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?


  1. Quin Finnegan says

    I don’t have the book in front of me right now – I’ll go and pick one up tomorrow, I promise – but I thought I’d share my recollection of the first time I opened up Lost in the Cosmos, just as Percy somewhere recalls reading one of the Russians on a porch somewhere. I think I’d read two or three titles by this time – Thanatos, Moviegoer and Last Gentleman, now that I think about it. And Second Coming – that was the first, actually. It was 1988 and I was living in a new apartment complex next to the Greenlake fire station with a couple of friends from college, tending bar by night and spending most of my days crying over my lost youth (the last time I cried, by the way) and reading such fare as Thanatos, Moviegoer and Last Gentleman.

    I’d avoided Lost up until that time, I think at least partly because (and this is hard to believe) I was afraid the house mates would think I was reading an actual self-help book. I was already seeing a counselor at the time and was extremely self-conscious about the state of my mental health. And for good reason; it was pretty bad. Not that it’s ever been great. Anyway, with all those afternoons alone I finally picked it up, and when I did I couldn’t believe it. Right from the get-go, from the preliminary quiz onward, I knew this was the book for me. This was the book that hit the nail on the head; that told me who I was, or at least who I wasn’t; that showed the world for what it was; that actually hurt because it was so funny, that made me bawl at the end for something more than my own sorry existence – or exactly for that, as I came to realize then, probably at 4:00 on a Wednesday afternoon before I headed out the door play at being a young Leroy Ledbetter in the making.

    I still think it’s Percy’s best book. Not for the intermezzo, actually, but for the street chicken, for Dr. Betty, for the divorcee at the Corn Festival, for the Captain, for Aristarchus Jones, For Dr. F., for Jane and all the other characters in what I still think are the much underrated fictional elements of the book. In fact, I’ll go one further and claim that Lost in the Cosmos is actually a novel, and in fact a very great satirical novel that goes way beyond anything Vonnegut (R.I.P.) put together and places the solitary reader in a predicament as few other novels in the last fifty years have been able to do. Not that this is what novels have to do, but this one does, and the result is something just as unsettling as the vertiginous prose of Nabokov and the paranoid labrynths of Pynchon.

    A great novel is a kind of labratory. Percy never really wrote ‘experimental’ novels, except in the way that all good novels are to some extent experimental. That the thought experiments of Lost are on full display with a fair amount of philosophical musing makes it a one-of-a-kind series of hypotheses, falsifications and verifications that certainly stretches the form, but how fresh it seems after twenty-five years, even with all those references to Donahue and Sagan. What other book leaves you feeling so free, so suck of care? As for the satire, has anything really changed?

    Percy hit on something truly remarkable with this novel that really isn’t a novel, but that’s what he wrote so there. Well, whatever it is, it’s a masterpiece. No doubt about that. Wherever you are now – Io, Earth, or somewhere in between, it’s a book you have to go back to, if for no other reason than Percy has very simply and plainly asked us. And it’s very good to be able oblige him.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Thanks Quin! Yowza! I knew I cd. count on you old boy. This is gonna be a kick-ass course.

  3. Rufus McCain says

    Perhaps this would be a good place to go around the room and introduce ourselves. Who are you? Are you reading Lost in the Cosmos for the first time? Rereading it? Why are you here? What is your level of interest in Percy? etc.

  4. angelmeg says

    This is the second time I will have read Lost, the first time was just over a year ago when I had a break in my classes and took a suggestion from the Korrektiv guys that I might give Walker Percy a try. I wish I had read it back when it came out. I think I would have gotten a lot out of it back then, but that can’t be helped.

    I agree with Quin, I think this is a wonderfully crafted work of fiction. I think the fact that each reader gleans from it something about themselves is such a master stroke. The fact that is came out in the beginning of the self help era makes it all the more delicious.

    I will freely admit though, had I read it back when it first came out, I might have been one of those people who would have answered the questions seriously. . .Seriously!

    I find myself quicly approaching middle age and wondering how on earth did I get this old this fast? I am a wife of almost 24 years, mother of five, soon to complete a Master of Arts in Theology (if I can make it through my last two Philosophy classes). I live in the midwest in a Big Ten college town and am currently happily unemployed.

    I got suckered into taking this class late one night in the comment box Party when my resistance was low. Seriously, I chose to do this before I have to get to work on those philosophy studies and someone else tells me what to read. I have authority figure issues, ask my Spiritual Director.

  5. Just mainly a test to see if have this figured out. Of all the books in the known universe that I am aware of, LITC, is perhaps the one I go back to most often to make sure I am on track. Well the Aubrey-Maturin series are probably ranked a bit higher.

    I am a big Patrick O’Brian fan–another Roman Catholic, and see much Percy in S. Maturin. A scientist and a Roman.

