The Thanatos Syndrome: Walker Percy's final novel

Commonweal / November 1987

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The Thanatos Syndrome
by Walker Percy
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 1987, 372 pp
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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.”

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Remembering Ivy Troutman

by Jim Forest

Ivy Troutman (photo courtesy of the New York City Public Library)

As a boy growing up in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, I added to my dollar-a-week allowance by delivering morning and evening newspapers. My most remarkable customer was Ivy Troutman, who in earlier years had played starring roles in many Broadway productions and also been in at least one silent movie in 1915. A famous beauty in what she referred to as her “salad days,” she was still stunning in her sixties.

In 1951, Ivy purchased a run-down mansion on Newman Springs Road, a short walk from our house. Built in the mid-19th century, shortly after the Civil War, Ivy presided over a restoration that transformed the near-ruin into a palace.

For some reason, she took a special liking to me. The result was that I put Ivy at the end of my newspaper route, as she often invited me to stay for a while. Serving me a small glass of Dubonet (imported from France, but with water added in deference to my age), she often talked about her days as an actress. Her career on stage had stretched from 1904, when she was 21, to 1942.

The First World War took her to Europe to perform for the troops. After the war ended, she joined the colony of American expatriates living in Paris, thus becoming one of the “lost generation,” a term coined by Gertrude Stein (whom Ivy knew but didn’t much like) and popularized by Ernest Hemingway.

Among Hemingway’s best friends was Ivy’s former husband, the artist Waldo Peirce, a fellow American who, along with Hemingway, had been an ambulance driver in France during the war.

During her Paris years, Ivy had been a close friend of James Joyce. Perhaps the greatest treasure in her treasure-filled house was a copy of the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Shakespeare & Company — Joyce had penciled in corrections on nearly every page. Ivy sometimes went to Manhattan for meetings of the Joyce Society. Its gatherings were on West 47th Street, over the legendary Gotham Book Mart, which later, when I moved to New York, became one of the book stores I visited most often.

Ivy had a breath-taking art collection. I found especially fascinating a small Alexander Calder mobile hanging in the living room and, in a hallway, one of Calder’s large single-line circus drawings.

Occasionally Ivy had parties — soirees — for friends living in New York. Though Ivy had a maid, I was asked to put on my Sunday best and serve drinks. The guests were mainly theater people. One of the regular guests was Raymond Burr, eventually to become best known for playing lawyer Perry Mason on a popular TV series.

There were also writers. Ivy introduced me to one of them, Allen Churchill, who at the time was researching a history of New York’s Greenwich Village eventually published as The Improper Bohemians. Meeting an actual author made a huge impression on me.

When I was fifteen, I moved to Hollywood, California, and lost touch with her, but I think of her often with profound gratitude for all the windows she opened in my life and for taking me so much to heart.

Waldo Peirce – Ivy Troutman & himself in Maine

The only material gift from her that I still have is a delightful watercolor by Waldo Peirce. Peirce himself is on the left, manfully cutting down a tree, Ivy seductively reclining on the right, and the Maine wilderness, in which Peirce had grown up, in the background. It hangs in our living room.

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Mazes & Labyrinths

the maze at Chartres
by Jim Forest

Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turn before we have learnt to walk. — Cyril Connolly

What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? — G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. — T.S. Eliot

The Archangel Michael, as Henry Adams observed, loves heights.  Fortress-like churches dedicated to the heavenly warrior have often been built on forbidding pinnacles of rock. The most famous, Mont-Saint-Michel, is poised atop a dagger of stone on the tidal flatland just off the southwest coast of Normandy near the border of Brittany. When the tide is up, the abbey is like a magnificent ship anchored offshore. Both location and architecture suggest a readiness to withstand the sieges of armies and the elements. The fortifications may have helped ward off Vikings, but have also made it a major attraction for tourists and pilgrims.

The Virgin Mary seems to prefer more vulnerable locations. In her case, rarely do any remarkable obstacles impede the pilgrim’s way. Take the example of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Chartres, one of the most important centers of pilgrimage in Europe, whose town is set amidst a vast moat of wheat fields.

There has been a church in Chartres dedicated to Christ’s mother at least since the fourth century, when St. Adventinus was the local bishop. Stonemasons have labored on the site again and again. Work on the main part of the present church began in 1194 after a fire destroyed a smaller cathedral. Thanks in large measure to the many thousands of pilgrims who came annually to make a gift of their labor, most of the construction was finished by 1230. The cathedral at Chartres is not only a goal of pilgrimage, but a work of pilgrimage.

These days most pilgrims arrive in Chartres by train, car or bicycle, but even in secular, post-modern Europe there are those who still make the journey on foot. No matter what their mode of travel, pilgrims look eagerly toward the horizon waiting for the grey profile of the cathedral to rise above the grain. For those traveling in groups, there is often a spire-spotting contest. When we were traveling by rented car on our last visit to Chartres, our daughter Anne won a coin for being first to spot those two arrow-sharp towers.

