Volume > Issue > Contemplating the Foolishness of Our Age

Contemplating the Foolishness of Our Age

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

By Walker Percy

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pages: 262

Price: $14.95

Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.

James J. Thompson Jr. is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His book, Tried as by Fire: Southern Baptists and the Religious Controversies of the 1920s, was reviewed in our October issue.

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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