Friday, March 22, 2013

Walker Percy's Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

I understand, I think, the adoration some readers have for Walker Percy's Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. But while I might garner an aloof admiration for Percy's project, I can't generate much love for it. This is partially because Percy worked hard to keep the book “cool” (in the McLuhan sense of the word), and thus difficult to love (surely a “hot” response). It's also partially because I kept getting the sense that even Percy was having trouble whipping up affection for the work.

The ubiquity of television seems to have rattled some writers the way the internet does writers today. In 1980, three years before Lost In The Cosmos was published, George W.S. Trow released a shrapnel-grenade of ironic observations entitled Within The Context Of No Context. Trow saw television's accommodation of the immediate and argued that this speed-of-light process of adoption and abandonment created an entirely new context for the viewer: that of no context whatsoever. By essay's end, the only whimper Trow could muster was, “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned — not out of any wish of mine but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me.” Trow's final refuge was a nostalgia for the era and mores of his parents (which he indulged to squirm-inducing effect in his final publications).

Percy's observations are somewhat similar, occasionally even in tone:

The salvation of art derives in the best of modern times from a celebration of the triumph of the autonomous self — as in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony — and in the worst of times from naming the unspeakable: the strange and feckless movements of the self trying to escape itself.

If Kafka's Metamorphosis is presently a more accurate account of the self than Beethoven's Ninth, it is the more exhilarating for being so . . .

Further down the same page:

Unlike the scientist, the artist has reentry problems that are frequent and catastrophic.

And, if the reader needs any help visualizing the problem, Percy offers this cheeky illustration:


Percy sees television, and particularly Phil Donahue (the ur-Oprah), as the final embodiment of both expressions — the Celebration of the Unspeakable, you might say (“Man-Turned-Cockroach Marries Childhood Sweetheart: Exclusive Footage — Next!”). Throw in Percy's steely adherence to an all-but-extinct pre-Nietzschean classicism, the absurdity of which he wearily acknowledges, and what's not to love about this blunderbuss of eccentricity?

Well, there is the insistence on thought experiments as a genre, some of which fall with an undeniable thud. Witness this bit from “The Last Donahue Show”:

DONAHUE: C'mon, Allen. What are ya handing me? What d'ya mean you're happily married? You mean you're happy.

ALLEN: No, no. Vera's happy, too.

AUDIENCE (mostly women, groaning): Noooooooo.

DONAHUE: Okay-okay, ladies, hold it a second. What do you mean, Vera's happy? I mean, how do you manage — help me out, I'm about to get in trouble — hold the letters, folks —

Etc, etc. Scenes of this nature tend to generate unintended thought experiments of my own. To wit: Reader rolls eyes, sighs loudly and says, “Yes, yes, Doctor Percy: we get it.

Part of this frustration is generated by a frustration I sense (help me out, I'm about to get in trouble) from the author himself. Here's a passage preceding the one I just quoted, from ALLEN'S Point-Of-View:

I'm a good person, I think. I work hard, am happily married, love my wife and family, also support United Way, served in the army. I drink very little, don't do drugs, have never been to a porn movie. My idea of R & R — maybe I got it in the army — is to meet an attractive woman. What a delight it is, to see a handsome mature woman, maybe in the secretarial pool, maybe in a bar, restaurant, anywhere, exchange eye contact, speak to her in a nice way, respect her as a person, invite her to join me for lunch . . . what a joy to go with her up in the elevator of the downtown Holiday Inn, both of you silent, relaxed, smiling, anticipating . . . .

Here we have a voice that Percy's readers know intimately: that of a self-satisfied rouĂ© who has mastered the ability to overlook the considerable impediments of his own character. It is also jarringly out-of-character with the piece that contains it, the bulk of which reads like an awkward parody of a show that could — within the context of no context — already be seen as self-parody.

This bit leaves me wondering if Percy didn't originally attempt to place his larger concerns within the context of a novelist — said novelist having already exploited the many suspensions of disbelief a movie-goer permits himself. Reading on, I have to wonder if Percy didn't also attempt the essayist's context, before giving up on that, as well. Lost In The Cosmos is a strange enough book that it might finally have revealed its relatively unique format to Percy by happy(ish) accident. Whatever the case, there are enough uneven (I'd go so far as to say, “indulgent”) passages to prevent the most trenchant of the book's insights from hitting with the force of authority Percy struggled to muster.

But then here am I, struggling to muster a little authority of my own. Whatever you do, don't give me the final word — sharper people than I (Tom Bartlett and Alan Jacobs, for starters) think this book is a terrific read. Get a copy and decide for yourself. I'll be returning to The Moviegoer and Lancelot for what I consider to be the deeper and more disturbing insights Percy has to offer.

"Say, I'm pretty LOST too, y'all. Get it?
Do ya? I'm
LOST, I'm LOST, I'm ...
Never mind."


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