[percy-l] The Thanatos Syndrome - some thoughts

janet cantor janetcantor37 at yahoo.com
Sat Jul 7 22:22:20 EDT 2012

If you have not read this book, do not read this. If you have read it and preferably twice, see what you think of my musings so far.

I am constructing my discussion of The Thanatos Syndrome for a discussion of it with my book group in September early.

 I am discovering new things as I prepare.

The first time I read it I wanted to take a scalpel to it and knew just where. The second time, when I read it more carefully to take notes and construct what I will use, I found very little to edit out. The repetitions and over lengthy scenes this time, instead of being annoying, were funny, and okay with me. They were there for a reason. Or so it seemed to me.

One example. I kept seeing similar lines interjected page after page about a shaft of sunlight going through the trees that dissolved into the dark underbrush and variations of that. On
 first reading I thought they were gratuitous and unoriginal and even annoying in their repetition.
On second reading I came up with a perfect rationale for them. Light dissolving into or being swallowed up by darkness. White and black, as in whites and negroes in the south, Well, that's obvious. But that's not all.
On a fishing trip, when Van Dorn wants to catch a certain fish and asks why they don't trim some of the branches, Tom tells him then the sunfish would leave. "You don't dare mess with light and shade." Tom says.
On page 128 Father Smith asks, "Do you know where tenderness leads?" And he answers,..." to the gas chamber".
The do gooders of this book have the best of intentions but, as the line says, every pre conceived utopia needs a police state to keep it running.
So in my mind I took all of these shafts of light and reflections of silvery light fighting to get through and all those darknesses swallowing them up, to represent
 the forces of good and evil. Percy knew what he was doing. By inserting these phrases so often out of nowhere into his descriptive passages he was subliminally undergirding his main theme. People must not try to play G-d. They must respect free will of individuals because no matter what good intentions they have, in the end they interfere with people's personhood. No matter what mistakes people make while using free will, that is better than do gooders trying to manipulate the world to be a more perfect one. All tenderness leads to the gas chambers.
And by having it all come from Father Smith, the moralist, to Tom, our everyman, the reader's surrogate, and thus from Percy, psychiatrist to the world, he is, not subtly this time, in his last novel, making his case. 
At the end of the book is that wonderful paragraph where Percy lets us know that the  20th century was the most murderous in history and where was G-d. All He had to do was stand
 back and not interfere and allow man to do what he did and the devil could laugh while it went on. Light fights the dark and the dark seems to be winning.
I will play for my book group the last three minutes of Percy's talk to Notre Dame so they can hear him in person giving the warning.

Another great joke is that in any mystery part of the tension comes from delaying the solution. So all through as Tom is constantly anxious to get going, Father Smith keeps saying "one more thing". The first time, I found it irritating. This time I found it very funny and it added to the tension as well. Or Dr. Comeaux grabs his arm as he's ready to bolt and keeps him back. Lucy, Van Dorn, so many others keep Tom trapped for a time. 

I will read lots of things that I consider funny. And show them examples of Percy's vivid descriptive passages, his interest in language, Hudeen, a marvelous creation.

My overall goal is not to discuss the story or
 the characters, but to talk about Percy, his writing, why it works on me, his themes. I intend to show how this book represents a recapitulation of the history of his whole thinking life. Scientist,  Psychiatrist,  philosopher, semioticist, drinker, Catholic, moralist, and finally story teller.

Two things left to ponder over. I am not convinced that the book is improved by making the do gooders sex offenders. It would have been a more ambitious book if they were more ambiguously wrong instead of obviously evil. I did love the way they were all placed in their jobs at the end, especially the ape teaching the person how to communicate again.
And, speaking of the end, I have a theory of what that "Well, well, well" means, but I don't know yet if I'm correct.

In September's discussion, I will tape it to hear how it sounds. 

Janet Cantor
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