The American Evasion of Pragmatism: Souls, Science, and The Case of Walker Percy
Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos1
In 1989 Walker Percy delivered the annual Jefferson Lecture under the title “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind.” His topic wasn’t what one might expect from a practicing fiction writer—the future of the novel, the place of art in modern society. It was instead a philosophical one that had absorbed him ever since, as a young man, he had completed medical school, studied psychiatry and pathology, spent time in a sanatorium fighting tuberculosis, and undergone several years of psychoanalytic therapy: namely, the status of the modern natural sciences. His claim was that the natural sciences work well when seeking “to understand things and subhuman organisms and the cosmos itself,” but grow muddled when they try “to understand man, not man’s physiology or neurology or his bloodstream, but man qua man, man when he is peculiarly human.”2 This confusion is evident, Percy argued, not only in fields such as linguistics, which “is about the sounds people make,” but also in anthropology and sociology, where “rites” and “social roles” are described in the vocabulary of the natural sciences, their “reality” identified with measurable spatio-temporal properties (FR 276). A “coherent science of man,” said Percy, would by contrast allow us to perceive “another kind of event” in the world, “quite as natural a phenomenon, quite as observable,” focusing attention not on the “dyadic” relations between things and an interpreter, but on the three-fold or “triadic” relation between things, an interpreter, and another interpreter. These triadic relations ground our shared routes of habit and speech and make us members of a community rather than mere animals instinctively uttering noises. Such relations may not be as observable as brain cells or pieces of copper, but are nonetheless “as real as a cabbage or a king or a neuron” (FR 287), and are evident in our capacity to “assert a proposition,” to identify something as a “flower” or “peach.” These capacities constitute, said Percy, “a different sort of reality” that “lies at the heart of all uniquely human activity,” a “nonmaterial, non-measurable entity” (FR 287).
The hero of Percy’s essay, the figure credited with laying out a “coherent science of man,” was Charles Sanders Peirce. Percy had encountered Peirce as early as 1947, when the editor Julius Friend gave him a copy of The Unlimited Community, a book Friend had co-authored a decade earlier. At the time, of course, Peirce’s work was mostly the province of what the young Richard Rorty termed “neo-Pythagorean hedgehogs,” and it stayed that way even after Percy wrote two extended pieces on Peirce, “A Triadic Theory of Meaning” and “A Theory of Language,” in the early 1970s.3 As their titles imply, these essays focus on questions of semantics and interpretation, but in the 1980s Percy began to attribute more far-reaching significance to Peirce. The most visible evidence is Lost in the Cosmos (1983), where he interrupts a series of elaborately imagined multiple-choice questions about modern moral psychology with a forty-page “intermezzo” on Peircian semiotics, extending it into regions “which semioticists, for whatever reason, are not accustomed to regard as a proper subject of inquiry, i.e., not texts and other coded sign utterances, but the self which produces and hears sign utterances” (83). Percy’s immersion in Peirce continued when, after publishing Lost in the Cosmos, he received a fan letter from Kenneth Laine Ketner, a leading Peircian hedgehog who taught at Texas Tech University. The two men corresponded for almost five years, with letters almost exclusively devoted to the exegesis of Peirce, and Ketner felt confident enough about Percy’s grasp of the philosophical issues that he invited the novelist to lecture to the Peirce Society in 1987. Percy in turn sent drafts of “The Fateful Rift” to Ketner, who responded with detailed criticisms and suggestions, and it was during their one face-to-face meeting, on the afternoon before the Jefferson Lecture, that Percy suggested Ketner write a biography of Peirce. This eventually became Ketner’s idiosyncratic His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce, published in 1998, eight years after Percy’s death.4
Given all this, it’s only appropriate that scholars have begun to pay attention to Percy’s Peircian strains. Most thorough in this regard is John F. Desmond, who has focused extensively on Peirce’s and Percy’s interest in medieval debates over realism and nominalism—debates that both men saw as the starting point of modernity.5 Yet even as essays such as “The Fateful Rift” have won renewed attention, even as Percy’s writings and letters on Peirce have been collected and published, even as critics have unearthed allusions to “triadic” and “dyadic” relations running through his fiction, one thing is notable for its absence: neither in Percy’s work, nor in Desmond’s discussions of it, nor in Percy’s lengthy correspondence with Kenneth Ketner, does the term pragmatism play any significant role. Nor, similarly, does the name of William James, Peirce’s longstanding friend, interlocutor, and occasional patron. And Percy’s rare references to John Dewey, Peirce’s student at Johns Hopkins and the third pillar of classical pragmatism, are brusque and dismissive: Dewey is accused, for instance, of thinking that “science was work toward the pursuit of truth and art was play in the interests of recreation” (qtd. Samway, Percy 277).6 All these absences and dismissals are notable because Peirce has long been identified as the most original member of the early Metaphysical Club and the figure who developed pragmatism into a full-fledged philosophical position. They are notable moreover because Percy’s writing, and especially his later writing on Peirce, coincides with the revival of pragmatism that began in the 1970s and has continued across a broad range of thinkers to this day—a revival of which Percy himself was aware, thanks largely to Ketner, who recommended the then-recent work of Rorty and Hilary Putnam and also sent him a copy of Post-Analytic Philosophy, the 1985 collection of essays edited by Cornel West and John Rajchman.7
In short, Percy brushed up quite closely with what Roberto Unger, updating a familiar claim, has recently called the American “national philosophy,”8 yet both Percy’s fiction and nonfiction seem entirely untouched by any conscious debt to it. In and of itself, this hardly sets Percy apart. Affinities to existentialism and so-called French theory aren’t hard to spot among authors of the last half-century, and have earned a great deal of critical attention, but the same has never been true of pragmatism. It’s telling that when Ross Posnock, who has done more than anyone to unearth pragmatism’s connections to twentieth-century fiction, turns to a contemporary novelist such as Philip Roth, pragmatism as an influence and context recedes into the background.9 But pragmatism’s absence in Percy’s work is importantly different, given not only his obvious talent for philosophical fiction but also his unusual proximity to a prominent segment of the pragmatist tradition. Recalling, then, another Cornel West title, we might find ourselves asking: why did Percy evade pragmatism—“evade,” if not in the sense of deliberate rejection, then at least in the sense of unconscious neglect or indifference?
