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K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Week 1 Recap

If you’re just joining us, May is Lost in the Cosmos Month here at Korrektiv. The Korrektiv Summer Reading Klub is working its way through Walker Percy’s semiotic-satiric-serious Last Self-Help Book while knocking it back neat and (possibly) earning college credit. Here’s a recap of what we’ve got so far:

Course Catalog Entry for K101: Lost in the Cosmos

Bookstore Teaser for K101: Lost in the Cosmos

* Introductions! *

Lecture 1.01

Lecture 1.02

Lecture 1.03

Lecture 1.04

Lecture 1.05 (Excerpts from Michael Mikolajczak article)

The Genesis of Lost in the Cosmos (Letter from Percy to Foote)

Spellbound

Vacuoles

The Bustle

Red River clip

Disco Gear

Hard Drive Coffee Table

Donahue Redux

Porn Stats

John Pelham

John Calvin

Lowell Thomas

Where were you on 9/11?

nugatory

Lost Cove Slide Show

Suicide rate info

Schadenfreude

boredom

Affluenza

depression a blessing?

“suck of care”?

K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Lecture 1.05

Excerpts from “‘A home That is Hope’: Lost Cove, Tennessee,” Michael A. Mikolajczak, Renascence, Spring 1998, 50(3/4), p. 299-316.

On the structure of the book:

Lost in the Cosmos is far from being a scissors and paste farrago; it is carefully structured and highly controlled.
In fact, it not only performs variations on the three themes enumerated in the subtitle of The Message in the Bottle: “How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One has to Do With the Other,” it takes its organization from the sequence of those themes. The first twelve quizzes demonstrate the queerness of the self; the “intermezzo of some forty pages” establishes the queerness of language (83); and quizzes 13-18 explore the intriguing but inexplicable connection between those two queernesses. Finally the book closes with two space odysseys, one speculating on what would happen if human beings made contact with extra-terrestial life, and the other imagining life without such contact in the aftermath of nuclear war. In both odysseys, though more insistently in the second than the first, Percy posits an answer to the question of the self, its powerlessness to name itself, and its cosmic forsakenness. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the space odysseys are a paradigmatic shift away from what precedes them. (299)

On the narcissism of 20th (and cf. 21st) Century culture:

One can turn to any number of social commentators for authoritative endorsement of what any commonsensical person can observe: twentiethcentury culture is presided over by the “self,” tottering on a Babel-like pile of psychiatric monographs, therapeutic manuals, and self-help books. Recently, Robert Bellah and his associates reported that America’s political apathy, moral cynicism, wanton consumerism, and fear of permanent commitments is the result of a self absorption unhealthily nurtured by a therapeutic ethic which enshrines self-discovery, selffulfillment, and self-satisfaction as the supreme ends of life (Habits of the Heart, 1985). (299-300)

On the exemption offered to the “non-lost” reader of the Preliminary Quiz:

Percy also includes as one of the selves not in need of this book, “The Christian self (and, to a degree, the Judaic and Islamic self),” which “sees itself as a creature, created by God, estranged from God by an aboriginal catastrophe, and now reconciled with him” (11). It is precisely this self that Percy posits as the true one in his two space odysseys; and even though the preliminary quiz exempts it from having to continue with the book, the Christian self, along with all the others, needs it, for-as the very existence of the book attests-the self is always in danger of forgetting its basic conditions: creatureliness, estrangement reconciliation.

