Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

by Walker Percy (1983)

Ihesitate to call Lost in the Cosmos "existentialism lite," because there's no way I would ever pick up anything described as "lite." The truth of the matter, however, is that I'm not spending my weekends soaking up Being and Nothingness, so Walker Percy's charming little volume of provocative mindbenders is my favorite book about the Self (always capitalized), God, fear, death, self-knowledge, and loneliness.

The most memorable part of the book is the first section, an extended 20-question self-help quiz that explores notions of the Self in a modern era. Percy presents situations that would normally serve as small validations and touchstones in our ordinary lives, and questions our responses to these incidents, analyzing almost every conceivable conclusion.

For instance: a Chicagoan is sitting in the audience at a taping of The Johnny Carson Show. Johnny's guest mentions Chicago, and spontaneously, everybody from Chi-town applauds. After suggesting a few plausible reasons for this behavior, Percy presents the following option: "Because a personÉ feels himself so dislocated, so detached from a particular coordinate in space and time, so ghostly, that the very mention of such a coordinate is enough to startle him into action." After rattling off a Martha Stewart-like list for making a funky coffee table from non-traditional materials, he asks, "Why was not a single table designed as such, rather than being a non-table doing duty as a table?" After suggesting that people have gotten tired of regular tables, or that converted non-tables make good conversation pieces, he proposes that "the Self in the 20th Century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world, but like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out." Damn Walker, you stole my answer! The ultimate question that the book points to, though, is: Why, after 20- or 30-whatever years of living in your own skin, do you look to personality tests to reveal who you really are? CHAS BOWIE