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The Walker Percy Project

Found in the Cosmos: Percy's First Self-Help Book


Gary M. Ciuba is the author of Walker Percy: Books of Revelations and Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, which also treats Percy as a subject. The latter book received the C. Hugh Holman Award for best work in southern literary studies in 2008. Ciuba is a professor of English at Kent State University. Originally published in the New Orleans Review, Winter 1989, pp. 7-16.

The wanderers in Walker Percy's fictional Cosmos have long sought to find a place in their world through the bibles of self-help books. Always on a journey, often literally on the road, his wayfarers consult such Baedekers for the saving therapies and salutary techniques that will make them feel less lost. In The Moviegoer Binx notices that Mercer, his aunt's affected majordomo, has been reading a Rosicrucian volume, How to Harness Your Set Powers. Dr. Merle's book promises a psychological version of this same mystical goal by encouraging Kate Cutrer to live joyfully and creatively as herself. However, the failed lovemaking of Binx and Kate on the train to Chicago forces them to confront only the despair of their set frailty, for they cannot play the roles of Dr. and Mrs. Bob Dean, the amorous sex researchers whom Binx remembers jesting like show people before they autographed copies of Technique in Marriage. When the young Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman spies Rita Vaught with a copy of The Art of Loving, he recalls that he felt elated while reading Fromm's book, but afterwards it did not change his life. The courteous engineer tries to sublimate his concupiscence by reading two pages of Living, a collection of optimistic maxims that teach him how to become a disciple of Dale Carnegie. He finds new guidance about loving and living in Sutter Vaught's casebook of autopsies that reveals how even sex and pornography cannot help the lost self reenter the everyday earth from its orbit of scientific abstraction. Dr. Tom More, the angelic/bestial psychiatrist in Love in the Ruins, invents the ultimate self-help device to solve Will's dilemma. He hopes that his lapsometer will heal the rift between the transcendence of his dead wife who read ESP and the New Spirituality and the carnality of his empty-headed mistress who reads Helen Gurley Brown's "Adultery for Adults," lost in her copy of Cosmopolitan. In The Second Coming Lewis Peckham studied literature and Fromm because he "thought books could tell him how to live," and Allie obliged her former boyfriend by studying a sex manual because she thought that it could teach her how to love. (Endnote 1)

All of these self-help books only drive Percy's wayward seekers farther out into space, where they drift in the placeless dark away from their home, others on earth, and their very selves. Lost in the Cosmos is Percy's self-help book to end all such self-help books that only leave his fictional wanderers more lost. His waggishly subtitled The Last Self-Help Book consumes and consummates its many earnestly helpful predecessors by turning these misdirected manuals against themselves. Percy's quizzical parody explodes the very form of such books so that its extreme format can at once aid and illustrate a world at the end, a self in extremis. But it then goes beyond being merely a wry redaction of the scriptures studied by the doomed culture of narcissism. Lost in the Cosmos remakes the genre by becoming a problematic guide to the self's ultimate concern in an apocalyptic era. Like Percy's eschatological fiction, it not only envisions the catastrophe of the self but also looks beyond the ruins to renewal.

As a revisionist self-help book for the self's latter days, Lost in the Cosmos subverts all the conventions and skews the usual pretensions of its salubrious tradition. It rejects the goals of such books, the role of their authors, and their methods of treatment. Although Percy's satire uses the multiple-choice quizzes and thought experiments popular in the genre, it promises none of the customary therapeutic blessings. Lost in the Cosmos neither celebrates open marriage, the sensuous man / woman / couple, or the joy and more joy of sex. Nor does it teach readers that they are all basically okay but should conquer their erroneous zones so they can board bus 9 for a loving voyage to Paradise. It offers no Walker Percy work-out book or diet advice from Dixie. And it does not counsel clients to stop worrying and start living, become a one minute manager, and win through intimidation. Instead of offering the normal sexual, psychological, physical and financial benefits, Percy modestly claims that his Twenty-Question Quiz may "—though it probably won't, considering how useless self-help books generally are — help you discover who you are not and even — an outside chance — who you are." (Endnote 2) Such tentativeness makes its author radically different from the self-assured experts who instruct their readers how to become better lovers, persons, bodies or executives. Like the Martian visitor to earth whose persona Percy whimsically assumed in The Message in the Bottle, he ponders over and wonders about the quirky inhabitants of this planet. And he creates a game of Twenty Questions about the oddness of their predicament. Dr. Percy prescribes in the maieutic voice of Socrates rather than in the magisterial tone of the omniscient scientist. Such questions according to John F. Desmond convey a sense of the unspeakable mystery of the self. (Endnote 3) Moreover, they respect that ineffable selfhood. Percy does not dictate solutions as if readers were creatures that only needed to learn the trick of the right therapy; rather, he speculates, challenges, and provokes in a continual conversation with those who listen and talk to his book. Such an imaginary dialogue turns the medium into the Percyan message in the bottle. Lost in the Cosmos locates its readers as fellow selves, inquiring and answering partners in the symbolic process whose collapse has caused the approaching catastrophe.

