Lost in the Cosmos
The Last Self-Help Book
By Walker Percy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1983 Walker Percy
All rights reserved.
The Amnesic Self: Why the Self Wants to Get Rid of Itself
IN ALL SOAP OPERAS and in many films and novels, a leading character will sooner or later develop amnesia. He will not necessarily develop pneumonia or cancer or schizophrenia, but inevitably he will be overtaken by amnesia. He (or she) finds himself in a strange place, having forgotten his old place, his family, friends, business. He begins a new life in a new place with a new girlfriend, new job. After a while in his new life he begins to receive clues about his old life. A stranger stops him in the street and calls him by a strange name. The best exploitation of the pleasures of amnesia occurred in Hitchcock's Spellbound where Gregory Peck had amnesia and Ingrid Bergman was his psychiatrist. For the moviegoer there occurred first the pleasure of the prospect of a new life and the infinite possibilities of the self as represented by Gregory Peck. The second pleasure is the accidental meeting with Ingrid Bergman, who is sensitive to the clues that Gregory misses, and who is a reliable guide, his Beatrice, who can help him recover his old life—for even amnesia, if prolonged, can become as dreary as one's old life.
Here is a nice example of Ingrid picking up clues to his past identity, a search which will allow them to have the best of both worlds, a discovery of oneself and one's past without the encumbrances of the past, and a joining of hands with Ingrid for a new life in the future:
Ingrid (psychoanalyzing him in a hotel room): I would like to ask you a medical question.
Gregory: All right.
Ingrid: How would you diagnose a pain in the right upper quadrant?
Gregory: Gall bladder—pneumonia—
Ingrid: It is obvious you are a doctor.
Here is an extra dividend for the moviegoer who is identifying with Peck or Bergman. Ingrid is on the track of who he is (who you are). You are a doctor, an identity which seems to interest women more than, say, a banker or an auto dealer.
Question: Is amnesia a favorite device in fiction and especially soap operas because
(a) The character in the soap opera is sick and tired of himself and his life and wants a change.
(b) The writer is sick and tired of his character and wants a change.
(c) The writer is sick and tired of himself and his life and wants a change.
(d) The reader or moviegoer or TV-viewer is sick and tired of himself and his life and wants a change—and the housewife is the sickest and tiredest of all.
(e) The times are such that everyday life for everybody is more or less intolerable and one is better off wiping out the past and starting anew.
A variant of the amnesic-plot device is the inadvertent return of the amnesiac to home territory, where he is welcomed by a lovely woman, unknown to him, who is evidently his wife. The crucial scene is his being led off to bed.
A non-amnesic equivalent is a twin or look-alike who is mistaken for someone else—by a beautiful woman. Invariably she finds him not merely oddly different but somehow better, more attractive, than the original. After a love scene, she looks at him wide-eyed and smiling (you were never like this before!).
This version demonstrates that the source of pleasure for the moviegoer is not the amnesia but the certified and risk-free license to leave the old self behind and enter upon a new life, whether by amnesia or mistaken identity.
Thought Experiment: Test your response to vicarious loss of self by imagining amnesia raised to the highest power. Imagine a soap opera in which a character awakens every morning with amnesia, in a strange house with a strange attractive man (or woman), welcomed by the stranger, looking out a strange window with a strange view, having forgotten the past each morning and starting life afresh, seeing the window, the view, himself, herself, in the mirror afresh and for the first time. Does this prospect intrigue you? If it does, what does this say about your non-amnesic self?
The Self as Nought: How the Self Tries to Inform Itself by Possessing Things which do not Look like the Things They're Used as
IN A RECENT ISSUE of a home-and-garden magazine, an article listed fifty ways to make a coffee table.
One table was made of an old transom of stained glass supported by an antique brass chandelier cut ingeniously to make the legs.
Another was a cypress stump, waxed and highly polished.
Another was a big spool used for telephone cable set on end.
Another was a lobster trap.
Another was a Coca-Cola sign propped on Coke crates.
Another was a stone slab from an old morgue, the blood runnel used as an ash tray.
Another was a hayloft door set on cut-down sawhorses.
Another was the hatch of a sailboat mounted on halves of ships' wheels.
Another was a cobbler's bench.
Not a single one was a table designed as such, that is, a horizontal member with four legs.
Question: Why was not a single table designed as such rather than being a non- table doing duty as a table?
