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The Message in the Bottle
How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, And What One Has To Do With The Other
By Walker Percy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1975 Walker Percy
All rights reserved.
THE DELTA FACTOR
How I Discovered the Delta Factor Sitting at My Desk One Summer Day in Louisiana in the 1950's Thinking about an Event in the Life of Helen Keller on Another Summer Day in Alabama in 1887
In the beginning was Alpha and the end is Omega, but somewhere between occurred Delta, which was nothing less than the arrival of man himself and his breakthrough into the daylight of language and consciousness and knowing, of happiness and sadness, of being with and being alone, of being right and being wrong, of being himself and being not himself, and of being at home and being a stranger.
WHY DOES MAN feel so sad in the twentieth century?
Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?
Why has man entered on an orgy of war, murder, torture, and self-destruction unparalleled in history and in the very century when he had hoped to see the dawn of universal peace and brotherhood?
Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?
Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments?
Why does a man often feel better in a bad environment?
Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?
Why have more people been killed in the twentieth century than in all other centuries put together?
Why is war man's greatest pleasure?
Why is man the only creature that wages war against its own species?
What would man do if war were outlawed?
Why is it that the only time I ever saw my uncle happy during his entire life was the afternoon of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?
Why did he shortly thereafter become miserable when he learned that he was too old to go to Europe to shoot at Germans and stand a good chance of being shot by Germans?
Why is it that the only time he was happy before was in the Argonne Forest in 1918 when he was shooting at Germans and stood a good chance of being shot by Germans?
Why was he sad from 1918 to 1941 even though he lived in as good an environment as man can devise, indeed had the best of all possible worlds in literature, music, and art? Why is it that a man riding a good commuter train from Larchmont to New York, whose needs and drives are satisfied, who has a good home, loving wife and family, good job, who enjoys unprecedented "cultural and recreational facilities," often feels bad without knowing why?
Why is it that if such a man suffers a heart attack and, taken off the train at New Rochelle, regains consciousness and finds himself in a strange place, he then comes to himself for the first time in years, perhaps in his life, and begins to gaze at his own hand with a sense of wonder and delight?
What is the difference between such a man, a commuter who feels bad without knowing why, and another commuter who feels bad without knowing why but who begins to read a book about a man who feels bad without knowing why?
Why does it make a man feel better to read a book about a man like himself feeling bad?
Why was it that Jean-Paul Sartre, sitting in a French café and writing Nausea, which is about the absurdity of human existence and the nausea of life in the twentieth century—why was he the happiest man in France at the time?
Why was it that when Franz Kafka would read aloud to his friends stories about the sadness and alienation of life in the twentieth century everyone would laugh until tears came?
Why is it harder to study a dogfish on a dissecting board in a zoological laboratory in college where one has proper instruments and a proper light than it would be if one were marooned on an island and, having come upon a dogfish on the beach and having no better instrument than a pocketknife or bobby pin, one began to explore the dogfish?
Why is it all but impossible to read Shakespeare in school now but will not be fifty years from now when the Western world has fallen into ruins and a survivor sitting among the vines of the Forty-second Street library spies a moldering book and opens it to The Tempest?
Why is it difficult to see a painting in a museum but not if someone should take you by the hand and say, "I have something to show you in my house," and lead you through a passageway and upstairs into the attic and there show the painting to you?
Why are Americans intrigued by the idea of floating down the Mississippi River on a raft but not down the Hudson?
Why do more people commit suicide in San Francisco, the most beautiful city in America, than in any other city?
Why is the metaphor Flesh is grass, which is not only wrong (flesh is not grass) but inappropriate (flesh is not even like grass), better and truer than the sentence Flesh is mortal, which is quite accurate and logical?
What would you do if a stranger came up to you on a New York street and, before disappearing into the crowd, gave you a note which read: "I know your predicament; it is such and such. Be at the southeast corner of Lindell Boulevard and Kingshighway in St. Louis at 9 a.m., April 16—I have news of the greatest importance"?
Where are the Hittites?
Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but not one single Hittite, even though the Hittites had a great flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people?
