Nipping at the self

Walker Percy

Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is a strange and amusing period-piece, being written in the early 80s. It has a certain wackiness, left over from the 70s, and has references to Burt Reynolds, Dallas, and, more significantly, Carl Sagan, who might perhaps be described as a forerunner to Richard Dawkins, though more focussed on cosmology than biology, and who provides an alternative to Percy when it comes to their thinking about our place in the cosmos.

Percy’s book, perhaps typical of its era, touches on the shifting mores of Western society, celebrity culture, fashion and nuclear war. It borrows from science fiction. But at its heart is the fact that, as he says, the self is the most alien thing in the universe, and also that there is the modern conceit that the universe is more-or-less explainable.  This book may be from the 80s, but of course these issues are far from resolved, with the current populist push for science as explanation for everything (“scientism”), against theorists of mind such as Thomas Nagel, who still maintain that consciousness is a once-off phenomenon whose origins remain opaque to us, and may always be so.

Instead of progressing in systematic fashion, Percy delves into these issues by constructing a book of multi-pronged attacks – charts and diagrams, plays, stories, thought experiments and multiple choice questionnaires which explicate multiple viewpoints but leave issues somewhat open-ended (though they are a prompt for the reader to head in the direction of Percy’s subtle point of view). (Percy is a novelist who likes to explore existential issues in his fiction, so he is used to subtly and creatively conveying a moral point of view.) He continually circles the issue, nipping at it from various angles.  And he navigates nimbly through the asteroid belts of philosophy, psychology, semiotics and physics.


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