The Message in the Bottle


The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other is a collection of essays on semiotics written by Walker Percy and first published in 1975. Percy writes at what he sees as the conclusion of the modern age and attempts to create a middle ground between the two dying ideologies of that age: Judeo-Christian ethics, which give the individual freedom and responsibility; and the rationalism of science and behavioralism, which positions man as an organism in an environment and strips him of this freedom.

"The Delta Factor"

"The Delta Factor," first published in January 1975 in the Southern Review, sets out the overall themes of the entire book. Percy begins by asking why modern man is so sad despite the 20th century's technological innovations and unprecedented levels of comfort. More specifically, he is interested in why man feels happy in bad situations and sad in good situations (a question also posed in his novel The Last Gentleman). He posits that this overarching sadness is due to contemporary society's position between two ages: the modern age, which is more or less slowly becoming out of date, and a new age, which is dawning but has not yet truly dawned. The anthropological theories of the modern age, according to Percy, "no longer work and the theories of the new age are not yet known" (7). Percy therefore sees his task as coming up with a new theory of man, which he chooses to center on language, man's attribute that separates him from the animals; The Message in the Bottle will attempt to explain man's strange behavior and unexplained sadness by explaining how man deals with language and symbols.

Percy says that the current theories of man make him into a sort of monster, a "centaur organism-plus soul . . . one not different from beasts yet somehow nevertheless possessing 'freedom' and 'dignity' and 'individuality' and 'mind' and such" (9). Modern man is, then, the collision of Judeo-Christian ethics and its focus upon individual freedom and scientific behaviorism, which says that man is no different from the animals—in other words, modern man believes himself to be no different from animals and yet somehow above them. What's more, no existing research really deals with the question of how language really works, of how human beings use and understand the symbols of linguistics. Percy puts this question into a sort of no-man's land, what he calls a "terra incognita" (17), between linguistics and psychology, the former of which deals with the results of language and the latter of which deals with the way people respond to language.

The Delta Factor, Percy's theory of language, is framed in the context of the story of Helen Keller's learning to say and sign the word water while Annie Sullivan poured water over her hands and repeatedly made the signs for the word into her hand. A behaviorist linguistic reading of this scene might suggest a causal relationship—in other words, Keller felt Sullivan's sign-language stimulus in her hand and in response made a connection in her brain between the signifier and the signified. This is too simplistic a reading, says Percy, because Keller was receiving from both the signifier (the sign for water) and the referent (the water itself). This creates a triangle between water (the word), water (the liquid), and Helen, in which all three corners lead to the other two corners and which Percy says is "absolutely irreducible" (40). This linguistic triangle is thus the building block for all of human intelligence. The moment when this Delta Δ entered the mind of man—whether this happened via random chance or through the intervention of a deity—he became man.

Further, in Delta Δ, the corners of the triangle are removed from their behaviorist contexts. Helen Keller, in other words, becomes something other than just an organism in her environment because she is coupling two unrelated things--water the word and water the liquid—together. Likewise, water the liquid is made something more than water the liquid because Keller has coupled it with the arbitrary sound water, and water the word becomes more than just the sound of the word water (and the shape of the sign language for water). In this way, "the Delta phenomenon yielded a new world and maybe a new way of getting at it. It was not the world of organisms and environments but just as real and twice as human" (44)--man is made whole by the Delta Δ where the popular notions of religion and science had split him in two.

"The Loss of the Creature"

"The Loss of the Creature" is an exploration of the way the more or less objective reality of the individual is obscured in and ultimately lost to systems of education and classification. Percy begins by discussing the Grand Canyon—he says that, whereas García López de Cárdenas, who discovered the canyon, was amazed and awed by it, the modern-day sightseer can see it only through the lens of "the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind" (47). Because of this, the sightseer does not appreciate the Grand Canyon on its own merits; he appreciates it based on how well or poorly it conforms to his preexisting image of the Grand Canyon, formed by the mythology surrounding it. What is more, instead of approaching the site directly, he approaches it by taking photographs, which, Percy says, is not approaching it at all. By these two processes—judging the site on postcards and taking his own pictures of it instead of confronting it himself—the tourist subjugates the present to the past and to the future, respectively.

