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Lost?: Walker Percy and his enemies

June 3, 2011

Walker Percy. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. 1983.

I first read Lost in the Cosmos years ago, but, upon realizing that I hadn’t understood it at the time and now hardly remembered any of it, I decided to re-read it. It’s a strange book: part parody of the self-help genre, part satire on the modern obsession with the self as an isolated autonomous entity, part primer on semiotics and the concept of language as an inter-subjective system of signs, part science-fiction parable about what would really happen if we encountered extra-terrestrial intelligences, and what would happen if we did not. I’m not sure it all hangs together, but it’s certainly worth reading, both for its wit and for its lucid explanation of the questions of language and self that we cannot not consider.

That said, the book has its flaws. Essentially, Percy is better at setting up problems than offering compelling solutions. The book qua negative statement is near perfect, being a hilarious and far-ranging take on modern malaise, but the book qua positive statement flounders, for, I think, two reasons, one involving Percy’s own thought, the other involving his relationship towards other thinkers. Here are two brief essays about why:

Walker Percy
What is unsatisfactory about the ending? The flaw is less aesthetic than logical. The ending of, say, The Moviegoer, felt forced, but I thought that of Lost in the Cosmos brought the disparate threads of the book together and did a good job of leaving us right where Percy wants us. (I suspect this has something to do with the difficulty of bringing about changes in novelistic characters compared with the relative ease of saying that the Self ought to make such-and-such a transformation.)

Nevertheless, Percy leaves us here somewhere very close to where he leaves us in his novels, what I might call a push towards Catholicism with no justification other than the inadequacy of what he says is the only alternative. As if to make up for this lack of justification, Percy allows the Catholicism to remain what we might call, recalling Bakhtin’s dialogic imagination, “unfinalized.” That is, though it accepts the preposterous claims of Catholicism because they alone can give meaning to the world and the self, it resists finalization, remaining ever doubting, “lost in the cosmos,” and continues to ask the sorts of questions that make up the majority of the book , to go into them not knowing the answer beforehand, and to seek answers to them primarily through relationships with other selves that remain open to the possibility of self-transcendence.

Now, I have a lot of sympathy for an embrace of Catholicism for the sake of achieving resolution without achieving finalization. In fact, I think that’s one of the main things Catholicism offers. But I don’t think Percy’s way of pushing us towards it is sufficient. Or maybe that’s not my complaint. After all, it brought Percy to convert, and Eliot, I would say, became Anglican for much the same reasons (c.f. Four Quartets). But I don’t think Percy’s explanations do an adequate job of describing it. It is as if he is trying to give us the seed which will bloom into the flower of faith, but he has only described the outer shell. He ends up sounding both somewhat formulaic and not entirely able to say why Catholicism rather than, say, some humanistic philosophy that accepts most of Catholic anthropology and ethics without accepting the bizarre theology and history.

And His Enemies
I think part of the reason Percy is unable to fully explain himself is that he doesn’t give credit where credit is due to his opponents. He is quick to dismiss science, and almost as quick to dismiss art, as failed attempts at transcendence that necessarily make immanence even more painful. Very well. I would to a large extent agree with this. But he has distressingly little more to say about the role of art–which I find particularly strange given that he is also a novelist–and speaks considerably more about science, but only in purely negative terms. At one point he explicitly says that as science progresses further and further, it alienates us from ourselves more and more. This is the sort of anti-scientism that I come across disturbingly often in the writings of poets and poetical philosophers alike. I am sure I will write more about this subject later, so I’ll stop here by simply saying that I find it somewhat naive and sentimental.

Percy also speaks continually of “Cartesian solipsism” and the like, and at times describes the modern era as particularly self-obsessed. But he implies elsewhere that “self in self steeped and pashed” (to quote Hopkins) is our natural condition as post-lapsarian beings, and that ever since Genesis 3 we have been unknown to ourselves. I found the equivocation rather annoying, and related to Percy’s unjustified dismissal of science on the basis of its inferiority to philosophy. I will grant that to elevate science to the status of fount-of-all-wisdom is a mistake, but that does not mean that history was going in the right direction until five hundred years ago, when it suddenly took a turn for the worse, which is the feeling I sometimes get reading Percy.

Further, if I were a deconstructionist, I would focus on the footnote in the section on semiotics in which Percy says, “I do not feel obliged to speak of the decontructionists.” He does this after speaking at length of the “nought of the self” in language that sounds very much like deconstructionism filtered through a Southern, vaguely Christian post-humanism. I might accuse Percy of ignoring deconstruction to avoid addressing the fact that his unfinalized Catholicism represents one possible growth out of the irony that arises from self-consciousness of the nought of the self, but that the eternal play of deconstruction offers another, and perhaps a more satisfactory one.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Scout permalink
    June 3, 2011 10:16 am

    Deconstruction? Satisfying?
    Like Christianity, it attempts a catholic openness to the myriad layers of knowledge heaped up by our culture; like Christianity, it is dialectical.

    But is it, properly speaking, dialogical? It tries to contain its opposites, but it cannot do so on a historical* or philosophical# level. And I think, at least for Southerners** like Percy, not on a human level.

    *Can Deconstructionists claim to believe “what they are” in the way that a Christian can believe the truths espoused by the same tradition who made him? Think Unity of historical/objective self with volitional/subjective self.
    #Can Deconstructionists claim both absolutism and relativism without an absolute God relatively understood? Think JL Marion.
    **Or, for like, freakin’, anybody. Maybe some modern Frenchman and Krauts are an exception. Or maybe Deconstructionism is the particular product of their culture anyway.

  2. June 3, 2011 1:49 pm

    I’m not going to say that Deconstruction is actually satisfying on a human level. To be a Deconstructionist, I think, is to attempt to make oneself inhuman–but that can be satisfying in its own way, in the same way as Kirilov’s nihilism in The Devils. So it bothers me that Percy dismisses the Deconstructionists out of hand, rather than considering how similar much of what they say is to much of what he says. Dostoevsky does a better job of it. Of course Dostoevsky does a better job than almost anyone.

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