When one meets a Jew in New York or New Orleans or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here? But it is even more remarkble to wonder, if there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here?
Where are the Hittites? Show me one Hittite in New York City.
Given two men living in Short Hills, New Jersey, each having satisfied his needs, working at rewarding jobs, participating in meaningful relationships with other people, etc., etc.: one feels good, the other feels bad; one feels at home, the other feels homeless. Which one is sick? Which is better off?
Why do people driving around on beautiful Sunday afternoons like to see bloody automobile wrecks?
Why did the young French couple driving through the countryside with their baby, having heard the news of a crash nearby of an airliner killing three hundred people and littering the forest with bits of flesh, speed frantically toward the scene, stop the car, and, carrying the baby, rush toward the dead, running through thickets to avoid police barricades? Did they have relatives on the plane?
Why did French and German veterans of Verdun, a catastrophic battle in which one million men were killed, keep returning to Verdun for years after the war, sit quietly in a café at Lemmes on the Sacred Way, speaking softly of those terrible times, and even camp out for a week in the shell hole or trench where they spent the worst days of their lives?
Why is the good life which men have achieved in the twentieth century so bad that only news of world catastrophes, assassinations, plane crashes, mass murders, can divert one from the sadness of ordinary mornings?
Why do young people look so sad, the very young who, seeing how sad their elders are, have sought a new life of joy and freedom with each other and in the green fields and forests, but who instead of finding joy look even sadder than their elders?
What does a man do when he finds himself living after an age has ended and he can no longer understand himself because the theories of man of the former age no longer work and the theories of the new age are not yet known, for not even the name of the new age is known, and so everything is upside down, people feeling bad when they should feel good, good when they should feel bad? What a man does is start afresh as if he were newly come into a new world, which in fact it is; start with what he knows for sure, look at the birds and beasts, and like a visitor from Mars newly landed on earth notice what is different about man.
If beasts can be understood as organisms living in environments which are good or bad and to which the beast responds accordingly as it has evolved to respond, how is man to be understood if he feels bad in the best environment?
Where does one start with a theory of man if the theory of man as an organism in an environment doesn't work and all the attributes of man which were accepted in the old modern age are now called into question: his soul, mind, freedom, will, Godlikeness?
There is only one place to start: the place where man's singularity is there for all to see and cannot be called into question, even in a new age in which everything else is in dispute.
That singularity is language.
Why is it that men speak and animals don't?
What does it entail to be a speaking creature, that is, a creature who names things and utters sentences about things which other similar creatures understand and misunderstand?
Why is it that every normal man on earth speaks, that is, can utter an unlimited number of sentences in a complex language, and that not one single beast has ever uttered a word?
Why are there not some "higher" animals which have acquired a primitive language?
Why are there not some "lower" men who speak a crude, primitive language?
Why is there no such thing as a primitive language?
Why is there such a gap between nonspeaking animals and speaking man, when there is no other such gap in nature?
How can a child learn to speak a language in three years without anyone taking trouble about it, that is, utter and understand an unlimited number of sentences, while a great deal of time and trouble is required to teach a chimpanzee a few hand signals?
Why is it that scientists, who know a great deal about the world, know less about language than about the back side of the moon, even though language is the one observable behavior which most clearly sets man apart from the beasts and the one activity in which all men, scientists included, engage more than in any other?
Why is it that scientists know a good deal about what it is to be an organism in an environment but very little about what it is to be a creature who names things and utters and understands sentences about things?
Why is it that scientists have a theory about everything under the sun but do not have a theory of man?
Is it possible that a theory of man is nothing more nor less than a theory of the speaking creature? Is it possible that the questions about man's peculiar upside-down and perverse behavior, which he doesn't understand, have something to do with his strange gift of speech, which he also doesn't understand? Is it possible that man's peculiar predicament, his unhappiness in the twentieth century, his upside-down behavior, disliking things which according to his theory he ought to like, liking things which according to his theory he ought not to like, has come to pass because the old modern age has ended and man has not the beginning of an understanding of himself in the new age because the old theories don't work any more, because they showed man as monster, as centaur organism-plus-soul, as one not different from beasts yet somehow nevertheless possessing "freedom" and "dignity" and "individuality" and "mind" and such—and that such theories, monstrous as they are, worked for a while in the old modern age because there was still enough left of belief in Judeo-Christianity to make such talk of "sacredness of the individual" sound good even while such individuals were being slaughtered by the millions, and because science was still young and exuberant and no one noticed or cared about the contradiction in scientists' understanding other men as organisms-beasts and putting them into the world of things to understand and so putting themselves above the world and other men?
