On the heels of finishing Percy’s satirical self-help book Lost in the Cosmos, I take a moment to reflect on the causes of my recent obsession. For those rolling their eyes at this topic because of a glut of recent conversations with me about Percy, feel free to stop reading and come back once you have made yourself a gin fizz and calmed down.
A couple reasons for this obsession are purely environmental:
- Percy lived near where I live now
- Also near where I live, the bar at the Southern Hotel serves half-priced old-fashioned drinks on Walker Percy Wednesdays in honor of Walker Percy
But also, the interest lies in the humor of Percy as well as the relevance of many topics to contemporary thought. Lost in the Cosmos illustrates these traits, but it is a difficult book to describe. The subtitle of the book is “The Last Self-Help Book,” but even this fails to illuminate what the book truly contains. It is a mixture of satirical self-help (suicide is recommended as a cure for depression in one of the more humorous, if off-color, chapters) as well as miniature short stories describing possible futures. The end of the book concludes, for instance, with a story of a space odyssey to find extra-terrestrial intelligence in the cosmos.
Lost in the Cosmos also contains:
- Chapters that “can be skipped without fatal consequences” that seem pulled from an academic work (semiotics and triadic relationships) (p. 83). It is a heady but humorous section
- Chapters of “self-help” that analyze quirks of humanity, such as what a sales clerk actually means when a person tries on a new pair of shoes in a store and the clerk sees them and says, “It’s you!” (p. 21)
- Parody of both religious and non-religious people, scientific and non-scientific people
- Humorous theories about why it is that artists and writers are often troubled souls, insane or addicted to substances, gambling, sex, or otherwise. The theory purports that when artists or writers create great works of art, they transcend mundane reality and go into orbit around it, similar to an astronaut making it through the earth’s atmosphere and into orbit. This transcendent state is beautiful and harmonious. Except that, eventually, Dostoevsky finished writing Crime And Punishment and was forced back to reality–and to cope with this, he headed to the gambling hall to play roulette. Re-entering the atmosphere, Percy theorizes, is difficult and perilous, and many artists have difficulty with this. To enable re-entry, Percy notes that artists find different ways to manage–anesthetization with drugs and alcohol, travel (either geographical or sexual), exile (where the traveler skips re-entry entirely and vanishes into the void), and more.
- discussions of sex that may make some uncomfortable (not sexually explicit or lurid but simply frank description of human behaviors). In a chapter describing a space odyssey in a futuristic society, Percy describes with the patience of a researcher the different combinations of people that scientists tested to satisfy the “sexual needs” of the astronauts. He describes some combinations of individuals as devolving into conflict. Most of the experiments only highlight man’s inability to control or master themselves, despite the incredible progress of science and mastery of the world.
- Interesting chapter titles. Traditional writing advice says to write a killer opening sentence to draw the reader in. Percy utilizes interesting chapter titles also, such as this one (chapter 9):
The Envious Self (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self–though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill–in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgracesp. 57
This chapter concludes, of course, with a quiz for the reader to notate their reactions to different unfortunate situations.
By this point, I imagine that you have either decided “I am NEVER reading this book,” or this has piqued your interest, and you are now ready to read something unlike anything you have read before.
Some of this writing (especially the bit about suicide) seemed macabre and off-color until I listened to a lecture about Walker Percy – available here. In the lecture, the Professor Jennifer Frey reveals that the issue of suicide was very real for Percy–both Percy’s grandfather and father committed suicide prior to his 14th birthday. Themes of being an ex-suicide echo throughout Percy’s writings for understandable reasons. In addition, Percy was not always a “Southern Catholic writer.” He was born Protestant (nominally Presbyterian), and based on my reading came to really embrace Catholicism while recovering from tuberculosis in New England. It was only later in life that he relocated to Louisiana, near New Orleans, married, and came into his self as the writer he is remembered as today.
He also wrote–a fact that is apropos for 2020–against segregation in the magazine Commonweal in the 1960’s. Clearly, he was a man with a great deal of wit and intelligence, who thought deeply on many topics.
These topics include issues of self – how do we transcend our material reality without throwing it away entirely? Who are we in this universe? What enables a depressed person to go on living? What is the role of a person’s faith in the world? What questions can’t science answer? As I have been discovering and hope you will too, Walker Percy is a voice for our times because he dealt in his writings with issues that have only more vital since he lived.