Breathing Again, Thanks to Walker Percy

“For our beloved old U. S. A. is in a bad way. Americans have turned against each other; race against race, right against left, believer against heathen. . . .Vines sprout in sections of New York where not even Negroes will live. Wolves have been seen in downtown Cleveland, like Rome during the black plague.” Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

Occasionally, I find it hard to breathe in the stifling atmosphere we now live in day after day. It’s not just the moral collapse, nor the rank “economization” of political life, nor our cultural degradation, nor the remainders of the sordid scandals that still haunt the Church we love. No, what ails me is the literal dis-integration of the social fabric that results from all these things, where genuine human communion is reduced to a very narrow group of family and friends. It’s not healthy. But a Catholic can’t easily identify with the general public any longer. As Catholic novelist Walker Percy rightly anticipated a half century ago, “Americans have turned against each other.”

Percy, a trained psychiatrist turned author, foresaw this breakdown as disastrous for both the mental and spiritual well being of persons, the true “catastrophe” that he writes about in Love in the Ruins (and in the sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome). He writes in an inimitably humorous style, which is necessary to enable readers to persevere through the dark seriousness of the novels. Like Dr. Percy’s fictional alter ego, Dr. Tom More, you need a good sense of humor – and occasional bourbon – to make you way through the novel, let alone through the life that it accurately foresaw, as we now know.

Among the numerous problems that would make a societal recovery likely impossible, Dr. More at one point briefly details the decline of American literature, where great works like the Southern gothic novel eventually “gave way to the WASP homosexual novel, which has nearly run its course.” And, then, ironically, he adds “The Catholic literary Renaissance, long-awaited, failed to materialize.” He is right of course, but not for a lack of effort on the part of More’s creator. Percy along with Flannery O’Connor and a few others made valiant efforts, but little else followed.

Another problem Percy predicted is the collapse of the political parties – their becoming incapable of addressing the ills tearing the country apart. The old Democrat Party, More says, has given way to a new left party with the acronym, “LEFTPAPASANE, which stood for what, according to the right, the left believed in: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the Pill, Atheism, Pot, Antipollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia.” Sound familiar?

Walker Percy
Walker Percy

But Percy and his fictional doctor are likewise sarcastic about the other party “The old Republican Party has become the Knothead Party. . . .The first suggestion [for an acronym] being the Christian Conservative Constitutional Party, and campaign buttons were even printed with the letters CCCP before an eastern-liberal commentator noted the similarity to the initials printed on the backs of the Soviet cosmonauts.” Meanwhile, conservatives countered with the slogan “no man can be too Knotheaded in the service of his country.” Percy was too Catholic to be partisan.

Similarly, the Catholic Church, says More, is in a poor position to save the country: “Our Catholic Church here split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.”

Now while we have no formal schism – yet – the general outlines here are certainly familiar. Because of deep divisions, the Catholic Church today is politically impotent, to say the least. It lacks the leadership to make it anything else. In this forecast, too, Percy was quite accurate.

So why do I say Percy helps you to breathe again? Because he gets us out of the intellectual smog that tries to deny that things are really bad in America. This also helps you to again see the world as it really is. Smog blinds, as well as stifles the breath of life. Percy helps us to see the truth, as does every great novelist, and he does so from a truly Catholic vision of reality.

Dr. More’s problem with his wife, who has left him, gives us a clue to the problem we face. He deeply loves this valley girl from Virginia who in mid-life gets caught up with some New Age creeps. More quips, “They fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine.” At one point, she tells Tom what she believes is his “problem”: “You’re not a seeker after the truth. You think you have the truth, and what good does it do you?” And, “Who was it who said if I were offered the choice between having the truth and searching for it, I’d take the search?” Her husband replies, “I don’t know. Probably Hermann Hesse.” Indeed.

Pace Dr. More’s wife, Walker Percy never gave up his own search for the complex truth about this life, precisely because he possessed the truth about salvation and the next life. He didn’t escape into disembodied New Age abstractions or the concrete comforts of good Southern bourbon. Instead, he found the way into becoming a Benedictine Oblate just before he died. We should be deeply grateful for what he was and did.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.