Re-reading ‘Love in the Ruins’

By Jim Forest

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! …

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1 April 2020
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