Percy's queries prompt readers to recognize their own lostness, and his array of answers to each question dramatizes how selves may find or continue to lose their places in the Cosmos. As readers check their multiple choice exercises and explain their decisions in the thought experiments, Percy's self-help book keeps reminding them that they are like the castaway in The Message in the Bottle, who is "not in the world as a swallow is in the world, as an organism which is what it is, never more or less. Our islander may choose his mode of being." (Endnote 4) All of the alternatives are starkly summarized in the dilemma faced by the commander of a space mission in the book's final question. He must choose between two vastly different visions of a new earth. An astronomer argues that if the survivors do not build a paradise of scientific humanism on one of Jupiter's moons, "we have no choice except to stay here and die," but an abbot offers a less grandiose but equally urgent alternative (246). Since he witnesses to the Fall when humanity "chose badly — perhaps chose himSELF, the one thing he can never know of itself, rather than God" (248), he repeats the ancient challenge of Joshua at Shechem, "'Choose you this day whom ye will serve'" (Josh. 24:15). He proposes life in a community that now chooses God, warning that if the castaways reject this option, "you have no choice" other than to remain lost in the cosmos (250).

Probing, unsettling, redirecting, Percy's answers drive readers to consider the choices by which they live or are lost. They slyly but steadily intimate a selfhood that is the very opposite of the one enshrined by what Christopher Lasch calls the "anti-religion" of much therapy. Since it too often defines "love" and "meaning" as no more than emotional gratification, Lasch faults much therapy for never encouraging "the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself. 'Love' as self-sacrifice or self-abasement, 'meaning' as submission to a higher loyalty — these sublimations strike the therapeutic sensibility as intolerably oppressive, offensive to common sense and injurious to personal health and well-being." (Endnote 5) Percy's self-help book in spite of itself helps at last by affirming precisely such heterodoxy as human helplessness, the necessity of helping others, and the essential need to accept divine help.

Percy writes such a perverse "last self-help book" because his lost selves seem in their own last days due to their faith in the perverted gospel of self-help. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, assassinations, nuclear wars and extraterrestrial invasions loom throughout the book as signs of the imminent apocalypse for Percy's autonomous selves. Only a book at the end of its line can be written at this hour so near the end of the world. Although some early reviewers found Lost in the Cosmos without sufficient design, this awareness of personal and public catastrophe clearly defines each of its four sections. (Endnote 6) Questions 1 through 12 (section one) focus on the catastrophe of the self that is a part of the world, while its counterpart in questions 13 through 18 (section three) examines the catastrophe of the self that is apart from the world. These diagnostic sections are separated by an interlude that offers a semiotic history from Genesis to the approaching apocalypse (section two). In the post-apocalyptic space odysseys of Questions 19 and 20 (section four), Percy imagines how humanity can live in the ruins of its self-help society.

Self-help books are written for the selves described in section one and by the selves described in section three. Both groups seem headed for catastrophe because they are too absorbed in or abstracted from the world. Made to feel just an object by scientific authorities, the Immanent Self of Questions 1 through 12 surrenders its sovereignty and lives purely in the world as an organism in an environment. The Nowhere Self (Question 2) simply becomes anonymous; it is the passive member of the audience so startled at hearing its hometown mentioned by Johnny Carson that it starts clapping. Like the food vacuole of an amoeba, the Self as Nought (Question 3) turns to consumerism, ingesting possessions and fashions to fill its own nothingness. When this creature reduces sexuality to just one more need among needs, it becomes the Promiscuous Self (Question 8), who consumes people merely as sexual partners.

The most sophisticated of the Immanent Selves become the self-deceiving cognoscenti, skilled in all the techniques for getting along in the world, such as learning parent effectiveness training, cooking Cajun in New York or working in local politics. The Amnesic Self (Question 1), like Binx Bolling, vicariously delights in movies in which the hero loses his memory and discovers a new life, and the Misplaced Self (Question 7) lives out its cinematic fantasies through role-playing. But the immanent life is never fully satisfying. The Fearful Self (Question 4) is terrified of speaking before groups even though the speaker is supposedly just one organism among other organisms. The Immanent Self may become so satiated with consumerism that it wearies of the surfeit and becomes the Bored Self (Question 10). The Depressed Self (Question 11) seeks help in therapy, perhaps yielding its very soul to the opinions of experts. The Immanent Selves of Questions 1 through 12 range from the non-persons who only embody nothingness, to impersonal men and women of the masses, and finally to those anxious but unaware creatures fearing and fleeing any personal encounter with others or with themselves. Because they never become more than biological, cultural or psychological units, they may feel so entrapped in their environment that they show the most telling sign of this psychic catastrophe: they long for disaster.

