This one got long. To read the first half of this essay, click here
I recently wrote about Walker Percy’s essay “Loss of the Creature,” in which he argues that modern man is no longer able to apprehend an object because of the symbolic complex that blinds us to the true nature of what we are seeing. So now instead of truly encountering an object, whether natural or man-made, we encounter an interpretation of that object. This becomes particularly noticeable with tourism, where works of art or natural wonders are overwhelmingly consumed as experiences to be accumulated or as photo-opportunities (or for those who are particularly sensitive, as occasions for self-conscious hand wringing and irony). Percy doesn’t limit his argument to tourism, though, and the second half of his essay switches focus and he begins to identify the source of the problem. Why has the “creature” been lost to us and how do we recover our connection with the world around us? Percy believes that we have lost control of ourselves as existing creatures, writing,
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
This is at least partially because the lens through which we see the world is tinted, conditioned through education and environment. Percy writes,
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).
He uses the example of Robinson Crusoe picking up a seashell. Contrast that with the way that, say, I might pick up a seashell. I would want to know the name of it, what sort of creature lived in it, if this is a particularly noteworthy example of the species and worth keeping. I might compare it to similar shells down at the beach-kitsch store or show it to my companion hoping to hear praise for my discovery. These aren’t necessarily bad reactions, mind you, but most certainly different than Crusoe’s. Or to use a more concrete example, it’s different than the way a child would pick up the shell. A child would find it and rescue it with great delight, maybe show it to a parent but more to share the joy of the discovery than for validation, and then proceed to dig a hole in the sand with it.
According to Percy, the same symbolic complex attaches to reading a poem. We’ve all read poetry in school, but for all our hard work we don’t really understand poems any better;
The sonnet is obscured by the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators believe for some reason to be transparent. The new textbook, the type, the smell of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter sky, the personality of Miss Hawkins—these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only succeed in transmitting themselves. It is only the hardiest and cleverest of students who can salvage the sonnet from this many-tissued package. It is only the rarest student who knows that the sonnet must be salvaged from the package.
It’s funny. He’s right. I remember reading poetry in college, but each poem is colorized by my memories of the vomit-yellow carpet in the classroom in a building designed according to a televangelist’s vision of the future back in the 1960’s (Result – a decaying edifice reminiscent of the Jetsons, I went to Oral Roberts University, by the way). I remember my poetry teacher reading it and the funny way he had of pronouncing the words in a lilting manner through his mustached, bespectacled visage. I remember how most of my fellow students were completely unappreciative of a single thing said in that classroom the entire semester. Then I begin to think about the wider context of college-age me, what I was like, what I wore, how I thought. The poems I remember, but I remember them in a way that no one else does – the context is mine alone. Now Percy has me fretting that I haven’t actually, truly understood a poem for my entire life.
He argues that we must “extract the thing from the package,” because to the extent that we are beholden to the entanglements of symbol and context surrounding a thing, the more our expectations shift the way we perceive it. Percy writes,
The dogfish, the tree, the seashell…are rendered invisible by a shift of reality from concrete thing to theory which Whitehead has called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It is the mistaking of an idea, a principle, an abstraction, for the real. As a consequence of the shift, the “specimen” is seen as less real than the theory of the specimen. As Kierkegaard said, once a person is seen as a specimen of a race or a species, at that very moment he ceases to be an individual. Then there are no more individuals but only specimens.
Now we’re to the heart of the complaint. Whether it be seeing things as a tourist and, even before taking a step out the front door to begin the trip, having a preconceived notion of the perfect trip, the effortless, pre-packaged, pampered tourist experience, the all-access behind the scenes tour, the all-in-one theme park, whatever it is that the commercial or brochure has conjured in our minds, or whether it be picking up a seashell and desiring to know what type of specimen it is, or reading a poem already having been told that it’s a classic of a certain genre and is included in a specific textbook to learn a certain lesson…really any creature at all will be lost under the weight of the symbolic package that covers it. Each person and thing must be encountered in reality, for what it is, not as a specimen but as a real, individually existing object.
Percy has a couple of remedies for recovering the object. First, through bravery and courage, by simply taking the sonnet by storm. This may be too difficult for most of us and I suspect takes a certain type of attitude that is rare. Second, by ordeal, a situation occurs to remove an object from its usual context. Percy controversially believes that events such as hurricanes can provide an adequate ideal. Perhaps more irenic a proposal would be to experience ordeal by simply removing the typical comforts and patterns of daily life even if for only a few days, to slow down, to slow down to a disastrously slow pace during a retreat in a cabin or a forced absence from media. Third, he suggests that an apprenticeship to a great teacher can cut through the noise, because a great teacher moves to the heart of the matter and ignores the packaging. He drags his followers to a direct experience of the thing itself.
Outside of these conditions, should we abandon all hope? Should we stop traveling and visiting museums and reading poetry? “No,” Percy writes, “ but it means that the sightseer should be prepared to enter into a struggle to recover a sight from a museum.”
He ends the essay with this caution:
The layman will be seduced as long as he regards beings as consumer items to be experienced rather than prizes to be won, and as long as he waives his sovereign rights as a person and accepts his role of consumer as the highest estate to which the layman can aspire. As Mounier said, the person is not something one can study and provide for; he is something one struggles for. But unless he also struggles for himself, unless he knows that there is a struggle, he is going to be just what the planners think he is.
So, how to recover the object from its imprisonment to packaging? I must not see it as an object or experience to be possessed, but as a sovereign creature of which I demand nothing, and of which I have no expectation that it would have a quantifiable deliverable. Wherever we travel, whatever we see, whoever we meet, whether we pick up a seashell or read a poem, wrestle with it, encounter it, struggle to see its inner, unique meaning and beauty. It doesn’t matter if it’s at Elvis’ Graceland or Fra Angelico’s monastic cell. I must make peace with the fact that I cannot possess my experience or gather up things in my photo-journal, I interact, and I can do so without naivety but also without irony because the world and everything in it is amazing. The reward for the struggle is that each blessed thing will reveal an inner meaning and unfold into an empathetic, existential moment shared only between two creatures. It is fleeting and we cannot hold on to it, or ever return to it, but in that moment whatever it cost to get there is worth the price.
Creatures are mysteriously their own and require quiet attendance at great length before they reveal themselves. We must be content with the fact that we will never know everything, or own any place or thing or person, that we can return again and again to the same place and it will never be the same, that I will never “do” the zoo or the art museum. There is always more, because every creature draws its existence from a vast, metaphysical well the bottom of which I will never sound out, and at best I’ll hear but an echo of the ancient genesis of the world. I find this liberating but sad. This world is not my home, it’s a vineyard putting forth fruit amid withering vines, a banquet in fading candlelight, a wound of the heart that has blossomed. I have my own existential integrity, my own sovereignty, but so does every other creature. Our time here may overlap and one soul may unfold in another, but ultimately our connection is tenuous, and that’s simply the way it has to be because creation is liminal, hovering on the edge of eternity. Even though the colors are bleeding through there are still some pretty sharp lines that delineate places that I am not free to explore. In any case, it’s time to put down my camera and let the struggle begin. In the end, we’re all tourists here.