“Loss of Creature” – Or Loss of Self?
Percy’s “The Loss of Creature” laments the way in which we view the world around us – as an amusement park juxtaposed with a need to break new ground, and to see what no one has seen before. We leave such trips to the Grand Canyon or Mexico with a sense of disappointment, a feeling that there much more to see than we took the time to look for. Imagine having this experience constantly for three weeks – this is what happened to me during my drive cross-country a few years ago. My trip varied from a desire to simply get through the traffic, to a longing that traffic would slow down and allow me more time to view sights I had never seen before. A loss of creature occurs when we stop seeing the world through our own eyes and simply allow ourselves to be guided by other people, guided tours, and street signs.
Percy’s first assertion is that the discovery of a new place has the value P; while everyone who experiences it afterwards only gets a millionth of the original value. This is because we as humans have a sense of adventure that is only satiated when we believe that we are breaking new ground. Going to Disneyland doesn’t have the same lure as exploring an uninhabited island; the Grand Canyon feels less like a natural wonder and more like a tourist trap when there are hundreds of other people around toting cameras.
My trip allowed me to avoid many common routes and take some back roads that gave me a view of the country that I might not have seen otherwise. As I drove through a wooded area of Arizona, I saw a sign that warned of deer crossing. I had never seen a deer before and suddenly I was seized by a great sense of anticipation – would I see a deer during my trip? How long, exactly, was I supposed to be watching out for deer? This made my trip all the more exciting. Even though Arizona was simply a “pass through” state on the way to other destinations, I found myself paying close attention to every city I encountered. Having known very little about Arizona, I avoided Percy’s “symbolic complex” (482) in which my view would have been spoiled by preconceived notions of what Arizona should look like. Instead, my drive through the state was marked by surprise, especially upon encountering the city of Winslow, which was featured in The Eagles’ “Take It Easy”: “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona/ such a fine sight to see” I hadn’t thought of the song or The Eagles in years, yet that simple reminder brought a smile to my face.
I encountered the same sense of excitement all the way through New Mexico. I had seen pictures of the landscape, but nothing could have prepared me for the way it looked in person: flat desert spotted by huge mountains that could have been cut with a knife, they were so contoured. The sides seemed almost red from a distance, and clearly dark brown up close. This was the point at which I longed for some traffic as there was not an exit I could take in order to spend more time gazing at the strange shape of the mountains. On page 483, Percy discusses how the simple act of being accompanied by a guide can ruin a sightseeing experience – we have an instinct that compels us to seek out new sights on our own. I felt this way on that freeway in New Mexico. I thought to myself, what if I just pulled over and went for a walk? It wasn’t an approved or public area, judging by the lack of freeway exits or facilities, but this made me all the more curious. I would much rather see the land for myself without the interruption of other tourists. It would be more genuine to collect rocks and red sand directly from the source rather than to stop at a gift shop and buy them pre-packaged and priced to sell. Anyone can buy a New Mexico rock or red sand, but the very few will seek them out independently.
Percy mentions the problem of other tourist in gaining the most pleasure from a sightseeing trip. He uses the example of a family who has the Grand Canyon all to themselves upon being quarantined (483), and how the trip was much more valuable because they didn’t have to share the experience with total strangers. Percy continues this example on page 484 using Huxley’s characters, who see the canyon the way it was meant to be seen because all of the tourist traps, guides, and sightseeing aids have all wasted away. During my return trip, I stayed with a friend in Dallas, Texas, who showed me the book depository and grassy knoll that were the site of President Kennedy’s assassination. It was after midnight, so we were able to pull the car over and walk around the street, getting our own visual interpretation of how the shooting occurred and where all of the players were located. Had I experienced this historical site on a group tour, I would not have been able to walk around and feel it for myself. I would have been trapped on a tour with other people, many of whom would remember the day Kennedy was shot and would interject their own memories into my vision of the event.
Our need to find an “unspoiled place” (485) tends to overwhelm our sense of adventure when traveling. Percy gives the example of the couple who go to Mexico only to be surrounded by Americans from Iowa. There is nothing authentic about traveling to another country and spending time with other Americans; it would be more authentic to spend time with the natives. But do we really want that? Percy thinks not. Sightseers who enjoy their trip and are in awe of what they have seen are willing to spoil it by sharing the experience with others. They invite friends to take a return trip only because they want to play the tour guides and witness others’ view of the site through their own eyes. The real anxiety in traveling is indeed the other side of the coin: “For at any minute, something could go wrong. A fellow Iowan might emerge from a ‘dobe hut; the chief might show them his Sears catalog.” (486) We don’t want our view of the world to be spoiled by the reality that there are no true unspoiled natives anymore. Fortunately for me, taking the back roads throughout America enabled me to see a side of the nation that few are able to see. I experienced true hospitality in Oklahoma. My hostess woke at five in the morning in order to make me breakfast before I left to continue my trip. She told me that her neighbors would be horrified to learn that she had let me go without a good meal. I did not realize that such simple, hometown values still existed. Percy states that “When a caste system becomes absolute, envy disappears.” (487) He is referring to the fact that we are eager to admit our lack of knowledge about any subject in order to defer to someone who is a self-proclaimed expert. I did not appreciate the knowing tone of my friends’ voices when they insisted that of course my Oklahoma hostess would get up earlier than I did, everyone knows that. It ruined my memory of the rich breakfast to know that it was done out of obligation rather than a simple desire to be a good hostess.
Based on my disappointment with my friends’ know-it-all attitudes, I do not fit into Percy’s generalization about how people experience a loss of sovereignty, the situation in which they give over the their discoveries to those who are experts on the subject. Rather than reveling in our discoveries and making our own inferences, we immediately look to others to translate it for us. I do not fit into this theory. I took a tour of Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland while visiting Memphis. After paying for the tour and being driven on a bus to the actual mansion, I wore a headset which explained what I was seeing. It was connected to a Walkman with a tape, so I was able to listen to the guided tour at my own pace. At times, I stopped the tape in order to linger at certain sights: Elvis’ guitar collection, certain 60’s tacky furniture, and the graceful horses. Each time I paused the tape, I was able to hear the other tourists while they discussed Elvis Presley as if they knew him. They rambled on about the tabloid aspects of his life, of which I was not the least bit interested. Instead, I tuned out the other tourists and really paid attention to what I was seeing. I imagined the famous musician sitting on his psychedelically-colored furniture with his wife and daughter, either winding down from a long day, or joining them after a long session in the recording studio. I wondered what went through their heads when they picked out the colors for the house – did they design it themelves, or did they hire a decorator? The beauty in the tour is that my questions were not answered by the tapes; there was still much more to be discovered.
In conclusion, Percy’s loss of creature is simply a state of mind. We can go through life on auto-pilot, seeing sights the way others want us to see them. A better option is to go off the beaten path and experience (within reason) life without tour guides, without a velvet rope to lead the way while we stand in line, and certainly without so-called experts to explain that which requires no explanation. I had a genuine feeling of discovery when, as I drove through Arkansas, I happened through Bill Clinton’s hometown – a place called Hope. Residents were reluctant to talk about the former President unless asked. I did not ask, I merely looked, listened, smelled and felt it for myself.