Contemplating the Foolishness of Our Age
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
By Walker Percy
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
Walker Percy possesses a rare talent: he can contemplate the extravagant foolishness of our age — everything from the ravings of right-wing proctologists obsessed with the deleterious effects of fluoridated water to the nocturnal scamperings of the homosexuals in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park — without flying into a rage or sinking into a blue funk. Since Percy does not belong to the all-beliefs-are-equal-do-your-own-thing school of thought, one wonders how he preserves his imperturbability in the face of rampant chuckleheadedness.
Percy owes much to a whimsical sense of humor that enables him to laugh rather than weep at the goings-on in the human zoo. More important, he has the make-up of a scientist — not the cold detachment that the layman often mistakes for the hallmark of science, but the insatiable curiosity, the delight in discovery, the wonderment tinged with awe, the compulsion to scrutinize and record shown by an anthropologist who stumbles across a previously unknown village of tree-dwelling parakeet-worshipers.
While Percy enjoys watching the natives at work and play, he also knows — keen-eyed diagnostician that he is — that they are in deep trouble: lost in the cosmos — alienated from themselves, their environment, and their fellow men — with no idea of how they fell into this predicament nor the slightest clue of how to escape it. Worse, many of them do not even recognize the direness of their plight.
How to reach them, both to warn and to aid? What better means than a self-help book, that quintessential phenomenon of a nation of pragmatists who believe that life can be resolved into a series of problems whose solutions await only the application of good old American know-how? By the method of classification used in the junk-food bookstores that dot America’s shopping malls (a system in which Lord of the Flies appears under either “Religion” or “Nature”), Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book will take its place alongside the other how-to books: how to have sleek thighs and firms breasts in 30 days; how to assemble a wardrobe that will vault one from stockroom clerk to vice president; how to intimidate others for profit and amusement; how to make love to a woman or man (or both at the same time); and the 10,000 other volumes that promise wealth, health, happiness, longevity, success, odorless armpits, and sweet-smelling breath. Percy may even get a call from Phil Donahue.
If indefatigable self-helpers are confused by this book, those who have read Percy’s previous works — the five novels from The Moviegoer (1961) to The Second Coming (1980) and the essays collected in The Message in the Bottle (1975) — will recognize an old friend, one by turns playful and serious, lighthearted and profound, crafty and guileless; teasing the reader into following his ruminations, always seeking for answers, raising yet more questions and settling — if not by choice, then by necessity — upon an ironic and problematic view of God, man, and belief.
In Percy’s post-Christian world, the metaphysical and spiritual ethos established by Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome has grown feeble with age; the Judeo-Christian idea has fallen into desuetude among a people who no longer even trouble to denounce the old beliefs. Percy’s post-Christian man is affluent, bursting with robust health, well-educated, adept at his job…and terribly, terribly sad. What does Percy offer? Perhaps only this: an invitation to “contemplate the comic mystery of your own existence.” Nothing more?
There exists the possibility — however slight in a society enamored with wealth, comfort, sex, and violence — that out of one’s lostness, alienation, and sadness one may discover the “preposterous eventuality that news did come from the God of the Cosmos, who took pity on your ridiculous plight and entered the space and time of your insignificant planet to tell you something.” In its own sly way, without haranguing, without shouting, without ideological bludgeoning, Lost in the Cosmos points the forlorn post-Christian man toward that “preposterous eventuality.” Yet Percy harbors only modest expectations; one suspects that deep down he believes with Kierkegaard that “one man alone cannot help or save the age in which he lives, he can only express the fact that it will perish.”
Percy’s quirky view of God, man, and the cosmos holds scant attraction for many Americans. Conservative orthodox Christians do not much cotton to a faith so fraught with questions and doubts. Their rejection of Percy wins him no friends at the other pole; his refusal to credit the brainless and fatuous doings of modernist Christianity renders him anathema in those quarters. Although Percy is a Southerner, his compatriots mutter discontentedly when they figure out that he does not find Pickett’s charge an adequate foundation upon which to erect a Weltanschauung. Political activists of every stripe distrust Percy, for none of them knows exactly where to peg him; feminists, Moral Majoritarians, and all those who are fiercely and unquestioningly pro-this and anti-that find him a suspicious character.
Those who read Percy with enthusiasm are odd and disparate individuals: liberal secularists with a sense of humor and a nagging uneasiness over what they have wrought; ironic conservatives; eccentric Southerners who find Pascal and Kierkegaard more pertinent than Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (and Jack Daniel more pertinent than all the aforementioned); lapsed Roman Catholics who have discovered no peace without the Church; and post-everything Protestants who have an inkling that the cosmos may be out of whack. Lost in the Cosmos confirms the intuition of these people that Walker Percy is one of the few analysts of the malaise who offers more than dulcet platitudes or cheap-jack panaceas.
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