(a) Because people have gotten tired of ordinary tables.
(b) Because the fifty non-tables converted to use as tables make good conversation pieces.
(c) Because it is a chance to make use of valuable odds and ends which otherwise would gather dust in the attic.
(d) 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.
Thus, ordinary four-legged tables have long since been emptied out and rendered invisible.
Even the cobbler's bench, which, for a while, resisted the ravenous self and for some years remained a cobbler's bench upon which one could set drinks and art books, has now disappeared into the vacuole and become as invisible as a Danish modern. The cobbler's bench has become in fact a table. Tables are now being manufactured which look like cobblers' benches but are not.
Thought Experiment: Try to imagine the circumstances under which the fifty non-tables converted to use as coffee tables would become less and less desirable until one would actually prefer an ordinary table constructed of four legs and a top. E.g., imagine you are an archeologist of the twenty-first century, exploring the abandoned beach cottages of Martha's Vineyard and finding all manner of strange artifacts used as tables—pieces of driftwood, capstans, shark jaws— and that you need a good worktable and, not recognizing these objects as tables, you construct a simple and sturdy table from a plank of wood and four lengths of two-by-fours.
Thought Experiment (II): Consider to what extent an "antique" is prized because it is excellently made and beautiful and to what extent it is prized because it is an antique and as such is saturated with another time and another place and is therefore resistant to absorption by the self—just as a pine piling saturated in creosote resists corrosion by the sea—and thus possesses a higher coefficient of informing power for the nought of self.
If you say that a writing table made by Thomas Sheraton is of value because it is excellently made and beautiful, how would you go about making a writing table now that would be similarly prized as an antique two hundred years from now?
The real question of course is whether the twentieth-century self is different from the eighteenth-century self, both in its reliance on "antiques" to inform itself and in its ability to make a writing table which is graceful and useful and for no other reason. Was a well-to-do eighteenth-century Englishman content to buy a Sheraton writing table, or would he have preferred a fifteenth-century "antique"?
The Self as Nought (II): Why Most Women, and Some Men, are Subject to Fashion
THERE IS NO FASHION so absurd, even grotesque, that it cannot be adopted, given two things: the authority of the fashion-setter (Dior, Jackie Onassis) and the vacuity or noughtness of the consumer. E.g., bustles in the West, bound feet in the East.
It happens that a woman will see a new fashion, a certain kind of hat, a new hairstyle, the cut and length of a skirt, a French-wrap swimsuit, and she will want it. She buys it. Often the source of the fashion is a famous and attractive person or a well-known couturier.
It is illuminating that some fashions are set by mistake. It is reported, for example, that when Wallis Warfield Simpson appeared at Ascot with the second button of her blouse left inadvertently unbuttoned, millions of women followed suit. And when John Wayne's belt buckle slipped to one side in a scene in the movie Red River, thousands of urban cowboys began to buckle their belts to the side.
In a certain New York disco located near a hospital, interns and nurses would drop in at all hours wearing their hospital greens. Whereupon it became fashionable for non-medical people to go discoing in wrinkled hospital greens—which are now sold at J. C. Penney.
The efficacy of fashion turns on the self's perception of itself either as a nought or at least as lacking something, and its perception or misperception of the splendid wholeness of public figures as evidenced by even the most carelessly worn badges of their substantiality—when in truth the selves of Jackie Onassis and Wallis Simpson and John Wayne are probably more insubstantial than most.
Question: What does the saleslady mean when she fits a customer with an article of clothing and says: "It's you"?
(a) She means the same thing the customer means if you should ask her: It is becoming to me. It looks nice. I don't have a thing to wear. It does something for me.
(b) She means that it—the hat, blouse, hairstyle, dress—actually accentuates your best features—eyes, hair—while minimizing your worst: no neck, etc.
(c) It will please your husband or lover.
(d) It will impress other women.
(e) Most other women are already wearing it and you look dowdy without it.
(f) The saleslady means what she says. It really is you. That is, you are not much without it, you perceive yourself as mousy, and you are a something—your self in fact, your new true self—with it.
But if the saleslady means what she says—and since you have gone through any number of such styles in the past— then it must follow that the other articles in the past were also you and are no longer. How can that be? It could only be because some sort of consumption takes place. The nought which is you has devoured the style and been sustained for a while as a non-you until the style is emptied out by the noughting self.
