23 February 2016

"Love in the Ruins": Observations on Percy Walker's Novel of the 60's

I suggested Walter Percy's "Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World" (1971) to our book club in Raleigh. I don't know what brought this book to my mind except that I believe that an Internet acquaintance recommended it. Please contact me if you might be the one.

With an author from Louisiana and its dedication to Shelby Foote, I thought "Love in the Ruins" might run along the lines of the Southern Agrarians of the mid-twentieth century. I also thought after learning that it was a critique of the open-ended destruction left in the wake of the 1960’s, that it would bear some resemblance to Tom Wolfe's novels. And, given his Roman Catholic religious commitments, I wondered if "Love in the Ruins" might show some influence of Flannery O'Connor.

I suppose there were elements of all three literary forbears in Percy's book but on balance it was hardly the best of them, either individually or collectively. None of this is to say that “Love in the Ruins” is without merit but only that it fails to deserve the high praise it received on its publication.

My principal criticism of “Love in the Ruins” is that Percy’s style is firmly fixed in its time and has not aged well. Use of an untrustworthy narrator (Dr. Tom More, namesake of the author of “Utopia”) is fine even if it can become is a bit tedious. A book that features a narrator who is neither trustworthy nor likable, however, is difficult to enjoy. In addition, Walker’s 60’s-centered vocabulary and point of view are off-putting. I suppose it’s appropriate to strike a stance when engaging in satire but for me, anyway, it was a bit too much.

Now the positives.

Walker had deep and prescient insight into the pathologies unleashed by the decade of the 60’s. First is the running (and sometimes farcical) conflict between Tom More and the behavioral psychiatrists of his day. The experiences of More and Walker’s descriptions of behavioral “therapy” reveal what happens when we deny that human beings have a “nature.” The monomaniacal behaviorist psychiatrists disclose a society that valorizes behavior modification over truth and perfecting the mechanics of sex over commitment. Even when Dr. Tom More invents a “lapsometer” that actually measures the reality and bent of our inward soulish nature, his fellow scientists don’t believe it. Much like David Bentley Hart and others with respect to our contemporary “New Atheists,” Walker exposes the willful blindness of those who reduce humanity to its physical and chemical processes.

Second, Walker describes a society in which there is an ever-increasing political polarization revolving around unassailable but deeply-held convictions and whose racial divide remains stubbornly deep. Over four decades ago, Walker predicted the “retreat to commitment” that makes impossible rational conversation over the common good. Today many on the Right and the Left find comfort in ideology rather than doing the hard work of looking for solutions to the challenges of intractable social and human problems.

From a literary perspective, the chaotic life and mental illness (and constant boozing) of Tom More himself serve to illustrate the unbridgeable bifurcation of America as it moved in the 1970’s—and today. Percy was certainly perceptive in all of these observations and for that I was glad to have read “Love in the Ruins.”

Percy’s prescription for living in a time near the end of the world is less clear. Tom More’s personal reunification was due in part by his marriage to—of all things—a moralistic Presbyterian nurse, who was the prime force in bringing order to his life. For Walker, a down-to-earth religion that combined the moral strictures of Presbyterianism and the tangible connection to the divine of sacramental Catholicism seem to be crucially important. It’s not entirely clear why this should be the case except that both Christian traditions reject the soul-less psychological behaviorism that characterized the mental health establishment against whom Tom More inveighed and consider human beings to be real moral agents. Moreover, both traditions recognize the fallenness of our nature and the need for grace-filled sanctification (or purgation) to make matters right.

In short, “Love in the Ruins” is a good novel full of valuable insights and commentary but marred by the author’s peculiar point of view and manner of expression. If you’re up for some work, I can definitely recommend it.

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