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The Study of Consciousness: An Interview with Walker Percy


Re-printed with permission from Conversations with Walker Percy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985), pp. 216-225. Originally appeared inThe Georgia Review, 35 (Spring 1981), 51-60.

A Brief Foreword by the Interviewer
Walker Percy's fifth novel, The Second Coming, was published in July 1980, and although he says he "is not interested in it anymore" — he has put it away from him and is onto other things — one afternoon recently he talked with me about that novel, as well as his plans for a collection of essays on language, mass communication, and psychiatry. In his new book, to be called Novum Organum, he intends to set forth the model for what he calls "a radical science," which will provide a way of describing and talking about, rationally, what human consciousness is and how it is different from the other data scientists study. [Editor's note: Percy's book eventually was manifest in the form of Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, published in 1983.]

As usual, Percy is honest and straightforward about his present work, and what he hopes to accomplish in the future. He says that if he had it all to do over again, he would study semiotics because he believes that study has the best chance of defining just exactly what it means to be human and to find oneself in predicaments so complex that theology, sociology, and psychiatry have provided, at best, only partial answers to the malaise which besets all of us, and which he has tried, for the last twenty years, to dramatize in his fiction.

In pursuance of his study of semiotics, he attended a conference on primatology in New York in May 1980 and spent the following month in Toronto at a seminar on language and semiotics. His research continues, and one senses that Percy believes Novum Organum will be the most important book he has written. "Man is in trouble," Percy says. One cannot help but agree and hope that his new study of the breadths and depths of that trouble will serve to explain and possibly even to minimize its pernicious effects.

Linda Whitney Hobson: What is it about writing that fascinates you?

Walker Percy: That goes way back to high school, when I discovered I had a knack for writing — not to write well, but to write. The pleasure of writing was the contrast between writing as a way of ordering a life and the disorder of life itself. As Johnny Carson says, what he likes about being shy at parties and not shy on the stage is that on the stage he is in control.

LWH: So writing is a way for you to control the chaos of existence?

WP: Actually, living is often absurd, preposterous, painful, and out of control. Writing allows you to establish some sort of control, even if you're writing about chaos. The very fact of writing about it establishes a certain kind of authority over it. And it's impossible to write about chaos without establishing some sort of order over it.

LWH: Is that similar to your illustration of alienation? That the man on the train who is alienated, and who then reads a book about a man who is alienated, is no longer alienated?

WP: That's the aesthetic reversal, which I noticed way back. It's a curious thing. I don't think enough attention is paid by psychologists or by semioticists to the curious fact that situations which are experienced directly can be painful (or of not much account, or even of not much meaning), but when they are read about or written about, a kind of reversal takes place — and the reader or the writer takes pleasure in it. The pleasure is a fundamental thing, going back to the origins of speech or consciousness, either in the phylogenesis or in the way a child does it at the age of one or two in the pleasure that a child takes when some segment of his environment is named. And it has a very strong social dimension, also. Someone gives a thing a name for the child, and the delight occurs in the transaction between the person who gives it and the person who hears it. This inconsequential object, or even this object which is unpleasant, once it is seen in common and the name-teller tells the name and the child or the reader hears the name and recognizes it, then something extraordinary happens. I think that is not only the beginning of consciousness of language and speech, but it also goes to the heart of good fiction, of good poetry.

LWH: In what way?

WP: The times when you're best or when you're luckiest — you know it, incidentally, when you're doing it — are the times when you hit on something which comes almost subliminally out of your unconscious. It was there all the time, but you're naming it for yourself for the first time. And then the reader will tell you, and now and then write you, and say: "That's the way it is, and nobody has ever said that before." And what I "name" is the Judeo-Christian view of man in trouble, as the sparks fly up, which is the way man is. The other thing I am concerned with is the peculiar predicament of late twentieth-century man, and especially in the American South.

LWH: Why especially in the South?

WP: Well, in writing The Second Coming, I found the South, and particularly North Carolina, a valuable setting because of the peculiar confluence of two things that have happened in the South in the past ten or twenty years: number one, what's been called the power shift — the shift of power and money to the South. For the first time since the Civil War, the South is getting rich. And the other thing is the tremendous re-Christianization of the South — high-powered evangelical Christianity. Thus, it's of value to me to take a man like Will Barrett and set him down in the South: he finds himself in what the psychiatrists call a "double bind" — a no-win situation. From the beginning, and all through his life he has experienced a loss of sovereignty which has occurred in the lives of most of us as well, even though we appear to be freer, to have more, to be more individualistic, to have access to more than any people on earth. Despite this, a loss of sovereignty has occurred so that we are more subject to invisible authority — scientists and so forth. We now think of what one should do in a certain situation, not what I should do. Will Barrett is a man who, whatever his faults, has reclaimed sovereignty; he demands to know what it's all about — and he always has.