The Envious Self (Question 9) actually yearns for scandals, assassinations and wars out of gleeful malice toward others and desperation with the ordinary boring world. It hopes that the everydayness will be swept away by a tornado, swallowed up by a sinkhole or shattered by a bullet. As last therapist for lost selves, Percy drolly turns this apocalyptic passion into an extreme course of treatment. He repeatedly invites readers to imagine scenes of catastrophe, not simply in the many exercises in Question 9 but in the missile attacks, earthquakes and space invasions that threaten throughout the entire book. Although such calamities may only gratify the readers who are envious selves, Percy's dire remedies follow the strategy that he suggested in "Notes for a Novel About the End of the World": "Perhaps it is only through the conjuring up of catastrophe... that the novelist can make vicarious use of catastrophe in order that he and his readers may come to themselves" (Message 118). Percy uses such imaginary disaster to deliver readers from the greater disaster of never becoming conscious. Suddenly even the most mundane details, surviving against the foil of so much loss, "exist" in that word's radical meaning: they stand out amid the nothingness. Percy conjures up catastrophe to restore his readers to the very world that the Envious Self wants destroyed.

In the self-help book's most outrageous form of therapy, Percy invites readers to internalize this catastrophe by imagining the ends of their own worlds. As an adolescent, Graham Greene used to spin the chamber of a loaded revolver, point it at his forehead, and click the trigger because he gambled on the thrill of discovering that he was still alive. (Endnote 7) Percy suggests that readers consider, but not seriously attempt, suicide to gain a similar exhilaration. He turns the possibility of self-murder, which no self-respecting self-help book would ever even contemplate, into the most radical means of rediscovering humanity's place in the Cosmos. Once readers realize that even after killing themselves "everyone is back in the rut of his own self" as if the dead had never existed, the ex-suicides feel like freed prisoners or castaways washed ashore on an island (77). Living so near death liberates them from the living death of the thanatos syndrome. Percy's thought experiment restores the forgotten element of choice to life. The ex-suicides decide not to die, and so they live now more fully because they deliberately choose every minute to exist. However, Percy's Envious Self never goes beyond being a connoisseur of catastrophe. It turns the greatest misfortune into what Binx Bolling would call a rotation, a strategy for pursuing mere novelty instead of genuine renewal. As the climax of Percy's first section, "The Last Phil Donahue Show" demonstrates that catastrophe only helps to save Percy's lost selves if it forces the crisis of choice that leads to a new sense of the self's place in the Cosmos.

Since Percy defines humanity as homo loquens, a talk show should provide the consummate form of television. But Donahue's panel of Promiscuous Selves perverts words as much as flesh. The typically sensationalized line-up of guests mouth the inanities and banalities of selves so fatally immanent that the Cosmos has been reduced to the worlds of their bodies: Bill, a homosexual who cruises Buena Vista Park; Allen, a married businessman who enjoys lunch-hour liaisons with attractive women; Penny, a fourteen-year-old who became pregnant so that she could be like her best friend; and Dr. Joyce Friday, a talk-show sex therapist who plays the expert that Percy's Immanent Selves often seek to certify their identities. Percy's script records a supposedly "ordinary weekday morning" with the accuracy that lets absurdity speak for itself (45). The guests prattle; Joyce Friday's talking head offers the counsel of self-help sexuality a la Joyce Brothers and Nancy Friday; Donahue, alternately coy, cute, and prosecuting, grimaces for the audience that laughs and groans. On this typical morning no one recognizes the catastrophe that happens every day when the self is reduced to a set of emotional needs and physiological reactions.

The morning taping suddenly becomes America's own late show when three strangers interrupt the travesty of language and love to pronounce a last judgment. However, since the latter day seems more preposterous than the everyday promiscuity, Donahue suspects that this trinity of messengers may only be a practical joke sent by Steve Allen from his series of Great Conversations. In Percy's antic apocalypse the eve of Armageddon becomes not the ultimate announcement in TV's frequent bad news bulletins but an embarrassingly farcical stunt more suitable to Candid Camera. After John Calvin damns the panelists as sinners, the Confederate colonel John Pelham denounces them as white trash. Finally, a Cosmic Stranger resembling Harry Truman judges their lostness, yet he seems as likely to be heard as the anachronistic spokesman for a dour Christianity or the last gentleman from an archaic Southern code. Apocalypse is outdated for a heedless age so near the end even when announced by a lookalike of the President who heralded the twentieth-century's nuclear doomsday. The Cosmic Stranger understands the relationship between carnality and carnage that Percy later elaborates in his chapter on The Demonic Self: the promiscuity of "The Last Phil Donahue Show" signifies a deeper disorder that threatens to destroy all civilizations in the G2V region of the galaxy. The eschatological prophet warns that in one day America's final war will begin, but he offers some last help if his listeners, so attuned to self-help, will receive it. He advises those who wish to escape the nuclear fallout to seek refuge at Lost Cove, Tennessee, where a sheltering cave has been stocked with an abundance of corn, grits, collard greens, and smoked sausage.

