“Lost in the Cosmos” by Walker Percy


The full title of this work of nonfiction (published in 1983) is Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. The author, Walker Percy, had already written several critically acclaimed novels; one of which, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award. His fictional work is funny and perceptive but he tends to make his point in roundabout ways. This same observation applies to Lost in the Cosmos. With a nice blend of irony and earnestness, the theme of his book is indicated at the opening:

‘How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians…’

The book is filled with quizzes, questionnaires, thought-experiments and diagrams.  Sometimes it looks like a textbook; elsewhere it transitions into a parody of the bygone Phil Donahue Show. There is also a science fiction section involving an encounter with extraterrestrial intelligences.

One section of the book deals with the problem of depression. Percy poses a provocative question: ‘Whether the Self is Depressed because there is Something Wrong with it or whether Depression is a Normal Response to a Deranged World’. In other words:  ‘Assume that you are quite right. You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed.’  He goes on to offer a solution which some readers might consider grossly irresponsible: he suggests that the depressed person seriously contemplate suicide. I make haste to add that Percy does not want any of his readers to commit suicide. His intentions are therapeutic: he wants the depressed person to survive this contemplation of suicide and wake up to the fact that he or she is radically free:

‘Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.’

His opinions are not always on target, and some of the material is dated. For example, certain neutral or benign activities (television viewing, travel) are interpreted by him in too negative a light. Also, he speaks of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., which might strike younger readers as too obsolete to matter now. But nearly everything in this book is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s, and even his off-the-mark observations are smart enough to merit consideration.  

Lost in the Cosmos is a witty parody of self-help books generally, and a brilliant analysis of why humans are so screwed up in so many ways. Moreover, solutions to our problems are usually hinted at rather than spelled out. Some readers might find that disappointing—a psychological or moral tease. But other readers will appreciate the sheer variety of valid possibilities that are presented.  

This is the sort of book that a person could hold onto indefinitely, delve into repeatedly, and emerge with an arsenal of life- and sanity-saving insights.