Book Review: The Message in the Bottle by Walker Percy

Walker Percy was a Louisiana author whose career spanned over three decades and whose interests included philosophy and language.  He is best known for his 1961 novel The Moviegoer.

The Message in the Bottle is a collection of essays spanning the full length of Walker Percy’s writing career.  They all hang together around the question of why, despite all of the prosperity and technology of modern times, people are increasingly sad and unfulfilled.  Percy postulates that the answer has to do with the fundamental difference between man and all of the other animals on the face of the earth–language.

Percy claims that there is a huge problem with the way in which linguists study, define, and understand human language.  The problem is this:  Human language is typically understood in terms of stimulus and response.  In the animal kingdom, the scent of deer tells the tiger that dinner is nearby and the scent of tiger tells the deer that he’d better get out of there.  Or when bees do a certain dance it tells the other bees that nectar is nearby.  What this looks like in terms of human language is that when two fishermen are out fishing and one says “Shark here”, it is simply a stimulus telling the fishermen that they need to get away.

But the linguists have got it all wrong, because human language is in fact way more sophisticated than that.  Words are symbols, and in any linguistic transaction there are four elements:  the word, the thing which the word represents, the person who says that this word represents this thing, and at least one other person who accepts this connection.  In keeping with the example of the fishermen, the behaviorist view of language may explain their behavior when the shark is coming, but it completely fails to explain what happens later that night when they are sitting in front of the fire and telling fishing stories.

Percy starts off by taking the point of view of a Martian attempting to study human language, making the observation that people have all sorts of theories about the formal and factual aspects of language but understand nothing about what language actually is.  He then discusses Helen Keller and that fateful summer day when she and her tutor went out to fetch water, and she made the connection in her mind that the stuff which was flowing over her hand was water.  In other words, “water” to her was no longer just a command to go and fetch water, “water” was now the name by which the actual stuff was known.

The next several essays all deal with various facets of language:  metaphor, poetry, the distinction between “science” and “news”, culture and the scientific method, and traveling as a way to attempt to find meaning in life.  He closes out the book with a final essay in which he attempts to offer his own crude model to explain the essence of language.  (I could try to explain it here, but it would require going into a great deal of detail and complication.  You need to read the book.)

At any rate, if you want to read the musings of one of the finest Southern authors of our day on the subject of language and the difference that it makes to our ability to find happiness and fulfillment in life, then I strongly recommend this book.  It may be tough to wrap your mind around everything that he says, but it will be worth the effort.