The Message in the Bottle Critical Essays

Walker Percy


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Message in the Bottle may be intended for those who specialize in the study of language, but it is not intended to be easily accessible to them. The book does not conform to the received ideas and techniques of the language establishment. Rather, Percy uses a very personal voice, personal references as evidence, a noncumulative argument, and various types of stylistic indirection—such as allusion, analogy, and repetition, especially of references to Helen Keller’s breakthrough to language—all to frustrate his target audience. He knows that he must shake the specialists loose from a quick, preconceived reading of his text if he is to get them to see man-the-user-of-language in an entirely different light.

The book opens with a six-page bombardment of rhetorical questions, all of which are variations on the first one: “Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?” Such a prophetic evocation of biblical “latter days” is hardly the confident, assertive strategy usually used in a book that informs. Percy’s answer is all the more unsettling, for it is merely another question:Is it possible that the questions about man’s peculiar upside-down and perverse behavior, which he doesn’t understand, have something to do with his strange gift of speech, which he also doesn’t understand?

Percy contends that there is no adequate theory of language, the most distinctive human activity, because there is no adequate theory of man. The widely accepted scientific view, deriving from the ideas of Plato and the techniques of Rene Descartes, treats man as both a bodiless intelligence outside the world and an animal among other animals inside the world. The individual result is that all too often a human suffers from angelism-bestialism, vaunting his transcendent subjectivity and consigning all others to objectivity. The global result is that the twentieth century has witnessed both an explosion of knowledge and an explosion of violence.

The prevailing theory of language mirrors the split in the theory of man. The idealists, represented by Ernst Cassirer, emphasize the primacy of the isolated mind, as against the inclusive world, but cannot account for the transmission of thought from one mind to another. The behaviorists, led by B. F. Skinner, insist that the language act is no different from any other response that an inclusive world requires of its captive creatures. Thus, in behavior theory, thought never passes from one mind to another. Both views founder, according to Percy, because they ignore the role of the symbol, that mysterious construct between the observer and the observed, whose significance was first emphasized in the theory of language by the Scholastics in the Middle Ages.

In the world of The Message in the Bottle, then, language—mystery—precedes Percy, who does not enter until section 14 of chapter 1. Even then he enters not as an omniscient specialist but as a befuddled layman. He locates himself in history, twenty years earlier, as he was reading a book, Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (1903). He returned to that book often, because it contains a classic description of language acquisition cited by philosophers whose works he had been reading, among them Ernst Cassirer, Jacques Maritain, and Susanne Langer. Perhaps he also returned to it because his daughter, like Helen, was barred from language. On this occasion he saw something new: Others had understood that somehow, when Anne Sullivan had “spelled” “w-a-t-e-r” in one of Helen’s hands, Helen suddenly understood that the stuff touching her other hand had been named. Thus, Helen reached symbolization and thereby created a world from chaos....

(The entire section is 1518 words.)