Approaching Chartres through the wide plain of surrounding fields, the hill on which the town and cathedral are built gradually reveals itself. From every vantage point, the cathedral dominates the view, its two great towers rising heavenward from the heart of the town. The cathedral’s spires have a magnetic strength, compelling the pilgrim to make no other stop before reaching the church and entering the western doors — the Royal Portal — that stand between the towers.

Stepping inside the church, the pilgrim stands within in an immense enclosure that seems to be an entrance point to the kingdom of God. The immense, softly-lit, column-lined space is a domain in which ordinary time hardly exists and doesn’t matter. One’s first impression is of a tremendous silence, even among whispered conversations or a softly chanted Mass. The 176 windows — among the best preserved medieval glass the world possesses — are a Bible written in fragments of colored glass. Red and blue are the most dominant: the colors of ice and fire. Others play supporting roles: deep forest green, pale lilac, lemon yellow; all enhanced by ebony lines glazed to the glass to provide image details and the black tracery of lead connecting the pieces.

Those who are drawn to Chartres, whether they see themselves as pilgrims or simply as tourists, often spend many hours “reading” the windows panel by panel and derive the satisfaction of breaking a code as they work out the meaning of each. Camping of the edge of town as our family did during our last visit to Chartres, we stopped one morning at a local camera shop to buy a pair of binoculars, eager to get closer to the glass. We wondered if our ancestors, who read less or not at all, might not have had better eyes for distance vision and thus found it easier to decipher the glasswork.

The windows are a kind of giant puzzle for the eyes and mind. Little by little one sees how all the panels connect — how the story in one panel is threaded to the next, each window in dialogue with its neighbors.

“It’s a giant comic book,” our daughter Anne commented. She was right, so long as one understands “comic” not as a synonym for funny, but in the sense of Dante’s divine comedy.

At the heart of the cathedral, as in every church with a eucharistic tradition, is its main altar. Each altar is a center of the universe. Each altar is a table of divine hospitality. The altar is a place where a frequent miracle occurs — bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Christ is both hidden and revealed in the most basic of foods.

At the foot of the central aisle that leads toward the main altar is a treasure that visitors often walk over without noticing: a circular maze. It’s the cathedral’s most abstract work of art and the only one designed as much for the feet as for the eye. The mosaic maze is more than thirteen yards from edge to edge, the width of the pillar-bordered avenue that leads to the altar.

Unlike the labyrinth in ancient Crete, where the hero Theseus conquered the Minotaur and cleverly found his way out by following the thread given him by Ariadne, the maze at Chartres is not life-threatening. Its “walls,” traced in black stone, rise only in the imagination. The unicursal path of white stone has no blind alleys, traps, pits, dead ends or secret chambers. If you wish, there is nothing to stop you from walking straight to the center without bothering to follow the path, but something deeply rooted in human nature makes even the casual visitor carefully follow the white track, treating the black lines as impassable barriers. An occasional pilgrim makes the journey on penitential knees, but the majority walk upright. Either way, it’s a reassuring experience. While there are many twists and turns, with the pilgrim often being led away from his goal, whoever stays on the path ultimately reaches the center.

The unicursal journey, with all its detours, condenses the lifelong quest to achieve union with God. It’s a simple model of each person’s journey of faith. The destination at the center represents the most holy of pilgrimage goals: Jerusalem.

Even if the pilgrim cannot lose his way in the Chartres maze, what appears at first glance to be a simple walk within a circle shows itself to be the way of the cross. The path’s many turnings occur around a cruciform pattern. The maze entrance — symbolic of baptism — seems to lead directly to the center but abruptly branches off to the left. Then, where the left arm of the cross would be, the path doubles back, soon returning the walker to the path heading toward the center, but instead only grazes the innermost circle before going outward again. One reaches the maze’s center point — Jerusalem with its empty tomb — only after making a grand tour of the entire circle, with all its sudden turns, a process achieved simply by carefully placing one foot in front of the other, staying on the path, making turns that form the pattern of the life-giving cross.

The maze at Chartres is circular. The circle — a line without beginning or end — is a symbol of eternity. The same symbol is used in Christian iconography to form the halo, the sign that someone has become whole: a new person transformed in Christ-revealing, self-giving love and, united with Christ, now experiencing eternal life.

The circular, cross-containing maze is a simple map of the path to sanctity, a wordless image of the New Testament. Its message: Follow the path of the gospel, and the mercy of God will finally bring you to the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God, no matter how many turns you make along the way or how many times your goal may seem to recede. Along the way you will discover, and even carry, the cross; but the cross contains the resurrection — life with Christ and all the saints in the new Jerusalem.