Perhaps it was pragmatism’s reputation. Josiah Royce associated pragmatism with the “efficiency doctrine” of late Victorian America –an effort to avoid “the responsibility of being too thoughtful”10 — and early European critics brought comparable charges, dismissing it as a philosophy “from the land of the dollar,” a product of “American cultural barbarity,” and “the counterpart of modern industrialism.”11 With pragmatism’s revival have come renewed criticisms, and sour associations have attached to it so routinely that, in Middle Passage (1990), Charles Johnson could have a character criticize the greed and single-mindedness of his father, a ruthless businessman, by invoking one of James’s most famous dicta: “material success is a pretty tyrannical proof for one’s point of view. Truth is what works, pragmatically, in the sphere of commerce.”12 Even thinkers who identify strongly with pragmatism express reservations. West praises its “unequivocally ameliorative impulse” but criticizes its typical emphasis on middle-class professionals, and Unger warns us against embracing a “shrunken pragmatism,” one that too easily devolves into apologies for the market and stale forms of representative democracy.13
Percy can indeed be understood as contributing to these moral and political criticisms, but in what follows I want to start with a somewhat different reason for his avoidance of pragmatism, one suggested by the terms of his Jefferson Lecture. At the center of “The Fateful Rift” is the question of which vocabulary most properly describes human thought and action: that used for “things and subhuman organisms and the cosmos” itself, the specialized terminology employed by chemists and biologists and physicists; or the language of purposes and beliefs, the everyday terms we use for understanding behavior, making assertions, speaking to one another, communicating? “The Fateful Rift” is, in other words, an essay in the philosophy of mind, and it was the position Percy carved for himself in this debate that allows us to understand why he neglected pragmatism even as it was making its high-profile comeback. To say how, I’ll begin by situating Percy’s claims next to those of certain prominent recent pragmatists and in section two turn to Percy’s third novel, Love in the Ruins (1971), which expresses a deep familiarity with the questions pragmatists address but eschews their answers. My final section will sketch some reasons why the anti-pragmatist picture of mind implied in Percy’s novel can stand in for other fiction written since pragmatism’s revival. My hope is that knitting together this set of problems and figures will help illuminate how the split that has marked pragmatism from the beginning—a split that led an irritable Peirce to distinguish his views as “pragmaticist”—has persisted, and extends beyond the seemingly insular debates of contemporary philosophers.14 In the process, I’ll try not only to clarify why pragmatism’s critics have often reacted to it with a combination of loathing and yawns, but also to speculate on the general relationship between pragmatism and modern fiction, and thereby address one distinctly American chapter in the longstanding ancient quarrel.
I. “Thinking” of Spain
Pragmatism’s revival originated in debates about the mind. Why here? One answer is that, during the enormous expansion of research universities after World War II, tremendous developments were seen in brain science, computer science, and linguistics—developments that, as Alan Richardson said in 1998, constitute “the central story of Anglo-American intellectual life from the 1950s to the present.”15 It may be true, as Richardson also ruefully remarked, that literary critics of the postwar period were largely indifferent to these developments, but the same can hardly be said of Anglo-American philosophers. Analytic philosophy’s disciplinary allegiance to logic and science, when fused with philosophy’s traditional concern for mind-body questions, made it unusually well-positioned to reflect upon new empirical research into cognition and the brain, and by the 1960s “philosophy of mind’’ had come to the center of the field. The topic was therefore a natural place for philosophers of a pragmatist disposition to stake their ground.16 And in the hands of thinkers like Richard Rorty and Daniel Dennett, two figures who from an early stage recognized their shared influences and concerns, the result was what Bjorn Ramberg calls a “post-ontological” understanding of the mind. Rorty and Dennett, in other words, were two of the most important figures hoping to avoid, as Ramberg puts it, the claim that the mind is really “something physical or material” or really “something non-material or non-physical.”17
Such an interpretivist tightrope is at the heart of Dennett’s first book, Content and Consciousness (1969), which Rorty discussed in two papers of the early 1970s and which focused on an antinomy at the heart of post-WWII philosophical debate. On the one hand, minds must be matter, continuous with the rest of the physical universe; believing otherwise would lend credence to poltergeists and magic potions. On the other hand, the activities associated with minds clearly seem unlike the motions of mere matter: the laws of physics seem self-evidently applicable to molecules and planets, but much less so when we say someone wrote a political constitution or painted the Sistine Chapel. What do we mean, then, when we say that John had a thought about Spain and a wish to visit it, but then made a decision not to go? Our grammar treats these italicized terms as objects, but it would be odd to try to locate them alongside other objects in time and space.18
As my opening sketch of “The Fateful Rift” suggests, this was precisely the antinomy that riveted Percy, whose shift in the 1940s from medical scientist to budding novelist occurred just as the cognitive and computational sciences were being inaugurated. Like his younger pragmatist contemporaries, Percy starts by distinguishing materialist descriptions of thought and behavior, which equate minds with “things and subhuman organisms,” “our physiology or neurology,” from intentionalist descriptions, which associate minds with the thoughts, beliefs, desires, and other mental states we describe in everyday speech. “There is,” announces Percy in a sentence at the end of his essay, “a difference between the being-in-the-world of the scientist and the being-in-the-world of the layman” (FR 290). It is the scientist’s “being-in-the-world” that allows her to describe planets and bacteria, “things and subhuman organisms,” but the “being-in-the-world” of the layman occupies what Percy calls a “different sort of reality,” resting upon the linguistic and social ties that constitute a “non-material, non-measurable entity.” And what holds true of our triadic relationships also goes for us as individuals. A “material substance cannot name or assert a proposition,” which accordingly means, Percy concludes, that “the initiator of a speech act” is also something that the natural sciences are incapable of recognizing: “The agent is not material.” Examining triadic relations and agents can indeed be “scientific”; these phenomena are as “grounded” on “empirical observation and the necessities of scientific logic” as anything studied by chemists and physicists (FR 287). But they constitute a distinctive kind of science, a “science of man” as opposed to a science of the natural world. Far from being just the study of causal relations, notes Percy, “science” in the “root sense of the word” means “the discovery and knowing of something which can be demonstrated and verified within a community” (FR 271-72).
