If we want to understand how someone who "has it all" could commit suicide, Walker Percy remains our best guide.
A reading group at Lee University in Tennessee sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been discussing Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, and graciously invited me to give a talk about the book. With some editing, here are my remarks on Percy’s hilarious and thought-provoking satire of the self-help genre.
The late Peter Augustine Lawler called Lost in the Cosmos “self-help we can finally believe in,” because every single question in the book contains an answer that is partly right. But why set out to subvert self-help?
Self-help is that distinctly American genre that purports to offer lessons for the improvement of our lives. They sketch a common problem. And they propose a solution, usually in the form of maxims, to give people the sense they’ve learned something crucial without telling us how to acquire the real virtues and skills that it takes to get there.
The best-case scenario that follows from reading a self-help book is that readers learn something they can use to help train themselves to real virtues. But I suspect these are outliers precisely because virtue is hard.
At worst, self-help books offer the illusion of excellence and skill, but essentially skip over the ways that self-discipline and moral character might be necessary to attract a mate (think here of the innumerable books by so-called “pick-up artists”), build a better self, or become a better salesman.
It’s worth thinking the patterns of these books through, because the genre that authors write in tells us a lot about them. Percy set out to mimic the self-help style while subverting the entire genre. Lost in the Cosmos offers much more than a conventional self-help book, and Percy accomplished this through the indirect method of asking his audience multiple-choice questions.
In his nonfiction, one of Percy’s recurring themes is the notion that words themselves have lost their meaning and value. Put another way: We live in a time—and maybe all times are like this to some degree—in which the historically-important answers people have to the big questions of life seem worn out at times, and even worse, are often unpersuasive.
He certainly doesn’t mean to say that any major religious tradition is somehow diminished by this or, in his case, that the Catholic Church’s teaching is any less authoritative. To say words are worn out is another way of saying that direct attempts to persuade people of the truth of any given point of theology or morality or taste often don’t quite work the way we intend them.
If you want to move your audience when it comes to the deepest things in life, what can you do? You involve them in a conversation.
Lost in the Cosmos isn’t exactly a conversation, but it has more in common with Socrates, Plato, and Thomas Aquinas than it does with a treatise. Platonic dialogues take opposing views seriously, as do Thomas’ efforts to lay out his own reasoning. Percy’s multiple choice questions serve a similar function.
The trouble with direct argument that Percy doesn’t mention directly—but that’s implied in the way he says “words are worn out”—is that people are very good at deflecting arguments they don’t want to hear. To really accept an unsettling argument, it’s not just our rational capacity that needs to be persuaded; our hearts need to be won over, too. This requires a different approach.
Percy’s Indirect Soulcraft
The book opens with a pointed six-question “diagnostic” quiz, with a mix of open-ended and multiple choice questions. The first of these centers on a theme that Percy deploys throughout the book: Why is it that we have no trouble identifying Jupiter from a written description, “a large yellowish plane with a red spot and several moons,” but it’s easy to misread the astrology section of a newspaper (or to update the subject matter, a personality test), get the “wrong” response, and nonetheless be moved by its accuracy?
Percy notes that we can accidentally read two descriptions hypothetically meant for different people, and have the same emotional affirmation: “I’m like that.” Here and in many other places in the book, Percy highlights the wide gap between the success that science has enjoyed in capturing most aspects of reality, and the near-universal failures of the humanities and social sciences to develop a similarly useful theory of life. The last thing Percy would want readers to do is walk away dismissing the humanities. The trouble that should haunt us, he says, is that we keep wanting a general theory of human anything.
The questions that follow this opening offer a sustained engagement with the many, many ways human beings find ourselves to be in a predicament we can’t quite explain with the terms readily available in culture. And even more, Percy’s questions catalogue the ways we evade fundamentally peculiar parts of our everyday experience. Why, he rightly asks, do so many forms of popular entertainment turn to amnesia as a plot device? What explains our horror of public speaking or of meeting new people?
The reader, in turn, might legitimately wonder what amnesia, nothingness, fashion, whether we identify with a place, being “found out,” shyness, being out of place, promiscuity, envy, boredom, depression, and spiritual impoverishment might have to do with one another. At first glance, this looks like a chaotic mishmash of ideas, yet Percy sets up his audience to assess our characteristic responses to common desires, and the ways we either justify them, deny them, or evade them.
The answers Percy offers to his questions run a wide gamut. Some are darkly comic. When a saleslady declares “It’s you” about an article of clothing, is it possible she means to say that “you are not much without it”? That you need the dress to become fully “you”?
Others are a summation of conventional wisdom: “It is better to seek help from a psychotherapist because it is better not to suffer than to suffer. Psychiatrists and psychologists treat disorders. Shyness is a symptom of such a disorder. Therefore it is reasonable to seek such help.”
Then there are the ones that challenge the sentimental, scientific humanism that dominates our thinking nowadays. Things that people often secretly think or fear or believe, and aren’t willing to admit, like the repeated questions about whether news of death and disaster offer secret charms for us. Is a UFO attack on Omaha “unrelievedly bad,” or only “putatively bad but secretly not so bad”? We should say the former, but Percy wonders if our restless longings for novelty and excitement don’t nudge us into feeling “not so bad” when the worst happens.
