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Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

Walker Percy (1983)


Can you explain why it is that there are, at last count, sixteen schools of psychotherapy with sixteen theories of the personality and its disorders and that patients treated in one school seem to do as well or as badly as patients treated in any other--while there is only one generally accepted theory of the cause and cure of pneumococcal pneumonia and only one generally accepted theory of the orbits of the planets and the gravitational attraction of our galaxy and the galaxy M31 in Andromeda? (Hint: If you answer that the human psyche is more complicated than the pneumococcus and the human white-cell response or the galaxies or Einstein's general theory of relativity, keep in mind that the burden of proof is on you. Or if you answer that the study of the human psyche is in its infancy, remember then this infancy has lasted 2,500 years and, unlike physics, we don't seem to know much more about the psyche than Plato did.) (11)

One of the peculiar ironies of being a human self in the Cosmos: A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second's glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all.
The question is: Why is it that in your entire lifetime you will never be able to size yourself up as you can size up somebody else--or size up Saturn--in a ten-second look? (12)

If the sexual drive is but one of several biological needs, why are we living in the most eroticized society in history? Why don't TV, films, billboards, magazines feature culinary delights, e.g., huge chocolate cakes, hams, roasts, strawberries, instead of women's bodies?
Or are you more confused about sexuality than any other phenomenon in the Cosmos? (14)

(g) The lost self. With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, Jefferson or no Jefferson, is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland. The rational Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness embarked upon in the American Revolution translates into the flaky euphoria of the late twentieth century. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance--so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly. (16-17)

Question: Why was not a single table designed as such rather than being a non-table doing duty as a table?
(a) Because people have gotten tired of ordinary tables.
(b) Because the fifty non-tables converted to use as tables make good conversation pieces.
(c) Because it is a chance to make use of valuable odds and ends which otherwise would gather dust in the attic.
(d) Because the self in the twentieth century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world but, like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out.
Thus, ordinary four-legged tables have long since been emptied out and rendered invisible. (24)

If you say that a writing table made by Thomas Sheraton is of value because it is excellently made and beautiful, how would you go about making a writing table now that would be similarly prized as an antique two hundred years from now?
The real question of course is whether the twentieth-century self is different from the eighteenth-century self, both in its reliance on "antiques" to inform itself and in its ability to make a writing table which is graceful and useful and for no other reason. Was a well-to-do eighteenth-century Englishman content to buy a Sheraton writing table, or would he have preferred a fifteenth-century "antique"? (25)

A RECENT POLL ASKED people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright. Yet in the conventional objective scientific view, man is an organism among other organisms and a man should therefore not be terrified to be surrounded by his own kind, other like organisms who are not merely not hostile but by the very nature of the occasion well disposed, and to open his mouth and speak in a language he has learned from his fellowmen. A wolf howling alone in a wolfpack doesn't get stage fright. (32)

(b) It is better to read a book about how to get over being shy, anxious, insecure, and so on, than not to read such a book, because one might learn a helpful thing or two, even from a book. (37)

We are not interested in the varieties of your sexual behavior, except as a symptom of a more important disorder. It is this disorder which concerns us and which we do not fully understand.
As a consequence of this disorder, you are a potential threat to all civilizations in the G2V region of the galaxy. Throughout G2V you are known variously and jokingly as the Ds or the DDs or the DLs, that is, the ding-a-lings or the death-dealers or the death-lovers. Of all the species here and in all of G2V, you are the only one which is by nature sentimental, murderous, self-hating, and self-destructive. (57)

(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 Disgraces (60)

Question: During the week following Pearl Harbor, the incidence of suicide declined dramatically across the nation. Was this decline a consequence of
(1) A rise in patriotic fervor and a sense of purpose?
(2) A new sense of interest (e.g., something, even war, is better than nothing. Peace in the 1930s was like nothing? (62)

Wednesday. The ex-Premier of France, General de Gaulle, has died and the President of the United States attends his funeral. He looks very solemn and dignified sitting in Notre Dame cathedral. Later he confides to an aide that he enjoys state funerals more than anything he does in Washington or even Camp David because he can relax and let his mind go blank and yet be admired for paying his respects and taking so much trouble when all he has to do is look solemn. And also because there is de Gaulle dead as a duck and here I am alive and kicking. (63)

Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep. (74)

Question (II): Why do so many teenagers, and younger people, turn to drugs?
(a) Because of peer-group pressure, failure of communication, psychological dysfunction, rebellion against parents, and decline of religious values.
(b) Because life is difficult, boring, disappointing, and unhappy, and drugs make you feel good. (78)

I do not feel obliged to speak of the deconstructionists. (88n.)

