Wood, Percy; why writers drink

Longtime readers of this site know that I adore Walker Percy’s fiction, the early novels especially.

I also read his Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book from time to time, although I disagree with some of the theories advanced in it. Just last week, in fact, I returned to a chapter entitled “The Orbiting Self: Reentry Problems of the Transcending Self, or Why it is that Artists and Writers, Some Technologists, and indeed Most People have so much Trouble Living in the Ordinary World.”

Today the proprietor of Rake’s Progress has drawn a comparison between this very chapter and James Wood’s The Book Against God (which I should have read two years ago but haven’t yet). Mr. Rake provides an excerpt from the Lost in the Cosmos chapter I’ve been rereading.

Here’s one of my favorite bits of the same chapter, under the subheading “Why Writers Drink”:

He is marooned in his cortex. Therefore it is his cortex he must assault. Worse, actually. He, his self, is marooned in his left cortex, locus of consciousness according to Eccles. Yet his work, if he is any good, comes from listening to his right brain, locus of the unconscious knowledge of the fit and form of things. So, unlike the artist who can fool and cajole his right brain and get it going by messing in paints and clay and stone, the natural playground of the dreaming child self, there sits the poor writer, rigid as a stick, pencil poised, with no choice but to wait in fear and trembling until the spark jumps the commissure. Hence his notorious penchant for superstition and small obsessive and compulsive acts such as lining up paper exactly foursquare with the desk. Then, failing in these frantic invocations and after the right brain fails as silent as the sphinx — what else can it do? — nothing remains, if the right won’t talk, but to assault the left with alcohol, which of course is a depressant and which does of course knock out that grim angel guarding the gate of Paradise and let the poor half-brained writer in and a good deal else besides. But by now the writer is drunk, his presiding left-brained craftsman-consciousness laid out flat, trampled by the rampant imagery from the right and a horde of reptilian demons from below.


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