Consider the stages of the consumption:
First stage: You see an article or a style worn by a person with a certain authority. At first glance it seems outlandish, even absurd. Or ugly, like the long skirt of the New Look of the 1950s.
Second stage: You see more people wearing it. It is still outlandish, but it is an outlandish something and you are fading.
Third stage: You try it on. The saleslady says it is you. You laugh, shrug, shake your head, but secretly the possibility is born that it can be you.
Fourth stage: You buy it and wear it. For a while, it is you and you are it. That is, you perceive it as informing you and you as informed, either as a new you or the old real you which has never come to light before.
Fifth stage: Gradually the new style becomes everyday, quotidian, rendered neutral. No matter how exotic it is, like a morsel to which an amoeba is attracted and which it surrounds and takes into itself, it is devoured and becomes part of the transparent flowing substance of the amoeba.
Sixth stage: After a sufficient lapse of time, the husk or residue of the new style is excreted and becomes an oddity, a slightly shameful thing but still attached, like the waste in the excretory vacuole of the amoeba.
If you don't believe this, take a look at an old snapshot of yourself wearing a Jackie-O pillbox hat twenty years ago—or a ducktail Elvis haircut. You will laugh or frown and put it away. It looks queer. It is not only not you. It is a not-you.
Thought Experiment: Assuming there is a certain perceived, or misperceived, authority behind the setting of a fashion, e.g., the attractiveness and fame of a Jackie O, John Wayne, or the putative knowledgeability of Dior, try to imagine the nature of the authority of the fashion-setter and the state of mind of the consumer which brought it to pass that women wore bustles, which made their rear ends grotesquely prominent when women's rear ends are already more prominent, relatively speaking, than any other mammal's.
The Nowhere Self: How the Self, Which Usually Experiences Itself as Living Nowhere, is Surprised to Find that it Lives Somewhere
ON THE JOHNNY CARSON Show, it always happens that when Carson or one of his guests mentions the name of an American city, there is applause from those audience members who live in this city. The applause is of a particular character, startled and immediate, as if the applauders cannot help themselves.
Such a response is understandable if one hails from a hamlet like Abita Springs, Louisiana, and Carson mentioned Abita Springs. But the applause also occurs at the mention of New York or Chicago.
Question: Do Chicagoans in Burbank, California, applaud at the mention of the word Chicago
(a) Because they are proud of Chicago?
(b) Because they are boosters, Chamber of Commerce types, who appreciate a plug, much as a toothpaste manufacturer would appreciate Carson mentioning Colgate?
(c) Because a person, particularly a passive audience member who finds himself in Burbank, California, feels himself so dislocated, so detached from a particular coordinate in space and time, so ghostly, that the very mention of such a coordinate is enough to startle him into action?
Thought Experiment: You are a native of New York City, you live in New York, work in New York, travel about the city with no particular emotion except a mild boredom, unease, exasperation, and a dislike especially for, say, Times Square and Brooklyn, and a longing for a Connecticut farmhouse. You make enough money and move to a Connecticut farmhouse. Later you become an astronaut and wander in space for years. You land on a strange, unexplored (you think) planet. There you find a road sign with an arrow, erected by a previous astronaut in the manner of GIs in World War II: "Brooklyn 9.6 light-years." Explain your emotion.
The Fearful Self: Why the Self is so Afraid of Being Found Out
A RECENT POLL ASKED people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright. Yet in the conventional objective scientific view, man is an organism among other organisms and a man should therefore not be terrified to be surrounded by his own kind, other like organisms who are not merely not hostile but by the very nature of the occasion well disposed, and to open his mouth and speak in a language he has learned from his fellowmen. A wolf howling alone in a wolfpack doesn't get stage fright.
Question: What is so frightening to so many people about speaking to an audience?
(a) Is it because the ever-present chance of making a fool of oneself is multiplied by the number of listeners, so that an audience of 50 persons is 50 times more terrifying than one? Is an audience of 50 million a million times more terrifying than 50?
(b) Is it because, since one person, friend or stranger, is often difficult to deal with, 50 people are 50 times more difficult?
(c) Is it because, say with an audience of 500, you are being looked at by at least 499 people whose gaze you cannot defend against by looking back, that is, you are being seen from this or that vulnerable angle where your mask or persona may not be in place? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy. Copyright © 1983 Walker Percy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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