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Thursday, June 29, 2017

What Would Walker Percy Think?

Anyone who's followed this blog for awhile knows I love to read. I'm pretty eclectic in my choices. My book club is reading Ratzinger's
Spirit of the Liturgy and will move from there to Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. Thinking about the liturgy got me to pick up the Ottaviani Intervention and I also just finished re-reading Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome which is fascinating, especially in view of the "thanatos culture" we live in.

After reading Percy's fiction, I picked up a book of his essays which contains an interview with Zoltan Abady-Nagy conducted shortly after Percy celebrated his 70th birthday, a milestone I reached myself a few months ago. One thing really struck me in the interview. Addressing the question of whether literature is more "cognitive" or "morally judgmental" Percy said this:

Now I am perfectly willing to believe Flannery O'Connor when she said, and she wasn't kidding, that the modern world is a territory largely occupied by the devil. No one doubts the malevolence abroad in the world. But the world is also deranged. What interests me as a novelist is not the malevolence of  man -- so what else is new? -- but his looniness. The looniness, that is to say , of the 'normal' denizen of the Western world who, I think it fair to say, doesn't know who he is, what he believes, or what he is doing. This unprecedented state of affairs is, I suggest, the domain of the 'diagnostic' novelist."
It isn't surprising to see Percy, a pathologist, using a medical term to discuss his writing. He wants to "diagnose" the cause of modern man's malaise. And imagine how we could benefit from his examination of the "looniness" we are seeing today among the "'normal' denizen [inhabitant] of the Western world."

Percy died in 1990 before the eruption of gender insanity, although you can see in his novels the prescient diagnostician observing how lust and confusion over identity impacts the culture. I suspect he and Flannery O'Connor may be looking down, shaking their heads, and sighing with relief that they missed the "looniness on steroids" we see today.

Certainly Percy is absolutely on target about Western man who "doesn't know who he is" which explains his absolute unconcern for the destruction of his culture by foreign assault; who "doesn't know what he believes" which is clearly evident in his embracing every novel idea no matter how insane; and "doesn't know what he is doing" which is clear from his rejection of truth and goodness and his embrace of error and evil which lead to death.

Yup, the culture is loony and Western man mirrors it. Our job, as Catholics, is to mirror to the culture what it is called to be. We need, like Mary, to be magnifying glasses who "magnify the Lord." If we aren't signs of contradiction to the world we aren't doing our job.

Near the end of The Thanatos Syndrome, after bringing down a group of rogue doctors putting chemical agents in the water to change the behavior of the citizens "for the better," the hero, Dr. Tom More, engages in a conversation with one of the conspirators. Bob Comeaux is a Utopian who runs a clinic that euthanizes handicapped newborns, the retarded, and senile old people. The conversation illustrates the difference between the man of the truth (flawed though he is) and the man of the lie (one of the beautiful people in the eyes of the world).
Bob: You and I may have had our little disagreements..., but we were always after the same thing."
Tom: We were?
Bob: Sure. Helping folks. Our disagreements was in tactics, not goals.
Tom: It was?
Bob:We were after the same thing, the greatest good, the highest quality of life for the greatest number. We were not a bad team, Tom. Between us we had it all. We each supplied the other's defect.
Tom: We did?
Bob: Sure...and you still can't argue.
Tom: About what?
Bob: Argue with the proposition that in the end there is no reason to allow a single child to suffer needlessly, a single old person to linger in pain, a single retard to soil himself for fifty years, suffer humiliation, and wreck his family.... You and I are more alike than most folks think.
Tom: We are?
Bob: Sure -- and you damn well know it. The only difference between us is that you're a proper Southern gent who knows how to act and I'm the low-class Yankee who does all these bad things like killing innocent babies and messing with your Southern Way of Life by putting secret stuff in the water, right? What people don't know but what you and I know is that we're both after the same thing -- such as reducing the suffering in the world and making criminals behave themselves...and you know it and I know: You can't give me one good reason why what I am doing is wrong. The only difference between us is that you're in good taste and I'm not.
Bob is wrong of course. And one is tempted to say, "Methinks he doth protest too much." There is a big difference between his form of "compassion" which the priest in the story calls the "tenderness that leads to the gas chamber" and the attitude of respect for all human life. It's like trying to claim that getting a job and earning a living to care for your family is the same thing as "earning" your living by robbing banks. And it's here that Percy illustrates the difference between godless liberalism and Christianity. They are a world apart.

Each of us has the opportunity to choose which world we will inhabit, the city of God or the city of man. That's what the gift of free will is all about.

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