Pragmatists like Dennett and Rorty join Percy in warning against reductivism and what Dennett has derided as “gratuitously strong forms of materialism.”19 Consider the vast stage-setting required for a child to grasp that John is “thinking of Spain.” Any number of behaviors could make such a state manifest: John could be standing near a map of Western Europe, reading about General Franco, talking with a Spanish friend—or staring distractedly into space, or casually preparing a four-iron on the eighteenth hole. No one of these behaviors correlates with any one mental state, so the language-learner will have to comprehend a huge range of other things before understanding that such a thought is occurring. And if we were super-physicists charting all the micro-physical movements in John’s body, we would likewise notice an infinite number of cellular, molecular, and atomic motions that could occur while he is “thinking about Spain.”20 But if Percy and the pragmatist agree on these points, they differ over the question of just why and how such intentional states differ from physical states. The key to the pragmatist view is summed up in Dennett’s notion of the “intentional stance,” a phrase that Rorty happily adopted. The intentional stance is the attitude we adopt toward entities whenever assigning beliefs and desires that will allow us to make effective and efficient sense of them. What something is made of, what goes on inside it, whether it has consciousness: the Cartesian tradition has taken such questions to distinguish the minded from the mindless. But in pragmatist eyes, the real question is what purposes the concept of “mind” serve, hence how we identify mental states in the first place. To do this, we start from the “outside” and judge whether an entity’s perceptible behavior seems complex enough to warrant positing a set of mental states motivating it. If, to take an oft-used example, we want to know why the chess-playing computer moves a rook rather than a pawn, we can check its wires or the programmer’s diagrams, but it’s a lot less messy and time-consuming if we simply say that it thinks or believes that playing a rook is a wise tactic.21
“Thoughts” and “beliefs” are part of the repertoire of our so-called “folk psychology,” and when Rorty and Dennett claim such folk-psychological states are ascribed rather than found, they don’t mean they’re ascribed arbitrarily. Local explanations and predictions are fit—more or less and much of the time—against a perceived larger background of purposes. Foresters sometimes say that trees “want” water or plants “hope” light is around the corner, and nothing in principle distinguishes these “wants” and “hopes” from those of the computer moving the rook. In both cases ascriptions are constrained by our desire (understood, for pragmatists, always in evolutionary terms) to regard entities as minimally rational. Given the tree’s genetic constitution, saying it “wants” more light works, i.e., has high predictive value.22 And for pragmatists, what goes for trees and computers also goes for human beings, the most fantastically intricate entities we encounter. Distinguishing beliefs from merely simulated “beliefs,” desires from “desires,” is irrelevant to gauging and predicting the perceptible behavior of embodied persons—including ourselves in our self-reflexive moments. The decision to adopt the intentional stance in any of these cases, says Dennett, “is pragmatic, and is not intrinsically right or wrong” (Brainstorms 7). Pragmatic, that is, rather than metaphysical: to attribute intentional states to a computer, tree, or person is to say exactly nothing about what “actually” underlies their behavior or whether someone is “really” at home inside. Which, as Rorty says, frees us from treating “the mind as the last bastion of intrinsicality.”23
What Percy, then, dramatically calls “a difference between the being-in-the-world of the scientist and the being-in-the-world of the layman” is for Rorty and Dennett simply a difference in how we talk. Different descriptions for different circumstances; the scientist speaks one way in the lab and another at a family dinner. Following Quine, Rorty and Dennett readily accept that that such a view makes the language of intentionality an “essentially dramatic idiom”: beliefs and desires provide a rough and ready way of saying how and why an entity behaved before, during, and after.24 But from this they draw few ontological conclusions, either about our mental states or about the narratives that make them manifest. It is sometimes genuinely useful, they say, to describe the events in John’s brain: talking less about “John” than about a jostle of parallel processes in a particularly sophisticated organ, a range of micro-systems that operate semi-independently from one another and are perceptible only through sophisticated technology. At other times it’s genuinely useful to tell stories about an entire embodied person, to highlight the relative unity of John within some relatively circumscribed environment and some relatively delimited set of prior events, and accordingly to posit mental states such as “belief” and “desire.” Which way really captures John’s mind? Which view, as I phrased it at the start, most “properly” describes human thought and action? Contemporary pragmatists say: it all depends. Percy, by contrast, believes not only that this question has a clear answer, but that Peirce provides it. Human beings represent a break in the universe, their “triadic” relationships a cleft in the order of being, and our narratives about John’s thoughts can more or less accurately depict this reality. To claim that the distinctions between trees, computers, and humans reflect merely our descriptions and habits is to miss what is most essential about each of them.25
II. Shoring the Soul Against the Ruins
In chapter six of Principles of Psychology, James examines what he calls the “material monad” theory of mind, which tries to describe how consciousness emerges from the array of physical systems identified by nineteenth-century science. Each brain cell, the theory went, has its own consciousness, but a person’s particular consciousness is “attached” to one particular cell (or group of cells). This “pontifical” or “arch” cell may be physically influenced by the surrounding cells, but nevertheless stands apart, the “center of gravity of the whole system.” In response James notes that (empirically) no cell or cell group seems more central in the brain than any other, and that (conceptually) the theory creates an infinite regress: if cells have consciousness, why not say their molecules do as well, or even their atoms? In short, he concludes, such materialistic and “anti-spiritualistic” claims about consciousness ultimately do no more explanatory work than, as he puts it, “that well-known spiritual agent in which scholastic psychology and common-sense have always believed”—namely, “the Soul.” Some people, James remarks, treat the mind as “the mystery of the Unknowable”; others treat it as “as a kind of stuff or material, to be measured out in great or small amount.” But neither view warrants our undivided endorsement. As he says in the opening pages of Principles, when we “strive rigorously to simplify the phenomena” in these dichotomizing ways, “we soon become aware of inadequacies in our method.”26
One way of summing up what I’ve said so far is that both Percy and pragmatism resist the idea that human thought is a measurable “kind of stuff of material,” but that pragmatism’s most important contemporary inheritors have done so by endorsing James’s ontological neutrality. They acknowledge our different descriptions of mind but resist reifying these differences into separate realms of “reality.” Hence Dennett lauds “the sort of anti-essentialism that is comfortable with penumbral cases and the lack of strict dividing lines”; hence Rorty praises “James’s joy in the fuzziness of the pragmatist’s view of things, its lack of sharp outlines.”27 I cite Principles of Psychology here, however, because James allows us to take the discussion a crucial step further. In “The Fateful Rift” Percy invokes a cluster of terms to describe the purposeful entity that remains unsullied by science: sometimes it is “self,” “ego,” or “psyche”; Heidegger’s “Dasein” is cited as a viable option (FR 290); and as I noted earlier, special distinction is given to “agent,” the thing that initiates speech acts yet remains “not material.” But another term for this entity is what James, with mild rebuke, calls “that well-known spiritual agent” assumed by “scholastic psychology and common-sense” alike. Particularly after Percy converted to Catholicism in the 1940s, it was this concept—“the Soul”—that played the most crucial role in his thinking, licensing him to address what “The Fateful Rift” calls our ultimate concern: “man falling prey to the worldliness of the world, and man as pilgrim seeking his salvation” (FR 291).