    This whole thing has some pretty incredible timing as I had just picked up LITC and started another voyage through it in preparation for a group read with my daughter. I told her that I would not pay her tuition next semester until she had read it.

    I am not much of a literary scholar, but have always been fascinated by the “cohabitation” of art and science.

  6. The Ironic Catholic says

    I’ve never read Lost in the Cosmos. (gasp)

    I know too much about theology, never enough about God, and have been in school all my life.

    I like sunsets on the beach at night and Mom’s mashed potatoes.

    I will try to pick it up in the library. But I am grading exams and papers this last week of the semester (being a legit, sort of, professor).

  7. Dave Duty says

    I was a friend (mostly via letters over a dozen years) with Walker. My disseration was based on his theories of language and semitoics. He read the damn thing and was very kind in his comments. I seriously believe I was the one that gave him the idea of using “thought experiments” in Lost in the Cosmos. I am minor footnote on page 396 of Father Samways’ WP bio. I even tried for years to secure the rights to Lost in a dumb dream of a young man to turn it into an intellectual series for PBS. It never happened, but I did love my time with WP. He was as warm, giving, and kind as any reader might dream.

    I have read Lost at least 15 times and still get a great deal out of it. It was the work of which WP was most proud.

    If I can find the time and the energy — I look forward to particpating in this cyber course.

  8. Quin Finnegan says

    TA, I’ve read about half a dozen of those Aubrey/Maturin books and count myself as a fan of O’Brian as well. My interested started to fade after all those descriptions of one dinner party after another, and I had trouble finding the thread of the plot in several novels. Maturin is indeed a great character, and looking at him through the Percy prism is a great way of seeing his transcendence and sometimes troubled re-enties, to use the LITC terms.

    I also know a young poet who claims to be his illegitimate son or something. Has the same name, anyway – which I thought was actually a pseudonym.

    DD, Thanks for joining the fun here. Hopefully it’ll be fun, but we could really use your help with the semiotics stuff, and certainly any personal recollections you care to share would be most welcome. Those thought experiments are great, we all owe you thanks for spurring him onto those. I’d always thought he’d taken a cue from Einstein, who was famous for his thought experiments; are you saying that you made the connection for him, or that you introduced some of the ideas themselves?

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice entry on the subject. And I just noticed how they’ve updated the site. Man, does it look a lot better. It’s always been a great resource, but now it even looks great!

  9. Dave Duty says

    I was able to find the text that follows from my correspondence with Walker Percy. I had forgotten some of the specifics — as it turns out WP acknowledges my suggestions re: “thought experiments.” What follows first is my recollection of a letter I sent WP — I didn’t keep copies of them all — and most were before word processors or email. The last comments in this brief, but welcomed letter refers to my offer to work on some of WP’s research with him and the mundane world of doctorial studies in which I found myself floundering at the time.

    This letter was in response to another letter that I do not have a copy of — in which I suggested to WP that his novels were not a useless or silly or unfit way for a grown man to make a living — a notion he often proffered. I offered the observation that his novels were the mental equivalent
    of Einstein’s thought experiments. Specifically, I was drawing the parallel that theoretical science and experimental science were very different endeavors. Just as Einstein left the testing of theory to the likes of Sir Arthur Eddington, WP’s novels were semiotic thought experiments, i.e., what would happen when a concrete individual found himself in a certain situation. I might point out that this was well before Lost in the Cosmos was published and that the use of thought experiments was a powerful and important feature of this book. The last paragraph was in response to my asking him if we could collaborate on some active social science research. Without some options from him, I quipped that I would be stuck in the usual ed psych type research investigating warmed over, trivial ideas such as Albert Ellis’ RET.

    Sept. 4, 1980

    Dear David

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I do like your idea of Einsteinian “thought experiments.”

    You may be sure I have you in mind if anything turns up — anything to rescue you from Rational-Emotive Therapy.

    All best,

  10. Third Order Dominican says

    I read it about 20 years ago at Yale Divinity School and loved it! I spent more time on The Second COming, which was my favorite book (some very Dantesque elements), but I am looking forward to reading LITC again.

  11. Quin Finnegan says

    DD: Wow. I am truly humbled. And thankful – I wasn’t aware of this connection, and if it’s been mentioned in either the biographies or the scholarship I missed it. It’s great to have your comments and the letter, and I think it’s obvious that you have a lot to offer here, so please chime in when you can. That way this course will really kick ass.

    Spot on about theoretical vs. experimental science; Girard make this point extremely well in one of his books (To Double Business Bound, I think), in which he points out that experimental science necessarily ties one closer to data and leaves much less room for theory. In the pursuit of precision we can actually lose our grasp of the larger truth – the trees and the forest all over again. Both are needed, of course, but it seems as if we usually have to wait a long time for an Einstein or a Girard to come along and break up the experimental log jam.

