The Message in the Bottle

"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).

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