In his essay Percy seems to recognize that soul-talk introduces a new and importantly different region of thought than “ego” or “agent,” and he snaps to an abrupt conclusion once he introduces it: “But that’s a different story” (FR 291). But the soul is decidedly not a different story in Love in the Ruins, a novel that not only challenges pragmatism’s instrumentalism but that does so by freely amplifying the psychological into the theological. Published just a year before Rorty’s first articles on Dennett, Love in the Ruins is part moral allegory, part vaudeville act, and was characterized by Percy as a “futuristic satire set in the United States somewhere around 1983.”28 The narrator is Dr. Tom More, a forty-four year-old lapsed Louisiana Catholic whose life has collapsed since his daughter Samantha died of neuroblastoma five years earlier. Since her death, More has been abandoned by his wife, become an alcoholic, maintained various erotic affairs, stayed for several months in a mental institution, and lost most of his professional reputation. All of these things make More acutely aware of the gulfs separating him from his sixteenth-century namesake: “Why can’t I follow More’s example, love myself less, God and my fellowman more, and leave whisky and women alone?”29Political chaos compounds his malaise: the U. S. has moved into the fifteenth year of a war with Ecuador; race fights against race, city against city; and electoral politics has fractured between the Knotheads and the Lefts (descendents of the Republican and Democratic parties respectively). At the start of the novel, the country is said to be on the brink of “catastrophe,” falling into chaos, possibly (speculates More) as God’s retribution for centuries of slavery. “The U. S. A. didn’t work!” he announces in the opening chapter. “Is it possible that from the beginning it never did work? that the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador or Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer” (56-57).
These “futuristic” features of the text are, however, nothing compared to the device that stands at the center of the plot, and which More presents as the solution to the catastrophes crowding around him: a machine he christens the “Qualitative Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer.” The Lapsometer, says More in the opening pages, will redeem his increasingly directionless life and prevent the collapse of what he calls “the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world” (3). It will do so not by solving hunger or adding to the material achievements of the world, but by diagnosing the spiritual ills that, in his eyes, plague modernity. “These are bad times,” announces More, with sicknesses that are “psychic rather than physical”; modernity has inflamed “the secret ills of the spirit” and rived “the very self from itself” (5). One particularly pressing symptom, as More sees it, is what he calls—echoing Pascal—“angelism” and “bestialism”: the tendency for modern people to live either purely as mind, abstracting themselves from their condition, falling into self-consciousness, disengaging from social existence, or purely as body, embracing an entirely material existence and treating themselves merely as the loci of creaturely appetites. The Lapsometer will act, says More, as “the first caliper of the soul” (107), allowing patients to grasp concretely the spiritual ills that burden them. It will, as he says, provide “the very means of inoculating persons” against the extremes of angelism and bestialism (5), and “diagnose the maladies that poison the wellsprings of man’s hope” (7).
The idea for the Lapsometer is double-sided. It originated, says More, in his one moment of scientific glory up to that point, a discovery he had made twenty years earlier when, following a chemical accident at Tulane University, he uncovered a direct link between Heavy Sodium or Chloride levels in people’s bloodstream and sudden behavioral changes in the local populations. The Lapsometer builds on this early correlation, but now, instead of examining a patient’s bloodstream, More examines the brain waves of patients to assess their attitudinal and behavioral dispositions. Using a prototype of the device (specially constructed for him by Osaka Instruments in Japan), More waves a hair-dryer-shaped receiver over the head of a patient and measures the electrical activity of “a pinhead-sized area anywhere in the brain: in the cortex, the pineal body, the midbrain—wherever” (29). The whole procedure takes about three minutes, and the results are registered on a decimal scale. So, for instance, the “deep pineal” area of Charlie Parker, the local golf pro, is measured at a phenomenally low 0.1 micromillivolts at one point (38) but a robust 6 mmv a few weeks later (45); the Brodmann 32 area of a graduate student registers at 7.6 mmv (34); the hypothalamus of Dusty Rhodes, a local proctologist, clocks in at 7.9 mmv (86); and so forth, through all the various characters More tests (which includes most people he meets). All these examinations and calculations demonstrate what More presents to us at one point as the motto of the empirical mind: “Observe, measure, verify: here’s the business of the scientist” (190).
At the same time, however, Percy’s narrator is, as he says, “after bigger game” than mere electrical activity, or even a set of broadly characterized dispositions. As one skeptic puts it, noting the name for his machine, the Lapsometer is designed to “measure the uh depth of the fall” (205). Or, as a more enthusiastic patient puts it, More wants to “register the knotheadedness of the Knotheads, the nutty objectivity of the scientists, and the mad spasms of the liberals” (52). Thus when he measures the activity of Charlie Parker’s deep pineal region, he takes himself to be computing what he calls the “site of inner selfhood” (38). The graduate student’s Brodmann 32 area indicates not only 7.6 mmv of electrical activity, but also the fact that he has, in More’s words, “so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him … that he cannot, so to speak, enter the lovely ordinary world” (34). A young woman has an unusually high reading on her temporal lobe, which normally indicates “singular concrete historical awareness, vivid childhood memories,” but exhibits even more activity in her parietal lobe, “the site of ahistoric perceptions that are both concrete and abstract” (54). Dusty Rhodes’s 7.9 hypothalamus reading is taken to indicate a “powerful, frequently satisfied, but indiscriminate sexual appetite,” which reveals that he’s having an illicit affair with one of his secretaries (86-87). And the pineal region of Colley Wilkes, the chief encephalographer at the hospital where More stays, elicits “good readings at layer I, little or nothing at layer II”—classic symptoms, says More, of “a self successfully playing at being a self that is not itself” (112).