[This is a chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, published by Orbis Books. For more information about this and other of Jim’s books, see]

Two days with Patriarch Kirill before he was patriarch

Patriarch Kirill

Patriarch Kirill, presiding bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been trashed in many columns, editorials, news reports and blog postings lately, portrayed as corrupt, vengeful, un-Christian, President Putin’s dance partner, etc. Few of those making these and similar charges seem to have met him or even to know much about Russia or the Orthodox Church.

I don’t want to argue that there is nothing about Patriarch Kirill to criticize (which of us is above criticism?), but I do want to share a few memories of him that go back to the summer of 1987, when Nancy and I were his guests in Smolensk for two days. At the time he was both Bishop of Smolensk and rector of the Theological Academy in Leningrad, as the city was still named in those Soviet days. At the time I was writing a book published the following year as Pilgrim to the Russian Church. Here are extracts from the book’s Smolensk pages.

— Jim Forest, August 2012

Smolensk, Sunday, July 26, 1987:

Smolensk, “the key and gate of Russia,” is the most western of ancient Russian cities. On the north end of the River Dnieper, it is at the source of the water

highway that leads past Kiev to the Black Sea.

Father Victor, a quiet young priest, met us when the train pulled into the station at dawn. After checking into the hotel and having a brief rest, we went to Holy Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Assumption, the principal Smolensk landmark, a five-domed green and white building standing at the top of a steep hill in the center of the city. Inside the cathedral is a mammoth, heavily gilded iconostasis from the Eighteenth Century that includes not only icons but statues. There is also a baroque pulpit, not an element of Russian church architecture until the time of Peter the Great.

Archbishop Kirill was presiding, a man in his forties, among the youngest bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has a greying black beard and a clear, direct manner. For ten years before coming to Smolensk he was rector of the Leningrad Theological Academy where he is credited with many of the innovations that happened there, including the introduction of women students.

While he stood in the center of the church with his arms outstretched, attendants vested him. It as though he were no longer himself, but a moving, praying, singing part of the liturgy, all connected with the church, the icons, the music, the incense, the Eucharist.

The church was crowded. There were the usual deeply pious old women, among them one woman on her knees at the front rail, eyes fixed on an icon, crossing herself and bowing over and over again. Russian tourists moved in and out, watching rather than participating. Despite the almost continuous motion among the people and the clergy, and the constant music from the choirs, there was a powerful sense of attentiveness and stillness.

No one hushed the children in the church. They obviously enjoyed being there. We noticed a priest and his family in a vacant choir stall. One daughter looked to be twelve and her little sister about four. The older sister was holding the little one up on the rail and they were hugging and stroking each other. All the while, the older girl joined in singing the words to all the prayers and hymns.

The day’s Gospel was the story of Jesus healing two blind men. A sermon followed by Archbishop Kirill. As he began to speak, the congregation gathered around him, standing with their hands relaxed at their sides, completely attentive.

“Our Savior said to the blind men, ‘Do you believe I can heal you?’ They said, ‘Yes, Lord.’ And then he healed their blindness.

“This story makes me wonder about wonders. A wonder is something that surprises. It goes past the border of usual experience. We see wonders and we call them miracles. But there are people who reject the possibility of miracles or anything that goes beyond their own experiences. They say, ‘It cannot be.’

“What the Church teaches is that wonders are special expressions of the love and power of God. When we experience or contemplate wonders, they inspire wonder in us.

“St. Augustine says that the normal growing of wheat is akin to the multiplication of loaves. So much of the beauty of the natural world awakens wonder: sky, sun, plants, water. ‘Look at these things,’ says St. Augustine, ‘and see that they are beautiful. Their beauty is their confession of God.’

“Most wonders stand on laws that are the foundation of the world, in which everything is developed. And isn’t this too a wonder? When God does things beyond our understanding, even then he is acting within the laws of the universe.

“Not to see beauty, not to be aware of wonders — this is to be blind and deaf. The French scientist Pasteur said that the more we contemplate the world, the more we are filled with wonder.

“Some people can see wonders, some not. Why? What makes it possible to become aware of the actions of God in the world? Do we need special education? Some special wisdom? No, dear brothers and sisters, the Gospel shows us otherwise. Christ said to the two blind men, ‘Do you believe I can heal you?’ Only when they confess that they do believe does he heal them.

“They were healed, but there were even at that time people who were not moved to wonder by what he did. There were those who said, ‘Jesus casts out devils only because he is the prince of devils.’ What he does, they said, isn’t a miracle. It is magic. And so they dismissed what Jesus did.

