The Message in the Bottle

by Walker Percy

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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. Percy’s advancement of the general understanding was the realization that the symbolic accomplishment...

(This entire section contains 1518 words.)

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occurs only when there is a Namer for the Hearer. Later, Percy acknowledges, he learned that Charles Sanders Peirce, an American psychologist of the late nineteenth century, had arrived at the same conclusion.

That human world-formation must begin with the act of hearing another person is significant not merely to the study of language acquisition but to any consideration of epistemology. From Plato on, with the ever-increasing importance of the scientific view seeing has increased its dominance over the other senses (the importance of the invention of the lens cannot be overemphasized here). In consequence, knowledge has become more and more a solitary experience, more and more primarily a matter of the quantification of externality by visualization, and therefore more and more mechanical in operation and abstract in content. At the same time, time has become visualized as uniform segments of length and thus has become space. Thus, the individual has become more and more alienated, deprived of a present because all space is standardized and deprived of a past and a future because time no longer provides him with a sense of continuity from a beginning to an ending. What is more, he has been taught to distrust and disavow any thoughts that are merely personal, for they are not pragmatic, measurable, or able to be duplicated; in short, they are not scientific.

It should be clear that Percy writes as one who has suffered from the malaise of the twentieth century. He underwent three years of unsuccessful analysis when he was barely into his twenties. It is little wonder that he is jubilant over his discovery that hearing is the foundation of knowledge, for that fact explodes all philosophies built on any form of dualism. From the beginning, the human is both incarnated and intersubjective, dependent upon the symbol, which is an analogy, not a quantification. Thinking about consciousness must be entirely reconstructed: Detached observation is not the original and purest consciousness but is rather a deprived deterioration. Percy reminds his readers that the etymology of “consciousness” is “knowing with.” Solitary response to facts is not the only legitimate intellectual act as the positivists would have it; rather, the shared response to a symbol (joining different forms of being) is the supreme act of knowing. Percy’s discovery was not only an intellectual breakthrough but also a religious conversion. Although he had become a Catholic a few years before, he must have gained from the Keller episode a radically deeper appreciation for the body of teaching, both biblical and institutional, that constitutes Christianity.

Percy wishes his readers to see that the naming act, “this is-—-,” has its divine origin in the naming act which took place at the Last Supper, an act which symbolized a condition that had already existed throughout history and which instituted the means by which humans may celebrate that condition and its Incarnation. Human words are possible because of the Word; when John begins his book by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” he is stating once and for all the Christian knowledge that language is sacred, that language is the medium through which a human can commune with God and his fellow humans. When Percy speaks of “the mystery of language,” then, he is using “mystery” in both an open and a mysterious sense. To a scientist a mystery is merely a problem to be solved; in the New Testament mystery refers to both the revelation of God’s design and the sacraments. Percy hopes that at some point in the book each of the members of his target audience will experience the same kind of breakthrough about the nature of language that he experienced in reading The Story of My Life. Yet he cannot openly state his intention. He hopes to write so seductively that at a certain point a transvaluation will occur so that his reader will return to the first words of the book—with its echoes of Genesis, the Gospel of John, and of Revelation, and really understand why they belong in a book about language and the only creature who possesses it:In the beginning was Alpha and the end is Omega, but somewhere between occurred Delta, which was nothing less than the arrival of man himself and his breakthrough into the daylight of language and consciousness and knowing, of happiness and sadness, of being with and being alone, of being right and being wrong, of being himself and being not himself, and of being at home and being a stranger.

Those words are The Message in the Bottle. They constitute what Percy calls a “piece of news from across the seas” (a statement appealing to faith) rather than a “piece of knowledge” (a statement subject to proof or disproof). It is noteworthy that “The Message in the Bottle,” the title of the chapter preceding “The Mystery of Language,” is chosen for the title of the entire book and thus to imply its intention. Percy concludes “The Message in the Bottle” by saying:In such times, when everyone is saying “Come!” when radio and television say nothing else but “Come!” it may be that the best way to say “Come!” is to remain silent. Sometimes silence itself is a “Come!”

In The Message in the Bottle Percy practices such silence. Unless the first sentence is fully appreciated, all 335 pages that follow are merely words.


Critical Context