Discovering the Loss of the Creature
In Walker Percy’s essay titled “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy repeatedly attempts to instill the philosophy of realism in the mind of the reader. However, the manner in which he chooses to approach this goal is fairly peculiar, and uncommon among essayists. The essay is one of examples, mostly describing the pitfalls of expectation, and leaving much room for interpretation. It is felicitous that just as Percy desires to ingrain the value of the principle of discovery in the reader’s approach, the reader himself must discover the actual meaning of the essay. By looking through the examples, the reader soon picks out a couple that are particularly intriguing. That of a student in anatomy dissecting a dogfish, and the seemingly contradictory one of a tourist couple that gets lost and stumbles across an Indian village. Percy uses these (among others) to ask his audience to put aside expectations and preconceptions, and instead focus on the discovery, the creature, itself. He cautions against a “loss of sovereignty” (hence the initially cryptic title) and urges each individual to “wrest control of it [sovereignty; the creature itself]” to truly have a sense of awe and wonder at the creature—to possess his own island of Formosa.
When dissecting an essay, it is appropriate to pick an example detailing dissection of a different nature. Percy details the story of a student who is dissecting a dogfish. The student seems to treat the experience as a simple assignment, one more collection of facts to be memorized. The physical dissection of the dogfish is simply a confirmation of the student’s expectations. “Yes, everything is in the right place, just like my book shows,” he seems to say. This is partially the fault of the “symbolic package” the experience comes from. The package consists of the preliminary reading, previous knowledge, lesson plans, and even the list of materials needed for the lab (in which the dogfish is referred to as a “specimen,” Percy grimly notes). All of these, together, take away the true senses of wonder and discovery that should be in place when peering into this natural phenomenon. In fact, even the terminology of the lab protocol gives the student one more reason to consider the experience as nothing special.
The use of the word “specimen” immediately transforms the (at one time) living, breathing dogfish into a collection of dead cells lying in a lump awaiting excavation. The student knows exactly what to find inside the dogfish, and awaits the fulfillment of expectations. It is only when a “great biologist” (the characterization of which hints at a requirement to become truly great) passing by points out a part of the dogfish that the student had not encountered in any reading or preparation that he is catapulted into the sense of wonder and awe that only the Creature can instill. The notion is easily broadened to include most entities in life. As the famed (although in the context of this essay, perhaps the use of that word should be avoided, to avert expectations) author E.B. White said, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Firstly, it is important to interpret the quote symbolically. White is saying that when dissecting anything, be it concept or physical object, the prosector tends to break the object of dissection into smaller, classified pieces that standardize the experience. The object becomes a collection of parts, and not the whole, and only interesting to the bland and well-versed “scientific mind.” It is no longer something that we find funny… but another branch of science. No longer a frog… but a collection of dead organs. No longer a dogfish… but a specimen.
A glaring irregularity in the steady stream of supporting statements Percy puts forth is the example of a tourist couple that gets lost in the mountains and ends up ”…in a tiny valley not even marked on the map. There they discover an Indian village.” At a glance, this is a perfect example of true discovery! It is everything that Percy wants the reader to have! But as the reader keeps reading, he quickly realizes that he has fallen into the same trap the aforementioned tourists fell into. “The couple know at once that this is ‘it’….Yet it is more likely that what happens is…a rather desperate impersonation…an actual loss of hope.” After the winded reader gets up from the height from which he just fell, he realizes that the couple, as Percy says, “…[Has] the experience in the bag.” Discovery itself is a tourist attraction. It is this example that indicates that there is no other way to regain sovereignty than through the individual’s own perception. No amount of literal discovery will create the subjective experience of discovery. This conjecture is verified when Percy later points out that the couple wants their expert friend to see the village “not to share their experience, but to certify their experience as genuine.” The couple wants to bag and tag their “discovery,” effectively killing it in the process. Similarly to the case of the dogfish, the couple kills their creature, transforming it into a specimen.
Using examples is a very effective way of instilling a concept. If we take an example from current research into artificial intelligence, we quickly see why it is so effective. The current face of artificial intelligence, a Jeopardy-playing computer named Watson, was programmed via a stream of examples of an idea. For example, instead of programming the letter “A,” Watson was shown hundreds and even thousands of examples of the letter “A,” each one slightly different. Via this method, Watson understood these concepts perhaps even better than some of us. In fact, it might even be appropriate to say that Watson discovered the letter “A” for itself. Percy’s use of many examples and sparse interpretation ensures that even the most cold and logical among us, the most emotionless husks of products of mainstream society it is possible to muster, can understand his essay. However, the ample room for interpretation allows the most insightful and astute student to interpret the essay using even just a few examples.
Which brings us to the essay being currently read. Percy uses many examples, but the two that stand out are that of the student in front of a dissected dogfish, and of the tourist couple who stumbles across a “discovery.” In the case of the former, the sovereignty is lost via the educational packaging it comes in. In the latter, the discovery is lost as a result of the couple’s perception. The discovery is just another blank box in their checklist of experiences, and the entire excursion only results in an uneasy checkmark. Thus, it is important to always approach whatever we do in life with an open mind and very little preconception. We must enjoy and bask in the splendor that these ordeals can engender, and thus regain our sovereignty. We must find our Creatures.