July-August 1987By Thomas W. Case
Thomas W. Case is a poet and a Ph.D. student in Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
The Thanatos Syndrome. By Walker Percy. Farrar Straus Giroux. 372 pages. $17.95.
In the course of the recent apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Yugoslavia, one of the children revealed a startling message: Our Lady had told her that this century has been given over to the Devil. Of course, this was nothing new. It had been prophesied by a number of Catholic mystics in preceding centuries. It is prefigured in the Book of Job. Satan suggests to God that mankind has no real faith. People will love God when things go right, but when tribulations arise, they will hate God or pretend He doesn't exist. So God allows Satan to put the human race to the test.
So much for the starry-eyed optimists who prate about technological progress and the many freedoms of our exalted generation. The watershed year was probably 1917: a million young men dead in a World War I campaign called Passchendaele that resulted in no tactical advantage for either side. And a few years later Stalin's massacre of perhaps 15 million Ukrainians; the German and Austrian genocide of six million Jews; another six million noncombatants murdered, mostly Poles; the firestorm bombings of Dresden and Tokyo; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and latterly the nuclear Damocles sword, the abortion holocaust, and the wreck of the family in the "advanced nations."
Walker Percy zeroes in on the real state of affairs in his latest novel. The story is set a couple of years in the future. The Supreme Court has decided that an infant is not a human being until the age of 18 months, when he begins to develop the capacity for language. Infanticide is lawful, for the sake of the "quality of life," and so is mercy killing of the elderly. AIDS is so prevalent that the afflicted are now being quarantined. It is an utterly plausible scenario.
In this "compassionate" new world a few "compassionate" doctors get together and slip radioactive sodium into the water supply of Feliciana Parish (Louisiana), thereby bringing about a multitude of beneficial results: an un-neurotic populace, sexually uninhibited, without crime, without emotional ups and downs. There are a couple of side effects: women tend to "present backwards" in a sort of ape-like sexual invitation, and people seem unable to speak in sentences longer than two or three words. One can imagine the dark comedy Percy makes of this; there is a hilarious denouement when the original conspirators are themselves forced to drink water heavily laced with the "beneficent" drug, and turn into grotesqueries who act like a colony of chimpanzees.
The "heavy-sodium conspiracy" is the comic structural theme in what is more a brilliantly wrought fictionless Jeremiad than a novel. Percy fans will as usual find herein his deft portraits of persons and places, his acute ear for spoken language and the varieties of regional dialect, his half-mad but curiously sensitive and romantic handling of sexual trysts, his loving look at older folks, his humorous-tragic insights into black-white relations, his nostalgia for the Old South. But the Old South is almost entirely missing from this book; it is as if Percy has by now sorrowfully acknowledged that the last coherent and principled culture in the United States has gone the way of the scatterbrained consumerist insanity of the North. There seems to be nothing left but a vestige of the extended family relations that still barely keep the South an entity unto itself (and still make a Northerner wish he were a Southerner). Certainly it appears that the Southern principle of individual honor is all but dead. It has been overwhelmed by homegrown carpetbaggers.
In place of the dying South Percy has given chief billing to the "nutty" Fr. Rinaldo Smith, apocalyptic Catholic. The ostensible craziness of Fr. Smith is Percy's only fillip to the "soft sell." But it is a thin device; Percy's Catholicism obtrudes to take center place in this novel.
As a Catholic, I want to say, "at last!" But as a Catholic, I also want to say, "too late," because the real message as portrayed by Percy is that Catholicism is true (and especially what Our Lady said to the child in Medjugorje is true), but that it is dying like the South is dying: people don't really believe it, and even if they do, it doesn't matter, because words have been evacuated of their meaning. Words like God, Jesus, truth, Our Lady, Catholic, honor, love - you name it. Or rather, you can't name it, because words don't signify anything anymore. They have been "evacuated" of meaning by the Great Depriver, says Fr. Smith. All words except the word "Jew." Why is "Jew" the exception? Because, says Fr. Smith, "the Jews were the original chosen people of God, a tribe of people who are still here, they are a sign of God's presence which cannot be evacuated."
True - or true enough. I have always thought that as the Jews go, so goes the world; that the Jewish return to the ancient homeland is a sign of the end of the world; that Christianity is indeed a part of the "Jewish Conspiracy"; that a test of one's faith in God is one's attitude toward the Jews. I have always known (at least since converting to Catholicism) that God was a Jew and the Holy Family is a Jewish family.
Near the end of the book, Fr. Smith delivers a brutal sermon to the compassionate social engineers of our time. It throws a glaring light on Hitler's Final Solution:
"Never in the history of the world have there been so many civilized tenderhearted souls as have lived in this century.I think Walker Percy has seen further into the present state of the world than any other author I have read. The artist in me only wishes he had not screamed it so loud is this book. I prefer the way his protagonist in an earlier novel, The Second Coming, put it: he was shaken when he thought all the Jews had emigrated from North Carolina, leaving behind only "crazy Jutes and Angles." Maybe Percy thinks that time is running out for him (or for all of us) and he'd better lay it out plainly once and for all.
"Never in the history of the world have so many people been killed.
"More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together.
"My brothers, let me tell you where tenderness leads.
"To the gas chambers! On with the jets!"
Then why use the mocking device of a crazy priest to tell the true story of things? Well, Percy has set the whole tone of the book to suggest that the priest is not so crazy after all. He is more an embarrassment than a madman. He is an embarrassment to the fashionable humanism of the day, a humanism intent on promoting the "quality of life," that is, the quality of our self-indulgent life at the expense of any life at all for those who might inconvenience us.
Maybe the point is that only crazy people can tell the truth these days. Percy is obviously contrasting the conventional wisdom of his protagonist, the failed but "not unhappy" Dr. Tom More, a decent spokesman for the world as seen through the eyes of humanistic psychiatry, with the angry realism of the insane or half-insane prophet. The style is irony within irony, and a lot more complicated than I have conveyed.
But it is too dark for me. I was not satisfied with this novel. I could not say "yes" to it, affirming something in myself, some acknowledgment of strength or life. Maybe that is why Percy called it "The Thanatos Syndrome" rather than "The Thanatos Project": some evil a sane society can condemn and reject, unlike an infectious disease. Maybe it is true that in this century we are all infected with Death itself.
One question I have for Walker Percy, assuming Fr. Smith speaks for him: How can we Catholics be real Catholics if the strength of God is only in the Jews?