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)

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