Lost in the Cosmos: A few more thoughts.

Some of this stuff falls outside the normal subjects covered in this blog (whatever that means), but it’s my Media Empire and I’ll do what I want. Actually, I’m not sure just what I’m going to put here yet, but just in case it’s ponderous, long-winded, and nonsensical (a distinct possibility), here’s a link I found by googling “potato eye rutabaga”. It’s almost certain to be more interesting that what follows.

First off, a couple of people commented on my first post about this book to point out that the author would probably be happy to discover that his book annoyed me. I said as much myself in the original post. It’s hard to imagine that he would be displeased to have provoked a thoughtful (if badly uninformed) response from a reader of his work. While the latter parts of the book annoyed me less, there were still assumptions I found problematic.

I was almost to the end of the book when I put my finger on one of the things that was troubling me. There is a stated assumption in the book that the world is a mad, ugly, brutal place, and that people are having a hard time dealing with it should come as no surprise. Part of his premise is that this is a new development, that the rise of technology and the decline of traditional ways for an individual to place himself in the world (specifically, religion) have led to historically desperate times for a species that is aware of itself, but is thoroughly unable to grasp itself the way it can any other thing in the cosmos.

Saying that things are different now is a tricky thing. In high school one of my favorite teachers pointed out that the historically large body of poetry and literature produced by soldiers during World War I was a reflection of a new level of horror that technology had brought to war. She might be right, I’m sure as hell glad I’ll never know those hardships, but I raised my hand. Might it just be that this was the first war where most of the foot soldiers were literate?

So, it’s hard to compare previous times to our own. Walker Percy cites many statistics of increasing behaviors that would be indicative of a growing dislocation of selves in a world that is increasingly mad, but I wonder. Perhaps there is a hierarchy of problems people face: eating, staying warm, reproducing, understanding your place in the universe. That does place us in a historic period; most people on this planet are going to eat dinner tonight, most are going to sleep under a roof, and some have even decided not to bother with reproduction. That leaves a historically staggering segment of the population with the luxury of feeling Lost in the Cosmos.

An aside: the author regularly characterizes a modern view of sex as just another need, like eating and breathing. If that were true, I’d be dead. Sex is a want, not a need. Sometimes it is a very strong want that make us just as aggressive and stupid as the need to eat, but the cost of failure is not the same. There is a rather large section of the book devoted to society’s idea that sex is a need — he uses hypothetical space voyages to create small groups of people forced to live together for many years. He does a good job demonstrating that the assumption of sex as a need can lead to major trouble, but then leaves it at that, not considering it might be possible to construct a crew where there is simply no expectation that this “need” will be met. Captain Cook or Magellan might be able to give some hints on the subject.

(Although twice — twice! — in the latter parts of the book he added “other” at the end of his multiple-choice questions. Maybe he thought we were ready for it by then.)

Back to luxury: the fundamental schism between Walker Percy and myself. In his view, being lost is a bad thing, leading to man’s ability to cooly, intellectually commit genocide (genocides of passion or of ideals are, apparently, better genocides)…

Um, let me jump back to the sex for a second. He echoes Kierkegaard as saying that the Christianity is responsible for eroticising sex. Before Christianity, he maintains, sex did not have the magical quality it did after. It’s odd, because the non-idealized sex before Christianity seems to be benign, while the casual sex in the wake of Christianity’s decline is a root cause of the increasing violence of our society. I think I might have to read that part again.

So, right. Luxury. I think we live in a time when needs are so completely and invisibly fulfilled that we’ve forgotten what a need really is. Five hundred years ago, people might have wanted to understand their place in the cosmos; some guy might have had periods at night wondering “why did I say that?”, revealing a fundamental desire to understand his self and his place in the world, but then his belly growled and the youngest (of nine) kids woke up crying with a really scary-sounding cough, and he was too busy surviving to stop and ask why.

Why do we feel lost? Because we can.

Percy’s not here to argue with me, so on occasion I will have to do it for him. I promise I’ll do my level best not to make him a straw man, but to present his rebuttal as honestly as I can. Let’s not fool ourselves, however; his responses would be much more complete (and interesting) than the ones I’m putting in his mouth.

Percy: But by any empirical measure — drug use, war deaths, suicide — there’s something wrong here.