Unlike the Envious Self, Percy does not relish disaster as one more aesthetic diversion. He uses its urgency to bring into focus the less visible cataclysms, the choices that end and begin lives. As he explained to Patrick Samway, catastrophe "removes the ennui of ordinary Wednesday afternoons. If the Bomb is going to fall any minute, all things become possible, even love." (Endnote 8) Either the audience can adopt one of the Immanent Self's favorite poses by becoming spectators who await tomorrow's Donahue show on surrogate partners, or they can reject such immanence on television by deciding not to remain mere objects in front of it. At the cave in Lost Cove those lost in the Cosmos can at last find each other and can themselves be found. This secluded mountain valley of the Cumberland plateau, where Confederate soldiers once sought safety and made gunpowder, provides specific coordinates in geography and history for Percy's displaced selves. But this quaintly Southern redoubt keeps reappearing in Percy's writing not simply as one certain place with a definite past but as a locus for those who discover their identities as Percyan sign-users. Mr. Ives, the elderly linguist in Love in the Ruins who finds that the most invigorating aqua vitae springs from the fountain of language, hopes to make his home there and write a book in this haven for symbolization. In The Second Coming Will seeks a suicidal apocalypse in the cave at Lost Cove, here relocated to North Carolina, but discovers nearby the new semiotic Eden of Allie's greenhouse. Lost Cove locates an alternative to the babble of "The Last Phil Donahue Show" by offering a new life in communion with those who accept the help of hearing an apocalyptic gospel, the bad news of their spiritual jeopardy and the glad tidings of their salvation.

The interlude in Percy's Twenty Questions, "A Semiotic Primer of the Self," reviews the history of the Cosmos to explain precisely why Percy's lost selves need such a linguistic renewal. The second section of Lost in the Cosmos offers a semiotic retelling of the first three chapters of Genesis. In the beginning and for most of the fifteen billion years of the Cosmos, every event — chemical reactions, magnetic or gravitational attractions, the evolution of organic life — could be "understood as an interaction between two or more entities" (86). But about a hundred thousand years ago homo loquens appeared when an organism emerged from its dyadic environment to name a world through triadic behavior. No longer simply immanent, the self transcended the world through semiotic consciousness. The discovery of symbolization, Percy's delta factor, meant that "sign A is understood by organism B, not as a signal to flee or approach, but as 'meaning' or referring to another perceived segment of the environment" (95). All of Percy's Adamic namers live in a paradise of language, using signs to celebrate the world and demonstrate their communion with other symbolizers. Found in the cosmos, the prelapsarian self is placed in a world by words. But Percy's linguistic Eden of listener and speaker dwelling in and presiding over a world of mutual delight "harbors its own semiotic snake in the grass" (106). The sign-user may turn inward and discover that the self knows everything and everyone in the world by language except itself. The unsignified signifier is never its name to itself. The writer of Lost in the Cosmos can be comprehended by all others as Walker Percy, but since no single word formulates him for himself, he remains his own unutterable mystery.

Percy never decides whether this haunting self-consciousness is the inevitable result of symbolization or a deliberate act of selfishness, but his emphasis on the freedom and necessity of choice strongly suggests the self's responsibility in its fall. This inward gaze causes it to live out the rest of Genesis 3. "The exile from Eden is, semiotically, the banishment of the self-conscious self from its own world of signs" (108). Without a name the signifier loses its local habitation in the Cosmos. Like the sinful Adam and Eve ashamed of their nakedness, the self becomes anxious that it is bare of any satisfying name. In imitating the first language-users who covered themselves up through lies and leaves, the nameless namer seeks "a permanent semiotic habiliment for itself" but often accepts a disguise rather than an identity (108). Although religion and myth once offered the self a way of finding its lost place in the Cosmos, the self finds only two alternatives in an age of unfaith. As one of the world, the Immanent Self (Questions 1 through 12) simply becomes a creature who acts and reacts. Percy's primer circles back to the beginning of Lost in the Cosmos and then looks ahead to the third section. As one above the world, the Transcending Self (Questions 13 through 18) abstracts itself from creation through the ecstasy of science and art.

