“You want to know where it all began to go wrong?” Moon asks me, nodding towards a foursome of sepia golfers.Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy.
“It started when we abandoned the Latin mass.”
We stand on the precipice of social disaster. The world we knew; the world our parents and grandparents knew is coming rapidly to an end. The inevitability of the United States as both place and idea is ending. What comes next is hard to say: but whatever it is, it will be harder on our children than it was on us.
When we are most vulnerable – when we have finally arrived at the generation of men and women who do not know how to do virtually anything with their hands – our manmade gods of the state, the market, fiat currency and technology will fail us. It took roughly three generations to wipe out thousands of years of practical knowledge of how to live without modern conveniences. Today’s men and women cannot do anything let alone sew a hem, can a jar of fruit, fix an engine, sow a field, raise a barn or butcher a cow or chicken. The time is fast approaching when these skills will be as valuable as those professional skills now so highly sought.
Many have prognosticated American destruction that now seems now to be a question of when as opposed to if. Some have been dour about our end; with a toddy in his hand, Walker Percy approached it with a smile and a wink.
Love in the Ruins, published in 1971, is a largely comedic dystopian look a future United States in ruin. It is essentially about fragmentation: the country’s fragmentation along racial, religious and political lines. Percy’s dystopia is a creeping apocalypse. The world as we knew exists in aspects, but mostly everything is broken or breaking. There is still a sense of order – even ordinariness – but the social fabric of our future in Love in the Ruins is badly frayed. The cult of technology, well on its way in 1971, is well represented. The idea that machines will eventually replace -- or at least serve as necessary intermediaries -- the most intimate human experiences and relationships is not lost on Percy. While Percy’s account is not intended to be prophetic, the slow breakdown of social order is how it will happen – and is happening now.
Percy’s book is strange – with an almost otherworldly science fiction quality to it – but he is primarily interested in the fragmentation of man individually. The protagonist is Dr. Thomas More: a descendant of the great English saint and martyr. He describes himself as follows:
I, for example, am a Roman Catholic, albeit a bad one. I believe in the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church, in God the Father, in the election of the Jews, in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, who founded the Church on Peter his first vicar, which will last until the end of the world. Some years ago, however, I stopped eating Christ in Communion, stopped going to mass, and have since fallen into a disorderly life. I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally I do as I please. A man, wrote John, who says he believes in God and does not keep his commandments is a liar. If John is right, then I am a liar. Nevertheless, I still believe.Dr. More is more than a lapsed Catholic. He was the abandoned husband of a now-deceased wife who left him to “find herself” in eastern religions taught by western posers. He is a forty-five year old heavy drinker grieving over his deceased only daughter. He is also an occasional mental patient. He is also an inventor: his invention, More’s Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer (MQQOL) measures the soul from “angelism” to “bestialism.” This “stethoscope” for the soul is as odd as it sounds -- a literary symbol for the incongruity between materialism and spiritualism. Whether his machine works is not as important as the fact that scientism is at war with the idea of the soul.
Like the broader society that Percy depicts: More’s life is a metaphor to the disordered stupor around him. Whether More is sane or insane, drunk or sober, dreaming or wakeful, there is an element throughout the book that More may not be the most reliable guide to the world around him. Whether the MQQOL does all of the things that More believes it does -- or whether its misuse can cause Armageddon -- is never clear.
More is a lustful and self-destructive man but he is honest all the same. He is honest in his lustfulness and his self-destruction through drink. He is even honest about his sincerity as a human being. In one of the more powerful passages, More recounts:
I wonder: did it break my heart when Samantha died? Yes. THere was even the knowledge and foreknowledge of it while she still lived, knowledge that while she lived, life still had its peculiar tentativeness, people living as usual by fits and starts, aiming and missing, while present time when humming, and foreknowledge that the second she died, remorse would come and give past time its better specious wholeness. If only -- If only we hadn’t been defeated by humdrum humming present time and missed it, missed ourselves, missed everything. I had the foreknowledge while she lived. Still, present time went humming. Then she died and here came sweet remorse like a blade between the ribs.Either you understand the horror and honesty of that sentiment or you don’t. There a number of nuggets like the above in Love in the Ruins. They are mostly found in More’s self-reflection on his own motivations or those people around him. In these moments, Percy is at his best -- and they alone are worth the time to read Love in the Ruins.
But is there not also a compensation, a secret satisfaction to be taken in her death, a delectation of tragedy, a license for drink, a taste of both for taste’s sake? ...
Samantha, forgive me. I am sorry you suffered and died, my heart broke, but there have been times when I was not above enjoying it.
If there is one shortcoming of the book, the elaborate dystopia that Percy creates -- in terms of its political, racial and religious observations -- is disjointed and scatterbrained. Perhaps that was the point, the disorder in the novel itself is a metaphor for “Paradise,” Louisiana. Perhaps not. But even when the disorder becomes predominant and the reader is left wondering what in fact I am reading, it is still interesting all the same.
In the end, More’s life is reordered by starting over again. He begins to live again -- with wife, children and poverty. For More, simplification is the means by which he starts society -- both large and small - over again.
Love in the Ruins is no by means a diatribe against technology per se; rather it is a screed against those who in the name of technology and science would divest man of his soul. When a social order does that -- it falls into ruins and must begin again simply.
I would not recommend this book to everyone -- it would be a recommendation made with real and genuine caveats. Still, Walker Percy has a fresh and honest take on a human condition. He is worth the time.