The conference, “Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy & the 21st Century,” that I attended in New Orleans along with Eldest Daughter was a very Catholic conference. I would guess that most, not all, of the speakers at the conference were Catholic. The conference was held on the campus of Loyola University, a Catholic Jesuit university. I told one man at the reception on Friday evening that I had eight children. He immediately assumed that I was Catholic. I should have said, “No, I’m just a fertile Baptist.” I did tell him that I was Baptist whereupon he asked me what I was doing at a Walker Percy conference in the middle of all of the Catholics. Didn’t we (Baptists) think they (Catholics) were all a bunch of heathens?
I reassured him that I was OK with Catholics if he was OK with Baptists. Everyone else at the reception drank alcohol. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the food. We all enjoyed the keynote address, and then Eldest Daughter and I went back to our bed and breakfast and enjoyed a good night’s rest.
On Saturday morning Eldest Daughter and I decided to mirror the theme of the conference by getting lost in New Orleans. New Orleans, at least the part of New Orleans where we were lost, has lots of narrow, one-way streets, with potholes, and people park alongside the streets, making them even narrower. It’s picturesque, but confusing. We wandered the byways of NOLA for over an hour before we happened upon the Loyola campus and were returned to the bosom of the Walker Percy conference. It all felt predestined.
We did miss the first seminar sessions of the morning, but we were able to make the 10:15 session on Technology and Media in Lost in the Cosmos. The first panelist used the word “semiotics” more than once, but I did not walk out or make any rude noises. If one attends a conference about an author who is interested in something called “semiotics” one must put up with a certain amount of semiotics. Anyway, apparently the alphabet is to blame for modern man’s alienation. The post-alphabetic self gains the whole world (on paper) but loses itself? Actually this analysis of the plight of modern man bears thought. What were the negative results of the invention of the printing press? What did we lose when we put everything into print? The art of story-telling? Community? And what are we losing now as we put everything into pixels on a computer screen?
The next presenter spoke about “the liquid society”, a phrase coined by a sociologist named Baumann. The idea is that we live in a society of individuals and individualists with fragmented lives, no long-term career, no family ties, no sense of place or community, our identities in constant flux. This lack of fixed identity is a major theme of Lost in the Cosmos.
May 9, 2011. Venice. European society, said the Holy Father, is submerged in a liquid culture; in this regard, he pointed out “its ‘fluidity,’ its low level of stability or perhaps absence of stability, its mutability, the inconsistency that at times seems to characterize it.”
He noted that Bauman attributes the birth of the “liquid” society to the consumerist model. The philosopher stated that its most profound impact has been felt in social relations, and, more in particular, in relations between man and woman, which have become increasingly flexible and impalpable, as manifested by the present concept of love reduced to a mere passing sentiment.
Speaking to an audience in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, Benedict XVI opposed this model of a liquid society with a model of the society “of life and of beauty.”
“It is certainly an option, but in history it’s necessary to choose: man is free to interpret, to give meaning to reality, and it is precisely in this liberty that his great dignity lies,” said the Pope.
Again, the loss of community, and the resultant loss of self, is a theme. Belief in technology and progress alone is inadequate and dangerous. We need a community to “in”form our sense of self. Lost in the Cosmos involves the reader in the message through a repeated use of the second person: “You grow thoughtful” or “you feel like a castaway on an island”. Also, the reader is asked questions and enticed to participate in thought experiments and multiple choice quizzes.
Percy said that “words have a tendency to wear out.” Because of this loss of meaning, authors in particular keep trying to find new ways and new words to express old truths. Percy was always trying to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Tell All The Truth by Emily Dickinson
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
I’m not sure how successful Mr. Percy is in communicating with me, but I’m also not sure I am his target audience. Percy was born in 1916, so he’s a twentieth century author to be sure. However, I’m something of an anachronism. I’ve never felt the twentieth century alienation and loss of faith in God that most twentieth century authors exhibit. I settled the God question when I was a teen with C.S. Lewis, a little Josh McDowell, G.K. Chesterton and two verses from the Bible:
Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. Job 13:15
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68
Not saying I have all the answers or never feel depressed or never doubt God’s intentions or nearness. But who or what else is there to assuage the ache? (Listen to Ben Shive’s song, Nothing for the Ache, which I would embed here if I could.)