Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Percy's Lost in the Cosmos

Victor K. Kramer, "Lost in the Cosmos: Memory, Sacramentality, and Commitments in the Present."

Kramer argues that Percy in Lost in the Cosmos investigates what has gone wrong with contemporary man, why individuals are dislocated, "and how, through a sacramental awareness (especially through friendship and commitment to others), we might begin again to find our way" (68). Kramer edited with Lewis A. Lawson Conversations with Walker Percy and More Conversations with Walker Percy. He is emeritus professor of English at Georgia State University.

Kramer argues that Percy characters "have frequently lost the ability to discern what it means to live in a particular place" and how to live sacramentally in the world. This means the ability to grasp the transcendent in the ordinary. Two of the main reasons why humans are lost is consumption and abstraction. Humans cloud the present "with abstractions" or focus their attention on some "future utopia."

Kramer also notes how Percy voices opposition to scientism. The idea that science is the only form of knowing and that it can explain everything which eliminates all mystery. Percy believes that both science and art are ways of knowing. He thinks novels are a way of knowing.

In the first part of Lost in the Cosmos Percy describes what is wrong with modern man. Percy was a medical doctor before contracting tuberculosis. He had to give up his pan on being a doctor. Instead, he took up the vocation of a novelist. A strong element of both his fiction and non-fiction is a diagnosis of what is wrong. Percy's purpose is redemptive. We cannot cure what it wrong until we diagnose it. This is what he does in the first part of Lost in the Cosmos. Kramer notes, "Percy investigates many of the sicknesses of the present moment which bring about our forgetfulness and thus cause individual persons to be lost. . . . [Percy] suggest that if individuals are to find themselves, it will be possible only if they learn to live well in the present" (68). One of the myths of modern man is "the autonomous self," according to Percy. This myth prevents humankind from finding their true self. Percy's writings contain satire, irony, and paradox. For example, to find your self, you have to stop looking for it or as the Bible says, unless a man dies, he shall not live. The Bible says those who save their lives shall lose it, and so on. This is the kind of idea you find in Percy;s writings. Percy's Lost in the Cosmos can help the reader gain a sacramental view of the world. It can open up their minds that God can be experienced in the ordinary.

The middle section of the book Percy presents a primer on semiotics. Percy presents his ideas of the mystery of language that was influenced by the writings of Charles Peirce. Many of these writings are collected in The Message in the Bottle. Kramer writes, Percy believes we have lost contact with the uniqueness of persons and the "sacramental view of life." Percy thinks we can develop a theory of man from the study of language. He argues for a triadic view of language. Percy insisted in all his writings that humans are unique and other-centered. We cannot know our own selves without the other. We are born for relationship with others. Kramer notes, "How does one begin to find oneself? Percy hints that reverence for, and with, other persons is the answer" (73).

Kramer suggests that humankind could not receive the good news of the Gospel directly. It must be communicated indirectly. Kramer states, "These people are perfectly happy to be just what they are, and certainly they do not want to be disturbed by news from some other realm. Yet I think what Percy is telling his readers, over and over, is precisely this: we are lost because we refuse news of the transcendent, and we miss the news because we forget who we are--persons with responsibilities to other persons" 74). I think Percy, in some sense, is doing pre-evangelism. He is clearing the ground so people can hear the good news of salvation and be saved. Of course, one can take this too far. Percy is both an artist and has a deep desire for people to see the transcendent in the ordinary.

In the last section of Lost in the Cosmos Percy writes a fictional story of a "Space Odyssey." He presents two options to the reader. One is to leave earth and begin a new civilization somewhere else. The alternate choice is to go to Lost Cove, Tennessee with less than perfect human beings. Percy clearly sides with those who remain on earth. Kramer writes, "Percy's sentiments are clearly with the characters who choose to remain on Earth with all its troubles. The real difficulty . . . is to see the world as both mysterious and sacramental" (78).

One can see some similarities in Percy's view and Augustine's City of God. We cannot make a perfect city on earth. Earth is not our final destination. We were made for God and a relationship with Him. Kramer states that Percy "wants his readers to realize . . . that the entire cosmos is given us to celebrate, be in wonder of. Yet the only way to understand (or even begin to make sense) of that world is to enter into it" (80). Extreme abstraction or consumption is not the way to live in the world. We must live with a sacramental view of the world recognizing the transcendent in the ordinary.

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