Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Loss of the Creature, Walker Percy, detailed commentary

I think the essay "The Loss of the Creature" by Walker Percy (from the book The Message in the Bottle) is well worth reading and thinking about. In this post I offer a detailed, paragraph-by-paragraph commentary of the essay. This post isn't really meant to be read from beginning to end (if you try that, it may get repetitive). It's meant more as a set of detailed footnotes for people who find the essay to be confusing. The way to follow this post is to print off Percy's essay, then number the paragraphs. By my numbering, there are 38 paragraphs in section I, and 24 paragraphs in section II (starting with #39, ending with #62). When reading, if you get stuck on a paragraph, look it up here, and maybe my comments will make it more clear (hopefully they won't make it even more confusing). For a more personalized discussion, please leave a comment. I'm well aware of the irony of writing an analysis of this essay as though I expect people to experience the essay through my interpretation (exactly opposite to how the essay encourages us to experience the world). I would encourage you to not think of my commentary as authoritative, but maybe just as a spark for your own thought.

(This is a work in progress, I got about half way through and then set it aside. It's been sitting unfinished for long enough that I feel I might as well just publish what I have. I hope to finish it eventually. In the mean time, if anybody else would like to contribute commentary for the remaining paragraphs, that would be nice.)

1.-2. "Fermosa" is an archaic version of the Spanish word "hermosa", which means beautiful. A major theme of the essay is that our perceptions are heavily influenced by social context. The rarity of an experience contributes to its value independent of the other qualities of the experience. A remote island or an expensive wine is valued because it is exclusive, even if it is otherwise not particularly exceptional.

3. Percy uses an equation to describe the devaluation of an experience (making up some variable names that Percy omitted): V = P/n, where V is the value of an experience to an individual, P is the value of the experience to the first person who experienced it, and n is the total number of people who have experienced it. Notice that V = P when n = 1.

4. By taking a guided tour, the family forfeit the ability to experience. If you accept the premise that an experience loses value as more people experience it, then it follows logically that a scripted guided tour that thousands of people have already gone through in a very similar way would be an experience with little value. The man and his family have not seen the grand canyon, what they have seen is a scripted, guided tour.

If you don't accept the premise that an experience loses value proportionally to the number of people who have experienced it, read on! (there may yet be something in this essay for you)

5. One reason why an experience loses value when it is experienced is that the people who first experience it report on it. Later visitors then approach the experience with preconceived notions (based on the reports of the earlier visitors). When visitors have preconceived notions, their attention is divided. They are constantly comparing the experience to what they have previously heard about it. If it doesn't measure up to their expectations (based on reports from previous visitors), they feel cheated or disappointed. When a visitor has preconceived notions that he compares an experience to, he loses some ownership (sovereignty) of the experience.
Percy also introduces the concept of a 'symbolic complex' in this paragraph. What he means is this: when a person compares his experiences to those of someone else, it is not the other person's exact experiences he is comparing to. He can't possibly know exactly what the other person experienced (nor can he perfectly remember his own experiences for that matter). His idea of the other person's experience is a reconstruction (a model) he has built in his mind based on the (incomplete) information he has received from the other person. That reconstruction is what Percy calls the "symbolic complex".

6. Photographing the Grand Canyon is a loss of sovereignty (ownership) of the experience of the Grand Canyon because instead of enjoying and experiencing the canyon, a person taking a photograph is creating an imperfect representation of it. The reason a tourist takes a photo is to show people, either other people, or himself in the future. The photographer tourist is more concerned about creating imperfect symbols that he can share than with experiencing for himself in the present the Canyon as it actually is.

The tourist surrenders ownership of the experience to the past by coming with preconceived notions. And surrenders ownership of the experience to the future by worrying about creating symbols that other people can use to generate their own preconceived notions.

The big question to ask from this paragraph is "Why is the tourist taking pictures?"

7. They can't see the Canyon because it has become a symbol or a collection of symbols to them.

8.-9. The experience can be recovered by going off the beaten track, the approved tour. When he leaves the beaten track, he commences an experience that he has fewer preconceived notions about. All of the sudden, it's up to him to do the discovering and the experiencing, there's no park ranger to interpret things for him and tell him what he should be paying attention to and how he should interpret it. The experience is now is own (sovereign) experience.

The ranger can ruin a particular avenue for recovering sovereignty of an experience by advertising it. When the ranger tells a tourist how to get "off the beaten track", he can't avoid planting preconceived notions (symbols) about the experience in the tourists head.

10. -11. "Dialectic" in this context refers to situational awareness and self awareness. A person who is "advanced in the dialectic" is aware of what he is doing and why he is doing it. The man goes with the tour group even though he is aware of the risk posed by preconceived notions. He knows that a tour group is the kind of situation that encourages people to view an experience through someone else's interpretation instead of discovering the experience for themselves. This so-called "complex man", understands the relationship between the tourists and the ideas being presented to them by the tour guide, and he is careful not to let the ideas of the tour guide take precedent over his own ideas.

