Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Funny and Frightening Prophecy

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Walker Percy (Photo courtesy Christopher R. Harris, who owns the copyright)

The novel he said “rocks the boat” portrays a chilling and alarmingly plausible future.

16 May 2018  | Ralph C. Wood | TAC

Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, a finalist for the 1972 National Book Award, remains even more acutely prophetic now than when it was published almost five decades ago.

“The novel is not saying: Don’t rock the boat, cool it, be moderate, vote moderate Republican or Democrat,” Percy declared at the NBA awards ceremony. “No, it rocks the boat. In fact, it swamps the boat.”

William F. Buckley Jr. wryly suggested that all future presidents should be required to swear a double oath of office: not only to uphold and defend the Constitution but also to have read, marked, learned, and digested Percy’s Love in the Ruins. “It’s all there in that one book,” said Buckley, “what’s happening to us and why.” Indeed, Percy’s novel reads as if it were written in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election.

“A serious novel about the destruction of the United States and the end of the world,” Percy declared, “should perform the function of prophecy in reverse. The novelist writes about the coming end in order to warn against present ills and so avert the end.”

He isn’t writing as a biblical prophet, but neither can he deny that his allegiances are fundamentally Christian. His own vision of reality is confessedly “incarnational, historical, predicamental.” In an increasingly pagan and hostile age, Percy doubted the efficacy of a serene Christian humanism. Better to serve as the canary in the coal mine, so as to detect the asphyxiating gas that sickens unto death.

Like his fellow Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, Percy believes that the novelist “should shock … his readers by speaking of last things—if not the Last Days of the Gospels, then of a possible coming destruction, of a laying waste of cities, of vineyards reverting to the wilderness.” Percy adds, “Unlike the prophet, [the novelist] does not generally get killed. More often he is ignored.”

Already one can detect Percy’s irony within his gravity. He is not writing in the fashion of Orwell or Huxley, depicting totalitarian or technological nightmares. Love in the Ruins concerns a cataclysm that doesn’t happen. It’s a country club apocalypse, a lawn party catastrophe.

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Walker Percy (1916-1990) was a non-practicing physician who never lost his desire to “thump the patient and figure out what’s wrong.” He also wanted to know what went wrong with America, the country Lincoln called man’s “last best hope.” How and why have things fallen apart?

Percy transfers his befuddlement to his narrator/protagonist, Dr. Thomas More, a psychiatrist living and working in Paradise Estates, a dubiously named subdivision of a New Orleans suburb. More gets his own name from Sir/Saint Thomas More, the Catholic humanist and martyr.

Unlike his eponymous forebear, this latter-day More is neither gentlemanly nor godly. His life is a mess, as he drolly confesses: “I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally I do as I please. A man, wrote John, who says he believes in God but does not keep his commandments is a liar. If John is right, then I am a liar. Nevertheless, I still believe.”

In that final sentence, Percy offers a scintilla of hope that something good may emerge from this suburban Armageddon set sometime around 1983, on the brink of Orwell’s apocalyptic year.

The poor U.S.A.!

Even now, late as it is, nobody can really believe that it didn’t work after all. The U.S.A. didn’t work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? that the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer. …. What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye, because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event, even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers. But you believed it and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play because you had already passed the big one. One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, and all you have to do is not violate him. That’s all.

One little test: you flunk! …

Flunked! Christendom down the drain. The dream over. Back to history and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Tom More here names chattel slavery and its dread aftermath as the flaw in the American fabric that has caused it finally to shear. Who can doubt that racial injustice, with its sorry continuing legacy, remains the distinctive American sin?

And as if there were any lingering dream of American exceptionalism, Wendell Berry claims that our destruction of Native Americans amounts to our own holocaust.

Percy identifies slavery as “the egregious moral failure of Christendom. It is significant that the failure of Christendom in the United States has not occurred in the sector of theology or metaphysics … but rather in the sector of everyday morality.”

When Tom More quotes from 1 John about his own mendacity in failing to keep God’s commands, he surely remembers this codicil: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Hence Percy’s own confession in an essay about Love in the Ruins: “White Americans have sinned against the Negro from the beginning and continue to do so.”

Yet America’s racial sins are peripheral to the novel. While the narrative is set in Louisiana, it offers no searing indictment of the Southern sins, such as can be found in William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.

The race riots of the 1960s, especially the burning of the metropolitan ghettos, were sufficient signs that the racial problem that was once regional had become national. “It’s not that the South has got rid of its ancient stigma,” Percy writes, “….It’s rather that the rest of the country is now stigmatized and is in even deeper trouble.”

Percy’s philosophically astute psychiatrist identifies this far deeper trouble in a single lapidary claim: “Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.”

Dr. More traces our illness to René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher whose notorious motto was “Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’ animating idea marked a fundamental “turn to the subject,” a relocation of ultimate authority in subjective human consciousness rather than any transcendent reality.

It is safe to say that, prior to Descartes, human reason seated itself either in the natural order or else in divine revelation. In the medieval tradition, reason brought these two thought-originating sources into harmony.

Thus were mind, soul, and body regarded as having an inseparable relation: they were wondrously intertwined. So also, in this bi-millennial way of construing the world, was the created order seen as having multiple causes—first and final, no less than efficient and material causes.

This meant that creation was not a thing that stood over against us, but as the realm in which we participate—living and moving and having our being there, as both ancient Stoics and St. Paul insisted. The physical creation was understood as God’s great book of metaphors and analogies for grasping his will for the world.

After Descartes, by contrast, the sensible realm becomes a purposeless thing, a domain of physical causes awaiting our own mastery and manipulation. Nature no longer encompasses humanity as its crowning participant.

The soul drops out altogether and is replaced by disembodied mind. Shorn of its spiritual qualities, the mind becomes a calculating faculty for bare, abstract thinking. To yank the mind free from the body is also to untether it from history, tradition, and locality.

After Descartes, the mind allegedly stands outside these given things so as to operate equally well at anytime and anywhere. Insofar as belief in God is kept at all, it is an entailment of the human. Atheism was sure to follow. Marx made truth itself a human production, whether social or economic.

Nietzsche went further, insisted that nothing whatever can stand over against the human will to power, not even socially constructed truth. Hence the cry of Zarathustra: “If there were gods, how could I endure not to be a god!”

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