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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!

Comments

  1. Deep Furrows says

    I just posted the following at Godsbody:
    I was in a bad place – and a college dropout – when I discovered Lost in the Cosmos in the humor section of my local bookstore. It irritated me so much that I threw the book away (only did this one other time in my life).

    Months later, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Percy said about re-entry and I had to buy the book again. I wonder if Elie realizes that Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy didn’t write “sacramental fiction”; they wrote satire. They are the Jeremiahs of our times.
    Fred

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