Monday 7 March 2011

The 're-entry problem' for artists and scientists - Walker Percy


From Walker Percy: Lost in the Cosmos, 1983.


"In the age of science, scientists are the princes of the age. Artists are not. So that even though both scientists and artists achieve transcendence over the ordinary world in their science and art, only the scientists is sustained in his transcendence by the exaltation of the triumphant spirit of science and by the community of scientists.

"It is perhaps no accident that at the high tide of physics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the great revolutionary physicists — Faraday, Maxwell, Bohr, Einstein – were also men of remarkable integrity and exultant wholeness of character, of generosity and benignity. Compare the lives and characters of the comparably great in literature at the same time: Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Kafka, Joyce, Lawrence, Hemingway.

"With the disappearance of the old cosmological myths and the decline of Judeo-Christianity and the rise of the autonomous self, one the study of secondary causes, the other the ornamental handmaiden of rites and religion, were seized upon and elevated to royal highroads of transcendence in their own right. Such transcendence was available not only to the scientists and artists themselves but a community of fellow scientists and students, and to the readers and listeners and viewers to whom the ‘statements’ of art, music, and literature were addressed.

"But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by the problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o’clock. What do you do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table.

"The only exception to this psychic law of gravity seems to be not merely the great physicists at the high tide of modern physics but any scientists absorbed in his science when the exaltation of science sustains one in a more or less permanent orbit of transcendence – or perhaps the rare Schubert who even during meals wrote lieder on the tablecloth …

"But the most spectacular problems of reentry seem to be experienced by writers and artists. They, especially the later, seem subject more than most people to estrangement from the society around them, to neurosis, psychosis, alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy, florid sexual behavior, solitariness, depression, violence, and suicide."


Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos is a very deft and thought-provoking piece of philosophy in the jokey guise of a self-help book. I bought it after reading a recommendation from the superb Roman Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft.

The above passage made a big impression on me, because throughout most of my adult life the 're-entry problem' was perhaps my greatest concern.

Like Einstein, 'I went into science to escape the intolerable dreariness of everyday life' - and the same applied to English literature.

And indeed I went into science and literature just early enough to catch the tail-end of their transcendence (at the same time as Walker Percy was writing this book) - an era now utterly gone.


In science, what I craved was precisely that complete world of transcendence achieved by the physicists at the 'high tide' of their subject, or by biologists a little later - I hoped that I could live 'in' science pretty much all the time (at least as a seamless, continuous background to life).

I achieved this state only briefly, from late 1994 up to around 2000, when I pretty much lived and breathed evolutionary theory - but only by cutting myself off from the mainstream; and at the cost of developing a carapace of indestructible pride which would - I felt sure - be validated and rewarded (some time soon, and in unforeseen ways) by worldly status, success and security.


I had earlier achieved a similar but briefer state when I was studying English literature (and philosophy, informally) full time 1987-8 - in other words I lived 'in' literature as scholar, critic, essayist and (sort-of) poet (cringe...).

For a while, sleeping and waking life seemed to be conducted within this transcendental bubble of literature.


But such states can only be sustained against the ennui of habituation by increasing doses of pride and neophilia - both of which are ultimately destructive of transcendence.

The re-entry problem always gets you.  Percy lists (and explains) the attempted solutions:

(1) reentry uneventful and intact, [not to feel any contrast between the transcendent and the everyday]

(2) reentry accomplished through anesthesia, [chemical assault on the conscious brain - by drugs or alcohol]

(3) reentry accomplished by travel (geographical), [keep moving - keep exposing oneself to the shock of the new]

(4) reentry accomplished by travel (sexual), [drown oneself in sexual pursuit and gratification]

(5) reentry by return, [give up transcendence and return to roots]

(6) reentry by disguise, [keep up an act of worldly satisfaction until it becomes habitual]

(7) reentry by Eastern window, [dissolve the self in Zen indifference]

(8) reentry refused, exitus into deep space (suicide),

(9) reentry deferred, [solitude, utterly cut-off from the mundane]

(10) reentry by sponsorship, [sponsorship from God, transparency before God: the religious solution - a seamless integration of work and spirituality]

(11) reentry by assault. [political confrontation with the mundane - the life of an uncompromizing and persecuted dissident]

But of course none of them really work except (10) because the problem is insoluble in this world - and the sponsorship by God is extraordinarily difficult for the isolated, nihilistic modern intellectual.


This-worldly transcendence of the kind I sought in science and literature (and which Einstein achieved, pretty much) was only available to an elite few, and as a temporary phase in the breakdown of Western society - a breakdown from transcendence as other worldly to the current situation where all forms of transcendence as seen as delusional - and the only 'solution' to the reentry problem is regard it as an artifact of an obsolete world view.

Modern scientists and literary scholars have no re-entry problem, because they are only and wholly engaged in the 'intolerable dreariness of everyday life' - from which they distract themselves whenever possible.


Or, more accurately, modern scientists and literary scholars have nothing but a reentry problem, since they do know what it is to transcend the everyday and mundane.

(And if they do know from experience, then they regard that experience as a delusion to be explained-away; not as a really real state.) 

And the failed solutions of the re-entry problem are, merely, the standard strategies of modern life.



dearieme said...

Einstein-worshippers really should read this and consider what it's tending to hint at.

Brett Stevens said...

The most successful in the process of practicing transcendentalism seem to be those who focus on little things, not "epic" experience. If you can take a forest walk and rediscover what always made you love life, then you are a lucky person. Trying to bond with life by writing the great novel, or even through the discoveries of science, means you have pinned your hopes on an external creation. The process may bring you joy, but it is tied to that creative cycle. The happiest writers seem to view their task as a job and approach it with workmanlike consistency.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - Creative geniuses tend to be high in the personality dimension of Psychoticism - low in empathy, only moderately conscientious and reliable, high in selfishness, resistant to peer pressure. Einstein was an example of the type - although of course he had many admirable qualities too.

Brett - I take your point, but the re-entry problem after a forest walk is still a factor; as it is after writing a great symphony.

"The happiest writers seem to view their task as a job and approach it with workmanlike consistency." Perhaps so, but this comes close to saying that one shouldn't epxpect too much from life - advice which is tolerable (as well as true) if this life is not all there is and the soul continues after death; but intolerable if you believe (as most modern intellectuals do) that after this life is nothing, extinction.

The Crow said...

I once experienced enlightenment, and then was faced with the awful state of its gradual disappearance.
What I could not then appreciate was that enlightenment was not a product, or a possession. It was a moment, among moments, where things made sudden sense.
The real trick was to assimilate this experience, and weave it into daily life. To wear it as a garment whose purpose was to keep out the cold, as opposed to attracting a mate and ensuring success.
So what does one do next, after such an experience?
One lives, in the richer way such an experience makes possible.