Walker Percy’s “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book,” is easily the funniest – and perhaps the most genuinely insightful and provocative – work of existentialism in the English language.
Droll and dark, loaded with “thought experiments” that force the reader to turn inward and probe his own worst anxieties and basest motivations, this non-fiction masterpiece feels somehow even more relevant in the age of social media than it did during the Cold-War early ’80s when it was first published.
It’s not for the intellectually or spiritually squeamish. Percy, who spent his formative years in Greenville, Mississippi (living with his cousin, the author William Alexander Percy), looks you straight in the eye and poses devastating questions about what it means to be human, to be a gloriously unique “self” and yet to feel all alone in a virtually infinite universe.
Why are we so unhappy? Why can’t we find peace? Why can’t we more easily connect with others? (Spoiler alert: Percy has plenty of questions, but not much in the way of hard and fast answers.)
These are themes Percy also explored in novels like “The Moviegoer” and “The Second Coming.” It’s difficult to capture the spirit, humor and insight of “Lost in the Cosmos” in a single, easily digestible quote, but this one is a pretty decent start:
“Why is it that the look of another person looking at you is different from everything else in the Cosmos? That is to say, looking at lions or tigers or Saturn or the Ring Nebula or at an owl or at another person from the side is one thing, but finding yourself looking in the eyes of another person looking at you is something else. And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?”
Rick Hynum is editor-in-chief of HottyToddy.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.