[percy-l] Re: animals, symbols, Gnosticism, Judaaica etc

Nikkibar at aol.com Nikkibar at aol.com
Tue Dec 31 16:12:41 EST 2002

Dear Friends,

I have been lurking about with an increasing Holiday headache for the last 
couple of weeks over the interesting discussion and have been unwilling to 
spoil the fun by getting doctrinaire and behaving like a prissy old fart; but 
now that things seem to be slowing up, let me provide a few biographical 
observations which I hope will not go so far as to become deconstructionist.

The whole discussion about animals and symbols -- Chomsky, the Chimps in the 
household with the letter and icon boards, John Lilly and his dolphin 
language, etc. -- was something that Walker followed with eagerness and 
interest. We (Walker and I) constantly argued over the matter, Walker 
adopting with Aristotle and The Church the position that animals had no souls 
(and there was an end on't) and me adopting quite the contrary position which 
I had always associated with Theosophical Gnosticism, that the universe (or 
all-that-is) is in a state of both physical and spiritual evolution. And 
mixing into this lifelong debate was Walker's stout defense of the notion 
that animals can't use symbols (despite Chomsky and the household chimps, 
etc., and Lilly with his investigation of terciops truncatus' click language 
-- possibly indicating to the contrary). 

My own argument inevitably ran to the notion that the symbol as we and Peirce 
know it, is irrelevant to the debate and that communication and not 
symbolization is the more proper touch-stone to get one to the concept of evid
ence of the kind of consciousness that would betoken the existence of 
animal-souls. Walker always felt that he prevailed in these contests because 
he could fall back on "show me the symbol-making ability) and that for me was 
the breakpoint, for while I couldn't show him a symbol emanating from an 
animal (although with enough funding and sufficiently sensitive and complex 
computers with enough RAM we may in time learn to talk to the dolphin or 
translate whale-song) I could always rejoin that he couldn't be certain that 
animals couldn't and didn't talk to each other; for our uncertainty is 
grounded in the notion that just because they may have little interest in 
talking to us, does not logically prove that they cannot talk to one another. 
In other words, in good lawyer-like fashion, I could always demonstrate that 
an absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. I can assure 
you, however that WP was head-over-heels in touch with the problem and took a 
long and lively interest in it.
For those bewildered by Gnosticism and what it is, search our archives of 
about five years back using not only Gnostic as a word search tool but Elaine 
Pagels and to a lesser degree Harold Bloom, whose works we discussed 
thoroughly. At the end of that discussion I resolved never to get involved in 
that fight again, as it simply produces (on this channel at any rate) a good 
deal more heat than light. And the debate seemed fruitless to me for another 
reason: which was that the RC proponents of antiGnosticism knew a lot less 
about Gnosticism than I did (and do)  about the Dogma and History of the 
Roman Catholic Church. What was interesting (and horrible to me) in the 
discussion was the virulence and mean-tempered attitude emanating at that 
time from the antiGnostic position, a latter day resurrection of the very 
same mortal combat which the church won with Valentinian and in winning the 
victory -- physically obliterated the ancient Gnostics. Pagels reflects with 
great eloquence on that fact of this victory and speculates over what the 
world might be like today, had the Gnostics prevailed at least to the point 
of remaining alive past the sixth century CE. An additional exploration might 
be taken up by anyone interested, by reading an enthralling novel on the 
subject published the last year entitled The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim 
Stanley Robinson (Bantam-Random House). An additional observation: in all my 
many discussions with Walker over these matters, he NEVER raised the 
slightest banner of mean-tempered virulence but was always the soul of 
interested courtesy. For further discussion of Gnosticism and what it is, I 
refer you to Bloom's speculatively intriguing American Gnosticism, but it is 
not nearly as informative at the basic level of defining terms as the works 
of Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels and Gnostic Paul). Google or Amazon 
will provide a useful bibliography complete with price lists. For a useful 
chapter on Gnosticism, specifically in the work of Percy (which may however 
leave you more puzzled after reading it than before) see Eddie DuPuy's book 
Autobiography in Walker Percy -- if you can find a copy. 

I am amused to the point of gentle mirth at the notion that Walker was a Jew 
ab initio through his conversion to Rome. That in my view is stretching the 
poetry of language just a little too far. (BTW Poets name things all the 
time. Just think of Edward Lear's toeless Pobble QED). What Walker would have 
said himself to this interesting error about boxing him in with the Jews, was 
that on the contrary he was not a Jew, but a reconstructed bad Presbyterian 
made over into a bad Roman Catholic. The wistful reverence for Jewry that he 
displays repeatedly in the novels was just that: very wistful and VERY 
reverent, which it occurs to me is roughly my own attitude toward Rome but 
that is BTW; it equals being an indifferent Episcopalian.

A Parthian shot on the subject of the animals. Anyone watching the last 
season of The Sopranos (and who isn't?) may have some very interesting 
insights to draw over how Tony's conflicted Catholic attitude to the "Genesis 
dominion over the beasts" concept works in that most American of myths in its 
current HBO state of becoming. This agon may be the only thing that draws me 
back to it in its next season. I am suggesting that for us in the business of 
the aesthesis of words, myths and stories in the public mind, it's a pivot 
point well worth thinking about. One could assign grad school papers of 20 K 
words on it... It could enliven one's grading period to see what results.

And a happy New Year to all.

Nikki Barranger
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