Walker Percy was born on this day in 1916. Percy’s fiction is full of seekers, the theme clear and compulsive from the first pages of his first, prizewinning novel, The Moviegoer. “Then it is that the idea of the search occurs to me,” says Binx Bolling. “What is the nature of the search? you ask.… The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
The seeking can be more direct in Percy’s non-fiction books — one is titled Diagnosing the Modern Malaise — but it is never humorless. In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), Percy takes aim at what he saw as a desperate double-obsession among his contemporaries, that of gazing both hopefully inward and spellbound outward, in the manner popularized by Carl Sagan’s recent Cosmos book and television series. Wondering how we can know, or think we know — Percy was a devout Catholic — so much about the universe and so little about our “self,” the author takes us on a tour of philosophy, literature, and contemporary culture, from advertising to the Phil Donohue show. We mirror-gaze at the Amnesic Self, the Bored Self, the Impoverished Self…,and self-help ourselves to various charts and questionnaires. In “The Self as Nought,” Percy notes that a recent issue of a home-and-garden magazine listed fifty ways of making a coffee table — out of a big spool for telephone cable, out of a lobster trap, a door, a Coca-Cola sign — without ever mentioning a horizontal piece of wood with four legs:
Question: Why was not a single table designed as such rather than being a non-table doing duty as a table?
Because people have gotten tired of ordinary tables.
Because the fifty non-tables converted to tables make good conversation pieces.
Because it is a chance to make use of valuable odds and ends which would otherwise gather dust in the attic.
Because the self in the twentieth century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world but, like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.