I’ve been reading some Walker Percy lately and stumbled onto his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” which more than measured up to my expectations (…) as a reader. The work reveals the devastating effect of the Law on the simplest of tasks–sightseeing.
Percy opens with the example of the Grand Canyon, among America’s most awe-inspiring and famous sights. He imagines that the discoverer of the canyon, a Spanish explorer, must have been utterly staggered when he stumbled out of the brush onto its crest. The modern tourist, in contrast, fails to have the same experience as the first explorer, and Percy blames it on postcards, stories, and advertisements, which create a “preformed complex” of expectations in the viewers. Percy notes that “where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of its depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex.” Heavy stuff! Although Percy never uses the word, I would guess that his “complex” functions as the biblical Law: we sightseers have an idea of what we should see and feel when we visit the Grand Canyon, and then we measure our enjoyment by how well our act of sightseeing conforms to the expectations.
As tourists, we always want the real deal—we want to know if the sight and our reaction to it are what they’re supposed to be. Sometimes, we do have that authentic tourist experience when we stumble onto a picturesque café or side street which the Internet or Fodor’s guide didn’t prime us for. Percy imagines a couple who gets lost in Mexico and randomly finds an Amerindian village, devoid of tourists, with adobe huts and an annual maize dance occurring just as they arrive. Even then, Percy imagines that the couple would be anxious, constantly fearing that their experience turn out, in the end, to be touristy or somehow inauthentic. Percy compares them to an “overanxious mother who sees her child as one now performing, now doing badly, now doing well…The village is their child and their love for it is an anxious love because they are afraid that at any moment it might fail them.” Just like a parent who searches too much for filial affirmation and, in so doing, drives a child away, so too the tourists view the village so much as an experience to be enjoyed that they fail to actually enjoy it.
Even the simplest travel brings to light the truth of how easily human endeavors become self-defeating when they are colored by man’s need to justify himself. Someone’s enjoyment of sightseeing may be inversely related to the amount of pressure that person places on the sight’s “measuring up.” Our demand that we have the “right” experience as sightseers transforms something as beautiful and remote as the Grand Canyon into just another experience we feel we should be having (i.e. Law). More early next week on Percy, the sightseer’s dilemma, and how to enjoy a maize-dance.