“Faith is the condition of wonder, not the other way around. Perhaps here at this moment there could be a miracle. Even then there would be people present who would leave saying, ‘Yes, there was something strange, something we need to clarify.’ In fact we find in the press stories about events for which there seems to be no natural explanation. But this doesn’t mean people reading these stories are led to faith. Miracles don’t give birth to faith. Perhaps that is why Our Lord in this Gospel forbids people to publicize what he did for the blind men. The news would add nothing to people’s faith. It was not with wonders but with his words that he tried to soften people’s hearts. A heart filled with love and faith can distinguish good and evil. The believer can cross any boundary with God.

“Love is the power of God. May God help all believers to be attentive to the wonders that, because of God’s love, fill the whole universe.”

The congregation replied, “God save you!”

While the Liturgy was going on, Vasili left us for about a half hour. When he returned he said that another priest had been giving a talk in the back of the church on such topics as the reception of communion, marriage and mutual help.

At communion, the children came first — all the children, beginning with babies, held in the arms of their parents or other adult friends. The first in line was the twelve-year-old girl, holding up her little sister to receive the Eucharist. Communion is administered with a spoon while an attendant holds a napkin under the chin of the person receiving. [.…]

 Smolensk, July 27:

After a morning of being rained on in the countryside, we visited Archbishop Kirill. He lives in a small house with a view of the Assumption Cathedral. The dining room table was laid with candies, cookies, and a delicious cake. Coffee, tea and vodka were served.

I asked why so few adults had received communion at the Liturgy yesterday. “Yes, it is still very few, but more than used to come. Now it can be fifty on a Sunday when it used to be not more than five. Things change, but slowly. Before the Revolution, it was common for people to receive communion only twice a year. People were overwhelmed by their sense of unworthiness. Patriarch Pimen has made a call to believers to receive communion as often as possible and this appeal is being heard. But with this there has to be a process of religious education. We try to offer that in the church and actually prefer doing it there. We would rather not have something like that happen in a school classroom. Part of the process of religious education in our diocese is to have a priest on duty throughout the day in the cathedral where they can answer questions. We find that if one person asks a question, immediately others gather and you have a group discussion.”

Archbishop Kirill is a member of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches. “I got into the ecumenical movement as a ‘youth.’ It was the sixties, a decade when everyone was bowing their heads to the young people. The experiences that opened to me through the World Council of Churches have made me realize that the ecumenical movement and work for the renewal of humanity and peace are profoundly linked to each other. What enthusiasm there was for Christian unity sixty years ago! Not that I was there, but what a spirit of youth, power, and passion there is in papers presented at early ecumenical conferences. They are filled with both joy and pain, with longing for unity and sorrow for division.”

Nancy commented on how much more vital churches are in the Soviet Union than in Holland. “The problem in the west is not organized atheism but secularism and the consumer psychology. But we may face the same thing in a few years, so we watch anxiously what the church does in the west as this may help us. But perhaps we also have something to offer the church in the west, some encouragement, some lessons. It is important to know something of the church that exists in the first socialist state.”

I asked about the tendency for more young people to become active believers.

“Certainly there is an encouraging influx of young people right now but we have to be careful not to limit our perception of who is a believer by only noticing who is standing in the church. The process of coming to belief is very complex. We are aware that many people are believers in their world outlook even though they rarely go to church. The tip of the iceberg are the people you see in church, and that tip creates the image. These are people permanently in church, often retired people, mainly elderly women. But the iceberg is one object, not two, even though most of it cannot be seen. Also that babushka that looks older than the world — in fact she is younger than the Revolution. She never attended a church school. She memorized no catechism. As a young woman she never went into a church. But sometime in her life she became part of the visible church. There is always a large group of believers who are struggling with this decision, and slowly, as they become older, they begin attending church. The invisible part of the church is much younger, but today they more quickly become part of the visible church. They aren’t waiting for retirement. The democratic events now going on in our country help this process. We see more and more people coming who never came before, never showed any sign of belief. Now they want to belong to the church. It seems like a fresh development, something completely new, but actually it has deep roots.”

Toward the end of the conversation, Archbishop Kirill said, “Jim, I am disappointed. There is one question every journalist asks but you haven’t asked it.”

“What question is that?”

“How many of the people in church are actual believers?”

“All right, your Grace — one last question: How many people are actual believers.”

“I’m glad you asked. My answer is I don’t know. Yesterday you saw quite a lot of people in the church. You might say that some of them were just tourists. I don’t think more than twenty percent of the people were crossing themselves. Many of the women weren’t wearing scarfs. But a lot of those who seem to be just watching are on the border of belief. They don’t stand there for two hours just because it is a beautiful old building. Something draws them. They are not practicing believers, but they are there. But what about those who crossed themselves? Can we say they are believers? It may be that they were just conforming to norms of church behavior. Who can say who is a believer and who is not? We don’t know. Nobody knows. God knows.”

We said good-bye and hurried to catch the train to Minsk.

(from Pilgrim to the Russian Church by Jim Forest, Crossroads Books, New York, 1988)

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