Existential Quizzes

July 19, 1983

Existential Quizzes

A Review of Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos

By Alfie Kohn

Were it not for his grounding in American culture — specifi­cally, his evident Southern roots — one might think Walker Percy was French. His equal (and superb) facility at writing philosophical essays, social criticism, and fiction; his novels’ status as genuine works of ideas; his claim to the title of homme de lettres — all recall the tradition that gave us Voltaire, Sartre, and Camus. But Percy defies labels. He is a Catholic (by conversion) who loves Kierkegaard, a physician impatient with scientific meth­od, a novelist whose first work of fiction wasn’t published until he was 45. He switches tone abruptly between droll and earnestly profound, but even his humor seems informed by an implacable desire to awaken us, to shake us out of our complacency. One finds it difficult to imagine Percy selling a manuscript, transacting business with a publisher —such is the extent of his engagement with the issues he writes about.

Those issues are the Big Ones. The word “existential” has been misused by some and overused by most others, but if anyone’s writing today merits the label, it is Walker Percy’s. From his first novel, The Moviegoer (the nearest thing we have to a fictional rendering of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or), to his brand-new Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Percy’s subject has been nothing less than the human predica­ment. The elusiveness of the hollow-centered self; the Fall of Man; the failure of science and other institutions of modernity to rescue us from despair —this is the stuff of a Walker Percy book. And he takes on these issues with passion and intelligence, not to mention stylistic elegance.

Percy was born in Alabama 67 years ago. After majoring in chemistry at the University of North Carolina, he man­aged to get an M.D. at Columbia Univer­sity despite dividing his days largely between movie theaters and the psy­choanalyst’s couch. The former seemed more productive, as he told Robert Coles in a 1978 New Yorker profile: “At the movies I was getting to know how people looked at the world, what they thought — the way a doctor does.” During World War II, Percy performed autopsies on one too many tuberculars, contracting TB himself and winding up in a sanatorium with nothing to do but read and reflect. Prominent among his read­ings were existential tracts (Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Marcel); prominent among his reflections was the growing realiza­tion that science did violence to the human by reducing him to an object fit for its own technique. Percy also ab­sorbed the philosophy of language, delving into Charles Peirce, Suzanne Langer, and Ernst Cassirer. Eventually he began to pull together what he had read. His own essays, which attempted to create an existential semiotics, a study of the symbol grounded in human intersubjectivity, were published through the 1950s and then collected in The Message in the Bottle (1975).

Percy’s first published novel, The Moviegoer, was about to slide into obscurity when it unexpectedly won the National Book Award for 1961. His reputation as a first-rate novelist (as opposed to a scholar who had produced one lucky aberration) was fortified by the subsequent appearance of The Last Gentleman five years later, followed by Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), and The Second Coming (1980).

Now comes Lost in the Cosmos, a mostly nonfiction bouillabaisse of a book that distills and cleverly packages the theories from his essays and the themes from his novels. These are brought to bear, in desultory fashion, on such phenomena as promiscuity, fashion, suicide, amnesia, why Carl Sagan keeps hoping alien intelligences exist, how Einstein is different from Kafka, why writers drink so much, what stage fright is all about, and why we secretly enjoy bad news. The book includes a didactic “intermezzo” (which Percy cheerfully invites us to skip even though it contains a lucid and straightforward summary of his major ideas), two brief science-fiction stories, and the transcript of an imagined Phil Donahue Show about sexual mores that is interrupted by an apocalyptic extraterrestrial. To call Lost in the Cos­mos “wide-ranging” understates the case, but the book has a center — a thematic integrity that is all the more remarkable in view of how it dashes from one subject to the next.

The book’s conceit, apropos of its subtitle, is that the reader is taking a 20-question multiple-choice quiz. These questions take the place of chapters and constitute most of the text. Beyond serving to satirize the “flaky euphoria” of the self-help movement and leavening his work with a Barthelmeic sense of humor, this device dovetails with the book’s central ideas. However tongue-in-cheek, a series of questions about ourselves holds out the possibility of enhanced self-understanding, and that, argues Percy, we could surely use. The interpretative choices offered as answers represent different world views: scien­tism, California pop-psych, religious fun­damentalism, common sense, and Per­cy’s own brand of existential semiotics. Not only are we given a persuasive articulation of each position, a view from inside it, we also get a sense of the enormity of having to choose from among them. Which is part of why we are lost in the first place.

For Percy, our understanding of the human condition depends on our under­standing what happened to Helen Keller the day she connected the sign for water that Anne Sullivan was spelling into one hand with the actual water she felt rushing over the other one. (This process is described at length in his essay “The Delta Factor.”) “Water” means water. Only for humans does that statement make sense, a state of affairs that deposits us (“throws” us, Heidegger would say) into a world of fellow meaning-makers. But “of all the objects in the entire Cosmos which the sign-user can apprehend,” Percy tells us in the new book, “there is one which forever es­capes his comprehension — and that is the sign-user himself….The exile from Eden is, semiotically, the banishment of the self-conscious self from its own world of signs.” Here, then, we have a conjoining of linguistics with Christian existentialism: the Fall of Man expresses the relationship between signifier and signified. That we are in such a bad way in the late 20th century arises from science’s refusal to understand how the self is fundamentally unlike the rest of what it studies.

This view is spelled out in the 40-page intermezzo, which largely repeats what Percy had to say in The Message in the Bottle. The appeal of Lost in the Cosmos lies in the way these notions stand just behind the inspired fragments that make up the rest of the book. In one particular­ly compelling section that suggests the late sociologist Erving Goffman, Percy describes a group of people eyeing one another at an Indian rain dance in New Mexico. We meet a nuclear physicist, an old Pueblo dancer, a young Americanized Pueblo, a novelist, a priest, and a Marxist technician, among others. Each is quite sure that he “transcends” the others; each has a lens for viewing all other lenses that permits him to under­stand and distance himself from every­one else. It is a deft piece of satire that illuminates our lostness. To offer any of these observers singly would be to endorse the superiority of his per­spective; but collectively their claims cancel out, and we can laugh at the lot.

Even those readers familiar only with his fiction will not be surprised when they read Percy’s censorious views of modern man. From The Moviegoer‘s Binx Bolling, who is locked into the malaise of the everyday, to The Second Coming‘s Will Barrett, who toys with suicide as an answer to despair, Percy’s fictional characters find little around them that answers their deepest needs. We are introduced to Barrett’s crisis this way: “Though it was probably the case that he was ill and that it was his illness — depression — which made the world seem farcical, it is impossible to prove the case. On the one hand, he was depressed. On the other hand, the world is in fact farcical.”

Percy’s writings remind us again why it is sensible to lump the theistic existentialists (Kierkegaard, Marcel, Jaspers, Buber, Tillich) with the atheistic ones: both find redemption problematic. He does not excoriate secularism and promise untroubled salvation for the faithful. Even a life with God is a life struggling to conquer absurdity and despair. Marcel said life offers not problems (to be solved) but mysteries (to be explored), and Percy is a masterly mystery writer.

Lost in the Cosmos, the reader eventu­ally realizes, is about how much we know of the world and how little that matters. No level of technical expertise can satisfy our essential hunger; un­satisfied and alienated from ourselves, we fall back on the comforts of science, the transcendence of art (which works for a while, Percy says, but beware the re-entry!), the diversion of sex, and so on. Considering the grandness of this book’s scope and the grimness of its view, its accessibility is remarkable enough; that Lost in the Cosmos proves positively entertaining is more than we would hope for from most writers. With Percy, we have come to expect the exceptional.

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