Friday, August 10, 2012

Back From Arkansas, Still Lost in the Cosmos

I didn't manage to read as much of Talbot Brewer's The Retrieval of Ethics as I'd planned, but I did find (and read) a nice used copy of Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, which has been on my wish list for awhile. (I never quite feel I've been home unless I get a chance to visit the Dickson Street Bookshop.)

A cousin who teaches English in Fayetteville (and writes) led me to Percy a few years ago. Percy has a penchant for philosophy--particularly Kierkegaard--and Tom (my cousin) wanted to know what I knew about SK. This led me to The Moviegoer, which was great. (It's been a bit too long since I read it to say more than that; sorry!)  

Lost in the Cosmos was a worthy interruption from my reading plans, and probably something better to read while on "vacation" (visiting family). Percy uses the form of a "self-help quiz" to probe twenty different aspects of the "self" and to raise, with plenty of irony, lots of questions about the various hangups, biases (religious fundamentalism on the one hand and scientism on the other), existential quagmires, and so forth of the modern self. He's well-versed enough in philosophy (and science) to be dangerous (his anti-reductionistic critiques of naturalism seem generally on point), and his wit reminds me in some ways of Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Robbins (though it's been awhile since I've read either of them so I might be a touch off in the comparison). The whole book is at once both serious and a hoot. Written in 1983, some of the pop culture references are dated (Carson vs. Tom Snyder, Phil Donahue, etc.), and his digression into a discussion about semiotics is a bit peculiar (though his point in doing so isn't), but the basic questions he's probing still seem relevant.

The flavor of the book is hard to illustrate succinctly, but here are a few passages that tickled me:

[On "The Bored Self"]: "Why is it that no other species but man gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep." (71)

[On "The Depressed Self"]: "Thought Experiment: A new cure for depression:
     The only cure for depression is suicide.
     This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option. Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it..." (75)

[On "The Orbiting Self" which transcends the everyday through art or science, but then has to return to everyday reality]: "But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o'clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoyevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?" (142)

[On "The Lonely Self," which feels so alone "that it will go to any length to talk to Chimpanzees, Dolphins, and Humpback Whales"]: "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." (169-70)

It's a fun, peculiar read.

No comments:

Post a Comment