Are We Lost in the Cosmos?
by Travis Pickell
Lately, I have been feeling very philosophical. I suppose it is a result of the fact that I have had a lot of extra time to sit around and read and think during my month off from school. Maybe it is the fact that my May-Term class (Philosophy of Education) was sort of a 3-week philosophical boot-camp, which I am just now beginning to process. Either way, I have a heightened sensitivity toward all things philosophical right now: my brain is operating at an increasingly abstract level and I am thinking in terms of “isms” a lot more than usual. This was my state of mind last week, when I stopped into Barnes and Noble to find a book to distract myself. I chose a book by one of my favorite southern writers, Walker Percy. The book, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. So much for breaking out of the philosophical mind-set.
In this mock self-help book, Percy points out various absurdities of contemporary human existence (yes, Percy is the prototypical Existentialist). At times he goes to extremes to place the reader into an existential dilemma in order to build upon his thesis statement:
“With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as the 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.” (12, emphasis added)
What Percy is saying, in short, is that the more we seek to understand the world around us, while neglecting and denigrating our “selves,” the more alienated we become from the world around, and from ourselves. With no reference to a “guiding myth,” or “controlling narrative” (my words), we have no ability to understand who we are. As a result, we do one of two things. Either we identify ourselves with the “stuff” around us (by mindlessly consuming whatever is pleasurable, or by expertly consuming the finest things we can acquire) or we attempt to transcend ourselves and the world (either by trying to objectively describe the world through science, or by subjectively describing the world through art). The first option–immanence–tends to be more or less successful, but empty and meaningless. The second option–transcendence–is a sad attempt to escape the way of immanence, to which the scientist/artist must eventually return (this return being accompanied by problems of re-entry; i.e., the absent-minded professor who is disengaged from his family and has his head in the clouds or the writer who locks himself in his room with a fifth of Jack Daniels, or suffers from wanderlust and cannot “settle down”).
The source of this state of affairs, for Percy, is the loss of any reference to anything actually transcendent (i.e. God). He seems to bemoan this loss, while also resisting “fundamental Christianity” (read: the Moral Majority). He truly seems to be in a existential predicament from which he cannot escape; the irony of the book is that it is a self-help book with no answers, only questions.
But what if God is not dead? What if there is a controlling narrative into which we may place ourselves? What if the Christian story is more comprehensive and compelling than the Moral Majority of the ’80s and ’90s let on? Percy masterfully captures the angst felt by so many in our time: a time when the gap between what we know about the Cosmos and what we know about ourselves is ever-widening. This angst, however, is not the be-all and end-all, if we could only see that there is more to the story than what we see in our telescopes and microscopes. The boredom and anxiety that we experience is truly a result of the “self being stuffed with itself” (71), as Percy says, but that really is no different than what Saint Augustine said: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”