Consciousness: Conscious from conscio, I know with.
Consciousness is that act of attention to something under the auspices of its sign, an act which is social in its origin. What Descartes did not know: no such isolated individual as he described can be conscious.
It is no etymological accident that the prefix con- is part of the word, since the origin of consciousness is the initiation of the sign-user into the world of signs by a sign-giver. (106)

Much of current speculation about the nature of ETIs--what level of technology have you achieved?, etc.--is misguided. The first question an earthling should ask of an ETI is not: What is the level of your science? but rather: Did it also happen to you? Do you have a self? If so, how do you handle it? Did you suffer a catastrophe? (109-10)

With the waning of transcendence, reentry problems increase. One manifestation, which always amazes laymen, is the jealousy and lack of scruple of scientists. Their anxiety to receive credit often seems more appropriate to used-car salesmen than to a transcending community.
Other examples of reentry failures: the general fatuity of scientists in political matters, their naïveté and credulity before tricksters. The magician Randi says that scientists are easier to fool--e.g., by Uri Geller--than are children. (116-17)

CAST OF CHARACTERS: Among those present at the Corn Dance are a nuclear physicist, his assistant, an old Pueblo Indian dancer, a young Pueblo Indian dancer, an English novelist, a divorcée, a tourist from Moline, Illinois, a Catholic priest, a radio repairman, a Marxist technician.
Some of the ten feel that they transcend the others. That is to say, he or she may feel that by virtue of a certain education, a certain wisdom, a certain talent, a certain gnosis, he stands in such a relation to the others that he can understand them and they can't understand him.
For example, the English novelist can perhaps be said to transcend the Illinois tourist, understand him and his camera--in fact, has written about him--in a sense in which the tourist does not understand the novelist. The physicist and his assistant, both of whom are amateur anthropologists, profess to have an understanding of both the Indian dancers and the Catholic priest which neither the priest nor the dancers profess to have of the physicist and his assistant.
The young Indian dancer believes that he transcends the old Indian dancer because he, the young Indian, has put behind him myth and superstition for a world of science and progress.
The old Indian dancer believes that he transcends the young dancer because he, the old Indian, has kept the cosmological myths by which the world, life, and time are integrated into a meaningful whole while the deranged Western society in Albuquerque goes to pieces.
A similar symmetrical relation of transcendence exists between the physicist and the novelist. The physicist believes that science--i.e., psychology--can at least in principle explain what makes the novelist tick by taking account of his early repressions, his later sublimations, and so on. Whereas the novelist, famous for his sharp eye and his knack for sizing up people and rendering them with a few deft strokes, has already "placed" the American scientist just as he has placed the tourist and the Indians. (128-9)

The young dancer feels that he transcends the old dancer. He sees into the old man's credulity and the superstitious absurdity of the myth and rites of the rain god.
The older dancer is no less certain that he transcends the young dancer because the young Indian has left an intact society in which life and time and place are given meaning by belief for the deranged world of the latter-day Americans who clearly do not know who they are or what they are doing.
The scientist understands both and thinks that each is right in his own way. He sees the psychological "truth" of the cosmological myths of the old dancer. He sees the value of the skepticism of the young dancer. So he, the scientist, attempts the difficult feat of having it both ways--of not really believing in the kachinas of the West but of extracting the psychological value of the rite nevertheless. (131-2)

[The priest character] differs from transcending community of scientists and artists in his recognition of his own creatureliness and limitations. His major semiotic self-deception is his acquiescence in the sign and role with which the world invests him, that of a priest with attendant mien and costume rather than the signified, a man who has a vocation and acts accordingly. (139)

Now, imagine that you yourself are present at the Taos Corn Dance, where the old gods are still remembered, plus the new God, plus the competing spirits of transcendence of the modern age--something new in the Cosmos--plus the acceptance of the demotion to the pure spirit of immanence--also something new.
Chart your own semiotic profile. (140)

Although science and art are generally taken to be not merely different but even polar opposites--the one logical, left-brained, unemotional, Apollonian, analytical, discursive, abstract; the other intuitive, playful, concrete, Dionysian, emotional--the fact is that both are practiced at a level of abstraction, both entail transactions with symbols and statements about the world, both are subject to confirmation or disconfirmation. The pleasure of reading Dostoevsky derives from a recognition and a confirmation. The dismay of looking at a bad painting or reading a bad poem is a disconfirmation.
For a writer to reenter the world he has written about is no small feat. At the least, it is a peculiar exercise, even uncanny--like Kierkegaard going out into the street every hour during work and blinking at the shopkeepers. At the worst, it proves impossible, issuing in the familiar catastrophes to which writers fall prey. (144)