IT would be interesting to find out how many readers who identified with one of the selves in the preliminary quiz took the exemption and put the book aside. My guess is few. Even those who were securely settled as one of the selves would be tempted to read about others not so comfortably settled. Others would want to confirm that the self chosen was indeed the right one; or would find the self they had selected gnawing at them. They would be afraid of being considered pietistic if they selected the Christian, or square if they saw themselves as the American-Jeffersonian, or shallow if they identified with the role-taking self. Labels, even accepted ones, tend to burn the self like the robe of Nessus. The book is, therefore, for everyone, for even the Christian self must endure “the peculiar status of the self . . . and other selves, in the Cosmos,” and learn “what to do with (the) self in these, the last years of the twentieth century” (15). (301)

On the hunger to know one’s self:

It is the hunger to know one’s self that Percy counts on to get readers to the “Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz,” which begins quite ironically with “The Amnesic Self,” the desire of the self “to Get Rid of Itself” (17). At the very same time the self is desperate to nail itself down it also desires to forget itself. The popularity of the character-stricken-with-amnesia in soap operas and other fictional forms indicates that the non-amnesiac self is not as grandly desirable as the therapeutic ethic asserts. The selves that follow in the succeeding eleven quizzes are all bathetic. They are struggling to relieve their sense of nothingness through the vagaries of fashion and hoarding of possessions. They are frightened of being “found out,” of being stuck with other selves, and even with themselves so that they are constantly searching for devices or therapies to escape certain features of themselves (29). They regularly misunderstand other selves. They burn with envy and lust and are bored, depressed, and impoverished. None of these experiences and feelings, even by contemporary standards, is pleasant or enjoyable, yet all are undeniably true and are some of the means by which the self becomes aware of itself. Even though the two deadly sins that most pertain to the self qua self, pride and envy, dominate this pantheon, with some concentrated attention one can spy the activity of the other deadly sins-all of which are rooted in pride, and overweening regard for and assertion of the self. (301-2)

On Mother Teresa and “The Impoverished Self”:

Percy’s survey of selves ends with “The Impoverished Self,” which focuses on a question from Mother Teresa of Calcutta: why some “affluent Westerners she had met-including Americans, Europeans, capitalists, Marxists” struck her as “sad and poor, poorer even than the Calcutta poor, the poorest of the poor, to whom she ministered” (80). Here, Percy returns most tellingly to the provocative technique that opens “The Delta Phenomenon,” the first essay in The Message in the Bottle. All of the questions in that opening are variations on the following kernel: Why are modern people with all their advantages and knowledge more unhappy, more confused, and more bent on destruction and war than ever before (3-9)? Percy is haunted by the plain fact that humanity has “entered on an orgy of war, murder, torture, and self-destruction unparalleled in history and in the very century when he had hoped to see the dawn of universal peace and brotherhood” (Message in the Bottle 3). He uses Mother Teresa’s observation, the irrefutability of which delights him, to suggest the need for a “more radical model than the conventional psychobiological model” of humanity-in short, “a semiotic model which allows one to explore the self in its nature and origins and to discover criteria for its impoverishment and wealth” (82). The queerness of the self brings the book to the queerness of language. (302)

K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Lecture 1.04

Lost in the Cosmos and The Thanatos Syndrome

I would propose that these last two books Percy published in his lifetime have a different and distinct character compared to the prior works. The themes and basic subject matter are familiar enough to readers following Percy up to that point. However, Percy’s approach to his subject matter changes in ways that might alternatively delight or disappoint the reader who had appreciated Percy’s artfulness and subtlety as reflected in the earlier work. What is different about Lost and Thanatos? I think there are a couple of radical changes at work in Percy’s approach to these last two works.

First, both books are cast as entertainments of sorts, aimed to appeal to popular tastes and to strike a chord with a broad and not necessarily “literary” audience. In the case of Lost, Percy uses the self-help, multiple-choice quiz format and pop-culture references to create a funhouse atmosphere, within which he aims paintballs at the reader (to quote Jim McCullough’s apt retort here) and sneaks in what he considers the summation of his long engagement with semiotics. He also uses the then-current popularity of Carl Sagan and Cosmos as another satirical vehicle between his work and the popular consciousness. In Thanatos, the main vehicle for access to a broader audience is a plot constructed like that of a standard detective novel. In both cases, Percy’s strategy seems to have worked. Lost won the L.A. Times Current Interest Award and Thanatos made an extended appearance on the NY Times Bestseller list.

