(For those interested, check out the Grumpy Old Man podcast on this same topic here.)
We all know the Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” and we now fully understand why they regarded it as a curse. But we should look for the silver linings whenever we can. Our normal customs give us the advantage, as Edmund Burke argued, of not having to think about the myriad of everything all the time, freeing us for hopefully finer pursuits. Perhaps the one advantage of strange times is that it allows us to either more deeply understand and affirm basic assumptions (such as our need for meaningful human interaction), or to question them and see how strange they might be. If we are unmoored, maybe we might reach something better than we knew before.
Few would doubt that the two greatest Catholic southern writers of the 20th century were Flannery O’ Connor and Walker Percy. O’Connor took her normal, everyday characters, and confronted them with something strange to jolt them out of complacency. Walker Percy, to my mind, went one better. He took normal people in normal situations showed how how strange the ‘normal’ really was. This was his great accomplishment in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.* It seems that Percy (who had medical training) wanted to administer a kind of shock-therapy for his readers He induced trauma to help us recover equilibrium.
Percy administers this shock of sorts through very simple questions, such as:
- When yearbooks are handed out, why does everyone look to see how many pictures they are in? Don’t we know what we already look like?Why do we all also not want anyone to know that we are doing this if everyone is indeed doing it?
- Why do we value antiques? Why do we seem to exhaust the meaning of things? Did past eras value antiques? Would a 17th century gentlemen want something from the 12th century more than his own time?
- Why do we have so many different versions of selves in the modern world?
Percy also includes this conversation he had with someone recalling the Kennedy assassination:
I remember that I was watching the soap opera As the World Turns. There was a scene between Chris and Grandpa, and I remember that particularly because I saw something scroll on the bottom of the screen that shots had been fired at President Kennedy. I remember thinking how insignificant the soap opera seemed in relation to what was happening in Dallas.
But before you saw that message, the soap opera seemed much more important than Kennedy’s visit to Dallas?
And, afterwards, did you resume watching the soap opera?
Lost in the Cosmos contains a section on semiotics in the middle of the book that I found too difficult, and some short fiction on some of this themes at the end of the book, but for me the heart of the work lies in the first 50-70 pages. Percy may intend to lean us towards particular answers, but mostly he remains content to ask the questions of meaning the self in the modern world (I include more excerpts in the postscript).
Many now recognize that we are disconnected now, but think that it is only the particular circumstances we face in the moment that creates this, i.e., masks, social media, polarization, and so on. I grant that this has a part to play, but I would like to go deeper and suggest that we are alienated from ourselves because the modern world alienates us from reality in general.
First some of the particular and surface elements of our discontent . . .
We like to assume that every technology occupies neutral space. It is neither good or bad, for us or against us. But surely, the way we interact with a technology will change us, and not all change is neutral. Working a hoe or hammer might give you stronger shoulders or forearms. Social media attempts a daring exploit. We know that communication works best when we use our whole being, which involves our bodies. Face to face we catch expressions and subtleties we would miss over the phone. Over the phone, we at least get voice inflections, and presumably speak with someone we know.
Facebook, Twitter, etc. attempts to gather all of our communicative apparatus and squeeze it through the eye a needle. Obviously, this fails–the narrowing of our being in our communication modes always narrows our ability to communicate effectively. Alienation and confusion result–“Why is everyone so angry on Twitter?” is because it is impossible to be a whole self on Twitter. We are unmoored when using this kind of communication and perhaps subconsciously rant against not so much the politics we disagree with but the fact of alienation itself.
Many have commented on this already, and perhaps we are learning this as a society, but alas–we are learning slowly.
We have paid less attention to the deeper nature of the right and the left, which also contributes significantly to the problem.
The “right” and “left” as categories of thought and being go far back into the earliest civilizations. There is a profound Christian tradition linked to this reality, which others have spoken of much better than I ever could. Perhaps its modern political derivations have their roots not in the Christian tradition, but in Greek tragedy, and how one reacts to Fate. The “Left” in such works argues for striving against established order. One need not accept everything just as it is. We can work to better our lot in life and the lives of others–the structure of things can alter. The ‘Right’ talks of acceptance and working within established norms, for to challenge them is to challenge divine order and invite even greater chaos–a kind of “nemesis.”
