So too it may be useful to write a novel about the end of the world. Perhaps it is only through the conjuring up of catastrophe, the destruction of all Exxon signs, and the sprouting of vines in the church pews, that the novelist can make vicarious use of catastrophe in order that he and his readers may come to themselves.
-The Message in the Bottle
Although Lost in the Cosmos is not a novel in the sense that Walker Percy’s earlier Love in the Ruins is, both conjure up catastrophe. (Lost in the Cosmos is, however, a fiction, both in terms of its invented persona and its structure.) In all his work Percy has been concerned with eschatology. More than any major writer of his time, he has been haunted by an intuition of the end of things as we know them. That sensibility has led him to conjure up visions of catastrophe in the hope of teaching a lesson. Instead of this concern leading to suicide, the option with which some of his characters have been greatly preoccupied, it has made Percy a novelist-prophet, “one of the few remaining witnesses to the doctrines of original sin, the imminence of catastrophe in paradise.”
The novelist writes about the coming end in order to warn about present ills and so avert the end. Not being called by God to be a prophet, he nevertheless pretends to a certain prescience. . . The novelist is less like a prophet than he is like the canary that coal miners used to take down into the shaft to test the air. When the canary gets unhappy, utters plaintive cries, and collapses, it may be time for the miners to surface and think things over.
Lost in the Cosmos is the “last” self help book: run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. The last war will soon begin, readers are warned. War, for Percy, is a fit symbol of both the inner and outer chaos caused and experienced by the self-destructive creature that triadic man has become. Having willfully disinherited himself, he is a ghost haunting the cosmos. Percy’s book is about “The Strange Case of the Self’—the self in its relationship with itself, with others (the cosmos), and, ultimately, with God. The most exciting formal aspect of this work is its unique structure. Two comparisons may be of help. The first is with Jacques Maritain’s The Peasant of the Garrone, a series of reflections on the nature of the present time from a philosophical perspective much like Percy’s.
I [Maritain] said once to Jean Cocteau: We must have a tough mind and a tender heart, adding with a certain melancholy that the world is full of dried up hearts and flabby minds.
Maritain’s persona is a cranky peasant, a man who puts his foot in his mouth (Baudelaire), one who calls a spade a spade. He has a distinct identity of his own as he speaks the philosophy of Maritain. Percy’s persona is not a cranky peasant but a 20th-century American who has survived his immersion in popular culture and comes back, staggering a bit, from the experience to distance himself from it, though using it to conjure up a picture of chaos. Whereas Maritain questions himself about his time, Percy’s persona is concerned with the notion of the self. He stands aloof and is more impersonal, is a crafty constructor of leading questions. The second comparison is with Percy’s own The Message in the Bottle (1975), though this book is not a fiction but a collection of expository essays.
The self-help book has a special place in 20th-century cultural history. The very concept of a self-help book grows out of the most tyrannizing image of modernism: the self as the center of reality—the real being authenticated by the self rather than the other way around. Help must be sought only from the self. God, of course, is dead. Others are reduced to minor roles in the self’s drama of self-authentication. Each human being must authenticate reality, his own reality. Percy’s is the last self-help book because time has run out. Ideological bankruptcy is the final result of self-worship. “Two gods in the cosmos is one god too many.” Most obvious and ironical is that the precious, worshiped self, so nurtured and coddled, has been lost, though Percy’s Crowd Pleaser claims that we have one more chance.
Percy’s structure is a combination of “Twenty Questions” (20 chapters), television game shows, and those quizquestionnaires found in magazines and Sunday supplements which promise to reveal self-knowledge. A “Thought Experience” usually ends each section. Scenes, televisionlike playlets, are scattered throughout, the most memorable being “The Last Phil Donahue Show.” Chapters 19 and 20, two brief space odysseys, take the form of short narratives about the end of the world. There is also an “intermezzo” of 40 pages on semiotics in which Percy explains man’s (the sign-user’s) necessary placement in the world through “an elementary semiotical grounding of the theory of the self taken for granted in these pages.”
The great danger in using a combination of debased forms for a book is that they are so trivial in themselves that their use could lead easily to a trivializing of the material they enclose. It would appear that these debased forms have been abused beyond any further use for serious satire, but Percy’s skill is more than sufficient.
The view of man which undergirds Lost in the Cosmos is expressed succinctly in The Message in the Bottle:
It was something men lived by, even when they fell short of it and saw themselves as sinners. It was the belief that man was created in the image of God with an immortal soul, that he occupied a place in nature somewhere between the beasts and the angels, that he suffered an aboriginal catastrophe, the Fall, in consequence of which he lost his way and, unlike beasts, became capable of sin and thereafter became a pilgrim or seeker of his own salvation, and that the clue and sign of his salvation was to be found not in science or philosophy but in news of an actual historical event involving a people [the Jews], a person [Christ], and an institution [the Roman Catholic Church].
