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Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
Walker Percy
Picador, 2000
272 pp., $18.00

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Alan Jacobs


Percy and Sagan in the Cosmos

On the 30th anniversary of "The Last Self-Help Book."

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To this image of a voyaging, questing, shackle-breaking humanity moving forth boldly into the Cosmos, Percy's fable implicitly responds with a question: What if the Cosmos were to come to us? And were to come in the form of a highly advanced race that has concluded that we suffer from a not-fully-understood "disorder" that makes us "a potential threat to all civilizations in the G2V region of the galaxy"? Among all the species in the G2V region, the Cosmic Stranger says, we are "the only one which is by nature sentimental, murderous, self-hating, and self-destructive." We have to be destroyed before we communicate our disorder to other worlds.

As Phil Donahue says in response to this news, "Heavy!"

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Stuck right into the middle of Lost in the Cosmos is a 40-page "intermezzo" that Percy calls "A Semiotic Primer of the Self." It's prefaced by a kind of apology in which Percy predicts that many readers will not be satisfied with it and, anyway, it "can be skipped without fatal consequences." But Percy certainly thought it the most important part of his book. In fact, it sums up and often repeats things he had been writing for the previous 30 years, ever since, early in the 1950s, he had started reading some then-recent work on symbolic thought—especially Susanne Langer's Philosophy in a New Key—which in turn led him back to the philosophy of language and communication developed in the late 19th century by Charles Sanders Peirce. Most of Percy's publications in the decade before his first novel, The Moviegoer, appeared in 1961 were essays on semiotics, that is, the study of signification.

When Percy collected those essays in 1975, in a book called The Message in the Bottle, he wrote a prefatory essay that covers much of the same ground that he would later cover in his "Semiotic Primer of the Self." In that essay, "The Delta Factor," he describes the collection as "the meager fruit of twenty years' off-and-on thinking about the subject, of coming at it from one direction, followed by failure and depression and giving up, followed by making up novels to raise my spirits." This is not the only place where he suggests that his inquiries into semiotics were the primary focus of his intellectual life, to which his fiction was secondary.

He returned to these same themes over and over because he thought them absolutely essential to the formation of an adequate "theory of man"—but, as he sometimes ruefully commented, "people are not interested." That's from a self-interview he wrote in 1977, in which he went on to claim that as bad as the 20th century had been, things "have to get even worse before people realize that they don't have the faintest idea what sort of creature man is. Then they might want to know. Until then, one is wasting one's time. I'm not interested in butting my head against a stone wall." And yet five years after writing these words he was butting his head against that same stone wall one more time—though perhaps from a slightly different angle. The chief difference between Lost in the Cosmos and his earlier semiotic inquiries is that he had come to realize the fundamental role that television played in the semiotic formation of the American self.

All signification involves mediation: any sign mediates in multiple ways, between a person's mind and a concept, or a thing, or another person's mind. Media are systems of signification; and the people who populate media signify and thus mediate. Did Kenneth Clark get chosen by the BBC to host Civilisation because he was an authority on its core subjects? No doubt; but more to the point, Clark was recognized by a large audience as an authority on its subjects because he was chosen by the BBC. He mediates culture to his audience—just as Carl Sagan, in precisely the same way, mediates science, and Phil Donahue mediates a very different subset of culture than does Clark. Each of these figures offers "a personal view" of an issue or "a personal voyage" into a subject and in so doing makes the abstract and the difficult (or in Donahue's case the just plain weird) seem accessible, recognizably human. Television provides for us a series of authoritative mediators of images, who are themselves, though we are not encouraged to think about this, also images.

We are not encouraged to think about how the structures of mediation work because that would cause us to question them and our relation to them. That is, we might start reflecting on the semiotic construction of the self, and begin to see the formation of our selves as problematic, none of which is good for business. American media culture, Percy believed, involves a lunatic oscillation between absolute indulgence of the self (Donahue) and absolute evasion of it (Sagan). Looked at in one way—in any number of ways—Phil Donahue and Carl Sagan have very little in common; looked at in Percy's way, they serve an almost identical function as guides who gently distract us from attention to how we're being formed and how we might be formed differently. Percy's task, therefore, is to bring the self with all its contradictions into proper focus, to subject it to the harsh light of truth.

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