Walker Percy is our most astute analyst of what ails the American soul.
With the return of riots to American politics, the novelist Walker Percy is again shockingly timely. American madness has resumed its full form—we’re taking out our national unhappiness on each other. Maybe years back people would have scoffed, but in 2020, a famous novelist offering a tale about love in the midst of disaster is a prophet of hope, especially if you consider that so much public discourse is gleefully demanding the ruin of America just about everywhere you look, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or hysteria.
If there are moderate voices left, good luck finding them. If there is anyone who plausibly argues that we can figure out what’s right and make prudent arrangements, good luck reaching the national public. Meanwhile, we behold the spectacle of madness engulfing authority: Medical experts trying to install a new America where riots are ok, but church attendance is not, in the name of health and justice; police scandals and scandals about replacing police with public therapy through activists and social workers.
As we watch, America is convulsed by hatred on TV. Either our screens show us the real world or we live in the real world, but putting the two together is really difficult. Our private experience is of normal life, but what we see, hear, and often say is the limit of our world. We know not where these mad deeds and speeches come from—we do not know where they will pop up next. We didn’t see any of this disaster coming and now we’re asking ourselves whether we can even do anything about it. Percy predicted that we would come to this sorry moment.
Love in the Ruins (1971) is the best of Percy’s six novels and also offers the most bracing introduction to his work. For a diagnosis of our present discontents, there is nothing quite like the opening lines of the novel, where the protagonist describes both his predicament and our time: “Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western World I came to myself in a grove of young pines.” The narrator is Dr. Tom More, who has discovered what he believes to be a technological solution to American madness in the “Ontological Lapsometer,” a kind of stethoscope of the soul.
Although the novel might not be Percy’s most political, it is certainly the most patriotic of his stories. The action takes place July 1-4, and the story is animated by the fear that history might come upon America, so to speak, unaware. America has always been exceptional, spared the drama of conquest, constant fear of war, and the harshness required to defend freedom, as though God protected these United States especially—which has bred a fearful arrogance and, in a way, prepared the madness, and More wonders to himself whether this special providence has come to an end.
Tom More muses on the shape of the conflict, the partisan hatred that finally makes people happy in imagined cruelty: The left and the right hate each other, the black and the white, the liberal scientists and the conservative patriots, North and South, the future-obsessed and those who fear there’s no future. Race riots and unending foreign wars sap the nation’s strength and reduce authority to impotence or atrocity. Faction’s potential to divide any political regime is now tearing America apart.
Dr. More heals people occasionally, but his real calling is psychiatry—listening to the everyday complaints of people no more famous or distinguished than you or me. His faith is in our ability to know the truth about ourselves. But that requires his patients to listen to what they’re saying themselves. If they did, they’d admit that they know they’re not quite happy, nor entirely sane, and share in the hope that if they were to see themselves as they are, they’d stop driving themselves mad by trying to be perfectly happy.
He notices liberalism causes impotence and conservatism causes apoplexy, and how is this mistaken? Yet, Percy presents them as living outwardly happy middle class lives, albeit ones riven by maddening discontents. They leave their spiritual longings unacknowledged, and turn to medication and diversions instead. There’s nothing in their lives they dare point to and say—that’s bad. There’s no one to judge them, much less demand that they change. They’re preparing to enjoy the country’s destruction.
As a doctor, More has entry to America’s ruling class, specifically, the new priest class that attends on our new business, law, academic, media, and political interests. Our doctor-priests bestow something more needful than health—the guarantee of a scientific life. In his science-fiction way, Percy thus predicts an America where doctors don’t just consecrate abortion, but also euthanasia, and in-between try to persuade people that sex is just another biological function. More is connected to such a love clinic where people who run experiments on rats are training people to behave like rats—to liberate them from life’s troubles. And he knows euthanasia is practiced on federal dollars to get rid of old people, indeed he succeeds in saving an old man from this fate, pleading, arguing with, and cajoling a bunch of behaviorists who think bad manners, or any evidence of maladjustment, is scientific evidence for a death sentence.
Two years after Love’s publication, Roe v. Wade became a way of American life; within decades, euthanasia began to be preached and sometimes practiced (on others) by our liberal elites; but elite America has had much greater trouble persuading Americans, who will abate their eyes if they see a fly alight on another, to think of each other as mere animals. American elite sexuality has gone from orgies and violence to hysterical censoriousness without quite making the rest of us into animals at the zoo—though online porn is trying.
This is not to deny Percy’s prediction about what our doctors want to do to us for our own good. Percy pointed out in his essays and novels that we are too obsessed about our individuality to relinquish sexual drama. We may abandon the old to death—think about the pandemic ravaging nursing homes without anybody as much as yawning; we may encourage pregnant women to do to the children they are bearing unspeakable things; nevertheless, we are still scared of and drawn to love.
In the ruins of that old-fashioned hope, government of the people, by the people, and for the people, a new regime arises, a death-dealing West, politicizing birth, love, and death far more thoroughly than Christianity ever could. The doctors are in power—democracy surrenders to iatrocracy. The old priests couldn’t even stop themselves from adultery, but the new ones are persuading people for money or science to have sex in front of strangers, for scientific study. Doctors are reducing Americans to angels and beasts.
The Pleasure of Cruelty
Percy makes it seem like an accident that ideological partisanship should be threatening to ruin America at the same time as a new national agreement unites us in bowing before and confessing to our doctors, each man alone and excited by fear and hope, ready for the sacrament of the pills. His protagonist, More, has a public fear of this coming end of America and private access to the hopes and fears of the people who are, for better or worse, the actors in the national drama.
More refuses to join the new iatrocracy, because, let’s say, he’s old-fashioned. He even learns that the habit of fearing the end of the world is not unique to his moment or, indeed, to America. But what are we supposed to do when we begin to suspect that our fondest hopes are unfounded? We begin to see ourselves in a very different light, since we had always taken for granted that our problems don’t really have consequences. Most of us, whatever apocalyptic or utopian things we might say, live on unchanged.
As the name Thomas More suggests, Percy’s protagonist is a Christian humanist. He accordingly believes in science and Christ both, and puts his hopes in personal love. Mad as we are when it comes to sex, even madness is part of our humanity. Love then is the only answer we can believe in, since it affirms our individuality while tying us dutifully to others, our bodies and our minds both, and it is something we can actually do, unlike saving America by an amazing new device.
But how More gets from his technological discovery that he can prove scientifically that modern man is divided against himself, as beast and angel, to his discovery that he should focus instead on himself as a modern man, that he become less divided against himself—you have to read Percy’s novel for yourself.
Percy suggests in the novel that our misery isn’t primarily political. He reveals the hypocrisy of the ideological games we play. He also reveals why we do it, because we’re unhappy, because we cannot take our lives seriously together with other people, who have the same problems. We’re usually somewhere far from a home, a town, friends, family, church, or political activity. Instead, we fantasize—above all, we wish one part of our nature, our capacity for fantasy, to liberate us from another part of our nature—our mortality. So Percy does the reverse trick, using fantasy to return us to our nature, pointing out by the mistakes we make how we might get things right instead.
The Discovery of America
Stories like Percy’s are meant to do what his protagonist believes psychiatry should accomplish. Rather than a means of tyranny, it ought to center on the art of listening. He says the things likely to attract our attention to ourselves and guide us to some measure of self-knowledge, which must stand in for knowledge and give evidence that being human is good. That what we know about ourselves is good enough and we can get good enough at knowing it to go on with life without our hatred. Only then will we let go of the pleasures of cruelty, punishing someone else while we still can, feverishly awaiting utopia or apocalypse.
Tom More does learn through his troubles to follow his nature to family, and in a way to adulthood—to be less of a romantic genius rivaling Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll. He learns that it’s good to be human in a somewhat surprising way—he notices that America isn’t simply blowing up with hatred, despite our many flaws. He learns about himself, too, that, as badly beaten around by life as he is, he should dare to look for marriage.
He gets more serious about his job, too, since it goes together with his newfound humanity. Since the country doesn’t live down to his catastrophic fears—and the hope that catastrophe brings, that you don’t need to bother anymore, you don’t need to risk ridicule by endeavoring to do good things that might fail—he begins to live up to the American promise. He needs shocks to get there, but the worse things get for him, the better his spiritual condition—he beings to realize he likes being American, and the American people in his life.
I sometimes think that we all play Columbus at some point, discovering America. It has to do, as More sees, with the differences between the fantasies haunting us and the real lives we somehow discount. We replace politics with TV, for example. Really, this is what the novel is about, a return to America and recovering the ability to enjoy all the fun and lovable things about the country and the people. Read the book—you might find it as plausible as I did.