In short the Lapsometer attempts to correlate the two competing models of mind that I earlier said constitute a basic antinomy: the close-up views of the brain scientist, focusing on neural and other physical processes and privileging talk of cortexes and pineal regions, and a broadly holistic view in which we talk about intentional states, behavioral habits, “selves,” “egos,” and—if upgraded into a theological register—“souls” and “spirits.” “My good luck came,” says Tom More, “when I stumbled into a way of measuring the length and breadth and motions of the very self” (106-7). And for at least a good portion of the novel, More’s methods of “measuring” are granted a degree of legitimacy. Dusty Rhodes, for one, does indeed seem to betray guilt about his secret affairs, and the graduate student is “abstracted” enough to have grown physically estranged from his wife. More’s most striking diagnosis comes in the case of Mr. Ives, a retiree who has silently refused to participate in shuffleboard and other activities at the Golden Years Senior Settlement in Tampa. From the behaviorist point of view, expressed by one of More’s hospital colleagues, Mr. Ives has clearly suffered a stroke and suffers from “senile psychopathy and mutism” (159), making him a prime candidate for the Happy Isles Permanent Separation Center—a euthanasia clinic. The Lapsometer, however, allows More to examine Mr. Ives’s “medio-temporal region, near Brodmann 28,” and to conclude that the man’s “pineal selfhood” is perfectly intact and that his true problem is simply that he’s “too damn mad to talk” (160). In an uproarious public debate with the behaviorist, More gets Mr. Ives to break out of his mutism and discuss his earlier life as a linguist, in particular his experiences deciphering a row of glyphs that belonged to a proto-Creek culture and hitherto never interpreted.30
Yet for all this apparent success, Tom More is ultimately a less than wholly reliable narrator. As Binx Bolling says of himself in The Moviegoer, More is “on to something” (13), struggling to resist the “despair” of a deadened life and fractured social existence, but what he is “on to” brings him for most of the novel—like Binx again—into dubious and ethically troubling territories.31 And the limitations of the narrator’s perspective ultimately reflect the limitations of his invention. For one thing, More confesses to “feeling a bit like a phrenologist” while using the Lapsometer (32), and the novel includes a number of intelligent scientists who raise thoughtful doubts about his invention. Colley Wilkes, for example, is happy to use the machine to locate “brain tumors and such” (29), but finds More’s talk of souls and spirits to be altogether “too metaphysical”: “I’ll stick to old-fashioned tumors and hemorrhages” (108). Similarly, Dusty Rhodes wonders whether correlating “wave patterns” with emotions isn’t simply “subjective,” and if there isn’t “a lot of room for interpretation” in drawing the body-spirit correlations More wants to draw (84).32
The machine also suffers from guilt by association. For the character who makes the most use of the Lapsometer is not Tom More, but a comically satanic figure named Art Immelman. Immelman introduces himself to More as a coordinator between private and public funding agencies, tempting More with abundant financial support, but over the course of the novel he grows into a deceptive Mephistophelian character, mysteriously appearing out of the blue (often accompanied by the smell of brimstone) and flattering More with promises of the Nobel Prize. Immelman claims that the Lapsometer could not only diagnose people’s spiritual ills, but also cure them outright—and indeed, with just a slight adjustment to the device, Immelman winds up trying just that, waving the machine over randomly chosen victims, causing massive psychological changes, and worsening the social chaos that More had hoped the Lapsometer would prevent. Far from moderating the excesses of people’s disorders, the Lapsometer ignites a wildfire of sexual abandon among Immelman’s victims, generating what one frightened character likens to “the St. Vitus’s dance in the Middle Ages” (241).33
It is these sorts of failures that lead Tom More in The Thanatos Syndrome, the 1987 sequel to Love in the Ruins, to say that his ambitions earlier in life were “grandiose, even Faustian,” and that the idea of “striking pacts with the Devil to save the world” was “nuts.”34 What most undermines the legitimacy of the Lapsometer, however, is the narrative structure of Love in the Ruins as a whole. More expresses his highest hopes for the machine in the opening pages of the text, when he assures his fellow Americans that he will redeem them: “I can save the terrible God-blessed Americans from themselves! With my invention! Listen to me” (58). Immediately after saying this, however, More notes that he is very sleepy, and decides to take “one little catnap” (58)—which implies that the bulk of the story we subsequently read is in fact a dream. When More awakes toward the end of the novel, having imagined the story we’ve just read, his attitude toward the Lapsometer has dramatically changed. He still sees the world as “broken, sundered, busted down the middle” (382-83), and still claims to be less concerned with “motor and sensory areas” than with “angelism, bestialism, and other perturbations of the soul” (390). But he now realizes that his dissolute life of the previous five years has been a failed response to the death of his daughter, and that he has taken her death as a justification for selfishness. He has taken, he says, “a secret satisfaction” in her death, indulged a “delectation of tragedy, a license for drink, a taste of both for taste’s sake,” all evidence that at some level he was “not above enjoying” her suffering (374). Accordingly, the twenty-page epilogue of the novel, titled “Five Years Later,” describes him returning to the Catholic rites he’d abandoned and happily wed to his former secretary, with whom he now has two children. Whereas the Lapsometer was invented on Christmas Eve, suggesting that the machine will replace the good news of Christ’s arrival, the final section of the novel takes place on Christmas Day.35 The final words of the text show More preparing a Christmas meal and then enticing Ellen into taking a nap with him, “not under a bush or in a car or on the floor or any such humbug as marked the past peculiar years of Christendom, but at home in bed where all good folk belong” (403).
