“From Self-Reliance to Loss of Sovereign Self: The Ghost of Emerson in Walker Percy’s Fictional Poetics”

Louis Gallo

Louis Gallo

Essay by Louis Gallo 

We rarely associate the names of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walker Percy, yet both deal with common philosophic and social concerns which make it clear that Percy, like so many writers following Emerson, can be examined from the perspective of Transcendentalism in general and self-reliance in particular.  However remote Percy’s sensibility may seem from that of Emerson, however unrelated the two in terms of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” we can make a strong case for Percy as a natural heir—although perhaps unconsciously so—to American Romanticism.  A number of commentators describe Percy as America’s only European novelist, yet the link with Emerson repositions Percy as a mainstream American thinker as well.  Like Thoreau, Whitman and others who pay direct tribute to Emerson, Percy confronts strictly American problems addressed by the original Transcendentalists.  One such problem of salient importance to both Emerson and Thoreau was that of conformity of the self to systems devised by the Collective Other.  Percy contributes to the dialogue by “diagnosing” the modern self and the society it inhabits in terms of “autonomy” and “sovereignty.”

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With respect to specific texts we should turn to Emerson’s seminal essay “Self-Reliance” and Percy’s odd, speculative book Lost in the Cosmos, which, while partially fictional, amounts to nothing less than the poetics of a writer adept in both the essay and the novel.  Like Emerson, Percy scathingly attacks the values, mores and institutions of the society and world into which he finds the self thrust.  (I use the word “thrust” intentionally, since Percy, following the existentialists, believed that we have been literally thrust into a world we would not have otherwise chosen.  This essentially gnostic idea clashes somewhat with Percy’s Roman Catholicism, but the Judeo-Christian heritage does contain elements of Gnosticism.  The ancient Gnostics were, after all, regarded as heretical Jews, as were certain early Christian sects.)

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Emerson’s program for self-reliance was to apply to both individuals and a country struggling to free itself from European influence, but here we focus our attentions on individuals.  Ironically, most individuals of Emerson’s time were by necessity forced to rely upon themselves for mere survival.  The country was largely rural and agricultural and frontier culture thrived.  Intellectually, also, self-reliance was prized: remember the pragmatic advice of Franklin (“If thou would have a faithful servant, serve thyself”).  True, Emerson attempted to sabotage Franklin’s materialist legacy, but self-reliance is self-reliance, whether directed toward amassing wealth or spiritual liberation.  Thus, for entirely practical reasons, self-reliance became an American sine qua non the moment Captain Smith set foot on the mainland.  What we find in Percy, by way of contrast, is an almost angry nostalgia that self-reliance and non-conformity, to which Americans still pay lip service, have degenerated into empty shibboleths.  Percy does not specify when we lost what he calls our “sovereignty” over ourselves, for he is more interested in diagnosing this modern malaise than in conducting historical research.  Moreover, whereas Emerson too took the existence of the self for granted (i.e., we all do indeed have selves which can be liberated or manipulated), Percy maintains that the self may amount to no more than a succession of convenient fictions, that is, essence is ultimately nothingness.  In this matter, he acknowledges the influence of Heidegger and Sartre.

Loss of self occurred gradually with the rise of civil bureaucracy, the military-industrial complex, technological advances, and—this is crucial—our growing faith in scientific methodology, which Percy often refers to as the “objective-empirical” mindset.  As diagnostician Percy deems himself a scientist of sorts, so it is not science qua science that disturbs him.  His main concern is to expose the replacement of true transcendence, which can only be religious or spiritual in nature, with the spirit of scientific abstraction.  The idea is hardly original, but what appears unique enough in Percy is his relentless jeremiad against even those most banal, or apparently banal, accomplishments of science (and especially the social sciences) that threaten individual dignity and originality.  Scientific insight, when popularized and filtered down to ordinary people on the street, inhibits their trust in their own instincts, hunches and even common sense.  The individual is no match for this onslaught of expertise since, Percy explains, “The Self in the twentieth-century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform it own nothingness by ingesting new objects but, like the vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out” (21).