Secondly, while constructing his last two books as lowbrow “entertainments” (of sorts), Percy also exhibits a more transparently polemical purpose in both books. Paradoxically, he is both more and less direct in delivering his message to the reader. (More direct in that he doesn’t pull his punches the way he might have in the past, less direct in that the punches are couched in the form of a popular work.) At the outset of his writing career, Percy wrote in a letter to Carolynne Gordon that he understood his purpose as a writer was to tell the reader what he needs to do to be saved, to point the reader towards the good news of salvation. In these last two books, and maybe especially Lost in the Cosmos, Percy does that much more transparently and with a different, broader sort of artfulness than he might have in past writings.

Hence the reaction of someone like Paul Elie, who is by and large an admirer of Percy’s work. Consider Michael Mikolajczak’s take: “Not surprisingly, some critics have been greatly disconcerted by Lost in the Cosmos. On the one hand, they cannot deny its cleverness, verve, and humor, but on the other, they find its iconoclasm toward the modern idolatry of the self difficult to countenance.” (“‘A Home That is Hope’: Lost Cove Tennessee,” Renascence, Spring 1998, 50(3/4), p. 299.)

OK, enough of this blather, let’s dig right into the book, folks!

K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Lecture 1.03

So, to continue the background sketch. Percy gets married and then he and his wife take instruction and join the one holy Catholic and apostolic church. “Yours is a mind in full intellectual retreat” is his friend Shelby Foote’s response (a statement over which Foote later expresses regret). Walker and Bunt settle down, have a couple of girls, one of whom, Ann, turns out to be deaf (which also plays into Percy’s interest in semiotics and the “Helen Keller phenomenon”), Percy writes a bunch of essays that are published in respected scholarly journals and more popular periodicals such as Commonweal. He also begins to try his hand at fiction, writing a big novel called The Charterhouse which Caroline Gordon reads and writes him a sixteen-page single-spaced response to — comparing it favorably to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood the manuscript of which she had also been privy to at about the same time. The Charterhouse is never published, though, and years later Percy claims that Lewis Lawson’s request to read it has prompted him (Percy) to throw the single extant copy in the fireplace. (Could this really be true or is there perhaps a carbon copy or a handwritten ms. in the attic at Mrs. Percy’s house along with the missing Lenten Journal (Contra Gentiles)? Could it be? (Mrs. P, if you’re reading this, let’s have it please. Pretty please?) More essays appear, later to be collected in The Message in the Bottle, another novel bites the dust (although this one, The Gramercy Winner, has survived in a manuscript that is kept among the Percy Papers at Chapel Hill, and may be read by scholars willing to sit there in the archives and read it. When I was there in 2000, I did try to read it, along with Caroline Gordon’s 16-pager and Flannery O’Connor’s more pithily brilliant single line letter, “I’m glad the South lost the war and that The Moviegoer won the National Book Award” — I’ve got copies of these documents somewhere in my filing cabinet in the basement and it seems that I could have even made a copy of the Gramercy Winner and now I kind of wish I had, but I couldn’t make it through the thing and I wonder if it was really that bad or if I was just rushing it too much; you really can’t skim fiction after all.)

But then comes The Moviegoer. (Yes, yes, Lost in the Cosmos … hold yer horses fer cryin’ out loud, we’ll get there in due time.) A gem of a book without a doubt. A fine wine of a book. Have you noticed the poetry of that book? Good Lord, it is a beautiful thing. And Percy said that writing it did him more good than twenty years (or whatever it was) of psychotherapy. Binx Bolling walks around on his Search — his horizontal search which has replaced his vertical search — chasing women and alluding to Kierkegaardian esthetic categories such as rotation and repetition, going to movies, chatting with folks, noticing that they are “dead, dead, dead,” but then committing himself to Kate (even though flesh, poor flesh quails and fails on the train to Chicago), and then by some dim-dazzling trick of grace finding a way to hand along and be handed along and kick some ass if that can be properly distinguished from edification (because it’s too late in the day to try to be edifying). Magnificent stuff.