The implications of this passage and its consequences are in everything Percy has written. To ignore that is to miss the essence of his work. This view of man has, for the most part, been lost. Instead of the self as pilgrim we have instead the amnesiac self that gives us license to enter a new life and leave the old one behind without guilt, the fearful self hiding its vacancy under the mask it shows to the world, the sexually promiscuous self which has lost its way and serves Satan instead of God. Since the view of our time is that the self (as confused as we are about it) is the compelling image of reality, the object about which the universe (if it exists) is organized, it has finally only two mutually exclusive choices: transcendence or immanence.
Immanence (bestiality) is the option for the materialist. Believing it, one has his feet on the ground; there is no nonsense about the supernatural. Within its perimeters, it works well enough; if it does not promise more than it can deliver, it is often accurate in its forecasts. Naturally, it became scientism since even a lost self will not be without a god, prepared as it is by its loss of belief in God to believe then in anything else. The immanent posture has bad immense problems as a result, especially since it developed its own philosophy—positivism. Only the most stoic of such believers appears to have any poise now; even the most dimwitted suspect that something has gone wrong. Sex, the principal recreation of the immanent, has lost its kick. Cole Porter, alas, was wrong: I don’t get a kick out of you; cocaine is better. Transcendence (angelism) is the option of the elite few, especially writers, a few philosophers, and selected scientists. The gnostic type, the ultimate romantic, is sustained for a time by the radiance of his pure vision and congratulates himself on his clear perception of the unbridgeable gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be. From staring so steadfastly into the sun, however, the Bombay saint goes blind and no longer sees the “opulent bric-a-brac earth” (In Richard Wilbur’s “On the Eyes of the SS Officer” the distance between the “visionary” SS officer and the “visionary” Bombay saint is much less than one might think) The transcendent self dies of thirst at the fountainside; “a world without objects is a sensible emptiness.” There are various means of reentry into the quotidian for him, but none work without God. Without reentering he will never discover the sacred in the profane.
In the two space odysseys that end the book the myth of reentry is the chief idea considered. Our madness for space, both Percy and Saul Bellow agree, is a sign of our self-loathing despair. But we must come ”back” somehow. When those in the spaceship communicate with another planet on which prelapserian culture still exists, they are refused the right to land because they do not have satisfactory answers for the three great questions, the central questions of Lost in the Cosmos:
Have you requested help?
Did it arrive?
Did you accept it?
These questions exist within and outside of history. They contain the secret for discovering the sacred in the profane. They bridge the gap between transcendent and immanent. Their answers remain to be discovered (or rediscovered) by those who have lost touch with the world. The character in the space odyssey who symbolizes that “lost” world and its meaning is Abbot Liebowitz.
In most of his fiction, Percy has used the deus ex machina, a most unfashionable literary technique. In Greek plays it was a device by which the gods were brought into the lives of men. The plot was so complicated or unyielding that only a god could untangle the skein of events. I find the idea utterly charming, quite true for many of the dramas played out by men. It is only the modern and postmodern sensibilities that could somehow conceive of men themselves as writing the last act of their lives. In Percy’s fiction the deus ex machina is used for its godlike quality: Val and Fr. Boomer in The Last Gentleman, Percival in Lancelot. Fr. Smith in Love in the Ruins, and Fr. Weatherbee in The Second Coming. Abbot Liebowitz is a member of that select group. He asked for help; help arrived; most important of all, he accepted it. He is, in tum, now the helper of others. The source and figure of supernatural help is always present—the intersection of time and timelessness, the still point of the turning world. He has arrived and waits for us to accept Him. We are, says Percy, the triadic creatures for whom a new law of the cosmos had to be written, just for us and because of our aboriginal catastrophe: We need help and help is available.
There has to be a good deal of merit in a book that tells the reader: “you are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed.” That aspect of Percy is very attractive indeed, but it is only one aspect and, taken alone, it can be misleading. It has caused a number of readers and critics to miss the point of his writing. In the same way his charm, his whimsy, his skillful use of irony have inadvertently influenced a number of readers to miss the profundity of his theme. Percy is, however, one of our most interesting writers precisely because he has the gift of prescience and the capacity for weighty truth-telling—something earned out of an agony of spirit at which we can only guess. He gives his reader for a brief time an insight into what the world is all about.