Walker Percy on the Surrender of Our Experience

I’ve long had The Message in the Bottle, a collection of Walker Percy’s essays on my shelf. Over the years, I’ve dipped in it to read an essay or two here and there. Somehow I’d missed the second essay in the collection, “The Loss of the Creature.” I’m grateful to Alan Jacobs for mentioning this essay in a comment thread this morning. The essay is well-worth your time to read. Here are a couple of selections. I commend the whole thing to you.

“Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon, under these circumstances and see it for what it is — as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex, head on. The thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather ‘that which has already been formulated-by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon. As a result of this preformulation, the source of the sightseer’s pleasure undergoes a shift. Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex. If it does so, if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, “Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!” He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be. He will say later that he was unlucky in not being there at the right time. The highest point, the term of the sightseer’s satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.

Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sightseer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years. For him there is no present; there is only the past of what has been formulated and seen and the future of what has been formulated and not seen. The present is surrendered to the past and the future.”

And:

“This loss of sovereignty is not a marginal process, as might appear from my example of estranged sightseers. It is a generalized surrender of the horizon to those experts within whose competence a particular segment of the horizon is thought to lie. Kwakiutls are surrendered to Franz Boas; decaying Southern mansions are surrendered to Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. So that, although it is by no means the intention of the expert to expropriate sovereignty — in fact he would not even know what sovereignty meant in this context — the danger of theory and consumption is a seduction and deprivation of the consumer.

In the New Mexican desert, natives occasionally come across strange-looking artifacts which have fallen from the skies and which are stenciled: Return to U.S. Experimental Project, Alamogordo. Reward. The finder returns the object and is rewarded. He knows nothing of the nature of the object he has found and does not care to know. The sole role of the native, the highest role he can play, is that of finder and returner of the mysterious equipment.

The same is true of the layman’s relation to natural objects in a modern technical society. No matter what the object or event is, whether it is a star, a swallow, a Kwakiutl, a ‘psychological phenomenon,’ the layman who confronts it does not confront it as a sovereign person, as Crusoe confronts a seashell he finds on the beach. The highest role he can conceive himself as playing is to be able to recognize the title of the object, to return it to the appropriate expert and have it certified as a genuine find. He does not even permit himself to see the thing — as Gerard Hopkins could see a rock or a cloud or a field. If anyone asks him why he doesn’t look, he may reply that he didn’t take that subject in college (or he hasn’t read Faulkner).

This loss of sovereignty extends even to oneself. There is the neurotic who asks nothing more of his doctor than that his symptom 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 one who knows about such things. It seems I was standing in a sort of alley –‘ (I have nothing else to offer you but my own unhappiness. Please say that it, at least, measures up, that it is a proper sort of unhappiness.)”

8 thoughts on “Walker Percy on the Surrender of Our Experience

  1. Mike, You’ve probably read Ari Schulman’s essay on place in The New Atlantis, which also draws on Percy’s essay:

    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/gps-and-the-end-of-the-road

    Schulman’s distinction between simply looking at a place (sightseeing) and responding to a place’s “call to action” was particularly good:

    “In short, finding our way around engages us in the way we need to snap us out of the alienation facing Percy’s tourist at the Grand Canyon, and to form instead the basis for a connection with the place: a purposive encounter with it whereby we can ‘get at it.’ For López de Cárdenas, and the natives who came before him, it was impossible for the canyon to be a mere sight because it was a tremendous obstacle; a thing that must be conquered to pass; a possible site for injury and death, or for shelter, food, and water; an opportunity for riches, prospect, and conflict. Its features — a towering crag, a boulder, a valley, a thick of brush, the river at its core — were apprehended in terms of passability and possibility. Only relatively recently has it even become possible to regard the Grand Canyon as merely a sight — to stumble groggy off a tour bus right at the edge, without any sense of having traversed the distance there, and be faced with the challenge of perceiving the thing in itself.

    Something like the sight that faced López de Cárdenas is still available to us; but it is and must be a struggle to see it. When we circumvent, by whatever means, the demand a place makes of us to find our way through it, we deny ourselves access to the best entry we have into inhabiting that place — and by extension, to really being anywhere at all.”

    1. I have, but long ago now that the connection to this essay by Percy was lost to me. Thanks for the reminder.

      As a side note, it seems to me that given the ubiquity of portable documentary technology combined with social media, the whole gamut of lived experience is now in the same predicament as the Grand Canyon in Percy’s diagnosis. The struggle is for much more than our encounters with nature and with place; it’s for our encounters with the human, including our selves. Of course, Percy was fighting that battle already against other, not unrelated trends and tendencies.

  2. What prevents us from the sovereign experience of stumbling out of the tour bus, taking in our grogginess as we take in the spectacle of the Canyon, this huge gash in the earth, surrounded by the tourists snapping away, the caravan of busses the spectacle of the whole place as it is in that moment not pretending gosh this is what the Indians musta seen or pretending anyway and understanding that all of it is what it is for itself at that moment (including our precious interiority) if that’s even possible because isn’t that not beng sure that the exerience whatever it is is maybe not possible even though there it is right in front of us?

    1. I think that in this context “an experience” is something that pulls you out of yourself, or in some way changes you (even if only temporarily). If what happens, and what you see, merely confirms you as as what you already were, then it wouldn’t qualify as “an experience” in that sense.

      I think the best I can do here is to offer an example from my own, er, experience.

      From time to time I’ve been to major art exhibitions. I generally find these things a bit odd, not least because the behaviour of the crowds is fairly predictable. People will shuffle past the paintings, looking at each one for a really rather brief period of time – often less time than it takes to read the accompanying description. These days they will almost all be intently listening to their audio guides.

      Often I’ve found this behaviour more interesting than the art itself. It sometimes appeared that the entire point of the exercise was to make sure that people had something to talk about afterwards. Why else would they pay good money to have talking points piped into their ears? It took me a while to realise that this sort of grandstanding on my part was as pointless as it was smug.

      Then there was the Kandinsky exhibition at the Tate Britain.

      Vaguely knowing that Kandinsky had a thing about his work being like music, I figured that I could try making an effort to imagine what each painting would sound like if it were music. That this “worked” was quite a revelation, but it was also hard work – I think I only managed about five paintings in this manner. And, for better or for worse, although I could tell my companions that this was what I had done, it wasn’t an experience I could readily share.

      The idea that Kandinsky’s work being like music wasn’t one that I’d somehow discovered from the works themselves: I must have read about it somewhere. That being so, I have a question: when it comes to prior conceptions that we bring to something we perceive, is there a principled distinction between those conceptions that will deepen our engagement with it, and those that will close it off?

  3. Is anyone familiar with the passage in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise about “The Most Photographed Barn in America”? One of the characters, a professor of pop culture, gives an analysis similar to Percy’s. It’s worth looking up and reading the excerpt.

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