LWH: Your reference to North Carolina as the most valuable dramatic setting for The Second Coming recalls the ending of Lancelot, as Lance hopes to begin life again in the Shenandoah Valley with Anna, and it's not at all certain that he will. Is there some sense in which Will's and Allie's new life in the Blue Ridge is a working out for you of that same plot idea, with characters who could have a better chance of making it work?

WP: I hadn't thought of that, but there's certainly some truth in that. I chose North Carolina because it's kind of a no man's land between Virginia — which is a country all to itself, drenched in all sorts of blood and history — and the deep South, where one is apt to be overtaken by all the literary clichés which are hard to get rid of, and because it's away from New Orleans. North Carolina is a neutral sort of place; it has the best and maybe the worst of both North and South.

LWH: Despite your own background as a Southerner from the deep South, there has been a good deal of critical argument about whether you are writing strictly from the tradition of Southern writing — believing strongly in the importance of place, as Eudora Welty does and as Faulkner did — or whether you are an American novelist whose substance just happens to be the South. What do you think about that controversy?

WP: Well, it would be impossible for me to write as I do unless I were a Southerner. One is simply stuck with one's place, and God help you if you're not. But I'm not a Southern writer in the same way as Faulkner and Welty and maybe even Flannery O'Connor. I'm not interested in the particular mythos and mystique of the South. I have other concerns. I simply use the Southern experience to serve my novelistic concerns. For instance, in The Moviegoer, I was not interested in New Orleans particularly. What I was interested in was having a conflict, a confrontation of two cultures — the Greco-Roman Stoicism of Binx's father's family and the Roman Catholicism of Binx's mother's family — and seeing what happened when these two met.

LWH: So that dramatic conflict is really what you're interested in, and if there is the right kind of conflict in the South then you will use it?

WP: Right. It's extremely valuable for me to live in the South. I don't know what I'd be writing if I had been born and raised in Idaho. Maybe it's lucky for me, because the South has a unique tradition.

LWH: And it's not leveled out yet to the point at which conflict is minimal?

WP: No, not quite yet.

LWH: As long as we're discussing dramatic conflict, let's discuss the conflict between you and classical psychiatry. The relationship between Will and Allie in The Second Coming seems to belie what psychologists and psychiatrists counsel people to do these days. They tell people to sit down and come to know and approve of themselves by themselves, and there's a fallacy in that kind of solitary pep talk.

WP: Yes. You have to define that self through ordeal, which the psychologists don't tell people. And God knows, it takes an awful lot of ordeal — Will has to almost shoot himself and Allie has to go crazy — and what I'm saying is that it takes an awful lot these days to come to a sense of self. It doesn't do any good to be told how to live, and it doesn't do any good to tell yourself how to live. You have to learn it yourself, through ordeal. And the language fails, unless you do it by ordeal.

LWH: Speaking of language, what sorts of things are you thinking about in that field right now?

WP: As you know, I'm interested in semiotics, and, since I watch a lot of television — I like the Shakespeare series on the Public Broadcasting Service but also The Incredible Hulk — it would interesting to figure out the nature of the effect television has had on people's consciousnesses. You know, when you think about it, people watching television is the biggest cultural revolution that I can think of. Much bigger than the invention of the printing press, which was, after all, up until the nineteenth century, enjoyed only by the upperclasses.

But when you consider the fact that the average American spends five or six hours a day watching television, you must realize that television has an enormous effect, input, on the mind. And no one knows that happens. They have some vague ideas of the correlation between watching violent programs and then being violent. But those are very gross correlations. In fact, watching five or six hours of television means that people do more television watching than anything else except working and sleeping. A lot of television is bad, because it's passive. And one thing that happens, I'm sure, is that when you see serials, sitcoms, you have a predicament and resolution within a half-hour. Now, if one sees maybe six such resolutions per night and thirty or forty a week, surely the concept must be formed in the viewer's mind that this is the way life is supposed to be. So what happens when kids grow up with the idea that life is supposed to have this form?

Of course, this has happened for the last three or four hundred years, when people read plays or went to the theater, and later, to films, but that happened only occasionally, and the action or predicament and resolution were prolonged over the course of the story or the two or three hours in the theater; but when this massive repetition of easy solutions to problems happens on television, right in your house, I wonder whether there isn't a perceived contrast between the order on television and the manifest, preposterous disorder of life.

And wouldn't this also make for a certain revulsion from life and a turning to television for order? I must say that in a certain sense I'm hooked; I watch more than I should, but often I will turn the sound off and leave the picture on, and I often wonder why that is. People kid me about it and say that I do that so that if the end of the world occurs, I will know it instantly. You know, there's liable to be something horrible happen in the Middle East any minute, and if the picture's there, there will be a bulletin flash across the screen.

LWH: I can see that you're serious about this study of the effects of television on human consciousness, but I'm also interested in your own life. How would you characterize your life? John Cheever, for instance, has characterized his life as "a droll adventure" during which he has had "no memory for pain."

WP: Well, my life has alternated between successive periods of mild disorientation, depression, punctuated by occasional periods of happiness and productivity in writing.

LWH: You appear to have had a very full life, but despite your productivity, is there anything you regret not having done and what do you look forward to doing?

WP: I think if I were doing it all over again, I would study linguistics, because it is going to be the new science. Incidentally, I am presently writing a book called Novum Organum, which is based on the belief I have that we are increasingly unable to understand ourselves based on our magnificent, triumphant science. What we have is a nonradical science, a technology which understands the interaction between things and things, and between things and organisms, but which has nothing whatever to say about what it is to be a human being, to find oneself in human predicaments. And the question is whether science can address itself to these things at all; most people say no. They say that maybe a novelist can talk about it, and maybe a phenomenologist can talk about it, but science cannot. But I think there may be such a thing as what I call a "radical science."

We now call it semiotics, which has to do with the interaction between people, and people and things, and people and symbols. I'm sure that the human experience cannot be reduced to any science, but you need a way of thinking about all these situations I write about and other novelists write about — upside-down situations like enjoying a hurricane. Like any other animal, we should be getting the hell out of there. And by the same token we should be happy when we have achieved our "goals," as they say, and are living well in East Orange, New Jersey. Things should be fine when you come home from work on a Wednesday afternoon, yet they're not fine. So there should be a way of thinking about these things rationally.

I write about these things, Cheever writes about them, Updike writes about them, Bellow writes about them. But are we saying that we're going to leave it to the novelists, that nobody but novelists or maybe theologians can write about these things? Or is there a way of thinking about it rationally? Getting some ordered discipline? I would like to think that, sure enough, you can make a model or develop a theory (which has already been done — it's been started by people like Charles Peirce) of what it is to be the organism which uses language. It means that instead of having an environment, instead of having interaction of energy exchange, you have other variables, other parameters, and you have a world. An animal responds to the world according to its genes and according to a good or bad environment, whereas a person is always in the world in certain ways. For instance, a scientist is in the world in a very particular way: he is outside the world, he's looking at the world as data. He likes to look at the world and get an idea of it, from certain formulas and equations which explain what it's doing. But I like to think of what scientists are doing when they are doing this, you know. Scientists are strange people, as are artists. What are artists up to? And what does it mean to be a scientist, being out of the world, playing God and arranging order in the world, and then, as Kierkegaard would say — or as Binx said as he was lying in a hotel room in Birmingham — what do you do when you develop a theory? Then how do you live the rest of the day?

LWH: That problem reminds me of the painting of Will Barrett over your mantel. In the painting, he stands between the second painting behind him and the viewer he's looking toward, as an interpreter of art to the world, in the similar, but substantially different way a scientist interprets the world to the layman. Is that what you're looking for in this radical science you speak of — a way to correlate the problems of living which the artist can only dramatize and the scientist can only analyze? Do you see yourself as this kind of interpreter?

WP: Yes, and I'm trying to figure out what it means to live in a world where science is triumphant, where we all recognize that there are "experts" for all of our problems.

LWH: And we feel placed in the corner, dispensed with, and even put down by them, too.

WP: Yes, we are all lay people regarding ourselves. If I suffer anxiety and depression, my natural inclination is to go to an expert on anxiety and depression, you see. He treats it like a case of appendicitis, and treats it with drugs. I was thinking at this conference on primatology about whether or not chimps can use language, to figure out the passions involved. I mean, the people who have spent years of their lives trying to prove the thesis that chimps can use language — why this great passion? What are they trying to prove? It has to do with Darwin, but even before that, for the last three hundred or four hundred years, it has to do with the displacement of man from the center of the universe, the way he was in Christian theology. He was dethroned first by Copernicus, who said that the earth was no longer the center; and then by Darwin, who said that man was no longer the unique species; and then by Freud, who said that we were no longer sovereigns of our own consciousness.

But the interesting question is what about the scientist who was saying these things? What is he saying? We demand a continuum, we are all a part of the same continuum, but where is the scientist standing as he is saying this? So, Novum Organum will deal with the question of where the scientist is as he pronounces his theories. I think there is a theology involved. The scientist is trying to get rid of God; he's trying to get rid of the uniqueness of man. He does not like a break in the continuum, the proposition that man may be qualitatively different from the other species. That's part of the scientific effort of the last four hundred years. Where does the scientist stand vis à vis this continuum? He wants to stand outside of it.

LWH: He wants to be Prometheus.

WP: Yes. He's not part of it. His consciousness of it does not fit into the continuum. Thus, I'm interested in him. The artist does something similar, but it's different, too. He also stands to the side and talks about the way things are, you know. And he also has trouble getting back into the world. But the way scientists live is different. They split the world into a continuum of physical processes, yet here you have a consciousness and you then have a problem of reentry. How do you get back into this world? So I'm looking for a way of thinking about people and things and symbols. The scientist thinks about interaction, energy exchanges, but the scientist who writes a paper can't explain what he's doing when he actually writes that paper. He's writing a paper for somebody else to read, yet we literally don't know what happens when two people are talking about something — we don't know what language is. That's why I like to start with chimps; I like to start with chimps who do hand signals and designate balls, and then think about what happens when human beings suddenly put two words together and make a sentence — something very strange happens. Bam! That's a world out there.

LWH: That's connected to the importance you attach to naming?

WP: Yes. And what I would really like to get onto is the study of consciousness. Believe it or not consciousness has just now become a respectable subject in the scientific world. Until a few years ago, the behaviorists had their way of ignoring consciousness or even denying it existed. So, what sort of scientific discipline do we have for thinking about the fact that I am a conscious person — that I am aware of you, for instance, and everything around you. I don't know who I am, though. It's very strange, because even though you are closer to yourself all your life than anyone else, a stranger seeing you on the street can see more about you, can see something about you that you in your entire life will never see. He can observe you in the way you take in a plant or a flower or the fan on that ceiling, and he can see you. But yourself is forever beyond conception in the ordinary scheme of how you take in the world. As Sartre would say, you, yourself, are the great vacuum, the great nothingness.

The trouble is, right now there are eighteen or so different theories of psychotherapy — Freudian, transactional analysis, Jungian, cognitive — they all have different models, but I think Novum Organum is going to deal with the psychotherapists. It's going to say where the psychotherapists stand with regard to the patient. This is a strange little world in the psychotherapist's office, where one person talks to another person, and they're out of the world in a sense, and each of the two is in the world in a different way. Now if I come to you for therapy, I am applying to you as an expert for what ails me, and you are there as someone who knows; but outside, there's the world, you see. And we're talking in symbols, transacting in symbols; I'm talking, you're listening.

This new thing called semiotics, started by Charles Peirce and Saussure, has a future in it. With a good theory of semiotics, we could get at what I was talking about before — what happens when people watch so much television. We don't have a conceptual means of getting at it right now. All we know is that if kids watch violent programs, they go out and act violently, but that's behavioristic. We don't have any way of thinking about what happens to their consciousness in the process. Maybe it can't be done; I don't know. Of course, if I watch enough of The Incredible Hulk, either I'll get anesthetized or I'll have an idea.

LWH: Despite the possible danger of anesthetization and more probable danger of boredom from The Incredible Hulk, it sounds like a valuable study.

WP: Well, I've been interested in the past in examining the human predicament novelistically, and now I think I want to see if it can be done semiotically. Nobody's ever done it. The semiotics of the self.

LWH: So yourNovum Organum will take up the semiotics of the self? You've spent some time in your fiction dealing with the evocation of your characters' memories. Will the book deal with that, too, as a phenomenon of human consciousness?

WP: Yes, probably. I think that I've failed in these five novels and in The Message in the Bottle, but I've got a good idea for the next one. You know, I'll tell you a secret: I think the only thing that keeps the novelist going (and I'm not sure that any other novelist would admit this) is that you are going to do the really big one. It's like the story Tolstoy used to tell. When he was a little boy, his brother told him while they were walking in the woods that there was a green stick buried on the estate, and if he found it he would have the key to immortal life. So whenever he went out walking, he always searched for the green stick. And so, all I'm saying is that the novelist is like the fisherman — always after the big one — the really big one. Otherwise he wouldn't bother, because it's a pain in the ass to write.

LWH: You're still after the big one, then?

WP: Oh sure, sure. Aren't you?

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