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Subject: Percy-L: Literary, Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Discussion on Walker Percy

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  • From: Jim Forest <jhforest AT>
  • To: "Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion" <percy-l AT>
  • Subject: Re: [percy-l] What were Walker Percy's favorite films?
  • Date: Tue, 20 Jul 2010 13:55:19 +0200

Thanks, Nikki, for your posting and even more for the part
you played in Walker Percy writing The Thanatos Syndrome.
It is, I think, one of his finest achievements. Here is the
review of it that I wrote for Commonweal back in 1987.

* * *
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
descendant of St. Thomas More. Like his ancestor, he has
been a prisoner, but for selling amphetamines to truckers
rather than for acts of fidelity 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
parish 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
Teresa, 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]

* * *

On Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 8:33 PM, Garic Barranger <nikkibar AT> wrote:
My wife Milly and I saw Das Boot with Bunt and Walker at the old Gentilly Arts just before Walker began work on The Thanatos Syndrome. He had decided at that point to write no more novels and we discussed on the way there and back his wanderjahr period in Germany before the war and I suggested that for a writer of his stature to have had that experience – traveling in Germany during the prewar period after the Weimar era – and not to write about it would be a serious loss. Thanatos  was the result. Critics have not liked the book much, but I have always felt that Father Smith's confession is/was an important addition to American letters. The movie is available through Netflix and is well worth watching today. It retains the great power that it had for us that night, particularly powerful since it deals with the wartime experience of folks on the other side, rather like All Quiet on the Western Front. It is well worth watching today. I remember it as being in black and white but when I revisited it in the Netflix experience I was surprised to find it in color.

Nikki Barranger

On Jul 18, 2010, at 7:45 PM, John E. Riley wrote:

Does anyone on this list have information on this question and care to divulge?
It seems to me that Percy took films seriously even though as an art form they usually disappointed him?
I recall in one of his interviews he alluded to the films "Ordinary People" and "Breaking Away."  I have always considered the latter film a minor classic, but not many people saw it.
I think an interesting study would be how film influenced Percy's fictional techniques--Lewis Lawson
may have done some work in that area.
Any information would be appreciated.

John Riley
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA

* * *

Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

photos of our stay in southern Tuscany:



photo collections:

Jim & Nancy web site:

In Communion site:

On Pilgrimage blog:

A Tale of Two Kidneys blog:

* * *

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