Thursday, March 08, 2007

Epilogue: Walker Percy Redux

The solution-answer to each of the questions from the Prologue from yesterday’s blog, repeated below, is the activation of the “I” that has been turned back on itself. This turn to the self produces sadness (feeling bad), criticism and antagonism against others (war), (hidden) delight in their misfortunes and tragedies, boredom, meaninglessness, alienation and the inability to see reality and recognize it for what it really is. Percy’s answer is the Helen Keller Tuscumbia experience, i.e. the deployment of the “I” as acting agent in the use of language as “naming.” Naming things is the work of the “I” which awakens it from its forgetfulness. Ultimately, the naming of the God-man, Jesus Christ, as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16, 16) [achieved in the activity and experience of prayer as relation] is the supreme arousal of the self such that in the process one becomes “another Christ,” “Rock” (“Cornerstone”). Once is the “I” is turned away from itself, it comes into full possession of self, and alienation is defeated.

Revisit the prologue of yesterday’s blog and look for yourself in each question. Consider the answer as the recovery and finding of the self by a self give-away.

“WHY DOES MAN feel so sad in the twentieth century?

Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?

Why has man entered on an orgy of war, murder, torture, and self-destruction unparalleled in history and in the very century when he had hoped to see the dawn of universal peace and brotherhood?

Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?

Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments?

Why does a man often feel better in a bad environment?

Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?

Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?

Why have more people been killed in the twentieth century than in all other centuries put together?

Why is war man’s greatest pleasure?

Why is man the only creature that wages war against its own species?

What would man do if war were outlawed?

Why is it that the only time I ever saw my uncle happy during his entire life was the afternoon of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?

* * * *

Why is it that a man riding a good commuter train from Larchmont to New York, whose needs and drives are satisfied, who has a good home, loving wife and family, good job, who enjoys unprecedented ‘cultural and recreational facilities,’ often feels bad without knowing why?

Why is it that if such a man suffers a heart attack and, taken off the train at New Rochelle, regains consciousness and finds himself in a strange place, he then comes to himself for the first time in years, perhaps in his life, and begins to gaze at his own hand with a sense of wonder and delight?

What is the difference between such a man, a commuter who feels bad without knowing why, and another commuter who feels bad without knowing why but who begins to read a book about man who feels bad without knowing why?

Why does it make a man feel better to read a book about a man like himself felling bad?

Why was it that Jean-Paul Sartre, sitting in a French café and writing Nausea, which is about the absurdity of human existence and the nausea of life in the twentieth century – why was he the happiest man in France at the time?

Why is it harder to study a dogfish on a dissecting board in a zoological laboratory in college where one has proper instruments and a proper light than it would be if one were marooned on an island and, having come upon a dogfish on the beach and having o better instrument than a pocketknife or bobby pin, one began to explore the dogfish?

Why is it difficult to see a painting in a museum but not if someone should take you by the hand and say, ‘I have something to show you in my house,’ and lead you through a passageway and upstairs into the attic and there show the painting to you?

What would you do if a stranger came up to you on a New York street and, before disappearing into the crowd, gave you a note which read: ‘I know your predicament: it is such and such. Be at the southeast corner of Lindell Boulevard and Kingshighway in St. Louis at 9 a.m., April 16 – I have new of the greatest importance?’”

What Walker Percy is presenting the above is what has been called “alienation” which is “The estrangement of the existing self,”
[2] and this precisely because we have staked everything “on the objective-empirical.” He points out that “It does happen that the Dasein or existing self characteristically reverses objective-empirical sociological categories and discovers in them not the principle of it health but the root of its alienation.” What he means is that everything in the world of sense has been explained – except me. My subjectivity has been left out as the other side of the St. Andreas fault line of the Enlightenment dualism and dismissed.

The suffering of it is unspeakable since the meaning of everything that is perceived through sensation is embedded in the context of the experience and consciousness of who I am. And since I am left alone and presumed to be happy because I have every sensible empirical need satisfied, my “I,” which has been revealed to be intrinsically and constitutively relational, withers into non-existence. This is the suffering of always, but particularly of the present moment.

[1] Walker Percy, “The Message in the Bottle,” The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus, Giroux (1976) 3-6.
[2] Walker Percy, “The Man on the Train,” Idem 84-85.

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