Both of these caricatured identities reject the distinctively human situation of living in the world of language. The Immanent Self has regressed to the level of dyadic behavior. Whether as unreflective sensualist or the savviest aesthete, it is completely continuous with the environment. Such an objectified person typically turns to the religion of self-help books, which view the self as an objective collection of needs and desires. It can be healed by being taught how to become more erotic, humane, attractive, or wealthy. But even when it has obtained the fine home in fine East Orange, New Jersey, on a fine Wednesday afternoon, practiced personal enrichment, played actively and grown through group interaction, Percy's Immanent Self cannot satisfy itself because it is more than a set of stimuli and responses. The "Semiotic Primer" ends by envisioning the same apocalyptic specter that hovered over the first section. The self lost in its somatic world longs for the glad tidings of "catastrophe, earthquake, hurricane, wars, apocalypse — anything to break out of the iron grip of immanence" (124).

The Transcending Self of section three may actually cause this much sought catastrophe. The scientists and artists in questions 13 through 18 detach themselves from dyadic interactions and the triadic behavior of others. They write self-help books because they stand above the world as angelic intelligences, yet they cannot help themselves to live in that world once the experiment or work of art has been completed. Faulkner's problem typifies the predicament for every artist who is an Orbiting Self (Question 14): what does one do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? After circling the planet in the exaltation of creativity, the self often suffers a meteoric burn-out when it tries to return to ordinary existence on earth by relying on alcohol, sex, travel, impersonations, nostalgic repetitions or political militancy. Sometimes, it defers reentry through seclusion or escapes it entirely by suicide. Likewise, the Lonely Self of the scientist (Questions 16 and 17) tries to communicate with whales and dolphins or ETIs, but sending signals under water or outer space only leaves the earthling farther from contact with its true homeland.

As Percy's satire of self-help books reaches a climactic savagery, the Transcending Self rushes precipitately toward the catastrophe imagined in Question 18 on the Demonic Self. (Endnote 9) Since scientists abstract themselves from the world of the body, they reduce sexuality to needs, pleasures, and techniques. But this trivialization makes sex itself disappointing so that frustrated selves seek release in a climax of violence. Percy's "A Short History of the Demonic Spirit..." shows how the increasing separation of sexuality from spirituality has caused increasing slaughter. Once the person becomes just a body, the body easily becomes just a corpse. The energy formerly sanctified in the life-sustaining work of eros now explodes as the destructive powers of thanatos. Just as Percy's survey of the Immanent Self reached an absurdly apocalyptic climax in the Promiscuous Selves of "The Last Phil Donahue Show," his overview of the Transcending Self concludes with two scenes of demonic possession that portray the barbarity of such abstracted eroticism.

In "The Bestial Sexual" a talk show psychotherapist, much like Dr. Joyce Friday, counsels a questioner during Mental Health Week at a French Quarter hotel. She zestfully recites the ingredients of her book, Dr. Betty's Favorite Recipe: sex between two people who nurture their "child-selves" and view each other as "their primary stroke-field" (194). Afterwards, she accepts the solicitation from another in the business of sex, a male prostitute who promises to "f--- you as you have never been f---ed before. I don't want to nurture you. I want to f--- you. I'm going to f--- you till your eyeteeth rattle" (194). In its companion piece, "The Banal-Lethal," a weary Dr. F____ returns alone to his Washington hotel room during wartime. He views a pornographic film, masturbates, and collects the ejaculate for a project to inseminate women with the sperm of Nobel Laureates. When a general calls to solicit his vote of approval for using a deadly neurotoxin, he agrees for the sake of peace.

These two ugly sketches give the third section of Lost in the Cosmos a culminating horror by depicting the brutality behind the dispassionate stance of transcending technocrats. Propositioned in the abstract environment of hotels, both scientists dehumanize other people by describing them as "stroke-fields" or "population densities," bodies or bodycounts. Their detachment from the flesh finally depersonalizes themselves. Dr. Betty prescribes the mechanical sex of dyadic behavior — each body is just a field of forces — and then turns to a "chicken," a machine of sexual violence. Dr. F____ watches the sex mechanized by pornography, becomes his own machine to produce sperm for genetic engineering, and then endorses the plague engineered for chemical warfare. Like the neurotoxin easily disseminated by air or water, the semen that he deposits in the cylindrical double-walled container is the seed of death, the germ of the thanatos syndrome. Percy's diptych dramatizes the cold fury driving the age toward death, so that as Michael Allen Mikolajczak observes, humanity "totters on the brink of extinction" (86). After the last words of Question 18, Percy's self-help book seems at the end of a grim line itself, for the next page is blank except for one asterisk and the title "A Space Odyssey (I)." For its final questions Lost in the Cosmos blasts off into the stars for two post-2001 quests. Much as the sections on the Immanent and Transcending Selves complement each other, this finale completes the story of the semiotic fall told in Percy's primer. If science fiction has flourished as the modern form of apocalypse, Percy uses the appropriate genre to imagine how his lost men and women can live beyond the brink and in the ruins. (Endnote 10)