Love in the Ruins, then, is a drama of two competing vocabularies, one of which encourages us to believe that the “breadth and motions of the very self”—cast in either psychological or theological terms—can be calculated down to the micromilivolt, and the other of which views such aspirations as conceptually muddled and morally hubristic. In the novel’s final pages, the language of quantification drops away like a bad dream and is replaced by the discourse of the Catholic Church, which will shepherd the soul toward Christ. Nowhere does the novel suggest that these two vocabularies be reconciled or brought to a truce. Like Tom More, the reader has to choose: either reduce the self to brain waves and Brodmann areas, or describe the self as an immaterial agent, one constituted by the “non-measurable” reality of triadic relations. Whereas More begins by contriving what he calls the “first caliper of the soul” (107), he ends by seeking penance from his priest, expressing shame for his sins, intent on “showing a bit of ordinary kindness to people” and doing what he can “for our poor unhappy country” (399)—even donning a sackcloth as public penance.36
Contrast all this with recent pragmatist accounts of religion. Rorty, for one, has described pragmatism itself as a form of “romantic polytheism” that recognizes “there are diverse, conflicting, but equally valuable forms of human life,” that “there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs.” If we view beliefs as habits of action, he says, we’ll recognize that “the purposes served by action may blamelessly vary,” and thus see God not as “One” or as “Kierkegaard’s Wholly Other,” but instead as “all the varied sublimities human beings come to see through the eyes that they themselves create.”37 For his part, Dennett has often been cast as a scientistic ideologue, particularly since Breaking the Spell, his 2006 book about religion, and it’s true that what he calls his “materialist slogan” can sound reminiscent of a sneering Voltaire: “Yes, we have a soul; but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.” But his affirmation here—“Yes, we have a soul”—deserves our attention as much as his deflation, for he uses it to clarify what he calls his own “secret to spirituality”: keeping an “attitude of humble curiosity” and an “awestruck vision of the world,” not insisting on an “immaterial soul” but staying “centered, and engaged” in the world around you.38 While Rorty praises the “strong poems” that define human lives and cultures, Dennett proposes a more pantheistic allegiance to “The Tree of Life,” a faith that doesn’t force us to worship a “Being greater than which nothing can be conceived,” but that recognizes the universe itself is something whose “magnificence” we should honor. “Is something sacred? Yes, say I.… This world is sacred.”39
Pragmatists, in other words, have wanted to deny not that there is something holy about the world, only the claim that, as Dewey says in A Common Faith (1934), religious experience is “something specific,” “a kind of experience that is marked off from experience as aesthetic, scientific, moral, political; from experience as companionship and friendship.”40 As I’ve been arguing, marking off—drawing tidy distinctions, staging either/or’s—is precisely what Love in the Ruins is designed to do. It is precisely what leads a critic like John F. Desmond to say admiringly that Percy ridicules the effort to link “physical responses to psycho-spiritual states,” that he fashions signs opening “Tom More’s world … to the possibility of renewed links to the true semiotic-mystical community” (119). And it is precisely what leads V.S. Pritchett, in a more critical spirit, to spy a “sentimentalist” lurking in the novel’s “hurricane of laughter.”41 Different as their responses are, Desmond and Pritchett are each intuiting an ambition Percy expressed in a letter to Kenneth Ketner written about two months before his Jefferson Lecture. He was, he confessed to his scholarly admirer, “not a student of Peirce,” but only “a thief of Peirce”: “I take from him what I want and let the rest go, most of it.” And what he wanted, he said, was to use Peirce “as one of the pillars of a Christian apologetic,” a way of getting his audience “open to ‘news’, of the singular (scandalous) event, the Jewish covenant, the Christian incarnation and news of same.”42 Six years before Percy delivered “The Fateful Rift,” these efforts at a “Christian apologetic” created the series of forces options presented in Lost in the Cosmos, where answers to moral and political conundrums are neatly labeled “(a)” and “(b)” and followed by the stark command “(CHOOSE ONE).” But as I’ve argued, the wishes Percy outlines to Ketner were already present years earlier in Love in the Ruins, which, to recall Bjorn Ramberg’s terms, asks us to see the mind as either really physical and material or really non-material and non-physical. In none of these cases is there any doubt about how readers are supposed to vote, and it may be telling that, while writing the novel, Percy had called it not Love in the Ruins, but How to Make Love in the Ruins.43 For it is precisely the categorical note of this original title that makes Rorty, Dennett, and other pragmatists balk, obscuring as it does the penumbral cases and fuzziness that they take to surround our blamelessly varied descriptive practices.
III. Ancestors and Descendents
In a recent essay, Mark Lilla has credited Michel de Montaigne with introducing a “personal” mode of philosophizing, one that directs attention away from first principles and toward the local, less generalizable, less systematic experiences of a particular life—one’s daily routines, compulsions, pleasures, disappointments. For all his brilliance, says Lilla, Montaigne has “a disturbingly contemporary ring,” for his this-worldly attention to ordinary concerns and habits makes him a progenitor to “the ‘what, me worry?’ school of philosophy” that was extended into the twentieth century, he says, by William James and Richard Rorty. To formulate his concern Lilla recalls criticisms of Montaigne offered by Pascal, who recognized, claims Lilla, “the human desire for something more,” who saw that there is “something in us, or at least many of us,” that “flees this mediocre life.” Unlike Montaigne, and by extension James and Rorty, Pascal understood “the grandeur in our desire for transcendence,” a desire that keeps us “dissatisfied with a mere animal existence.” L’homme passe l’homme, says Pascal: man surpasses himself.44
Opposition to pragmatism has, as I noted earlier, a long and lively history, and Lilla’s comments help us see both how the specific aversion I’ve identified in Percy fits into a larger intellectual history and how questions about mind and intentionality are hard to disentangle from questions about our moral and political goods. For one thing Lilla recalls a famous complaint by Chesterton, Percy’s predecessor as a Catholic apologist: pragmatism may be a matter of human needs, but one of our first needs is to be something more than a pragmatist. For another he reminds us of how important Montaigne has been for certain contemporary pragmatists, most notably Stephen Toulmin, who sees Montaigne as having founded a truly modern philosophy that was disastrously obscured later by the Cartesian quest for certainty. But Lilla’s comments are particularly suggestive when we consider Percy’s confession, in a 1962 letter to Caroline Gordon, that his own “spiritual father” was Pascal, who originated the angelism/bestialism distinction at play in Love in the Ruins and who understood that “to be born, to live, is to be dislocated.” A quick way of tying all these threads together would be to say that Pascal was to Montaigne what Peirce was to other pragmatists, and that Percy elected his affinities accordingly—needing, like them, to transcend the very scientific knowledge in which he had been steeped, and finding grandeur in the longing for transcendence.45
