I’ll admit it. I’ve never read a Walker Percy book. I know he’s one of the Great American Writers. I know that The Moviegoer is an important work of New Orleans literature. But I’ve never read it. So, I walked into the Walker Percy Conference at the Monroe Library on Loyola’s campus thinking I would catch a couple panels, listen to Keynote Speaker Paul Elie, get just enough to write about, and be on my merry way. What I got instead was a renewed love for literature and a burning passion to read Lost in the Cosmos.
The Walker Percy Conference is a biennial academic conference presented by the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing at Loyola University that seeks to explore the themes and issues generated by Walker Percy’s works. Its second conference explored Percy’s lively analysis of the modern condition in Lost in the Cosmos and included papers presented on alienation and discovery, amnesia, eroticism, and disappointment, satire, mystery, and self-reliance, cosmos in the classroom, the pursuit of happiness and the failure of self help, and more. Knowing very little about Walker Percy’s work and having never read the namesake of the conference, I walked in skeptical, but the panelists were passionate and engaging, and their love for Percy’s work shined through.
In the Amnesia, Eroticism, and Disappointment in Lost in the Cosmos session, Thom Bassett presented an interesting paper titled Falling into Transcendence: Walker Percy’s Demoniac Self, the Erotic, and the Lust for God, which speculated on the gap between Percy’s different views of eroticism throughout the life of his work. Rachel Early gave her take on Percy’s use of amnesia in his works in her paper Starting Over: Amnesia, Escape, and Redemption in Lost in the Cosmos and in Percy’s Novels. I thought her viewpoint that some amnesia is self-imposed in order for people to better cope with past events was especially insightful. Finally, motivational speech writer Peter Eliopoulos presented a paper criticizing self help books. He explained how Lost in the Cosmos was the only Percy novel he had ever read and discussed the revelation he had after reading it: self help books are indulgent crap. This in particular was ironic and hilarious because he made his living writing indulgent crap. He then decided to stop doing that and to start teaching, and he hasn’t looked back since. Eliopoulos shared one of my favorite quotes of the conference from Daniel Kline: “Life is what happens when we’re philosophizing about its meaning.”
Paul Elie was the keynote speaker at the event on Friday evening. Elie has authored two books: The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a biography of four American Catholic writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, and Reinventing Bach, the story of how musicians of genius have made Bach’s music new in our time. He presented a speech that he titled Who Are You? beginning by talking about how he owns so many books that are boxed up in storage that he frequently buys books a second time because he can’t find the copies he already owns. He told the audience not to be afraid of books that are in pristine condition and to mark them up because “Books are for reading, not for collecting.” He moved on to give several examples of how he disagreed with Percy and asserted that this spoof of a self help book was actually written to help Percy’s own self. “It’s the author, not the reader, who is being put to the test,” Elie said. “Percy is saying, ‘Come inside my head.'”
Elie also plugged his website Everything That Rises (www.everythingthatrises.com), which according to Elie is a “space where technology, religion, and science come together.” He ended his speech with some questions: Who is the self? Can it really be helped? and answered them by stating, “Those are questions you can answer as well as I can. And that’s what this weekend is all about.”
Saturday brought more panels, my favorite being a panel titled The Medium is the Cosmos: Technology and Media in Lost in the Cosmos, where Jonathan Potter, Mitchell Thomas, and Mark Thorsby presented papers. Ironically, two out of the three came with printed papers, and Thorsby (who used an e-reader) felt the need to explain that he did not have a printed copy of his paper only because he couldn’t find a printer at his hotel. Potter started off with a paper titled Lost in the Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: Percy, McLuhan, and the Digital Delta Factor. He discussed how media has moved us from a triadic world to a more dyadic one and left us with this gem: “The world is in danger of gaining the whole world on paper, but losing its triadic soul.” Mitchell Thomas was next with his paper The Myth of the Solitary Self and the Mystery of Otherness, where he criticized social media and discussed how society has become fluid with the emergence of the Internet. “The constant need for adaptability in today’s society may make it more difficult to find the self,” Thomas said. “But, in a fluid society, it’s easier to inform the self above and beyond what we’ve ever been able to do.” He also made a statement that I found particularly on point with today’s social media driven society, “Truly autonomous individuals wouldn’t need to post on Facebook. People need other people to confirm their individuality.” Finally, Mark Thorsby presented Revelation in Exile: On Percy and the Possiblity of Finding Oneself in a Technological Age. He gave my most favorite quote of the weekend (and an excellent point) when he said, “Facebook and social media is purely dyadic. It allows us to know ABOUT people, but not THE person. It’s an environment, but it’s not a world.”
The conference concluded with a one-person presentation by Tom Key of Lost in the Cosmos, where he adapted two Walker Percy books, The Moviegoer and Lost in the Cosmos.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the conference, especially considering that I hadn’t read Walker Percy before then. But the attendees were so friendly and willing to school me in Percy and his work, and the organizers and conference volunteers were amazing. I would certainly recommend the conference to anyone who likes Percy’s work, and even to those who may have never read him, but are interested in learning more about him. I walked away with my copy of Lost in the Cosmos, excited to begin my own journey into Percy’s work.
For more information on the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing at Loyola University New Orleans, please contact Mary McCay, Director at firstname.lastname@example.org or Annie Goldman, Technical Advisor at email@example.com. You can also call the office at (504) 864-7041.