Followed by The Last Gentleman, written, unlike The Moviegoer, in the third person. Will Barrett is Percy’s Idiot, a fabulous fellow whom you can’t help but love. This is a big novel, a more sprawlingly traditional narrative than TM, with some great road tripping, romance (holding her charms in my arms) another dying youth (as in The Moviegoer) upon whose death hinges some mystery Will Barrett can’t quite get a handle on, but he has an inkling and he chases after Sutter driving away in his Edsel, hopeful antelope leaps. Yeah, I’ve got to say, this is my favorite.

Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Fabulous, funny, sci-fi, set in the ultra-polarized near future. Dr. Tom More, our hero, a pathetic fellow in some ways. You feel sorry for his brilliant, sad, heartbroken, philandering self. Crazy, crazy, stuff ensues. Our hero has three women situated in an abandoned Howard Johnson’s, with provisions laid in and The Great Books to read. Art Immelman is the devil stirring up trouble. A Sears Best Utopia of sorts is what we have in the epilogue, twining as the ivy twineth.

With that Percy concludes what he says has been “a gloss on Kierkegaard.” His next novel will be something different, he says. And it is. Lancelot, with Percy looking like such a grandfatherly good fellow on the back of the wrapper, his darkest and perhaps sharpest, most powerful piece of work. Come into my cell. Hold on tight. Clean the shit out of the pigeonier, shovel out the shit. A confession of sorts.

The Second Coming. Will Barrett returns 20 years later, falls down in a sand trap, descends into a cave as a way of wrestling God but gets a toothache and falls into a greenhouse where Allison, mental hospital escapee, resides. Splendid, splendid, dreamlike novel. Allison is Percy’s most fully realized female character. The first unalienated novel since Tolstoy, is what Percy says of it.

Finally, we have Percy’s last two books, Lost in the Cosmos (which is the book at hand) and The Thanatos Syndrome. (Well, we’ve skipped over the essay collection The Message in the Bottle, which appeared between Love in the Ruins and Lancelot; we’ll set that aside for now.)

K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Lecture 1.02

The Moviegoer, Percy’s first published novel, won the National Book Award in 1962, beating out, among others, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The award gave Percy’s career a welcome boost after a long “apprenticeship” during which Percy, living off a substantial Southern aristocratic family inheritance, had written a variety of philosophical essays and two unpublished novels. Prior to that apprenticeship, there are a few other salient biographical details to consider.

Percy’s father, suffering from a family history of what Kierkegaard would call melancholy and what today we’d call clinical depression, committed suicide in 1929, when Percy was thirteen. Two years later, Percy’s mother died when her car plummeted off a bridge and into a river, also a probable suicide. Percy and his two younger brothers were brought up by a cousin, William Alexander Percy (whom they called “Uncle Will” and in whose memory Percy would dedicate The Moviegoer), a poet and the author of Lanterns on the Levee. Never mind Uncle Will’s homosexuality. He provided a safe haven for his orphaned young cousins and a sort of Southern aristocratic wonder world of culture and arts. People like Faulkner came by for mint juleps and lawn tennis. That sort of thing. There Percy also met Shelby Foote, who would become a lifelong friend and literary comerade. Down the years of their friendship, Foot preached Joyce and Proust and the Church of Art to Percy even as Percy (to Foote’s initial dismay) embraced Christ and the Catholic Church. From his teenage residence at Uncle Will’s, Percy went on to study at Chapel Hill (where the Percy archives now reside) and then to Columbia Medical School, completing his M.D. in 1941.

Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia which nicely summarizes what happened next, the key turningpoint in Percy’s life:

After contracting TB from performing an autopsy while interning at Bellevue, Percy spent the next several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. During this period Percy read the works of Danish existentialist writer, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and he began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. During this time (ca. 1947) Percy converted to Catholicism, as well as deciding to become a writer rather than a physician–as he would later write, he would study the pathology of the soul rather than that of the body.

K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Week 1, Lecture 1.01

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book appeared in 1983, towards the end of Walker Percy’s writing career. The only other book he would publish prior to his death in 1990 would be The Thanatos Syndrome, which appeared in 1987. Some readers view both books as something of a downhill slide in Percy’s modest authorship. Indeed the earlier five novels and collection of essays do exhibit powers that shine, arguably, more brightly than these last two. And yet, I would argue that both Lost in the Cosmos and Thanatos exhibit powers of their own that mark an interesting and maybe even courageous change in Percy’s strategy at the tail end of his authorship.

K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Week 1-Intro

Welcome, dear readers, to Korrektiv 101: Lost in the Cosmos, a special edition of the Korrektiv Summer Reading Klub. My name is Professor Rufus McCain and I’ll be co-teaching this course with Professors Henri Young and Quin Finnegan. It’s possible, albeit unlikely, that in real life some of us may actually be professors. Similarly, some of us may have had run-ins with the law and may have even spent time in the hoosegow, during which we had lots of time to read books by Walker Percy and Soren Kierkegaard while trying to avoid becoming somebody’s bitch. (In fact, Henri’s nickname in the joint was “Doc Young”, possibly in recognition of his erudition and great learning, or more likely because he had a knack for concocting “medicine” out of various combinations of breakfast cereal and cleaning supplies.) Students enrolled in Korrektiv 101 might be able to earn transferable college credit for participating in this seminar. Stranger things have happened. For a nominal “donation”, we would be happy to issue you a grade and an official diploma from the Copenhagen Institute of Personal Transformation Studies at the conclusion of the course (set to occur at an indeterminate future date).

Any questions? OK, let’s get right down to it then shall we?

Excerpts from Samway on Lost in the Cosmos


From Walker Percy: A Life by Patrick Samway, SJ:

How did Walker feel at this point? [After having written Lost in the Cosmos.] One gets an indirect glimpse from his reply in the December 6 [1981] edition of The New York Times Book Review to the question of what book he would most like to have written and why. Walker selected Don Quixote because of the happy conjunction of narrative and satire. He could imagine how good Cervantes must have felt to have hit upon telling a superb, funny, tragic adventure and at the same time getting in his licks at what’s wrong with society. “Now there’s a happy man.” (p. 361-2)

The revised text of Lost in the Cosmos was forwarded to Bob Giroux. “Brilliant” was Bob’s first word to describe the book. “It’s funny, bitter, satiric and in places savage as Swift. It will certainly do better than The Message in the Bottle, because of its humor. It’s hard to assess its potential because you offend established religious positions in every direction.” Encouraged by this response, Walker sent his editor many corrections, insertions, and deletions. Bob Giroux’s instincts proved correct; when it was published, Lost in the Cosmos found an immediate and dedicated following, eventually outselling Walker’s other books. (p. 366)

Soon the reviews started appearing. Writing in The New York Times, Anatole Broyard found that Walker worries about “all the right things and expresses his fears with a naturalness and elegance that are all his own.” Linda Hobson in the The Times-Picayune said that this work defies categorization: “It is designed to shock the complacent, bored reader out of his own predicament and loss of the self, and it certainly has the effect desired.” Having recently completed her dissertation on Walker’s use of the comic and Christianity in his fiction, Hobson called attention to this dimension of this work. Gene Lyons in Newsweek found that Walker’s work was getting, like Alice talking about mad hatters and Cheshire cats, “curiouser and curiouser!” But deep down, he postulated that Walker’s readers would be “challenged and amused.” R.Z. Sheppard stipulated in Time that Walker’s voice in this work was “beguiling” and “civilized.” Jeack Beatty in The New Republic found the book crackling with “thought, ideas, exotic information.” He praised Walker’s wit and found him to be a “maestro of fear and trembling.” In Gambit, a local paper, Jesse Core, a longtime correspondent of Walker, found that the work “stands brilliantly alone as a work of non-fiction.” As Walker had suspected, the reviews showed a wide spectrum of criticism. In writing to Cleanth Brooks, he said he was well aware of the critical reception of Lost in the Cosmos. “it is a somewhat mischievous book and it has elicited already considerable irritation as well as approval from reviewers. (p. 370-1)