In the same letter to Gordon, Percy makes an observation that highlights just how such commitments have quite direct formal corollaries, and directed him toward particular kinds of fiction. “Actually I do not consider myself a novelist,” he admitted, “but a moralist or a propagandist. … [If I] kneel before the altar of Lawrence and Joyce and Flaubert, it is not because I wish to do what they did ….What I really want to do is to tell people what they must do and what they must believe if they want to live.”46 “Propaganda” and—Percy’s word in his letter to Ketner—“apologetics”: what sort of genres are these, particularly when they demand that we “flee this mediocre life”? Whatever else they may be, such forms are, as Percy recognizes, not quite what we typically think of as “novels.” Over the course of its history and through all its permutations, the novel has been the genre most comfortable with what Lilla calls “this mediocre life,” or what could less tendentiously be called the ordinary, the prosaic, the everyday, the unheroic, the no-longer-enchanted. The “long attention” that Montaigne claimed to pay to himself and his friends, the “countenances, humors, discourses” and “diverse and unconnected actions” that he sought to describe in his essays, eventually helped bring about Dorothea Brooke and Leopold Bloom. Yet Percy’s sacral imagination makes him uneasy with these quotidian preoccupations, makes him fear that they will validate what Lilla terms “mere animal existence.” Thus, as Lewis Lawson puts it, a text like Love in the Ruins strives to “go beyond realism, to use burlesque, pastiche, the absurd” in order to stretch our “range of vision” and challenge modernity’s self-satisfactions.47
Percy has hardly been alone in employing this mode, of course, and the continued persistence of such forms, even after the heyday of postmodern experimentation in the 1960s and ‘70s, is arguably further evidence of how disconnected the revival of pragmatism has been from recent fiction. Again and again since pragmatism’s revival we find texts that describe the mind in distinctly non-pragmatic ways, even if the results often look less like religious “apologetics” than one finds in Percy. Consider, for instance, the phenomena that N. Katherine Hayles has influentially described in her accounts of the posthuman. With, she says, the rise of cybernetics and computer science after World War II, the idea of “information” was gradually “de-materialized,” increasingly seen as a “quantifiable entity” that could be moved around from one physical instantiation to the next. And the result has been a growing equation between humans and computers, as well as expanding “fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality.”48
Thus, in Hayles’ most well-known case study, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is structured around the idea that the human body is “data made flesh”: the protagonist, Case, sees his body as mere “meat,” and one of his main interlocutors, Dixie Flatline, has ceased to exist as a physical body; he lives now as a personality construct within the computer (HWBP 36). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) begins from a similar presupposition, imagining that, like computers, human beings could be infected with computer viruses. In Stephenson’s vision, says Hayles, “we really are nothing more than information-processing mechanisms that run what programs are fed to us” (HWBP 279), an equation manipulated in the novel by L. Bob Rife, the Texas capitalist who creates a virus designed to decimate all forms of human autonomy. At the heart of both these texts is something very close to Tom More’s belief that measurable nerve impulses are equivalent to mental or moral states. To see the “flesh” as an expression of “data,” to level the distinction between humans and computers, is to say that intentional states are calculable and determinate entities, quantifiable into discreet units, “a kind of stuff or material,” as James says, “to be measured out in great or small amount.” Indeed, Gibson and Stephenson go a step beyond More’s basic idea: machines in Snow Crash and Neuromancer do not merely read or calculate individual minds, but come to replicate or replace them entirely.
A similar idea runs through Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003), which dramatizes Marvin Minsky’s claim, cited by Hayles, that we will soon be able to extract human memories from the brain and export them to computer disks. The novel revolves around a young billionaire currency trader who seeks to become, much like Dixie Flatline, “absorbed in streams of information” when he dies, his body made “redundant and transferrable,” “convertible to wave arrays of information.”49 “Great men historically,” remarks his Chief of Theory, “expected to live forever even as they supervised construction of their monumental tombs,” but the great men of the contemporary world—those attuned to what the novel calls “the truth of the future” (65)—have other options available: “Why die when you can live on disk? A disk, not a tomb? An idea beyond the body” (105). Over the course of the novel this conflation between minds and data is repeatedly challenged, as the currency trader confronts what one character calls “the importance of the lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little bit” (200). Yet the trajectory of Cosmopolis as a whole is as anti-linear as any of DeLillo’s novels, and in the end it’s never fully clear whether the protagonist renounces his Minsky-like aspirations. Dying of a gunshot wound, he returns to the visions of technologized immortality that he had been imagining all along: “He’d always wanted to become quantum dust, transcending his body mass…. The idea was to live outside the given limits, on a disk, in data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from void” (206).50
Or consider a final case, where quantification comes to permeate the vocabulary of a non-Western moral psychology, to even more absurdist effect than in the other texts. At the start of Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), a Chandler-inspired private detective named Conrad Metcalf asks a client for his card in order to check the man’s so-called “karmic levels,” an idea he explains to the reader this way: “When the Inquisitor’s Office set your card at zero, it meant you couldn’t get caught slamming the door to a public rest room without sinking into a negative karmic level. The sound of that door slamming would be the last anyone heard of you for a long time, or maybe ever.”51 One can increase one’s karma points by doing good deeds—“helping old blind nanny goats across the street,” say (10)—but a dark fate awaits the “karmically defunct,” who are sent to cryonic “ice boxes” for storage. Predictably enough, government inquisitors “stretch the truth about just how much they’re taking off or adding to your card” (33), and glancing over a newspaper Metcalf sees photo-ops that testify to Stalinesque abuses of power: “the congressmen shaking hands with the special-interest groups, the Governor shaking hands with Karmic Achiever of the Month” (40). The karma cards of a P.I. are usually restored when they finish investigations (karma infringements being part of the job), but as Metcalf’s own efforts to solve a case bring him ever closer to the heart of corruption, government officials turn against him. “I assumed,” he thinks while meeting with an inquisitor, “that this was the part where they built me back up to an acceptable level as closure to the case. Sort of a payoff for swallowing their interpretation of events without gagging too loudly” (137). But such a payoff never arrives, and after beginning the novel with sixty-five karma points—“big enough to work with, but small enough that the boys wouldn’t be tempted to penalize me in the spirit of fun anymore” (34)—Metcalf is himself consigned to cryonic storage. Only six years later is he released, sent out into the world like a piece of “karmic flotsam” with seventy-five new points on his card (211).
