Sin and Significance

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

by Walker Percy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 335 pp., $8.95

Abstract theories about the human mind bear an uneasy relation to our common hope of understanding ourselves. The systematic study of language currently arouses wide and intense interest partly because language, with its central place in human life, seems to promise so much for the understanding of human nature. Yet most of the recent flood of scientific and philosophical research on language aims to advance understanding in ways that cannot be expected to change our lives. While this does not make the results unimportant or uninteresting, it is likely to disappoint the spiritually ambitious.

Walker Percy expresses such disappointment in The Message in the Bottle, a very loose collection of essays on language and alienation, two-thirds of which were written before the appearance of his first novel. The Moviegoer, in 1961. Percy was then an MD living in Louisiana, an autodidact in linguistics and philosophy, troubled by the opacity of contemporary life. The Moviegoer was followed by The Last Gentleman (1966) and Love in the Ruins (1971). In all three novels we find historically dislocated, highly civilized Southerners whose gentility and desire for salvation cut them off from experience and the sense of their own reality.

The Moviegoer remains Percy’s purest and most exact description of that malady of extreme detachment from perception and action which allows the victim to make contact with reality only when he is first dislodged, with greater or less violence, from his accustomed perch. A few of the essays in his new book, “The Loss of the Creature,” “The Man on the Train,” “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” attempt to analyze the same malady of alienation, but they lack the wit and imagination that make even Percy’s last two novels readable, in spite of their pretensions.

Most of his new book, however, is about language, which Percy believes is the key to understanding both how people are attached to the world and how they come unstuck from it and from themselves. He suggests in the introductory essay that an investigation of the nature of language will yield a theory of man more satisfactory than the nontheory left us by the decline of religion and the expansion of the natural sciences. Moreover, he believes that such understanding will allow us to explain and perhaps even to alleviate the displacements of modern life and their alarming and unhappy consequences, which he believes are largely due to man’s lack of a spiritually satisfying conception of himself and of his relation to the world. Apart from this rather dubious explanation of recent history, Percy’s Christianity is kept in the background. His aim is not to convert his readers but to argue that something is missing from contemporary views of language and the language-using mind. The missing element, in his view, is an account of what language is, what actually happens when a person uses a word and means something by it.

It is not clear how such an account will …

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