Recently, my brother gave me a selection from The Message in the Bottle by Walker Percy. In one chapter, Percy, an avid existentialist writer, writes about the notion of alienation, or, more simply put, feeling alone, out of place, or altogether detached. In it he details an interesting example of a man on a train. As he sits, gazing out the window at fields and neighborhoods, he experiences all of these feelings without knowing anything tangible. From his first voyage to his last, though he has passed them hundreds of times before, he remains no more knowledgeable of them. His feeling of alienation is immovable. Then Percy introduces another lonely man, this time engrossed in a book, also on a train. The book he reads details the thoughts of a lonely man on a train. His alienation is, in a peculiar way, reversed. Reading about the feelings one experiences does not augment their effect, but diminishes them. There is a power in reading, thinking to oneself, “Ah yes, this is exactly how I am feeling.”
The second man is, by and large, far less lonely, as literature offers a gateway into the realm of understanding. He rejoices, as Percy puts it, in a “triple alliance of himself, the alienated character, and the author.” Experiencing a lonely world firsthand, one might find as little comfort as the man gazing out into a world he does not know. But looking into a book, which draws the same conclusions about the loneliness of the world, brings about the opposite emotional effect. When they have someone to be alone with, even in a book, they are then, categorically, not lonely.
This seems a strange, yet true notion to me. As we traverse crowded streets, passing people by the dozens, we may feel alone and empty. But in the etchings of pages bound in a book, we find solace and solidarity. The subtitle of The Message in the Bottle, “How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has To Do With The Other,” seems to make more sense now.
The words more clearly describe loneliness. Feelings are given a physical manifestation, as if we can point at the page and say, “THAT is how I feel.” Through the recognition of shared emotions in literature, loneliness is justifed. But the man on the train, gazing out with nothing in hand, can only wonder why he feels the way he does. This does not say that the man flipping pages has any more knowledge of his feelings than the man gazing out the window, but he has reason to believe there is hope.
Literature seems to soothe the discontents of the mind. Reading allows for us to come away from our own loneliness and relish in the solidarity of it with another. Our alienation is both the cause of anguish and the remedy to it. If that sounds paradoxical and homeopathic, that’s because it is.
With this in mind, I believe that reading about feelings and what we are experiencing helps us get over ourselves. Our passing emotions are not unique—our feelings at any given moment are not only subject to change, but easily changeable. As Percy puts it, it can take a change in our outlook in our environment or mind to transcend the swamp of emotions in which we can become mired.
This idea transcends literature and makes itself known in other forms of art as well. When we’re sad, how often does listening to a sad song yield a less melancholy disposition?
This can be met through a physical change of scenery, a song, or exploring the thoughts of others. Stagnation allows us to stop and sink into the quicksand of complacency. Allowing emotions to compound and grow will only find us feeling alienated. Percy, quoting Spanish playwright Michael Cervantes, says “The road is better than the inn.” Sometimes a book is better than the real world, I’d say.
As we look at ourselves on the train or elsewhere, it is in our travels that we may find loneliness. Thankfully, in the same place we will also find our salvation.
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