Monday, October 29, 2007

Lost in the Cosmos

Dear Walker Percy,

The Wall Street Journal (says the book jacket of the edition of Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book that I am reading) was quoted as proposing that this book is “one of Percy’s best books.” Of course who are we to believe the strange quotations that camp out on the frontispieces and such of paperbacks? One of the best of your books? Well, maybe if they mean one of the top twelve of your books. How many books did you write?

I’m not sure if it’s a very good book. It’s a good title. I feel lost in the cosmos half the time, don’t you? And what a hope it raises. This could be the last self-help book I may ever need. A-a-ah!

But it rambles about with your tongue in its cheek, not really trying to be helpful at all. I’m wondering though, what were you trying to talk about, really? Certainly it is a repetition of material found in your other books. You talk about knowing or not knowing ourselves, transcendence, sex, religion, the uniqueness of humans and human language, being screwed up, being alone and lonely, and how we are desperately seeking others and ourselves, or perhaps desperately trying not to seek ourselves.

It is interesting that while talking with others about this non-fiction book, which, hypothetically is not subject to the veil that covers fiction, we constantly looked to your fiction for disclosure of the words of this text. When we talked about the “unformulability” of ourselves, we looked to Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman. When we consider sex and the sexual eroticism that permeates contemporary life, we look to Lancelot.

But there is much to be considered in this book, and I did appreciate it. The one thing it confirms for me is an idea that I feared might be true, the little helpful concept that you dropped into my lap and that I will doubtless forget in my own hopeful treks through the universe, is that I cannot know myself. As you mused, “Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life.” Your targeted example is that of the horoscope reader who finds accidentally that she has read the entry for Aries when really seeking for Gemini. Before realizing her mistake, the reader says, “Hm, quite true.” Then having identified the proper column of information, she likewise nods and agrees, “I’m like that.”

Shall we ever come to know ourselves, if you are correct in identifying that we are wandering about the Cosmos like ghosts of ourselves without any idea what we are really like? (Might we, perhaps, rely on the imaging that only a friend in community can provide?) Or as Brock Eide points out, you are fond of quoting Kierkegaard…something like, “The self can only know itself as it stands transparently before God.” Perhaps that is the apparitional way we can come to know ourselves.

A friend who blogs at Pretty Fakes, talks about the temptations of Halloween, the one day in which we are permitted to openly live our masked lives. But maybe it is not a masked life we are living. Maybe we are simply living who we might be, unable to know, but taking a stab at it. Today, I am Gemini. Tomorrow Capricorn. You say in Love in the Ruins, when “a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow. . . he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Instead he orbits the earth and himself. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman.”

You might know, that I love The Flying Dutchman. I saw a wonderful production of the opera in Knoxville, of all places, a few years ago. Wagner’s bent to the dark is interesting, but this is one of his works in which it is love that triumphs in redemptive majesty. It carries a bit of the high-minded that is present in the immolation scene of Brunnhilde from Gotterdammerung. Brunnhilde knows that sacrificial love alone has the infinite power to over come the bitter and brutal of life. The Dutchman is trying to find this. His ghostly, glowing ship sails under a curse that it shall never reach it’s destination until the end of the world. Wagner adds a modifier to the curse. The curse will be broken should the captain find true love.

Your conclusion of Lost Cosmos is a confused tangle of sci-fi, religio-sexual speculation. Oh dear, and so filled with sexism I could barely stand it. (You didn’t exactly get feminism did you? But you are in very good company there.) No one in your book seems able to love or find love. You seem to miss the qualifier that Wagner finds. Love can make a difference. There is a redemptive quality to love. Not sex though. That is beside the point. (Not non-existent, but beside.) You seem to be unable to break through there. Perhaps it is your low view of women that prevents you from finding the mirror you need in a loving relationship. Your female characters are always real pasty. Did you know that some women are real? But now I’m rambling.

So, may I know myself? No, not completely, not clearly, hardly at all perhaps. But it is the quest I am on for life. Your perceptions may serve me, i.e. your book leads to my self-help in knowing myself. And it is in clarity of the seeking mind, that I would continue this quest, with a healthy dose of standing as transparently as possible before God. Yet I think that it is in well-developed, mutually respectful love relationships that we can best find our reflection, our possibility for a glimmer of seeing and understanding ourselves.

That vision of a higher level of relationship is present in your books in relationships between men to some degree. And you allow for that in relation to God. Unfortunately, you seem to miss it in terms of its possibility within heterosexual relationships. And it is here that your ship, whether it is the Dutchman or the starship Copernicus 4, sinks off the cape of good hope.

I’m thinking I’d best return to your fiction.


No comments: