Walker Percy, that southern writer with a biting wit and a deft style, wrote his masterpiece Lost in the Cosmos back in 1983. The book purports to be the last self-help book. Though a grandiose title, the book delivers, although it doesn’t really deliver self-help as much as self-perplexity. Walker’s purpose in the book appears to be to make the reader feel that she is, indeed, alienated from her world, unable to grasp the full depths of human experience with the tools of modern science. The modern man craves meaning and yet often embraces life-views which do cannot give meaning. The waves of vulgar scientism (that belief that science is the only way to knowledge) breaks endlessly on the shores of modern life. Modern orientations to life such as consumerism or the enlightened status of the scientist or artist cannot satisfy or provide ultimate meaning on their own. In fact, alone they are full of thorns, thistles, and endless irony.
One of the key tensions of the book (given in multiple choice questions) is why humans behave the way they do. Why do we cheer when someone says the name our hometown at some entertainment venue? Are we craving for a sense of individuality and home? Why do we secretly enjoy it when another suffers? (Just think of soap operas and talk shows that exhibit bizarre and deranged people.) Why do we secretly feel pain when another gains success? Why can’t we be satisfied with one true love but must constantly crave more lovers in endless variety? Why are we depressed? Is it just faulty chemicals or is there more to it? How would an alien respond to the odd obsessions of humans? Why are modern people so endlessly and easily bored? Why so fragmented? So empty?
It’s enough to make us pull our hair right out, roots and all. But Percy does not stop there…to be continued.