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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When the 16th-century Frenchman Michel de Montaigne produced his extended exercise in self-investigation called the Essays, he knew his project was open to criticism. "If the world complains that I speak too much of myself," he wrote, "I reply that it does not even think of itself." Lost in the Cosmos is Percy's attempt to make the world think of itself, or rather to prod and provoke each of his readers to ask the uncomfortable questions that our preferred entertainment media help us avoid.

Though it might be better to say "our preferred uses of entertainment media": the problem is not television per se but how we habitually use it. Consider once more Kenneth Clark's Civilisation: it is "a personal view," and Clark is a winsome guide, but he wears his authority lightly, and—this is far more important—the camera is rarely on him, preferring to offer long lingering shots of the great works of art he describes. Whatever Clark might say about it, Charlemagne's Palatine Chapel speaks eloquently for itself, because it is a product of the human mind and employs a visual language we are eager to read. The Crab Nebula remains comparatively inscrutable. This helps to explain why Clark as a guide promises less but delivers more than Sagan, who by denying that the "heavens declare the glory of God"—remember, "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be"—seeks to deprive the Crab Nebula of what may well be its native tongue. Civilisation is proof that television can be used in a way that prompts responses from viewers, that stimulates thought rather than merely transmitting a putatively authoritative account of what is and what was and what remains yet to come.

People can read novels in the same existentially evasive way and for the same self-forgetful purposes that drive them to watch most of what they see on television. (Today they can, and do, use the internet for similar purposes.) This may account for Percy's abandonment of his usual genres of fiction and essay in favor of this mongrelized form, with its ludicrously inflated question-and-answer format, its interpolated stories, its sensitivity to the most recent pop-cultural trends, even its overt and arcane scholarship. Percy is striving to break our usual readerly habits, to prevent us from being simply entertained, to make us oscillate among laughter and puzzlement and offense and excitement.

Lost in the Cosmos is the most peculiar book of Percy's career, and in my judgment his finest achievement. I read it when it first appeared, and if you had asked me at the time whether I expected the book to be relevant in 30 years, I probably would have said no. It seemed so topical, so of its moment; and how long could that moment last? But re-reading it in preparation for this essay I saw how little it matters that many people today will know nothing or nearly nothing about Phil Donahue or Carl Sagan. Their immediate heirs are with us every day when we turn on the TV. And Walker Percy's social vision remains as acute and discomfiting today as it was in 1983. That says a great deal for him as a writer and cultural critic; but it also, I believe, teaches us that our culture is, in its bones, changing less quickly than we have accustomed ourselves to believe. It's the same old Cosmos, declaring the same old Glory, and we're just as prone to getting lost in it as we ever were.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. His edition of Auden's For the Time Being is due in May from Princeton University Press. He is the author most recently of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford Univ. Press) and a brief sequel to that book, published as a Kindle Single: Reverting to Type: A Reader's Story.

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