In both space odysseys Percy traces the cause of public catastrophe back to a psychic crisis. The earthlings are displaced because they have no other cosmology than the world-view of Cosmos, Sagan's popular guide to the universe that inspired much of Percy's Last Self-Help Book. Although Percy admires the intelligence and elegance of Sagan's TV series and subsequent book, he faults its religion of science. The lost author of Cosmos typifies both the Transcending and Immanent Selves in Percy's Lost in the Cosmos. The scientist/artist elevates himself above the world to study and write about it, yet he also reduces himself to nothing but a part of this vast mechanical harmony by viewing himself as one of the most intricate "molecular machines," "a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan." (Endnote 11) The scientists in Percy's flights of fantasy are saved only if they seek to be both less and more than the autonomous and organic astronomer who wrote Cosmos.

The Marooned Selves in Percy's first science-fiction episode live out a fundamental fact of the Cosmos: nowhere is actually more common than somewhere. If the self were randomly inserted in the Cosmos, its chances of landing at or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion (Cosmos 2). The spaceship, literally lost in the Cosmos, lacks a home because it refuses to acknowledge its profounder spiritual dislocation. Investigating signals from ETIs, it first discovers frisky gaseous clouds and highly excitable anemone-like creatures that can only respond with the dyadic behavior described by Percy in section two. His semiotic intermezzo suggested that a vehicle from earth should first ask ETIs not what level of technology they have achieved but whether they had emerged into consciousness without any fall into self-consciousness. On the third planet of Proxima Centauri (PC3), the earthlings converse with selves who still live in Percy's linguistic Eden. Whereas these prelapsarian namers have a primal or C1 consciousness, they recognize the earthlings as C2s, creatures who because of some disaster cannot deal with themselves and so become what they are not. The extraterrestrials reveal the lostness caused by human self-absorption, for this personal disaster has led to global ruin. The aliens intimate that the spaceship has not received signals from earth for two years because the planet has been destroyed. The destitute astronauts have actually brought their homelessness with them. Embodying the demonic spirit of sex and violence diagnosed in Question 18, the crew of twelve has already lost three men to quarrels over women. Many of the remaining members are possessed by demons of bestialism, addiction, and jealousy. The representative of PC3 advises that the castaways need to undergo a conversion to C3 consciousness by becoming aware of their sickness and seeking help from some source beyond themselves.

Percy's last self-help book would end the genre because it rejects such therapy by one's own efforts. The self has reached such a crisis that it cannot help itself or get the necessary aid from transcending experts. At best, self-help books and therapists can reconcile the castaway with its environment but not deal with the dereliction that still remains because humanity is not just another creature. However, the spaceship refuses to abandon its arrogant self-reliance. When the voice of PC3 asks whether the wanderers have recognized their dependency and sought assistance, they protest, "Help? What help? We don't ask for help. We help ourselves" (215). Suspecting that the aliens believe in the need for divine succor, the earthlings boast that they practice the most humane values of the World's Great Religions. But in turning faith into one more self-help movement, the real aliens pronounce their own last judgment. Because PC3 has suffered from the cruelty of similar visitors in the past, its messenger sadly refuses permission for the frantic craft to land and suggests that it try the very similar civilization of PC7. In this space-age version of "The Message in the Bottle," the castaways have gazed across what Sagan calls the "cosmic ocean" (1) and received news that addresses their terminal predicament, but they finally reject the revelation that would end their homelessness (Cosmos 1).

The final question in Percy's catechism looks beyond the disaster of those lost in space by considering the possibility of love in the ruins. After exploring the Cosmos in vain for signs of ETIs, Captain Marcus Aurelius Schuyler and his crew return to the old earth devastated by nuclear war. Schuyler believes in such ruins but not in renewal. The stoicism of his namesake and a Freudian belief in thanatos have convinced him that only a miracle would save humanity from its fatal love of self and war; however, he does not believe in miracles, only the Fall after which he almost envisions Percy's demonic selves rushing like the Gadarene swine to self-destruction. Yet Schuyler's irony keeps him from completely succumbing to the Spenglerian apocalypticism of Binx Bolling's noble Roman aunt. His very delight in the odd alternative and unconventional point of view may provide the graced insight to make the proper eschatological decision at the end of the book. He must choose between two plans for the future of his crew and the ragtag assembly of survivors on the blasted earth.