Emerson had performed a psychological reduction of self that grounded it in instinct and spontaneity, which he believed comprised the dual essence of self.  Something, no doubt, informed the self, even if that something had turned inward and could be traced to the early Puritan “inner light” or the ancient Christian “soul.”  The point is that the self remained a closed system except when it communed with Nature, the avenue of transcendence.  By self-reliance Emerson meant that the psychologically closed system of self could transcend itself through what amounted to leaks in the system.  Self-reliance emphatically did not mean that we hoe our own bean field next to a cabin built with our own bare hands, although this more common usage of the term certainly had its place in Emerson’s scheme.

The enemies of self-reliance include conformity, idolization, consumerism, political bandwagons and so on.  Emerson also assailed “travel” as an enemy, which may seem odd until we recall Percy’s consignment of travel to Kierkegaard’s aesthetic mode of “rotation,” wherein mere geographic displacement abets escape from self rather than an embracing it.  (Remember the echoes in Thoreau on travel—you don’t have to go anywhere to go everywhere.)  The real travel (travail) for Percy, and Emerson, is a quest of spiritual dimension rather than endless rotations throughout the world.  Percy addresses too the issue of consumerism, particularly in terms of Fromm’s “escape from freedom,” claiming that the modern self attempts to fill its own nothingness with a plenitude of goods and artifacts which it desperately hopes will somehow cancel the void at its center by defining it artificially.  How Percy arrives at this juncture is informative, so let us digress for a moment and trace his argument.

Percy contends that history provides entire wardrobes of identities by which we may define the self.  There is, for example, the “cosmological self,” which is “either unconscious of itself or only conscious of itself insofar as it identifies with a cosmological myth or classificatory system, e.g., ‘totemism’” (11).  Percy alludes to various other selves—the “Brahmin-Buddhist self,” the “Christian self,” the “role-taking self,” the “standard-American-Jeffersonian-high-school commencement-taking self”—all of which he dismisses as outmoded and defunct.  Percy maintains that it is important, mandatory rather, that we can name the self since naming is not merely a semantic gesture but a hermeneutic interchange by means of which we commune with the transcendent.  It is not within my realm to outline Percy’s call for a new theory of humanity, a semiotic theory, but suffice it to say that language, which Emerson rarely took into account when formulating his psychology of self, is for Percy the spiritual link between God and human.  As he maintains in his essay “The Mystery of Language,” which appears in The Message in the Bottle, man “is, in Heidegger’s words, that being in the world whose calling in the world is to find a name for Being, give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing” (158).

If we are obliged to find a name for Being, we must also name ourselves: “The self in a world is rich or poor accordingly as it succeeds in identifying its otherwise unspeakable self . . .” (122).  The nameless or unspeakable self is confronted with its own nothingness, which is psychologically and spiritually unbearable.  Thus the rush to acquire ersatz selves, to assume the identity of the Other, to obliterate the actual essential self.  That contemporary Americans still rely upon such costumes is a sign of enormous bad faith, what Emerson would have called “conformity.”  The situation of the self today, Percy contends, is two-fold: either immanent or transcendent.  He likens the immanent self to an organism in an environment, an illusion of behavioral science, and he diagnoses its various polarities along the spectrum of manifestation in the world.  There is, on one end, the passive role-player who luxuriates in consumerism, TV-watching, drugs and sex—who in other words dispenses with self by objectifying it; and there is, on the other end, the “autonomous self” free of mandates from God, religion, state, society, tribe, even family.  This autonomous self is the modern liberated, liberal individual, the free-thinking, free-loving, politically leftist, atheistic, culture-free nihilist who has lost all ties with the very matrix of his or her being.  While the passive sole-player, in effect, annihilates the self, the autonomous self, “believing in nothing, can fall prey to ideology and kill millions of people . . .” (157).  Neither option of immanence now suffices because both relegate sovereignty to Them, the Collective Other.  The passive role-player, for example, cannot make a move without consulting his analyst while the autonomous self, as mention, succumbs to ideology.

