“Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?”
I first read this line at the improbable age of fifteen from Walker Percy’s essay The Delta Factor. At that young age, Percy’s collection of essays The Message in the Bottle was my first contact with philosophy and my first through an author who seemed as though he was speaking directly to me and about me. Through his essays I heard many of my own anxieties and yearnings named for the first time, and they struck me like lightning bolts:
“Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?
Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?”
This month, I was surprised to read an arrestingly similar sentence in the introduction to a recent best-seller:
“It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations.”
This line is from Sebastian Junger’s new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, a short and powerful polemic that blames society, not war, for the poor mental health of combat veterans. Junger, a long time war correspondent and advocate for veterans’ issues, makes the case that the much talked about wave of long-term PTSD for military personnel has not been caused by the trauma of combat, but of coming home to an individualistic and lonely society after spending time in the intense, purposeful community of a platoon. He writes:
“The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.”
Junger’s invective makes for a refreshingly sharp entry into the tradition of social criticism describing the loss of common life in America. Junger’s thesis dovetails well with Charles Murray’s account of loss of civic virtue across a widening class divide in Coming Apart, as well as Christopher Lasch’s warnings of the erosion of democracy and the rise of technocratic individualism in The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites. But the parallels between Junger’s book and Percy’s essays are particularly striking.
Percy: “Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?”
Junger: “The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping—somewhat irresponsibly—for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive.”
Percy: “Why is war man’s greatest pleasure?”
Junger: “If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does.”
It is clear that the two men are alert to the same peculiar maladies of modern life, and both were bold enough to propose that it was not only the patients that were sick but the hospital as well. But what of their diagnoses? Junger’s seems to be a mishmash of pop evolutionary theory claiming that man “evolved” to be communal, and we are presently living in contradiction to the imperatives of our biology. The right medicine ought to be some sort of return to community and togetherness.
But is that all there is to it? Percy’s thesis–which grounded his fiction as well as his philosophy–was that modernity, in its infatuation with natural science, has defined man wrongly: as an organism consisting of a hierarchy of needs, including psychological needs of community, family, and home. Modern society has attended to those needs perhaps better than any age before it, but it has left something out. Of all human behaviors, Percy was most fascinated with language and the failure of modern science to describe it adequately. Following Charles Sanders Peirce, he recognized language to be a “triadic” exchange of signifiers, irreducible to the dyadic mechanisms of evolutionary science. What Percy termed “The Delta Factor” was what philosophers of mind have called “intentional states of consciousness” or the apparently unique power of the human mind to think and speak about something.
Percy’s singular contribution to this theory of mind was his claim that the semiotic mind was not only man’s glory but also his disaster. For Percy, the symbol-capable mind visits a constant state crisis on its host: that it can symbolize and therefore comprehend everything but itself. Like a camera cannot take a picture of itself, so a human being cannot name itself in the same way it so easily names anything and anyone else. “You are Ralph to me and I am Walker to you, but you are not Ralph to you and I am not Walker to me.” Percy wrote. The world of human perception may be full of forms, but the inner world of the symbol user is an abyss. This, Percy claimed, has always been the fundamental crisis of human life, and it is something that modernity has utterly failed to address. The decline of a sense of belonging, group life, voluntary associations, and religion can be traced to modernity’s shocking ignorance of man’s semiotic nature and needs.
Percy thought that pre-modern societies knew something about this trouble, and it was the reason for their intensely communal and spiritual lives. They attempted to cover the nakedness of the human subject by accumulating layers of designation: assigning vital roles, (warrior, sachem, medicine man) totemistic spirituality, (channeling spirits of animal and nature) hierarchy (chief, subjects) and gender (maleness or femaleness corresponded to essential natures and role in society.) They effected this through distinct rites of passage, explicitly aimed at placing an individual symbolically in his or her society. All this was not simply for increasing the odds of survival–though it achieved that too–but for the purpose of clothing, as it were, the naked knower, making man intelligible to himself.
It may seem a strange thing to connect questions of self actualization to the symbolic function of language but I became more convinced of Percy’s theory after teaching in urban public schools. I was in a unique position to perceive that the popular idea that young men in urban ghettos are attracted to violent gangs because they have no other prospects or marketable skills was incomplete. What struck me instead was that the world of urban street gangs was full of symbols, while the bourgeois world of achievement and respectability that I represented seemed to be stripped bare as a hospital waiting room. The truth was that many of my students desired the world of tags and colors because it made them feel as though they had a family and a reason to be. In this regard, gangs provided something that the schools could not. When these same students approached me on a personal level to ask about problems and predicaments in their lives or my opinions on what they should do with their relationships and futures, I perceived that they were really asking so many variations on the questions “who am I?” and “who ought I be?” Sadly, I had no recourse (legally speaking) but to refer them to some version of the banal litanies displayed on the many motivational posters lining the walls: “Be yourself,” “Be unique,” “Achieve your dreams.” I could see that my students could do nothing but ignore such empty prattle, because it refused to answer their question. No wonder we lost so many.
Percy’s attention to the peculiar nature of man anchors Junger’s discontent to a perennial human condition that modernity has long left unaddressed. Further, Percy saw past modernity’s slavish devotion to reductive interpretations of evolutionary science–a temptation Junger does not escape–and instead focused on language: natural science’s glaring intellectual lacuna. Still, Junger proves that discontent with modernity’s treatment of humanity persists some sixty odd years since Percy first wrote on the subject. Those inspired by Junger’s indictment of modernity (though perhaps leery of his reasoning) would do well to give Percy’s long ignored essays a look. Both men would agree that humanity is not getting the psychic nourishment it needs these days. Neither were satisfied by the vacuous bathos of a “caring” people. Taken together, their insights could hold the key to the heartaches and longings of the modern tribe.