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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But he knows that we do not wish to experience this, so he follows Kierkegaard's model of ironic and comical "indirect communication." Percy is to us what Virgil was to Dante, but cannot fulfill that role straightforwardly because of our hostility to anyone who claims moral authority. But maybe a sardonic, foul-mouthed, bourbon-drinking Catholic Virgil is the one we both need and deserve.

Carl Sagan first became known to the general public as an authority on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and when Percy makes Sagan the central character of Lost in the Cosmos he clearly has this point in mind. (I should pause here to acknowledge that I owe Carl Sagan a great debt: when I was fifteen I discovered at my local public library a copy of Intelligent Life in the Universe, a book Sagan co-wrote with the Soviet physicist I. S. Shklovsky on a subject with which I was fascinated at the time. Several chapters of the book feature quotations from a book by Loren Eiseley called The Immense Journey: these quotations intrigued me enough to send me on a search for Eiseley's book, which I came to adore. Eiseley was for a number of years my favorite writer, and I still hold him in great esteem.)

Yes, I seriously mean to claim that the central character in Lost in the Cosmos is Carl Sagan, even though he is not mentioned directly until quite late in the book. If we understand Sagan's prominence in American middlebrow culture in the early 1980s we will see Percy's book's title as a pointed reference to the PBS series; and then relatively early in the book, to reinforce that point, we meet the fictional scientist who "writes about the Cosmos" and gets invited to talk shows. Question 17 of the Lost in the Cosmos self-help quiz is titled, "The Lonely Self (II): Why Carl Sagan is So Anxious to Establish Communication with an ETI (Extraterrestrial Intelligence)." And the question itself is: "Why is Carl Sagan so lonely?" It seems to Percy that one important prompt of any deep desire for contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is a sense of absence or deficiency—deficiency in one's own self, in others' selves, in the world. But what, Percy wonders, what precisely is this absence? What is it that makes us look out into the Cosmos with such longing?

At around the same time that he was working on Cosmos, Sagan was writing a screenplay about the first human encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence. It is difficult to overstate how important this subject was to American popular culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Steven Spielberg's film Close Encounters of the Third Kind—featuring as a significant character a French scientist, played by the great director François Truffaut, whose desire to meet intelligent aliens is highly reminiscent of Sagan's own enthusiasm for ETI—had appeared in 1977. Five years later, Spielberg would direct the even more popular E.T. Sagan, writing in the midst of this craze that he had done a good deal to fan into flame, couldn't get the screenplay developed, so he turned it into a novel, Contact (1985); only in 1997, the year after Sagan's premature death, did a film version appear.

The protagonist of Contact is a scientist named Ellie Arroway (played in the film by Jodie Foster), who admits that she does not, cannot, believe in God because there is no evidence, no "data," supporting his existence. But, in a twist rather more ironic than one might have expected from Sagan, when Dr. Arroway meets intelligent aliens, all evidence of that meeting is destroyed, and she has to face pervasive and scornful disbelief of her story. In the movie's most famous speech, Arroway explains why she does not, given this utter absence of evidence, admit that she never met aliens:

Because I can't. I … had an experience … I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever … A vision … of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how … rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish … I … could share that … I wish, that everyone, if only for one … moment, could feel … that awe, and humility, and hope. But … That continues to be my wish.
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