For some reason this old post about an obscure book by an obscure author has been getting allot of views from search engines lately. Could it be that I am not the last Walker Percy fan left on earth? Is there renewed interest in Southern-Gothic and Bad Catholics? Or could it be the fact that HBO has a new series with a side character named “Percy Walker” and Google gets the names confused?
Percy’s work always comes back to the core problem of depression: the depressed person sees the world as a terrible place, and the world can’t give him any reason to think he wrong.
Love in the Ruins, an apocalyptic comedy, was published in 1971 and takes place in what then would have been the “near future” of the early 1990’s. The place is Louisiana. The good old USA finds itself in a state of decline as liberals fight it out with conservatives, black guerrillas fight against whites, hippies living in the swamps commit atrocities against townfolk, and entire cities and vast suburban developments sit abandoned as the population crowds into small towns and gated communities.
Conservatives suffer from bouts of paranoia, rage, and indigestion, while liberals suffer from sexual impotence, sexual deviancy, and fits of abstraction. Both are capable of preforming shocking acts of violence: conservatives imagining they are threatened, liberals imagining that their good intentions justify all their deeds. But most people do not notice anything unusual about their situation: they manage to get by in their gated communities, dismiss horrific murders and travel restriction as just more inconveniences of modern life, and give lots of business to proctologists and psychologists.
The narrator is Dr Tom More, a brilliant psychologist and occasional patient at a mental hospital. He describes himself as a “bad Catholic”, claiming to believe in God, Jesus, and the Holy Catholic Church, (he is a descendant of Sir Thomas More, the 16th century martyr) but admits that he loves fornicating more than anything, then bourbon, then science and music, God fourth, and his fellow man hardly at all. He is a depressed, alcoholic, bi-polar, middle-aged widower. He is constipated. He is allergic to eggs but can’t stop eating them. He devotes most of his energy to sleeping with women half his age who remind him of his dead daughter.
Dr More believes that he has come up with the cure for all of America’s problems, indeed, all of the problems of the Western World. He has invented a little device, called a lapsometer, that measures the electro-chemical activity in different centers of the brain giving an accurate reading of the mental health of the person being treated. He even learns that by tinkering with heavy sodium ions, he can temporarily treat the mental imbalance of his patients, and even (temporarily) treat himself.
Even though it is never explicitly stated, at the core of the book is what we call today the “mind-body” problem. One of the main focuses of contemporary philosophy, psychology, evolutionary biology and bio-chemistry is the attempt to understand the relationship between the brain and all the things we associate with being human: abstract reasoning, society, interpersonal commitments, story-telling, etc. The starting point of most of these investigations is the presupposition that the brain is the sole source of these phenomena.
Percy’s attitude is more ambiguous: at least four of his six novels deal with the chemical aspects of clinical depression, but whether chemical treatments are the answer is left up in the air. This novel criticizes the materialist view of the brain in two ways:
The treatments help patients cope, but not get cured. When Dr More bombards areas of his own brain with the proper ions, his indigestion clears up, his feelings of terror vanish, and he goes merrily about his work of saving humanity, but the underling feelings of guilt towards his daughter remain.
Second, it is never really clear who the crazy people are: a visitor from 1971 to Walker Percy’s imaginary 1990’s would not be surprised that people were depressed and acting strange, because they were living in a strange, depressing world without realizing it. Depression, in such a world, would be a sign that you were normal, and not being depressed would be a sign of abnormality. Why would anyone want to undergo treatment in order to feel normal in an abnormal world? (The irony is that Percy was only exaggerating aspects of American culture that were already present in 1971, which means that in his view 1971 was a crazy world in which it was perfectly normal to feel depressed.)
Another ambiguity is that the book also criticizes a dualistic approach the mind body problem: “spiritual” people are mostly frauds, and Dr More complains about Descartes messing up the world by treating the soul as if it were a ghost in a machine.
A word on the style:
Like Walker Percy’s other novels, the style is a little dense at times and needs to be read slooowly, but the effort is worth it. Percy’s chosen voice, Dr Tom More may be a “lecher and a drunk with white-trash morals” but he is still a doctor and a cultured man, dropping medical, biblical, classical and pop-culture references as he describes his adventures. Here is a memory of his dead wife:
I never got over the splendor of her person in the morning, her royal green-linen-clad self, fragrant and golden-fleshed. Her flesh was amorphous stuff. Though it was possible to believe that her arm had the usual layers of fat, muscle, artery, bone, these gross tissues were in her somehow transformed by her girl-chemistry, bejeweled by her double-X chromosome.
Or a description of his dead wife’s bookcase, complete with Siddhartha, Atlas Shrugged, and ESP and the New Spirituality:
Books matter. My poor wife, Doris, was ruined by books, not by dirty books, but by clean books, not by depraved books, but by spiritual books. God, if you recall, did not warn his people against dirty books, but against high places. My wife, who began as a cheerful Episcopalian from Virginia, became a priestess of the high places… Beware Episcopal women who take up with Ayn Rand and the Buddah. A certain type of Episcopal girl has a weakness that comes on them just past youth, just as sure as Italian girls get fat. They fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine.
I don’t think Walker Percy is read much anymore, but he deserves to be. Percy was originally a pathologist, forced to retire from medicine after contracting TB from a corpse. He brought his pathologist’s temperament to his dissections of Southern manners and his post-mortem of American culture. In many ways Percy was a pessimist: death, decline, suicide, and depression are his major themes. But most of his books have happy endings in which the hero gets the girl, and learns to cope.