Explanation of Options:
(1) Successful and uneventful reentry, self intact. Theoretically, it is possible for the abstracted self to reenter the world as easily as a doctor leaving his office for Wednesday afternoon golf or the Chartres sculptor going home to sup with his family.
Was this not in fact the case with William Faulkner, doing a morning's work, then strolling in the town square to talk to the farmers and have a Coke at Reed's drugstore? Not quite. Though Faulkner went to lengths to pass himself off as a farmer among farmers, farmer he was not. A charade was being played.
Was it not the case with Sören Kierkegaard, who, every hour, would jump up from his desk, rush out into the streets of Copenhagen, and pass the time with shopkeepers? No, because, by his own admission, he was playing the game of being taken for an idler at the very time he was writing ten books a year.
Only one example comes to mind of a writer who, though performing at a very high level of twentieth-century art, nevertheless manages to live on one of the few remaining islands of a more or less intact culture, in the very house where she was born, to enter into an intercourse with the society around her as naturally as the Chartres sculptor, to appear as herself, her self, the same self, both to fellow writer and to fellow townsman: Eudora Welty. Perhaps also William Carlos Williams.
If you do not think this remarkable, imagine that you have lived your entire life in the house where you were born. For an American, an uncanny, even an unsettling fantasy. (2) Reentry accomplished through anesthesia. One can simply render the intolerable tolerable by a chemical assault on the cortex of the brain, generally by alcohol, and generally by writers. It has been observed that artists live longer and drink less than writers. Perhaps they are rescued from the ghostliness of self by the things and the doings of their art. The painter and the sculptor are the Catholics of art, the writer is the Protestant. The former have the sacramentals, the concrete intermediaries between themselves and creation--the paint, the brushes, the fruit, the bowl, the table, the model, the mountain, the handling and muscling of clay. The writer is the Protestant. He works alone in a room as bare as a Quaker meeting house with nothing between him and his art but a Scripto pencil, like God's finger touching Adam. It is harder on the nerves.
Why Writers Drink
He is marooned in his cortex. Therefore it is his cortex he must assault. Worse, actually. He, his self, is marooned in his left cortex, locus of consciousness according to Eccles. Yet his work, if he is any good, comes from listening to his right brain, locus of the unconscious knowledge of the fit and form of things. So, unlike the artist who can fool and cajole his right brain and get it going by messing in paints and clay and stone, the natural playground of the dreaming child self, there sits the poor writer, rigid as a stick, pencil poised, with no choice but to wait in fear and trembling until the spark jumps the commissure. Hence his notorious penchant for superstition* and small obsessive and compulsive acts such as lining up paper exactly foursquare with desk. Then, failing in these frantic invocations and after the right brain falls as silent as the sphinx--what else can it do?--nothing remains, if the right won't talk, but to assault the left with alcohol, which of course is a depressant and which does of course knock out that grim angel guarding the gate of Paradise and let the poor half-brained writer in and a good deal else besides. But by now the writer is drunk, his presiding left-brained craftsman-consciousness laid out flat, trampled by the rampant imagery from the right and a horde of reptilian demons from below. (146-8)

Thus, the esthetic delight of, say, Hemingway in the Catholic decor of Pamplona would perhaps be matched by his contempt for actual Catholic practice in Oak Park, Illinois. (149n.)

(16) The Lonely Self:
Why the Autonomous Self feels so Alone in the Cosmos that it will go to any Length to talk to Chimpanzees, Dolphins, and Humpback Whales (167)

Question: Why do people in general want to believe that chimps and dolphins and whales can speak, and why do some scientists in particular want so badly to believe that chimps can speak that they will compromise their own science? (168)

(b) Because the last three hundred years have seen the dethronement of man from what he believed to be his central position in the Cosmos to an insignificant planet (Copernicus, Galileo), from his uniqueness among the species as the only besouled creature and as created by God in His image (Darwin), and even from the sovereignty of his own consciousness (Freud). Only language and other symbolic behavior (art, music) seems to remain as the sole remaining indisputably unique attribute of man. If language can be shown to be within the capability of apes, dolphins, and humpback whales, the dethronement of man will be complete.
(c) Because man is a lonely and troubled species, who does not know who he is or what to do with himself, feeling himself somehow different from other creatures, both superior and inferior--superior because, after all, he studies other animals and writes scientific articles about them, and other animals don't study him; inferior because he is not a very good animal, is often stupid, irrational, and self-destructive--and solitary in the Cosmos, like Robinson Crusoe marooned on an island populated by goats. Therefore, he would like to discover his place in the Cosmos, discover a man Friday, or, failing that, at least teach goats to talk. So anxious, in fact, have some people been to communicate with Washoe, the most famous chimp, that in the attempt to make signs for Washoe three psychologists have had their fingers bitten off for their pains. Alas for man: rebuffed again.
(d) Because a primatologist is competing with other primatologists and therefore feels alone even among his colleagues. If he could converse with his chimpanzee, he would have the best of both worlds: (a) beat other scientists, and (b) have someone to talk to.
If man cannot communicate with other creatures, he is alone with himself. Dr. John Lilly, after claiming all manner of mystical and philosophical knowledge for the dolphin and after spending years trying to communicate with dolphins, changed his profession: to the study of the effect of mind-altering drugs on the individual human consciousness. He jumped from a tank of dolphins into the tank of himself. (168-9)

