Thursday, December 28, 2017

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

Dr. Tom More lives in Louisiana, in an America some vague time in the future, a few decades past the old "Auto Age."  Of course, life in Louisiana in the future looks a lot like it did in Percy's day; there's no flying cars or technological upheaval.  There's a bit of unintentional irony in the fact that much of the novel takes place at an abandoned Howard Johnson's.  The real difference is that the political tension that Percy observed has been carried to its extremes: right-wing "Knotheads" battle bloodthirsty Lefts, and separatist black guerillas are scheming against the country-club towns of Louisiana in the woods.  The U.S.A. is on the verge of breaking up, and symbolic vines have taken over much of the abandoned infrastructure of the "Auto Age"--the highway cloverleaves and the Howard Johnson'ses.

Percy suggests that the partisan strife is part and parcel with the strife of the human soul: Knotheads have their rage and Lefts their terror.  More's invited a machine, a More Ontological Qualitative-Quantitative Lapsometer, which can identify the specific points in the brain of psychological abnormality.  It might even be able to cure what More calls the pervasive "angelism-bestialism" of modern man, the bipolar sense of detachment from the body, alternating with the primitivist wallowing in animalistic urges.  There's a fine theological point being made here about the precarious balance between soul and body, and the need to believe in the reality of both.  Someone has been sniping at More from the woods, and others seem to want to use his device not to cure the ills of America, but to exacerbate them, and bring about a literal culture war.

It's hard not to feel, on the eve of 2018, that such a vision of the future was spot-on.  Percy's intuition that political and cultural divisions in America would only deepen has to be considered confirmed.  And yet there's an aspect to Percy's vision that I no longer feel like endorsing: the belief that all are equally responsible for these divisions, Knothead and Leftist, white country clubber and black guerilla.  Or, if not equally responsible, that each comes to their enmity through the same malady of mind and soul, in a way that seems to dismiss the actual dynamics of power that create racial conflict.  I am not at all sure about this paragraph, in which More is shocked by a friend's admission that he chased a black couple out of a bowling alley:

Where did the terror come from?  Not from the wrongness, violence gives release from terror.  Not from Leroy's wrongness, for if he were altogether wrong, an evil man, the matter would be simple and no cause for terror.  No, it came from Leroy's goodness, that he is a decent, sweet-natured man who would help you if you needed help, go out of his way and bind up a strangers wounds.  No, the terror comes from the goodness and what lies beneath, some fault in the soul's terrain so deep that all is well on top, evil grins like good, but something shears and tears deep down and the very ground stirs beneath one's feet.

I think Percy is probably right that it's too easy to dismiss racism as evil, and that the more difficult and productive thing is to grapple with the way racism can take root even among people's more altruistic impulses.  But it no longer seems tenable to hold, as Love in the Ruins does, Leroy's racism on one side of the scale and the anger of the black guerillas in the swamp on the other.

Here's another part that struck me:

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 really not different form Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer.  Moon Mullins blames it on the n----rs.  Hm.  Was it the n----r business from the beginning?  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 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 for you because you had already passed the big one.  One little test: here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him.  That's all!

One little test: you flunk!

The irony here is so thick that it's difficult to parse.  Is it satirizing the belief in America as divinely procured, or does it believe in it, deep down?  I sense that the truth is somewhere between; that Percy, through More, wants keenly to believe in the ideal of America but knows that slavery and colonalism put it to the lie.  The tone is outrageous, but I think this passage properly acknowledges how immensely slavery blots out our most cherished ideas about America, and ourselves--us whites, that is.  And it shows how difficult, perhaps impossible, that can be to process.  And yet I feel like this admission ought to lead somewhere that the novel isn't prepared to go: a greater understanding of black voices, and an acknowledgement that America's deepest problem isn't just that we all don't get along anymore.  What the past two years have taught me is that such statements are only true if the borders of "we" are drawn very tightly.

That said, Love in the Ruins is many times more successful than The Thanatos Syndrome (which is a sequel to this, though I didn't know it when I picked it up).  Percy uses his near-future setting more nimbly, sticking with pure farce instead of the CSI-type forensic quest that characterizes the sequel, and steering clear of the humor-killing blackness of the child abuse plotline.  Parts of Love in Ruins are just fun.  In the future, apparently, medical doctors battle for diagnostic supremacy before their students in a cage match called "The Pit."  More uses his battle in the Pit to test his lapsometer on his unsuspecting opponent, and proves to everyone that the mute octogenarian they're fighting over is really just pissed about living in an old folks' home.  It's silly and weird and makes perfect use of the slight separation that science fiction provides from the real world.  Leave it to Percy to find the humor in the end of the world.

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