The Message in the Bottle

Author: Walker Percy
Year: 1975
Genre: Philosophy

When I started reading this book, about six weeks ago, I was really excited. The introductory essay, "The Delta Factor," is written in an engaging style (Percy was primarily a novelist) and draws together provocative questions on modern alienation, the nature of consciousness, the scientific method, the relevance of religion in the technological age, and the fundamental philosophy of language. At its root, he says, a lot of these questions lead back to our complete lack of understanding of the relationship between a word and what that word means, and a Martian coming to Earth to investigate that connection (Percy's metaphor for "non-psychologist" or "novelist") would find no satisfactory answers from philosophy, behaviorist psychology, structural semiotics, or cognitive science. The essay itself is such a wide-ranging, skeptical, incisive feat of language geekery that I felt it was the sort of thing I myself might write, if I were better read in philosophy. The essay awakened my own inquisitive spark.

Unfortunately, the further I read, the more Percy lost me. The book is a collection of essays about the philosophy of language that he wrote over a twenty-year period, so it's bound to be uneven. It also documents his thoughts over a span of years (roughly 1955-1975) during which tremendous changes (not to say "advances") took place in cognitive linguistics, so some of the complaints about the inadequacy of theory that he made in Essay A were no longer valid when he wrote Essay B, not to mention now that another thirty years have passed. Percy was clearly frustrated with the failure of behaviorism to explain language; well, I was frustrated to read his response to behaviorist theories of language now that they have been thoroughly discredited.

Another serious problem with the book - and perhaps Percy's editor is to blame - is that the essays are arranged from most accessible to most technical. The pieces toward the beginning deal with alienation, metaphor, and Percy's way of realizing his Christian belief through his own writing, all interesting topics addressed with curiosity and clarity. Later in the book, though, it's all behaviorist psychology, structural semiotics, and technical philosophy of language. In parts, you have to know the differences between signs and symbols, or between the Vienna school and the Scholastics, to make any sense of it. As a result, I started spending longer and longer times away from the book - hence the six weeks.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is the same kind of nerd that I am; and then, I would only advise them to read the first half.


Rufus McCain said...

Nice post, Daniel. Have you tried Percy's Lost in the Cosmos? That was his second stab at the same mix of material but in the form of a mock self-help book.

ted said...

Nice post! I made my way here via your review of Franny and Zooey on LibraryThing.

I wrote my undergrad thesis on Percy's The Moviegoer, so I made my through most of Message in a Bottle -- all to say that I understand you frustrations with this collection. Some of Percy's writing is very exciting and inspirational, which is a delightful surprise considering that you're reading linguistics, but he gets in over his head and it's not pretty.

Just a note to say that I would strongly recommend Lost in the Cosmos, just as rufus did, as a much better follow-up. It's really hysterical, and Percy stays in his element for most of the text (baring a completely optional -- he basically asks the reader to skip it -- middle section on the sort of speculative linguistics that pollute Bottle). I think you'd like it.