High-Brow Escapism

Thirty years after Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos was published, Alan Jacobs ponders what Percy was trying to get us to see:

People—people in their role as viewers—are receptive to cults of personality because such cults distract us from the dislocations of our very selves, and from the suffering those dislocations cause. The kind of literate, educated person who might pick up a book by Walker Percy can see how that works in the case of the Phil Donahue Show, which is why “The Last Donahue Show” comes fairly early in Lost in the Cosmos. It’s a savagely funny parody, but it also flatters our sensibilities. That Carl Sagan’s cosmic meditations, shown in primetime and on PBS, might work on its viewers in the same way is not so easy to see, and not so comforting to realize; but it’s true. Cosmos was not about science, but about allowing us to observe a scientist with an attractive personality as a substitute for thinking scientifically.

Those in the audience for Phil Donahue’s final show are distracted from themselves by watching Penny, the pregnant 14-year-old who thinks “babies are neat”; those who watch Cosmos are distracted from themselves by thinking about “our place in the Cosmos,” that is, by reverting to abstract categories that evacuate personhood from human beings and fail to imagine contact with extraterrestrial intelligences in terms other than those of an utterly decontextualized “wonder.” Donahue, Sagan—not really a dime’s worth of difference between them.

Jacobs goes on to argue that Percy was trying “to prod and provoke each of his readers to ask the uncomfortable questions that our preferred entertainment media help us avoid.”