[Mmm.. that’s actually pretty close to a straw man. But my heart’s in the right place, I promise.]

Escalating war deaths are a large theme later in the book. I wonder, though, what you would find if you normalized against population. Certainly I’ll agree that war is much more dangerous for civilians these days, but Hannibal broke a record for one-day battlefield slaughter that was only surpassed in the last one hundred years. And now that I think of it, the civilians in Carthage were eventually completely wiped out. War sucks, and it has always sucked. There is one enormous difference, now, I’ll agree… the weapons we don’t use.

Drug use and suicide I put in the “luxury” column. People don’t kill themselves very often if it means their children will starve (of course I have nothing to substantiate that claim with). You want to prevent a suicide? Make that person responsible for someone else’s life. That does make Suicide an artifact of the technological age, and even traceable to individuals being trapped in world they can’t place themselves in. So there is some level of agreement between Percy and me.

Dang, how many paragraphs was that without talking about Christianity and sex? Too many! I think it is historically accurate to say that with the rise of the Judeo-Christian tradition (and don’t forget Islam!) sexual mores changed. It would be easy to conclude causality, but there was a more fundamental revolution going on, something that gave rise to centrally-controlled religions and a complex code of sexual behavior. Cities.

I must admit now that I have no evidence to back this statement up, and I have read nothing that supports it. It just sounds right to me. This is not scholarship; it’s some guy talking.

Cities (and increasing population in general) created an unprecedented social challenge; there was a need for a whole new, externally applied and enforced code of conduct to allow so many people to live in such a small space. Those rules also allowed for an economy to exist that made services possible.

Percy: But mysticism isn’t necessary to accomplish that.

Jerry: You’re right, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s harder to question a mystery.

So, cities. People living packed together. Religion changes, sexual mores change. Religion was the embodiment of the new set of rules, and rules governing sex were naturally included. They’re tied together, but ultimately they’re just two parts of the answer to the question “how can we all live together?” Two effects of the same cause.

Now, thousands of years later, life is changing again, and what has broken religion are democracy and prosperity. Central authority still exists, but it must suffer questioning, and react to the arbitrary fiats of the consensus. You can’t do that and maintain an aura of absolute moral clarity.

For “Christian Era”, I would substitute “Urban Era”. The Urban Era is ending. Cities will still be here, bigger than ever, but I think there is a fundamental change going on nonetheless, one tied to cities finally doing what they are supposed to do: ensure the prosperity and health of its inhabitants. Even the most awful of US cities is doing a good job of this, on a historical scale. (If the Nitrogen levels in the biosphere gets any worse, we’ll be back to stonings, but for now let’s enjoy it.)

I was afraid of this. I’m deep in and almost ready to get back to the first point I wanted to make. Maybe if I repeat the sentence it will be like the previous ramble never happened…

I was almost to the end of the book when I put my finger on one of the things that was troubling me. Percy said (once again), that the world sucks. Then I remembered a point he had made earlier, possibly in the optional reading. A “world” is something we each create, a crazy network of signs and associated memories. A world is inside your head. (Saying that, Percy’s statement that the only thing we can’t put into our world is ourselves becomes obvious; it would be recursive. The world is a subset of our selves.) So when he says the world is insane, that has nothing to do with me.

Granted, there is a substantial overlap between people’s worlds, or civilization could not exist. But differences, especially in interpretation, are not just good, but I suspect in the grand scheme (a machine Percy and I could argue about at length) those differences are necessary.

I’ll try to be faster with the second point. Sorry, but there has to be a second point.

Percy discusses at length coping strategies for souls trapped in this place. It boils down to, live with it, transcend it, or kill yourself.

Obviously the most interesting option is to transcend it. (Borrowing from my off-the-cuff statement above that I’m liking more an more, the transcendent state is when you can see that the world is a part of you, rather than the other way around.) Percy lists two and exactly two paths to transcendence: Science and Art. I think there are those capable of finding other paths.

The problem with this transcendent life is that except in a few rare cases it is temporary. A scientist cannot remain in the realm of his field forever; sooner or later he has to go to the grocery store. Percy claims, and I believe, that ‘re-entry’ is much more difficult for an artist. He lists eleven modes (still the numbering!) that an artist can use to come back to Earth after living in that place where art comes from.

Seeger: what the hell is this reentry stuff? From where? To where?