Both the “Left” and the “Right” have their place. I doubt even the staunchest conservative would object to the invention of glasses, for example, which does better one’s “natural” condition. But those on the left too have to understand at least some limits imposed by Nature, i.e., night cannot become day, winter will never be summer.**
The Greeks sought a mediator between these two poles and perhaps never found it. We too need such mediation. Percy hinted at how we are alienated from ourselves. It goes deeper–we are alienated from creation as well. I won’t make a direct case for the Christian perspective on Creation and the our expulsion from Paradise here. For our purposes we not that most every culture has creation myths that resemble the Christian story in some way. Since the Fall, perhaps a natural tension exists between night and day, earth and sea, and men and women. But we have forgotten that mankind was placed on earth in part to reconcile and mediate these polarities back to God. Men and women are reconciled through marriage.^ Indeed–life itself can bring a kind of trauma. Our broken state can be repaired, but not through ideology, but instead, the recreation of the world and ourselves through liturgy.
What was lost, can be found.
*There is a section in the book about a theory of language/semiotics that Percy admits will not satisfy the scholar and could be too ‘high’ for the layman. I reside in the latter category, and will not comment there.
Perhaps one day . . .
**There is a curious flip on certain issues that only highlight the strangeness of our times. The Left seems, on the one hand, to grant maximum autonomy for individuals to rebel against the ‘fixity’ of human biology. Pregnant? Get an abortion. You’re a man but you think you should be a woman? Take hormones and get surgery. But with non-human nature many are staunch conservatives. Climate change is bad for the modern left at least in part because of the change it brings to nature, which should be protected from alteration. Their attitudes hearken back to pre-modern ideas that sought harmony, not growth.
The Right on the one hand promotes traditional family values. On the other, they advocate for an economic system geared towards maximum individual autonomy and disruption of tradition. Marx, for example, supported capitalism and democracy because he saw them as weapons against traditional values and practices, which would have to go in order for the proletariat revolution to come about.
We don’t want people who are entirely either right or left. At least, our society cannot handle too many on either extreme. Of course we need some kind of harmonization of the two within our own persons as well as in society. What puzzles me is how those on both sides hold oil & water types of beliefs that have no internal coherence that I can discern.
^A hint as to why, if you think of marriage as an image of cosmic reconciliation, marriage requires priestly mediation.
And now . . .
Lost in the Cosmos Excerpts
(What follows is 95% copied from Percy’s book, which I have tweaked in parts for more accessible student use).
Which of the following selves, if any, do you identify with?
The Cosmological Self
The self is unconscious of itself only insofar as it can identify itself with a cosmological myth or classificatory system. For example, ask an LSU fan at a football game who they are, and they may reply, “I am a tiger.”
The Hindu/Buddhist Self
My self is impaled on the wheel of non-being, obscured by the veil of unreality. But it can realize itself by plumbing the depths of self until it achieves nirvana, or absorption and destruction into nirvana, or the Atman.
The Authentic Self
A more modern and secular version of this might run, “My self is buried somewhere within me, caked over with customs, habits, etc. that are not truly my own. I become a true self by my choices which may involve rejecting all traditions, norms, and if necessary, even Nature itself to become who I am truly supposed to be.
The Role Taking Self
We become a ‘self’ by taking on certain roles, as a mother, a lawyer, a mechanic, a macho-man, an ‘independent woman,’ and so on. When ‘in action’ within these roles, we feel ‘actualized’ and ‘alive.’
The High School Graduation Speech Self
You are created with certain rights and the freedom to pursue happiness and fulfill your potential. You achieve your potential through participation in society via family, work, political engagement, and so on. This happiness can be pursued and eventually caught.
The Diverted Self, or the Woody Allen Self
Our “selves” are in fact unbearable. That is–we cannot make anything of the “self,” either because the idea of the self is too light and insubstantial, or too heavy, for us to comprehend. The path to happiness is, frankly, diversion, or escape from the self. Thankfully, we live in a time when endless diversion is easily accessible.
