Atmospheric Reentry for Those of Us Lost in the Clouds (or Cosmos)

Academic work, even playing with ideas, can be isolating. Academics, it is well known in the real world, have their heads in the clouds. The gibe goes back to Aristophanes’s The Clouds, where the choral Clouds are the patron goddesses of thinkers. They swirl through the Phrontisterion or “Thoughtery”, dressed up the Socratic predecessor of Plato’s Academy. An astrologically minded Socrates gets lowered into the play in a basket. The philosophers-in-the-cloud motif develops into the more pointed Cloudcuckooland in Aristophanes’s next surviving play, The Birds, where utopian outcasts from Athens conspire with birds to build a polis in the sky that blockades the Olympian gods.

How do we come down out of the clouds? Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is the only reliable self-help guide that I know of on this question. Artur Rosman concurs, and helpfully glosses the semiotic theory that is the book’s playful center of gravity. For artists and writers (and just about everybody) the trouble of reentry comes for one of five reasons: (a) divine madness, (b) modern technological society alienates us, (c) art is an expression of sublimated libidinal energies, (d) art is play, or (e) art is like science, a profound way of knowing.

There are eleven possibilities for alienated moderns to “reenter” reality: (1) everyday reentries à la Faulkner and Kierkegaard, (2) drugs and alcohol, (3) travel, (4) sex, (5) return home, (6) disguise, (7) Eastern religion, (8) suicide, (9) no reentry, (10) God, (11) radical politics.

The more of these possibilities that appeal to you, the further “out there” you are. Uh-oh, I think I score a 8.

Steve recently contributed a reflection on Romantic freedom and Easy Rider; perhaps he “comes down out of the clouds” of Romantic and Christian notions of freedom by making connections to the iconic film. Wyatt and Billy are not “lost in the cosmos”, they are icons of the real world sent out to guide our reentry. But at the end of the film, it is debatable whether drugs, travel, and sex have been viable ways of overcoming alienation from American life.

Percy explains why Mardi Gras (coming up tomorrow) must be the destination for Easy Rider:

[R]eentry by travel… nearly always takes place in a motion from a northern place to a southern place, generally a Mediterranean or Hispanic-American place, from a Protestant or post-Protestant place stripped by religion of sacrament and stripped by the self of all else, to a Catholic or Catholic-pagan place, a culture exotic but not too exotic (Bali wouldn’t work), vividly informed by rite, fiesta, ceremony, quaint custom, manners, and the like. This is by no means a Counter-Reformation victory because the attraction is not the Catholic faith — which is absolutely the last thing the autonomous self wants — but the decor and artifact of Catholic belief: the Pamplona festival, the Taxco cathedral, Mardi Gras, and such (149).

The draw of these baroque aesthetics associated with the Catholic Church also make sense of the shift in Cormac McCarthy’s novels from Tennessee to the Mexican border. What Suttree does in “everyday reentries” on the river in Knoxville are coded in the symbolic grammar of the Catholic sacraments. (See James Watson’s excellent essay.) In almost a natural progression, McCarthy’s later novels cross the border into exotic Catholic-pagan Mexico.

But then again, a novel about alienated modern subjects trying to “enter in” to the Real beneath their fragmentary lives is something different. Awkward Oprah interview notwithstanding, Cormac McCarthy does not seem prone to do that any time soon.


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