    One could go a step further – I will go a step further – and claim that it is this pursuit of precision that leads to scientism. Maybe another way of defining this nemesis of Percy’s is to state that a generalized and wide-spread deferral of a coherent reality in exchange for the pursuit of an incrementally increased precision in the measurement of reality leaves us all prey to the same old superstitions and eventually even to the more violent nature of our being.

    Perhaps this isn’t the place to debate the merits of various arguments for humanity-induced global warming, but for all the painfully exact data and carefully charted climate trends, it’s simply stating the obvious to point out that what is entirely missing from the debate is any calculation of the real cost of putting into place the proposed changes – even the most realistic ones. Nevermind the political and social upheavals. All for the updated worship of Tellus Mater.

    I cynically have to wonder if there is really a way out of this particular bind. We will always try to measure things more exactly, because it is good to do so. We will always make decisions as best we can by taking into account the needs and opinions of the greatest number of people, because it is good to do so. The result, I fear, is the compromise that leads to the acceptance of non-truths for the greater social good, sooner or later in denial of the reality that lies in front of our face.

    Which means there will always be a market for good satire.

  12. Rufus McCain says

    Ahem, yes, well … let’s continue around the room.

    I was incarcerated in Walla Walla when I first read Lost in the Cosmos I guess it must have been the fall of ’84. I got my hands on a library copy after I’d read a review of it in Christianity and Literature which the chaplain had let me borrow. The reviewer (Jac Tharpe, if I recall) claimed in a sort of aside that, even though Percy dissed fundamentalists in the extended subtitle, he (Percy) wasn’t in fact too far from a fundie himself. Something to that effect. Anyway the review piqued my curiosity and by chance there was a copy waiting for me on the library shelf and it practically fell into my hands. I started reading it while I was supposed to be dusting or something and was fairly immediately taken with it. Unlike anything I’d encountered before. The section on being an ex-suicide is what really hooked me. The non-suicide walks around in a “suck of care” — anxiety, uptightness; but the ex-suicide finds himself washed up on the beach, pokes around, sees that he exists by virtue of the absurd, goes to work because he doesn’t have to. I went back to that again and again, especially when I got out of the joint. I went on to read The Message in the Bottle and then the novels one by one in the order in which they were written. Lost holds a special place in my heart, for sure, and I’ve reread it at least a half a dozen times over the years.

    I’d continue blathering on but my battery’s running low, which is as good a reason to shut up as any. The truth is I wasn’t really in jail. I was in college. But the essential facts are basically true, I think. I went on to grad school and wrote a master’s thesis on Percy. That’s as far as I got.

    Also met the man briefly in Covington after we’d exchanged a couple of letters. He didn’t buy me a Grape Nehi like he did Potter, but nonetheless was a real gentleman. I guess my battery had more blather left in it than I thought.

  13. Deep Furrows says

    Einsteinian thought experiments! I’m always amazed at the dramatizations in PBS specials on Relativity, but only recently learned that these illustrations were Einstein’s own.

    Fr. Luigi Giussani (whose description of Christianity converges on Percy’s – diagrams and all!) also seems to owe something to this Einsteinian mode of discussion…

  14. I can’t resist a good book discussion, even if I come to it late. Korrektiv found me through my review of The Message in the Bottle, and I’ve been curious to read more of Percy, so here we go ..

    I’m a practical linguist, armchair philosopher, 99 44/100% atheist married to a lapsed Catholic. I’m curious to see how “fresh” this book ends up seeming, given that Message‘s semiotics and pre-Chomskian linguistics struck me as seriously dated. Percy’s own thought-experiments fascinated me, though, and I keep wondering what he’d make of modern cognitive science. The “scientific explanation of the self” reminds me of the metaphor of the anthill in Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, and one of my own upcoming reviews deals with a more modern take on the relationship of words to meanings.

  15. Quin Finnegan says

    Daniel: Welcome, and thanks for the review recommendations. While you’re probably already familiar with it, one book that would seem to be right up your alley is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (and most other things he wrote as well). For a subject you might also find interesting, and that touches on what I think is called anthropolical linguistics, Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred is also very good reading.

    Percy probably would have been pretty frustrated with most of modern cognitive science insofar as it deals with man, the entire creature, but awestruck at the research and technological accomplishments that have yielded some pretty amazing benefits. Oh wait, that’s my reaction.

    For another novelist’s look at Cognitive Science, I highly recommend David Lodge’s Thinks.

  16. Rufus McCain says

    There’s also a fascinating article in the April 16 New Yorker. The title of the article is “The Interpreter” and it’s about a guy that has spent 30 years studying a tribe in Brazil, the Piraha, that has a very idiosyncratic language and has strongly resisted outside influences, both cultural and linguistic. The guy, Dan Everett, started out as an evangelical missionary (he’s since fallen away), then became a Chomskeyan, and is now challenging some key tenets of Chomsky’s theory based on his analysis of the language and culture of the Piraha.

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