Lost in the Cosmos, The Last Self-Help Book

Walker Percy
Simon & Schuster
1983

Get ready for a ride that travels with fury between the inner mystery of human reasoning and need to a three hundred year flight of fancy into space with three women and one man. Percy had fun. Some people keep themselves busy knitting, gardening or playing video games, Percy likes to propose ideas that entertain some, bore others and frighten more than a few. Disdainful of the popularity and numbers growth of self-help books, he also declares his belief that no one has the capability of knowing themselves, thus making self-help books worthless.

The book is twenty chapters, each holding options for the reader to consider a proposed topic. The first chapter is a friendly inquiry called The Amnesiac Self: Why the Self Wants to Get Rid of the Self. He quickly scans the popularity of amnesia in movies and wonders why we enjoy it so much. Then he’s on to darker subjects where he invites readers to skip an area on the study of symbols that resembles a forty page tangent.

Warmed up, the chapters are named The Orbiting Self: Reentry Problems of the Transcending Self, or Why it is that Artists and Writers, Some Technologists, and indeed Most People have so much trouble Living in the Ordinary World. People find exits of mind, body and spirit. He lists and explains eleven ways to return to normal consciousness after involvement in the creative exit. To his credit, along with musicians, writers and artists, he includes scientists, and transcendent religious servicers in the order of Mother Theresa. In fact, he might include anyone who falls into a meditational “zone,” in their work or play.  Among the choices of return from the “zone” are the obvious like drugs and travel, and the not so obvious, such as role playing by disguise, or refusal to return at all, like J.D. Salinger or B. Traven.

A number of his conclusions would be questionable to a reader, but we are his guests in this book, and to enjoy it, it is necessary to be entertained and not let defensiveness jump up. The last flight of fancy (probably not a phrase Percy would use) is the scenario of a spaceship hurtling into space to respond to a message received from Bernard’s Star that is six light years away. His ideal flight crew is three women in their twenties and a virile, intelligent man in his early thirties. Most books would tell us the story, but Percy requires participation. Which person would we be? What would we do when it was discovered it was a random sound without meaning? Where next?

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