My notes on the first panel I attended at the conference, “Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy & the 21st Century.” I’m not going to put the presenters’ names here because they might google themselves (what would Percy have made of that ability to “find ourselves” while losing ourselves on the internet?) and find these ramblings and tell me that I’ve committed some egregious error of academic etiquette.
Panelist #1: Percy “liked to write about people in the shadow of catastrophe.”
I like to read about people in the shadow of catastrophe. It should be a good match, me and Percy. Writer of catastrophe and reader of catastrophe. So why did The Moviegoer make me want to shake Binx Bolling until he woke up and quit the navel-gazing? Now that I think about it there is no impending catastrophe in The Moviegoer. Binx lives in the shadow of self-absorption, a catastrophe to be sure, but not the sort of calamity that leads to enlightenment.
Panelist #2: Said something to the effect that escape from this broken world may be necessary or even laudable. We escape into amnesia or narcotic refuge or compartmentalization or media (movies mostly). Amnesia can be a restart, an escape from the past and from self-preoccupation.
I escape into books. But with Percy’s books, at least the two and a half that I’ve read, there is no escape because I keep being reminded of how annoying is the self that I want to escape from.
Panelist #3: The joke-title guy. “I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.” This guy is the only other non-academic at this conference! He used to write self-help articles and lead personal growth and sales conferences. He points out the disconnect between self-help books and actual help or self-change. Percy in Lost in the Cosmos tells us all of the things in which we try to find meaning but are disappointed: science, work, marriage and family, school, politics, social life, churches. But Percy begs the question: where can the self find help or meaning? Then joke-title guy also begs the question. He doesn’t know where the self-help section is either.
I maintain that the “disconnect” is the power of the Holy Spirit. I can only change and become an authentic self if I receive “help” from an outside source, from God. The existentialists say that I can create my own meaning by making passionate, authentic decisions. But they never get there because they (we) are paralyzed by the inability to know what the right decision is. Jesus said to die to self, take up your cross, and follow Him. This death of self is the only way to get off of the merry-go-round of self-absorption and introspection. Follow Him. Die to self.
At this point in the conference I started thinking about Percy in comparison and contrast to C.S. Lewis. I’ve been reading a biography of Lewis, and in fact I brought it with me to NOLA and finished reading it there.
Walker Percy: The problem of boredom/lostness.
C.S. Lewis: The problem of longing/loss.
These are very similar issues. We experience what Lewis called “joy”, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” But after the momentary and unsustainable experience of joy is over with, we either search for it and try to reclaim in art, literature, nature, religion, diversion, politics or any other of the many things we think will satisfy that elusive longing. And we become bored or lost or both because nothing really satisfies. Or we give up the search for this ineffable joy and resign ourselves to (Walker Percy) “depression in a deranged world.”
Walker Percy: “devised a transaction with the world” (according to one panelist).
C.S. Lewis: made a “treaty with reality” (according to McGrath’s biography).
Lewis’s treaty with reality was his way of coping with the horrors of war. He gave himself up to be a soldier but determined not to think about the war, not to write about it, not to make it the focus of his life. (This war experience was before Lewis became a Christian.) Later, Lewis came to believe that Christianity was the best “treaty with reality” that explained both the world’s miseries and its longing for redemption and joy.
Percy’s transaction with the world was also Christian, specifically Catholic Christianity. “The self is problematic to itself,” Percy wrote, “but it solves its predicament of placement vis-Ã -vis the world either by a passive consumership or by a discriminating transaction with the world and with informed interactions with other selves.” His discriminating transaction was an acceptance of Catholicism with all its teachings about sin and death and Christ and sacrifice.
Walker Percy in Esquire, December 1977, “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself”: “This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer â€œScientific humanism.â€ That wonâ€™t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I donâ€™t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.”
And so I contemplated the intersection of an AngloIrish scholar of medieval literature who came to Christ at Oxford University and remained a lifelong member of the Church of England and a Catholic novelist from southern Louisiana whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. They would not seem to have much in common.