Saturday, January 24, 2009

Love in the Ruins

I have just finished reading Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic in a Time Near the End of the World. Last month, I posted on Life With Books, and in the discussion that followed, a friend--who knows about such things--suggested I read this work by Percy. I may now have to revise my list somewhat to make room for Love in the Ruins. Percy has a lot to say in this dark comedy. I should probably let it soak in a bit more. But I already know this--that the book will stay with me, as all significant reads do.

Love in the Ruins, published in 1971, is a futuristic pre or mid-apocalyptical novel. The age is one of random, inexplicable violence, though in this death-denying culture, the mere mention of the word "funeral" causes embarrassment. The utter banality of American life has broken down every defense. Life revolves around the golf course, which can now be played even at night. Jesus Christ is described as "The Greatest Pro of Them All." The Pro-Am is kicked-off with a "Bible Brunch" and a performance by the Christian Kaydettes. The biggest event in the liturgical calendar is now "Property Rights Sunday." The Catholic Church split into 3 factions: 1. the American Catholic Church (the A.C.C.) based in Cicero, IL which preaches property rights and neighborhood integrity and plays the Star-Spangled Banner at the elevation of the Host, 2. the Dutch schismatics who "believed in relevance, but not God," and 3. the Roman Catholic remnant, where the "monks are beginning to collect books again."

Politically, the old divisions hold: the conservatives are now the Knotheads (the businessmen), and the liberals the Leftpapas (the federal bureaucrats and the therapists and scientists). On Sunday mornings, the Knotheads go to church and the Leftpapas go on bird-watching expeditions into the woods, hoping against hope of spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker. But other than that, the lives of each group are much the same.

Therapy is the rule of the day, and pervades every aspect of daily life. Older Americans are shipped off to Tucson or Tampa. If they give any trouble there, they are shuttled off to clinics for more therapy. If this is unsuccessful, the oldsters are sent to the Happy Isles of Georgia, a way-station to self-euthanization.

The nation as a whole has undergone periodic unrest and riots. The Automobile Age, as it is known, is now a fond memory. There are still cars on the roads, but when they break down, they are just left, as there is now no one to repair them (or anything else.) The nation has been bogged down for the last 16 years in a civil war in Ecuador. All the while, the vines and sumac steadily encroach from the swamps and bayous.

And everyone pretends that all this is normal--except, that is, for the protagonist, a lapsed Catholic by the name of Dr. Thomas More. He alone, seemingly, realizes the spiritual malaise, and recognizes the swings between pure abstract thought and violence. He seeks to "cure" mankind through his invention, the lapsometer, and believes he can "save the terrible God-blessed Americans from themselves." He hopes his device can perhaps bridge "the dread chasm between body and mind that has sundered the soul of Western man for five hundred years."

On the very first page, Percy speaks to our American exceptionalism, which carries the day even yet.

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself....Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward.?

And later:

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.

Like I say, Percy has a lot to say about a number of things, and this brief post merely touches on a bit of it. But what I find odd and disturbing is that Percy's futuristic depiction, while bizarre, is not nearly as foreign to our sensibilities as it should be. Thirty-eight years of banality has carried the death-denying lost Western man even more closer to his vision than Percy could have imagined. A therapeutic doctor speaks to Dr. More: "Doc, we're dedicated to the freedom of the individual to choose his own destiny and develop his own potential." To this, our protagonist mutters "What crap." Indeed.

(A note about the painting at the top of the post: This is the work of William B. Montgomery, whose work can be seen here. He is originally from my hometown, though now based in Austin. I am unacquainted with him, but do share a good friend with him. This painting is based on Love in the Ruins and is a masterful evocation of the novel.)


Andrea Elizabeth said...

Dang, I ordered the wrong book. I thought yall recommended "Love Among the Ruins" by Clark. I wonder if it's any good.

And thanks for the review!

s-p said...

Percy rocks. And I LOVE the sketch.
"What crap." Probably one of the best lines in modern literature in its context. :)

Kirk said...

I need to read this book. Sounds like it would tie in well to my last book, "The Abolition of Man."

The Ochlophobist said...


Great review.

I am glad you found it a worthy read.

There is perhaps, more cultural nuance with regard to some of these issues than when Percy wrote the book, but it is still amazing to me that some 4 decades after its publication, there are still vast swaths of Americans who essentially worship The Greatest Pro of Them All, and who advertise as much on T-shirts and bracelets and other ephemera, not to mention their own speech. There is a hunger by so many to go in the directions Percy describes here. It can only be some sort of intuitive response to the nihilism at the heart of the culture. So I suppose the rest of us need to be in the business of collecting books.

Milton T. Burton said...

Och, those who worship the Great Pro are the same people who today blather on and on abut how this country and was founded on "Christian Principles," yet who cannot point to a single verse of the New Testament and show how it inspired a single line of the constitution. They think they are religious, and I suppose they are, in the worse sense of the word. But to them Christianity's main value lies in what they see as its position as the "foundation of our form of government." In other words, it's worth is determined by its support of the state. To be blunt, this is blasphemy of the worst sort.

The Ochlophobist said...


Well said.

I suppose that a god that saves by bringing people to purpose driven lives through purpose driven churches and going to purpose driven offices in a purpose driven nation would incarnate as some variation on the theme of "The Greatest Pro of Them All."

I had a teacher back in the day who listened to sermons of D. James Kennedy all the time, and was always going on about the Christianity of the founding fathers. I am no expert on the matter, but I am an observer of readers, I suppose, and I could tell then that this man read the writings of the founding fathers only to find proof-texts that confirmed his line of thought. Ideological reading, one might say. He did not actually love this country. In fact, when speaking about flesh and blood America, he usually was angry.

Milton T. Burton said...

I taught college history for six years. The first half--1492-1876--was my favorite period. Of the most important of the founders--Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin & Madison--only Hamilton and then only late in life could be called a Christian in the accepted sense of the word. We must remember too that they were, no matter how exalted we see them as men, politicians who functioned in a largely Christian society. As such, they gave God plenty of lip service. Christina Righters are fond of quoting Adams as having said that religion was necessary to the survival of a republic. Notice that he did not say that Christianity was; just "religion." The two models that he had from history were ancient Athens and early Rome, and both were pagan. So I suppose any old religion would do in Adams's view. And there is some truth to his contention.

Steve Hayes said...

I'll be looking for it next tie I go to the library.

Vicki said...

There's not one mention here of the fact that Love in the Ruins is the country in post Helter-Skelter, after the race war. Percy didn't know anything about Charles Manson, but it doesn't change the reality of this story. Perhaps it's not PC to discuss this as the basis of the ruin. The Bantus won, and the world went to vines and atrophy.

Charles said...

Uh, Vickie, Percy very likely knew all about Charles Manson since the murders were committed two years before “Love in the Ruins” was published. More, “the Bantus won” misses entirely the ironical point that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The only difference is the race of who dominates and who is dominated in American society. It is More who changes. The point couldn’t be any clearer.