The "complex man" is exploitative of the other tourists, to the extent that he realizes that they are not as fully aware of the situation as he is, and he even enjoys observing them and their interactions with the situation, but he does not try to save them from their predicament.

This man is "more advanced in the dialectic" than the person getting off the beaten track, because the person going off the beaten track, goes there because of some instinctual feeling that there's something not quit fulfilling about following a tour group. Whereas for this man, his understanding is rational rather than instinctual. He can explain to you about recovering the situation from the symbolic complex that it is trapped in. The person going off the beaten track only has vague notions of why he does so.

12.-15. If you don't think that the family will consider themselves fortunate for having the canyon to themselves then you might have trouble appreciating these next few paragraphs. But the point Percy is making is that when people find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, they forget about their preconceived notions, and explore and experience things as if those things were newly being discovered by them for the first time. It is more intellectually exciting to explore and discover than it is to receive and reinterpret.

When planners build interpretive centers, they are also constructing complexes of symbols. When tourists encounter the paragraphs and programs constructed by the planners, they are tempted to rely on the ideas presented by the planners instead of following their own curiosity and intuition. To regain ownership of his experiences, a tourist must subvert the planner by asserting the primacy of his own experiences over the ideas of the planner.

16. Movies help people recover experiential sovereignty by helping them vicariously experience familiar places under extraordinary circumstances. An action-adventure movie set in the grand canyon may present the Canyon more effectively than an academic-style interpretive center, simply because the movie watchers are not being spoon-fed information about the canyon, but experience it indirectly, as a backdrop to the other events of the movie. With the canyon as a backdrop, of the presentation, the viewers have more sovereignty over their interpretation of it.

Percy ends this paragraph with a suggestive, and cynical comment. He implies that many tourists would enjoy it if some disaster occurred while they were at the canyon. A disaster would put the tourist back in control of the experience. Thinking in terms of the commentary on paragraph (3), the n for the standard grand canyon tour experience is very large. But the n for experiencing the grand canyon during a disaster is much much smaller, which may make the experience more valuable and enjoyable.

17. Here is where we finally learn what Percy means in the title when he refers to the "creature". The creature is the person, place, thing, or event to be experienced. It is not the person doing the experiencing. In the earlier examples, Grand Canyon is the "creature". Almost everything we encounter is encased in a "citadel of symbolic investiture". A creature is "lost" to us when we don't experience it for what it is, but instead concern ourselves with what other people have said about it. Percy also alludes to the idea that we often end up recovering a creature from its associated symbolism by accident rather than intentionally, that is: as a kind of side effect of pursuing other goals.

18.-20. Percy uses the example of a tourist couple in Mexico to demonstrate the difference between "authentic" and "unauthentic" recovery of experience. "authentic" recovery would mean successfully ignoring preconceived notions about the experience, one way to do this is to leave the touristy areas and go to places they've never heard of before, and where other American tourists cannot be found.

21.-30. In trying to recover the experience of Mexico, the situation has gotten even worse for the tourists. Their recovery is unauthentic, a "desperate impersonation". The reason it is still unauthentic is because they need validation from their peers or from an expert. They can't wait to get back to their friends and talk about how unique their experience was. They desperately want their ethologist friend to confirm for them that their experience was unique and genuine. In trying to recover personal control over their experience, they have merely become slaves to a new master. Instead of interpreting their experience through the lens of magazines and tourist brochures, they are now interpreting their experience through the lens of their academic friend. They are still not experiencing Mexico for themselves.

31. The bit in parentheses at the end of this paragraph is one of the most critical parts of the whole essay. Even if we are aware of the need to recover experiences from their symbolic complexes, it is still very difficult to do. The moment they begin to lose ourselves in an experience, we realize that we're losing ourselves in the experience and think "this is good, this is how it's supposed to be!". But the concept of "supposed to" is precisely what invalidates the authenticity of an experience.

When Percy says "even if they read this" he is directly addressing us, the readers. He is saying that even after we read this essay, and understand it, it will still be very difficult for us to escape all of the symbolism that is built up around our experiences. A huge, unavoidable irony of this essay is that the essay itself, if we understand it and take it seriously, may become part of the symbolic complex. We may catch ourselves wondering whether some experience fits with Walker Percy's conception of "authentic", or even trying to pursue experiences that would qualify as authentic according to "Loss of the Creature". We may not realize that this very pursuit renders them inauthentic.


Rob seems to think that "creature" in the title of the essay refers to the individual doing the experiencing. I disagree, and think that "creature" refers to the thing being experienced. I base my position on paragraph 17. He also has some interesting insights about how Zombie movies are an example of an attempt to restore the "creature". This video is well worth watching.
William Hartley is rather (I would say too hastily) dismissive of the essay. In saying that only a very smart person can understand the essay, Hartley is being substantially more elitist than Percy ever is. He does, however, come very close to grasping and pointing out the core irony of the essay. It is possible that Hartley's essay is an example of Poe's Law. Maybe Hartley is joking, and is actually making fun of people who complain about the "The Loss of the Creature".

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