[percy-l] Re-reading "Love in the Ruins"

Jim Forest jhforest at gmail.com
Wed Apr 1 11:30:10 EDT 2020

Hemmed in by the corona quarantine, I’ve just finished re-reading Walker
Percy’s apocalyptic comedy, *Love in the Ruins*. It’s one of the books I
return to every few years and find even better each time. The story, set in
the near future, is more timely, and more prophetic, than it was when the
book was first published half-a-century ago.

The novel’s narrator is Dr. Tom More, descendant of St. Thomas More, who is
both a physician and a patient at a mental hospital. The reader finds him
in a state of ruin following the death from cancer of his daughter Samantha
and the collapse of his marriage, his wife having run off with an English
new-age guru. As we quickly discover, More has become an alcoholic who has
fallen in love with three beautiful women half his age, his assistant
Ellen, a no-nonsense Presbyterian, Moira, a cellist, and Lola, on the staff
of the Masters-and-Johnson-style Love Clinic. More describes himself as a
“bad Catholic” who still believes in God, Jesus and the Catholic Church,
but whose chief devotions are to alcohol and sex, with God in last place.

The story is set in the imaginary town of Paradise, Louisiana, whose
divisions mirror the splintered state of the “good old USA” — liberals
(Leftpapas) fighting it out with conservatives (Knotheads) while black
guerrillas (Bantus) wage war with whites of both camps. Meanwhile hippie
drop-outs seek refuge in the swamps. Burned-out cars rust in parking lots.
Suburban developments lie abandoned while the affluent seek refuge in gated
communities. Conservatives suffer from chronic rage and constipation.
Liberals suffer from chronic rage and sexual impotence. Each side is
convinced of the irredeemability of the other side. Psychologists and
proctologists are working full-time.

The Catholic Church has also disintegrated. The Roman Catholic Church has
been hijacked by the Knothead right and renamed the American Catholic
Church, now headquartered in Cicero, Illinois. Its logo is an image of a
suburban house surrounded by a white picket fence. Its calendar includes
Property Rights Sunday. The American flag is raised at the consecration of
the Host. There is also the Dutch Catholic Church, which believes is social
relevance but not in God. The actual Catholic Church is a battered remnant
of itself, reduced to holding masses in abandoned service stations.

Walker Percy, a physician turned philosopher turned novelist, has a theme
that in various ways reverberates in all his books but most notably in *Love
in the Ruins* — the “mind-body” problem, the soul divorced from the body
resulting in what More/Percy calls the angelism/bestialism of the divided
self. More/Percy is at war with a purely materialist understanding of who
we are. Physician/philosopher Percy is convinced that human beings are more
than chemistry.

Percy blames the philosopher Descartes for converting our self perception
of ourselves into a ghost inhabiting a machine. Before Descartes, human
reason was seen as an indication that we are made in the image of God.
Mind, soul, and body were linked. We humans lived and moved and had our
being in a reality that had God at its all-connecting center. After
Descartes the world and the cosmos became sourceless, purposeless and
meaningless with humanity a temporary accident on an accidental planet. We
became adrift of ourselves.

To heal the divided self, Dr. Tom More has come up a handy little device,
an Ontological Lapsometer, which he believes can cure humanity’s core
problem. With the Lapsometer, he can measure the electro-chemical activity
of key areas of the brain to reveal the mental health of the person being
tested and, by the application of heavy sodium ions, can correct, at least
temporarily, the mental-spiritual imbalances of his patients and even
himself. When 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.

The devil himself takes an active interest in More’s Lapsometer and plays a
key role in the novel. He appears suddenly at More’s office, announcing,
“Art Immelman is the name. Funding is my game.” There is a smell of
brimstone in the air. Immelman assures More that he can get government
grants and even arrange a Nobel prize for More. All More needs to do is
sign over the invention’s control and rights to Immelman.

Unrepented racism is one of the novel’s major topics. Percy/More sees
slavery as having doomed the American experiment to failure:

*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 not really
different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer. …. 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 it 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 because you
had already passed the big one. One little test: here’s a helpless man in
Africa, and all you have to do is not violate him. That’s all. One little
test: you flunk! …*

* * *

1 April 2020

* * *

Hemmed in
*Writing Straight With Crooked Lines: A Memoir *
is now in print

Order page on the Orbis Books site:
Amazon US:
Amazon UK:


*books in print: *www.jimandnancyforest.com/books/
*web site: *www.jimandnancyforest.com
*Facebook page:* https://www.facebook.com/jim.forest1
*photos: *www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/
*Amazon author page*: www.amazon.com/author/jimforest
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