In Lost in the Cosmos — about which I wrote an enthusiastic length here — Walker Percy offers a “semiotic primer of the self” which takes as one of its chief concerns the problem of alienation and re-entry: experiences that throw us out of our familiar patterns, in ways both good and bad, and thereby generate the challenge of finding our way back into our lifeworld. For instance, this is a pattern generated by both the making and the experiencing of art:
But the problem of re-entry can also be created by suffering of any kind, what Hamlet called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”; and this alienation, this being-cast-out, can be either the worst or the best thing that happens to us. Percy’s contemporary and coreligionist Flannery O’Connor writes of a character who has been so cast out receiving “some abysmal and life-giving knowledge”; but more commonly the knowledge is just abysmal.
Percy first used his space-age metaphor in his 1971 novel Love in the Ruins, whose protagonist, Dr. Tom More, invents the More Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer, a device capable of measuring a person’s alienation from his or her own life. For instance, here’s his description of the reading he gets when a troubled graduate student comes to him for help:
He registered a dizzy 7.6 mmv over Brodmann 32, the area of abstractive activity. Since that time I have learned that a reading over 6 generally means that a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman. (34)
More comes to believe that humans who are so orbiting their own lives may eventually decide that theirs is a superior way, a higher calling — that they are somehow meant to live in orbit (like the “citizens” of Egan’s Diaspora who shake their digital heads at “bacteria with spaceships”). This is, More thinks, an understandable but catastrophic affliction. Recall that for space capsules the problem of re-entry is twofold: if the capsule approaches the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, it will bounce back out into orbit; if at too steep an angle, it will be consumed by fire. That’s why the the condition of orbital exile is so prone to a Rortyan redescription as a Better Way. But we weren’t made to live in orbit, and Percy calls the belief that we can flourish out there “angelism”: trying to live like angels, disembodied creatures, we who are made to be embodied. An understandable catastrophe, but a catastrophe all the same.
It happened, he thinks, to his first wife, Doris, who
was ruined by books, by books and a heathen Englishman, not by dirty boooks but by clean books, not by depraved books but by spiritual books. God, if you recall, did not warn his people against dirty books. He warned them against high places. My wife, who began life as a cheerful Episcopalian from Virginia, became a priestess of the high places.… A certain type of Episcopal girl has a weakness that comes on them just past youth … They fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine. (64)
When they were still married, Doris was puzzled that her Catholic husband would always want to make love when he returned from Mass:
What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates [Ariadne's thread, that leads him out of the maze of the cloverleaf intersections and to a church] and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning. (254)
Eating Christ is how More finds the safe and right angle of re-entry, how he avoids both bouncing and burning. In Christ and not otherwise may be be brought back to his life. But Doris could not join him there, at the Altar or in daily life: her “clean books” had taken her to “high places” from which she would not, could not, come down. And so they were parted.
Angelism is not just personally catastrophic; it is socially so, one might say planetarily so. This becomes clear in a scene in which Tom More — whose medical speciality, not incidentally, is psychiatry — is confined to a psychiatric hospital and finds himself joined by a new patient: his priest, Father Rinaldo Smith, who had unexpectedly fallen silent at Mass when he was supposed to be preaching a sermon, then left the church, muttering that “the channels are jammed and the word is not getting through.”
Father Smith ends up at the hospital in the bed next to Tom More, who thus hears the questioning of the priest by a team of psychiatrists, led by one named Max.
“What seems to be the trouble, Father?” asks Max, pens and flashlight and reflex hammer glittering like diamonds in his vest pocket.
“They’re jamming the airwaves,” says Father Smith, looking straight ahead.… They’ve put a gremlin in the circuit."
“They?” asks Max. “Who are they?”
“They’ve won and we’ve lost,” says father Smith.
"Who are they, Father?
“The principalities and powers.”
“Principalities and powers,” says Max, cocking his head attentively. Light glances from the planes of his temple. “You are speaking of two of the hierarchies of devils, are you not?”
The eyes of the psychiatrists and behaviorists sparkle with sympathetic interest.
“Yes,” says Father Smith. “Their tactic has prevailed.”
“You are speaking of devils now, Father?” asks Max.
“That is correct.”
“Now what tactic, as you call it, has prevailed?”
“Death…. I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”
And — I believe this is the key theme of this brilliant if flawed novel — it is the voluntary self-exile of human beings, our acceptance of life in orbit, our defection from our proper role in the cosmos to a bogus angelism — that makes room for the principalities and powers. Thus near the end of the book, in a ruined but not destroyed world, as More reflects on the possible restorative uses of his Ontological Lapsometer, he offers, among other things, a wonderful repurposing of the favored populist slogan of Huey Long.
For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man. Even now I can diagnose and shall one day cure: cure the new plague, the modern Black Death, the current hermaphroditism of the spirit, namely: More’s syndrome, or: chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.
If you want and work and wait, you can have. Every man a king. What I want is no longer the Nobel, screw prizes, but just to figure out what I’ve hit on. Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.
Sovereign wanderer, lordly exile: dominion not as a simple possession but as a calling to which we may be at any given point more or less worthy, towards the fulfillment of which we should be moving as pilgrims, here and now, not afflicted by “the new plague, the modern Black Death” that flings us into orbit and keeps us there and teaches us to prefer the airless void to the things of this world.