Percy: What do you do?

Seeger: I’m a writer.

Percy: I see. [Writers are an especially messed-up breed, by Percy’s reckoning. I just find them annoying.] Do you drink?

Seeger: Well, yes.

Percy: [checks off item two of eleven — item one is still hanging] Where do you live?

Seeger: Prague.

Percy: You don’t say. Where before that?

Seeger: Well, kind of nowhere. The road.

Percy: [Checks off item three. He looks me over. Number four is sex. He doesn’t bother to ask. Likewise he skips over returning home, living a lie, mysticism, and suicide. Skipping ahead he rules out numbers ten and eleven, being ‘saved’ and frontal assault. He’s got a feeling about number nine, however…] Tell me about your day.

Seeger: I work on my software and I write.

Percy: All the time?

Seeger: Pretty much. I hang with my brother sometimes.

Percy: So… this whole nasty world you accuse me of creating… It could be there and you’d never know it.

Seeger: Umm….

Percy: You are one lucky man. And yet, the characters you create, the best ones, live in a world of terrifying ambiguity, a place where there is no truth, no right, no wrong, just an individual alone and adrift, knowing his actions ultimately mean nothing.

Seeger: Exactly! Now don’t you see?

Percy: …

I think that’s what Percy would say. (Option nine is to never come down, to barricade yourself against the pesky real world and not come out. Optimistically, that’s been my mode. It’s either that or I’ve never left the ground. It sure feels like I’ve been up there.) Two of the options on how an artist can deal with the real world don’t require dealing at all. Suicide and monkhood. (I think Percy had a more elegant name for it.) Option one, the one skipped over, is actually the option of last resort — a well-adjusted artist performing at a high level without showing any unusual signs of social discomfort.

Which, finally, brings me to the very heart of the difference between Percy and myself. We agree that the human is newcomer to a landscape unlike any terrain Scopes’ monkeys had to deal with. Man is self-conscious, a monumental, catastrophic and very recent development. We’re together on all that. The crazy thing about mankind, the frightful thing, is that [Jerry hesitates in his writing, thinking there might be two things, but one is more frightful] is that he can ask why. Dogs don’t ask why. I bet whales don’t ask why. Even the most ardent gorilla-language people have backed off on our primate cousins asking the Big Question.

The Question fascinates me, particularly because I don’t think there’s an absolute answer. 42? It’s as good as any. Maybe that’s why people with Answers bother me; I don’t even understand the question, but I’m pretty sure there is no answer. Absolutes are all false.

King Arthur: Go find the grail!

Sir Jerry: But it doesn’t exist.

King Arthur: And…?

Sir Jerry: I’ll find it or die trying.

In the above scene, King Arthur is another part of my head that I understand even more poorly than most parts.

Man is a creature of contradictions, able to believe contradictory things, to hold them in his head at the same time. This is perhaps the triumph of symbolic thought, that complex systems can be reduced to an idea, and fundamentally conflicting ideas, in their reduced states, can be entertained simultaneously. Thus people who can read can vote to not teach evolution in their schools. It makes no sense whatsoever, but here we find the most fundamental trait of humanity. We don’t make sense.

Above, when Percy cited the characters in my stories, he pointed out that they were lost, searching for meaning where none existed, islands in an ocean they didn’t understand. (Maybe I’m embellishing on the words I previously put in his mouth.) It’s true. But…

The difference between Percy and me is that, ultimately, whatever words you want to wrap it in, he sees man as having a terrible dark side. I see man as having a terrible dark side that makes him interesting enough to justify his existence.

Not included in this episode: Consciousness and Evolution and Language and the Unnameable Self. Seriously, if you like thinking, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Lost in the Cosmos. I have mentioned more than once that this book pissed me off, but what some folks don’t catch is that that’s high praise. I said somewhere that I’d like to argue with Walker Percy over beers sometime, and if he wants to throw down I’ll be there. The thing is that jargon exists for a reason; in any given field it’s important for a word to mean a particular thing. The first half of the discussion would be a tutorial. After that poor Walker would discover that nothing I have to say is actually new.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

1 thought on “Lost in the Cosmos: A few more thoughts.

  1. Seriously deep book Jerry. What happened to just chilling in the summer like days?

    I liked your arguing with the author and I won’t even touch number 4.

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