Yesterday I finished with Lost in the Cosmos, by Walker Percy. Finished with, not finished.
It was so easy to nod along with his argument. I get this way with particularly nerdy hard sci-fi—particularly Neal Stephenson books—, I am not so good at knowing when the science ends and the fiction begins and it can be so disappointing to learn that, no, it couldn’t actually happen like that.
Walker Percy starts in such a lost and lonely place:
With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of [religion]… the self becomes dislocated… imprisoned by its own freedom… 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… 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 [scientifically] understands perfectly.
Who could not be sucked into that? A space-bound ghost is how I feel a lot of the time. It was thrilling to read such a witty deconstruction of the modern condition (this was published in 1983 but Percy so perfectly anticipates the nihilistic and cheery tone of internet humor like McSweeny’s or The Toast it really wouldn’t be very hard to do an update by making the language less sexist and reformatting it into a Buzzfeed quiz). I felt seen (ghosts feel invisible).
Next followed a very funny section of mock self-help exercises deconstructing this modern alienation. For example, the situation of walking into a party a dreading starting a conversation with a stranger. Percy presents several plausible and blackly funny reasons one might be feeling that. This is followed by a section which teaches basic semiotics and sets up his big idea for the second half of the book:
The self is literally unspeakable to itself. One cannot speak or hear a word which signifies oneself, as one can speak or hear a word signifying anything else… no signifier applies. All signifiers apply equally.
For me, certain signifiers fit you, and not others. For me, all signifiers fit me, one as well as the other. I am rascal, hero, craven, brave, treacherous, loyal, at once the secret hero and asshole of the cosmos.
which feels like many many conversations I’ve had in therapy. It’s why I cannot hear my own accent. It’s why I have trouble unpacking my own privileges—when others encounter me, which of the advantaged or disadvantaged identities do they think is most important?
At this point I’m eating out of Walker Percy’s hand. I follow him through a meandering and mostly coherent rundown of some strategies for placing the self in one’s own world of meaning, and I end up following him right off the rails. Because it goes then to some bizarre places. My red flags go up when he describes Southern (American) writers as the most strange and disconnected of all people—Percy was a Southern writer. It goes in some reactionary places about sexuality and violence being worse in modernity (not that he was all reactionary, but open-mindedness to the early 80’s still looks like something different today). He starts describing alcohol as a coping mechanism for reconciling the escape of the self from itself through art (although Percy links this alienation and coping mechanism to 20th-century phenomenon like media, mass production and mechanized warfare, he is basically writing like a sadder E.T.A. Hoffman) and I gradually realizing that he’s just writing about his self.
And then I couldn’t read any more. Because it made me too sad.
There are still like 5 or 6 things in this book that fascinated me, that I may want to pick apart, but the first most honest thing that I should say is that I quit reading it because I was a coward. I want to believe that self-awareness means that you don’t make the same mistakes again, and Percy’s bleak outlook is that true self-awareness is categorically out of our grasp. I realized he was trapped in the same problem he was showing me, and all of the sudden my relationship to the text turned and it was like being at a party after it has peaked and you’re too drunk to get home and there’s nothing to do but sit with the host, drinking water, starting a conversation, realizing that neither of you have the energy to have it, and letting it drop.