Percy suggests several ways of getting around this situation, almost all of them involving bypassing the structure of organized approaches—one could go off the beaten path, for example, or be removed from the presence of other tourists by a national disaster. This bypassing, however, can lead to other problems: Namely, the methods used are not necessarily authentic; "some stratagems obviously serve other purposes than that of providing access to being" (51). Percy gives the example of a pair of tourists who, disgusted with the proliferation of other tourists in the popular areas of Mexico, stumble into a tiny village where a festival is taking place. The couple enjoys themselves and repeatedly tells themselves, "Now we are really living," but Percy judges their experience inauthentic because they are constantly concerned that things may not go perfectly. When they return home, they tell an ethnologist friend of theirs about the festival and how they wish he could have been there. This, says Percy, is their real problem: "They wanted him, not to share their experience, but to certify their experience as genuine" (53).

The layman in modern society, then, surrenders his ownership to the specialist, whom he believes has authority over him in his field. This creates a caste system of sorts between laymen and experts, but Percy says that the worst thing about this system is that the layman does not even realize what it is he has lost.

This is most evident in education. Percy alludes to a metaphor he had used in "The Delta Factor," that of the literature student who cannot read a Shakespearean sonnet that is easily read by a post apocalyptic survivor in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The literature student is blocked from the sonnet by the educational system built around it, what Percy calls its "package." Instead of transmitting the subject of education, education often transmits only itself, and the student does not view the subject as open and delightful, nor does he view himself as sovereign. Percy offers two ways around this, both involving, as did his solution to the problem of the Grand Canyon, an indirect approach. Either the student can suffer some sort of ordeal that opens the text to him in a new way; or else he can be apprenticed to a teacher who takes a very unusual approach to the subject. He suggests that biology students be occasionally taught literature, and vice versa.

The overall effect of this obscuration by structure is one of the basic conditions of modern society: The individual layman is reduced to being a consumer. The individual thing becomes lost to the systems of classification and theory created for the consumer, and the individual man loses all sense of ownership. The solution to this problem, according to Percy, is not to get rid of museums but for "the sightseer to be prepared to enter into a struggle to recover a sight from a museum" (62).

"Metaphor as Mistake"

Percy begins "Metaphor as Mistake" (1958) with five metaphors which were misunderstood; these misunderstood metaphors, he says, have nevertheless "resulted in an authentic poetic experience . . . an experience, moreover, which was notably absent before the mistake was made" (65). Metaphor, in Percy's view, is a way of getting at the real nature of a thing by comparing it to something that it does not resemble on the surface. It becomes a tool for ontological exploration.

Existing inquiries have failed to notice this, however, because they either abstract their viewpoints from both effective and ineffective metaphors (this is the path of philosophy) or focus on the individual effects of the individual poet (this is the path of literary criticism). As he does in "The Delta Factor," Percy wishes to seek a middle ground between these two extremes. He makes it clear, however, that the metaphor has scientific, rather than strictly poetic, value for him;he sees metaphor as a method of getting at the way things actually are.

Two qualifications exist for the metaphor as mistake: It must be given by an authority figure, and it must have a certain aura of mystery around it. In this way, the metaphor becomes both right (given by authority) and wrong (not strictly true as a descriptor).

Percy's example is of a boy on a hunting trip who sees a bird and asks what it is. The African-American accompanying him and his father calls the bird a blue dollar, which excites the boy until his father corrects him and tells him the bird is actually a blue darter. The term blue darter may describe what the bird does and what color it is, says Percy, but blue dollar in some mystical way gets at what the bird actually is. When the boy saw the bird, he formed a subjective impression of it—what Percy calls the bird's "apprehended nature" (72)--and in some sense the mistaken name blue dollar gets right at the heart of that apprehended nature.

In this way, the metaphor becomes both science and poetry; it is a sort of subjective science, the ontology of the world as it appears to the individual. Percy says that we can only understand reality through metaphor. We never perceive the world--"We can only conceive being, sidle up to it by laying something else alongside" (72). All language, then, and perhaps all intelligence, are therefore metaphorical. When one person makes a metaphor, the people who hear it hope that it corresponds to their subjective understanding of reality—an understanding they may or may not even be consciously aware of.