The Free Self in Bondange
The rational pursuit of happiness that Jefferson espoused has become a flaky emptiness in our time. Every advance of objective understanding of the Cosmos, and the technologies we invent to gain that understanding, distances the self from the Cosmos precisely as far as we advance in understanding the physical world. The self, then, roams like a ghost through the Cosmos which it happens to understand very well. Thus, the self is free in a sense through its understanding of its predicament, but is powerless to do much about that predicament.
The Abandoned Self
The self only achieves ‘actualization’ by abandoning itself utterly to some goal or task. Think of the fevered artist, possessed by a sculpture they must finish, or the scientist who must complete the experiment at all costs.
Would a Christian conception of the self be like any of these? Which of the above is perhaps the furthest away from a Christian view of the self?
In many soap-operas of the late 20th century, amnesia was a favorite plot tool. A character would experience a trauma, and suddenly not know who they were. The world for them became at once hostile and confused, but also, re-enchanted. With the slate clean, anything was possible–you have a new lease on life and the self.
But this plot device is not confined to old soap-operas. The James Bond series of movies fits this in some ways. With each movie, reality is reset–new bad guys, new women, new locations to visit, etc. In these scenarios, previous excitement, trauma, encounters–none of them really move or shape the character.
Question: Is “amnesia” a favorite plot-device because
- The character in the story is sick of himself and needs a change, a reboot
- The writers are sick of their characters
- The writers are sick of themselves and they need a change
- The viewers long for the same amnesiac-like experience and they want to experience this vicariously through the characters.
- All of the above?
Things and Their Meaning
Pick up a home decor magazine, or watch one of the home decoration shows that are always playing in dentist’s offices, and you will note that we have a penchant for making simple things out of unusual objects. What I mean is–a coffee table can usually not be a normal coffee table. It is has to be
- A tree trunk made of cypress wood
- A vintage Coca-Cola crate
- An old lobster trap
- A large, flat rock
In other words, a coffee table can be anything but a board of wood with four legs.
Why has this happened?
- Because we are tired of ordinary tables, and we need novelty
- Because to feel like a self, we must distinguish ourselves from other selves in some way
- Because an unusual table is a great conversation piece, a way to break the ice with company
- Because it is good to recycle older things into newer uses and to repurpose their meaning
- Because the older thing comes from a time of greater coherence and ‘weight,’ possession of such objects seems to give ourselves more substance and ‘weight.’
- Because the modern self is voracious and consumes meaning. We continually need to expand, like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish itself with new objects, but like a vacuole, only in fact empties them.
Consider to what extent an antique is prized. Is it because
- It is beautiful and wonderfully made
- Because it is saturated with another time and place, and therefore resistant to absorption by the self? After all, things resistant to absorption by the self have a higher degree of power to form the self.
or . . . because the older thing comes from a time of greater coherence and ‘solidity’ unlike our modern plastic age. Thus, possession of such objects seems to give ourselves more substance and ‘weight.’
Has mankind always been like this? Would someone of the 14th century prefer something of his own time, or something from 4th century Rome?
The Self Amidst other Selves
Imagine that you are at a dinner party in a beautiful, urbane setting. You have wonderful food and drink to consume. You are at the party alone and are standing near another person whom the host “thinks you should meet.” You oblige your host and go to talk to the eligible young man/young woman, but quite frankly, after about 3 minutes you think the person is boring and you are not that interested. You are in a room by yourselves, with nothing to interrupt conversation should it occur, but things are going nowhere and getting awkward quickly. You know that the host will make sure you are alone for at least another five minutes (they are really hoping you hit it off) so extracting yourself from the conversation will not be possible without a lot of awkwardness.
Imagine that you are at that same dinner party, and have just been introduced to the same person. You have said ‘hello,’ you’ve known them for literally about 5 seconds. Suddenly, an earthquake strikes and much of the house collapses. Thankfully you both suffer only minor scrapes, and it seems that everyone else is more or less ok also. But–you are pinned underneath some rubble about 3 feet away from each other and will have to wait about 30 minutes for help.
Which situation would you prefer? Under which scenario is a good conversation more likely to occur?
Imagine that you are a movie star, say Robert Downey, Jr., or Emma Stone, and you have to stop in a small town to buy some food. Which is the greater fear?