The astronomer Aristarchus Jones proposes a new earth that repeats the spiritual wreckage of the old. Since progressive sterility may make these humans the last generation on the planet, he favors colonizing Europa, one of the Galilean satellites of Jupiter. Freed from "the interminable quarrels of the people of the Book," they can create the ultimate world of the self-help bible (247). Just as Europe once envisioned a terrestrial paradise in America, these latter-day Americans will turn Europa into New Ionia, an ideal society of scientific rationalism, where the arts will flourish and religious restrictions will no longer inhibit sexual expression. But this new earth away from the earth simply perpetuates the transcendent culture of Aristarchus' ancient namesake from Samos, celebrated by one of the classical astronomer's twentieth-century sons in Cosmos. New Ionia is still no place in Percy's Cosmos because the self is lost in Sagan's scientism.

Whereas the plan of Aristarchus is literally and philosophically utopian, the vision of Abbot Liebowitz is genuinely apocalyptic. He seeks not the old world of New Ionia but the new world of the old earth at Lost Cove. The world in apocalypse is not so much a physical universe but what Walter Wink calls a "meaning grid ... the field of determinants which dominates an entire age, culture or civilization ... some configurational summary of being." (Endnote 12) The abbot reveals a world made new by living under God and with each other. Since he plans to revive the arts and sciences at the University of Notre Dame, he does not reject the technology and culture in which Aristarchus places such faith. Yet this humble prophet recognizes a divine transcendence over all the Transcending Selves, for unlike the astronomer Jones, he believes in heaven as well as the heavens. As a witness to God's role in the Cosmos from its creation to consummation, he testifies to human helplessness and the liberating offer of divine help. He affirms that Jesus, "having come once to save us from the death of SELF in search of itSELF without any other SELF, will also come again at the end of the world" (249).

To live out this revelation at the end and for a beginning, the abbot proposes the formation of an eschatological community at the very place already sanctioned in Percy's fiction and in "The Last Phil Donahue Show." The spiritual shepherd at Lost Cove will baptize the children already born in space, witness the marriage of Marcus and Jane, ordain any future candidates for the priesthood, and "await the coming of the Lord if it is the end" (250). Here Percy's cosmic wanderers can at last be themselves because they have not only escaped the disastrous transcendence by living under God but also avoided the equally dangerous immanence by recognizing the selfhood of each other. Aristarchus intends to leave behind the youths disfigured by radiation because they would only perpetuate genetic defects. But since the abbot regards humans as more than hereditary mechanisms, he invites all — scientists, space children, and odd dozen of deformed apostles — to work at, but not for, the end.

Abbot Liebowitz embodies the preposterousness that Percy finds at the heart of Judaeo-Christianity. Since the Captain takes such pleasure in irony, he may yet hear the words of the priestly enchiridion. Percy summarizes the abbot's message as the self-help book's central irony, what he calls a "new law of the Cosmos": "If you're a big enough fool to climb a tree and like a cat refuse to come down, then someone who loves you has to make as big a fool of himself to rescue you" (254). Percy's version of what God did because he so loved the Cosmos restates the new law of love (Jn.3:16). At the heart of the abbot's life and Percy's last self-help book is a belief in the helper who became like the helpless. The redeeming deity of Percy's parable reconciles the tensions in his lost selves who gravitate toward being creatures or aspire to replace the creator. This transcendent God has become immanent. Divine sovereignty establishes a chastening limit for all of Percy's Transcending Selves and summons his consumers to more than just immediate possibility. This God's participation in the Cosmos sanctifies the world that Percy's Immanent Selves view as purely mechanical and calls Percy's scientists and artists to incarnation rather than mere carnality. Letting the self be found by God gives the lost seeker an identity in Percy's Cosmos because then the castaway lives in but not merely of this world.

Percy lets the readers judge the results of the astronomer's and the abbot's plans in a final thought experiment that depicts the life at New Ionia and Lost Cove. The Golden Age of Aristarchus Jones is founded on the maxim from his own enchiridion, the Little Green Book: "'The new race will spring from the corpse of the old guilt'" (257). Group meetings translate the advice of the new world's first self-help book into daily evaluations of self and others through which members exorcise their demons of shame and secrecy so they can live in a society modeled on Walden II. Although Schuyler's old irony has kept him from becoming a born-again Skinnerian, he enjoys a pleasurable amorality. Before reporting to Group, the Captain shamelessly saunters to his cave with two lissome consorts, like Solomon in his dotage, while Jane sulks alone. At Lost Cove a new race also springs from the corpse of the old guilt, but the settlement turns a pop psychology platitude into a Christian mystery. Its liturgy confesses that the "old man" must be crucified and "the body of sin be destroyed" (Rom. 6:6). Abbot Liebowitz prays at Mass, "Lord, have mercy," for this community accepts rather than denies its guilt, and asks for grace. The abbot has founded no theocracy but a society placed by its relation to God. While small groups of Catholics and Protestants hold Sunday morning services, Schuyler and an agreeable band of unbelievers take long pulls of corn whiskey on a nearby hillside. The social conditioning of New Ionia punishes those individuals who differ from the group, but the community at Lost Cove does not destroy human dignity by abolishing freedom of choice. The easygoing secular communion service lacks the artificiality of the Group exercises at New Ionia and tolerates dissent without lapsing into dissension. Schuyler simply dismisses with ironic laughter the proposal of a Carolina covite to form an alliance much like the old Ku Klux Klan and returns home to his wife Jane.