The poet, according to Percy, has a double-edged task: His metaphors must ring true, but they must be flexible enough to reverberate with his audience and for them to gain a new understanding of the things to which they refer. The poet must refer to things we already know, but he must do so in new ways; in this, he gives his audience access to their own private experiences.

This can lead to a sort of blind groping for metaphors, however, a process which Percy sees as effective but harmful. Authority and intention are essential for metaphors to be shared between the Namer and the Hearer.

"The Man on the Train" "Notes for a Novel About the End of the World"

"A Novel About the End of the World" makes a striking counterpart to Percy's novel Love in the Ruins, subtitled "The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World" and published only four years after the essay. The apocalyptic novel is a form of prophecy, a warning about what will happen if society does not change its ways. This sort of novel is written by a particular type of novelist, one defined not by his quality but by his goals. Percy refers to this novelist as a "religious novelist" but notes that he includes atheists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in this category because of their "passionate conviction about man's nature, the world, and man's obligation in the world" (103).

The religious novelist, says Percy, has very different concerns than the mainstream of the society in which he lives—so different, in fact, one must decide whether society is blind or whether the novelist is insane or a charlatan. The central difference between the novelist and the rest of society is that the former tends to be pessimistic and the latter tends to be optimistic. The novelist has a "profound disquiet" (106).

The novelist is set off in particular against the scientist and against the "new theologian"—from the former because the novelists insists on the individual while science measures only categories, and from the latter because the novelist still believes in original sin. The Christian novelist in particular recognizes that the problem is not that Christianity is not relevant to modern society but that man's blind acceptance of "the magical aura of science, whose credentials he accepts for all sectors of reality" (113) is changing his consciousness to the point where he can no longer recognize the Gospel.

The novel about the end of the world, then, is an attempt to shock the complacent reader out of his scientism and into the light of the real world.

"The Message in the Bottle"

In "The Message in the Bottle," Percy attempts to separate information into two categories: knowledge and news. The essay is built on an extended metaphor of a castaway with amnesia who remembers nothing but the island he washes up on and who creates a new life with the natives of the island. The castaway frequently finds on the beach bottles that have one-sentence messages on the inside, such as "There is fresh water in the next cove," "The British are coming to Concord," or "Lead melts at 330 degrees."

A group of scientists lives on the island, and they separate these messages into two categories: empirical facts and analytic facts. The castaway is disturbed by this classification, however, because it does not take into account the messages' effect on the reader. Thus, he comes up with the categories of knowledge and news. Knowledge belongs to science, to psychology and to the arts; simply put, it is that "which can be arrived at anywhere by anyone and at any time" (125). News, on the other hand, bears directly and immediately on his life. The scientists, because of their commitment to objectivity above all else, cannot recognize the difference between these two categories.

A piece of news is not verified the way a piece of knowledge is—whereas knowledge can be verified empirically, news can be verified empirically only after the hearer has already heeded its call. The castaway must first, however, decide when to heed the call of a piece of news and when to ignore it. Percy sets forth three criteria for the acceptance of a piece of news: (a) its relevance to the hearer's predicament; (b) the trustworthiness of the newsbearer; and (c) its likelihood or possibility. As news depends so heavily on its bearer, the messages in bottles that the castaway finds cannot be sufficient credential in and of themselves. The castaway must know something about the person who wrote them.

The problem with modern society is that too many people attempt to cure their feelings of homelessness by seeking knowledge in the fields of science and art. Their real problem, says Percy, is that their feelings of homelessness come from their being stranded on the island—they should be looking for news from across the seas.

Percy links this distinction between news and knowledge to how the world understands the Christian gospel. He writes that the gospel must be understood as a piece of news and not a piece of knowledge. To Percy, the gospel is news from across the seas.

"The Mystery of Language" "Toward a Triadic Theory of Meaning" "The Symbolic Structure of Interpersonal Process" "Culture: The Antinomy of the Scientific Method" "Semiotic and a Theory of Knowledge" "Symbol, Consciousness, and Intersubjectivity" "Symbol as Hermeneutic in Existentialism" "Symbol as Need" "A Theory of Language" References
  • Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle. New York: Picador, 1975.

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