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In today's Prufrock: Walker Percy Weekend Special Edition!

This weekend, Carine, the kids and I travelled to Louisiana for the Walker Percy Festival and to visit some good friends in Baton Rouge. Rod Dreher and the folks of St. Francisville did an amazing job with the festival. Rod has a couple of posts on the weekend here, here, and here. The Baton Rouge Advocate also came out and did a nice write up (and talked with Ari Schulman and I). It was great to meet people I have been in touch with by email for a number of years but have never met, as well as see some old (and not so old) faces. Good friends, good food, and spirited conversation about a great author—who could ask for more?
 
We’ll be back on the road again when this email goes out, driving the 13 hours back to Ashe County in one shot. Prufrock will be back tomorrow with its selection of recommended reviews and essays. Today, however, here are a few choice quotes from Percy on topics of interest:
 
On the limitations of modern science:

“modern science is itself radically incoherent, not when it seeks to understand things and subhuman organisms and the cosmos itself, but when it seeks to understand man, not man’s physiology or neurology or his bloodstream, but man qua man, man when he is peculiarly human.” (“The Fateful Rift”)
 
On the impossibility of naming the self:
 
“the self is literally unspeakable to itself. One cannot speak or hear a word which signifies oneself, as one can speak or hear a word signifying anything else, e.g., apple, Canada, 7-Up. The self of the sign-user can never be grasped, because once the self locates itself at the dead center of its world, there is no signified to which a signifier can be joined to make a sign. The self has no sign for itself. No signifier applies. All signifiers apply equally.” (Lost in the Cosmos)
 
On the science of art:

“Art is cognitive; that is, it discovers and knows and tells the reader how things are, how we are, in a way that the reader can confirm with as much certitude as a scientist taking a pointer-reading.” (“The Art of the Novel”)
 
On our culture of death:
 
“Question: Since you are a satirical novelist and since the main source of the satirist’s energy is anger about something amiss or wrong about the world, what is the main target of your anger in The Thanatos Syndrome?
 
“Answer: It is the widespread and ongoing devaluation of human life in the Western world—under various sentimental disguises: “quality of life,” “pointless suffering,” “termination of life without meaning,” et cetera. I trace it to a certain mind-set in the biological and social sciences which is extraordinarily influential among educated folk—so much so that it has almost achieved the status of a quasi-religious orthodoxy. If I had to give it a name, it would be something like: The Holy Office of the Secular Inquisition. It is not to be confused with “secular humanism” because, for one thing, it is antihuman. Although it drapes itself in the mantle of the scientific method and free scientific inquiry, it is neither free nor scientific. Indeed it relies on certain hidden dogma where dogma has no place. I can think of two holy commandments that the Secular Inquisition lays down for all scientists and believers. The first: In your investigations and theories, Thou shalt not find anything unique about the human animal even if the evidence points to such uniqueness. Example: Despite heroic attempts to teach sign language to other animals, the evidence is that even the cleverest chimpanzee has never spontaneously named a single object or uttered a single sentence. Yet dogma requires that, despite traditional belief in the soul or the mind, and the work of more recent workers like Peirce and Langer in man’s unique symbolizing capacity, Homo sapiens sapiens be declared to be not qualitatively different from other animals. Another dogma: Thou shalt not suggest that there is a unique and fatal flaw in Homo sapiens sapiens or indeed any perverse trait that cannot be laid to the influence of Western civilization. Examples: (1) An entire generation came under the influence of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and its message: that the Samoans were an innocent, happy, and Edenic people until they were corrupted by missionaries and technology. That this turned out not to be true, that indeed the Samoans appear to have been at least as neurotic as New Yorkers, has not changed the myth or the mind-set. (2) The gentle Tasaday people of the Philippines, an isolated Stone Age tribe, were also described as innocents, peace-loving, and benevolent. When asked to describe evil, they replied: “We cannot think of anything that is not good.” That the Tasaday story has turned out to be a hoax is like an erratum corrected in a footnote and as inconsequential. (3) The ancient Mayans are still perceived as not only the builders of a high culture, practitioners of the arts and sciences, but a gentle folk—this despite the fact that recent deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs have disclosed the Mayans to have been a cruel, warlike people capable of tortures even more vicious than the Aztecs. Scholars, after ignoring the findings, have admitted that the “new image” of the Mayans is perhaps “less romantic” than we had supposed. Conclusion: It is easy to criticize the absurdities of fundamentalist beliefs like “scientific creationism”—that the world and its creatures were created six thousand years ago. But it is also necessary to criticize other dogmas parading as science and the bad faith of some scientists who have their own dogmatic agendas to promote under the guise of “free scientific inquiry.” Scientific inquiry should in fact be free. The warning: If it is not, if it is subject to this or that ideology, then do not be surprised if the history of the Weimar doctors is repeated. Weimar leads to Auschwitz. The nihilism of some scientists in the name of ideology or sentimentality and the consequent devaluation of individual human life leads straight to the gas chamber.”

 


Prufrock is a daily newsletter on books, art and ideas, edited by Micah Mattix. Copyright © 2014 The American Conservative, All rights reserved.
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