(17) The Lonely Self (II):
Why Carl Sagan is so Anxious to Establish Communication with an ETI (Extraterrestrial Intelligence) (171)

(b) Sagan is lonely because, after great expectations, he has not discovered ETIs in the Cosmos, because chimpanzees don't talk, dolphins don't talk, humpback whales sing only to other humpback whales, and he has heard nothing but random noise from the Cosmos, and because Vikings 1 and 2 failed to discover evidence of even the most rudimentary organic life in the soil of Mars.
(c) Sagan is lonely because, once everything in the Cosmos, including man, is reduced to the sphere of immanence, matter in interaction, there is no one left to talk to except other transcending intelligences from other worlds. (172-3)

Football, where men try to hit and hurt, has replaced baseball as the national game. It is as if the demotion from participant to spectatorship and from live spectatorship to TV spectatorship has to be compensated by upping the ante in violence. (182)

Unlike the use of spirits in the past, the purpose of alcohol is not to celebrate the festival but to anesthetize the failure of the festival. The locus of the failure is the self. Richard Pryor: Why free-basing? Because it wipes out the self. (183)

Hold on, says the reader. Just a minute.
Are there not plenty of good people left? decent folk who have no truck with what you call the spirit of the erotic and the spirit of violence? millions of people, in fact, such as those described by Charles Kuralt on the road in America, who are without exception good, kind, neighborly, generous, patriotic folk?
I am willing to believe it, but where do all the child molesters come from? Look out for benign types like Charlie Kuralt. (185)

They stepped out into the sweet, heavy desert air. The problem was walking--but not for the children! Perhaps they were like the newborn of the Arctic tern who fly to the Dry Tortugas, never having been there before, yet land and know it for home.
Despite Dr. Jane Smith's careful program of exercise and calcium maintenance, the adults were limber-legged as sailors and blind as bats in the dazzling Utah sun.
The children ran and fell and jumped and fell like the Beatles on a soccer field. (235)

Thought Experiment: An experiment in shifting one's perspective toward the end of determining the relative preposterousness of modern Cartesian consciousness vis-à-vis the preposterousness of Judaeo-Christianity--that is, whether they are two unrelated preposterousnesses or whether one preposterousness is a function of another, i.e., whether Judaeo-Christianity is preposterous from the point of view of the modern scientific consciousness precisely to the degree that the latter has elevated itself from a method of knowing secondary causes to an all-construing quasi-religious view of the world--whether, in fact, the preposterousness of Judaeo-Christianity is not in fact an index of the preposterousness of the age. (246)

Second Perspective: Now the game requires that you make a 180-degree shift of point of view from the standard objective view of the Cosmos to a point of view from which you can see the self viewing the Cosmos. From this new perspective, it can be seen at once that the objective consciousness of the present age is also preposterous. (247)

The modern objective consciousness will go to any length to prove that it is not unique in the Cosmos, and by this very effort establishes its own uniqueness. Name another entity in the Cosmos which tries to prove it is not unique.
The earth-self seeks to understand the Cosmos overtly according to scientific principles while covertly exempting itself from the same understanding. The end of this enterprise is that the self understands the mechanism of the Cosmos but by the same motion places itself outside the Cosmos, an alien, a ghost, outside a vast machinery to which it is denied entry. (247-8)

Group is a daily exercise, in assemblages of ten, of self-criticism and honest appraisal of others. The only rule is honesty, absolute honesty. No more lies, no more self-deception, no more secrecy, no more guilt, no more shame. From Aristarchus's own Little Green Book, the aphorism: "The new race will spring from the corpse of the old guilt."
The Captain sighs. He alone of the colonists of the new Ionia is somewhat ironical. Getting rid of guilt is one thing. But he doesn't look forward to the mea culpas and denunciations of the group. (251)

The Message:
Message to Star: G2V, r = 9.844 kpc, 0 = 00°05'24'', 0 = 206°28'49'' (our sun)
Planets: a = 1.5 × 1013 cm, M = 6 × 1027 g, R = 6.4 × 108cm, p = 8.6 × 104, p = 3.2 x 107 s (the inner planets of the solar system)
Repeat. Do you read? Do you read? Are you in trouble? How did you get in trouble? If you are in trouble, have you sought help? If you did, did help come? If it did, did you accept it? Are you out of trouble? What is the character of your consciousness? Are you conscious? Do you have a self? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are doing? Do you love? Do you know how to love? Are you loved? Do you hate? Do you read me? Come back. Repeat. Come back. Come back. Come back. (256)

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