[percy-l] re The Thanatos Syndrome

Robert Eckert rgeckert at yahoo.com
Sat Mar 5 00:50:15 EST 2005

Peter Kramer makes some interesting observations regarding Percy's prescience _TS_ is his book _Listening to Prozac_

Bob Eckert
JHForest at cs.com wrote:
Attached is a book review I did nearly 20 years ago. I share it with you as 
the issues Walker Percy explored in the book under review, "The Thanatos 
Syndrome," seem ever more current. Timely reading. Satire with the bite of 
Jonathan Swift.


* * *

The Thanatos Syndrome
by Walker Percy 
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York
1987, 372 pp

reviewed by Jim Forest

Walker Percy is southern and Catholic, Kurt Vonnegut
northern and secular, not minor differences, but perhaps they
recognize each other as relatives. Both are inclined to use
comedy, at times the slapstick variety, in order to talk about
some of the unfunniest subjects in the world, like war,
euthanasia, abortion, and other justifications we cook up for
killing one another. 

Percy's hero in this book, as in his earlier novel, Love in the
Ruins, is Dr. Thomas More, resident of a rural Louisiana
parish (what we yankees call a county) and a direct
descendent of St. Thomas More. Like his ancestor, he has
been a prisoner, but for selling amphetamines to truckers
rather than for acts of fideility to conscience. Also like his
ancestor, he is a Catholic, except in the current generation,
things being what they are, More's connection to his Church is
threadbare. Still there is a bit of religious glue holding body
and soul together. Tom More isn't able to make himself
comfortable with the contemporary mercies that pave the way
to the gas chamber and the abortorium.

In The Thanatos Syndrome we encounter a few psychiatrists
who makes heaps of money running the Qualitarian Center,
where the old and/or feeble-minded are provided with Death
with Dignity. In their spare time, using a federal grant, the
clever doctors are in the midst of a local experiment that they
regard as the best idea since fluoride in toothpaste. While
sticking to bottled water for themselves, they are lacing the
water supply with a substance (borrowed from a nearby
nuclear generator) that knocks out the part of the brain that
makes people dangerous and miserable. Violent crime has
evaporated in the area effected. Black prisoners are singing
the old spirituals as they cheerfully pick cotton on the local
prison farm. Sexual-transmitted diseases have practically
disappeared. No more AIDS, no more herpes. 

At first glance it looks like the doctors have found a chemical
method to mass produce the lifestyle of the saints. People
drinking the local water aren't inclined to do the sorts of
things that make headlines in The National Enquirer. (But not
quite. It turns out that adults who drink too much of the local
water find that the ideal sex-partners are children.)

The part of the brain made dormant also happens to be where
the soul and conscience hang out. It is the patch that has most
to do with creativity, verbal skills, and what makes us who we
are. Those drinking the local water are better at telling you
exactly where St. Louis is than in making a sentence that
includes a subject, verb and object. They are a whiz at bridge
but incapable of theology.

Percy links what is now happening in manipulative medical
technology in the US and what was going on with psychiatry
in Germany from the twenties until the collapse of the Nazis,
at the same time pointing out that you don't have to like Hitler
(the German shrinks didn't) to end up doing some of the worst
things that happened in Hitler's Germany. 

Percy integrates a steady stream of observation about the
American Way of Life and what is like living in "the Age of
Not Knowing What to Do." For example here is Tom More
reflecting about a patient who, before the local water ironed
out all depression and anxiety, felt like a failure:

"What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine
percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes
for one print. But in the movies they don't show the failures.
What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every
action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-
off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has
screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off
stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and
starts, mostly fits."

Percy continues his assessment of contemporary American
Catholicism that began in Love in the Ruins. Fr. Kev Kevin,
the former director of the Love Clinic, has abandoned the
controls of the Orgasmatron computer and given up the
priesthood as well. He is "into Hinduism," has married a
former Maryknoll nun who is taking up witchcraft, and
together they run a marriage encounter center in a
rehabilitated stable. 

In The Thanatos Syndrome we meet a very different kind of
priest: Fr. Simon Smith, a modern stylite, fasting atop a fire-
watch tower as the book begins. People consider him crazy as
a loon. Maybe he is, but he's a saint as well. His "confession"
is the keystone of the novel. Here we discover that his
vocation is an on-going penitential work having chiefly to do
with the devastation his father helped bring about in Europe --
he is the son of one of the liberal German physicians (anti-Nazis 
one and all) whose work to "relieve suffering" via
euthanasia helped prepare the way for the Holocaust.

Father Smith's big discovery in life was that "the only people I
got along with were bums, outcasts, pariahs, family skeletons,
and the dying." It isn't a boast. "I don't know about Mother
Theresa, but I [did what I did] because I liked it, not for love
of the wretched ... dying people were the only people I could
stand. They were my kind ... Dying people, suffering people,
don't lie."

[October 28, 1987]

* * *
Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
tel: (country code 31)(area code 72) 511 2545
Jim's e-mail: jhforest at cs.com
Nancy's e-mail: forestflier at cs.com
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: http://www.incommunion.org
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: http://incommunion.org/forest-flier/
* * * --

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