Although Schuyler does not formally accept the abbot's faith, his affection for the wizened monk, devotion to his wife, solidarity with the community, and rejection of exploitation indicate that he has found a place at Lost Cove more surely than at New Ionia. As one of the most perceptive chroniclers of religious wayfaring, Percy understands the inchoate, seemingly incoherent spiritual passage made long before any explicit profession of orthodox belief may ever be possible. Amid such indeterminacy when the self is still somewhat anonymous, any turning from the life of exclusive immanence or transcendence is a conversion from self-absorption to the God who helps selves be themselves. Like Will Barrett and Tom More at the ends of The Last Gentleman and The Thanatos Syndrome, Schuyler may not officially identify himself as a son of the Church. But he has shown that implicit acceptance of the grace working in the depths of humanity that Karl Rahner calls being an "anonymous Christian." (Endnote 13) The name aptly designates the unprofessed identity gained by Percy's unsignified signifiers as they wander between namelessness and being christened with a name.

Percy's final question asks readers whether they would rather be in Lost Cove or New Ionia when an ETI finally contacts the colonists who long sought to reach such strangers in space. "Do you read? Do you read?" the alien signals wonder. Their messages to the survivors ask the questions behind all of Percy's twenty questions to those who also read his signs: "How did you get in trouble? If you are in trouble, have you sought help? If you did, did help come? If it did, did you accept it? ... Do you have a self? ... Do you love? Do you know how to love? Are you loved? Do you hate? Do you read me? Come back. Repeat. Come back. Come back. Come back" (262). Having surveyed the self in what seems the very late hours of its spiritual crisis, Percy's book ends with a celestial cry to end the cosmic lostness by looking beyond human autonomy. Since the abbot's new earth rejects the extremes of the Immanent and Transcending Selves, Lost Cove is a place in the microcosm as much as in the macrocosm where Percy's castaways can find their selves by losing their selfishness. By its final pages Lost in the Cosmos becomes a self-help book not just for the last day but perhaps also for the first.


1. Walker Percy, The Second Coming (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980) 150.

2. Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983) 2.

3. John F. Desmond, rev. of Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, by Walker Percy, World Literature Today 58 (Spring 1984): 275.

4. Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975) 142.

5. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978) 13.

6. Francine Du Plessix Gray faulted the book's "oddball structure" in "A Pop-Socratic Survey of Despair," The New York Times Book Review 5 June 1983: 9. Jack Beatty enjoyed Percy's brio but not his "formless, how-do-I-stop-this-book ramble" in "Travels with My Angst," The New Republic 11 July 1983: 38. Michael Allen Mikolajczak argues that the book's structure reflects the subtitle of The Message in the Bottle. Questions 1 through 12 focus on how queer man is; the interlude considers how queer language is; and questions 13 through 18 examine the connection between semiotics and human estrangement. The final space odysseys try to resolve the dilemma. See "'A Home that is Hope': Lost Cove, Tennessee," Renascence 40 (Winter 1987): 77-94.

7. Graham Greene, The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1951) 173-176. Literature is an apocalyptic vocation for Percy, who has said that every serious writer must be "an ex-suicide, a cipher, naught, zero — which is as it should be because being a naught is the very condition of making anything." See Conversations with Walker Percy, eds. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1985): 170.

8. Patrick H. Samway, "An Interview with Walker Percy," America 15 February 1986: 122.

9. Reviewers offended by Lost in the Cosmos typically quoted from this section. See, for example, Gray 9; and Peter Clecak, "Condemnation and Catharsis," Commonweal 17 June 1983: 373.

10. Robert Galbreath writes that speculative fiction seeks to unveil "eschatological matters, which are in some sense transcendental, which involve radical discontinuities in human and natural history, and which may — but not invariably — entail cosmic transformation and renewal." See "Ambiguous Apocalypse: Transcendental Versions of the End," The End of the World, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1983) 56.

11. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980; New York: Ballantine Books, 1985) 105.

12. Walter Wink, "Apocalypse in our Time," Katallagete 3 (Fall 1979): 15.

13. Karl Rahner, A Rahner Reader, ed. Gerald A. McCool (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) 211-214.