Saturday, May 21, 2011

Some Books (4)--The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other by Walker Percy

The novelist Walker Percy remains a continuing interest of me. Several years back, I posted on his Love in the Ruins, and am slowly reading through his body of work. This collection of essays, written between 1954 and 1975, address his "recurring interest...[in] the nature of human communication and, in particular, the consequences of man's unique discovery of the symbol." Many of the chapters are a bit esoteric for my taste, but two in particular grabbed my attention: "The Loss of the Creature," and "Notes for a Novel about the End of the World."

Percy explains "the loss of the creature" by way of the modern practice of tourism. This idea was of particular interest to me. Many of my postings here have been of travel and traveling, and one day I may even pull it together into something a little more substantial.

Using the Grand Canyon as an starting point, he imagines the experience of the first Spanish explorer who stumbled upon it. And he follows that "to no one else is it ever as beautiful--except the rare man who manages to recover it, who knows that it has to be recovered." In this case, he notes that the canyon, "the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind....Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex....The highest point, the term of the sight seer's satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex....Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sightseer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it...He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years. For him there is no present; there is only the past of what has been formulated and seen and the future of what has been formulated and not seen."

Percy acknowledges that there are ways in which "the thing," can be recovered. One can leave the beaten path by avoiding all of the facilities provided for seeing the thing (though even this quickly becomes institutionalized and programmed, i.e. Lonely Planet, etc.) One can engage in a dialectical recovery of the thing, "which brings one back to the beaten tract but a a level above it." Finally, a "breakdown of the symbolic machinery by which the experts present the experience to the consumer," or even a national disaster may present opportunities for the real recovery of the thing.

Percy observes the tendency (particularly among American travelers,) to feel let-down in they do not capture the "it" of wherever they are going. An example of this would be the American tourist couple traveling in Mexico, becoming hopelessly lost and stumbling onto a remote Indian village where they remain several days and witness a religious festival complete with corn dance. They both know that "this is it," the authentic, defining experience. According to Percy, "their hope has something to do with their own role as tourists in a foreign country and the way in which they conceive this role." The author puts his finger on something I have long felt, but was unable to really articulate. In my travel posts of past years, I include photographs of places, but rarely did I include pictures of people, unless it happened to be those with whom I was traveling. In Georgia, on a number of occasions, I passed on opportunities to photograph farm workers, harvesting crops much as they had done for millennia--by hand, with horses and wagons. I instinctively knew that what they were doing was of far more significance than what I was engaged in. To objectify them, to treat them as quaint curiosities that would entertain my friends at the coffee shop--or look good on a blog post, was demeaning to them, as well as being a cheapening of the moment for me. Percy would describe this as a loss of sovereignty over the experience. I carry the image in my mind, and that is sufficient.

Percy ends the chapter, as follows:

The loss has come about as a consequence of the seduction of the layman by science. The layman will be seduced as long as he regards beings as consumer items to be experience rather than prizes to be won, and as long as he waives his sovereign rights as a person and accepts his role of consumer as the highest estate to which the layman can aspire....the person is not something one can study and provide for; he is something one struggles for. But unless he also struggles for himself, unless he knows that there is a struggle, he is going to be just what the planners think he is.

In the other chapter noted above, Percy writes of those novelists who write about the End of the World. By this, he does not mean anything in the latest end-times fantasy or science fiction, but rather those writers who have "an explicit and ultimate concern with he nature of man and the nature of reality where man finds himself. Instead of constructing a plot and creating a cast of characters from a world familiar to everybody, he is more apt to set forth with a stranger in a strange land where the signposts are enigmatic but which he sets out to explore nevertheless." These authors betray "a passionate conviction about man's nature, the world, and man's obligation in the world."

Percy makes some interesting, and astute, generalizations about authors. "The nineteenth-century Russian novelists were haunted by God: many of the French existentialists are haunted by his absence. The English novelist is not much interested one way or the other....American novels tend to be about everything. Moreover, at the end, everything is disposed of, God, man, and the world." To Percy, these authors know that "something is wrong here," exhibiting a "single strain...a profound disquiet." He asks, "Is it too much to say that the novelist, unlike the new theologian, is one of the few remaining witnesses to the doctrine of original sin, the imminence of catastrophe in paradise?"

The subject of the postmodern novel is a man who has very nearly come to the end of the line. How very odd it is, when one comes to think of it, that the very moment he arrives at the threshold of his new city, with all its hard-won relief from the sufferings of the past, happens to be the same moment that he runs out of meaning!

Which will be more relevant of the "lost" man of tomorrow who knows he is lost: the new theology of politics or the renewed old theology of the Good News? What is most noticeable about the new theology, despite the somber strains of the funeral march, is the triviality of the post-mortem proposals. After the polemics, when the old structures are flattened and the debris cleared away, what is served up is small potatoes indeed.

Walker Percy, who died in 1990, knew a thing or two about what was coming.

1 comment:

Milton T. Burton said...

Wonderful post about a wonderful subject. I need to know more of Percy. "Love In The Ruins," coming when it did and being so predictive, has led me to believe that he was one of our greatest thinkers.