Monday, March 08, 2010

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

The world that Percy conjures up in Love in the Ruins, and that he rails against, is one of abstraction, lacking concreteness and mired in despair. It is entirely lacking in spirit, in what Percy would define as the human religious instinct. This is the familiar territory of modernist writers, but Walker Percy’s interpretation of the malaise is essentially religious. Bradley Dewey pinpoints this as a central theme of Percy’s work when he suggests it ‘maps the contours of the ailing American psyche.’ In Percy’s opinion, continues Dewey, the root is spiritual and the cure is Catholic. And it is his overt Catholicism that makes Percy stand out from the crowd of millennialist doomsayers. Even Flannery O’Connor, with her preponderance of essentially Baptist characters, has not flown the flag of Catholicism as resolutely as Percy. For him, any notion of liberal theology is anathema. Salvation through grace, the individual and societal struggle against nihilism, that is Percy’s goal. In a novel heavy on satire, a moment of genuine pathos makes this clear, when the central character, Tom More’s dying daughter tells him: “The sin against grace. If God gives the grace to believe in him and love him and you refuse, the will not be forgiven you.” “I know,” replies More, and it could be the voice of the author himself.

Published in 1971, Love in the Ruins is set in Louisiana in an imagined near future of the 1980s, ‘at a time near the end of the world’. The United States is riven by dispute, divided into factionalism – liberal and reactionary, leftists and knotheads, black and white, young and old, north and south. Even the Catholic Church has ‘split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.’ Amid the tension and violence that attends such discontent, Dr Thomas More is convinced that the world is about to end. He is holed up in a deserted hotel with three beautiful women and his ‘lapsometer’, a scientific device for measuring the emotions and beliefs and metaphysical condition of every individual, the ‘first caliper of the soul’. As the situation deteriorates, he is confronted by an enigmatic Mephistophelean character, Art Immelmann, whose motives are unclear but as the novel unfolds become increasingly malign. Finally, it is clear that Immelmann is the Devil incarnate and is bent on the possession of Tom More’s soul.

More is a flawed character – indeed the subtitle of the novel is ‘The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World’ – who falls prey to the usual temptations of earthly life: ‘longing, longings for women, for the Nobel Prize, for the hot bosky bite of bourbon whiskey, and other great heart-wrenching longings that have no name’. He is a doctor whose invention allows a diagnosis of spiritual malaise, but crucially it is only a diagnostic tool, and he cannot use it to cure the illnesses he discovers. Moreover, More himself suffers from mental illness and is also a patient in the hospital in which he works. The message is clear then – this is satire, after all – society is sick to the core and needs to rediscover its purpose. This is done, of course, through love, love amid the ruins of modern America, specifically the love of God. More resists the temptations of the satanic Immelmann and finds communion with God. He devotes himself to his scientific research and to his wife and family: he becomes human.

Thus, while Percy presents a dystopian vision of America, his analysis is essentially hopeful, based on individual redemption through accommodation of the self with God. In presenting this thesis, Percy draws closely on Kierkegaard. In an interview with Bradley Dewey he decries traditional American philosophy based as it is on the duality of science and art which, he argues in Kierkegaardian fashion, leaves out an essential aspect of our humanity, ‘the individual himself’. Modern man has become formless, abstracted, alienated. He is, as Romano Guardini describes it, ‘at the crossroads confronting the Call of God.’ If he does not answer the call, he will be enslaved by his own technology, become a machine, be reduced to the status of ‘mass man’. Tom More avoids this fate: he confronts his demons and the Devil himself; he continues to pursue his scientific investigations but not, any longer, out of the vane desire for a Nobel Prize; his science becomes an act of nature, a piece of art, a touch of beauty. Gary Ciuba suggests there is an apocalyptic vision present throughout Percy’s oeuvre, going as far as to argue that ‘the Apocalypse of John is the story of all Percy’s stories’. In Love In The Ruins that apocalypse is at its most explicit: we are told from the beginning that the end is nigh. However, I would suggest that Percy’s message is not eschatological, and while he is certainly warning man of the dangers inherent in our modern lifestyles, his work lacks the relentless dogmatism of Cassandras like McCarthy or O’Connor. Percy’s reaction against modernity appears to owe less to the Weberian idea of the stultifying nature of bureaucratic routine than to Habermas, for whom modernity was an ‘unfinished project’ which was capable of being moulded into something more sustaining. Thus, as Farrell O’Gorman explains:

In his fiction the modern world indeed seems to have come to an end, and there is much to fear, but also much to celebrate: for his seeking protagonists, the apocalyptic somehow culminates with the Edenic, and accordingly the locus of his fiction is not a present overwhelmed by a tragic past, but rather one which is paradoxically hopeful and carries within it the signs of an ultimately comic mystery.

Love in the Ruins is a complex novel. The broad humour masks a serious analysis of contemporary society. The answers to the questions we seek are, Percy tells us, resident within ourselves. Our contradictions and prejudices, our petty spitefulness and self-centredness may be the seeds from which disorder grows, but if we can learn to control them – in Percy’s view, to find grace – then hope remains. It is a noble vision, one that can be embraced by Christians and humanists alike, for underneath we are all of us nothing but Jock Tamson’s bairns.


courtmerrigan said...

Love in the Ruins is a wonderfully told story. (The follow-up, The Thanatos Syndrome, despite the promising title, is far less satisfying.) I read it paying a good deal less attention to thematic overtures than you, Tom, though. The plain fact is that it is a rollickingly entertaining story, and Tom More is one of the more likeable bumblers I've come across in literature (he is a distant cousin to that other Louisiana Catholic bumbler, Ignatius J. Reilly, although perhaps I only think that because of the connection between the Percy and the publication of Confederacy of Dunces).

There is a good deal of malaise present in this novel, although ultimately it is hopeful, which makes it a pleasant contrast to some of the endless darkness of Percy's fellow southern writers, as you say. Ultimately one must come to one's grace through an experience of faith which in this context almost seems sort of ... uncatholic. If that makes sense.

The bits about the Catholic priest who lives up in the treehouse - pure gold.

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, you're right, it is a rollicking good read.

There is some similarity with Reilly, yes. Reilly is more of a larger than life character, and is completely unaware of his failings, whereas More does have some awareness of his, but they are both essentially self-centred, I would agree.

Amy R said...

The Dr. Tom More of Love in the Ruins does not - or does he? - have the same wife in The Thanatos Syndrome. Knowing The Thanatos Syndrome is a sequel of sorts to Love in the Ruins, makes no sense in that regard. Could you please explain this?

Tom Conoboy said...

As I recall, his wife died before the action of Love in the Ruins, and at the end he marries Ellen.

Ellen is then his wife in The Thanatos Syndrome. She is (as is he) essentially the same character in both books, but nonetheless quite different. It's almost like it's the same name, but a different character.