Warning: Whoo, boy, this episode is long, and pretty heavy. It might even be boring; it’s hard for me to tell. It’s got philosophy and shit like that in it. If you want to give it a pass, that’s cool (there is one funny bit but it’s a ways down there). I don’t want to let you down, though; you came here to read a blog episode and by dammit you should read a blog episode. Here’s a link to a another blog, which at first glance might even be fun. I found it by Googling “cat fluffy poop”.
This is not the sort of book you gobble up in one sitting. It is steak rather than soup; you have to chew each bite or you risk choking. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book explores man as the language-using animal, how that fundamentally alters his relationship with the cosmos by creating a means to name, and therefore redefine, everything. Other organisms have an environment which they act upon and acts upon them. The language-user has a world, a giant network of signs and the things they represent, some concrete, some abstract, and some provably wrong. We have replaced our environment with something entirely in our heads.
Before we go any further, know that the ideas from the book and the ideas the book inspired in my own head are quite entangled here. I’ve made some attempt to separate them, but in the end this is a muddled rambling. It’s what I do.
Not long ago I exchanged messages with a friend of mine who has a child who has recently crossed a magical threshold. The biggest reward for learning to talk is the ability to ask questions. The world expands from the room the child is in to encompass everything, through the proxy of other people who share the same language. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a child that age who was not ravenously curious about the world, and kids like that are fun. Why? What’s fun about responding to an inexhaustible barrage of questions? I’m not sure, but I think maybe it’s in part an echo of that hunger still in everyone, a recognition of the joy that living in a world that is growing at a dizzying rate.
A common question for kids that age is “What is this?” In Lost in the Cosmos, there is the example of a child holding a balloon, and asking the father, “What is this?” The reply is simply, “That’s a balloon.”
To me, thinking about it, that hardly seems like it should be a satisfying answer. Here I hold a mysterious object, it behaves oddly, falling slowly when dropped, making odd noises and POPPING! Holy crap! That scared the shit out of me! Yet when I ask my father “What is this?” and he responds with a sound I’ve never heard before, I am satisfied. No, more than that, I’m excited. That thing is a balloon. I move my lips as I repeat the word to myself. Balloon. Now I know what it is; I can put it in my world. (it was already there, I suppose, but now its handle is simpler and my world is better integrated with Dad’s world.)
There is a difference between “That thing is called a balloon” and “That thing is a balloon.”
OK, let’s take a break from all that and talk about the book. It starts with a short quiz, to prepare you for a longer quiz, to allow yourself to measure your response to the ideas he presents. My first response: Multiple choice questions about subtle and nuanced issues piss me off. Every single damn question I wanted to write my own response. None of his options fit. I think he would be happy to hear I felt that way.
On the preliminary quiz, however, was question 6, which I particularly liked: Consider the following short descriptions of different kinds of consciousness of self. Which of the selves, if any, do you identify with?
Option 6g demonstrates what is good and what is bad about the book (you can skip to the last sentence if you want, I took the liberty of italicizing it.): The Lost Self. With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, Jefferson or no Jefferson, is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland. The rational Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness embarked upon in the American Revolution translates into the flaky euphoria of the late twentieth century. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly.
Like pretty much every other choice in the the quiz, the damn thing is weighed down with so many presuppositions and conditions that it crumbles under its own weight. Much of the preamble is to establish his assumption that people didn’t feel this way before. He cites lots of statistics (some patently ridiculous, others based on Donahue) to support this assumption.
Yet at the core is a really interesting comment. The last sentence could be the blurb under the title of more than half the things I’ve written. (Home Burn, the second of the Tin Can stories, has the protagonist ready to blow the airlock and become exactly such a ghost.)
Reading this book has been a lot like playing golf. Just when I’m about ready to chuck my clubs in the pond, I hit a really good shot. Just when I’m about ready to put this book down, he says something that really resonates.