- That the townspeople will recognize you, that they will detain you for 20 minutes or more, make you take selfies with them, you will have to sign autographs, they will expect you to say something funny or memorable, because they will tell everyone about meeting you, etc. You will have to be “on” for them.
- That no one will recognize you at all, and, in fact, you hear someone criticizing one of the movies you were recently in, a movie you thought was actually quite good.
Imagine . . .
You wake up with some dread. You have to make a big speech today, and you aren’t really prepared. You also have a physics test coming up, and you suppose you will fail that as well. You are nervous, and haven’t slept well recently. Things seem to be slipping in general–there was the argument with your friend last week and you haven’t really ‘made-up’ after that.
As you walk out of the house, a crazy person pulls up in his car and shoots you. He speeds off, but hits a fire hydrant and is apprehended by the police. The ambulance comes and helps you. You are in pain, but your mind is clear. People gather around and give you encouraging words. You make a few witty remarks to the EMT’s helping you, and people laugh. Your mom comes out terribly anxious, but you quote President Reagan back to her when he was shot–”Sorry, mom, I forgot to duck.” You notice the amazement of onlookers at your wit and presence in the moment. They whisk you away to the hospital. You will survive, the bullet missed everything vital, though of course you will have a long recovery.
As far as school goes, of course the speech and the test are waved, as is a lot of other schoolwork. Your estranged friend, feeling bad, apologizes to you and your relationship is restored. People from school come to visit you, and stories are told of how you responded to the terrible incident with bravery and charm.
- Unreservedly bad news. You have been shot and that is a terrible thing. There will be some minor damage you will carry in your body into old age. Not to mention–the person who shot you will of course suffer, via arrest, institutionalization, etc. This is also bad for him–physically and spiritually. You both would be much better off if he did not shoot you.
- Relatively bad news. All of the above is true, but the incident seems to have reset your life entirely in your favor. People view you differently now.
Anxiety and Depression
Many have remarked that people, and especially younger people, seem more anxious and disaffected than at any other time in recent memory. Why might this be?
Pick one or more
- Because modern life is more difficult and anxiety producing than during other times in the past.
- The young have always been anxious and whiny. There is no crisis. We just have many more ways to measure things now. People did not used to want to know how everyone was feeling, and we had far fewer ways to express our thoughts. In fact, by talking about it so much, we create the problem. Back in the old days, the young would be anxious, but just then be told to get over it and get back to work.
- Because for men, there has never been a time when your role in the world seemed so unstable. People talk of ‘toxic masculinity.’ In the media we consume, some men may be good guys but women will almost never be the bad guys.The educational system, so crucial to our success, is firmly oriented towards female achievement, which statistics bear out. Men want to provide but the job market is constantly in flux–there are no guarantees.
- Because things have never been harder for women. For those that want to stay home with kids, society will not support you, and there will be no community of moms to share life with. For those that work, there will be the impossible juggling of family in addition to dealing with the “man’s world” at work.
- Because our educational institutions have failed to prepare young people for the world, and so no wonder they struggle with coping with the future.
- Because the decline of religious belief and church attendance has left youth today completely adrift, and therefore, naturally anxious.
- Because the self has in fact experienced a radical loss of sovereignty, as technology has increased. We have the real sense that we have no place, that we are not really needed. We are like the astronauts in the movie 2001, punching at the air, unable to connect.
- Because modern life is insane, and enough to make anyone anxious and depressed. In fact, anyone who is not depressed and anxious at the nature of modern life are themselves deranged, or living in the land of the Lotus Eaters.
The word ‘boredom’ did enter our vocabulary until the 18th century. No one knows its etymology. One guess is that it comes from the French word, ‘to stuff.’
Why was there no such word before the 18th century? Pick all that apply.
- Was it because people were not bored before that time?
- Was it because people were bored but did not have a word for it?
- Was it because people were too busy trying to stay alive to be bored (but of course, rich dilettantes have always existed).
- Is it that we have been encouraged to be so self-aware, to ‘pursue happiness,’ that we inevitably become alienated from ourselves and therefore ‘stuff’ ourselves into oblivion?
- Is it because, starting in the 18th century, we have had an increasingly scientific view that disenchants the world, and thereby renders it meaningless?
Why is it that man is the only species that gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a person gets bored, a dog happily takes a nap.