man is the only animal bent on his own self-destruction.
That man is a complex creature-poised halfway between the beasts and the gods, endowed with speech and reason-is of course not a new observation. Modern literature has developed a new genre that takes as its subject the "alienation" of man. Alienation, man's homelessness in his own world, has become the bane of literature and the cornerstone of many modern ideologies. Walker Percy takes alienation as the focus of his writing, but not in the reductionist sense of the Marxists or Freudians, nor in the gratuitous manner of New York parlor existentialists who bemoan their lack of meaning while getting rich on their second-rate novels. Percy's jaundiced view of popular trends and run-of-the-mill "alienation" set him apart from most modern writers whose overblown seriousness prevents the least admission of humor. Indeed, Percy's latest, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, combines serious themes with some well-aimed jibes at the "naive scientism" of Carl Sagan as well as the entire self-help industry, with its guides to surviving "mid-life crises" and other passages of life.
For Percy, man feels homeless in his own world not for materialist reasons (Marx), or because of fragmented consciousness (Freud), or because of the meaninglessness of the abyss (Sartre), but because each of us does not understand himself. The modern scientific enterprise of the "relief of man's estate" is not at hand, nor is it on the horizon. Modernity's quest to conquer nature, it seems, has failed on the simplest level. Man is not, as was hoped, better for modern science, rather he is miserable. Percy takes the epigram to Lost in the Cosmos from Nietzsche, "We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves. . . . Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves. . . ." As a result, the course of modernity is toward not greater self-knowledge but toward even less self-knowledge. In fact, modern scientific method-Percy calls it the "objective-empirical method"-is itself a force for increased alienation. "Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos," he writes, "and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance-so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly" (p. 12).
Percy goes to great lengths to assure the reader that he is not a neo-Luddite out to make a frontal assault on science and technology. (Recall that Percy was an M.D. before he began writing.) Percy protests the necessary abstraction of the scientist from the natural phenomenon studied: Modern science tries to conquer human nature through the same means it uses toward the rest of nature, by objectifying man, but it has only resulted in controverting reality and denying consciousness. When the psychologists and therapists study the human psyche and break it down into so many "needs," the result is not greater self-knowledge but increased abstraction, or alienation, from the self. Percy suggests in his essay "The Man on the Train" that there is no more ideal candidate for suicide than someone who attempts to follow the prescriptions of the mental health savants.
This irony within triumphant modernity forms the subject matter for Percy's fiction: technology has largely succeeded in conquering nature and meeting man's basic needs, yet man feels more homeless than ever. The protagonists of Percy's novels (Binx Bolling, Tom More, Will Barrett) are always extreme caricatures of alienated man and, borrowing from Flannery O'Connor, Percy points out that when writing for the near-blind one must draw very large caricatures.
Percy's characters and plots are not simply large; they are outrageous. The protagonist of Love in the Ruins, Thomas More-yes, a descendant of Sir Thomas More, author ofUtopia-is the confident inventor of the "Ontological Lapsometer," a "stethoscope of the human spirit" that can diagnose and cure the troubled patches of our brain that divide and disorient our consciousness. Never mind that Dr. More is himself a basket case, both an outpatient and a resident psychiatrist at the same mental institution. Published in 1971, Love in the Ruins is set in 1983 and invokes the specter of the Orwellian year, with its connotations of heightened order and rigid bureaucratization. But Love in the Ruins pulls a reversal on 1984; rather than strict order, there is complete chaos. The auto age is over, vines sprout on the streets and buildings of our major cities, and wolves have been seen in downtown Cleveland, "like Rome during the Black Plague." The United States is divided along sectional and factional lines.
Life, however, goes on much as usual for most Americans. Golf continues in suburbia, while Left and Right have become more psychological types than political persuasions. The end may be at hand: potentially toxic fallout clouds are drifting about in the atmosphere. And here stands Tom More with his Ontological Lapsometer ready to cure all manner of neurosis and phobia and finally usher in the Utopia that eluded his distinguished ancestor. Yet, no one seems to take much notice of either the chaos around them or the need of Ontological wholeness that More offers to fulfill.
It is not so much that More, the scientific Utopian who cannot understand himself in the end, resembles Chicken Little as much as the fact that Percy's peripheral characters seem so lifeless. His main characters are always more aware of their predicament, and being aware of their alienation, they achieve a measure of transcendence. Most, however, are unaware of their estrangement from themselves. The epigraph to The Moviegoer comes from Kierkegaard: ". . . the special character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair." There, Binx Bolling, recognizing his despair, confesses that "for a long time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. . . . It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me; yes, beyond a doubt this is death."
Will Barrett (The Last Gentleman; The Second Coming) comes to the same perception in the latter novel:
In a strange new mood he made the following observation: people notice very little indeed, ghost-ridden as they are by themselves. You have to be bleeding from the mouth or throwing a fit for them to take notice. Otherwise, anything you do is no more or less than another part of the world they have to deal with, poor souls.
Most of us, Percy suggests, have dead souls at best; not even the appearance of Christ Himself would cause a shock. The more adept among us drift along in the grip of "everydayness," while the more acute, like Percy's heroes, recognize their alienation and are, as it were, in perpetual crisis.
To be sure, Percy makes it clear that this alienation is largely unique to modern, affluent, profanized man. Recalling Steinbeck, Percy observes that "the Okies were too hungry to have 'identity crises.'" But, "what happens to the Okie who succeeds in Pomona and now spends his time watching Art Linkletter? Is all well with them or are they in deeper trouble than they were . . . in the dust bowl?" (The Message in the Bottle).
The problem of modernity as Percy sees it is that the moment of man's conquest of nature is also the moment he runs completely out of meaning; man arrives at the ultimate estrangement from his own nature because his own nature cannot be explained and manipulated in the same technological manner as the rest of nature. To explain this difference between human nature and the nature of everything else, Percy has come to embrace semiotic theory. His first nonfiction collection, The Message in the Bottle(1975), contained several essays on semiotic theory. Lost in the Cosmos contains a short, simple introduction to semiotics, a study of signs and symbols as they impart meaning.
Developed by Ernst Cassirer, Charles Pierce, Susanne Langer and others, semiotics can be vastly complicated, but for Percy this is crucial: While the signs and symbols for objects in nature have an intrinsically understood commonality (essentially the Aristotelian notion of the "common noun"), the "self" as symbol has no such corresponding commonality. As Percy puts it: "This is a chair for you and me, that is a tree, everything is something, you are what you are, but what am I?" (The Message in the Bottle, p. 284).
The twenty extended questions of the "self-help" section of Lost in the Cosmos are designed to illuminate the various facets of selfhood, the assorted modes people tend to assume in answering the question "What am I?"-all of them, Percy insists, are unsuccessful. Many of the answers Percy supplies show rare insight; many others are overwrought and exaggerated. This and the whole "twenty questions" format tend to make the book a bit uneven, though it is still well worth reading. The reader will laugh out loud at his send-up of Phil Donahue, and his cosmic space adventures, inspired by Carl Sagan's search for extraterrestrial intelligence, are first-rate satire. C. S. Lewis once speculated that the vast distances between objects in the universe might be God's quarantine against sinful man. Pursuing the same thought, Percy suggests that any superior extraterrestrial intelligence will avoid us like the plague.
Percy offers no remedies. For him, Christendom and modernity alike have run their course and are equally bankrupt. There is seemingly no going "forward" or "back." All choices are bleak. But for Percy, who joined the Roman Catholic church, there is Grace. Mysteriously enough, it is Grace that Percy holds out to us in his novels and in the end of Lost in the Cosmos. And because Grace is a divine mystery, Percy does not presume to explain it.