Every one of Percy’s questions raises a challenge and forces us into dialogue with ourselves, or with friends if read together. This alone would make it superior to almost anything in the genre. Percy accomplishes something more, though. Nearly all of his questions also suggest that something is very wrong with the way scientists (both “hard” and “soft”) study human things.
Scientism and the Lost Self
Percy interrupts the flow of questions midway through Lost in the Cosmos to offer a philosophical essay. He tells his readers that it can be skipped without losing much, but he’s lying.
This “Semiotic Primer of the Self” presents a theory of language and consciousness. It’s not quite a fully formed theory of the human person. But it serves rhetorically as something like a state of nature: a theory anyone, with almost any first principles, could take up as his or her own. The primer also offers an answer to another important question: What kinds of theories should the sciences use to describe human action?
Percy argues that minimally, any workable theories of the human person need to account for the difference between what he labels dyadic and triadic events.
Dyadic events are moments where we can trace material causes and effects. Special properties might emerge from a large number of such events, but what makes a dyadic event essentially dyadic is the two-part simplicity in the chain of causation. We should analyze chemical reactions, collisions of matter in motion, and the way animals respond to their environment with dyadic thinking. Animals can learn signals to communicate; to the degree apes and birds can be taught words, they use them in ways predictable through dyadic science. What makes this kind of analysis valuable is that when it is done rightly, the scientist can adequately address their subject without losing anything essential about it.
This is not true when we use dyadic analysis to theorize about human life. The symbols human beings use to communicate and shape our world are of an altogether different order of complexity. Using dyadic analysis here forces us to reduce the human person to a lower order of complexity than is actually adequate to describe consciousness and language.
What Percy terms “triadic” behavior involves the use of symbols: triadic because the individual relationships between each part of our language cannot be explained by reducing it to its constituent parts.
What’s crucial about this is that human beings create worlds of ideas, filled with images and concepts only partially captured by the words we use to describe them. In other words, there’s a big difference between responding to an environment as an animal does, and the way people do. Where an environment is an entirely objective thing governed only by laws of nature, worlds are partially shaped by the language we use to describe them, and never quite fully capture our experiences. This is the basis for the beauty of poetry; for Percy, it’s also a significant reason for our alienation.
This phenomenon is the source of much misery, as we who can objectively know so many things are essentially unknowable to ourselves. Percy writes:
From the moment the signifying self turned inward and became conscious of itself, trouble began as sparks flew up. No one knows how such a state of affairs came to pass, except through the wisdom (or folly) of religion and myth.
But what happens when we have neither faith nor a usable tradition that can help us navigate around our predicament?
The Unsteady, Oscillating Human Person
Percy paints a picture of human beings as essentially unstable, unable to hew to a steady course. The evasions I mentioned earlier take many different forms, but he suggests that they tend toward seeking complete immanence or transcendence.
Immanence itself takes many forms, but it involves immersing ourselves in some aspect of our embodied experience. The best way to describe it is by contrast. Animals are totally “themselves” and there is no gap between their bodies and their selves. We rarely enjoy that luxury, so what we do is lose ourselves to try to prove we’re really there. Sometimes this is with other people—we consume them—and sometimes we erase ourselves in alcohol or drugs. Percy implies that when we do this, we’re erasing the problems our souls can’t quite name.
At the opposite pole, he says there is a mode of acting and thinking we can call transcendence. Whether we pursue it through art or science, Percy suggests that it occurs when we throw ourselves intellectually and spiritually into forces beyond ourselves. Since most people aren’t scientists or artists, we’re left with consumption (of things, places, and people), committing ourselves to causes we see as larger than ourselves, or seeking satisfaction in work. By attempting to live around a flawed ideal like that provided in conventional self-help books, people exacerbate their confusion. In the process, we surrender something of ourselves to those who know in order that they can help us, only to end up feeling more lost than we felt before.
Our unwillingness to confront the challenges of living well as an embodied soul—neither a transcending angel nor an immanent beast—leads us into some dark places. To his credit, Percy doesn’t shy away from forcing his readers to look at the most disturbing consequences of our conflicting desires. Indeed, the latter half of the book is preoccupied with little else. In those later sections, he sets out an understanding of what happens to people who become possessed by bad theory:
The fact is that, by virtue of its peculiar relationship to the world, to others, and to its own organism, the autonomous self in a modern technological society is possessed. It is possessed by the spirit of the erotic and the secret love of violence.
The peculiar predicament of the present-day self surely came to pass as a consequence of the disappointment of the high expectations of the self as it entered the age of science and technology.
Percy tells us most people swing back and forth between the extremes of transcendence and immanence and rarely pause to reflect on these tendencies. It might well be that the scientists have the best lot; at least they can still lay claim to some kind of truth. But even the scientists have it pretty bad: Many can’t explain why they live the way they do, and try to explain their triadic lives in a dyadic key. A devaluation of life naturally follows.
Many people I know were incredibly depressed throughout graduate school. My sense is that some of them were trying to live two lives: one as a social scientist, trying to understand our world and our lives together through theories that reduced them to dyadic terms, and the other as a human being with a sense of one’s own rights and feelings. You can’t live like this without going a little crazy. And we’re living in a world filled with people who are doing things just like this, often without quite realizing it.
Percy gives us a language for understanding how this came to pass, and sense of how to get by as wayfarers while we’re here. Lost in the Cosmos offers help for a people left behind by the fads that dominate our lives today, but not the kind of help we expect from a self-help book—which is precisely what makes it worth reading today.