LOST IN THE COSMOS by Walker Percy


The Last Self-help Book
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A semi-successful jeu d'esprit. This rambling philosophical entertainment combines snappy little lectures, multiple choice questions, diagrams, "thought experiments," and bits of science fiction in a kind of rueful Percyflage about the fate of the self in a crazy, centrifugal world. With "Western society. . . a wasteland, its values decayed, its community fragmented, its morals corrupted, its cities in ruins," with traditional religion so untenable and secular therapies so trivial, the self is inevitably driven inward, only to find a peculiar void. For, as Percy notes in a long "intermezzo" on semiotics, "the self of the sign-user can never be grasped." This variation on a familiar phenomenological theme (the self's irreducible subjectivity, you can't simultaneously know and perceive yourself knowing, etc.) leaves us with something like nihilism. The self seems to be hopelessly alienated from the cosmos--whence the quest for E.T.s. attempts to communicate with chimps, manic plunges into sex, drugs, booze, and so forth. But while the spectacle of doomed efforts at "reentry" into the cosmos offers plenty of targets for Percy's gallows humor, he obviously has a lingering sympathy for honest, old-fashioned modes of transcendence (e.g., Christianity and high art), and he rejects out of hand positivism, village-atheism, and various counsels of despair. So the result is an uneasy stand-off. The weakest part of Percy's routine is undoubtedly the limp, predictable fantasy that it concludes with (two "space odysseys," involving such items as a handful of survivors from a nuclear holocaust taking refuge in Lost Cove, Tenn., and some heavy sexual doings on an 18-year starship flight). Elsewhere, Percy's take-it-or-leave-it, whistling-in-the-dark-night-of-the-soul wit has its moments. He can't quite fuse together the strains of social satire and intellectual confession, but he's marvelously knowledgeable and never dull. A curious (in all senses) performance--with echoes of the Message in the Bottle as well as Percy's novels.
Pub Date: June 1st, 1983
ISBN: 0312253990
Page count: 276pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1983


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