In Search of the Self and Percy's Last Self-Help Book

by Carl Blomgren

Before I had finished reading Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos, The Last Self-Help Book, I purchased five more copies to spread the good word around to some of my cronies, who I felt were, like myself, lost in the cosmos. The fact the book was on sale for $3.99 was perhaps a factor in my buying five, rather than two, copies. The point is that I hadn't read a book since Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that moved me towards such prodigious generosity.

Why was I so moved? For the last 45 years or so, I've wondered about this entity called, "self," especially "myself." Not satisfied with the simple answers — they had to be simple to reach me — delivered from the pulpit, I've had to look elsewhere.

Where should l look: Within? Experience? Adventure? Nature? The printed word? Others? Yes, all of these provide grist for the searching mill. The printed word, especially, has become a primary source in my search for self and meaning. I bit on every book that had self, existence, or freedom in the title; so when I came across Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, I was hooked. Percy had to be speaking to me. He provided a preliminary quiz designed to let me know whether or not I should even buy the book, even though he assured me that the book would not make me wealthier nor more sexy (darn it). It just might help me, he contended, discover who I wasn't — with an outside chance of discovering who I am. "The hard road was not made for easy walking."

Percy places these words of Fredrich Nietzsche at the beginning of the book:

We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves....Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, "Each is the farthest away from himself" — as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.

Yet the 2,500-year-old Delphic Oracle, "Know Thyself," continues to reverberate in our ears today. Percy accepts the challenge. He wonders how we survive in a Cosmos about which we know more and more about stars, quasars, and nebulae that are thousands of light years away, while we know less and less about ourselves, in spite of the fact that we've been stuck with it all our lives and in spite of sixteen psychotherapies (at last count), 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians. What is the nature of this ghost set adrift in the Cosmos? How do we come to know about it?

Walker Percy, the ironist, answers this question by not answering it — at least directly. He plays with paradox by asking such questions as: "Why does the self want to get rid of itself?" "Why is the self afraid of being found out?" "Why is the self the only object in the Cosmos which gets bored?" "What is the cure for the depressed self?" ("Thought Experiment," pp 75-79). Why suicide, of course — or suicide held at least as a viable option because the ex-suicide feels:

Suddenly you are dispensed...free to do so...like a prisoner released from the cell of his life...free for the first time in your life to consider the folly of man, the most absurd of all the species, and to contemplate the comic mysteries of your own existence...you are free to go home and...dance with your wife. The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work...on an ordinary morning...the ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn't have to. (p. 6)

There are few writers with both the talent and the perspective to explore the nature of man with solemn levity, who can combine the co(s)mic with the philosophical/religious. Walker Percy captures the essential tragicomedy of life by means of paradox, questions, and thought-experiments. He claims his philosophy is in the vein of such existentialists as Kierkegaard, Dostoievski, Marcel, Camus, and Sartre, all of whom are concerned with the theme of what it means to be an authentic self.

Unlike your ordinary guru with all the answers, Cosmonaut Percy hurls us into space. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre.... Things fall apart, the center cannot hold..." (Yeats, "The Second Coming").

At long last an extraterrestrial message is received:

Repeat. Do you read? ... Are you in trouble? How did you get in trouble? Have you sought help? Did help come? Are you conscious? Do you have a self? Do you love? Do you know how to love? Do you hate? Do you read me? Come back. (p. 262).