This comes from the scientist-novelist’s essay, “Naming and Being,” in which he talks about symbols and meaning–and how humans derive their special meaning from naming and being named. In doing so, Percy also catches on to modern anxiety’s root cause: the human awareness and fear in the face of something unnameable. One is, as Freud might say, “afraid of nothing,” while at the same time, as Kierkegaard might say, afraid of “a summons to an authentic existence.” Anxiety, as Percy pronounces, is also the experience of the strange, unnameable self. Though we can categorize quite well any other thing, including other people, we (thankfully) have a hard time doing the same with ourselves, particularly in group photos…

An organism is oriented to the world according to its organismic needs, but a person is oriented to the world in the mode of truth-untruth. It is a mistake to speak of truth-untruth in connection with an organism and a sign. A duck may make an error about a sign and mistake a hunter’s call for a duck’s call. Yet, even if he is killed, until the moment of his death, he never ceases to be what he always was, an organism responding to a sign according to a conditioned brain pattern. But for a person the selfsame symbol which discloses being may be the means by which being is concealed and lost. The symbol “sparrow” is, at first, the means by which a creature is known and affirmed and by which you and I become its co-celebrants. Later, however, the same symbol may serve to conceal the creature until it finally becomes invisible in ordinary life because it disappears into its symbol. If one sees a movement in a tree and recognizes it and says it is “only a sparrow,” one is disposing of the creature through its symbolic formulation. The sparrow is no longer available to me. Being is elusive; it tends to escape, leaving only a simulacrum of symbol. Only under the condition of ordeal may I recover the sparrow. If I am lying wounded or in exile or in prison and a sparrow build his nest at my window, then I may see the sparrow. This is why new names must be found for being, as Heidegger thinks, or the old ones given new meaning, as Marcel thinks.

…It is for this reason that a physician and a metaphysician take opposite views of anxiety–Freud looking upon anxiety as a symptom of a disorder to be gotten rid of, Kierkegaard looking upon it as the discovery of the possibility of becoming a self.

Anxiety may simply occur when something is encountered which can neither be ignored nor named. Anxiety may, thus, vary all the way from a slight uneasiness to terror in the face of the uncanny. A strange bird may cause a slight unrest until it is named; but the appearance of the three-masted trading schooner in place of of the usual two-masted one may provoke terror among Melanesian islanders. In the everyday world, one is under the strongest compulsion to construe things one way or another–even things which are in fact unknown tend to be construed as things which are already known.

…By the same token, anxiety may also occur when one discovers that, of all the things in the world, oneself is the only being that cannot be symbolized. Everything else in the world tends to become ever more densely formulated by its name: this is a chair, that is a ball, you are Robert, we have democracy and freedom. But I myself escape every such attempt at formulation. A person who looks at a group picture looks for himself first: everyone else in the picture looks more or less as he knew they would–they are what they are; but he does not know what he is, and so he looks to see; and when he finds himself, he always experiences a slight pang: so that is who I am! But this formulation is ephemeral, and he will do the same thing with the next group picture.The being of the namer slips through the fingers of naming. If he tries to construe himself in the same mode by which he construes the rest of the world, he must necessarily construe himself as nothing, as Sartre’s characters do. But this is not to say that I am nothing; this is only to say that I am that which I cannot name. I am rather a person, a namer and a hearer of names.