Still, the multiple-choice format was getting on my nerves and Percy was tossing the word “self” around in a fashion that seemed to assume mutual understanding where there was none. Then I hit a section about halfway through, an intermezzo as the author called it. He introduced the section by saying it was optional reading, and that it would probably piss off just about everyone; it would be too technical for the average Joe and much too oversimplified for the well-versed in the field. Keeping in mind that learning semiotics from Walker Percy is probably a lot like learning Physics from a Carl Sagan television show, I dove in.
That’s when everything changed. I liked that part of the book. I really, really liked it. I had to stop every couple of pages because it made me think of so many different things. Finally we get to the definition at the crux of the human condition: a sign (a word, for instance), gains its significance in a three-legged interaction. There is the word, the thing it represents, and an interpreter. (I think that’s the wrong word, but it will do. In fact, between us it’s the right word.) That leaves exactly one thing in the whole damn universe that can’t be represented: the interpreter itself. There’s no third leg. In your world, you are the interpreter, and you are the only thing you can’t interpret.
I was talking to a buddy a few years ago, and I said that I didn’t understand someone. His response was, “I don’t even understand me.” I can’t tell you how liberating it was to hear someone say that. Since then, I’ve not bothered trying to understand anyone, least of all myself.
Most people could probably sum me up pretty easily. I can’t. Apparently that’s normal, and leads to a host of problems which can be called the human condition. We can define everything, fit it into our world, live with the contradictions, and everything fits, except one thing. There is only thing we can’t put a label on and fit into the structure of the world as we have encoded it: Ourselves. Thus we are lost in the cosmos.
Personally, I think the triangle bit works well, right up until it crashes against something too complicated. Fundamentally the system we use to describe the world, this language of ours, just plain can’t handle something as massively messed up as the first-hand, inside-the-head knowledge of a human being. Maybe we’ll develop that language some day. It will probably look a lot like math, with a layer of fertilizer and a sprinkling of fairy dust.
Speaking of math, the author cites a time about 100,000 years ago when our organism crossed a threshold, and language was born, and it catapulted humanity in a very short time to ruler of the planet. I wonder if more recently another language was born, more abstract but therefore less limited. I’m sure that mathematics as a language has been discussed, but I don’t know the arguments.
I can certainly agree that man has the ability to apply meaning to events, where any other organism would simply react. (Woman, in my experience, takes this to a level that leaves me baffled. “What did you mean by that?” I try, but can’t come up with any words better than the ones I already used. “I’m tired,” I might say. “What do you mean?” After some thought I respond, “I mean I’m tired.” It goes the other way as well, when she says “I’m tired” I’m supposed to know that means I shouldn’t have ordered the shrimp cocktail.)
So man has this world that exists entirely in his head, and the only thing that doesn’t fit is his own self. This world is composed not just of what is and what was, but also what might have been and what might be. That’s what turned out to be so cool about the story “First Day” (a tale readers of this blog rescued), the uniquely human ability to ruin a perfectly good time with the knowledge that it will end. The Curse of Imagination, I call it somewhere.
Actually, let me take that back, and in so doing subvert the message of Lost. The day is not ruined by the immanence of night. Not necessarily. In “First Day” it is the certainty of night that makes the day so delicious. We live in an insane world, filled with people doing insane things. There is pain and suffering and death everywhere, and somewhere in the backs of our heads lies the possibility of the extinction of our species. But it was fun getting caught in the rain today.
Also in that magical middle section of the book Percy discusses the omniscience modern society ascribes to science; that while in almost any field the practitioners of science feel they know almost nothing, the world at large sees Science as a mighty power, and the only reason the world hasn’t been fixed is because… well, the scientists working on my problem are either underfunded or lazy, greedy bastards.
The intermezzo is still disturbingly filled with absolutes (Science and Art are the only remaining ways to transcend the predicaments of the human condition), and there is an assumption that what we are feeling is new to this age. That’s too bad, because the fundamental message of the book doesn’t depend on that. We are lost in the Cosmos, and what really sucks is that we invented the Cosmos we’re lost in.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.