Angsty (Everyone) and Walker Percy (Part 3 of 3)

Earlier in the week we explored the loss of sovereignty over one’s experiences that occurs […]

Will McDavid / 7.1.11

Earlier in the week we explored the loss of sovereignty over one’s experiences that occurs when we make the opinions of “experts” into a sort of Law, such that they have to certify our experiences as genuine. I can watch Midnight in Paris by myself and love it, but on my second showing with the film buff friends I do not enjoy the movie as something for me to watch. Rather, my highest satisfaction would be a positive review by my friend, which would certify my first experience as valid and authentic.

Not only do we surrender our opinions and experiences to the judgment of others, but we may even surrender our own emotions:

“This loss of sovereignty extends even to oneself. There is the neurotic who asks nothing more of his doctor than that his symptoms should prove interesting. When all else fails, the poor fellow has nothing to offer but his own neurosis. But even this is sufficient if only the doctor will show interest when he says, ‘Last night I had a curious sort of dream; perhaps it will be significant to the one who knows about such things. It seems I was standing in a sort of alley—‘ (I have nothing to offer you but my own unhappiness. Please say that it, at least, measures up, that it is a proper sort of unhappiness.)”

Not only does Percy think we have to have an expert to verify our experiences, but also he criticizes the way in which humans are placed as passive consumers of experiences. Percy, who had studied medicine at Columbia before becoming a writer, introduces us to a student in a biology class learning about a dogfish. For Percy,  the dissection table is one of the last places someone can truly see a dogfish:

“A student enters a laboratory which, in the pragmatic view, offers the student the optimum conditions under which an educational experience may be had. In the existential view, however—that view of the student in which he is regarded not as a receptacle of experience but as a knowing being…the modern laboratory could not have been more designed to conceal the dogfish forever.”

We might equate the student’s problem with dogfish with the tourist’s dilemma in seeing the Grand Canyon. Instead of being free to actually see the phenomenon without the Law of expectations, the tourist measures the satisfaction he gets from the Grand Canyon by how well he is receiving the experiential package—how well it conforms to his expectations of what should be taking place. The patient only wants the proper sort of unhappiness, and the student merely wants to learn what she’s supposed to be learning. Similar to the Grand Canyon tourist, she’s mainly concerned that all the parts of the dogfish match up properly with the diagram from the textbook, that her experience of the dogfish be authenticated by exact correspondence with what she should be experiencing.

So what’s Percy’s answer to this dilemma? He suggests, it seems quite seriously, that once in a while the biology student should walk into the lab to find a Shakespearian sonnet on his desk, while the English student should get to poke around at a dogfish with scissors and bobby pins. It seems absurd, but a rupturing of expectations must take place to rescue us from our identities as consumers. The English student, surprised and yet interested, without expectations, could begin examining the dogfish as a sovereign knower and “learn more in thirty minutes than the biology major in a whole semester.”

Another way in which our expectations can be ruptured is by distraction from our expectations. In Percy’s The Last Gentleman, protagonist Will tries to see a painting in museum:

“Now here comes a citizen who has the good fortune to be able to enjoy a cultural facility. There is the painting which has been bought at great expense and exhibited in a museum so that millions can see it. What is wrong with that? Something, said the engineer, shivering and sweating behind a pillar…the harder one looked, the more invisible the paintings became.”

Immediately another family comes in and distracts a man painting the museum ceiling, who falls from his ladder with a crash. Will helps the man get on his feet and start breathing again, and then he accidentally sees the painting. For a split second he is not bound by the way the painting is packaged, by the law of what museum-goers should appreciate or by what he expects his viewing experience to be:

“It was at this moment that the engineer happened to look under his arm and catch sight of the Velázquez. It was glowing like a jewel! The painter might just have stepped out of his studio and the engineer, passing in the street, had stopped to look through the open door. The painting could be seen.”

If the consumer can be jarred out of an obsession with what he should be seeing and feeling, the chance to really appreciate the painting is there. Consuming art or culture with the goal of appreciating it is a self-defeating exercise, as the only way the engineer could see the painting was when he stopped trying to.

In Kierkegaardian fashion, Percy’s main solution for the problem is to realize that the problem exists, to properly engage it:

“Does this mean there is no use in taking biology at Harvard and Shreveport High? No, but it means that the student should know what a fight he has on his hands to recuse the specimen from the educational package.”

The Christian existentialists could easily be maligned for having too high a view of human agency, for endorsing and rallying us to the human struggle against the constraints or expectations of society. Aren’t we powerless sinners with extremely limited agency?

There is one struggle which the Christian existentialists, including Percy, call us definitively to engage in (St. Paul would have something to say about it as well). This struggle is to live without reference to the Law. Percy advocates a struggle to recover our experiences from ideas in ourselves and society of what they should be, which then allows us to truly engage them. If I could place my deeply limited human agency into a struggle, I think that this one would be a good bet.