But time ran out and the old modern world ended and the old monster theory no longer works. Man knows he is something more than an organism in an environment, because for one thing he acts like anything but an organism in an environment. Yet he no longer has the means of understanding the traditional Judeo-Christian teaching that the "something more" is a soul somehow locked in the organism like a ghost in a machine. What is he then? He has not the faintest idea. Entered as he is into a new age, he is like a child who sees everything in his new world, names everything, knows everything except himself.
When man doesn't know whether he is an organism or a soul or both, and if both how he can be both, it is good to start with what he does know.
This book is about two things, man's strange behavior and man's strange gift of language, and about how understanding the latter might help in understanding the former.
I have made the assumption that the proper study of man is man and that there does not presently exist a theory of man. Accordingly, the book is an attempt to sketch the beginnings of a theory of man for a new age, the sort of crude guess a visitor from Mars might make if he landed on earth and spent a year observing man and the beasts.
It is the meager fruit of twenty years' off-and-on thinking about the subject, of coming at it from one direction, followed by failure and depression and giving up, followed by making up novels to raise my spirits, followed by a new try from a different direction or from an old direction but at a different level, followed by failure, followed by making up another novel, and so on.
As it stands, it is nothing more than a few trails blazed through a dark wood, most dead-ended. I should consider it worthwhile even if it established no more than that there is such a wood—for not even that much is known now—and that it is very dark indeed.
Most readers will not want to read all chapters. It is hard, for example, to imagine anyone at all at the present time who would want to read the last. Only after writing it did it occur to me that it had, for the moment at least, no readership whatever. Nobody will be interested in it except psycholinguists and transformational grammarians, and the latter won't like it. The only comfort I can take is that this particular excursion into what many readers will take to be the esoteries of language is no ordinary blind alley. Unless I am very much mistaken, it lies across the impasse which must be broken through before the new man in the new age can begin to understand himself.
I make no apologies for being an amateur in such matters, since the one thing that has been clear to me from the beginning is that language is too important to be left to linguisticians. Indeed everything is too important to be left to the specialist of that thing, and the layman is already too deprived by the surrendering of such sovereignty.
If justification is needed, I plead the justification of the visitor from Mars: it is necessary in this case to be to a degree an outsider in order to see these particular woods for the trees.
One must be a Martian or a survivor poking among the ruins to see how extremely odd the people were who lived there.
I don't even know what to call it, the object of this mild twenty-year obsession. If I say "language," that would be both accurate and misleading—misleading because it makes you think of words and different human languages rather than the people who utter them and the actual event in which language is uttered. So the book is not about language but about the creatures who use it and what happens when they do. Since no other creature but man uses language, it is really an anthropology, a study of man doing the uniquely human thing.
The proper study of man is man, said Pope. But that's a large order, especially nowadays, when there is no such thing as a study of man but two hundred specialties which study this or that aspect of man. Ethnologists and anthropologists study man's culture and evolution. Linguists study languages. Psychologists study stimuli and responses. Ethologists study those drives and instincts man shares with other creatures. Theologians study God and man's relation to God. But only a Martian can see man as he is, because man is too close to himself and his vision too fragmented. As a nonpsychologist, a nonanthropologist, a nontheologian, a nonethologist—as in fact nothing more than a novelist—I qualify through my ignorance as a terrestrial Martian. Since I am only a novelist, a somewhat estranged and detached person whose business it is to see things and people as if he had never seen them before, it is possible for me not only to observe people as data but to observe scientists observing people as data—in short to take a Martian view.
Excerpted from The Message in the Bottle by Walker Percy. Copyright © 1975 Walker Percy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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