Walker Percy’s Last Self-Help Book

by Peter Augustine Lawler
Getting comfortable with being lost in the cosmos

On my Notre Dame lecture on Percy.  It is the day after tomorrow at 7 p.m. and open to the public. Here’s the official announcement. Thanks to those who asked whether I was free for dinner. I’m not, because one is planned for Notre Dame students, who actually pay for this stuff. Still, thanks to those who said they’re coming, and maybe we can hang out afterward.

I still say Cruz will be the nominee. Everything that’s happened in the last 48 hours makes that slightly more probable.

More on Percy: I got some notes saying: What we need on this blog is more Percy. And a couple: Who the bleep is Percy? Finally (see the thread below): Donald Trump is a Percy character. Well, I’m not sure the novelist could have imagined all Donald’s real-life details. Cruz and Sanders could also be Percy characters.

Here is the projected beginning of my Notre Dame comments.

So people keep asking me for advice on what book they should read to turn their lives around.

Here’s my recommendation: Lost in the Cosmos (1983) by the philosopher-physician-novelist Walker Percy.  

Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is subtitled “The Last Self-Book.” He said he gave the book that title so that it would end up in the self-help section of bookstores. 

And it did. Percy’s book is part psychology, part fiction, part science, and part science fiction. It is mostly cast in the form of the 20-question multiple-choice self-help quiz, the very common form of mall book and checkout-line, and now online, magazine article.

The quiz includes vignettes, short stories, short histories, dialogues, thought experiments, satirical sketches, paradoxical posing of problems, and some just plain expository prose. the quiz is interrupted by a “theoretical intermezzo,” which is an account of who of each of us as a being with complex language — a being that emerged late and unexpectedly in the process of evolution. Evolution happened, get over it, is Percy’s message to the fundamentalists. The reigning scientific consensus on what really happened can’t account for who each of us is.  It can’t account for who each of us is as both a natural being and as an exception to the natural rule.

We are neither ghosts nor machines, minds nor bodies, but something else altogether. We are, as Ratzinger says, persons made in the image of the loving personal and relational logos that is the source of all being, and the only beings open to that logos, as far as we can tell, are persons. 

Darwin was basically right until we showed up. He’s right to say that we’ve been equipped by nature to be who we are, but he slighted or ignored the ways we introduced a fundamental discontinuity into the process of evolution. Darwin was basically right until the creature with a self or soul showed up who could actually discover the theory of evolution and fail to locate himself in it.

Darwin didn’t reflect enough about who Darwin, the being who wonders and wanders, is, and to some extent his theory is a diversion from that personal question. Darwin wasn’t scientific enough when it comes to the strange and wonderful being who can be a scientist, but is never only a scientist.

If that weren’t enough, Lost in the Cosmos concludes with a two-part space odyssey that explains why we shouldn’t worry so much about extinguishing our species and why neither discovering extraterrestrial intelligence or moving to other planets can cure what ails us. The strange and most wonderful aliens imaginable are us, and we don’t have what it takes to reduce ourselves to pure body or organisms in an environment — or to raise ourselves to pure  mind, or the autonomous gods of the transhumanists or the ETs in Carl Sagan’s Contact.

The bad news is we’re screwed up — born to trouble — in ways that can’t be fixed without help we can’t provide for ourselves. The good news is we can screw ourselves up only so much. Being itself is not really in our hands.

It’s too bad that Percy didn’t live long enough to mock the heck out of Silicon Valley and its transhumanists — beginning with our friend Peter Thiel. For Peter (and Ray Kurzweil), death is just another problem to be engineered out of existence, but even indefinite longevity wouldn’t lead us to be complacently happy at home. Quite the opposite, in fact. The true or discontinuous theory of evolution is all about the invincible limits of our technological efforts at self-help.

So, for one thing, Lost in the Cosmos is perfect for us, we who spend so much time in front of screens in semi-futile efforts to divert ourselves from the misery that accompanies our cluelessness. We’re easily bored, and even more easily disappointed. Percy’s self-help book is an antidote to our seemingly invincible attention deficit, by changing course so unexpectedly and so often. Most of all, it makes us at home with our homelessness, and so allows us to be more at home with the good things of the world, beginning with being in love in the present by not being pathologically nostalgic about the past or obsessed about the future. 

Percy promises that if you read his book with care, the chances are you’ll even end up enjoying pork and liquor more.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.