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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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And one more layer of irony: many times over the years I have seen this speech claimed by Christians as expressing their own commitment to belief in the face of skepticism and scorn.

In Contact, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the aliens we meet are perhaps more technologically developed than we are but they clearly feel a kinship with us that they wish to deepen. This vision offers a radical alternative to the previously dominant idea that such aliens would want to destroy us out of sheer but inexplicable malice. But the possibility that an extraterrestrial intelligence might look upon us with moral disgust and even horror never crosses the popular mind. Percy sees this as a lamentable failure of imagination.

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I noted earlier that the last and longest narrative set-piece in Lost in the Cosmos relates the experiences of a tiny handful of humans who have survived the nuclear attack on Earth by an alien race that has deemed us too murderous to be allowed to infect the rest of the Cosmos. Percy prefaces this narrative with a note in which he credits Carl Sagan's series Cosmos, and its accompanying book, with inspiring his extended science-fictional riff. "Sagan's book gave me much pleasure," Percy writes,

a pleasure which was not diminished (perhaps it was increased) by Sagan's unmalicious, even innocent, scientism, the likes of which I have not encountered since the standard bull sessions in high school and college—up to but not past the sophomore year …. For me it was more diverting than otherwise to see someone sketch the history of Western scientific thought and leave out Judaism and Christianity.

Percy briefly suggests some elements of a truer history before insisting once more (perhaps disingenuously) that he bears no hostility towards Sagan, whose "sophomoric scientism" is not "deplorable":

—no, what is deplorable is that these serious issues involving God and the nature of man should be co-opted by the present disputants, a popularizer like Sagan and fundamentalists who believe God created the world six thousand years ago. It's enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name.

Percy's critique here is more subtle than it might at first appear. Science is not the problem; even a "sophomoric scientism" is not the problem. The problem is science and scientism and religion alike being filtered through the semiotics of the "personal view" and the "personal voyage": it is the television-based cult of personality that's mind-numbing and soul-killing, whether the personality so celebrated is that of Carl Sagan, Phil Donahue, or Percy's fellow Louisianan Jimmy Swaggart, whose evangelistic program was in 1983 carried by more than 250 stations around the country.

People—people in their role as viewers—are receptive to cults of personality because such cults distract us from the dislocations of our very selves, and from the suffering those dislocations cause. The kind of literate, educated person who might pick up a book by Walker Percy can see how that works in the case of the Phil Donahue Show, which is why "The Last Donahue Show" comes fairly early in Lost in the Cosmos. It's a savagely funny parody, but it also flatters our sensibilities. That Carl Sagan's cosmic meditations, shown in primetime and on PBS, might work on its viewers in the same way is not so easy to see, and not so comforting to realize; but it's true. Cosmos was not about science, but about allowing us to observe a scientist with an attractive personality as a substitute for thinking scientifically.

Those in the audience for Phil Donahue's final show are distracted from themselves by watching Penny, the pregnant 14-year-old who thinks "babies are neat"; those who watch Cosmos are distracted from themselves by thinking about "our place in the Cosmos," that is, by reverting to abstract categories that evacuate personhood from human beings and fail to imagine contact with extraterrestrial intelligences in terms other than those of an utterly decontextualized "wonder." Donahue, Sagan—not really a dime's worth of difference between them.

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