The Genesis of Lost in the Cosmos

First part of a letter from Walker Percy to Shelby Foote.

. September 10, 1980
.. The only thing to do with Two Gates is get going and let ‘er rip. Where I’d be hung up in a book like that is the very beginning. I refer you to your own admiration of the the beginning of Don Juan–or The Brothers Karamazov. Those work eminently. Frankly I never though the opening of War and Peace worked–a monstrous bore in fact, cocktail party conversation!
.. I’m blocked too. What I want to do is a sequel to Message in the Bottle which is quite tentative, answers none or few of the questions posed in the first chapter. Not that I can answer them now, but I can adumbrate the answers. It is a little ambitious. The title and subtitle are

.. Glimmerings of the New Science,
.. Especially that Branch of the Science which
.. Pertains to the Self, to Your Sef, and most
.. Especially What to do with Yourself
.. Since Most Likely You do not Presently Know,
.. Since the Present-Day Science, the Old science
.. Cannot tell You, has no Way of Knowing,
.. Cannot in Fact Utter a single word about Yourself
.. Considered as an Individual Self,
.. Even Though It, the Old Science, can tell you a
.. Great Deal about everything else.
.. How to Explain Some Heretofore Unexplainable
.. Things

.. The plan of the book is simple. Three parts. First part, list some of the familiar oddities and anomalies of modern times, e.g., the rise of boredom and suicide amid the good life, the longing of people for UFOs and trivial magic, the eroticization of society, T.V. junkies, why people applaud frantically on the Carson show when their hometowns are mentioned, the frantic efforts of primatologists to teach chimps to talk, desire for bad news (doesn’t everyone remember Pearl Harbor? why?), Darwin sitting alone at his fireside in Kent, a shrinking violet, and dismantling (as he saw it) Christendom.
.. These apparently disparate and disconnected little antinomies are related with a straight face and in a way that everybody recognizes.
.. Part II: a setting forth of the Novum Organum, which is semiotic theory (my Helen Keller triangle and triad).
.. I can already see you making faces, but this part can be done without jargon and technicalities, in an understandable way.
.. Part III: The disparate left-overs and oddities are now reprised and like members of a ballet, array themselves gracefully and in perfect order along the model, like a quadrille.
.. As you can see, this is not an entirely serious book, and yet it is serious. What it is getting at is of course my old hobby-horse that science is extraordinarily stupid about people as people and the consequences of this stupidity (combined with an instinctual confidence in science) is going to do us all in if we don’t do something about it.
.. Hence the Novum Organum.
.. What I like about it is that it gives me the chance to do something of moment and at the same time have a good time getting my own licks in and both offending people and getting them to laugh.
.. The problem of course is stylistic: the tone of the very first sentence and the look of the first page. The choice lies between being aphoristic (like Pascal and Wittgenstein) or play it dead cool and laid back like Machievelli who gets his best effects through coolness. Everything depends on the first roll of the dice. So far, craps.
.. I feel like a hyena circling a wounded rhino. There she sits, lying there, she’s yours but how to get at her without losing your guts on that horn (ah, easy to do with this kind of book!), how to get through the rhino hide. She has a weak spot of course, it’s just a matter of finding it.


The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, p. 268-71


  1. WillyShake says

    As a big WP fan, it is shameful that I don’t own a copy of this text–thanks for sharing this wonderful passage!

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