Walker allowed David Duty of the Austin Independent School District to pursue working on a PBS series based on The Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos. (p. 371)

Email From Jess Walter

Jess Walter is a novelist who lives and writes in Spokane and frequents a coffeeshop I stumble into some mornings after I drop my daughter off at her pre-school across the street. Jess hangs out at this coffeshop and plays chess with a semi-retarded urban real estate developer named Stevie. Jess himself seems to be a good sport and a generous soul in addition to being a writer of considerable talent. His latest novel, The Zero, a Kafkaesque take on the aftermath of 9/11, was nominated for the National Book Award and probably should have won. His previous novel, Citizen Vince, won the Edgar Award and is currently being adapted by Richard Russo for HBO. His two novels before that are pretty damned fine as well. Jess reads a lot, too, as evidenced by the running list he maintains, a tidy little blog of sorts, on his website. So when I invited him to join the Korrektiv Summer Reading Klub’s reading of Lost in the Cosmos, he — having read and liked a Walker Percy novel or two or three in the past — agreed to join in the fun. Here’s Jess’s first report and my reply:

So I’m finding Lost in the Cosmos pleasantly unreadable. At first, I thought it was just that it was dated (A 12-page sendup of Donahue? Donahue?) But it’s also so repetitious and seems to build on the faultiest of logic (How is it we know more about Saturn than ourselves … uh, we don’t … And how is it we can zoom past Mars at precisely the right moment but we don’t know what we’ll do that day? … What? How is it that an orange peel is orange while a car accident is noisy?)

And parodying a self-help book seems sort of pointless. Everything that I like in Percy’s fiction seems missing here. But I’m only eighty pages in, so maybe it’ll redeem itself, although I don’t hold out much hope for what’s around the next bend: a theoretical intermezzo that can be skipped without consequence.

That said, I am enjoying myself. Honestly, reading an ambitious failure is almost as fun as reading a successful book. And the fact that the book fairies dropped the thing in my car helps greatly.

The Critical Self

My reply: Well, you’re not the first to react thusly to the book. Your response echoes much of the initial critical response to the book. And the literary quality of the novels is of a different, more refined order, no doubt about it. (On the other hand, my co-blogger Quin Finnegan makes the case for calling the book a novel that out-Vonneguts Vonnegut.) The space odysseys might redeem it for you if you make it to the end. Maybe not, though.

The logic of the stuff at the outset might seem faulty, but it all hinges on the intermezzo material. We know more about Saturn because it is defined by dyadic relationships, whereas the self is defined by the much more mysterious triadic phenomenon of language. It’s Peirce’s triad that frames all of the freakishness and foibles of the self.

It might, furthermore, be the case that you really do need to see yourself as lost — in at least approximately the way Percy posits the lostness — in order to resonate with the book. Which may be another way of saying maybe it’s a litmus test for die-hard Percy fans.

Anyway thanks for the report. It’s mighty nice of you to read the book just because it slipped out of my hands and landed in your car.*

* Jess drives an old convertible, the same model car JFK was riding in when he got shot, into which I dropped a paperback copy of Lost in the Cosmos, just as a street evangelist might drop a Chick Tract into such a car in hopes of winning a soul for Jesus.

Citizen Vince / Lost in the Cosmos

Spokane is reading Citizen Vince.

Jess Walter is reading Lost in the Cosmos. “I’m in.”

Thanks Jess!