Unlike in the case of Percy, there is little evidence that Gibson, Stephenson, DeLillo, or Lethem has ever come close to engaging seriously with pragmatism. Yet they can all be seen as descending from Percy’s text, each foregrounding comparable ideas of an ontologized mind.52 To be sure, each one of these fictions is deeply ironic about the impulse to reify Geist, and each extends Percy’s claim that his own novel was a “futuristic satire” about a society on the verge of “catastrophe.” In all of them, the reification of our intentional lives is just the most alarming or preposterous instance of a more widespread objectification: reductionism, science, and technology have engendered in these worlds not the greatest happiness for the greatest number, but tremendous violence and injustice. And unlike in Percy, these more recent novels don’t respond to this strong materialism with any obvious turn to religious “propaganda.” No character wakes from a dream and stakes his life on the idea of an immaterial soul. Nevertheless they can be placed next to Percy insofar as they imagine no alternative to the two options that Love in the Ruins makes explicit. What generates their sharply critical edge, in other words, is an implicit claim that runs along these lines: first, something like the soul would be the only genuine alternative to a robust materialism; and second, since a virulent form of materialism has so obviously colonized our late modern lives, any conception of a soul—understood as a moral orientation, a spiritual aspiration, or even a psychology—can be treated only with dark irony. Thus these texts too, though more complete in their satire than Percy, “simplify the phenomena” in precisely the way that James had identified at the end of the nineteenth century. Their “anti-spiritualistic” conceptions of mind merely invert “the mystery of the Unknowable.”
This sharp opposition between the “anti-spiritualistic” and the “Unknowable” is a version of the distinctions that Lilla associates with Pascal, and what’s important about making these historical connections is that they underscore how deep the sources of unease run for figures like Percy—deeper, perhaps, than many forms of contemporary historicism are prepared to recognize. What is first and foremost “in the ruins” in the texts of Percy and others is not merely this or that local event, and not merely the post-WWII American nation, but a much broader historical phenomenon, as Tom More explains: “It’s not even the U.S.A., it’s the soul of Western man that is in the very act of flying apart HERE and NOW” (115). Whereas Dewey could praise Francis Bacon—Montaigne’s younger admirer—as “the great forerunner of the spirit of modern life,” Percy for one takes his bearings in the very scholastics Bacon repudiated. Recuperating this tradition leads him not only to Peirce, and not only to the debates about mind and language that Peirce helped shape, but also, in more desperate moments, to the “quasi-prophetic function” he set for himself as he began Love in the Ruins: to warn his readers, he says, “by speaking of last things—if not the Last Days of the Gospels, then of a possible coming destruction, of a laying waste of cities, of vineyards reverting to the wilderness.” Much the same point could be made about Gibson, Stephenson, DeLillo, and Lethem, each of whom is clearly thinking about modernity’s large-scale motions as well as its potential collapse—even if, more than Percy, they remain guarded about what should come in its wake.53
Pragmatism, too, has often seen itself is such world-historical terms, yet it has never been readily capable of, or interested in, the fevered all-or-nothing visions that such authors express. The “soul of Western man,” for Rorty and Dennett as much as for James and Dewey, has occasionally experienced vertigo in its transition to modernity, but to say it is “in the very act of flying apart” is both to simplify a complex set of historical developments and to ignore the very real compensations that for them these developments entail. None of which means, of course, that pragmatists could never respect or even treasure the work of Percy and his literary descendents. They certainly could.54 But to do so would require that they treat these texts more as cautionary tales or thought experiments than as viable predictions about what could or should come to pass. Pragmatists, that is, will be inclined to follow Kenneth Burke’s lead and treat these texts as extended proverbs: vivid, protracted warnings about what to avoid when describing the mind, what dark fly-bottles we can enter when we’re not careful in our accounts of cognition and intention. The texts will seem to be primarily what Burke referred to as proverbs of “admonition,”55 and pragmatists could appreciate them much in the way that devout Christians might appreciate the thoroughly fallen worlds of Poe or Cormac McCarthy. But like such a Christian, pragmatists will have trouble accommodating any claim that these texts depict the most important truths about us, or what things are really like, or what we essentially are or have become. An author, they will say, isn’t mistaken for writing a book like Love in the Ruins, only for believing too strictly in what it says: seeing it as more than an occasional satire, the expression of a mood, something to cast aside when it no longer serves. To read in this way, to see Percy’s dystopian visions as mere conceits or his picture of mind as misleading and fanciful, will seem to some readers to ignore or diminish the claim that his and similar texts make upon us. Pragmatism will seem to be merely shrugging off our most urgent questions—are we fundamentally material creatures or are we something more?—with a casual “It all depends.” And it will seem, in turn, curiously unresponsive to the drama of intensity and obsessiveness that so much modern art articulates, substituting potent ideals of spiritual perfection and salvation for weaker, meliorist ideals of intellectual growth and social progress.56 How we understand the pragmatist revival of the last few decades, and whether we want it to shape the fiction of the future, depends on which of these ideals we ourselves prefer, or which we find convincing, which we think we need to believe in order to live, and how prepared we are to choose one.57
But his pain [from the gunshot wound] interfered with his immortality. It was crucial to his distinctiveness, too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn’t think, to computer emulation. The things that made him who he was could hardly be identified much less converted to data, the things that lived and milled in his body, everywhere, random, riotous, billions of trillions, in the neurons and peptides, the throbbing temple vein, in the veer of his libidinous intellect. So much come and gone, this is who he was, the lost taste of milk licked from his mother’s breast, the stuff he sneezes when he sneezes, this is him, and how a person becomes the reflection he sees in a duty window when he walks by. He’d come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain. (207)It’s true that this passage seems to cast doubt on the viability of any Minsky-like aspirations for immortality through technology—a feature that allowed James Wood, in his New Republic review, to see the text as taking a sentimental turn at the end. But it is notable here that all the items said here to tell the character “who he was”—and this winding passage goes on for another two-thirds of a page—are all physical characteristics rather than what we would be described variously as his “personality,” “self,” or “soul.” Till the very end, in other words, he identifies himself first and foremost as a physical thing, one that may or may not be “translated” or “transferable” into other physical things. The passage thus reinforces what I’ve been calling the ontologizing tendencies of the text.↑