Another version of self available is the “transcendent self,” its two polarities involving either scientific or aesthetic pursuits.  But the very pleasure of transcendence in either scientific inquiry or art launches the self into orbit, Percy argues, beyond selfhood itself.  By “transcendence” Percy means, in this context, the Cartesian “abstraction” characterizing, say, a scientist speculating on the origins of the cosmos or an artist “marooned in his [own] cortex.”  When the transcendent self attempts a return to the self-in-the-world, which is by definition partially immanent, what Percy calls “re-entry” problems develop.  The scientist may transform into a “daemonic self” and develop ever greater weapons that can literally destroy the planet and everyone on it; the artist, especially writers, may turn to alcohol, self-abuse, even suicide.  The transcendent self denies its own greatest need—i.e., consciousness of the self’s predicament in the world.  This is not to say that artists fail to ponder the predicament; we could argue that art’s mission is to ponder it relentlessly.  But abstract speculation does not solve the problem of actually living in the world on an everyday basis.

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If both immanent and transcendent selves are unsatisfactory, we may ask what Percy envisions in their place.  Alas, as philosopher, Percy hedges on this matter even as he advocates the formulation of a new semiotic theory of humanity, which he believes will help us redefine ourselves.  He regards his pioneering speculations in Lost in the Cosmos as unsteady groping toward such a theory.  In his fiction, however, Percy provides a perhaps more substantial insight into the predicament of self and how it may be tolerated if not overcome.  We may recall in this connection Dr. Thomas More of Love in the Ruins, adorned with penitential sackcloth and ashes, barbecuing in his backyard with his wife Ellen sitting on his lap.  Dr. More, drinking bourbon and feeling lustful, is an utterly immanent man.  He is content, relaxed, even joyous and full of good cheer; yet he has just recovered from what can only be called a nervous breakdown, the most alarming symptom of which was his fear that the end of the world was at hand.  There is a subtle allusion to Kierkegaard in this scene, not by name, but rather in Dr. More’s bearing in the world.  If one consults Kierkegaard on the bearing of his Knight of Faith, indeed if one juxtaposes passages from Percy and Kierkegaard describing these characters, it becomes obvious that Dr. More has reached that mode of being described by Kierkegaard as “the religious.”  The spiritual leap to this mode of being is chiefly what Percy offers in his fiction, but he does not wholly advance it in his poetics. Yet recall that a semiotic theory of humanity is hermeneutic to the extent that it involves decipherment of the “meaning” of symbols which are both immanent and transcendent (in the Emersonian sense).  Percy critics should further explore the interlocking of the semiotic and Kierkegaardian directions if they seek further clues about the theory of humanity he insists must emerge.

By way of summary it can be said that both Emerson’s and Percy’s explorations of self are intimately related.  Percy moves beyond Emerson when he adds linguistic factors to the inquiry—factors mandated by current linguistic theory which Emerson did not have at his disposal.  Moreover, both thinkers relate the self to what Heidegger calls Being, yet they do so in curiously native, traditional fashion—Emerson by invoking the God of his Puritan ancestors (while at the same time insisting that we make our own Bibles), Percy ostensibly by invoking the god of Roman Catholicism.  Mainstream American inquiry into the nature of self thus seems consistently comfortable with the notion that self be informed by the more-than-self and that self-reliance is a spiritual enterprise which, if not undertaken, results in loss of self altogether.


Works Cited (footnotes within text pertinent to volumes below)

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Self-Reliance.”   The Harper American Literature.  Ed. Donald   McQuade, et al.  2 vols.  New York:  Harper, 1987.  1:  1032-48.

Percy, Walker.  The Message in the Bottle.  New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975.

Percy, Walker.  Lost in the Cosmos.  New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983.

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