Gnostic Vibes: Revisiting Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins” (Part I)

Louis Gallo

Essay by Louis Gallo

All Percy quotations from Walker Percy, Love In The Ruins:  The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971), first edition/first printing.

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The protagonist of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, the “Bad Catholic” of the novel’s subtitle, is a failed physician living on the outskirts of New Orleans in a suburb called Paradise Estates.  Dr. Thomas More claims “collateral” descent from his namesake, Sir Thomas More, and proudly describes himself as a fornicator, potential suicide, alcoholic, cuckold, widower and wanderer.  His case history is cluttered with “desultory lusts for strangers,” attacks of “elation and depression,” and “occasional seizures of morning terror.”  He believes someone may be trying to shoot him, espies sinister vines coiling out of cracks in the pavement and foundations of Paradise, and announces with muted eschatological delight that the world is about to end.  “The U.S.A. didn’t work!” he cries:  “the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as a mythical monster, half angel, half beast [an idea derived from Pascal], but no man.”

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Dr. More’s tone of seasoned Pascalian anxiety at best and hysterical paranoia at worst imbues his narrative with its grim (yet comic), unsettling urgency.  He actually records most of it (the text) into a portable tape recorder as he waits, carbine in hand, in a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate.  Something is either terribly wrong and America will soon collapse in a silent chemical implosion, or Dr. More has once again lost touch with reality.  If this middle-aged protagonist has outgrown the romantic malaise afflicting Percy’s earlier and younger protagonists, he remains nevertheless precariously unstable.  He was after all once hospitalized for what he describes as “simultaneous depression and exaltations, [assaults] at night by longings, succubi[sic], and the hideous shell-fire of Verdun, and in the morning by terror of unknown origin.”   Yet age has provided Dr. More with a self-assurance one can scarcely imagine possible in, say, Percy’s earlier Binx Bolling (of The Moviegoer) or Will Barrett (of The Last Gentleman), neither confident nor deranged enough to declare themselves ready and able to save a world gone askew.  Only with Lancelot Andrews Lamar of the later Lancelot do we find another protagonist so confident—and with disastrous results.  Even the later Thomas More of The Thanatos Syndrome has limited ideas about what can be salvaged.

Would-be messiah Dr. More is at the same time, ironically, a self-declared misanthrope.   “I love women best,” he confesses, “music and science next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all.”  The “hardly” may temper his zeal somewhat, but not by much, for he proclaims that he will save himself and his girlfriends first if necessary.  And why not?  Had not Percy’s mentor Kierkegaard counseled that one must take responsibility for one’s own salvation?  Kierkegaard’s presence is also felt in Dr. More’s triad of blessings (women, music and God), each representing a stage along life’s way as delineated by the philosopher/theologian.

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Like just about every other Percy character, Dr. More is also a seeker and connoisseur of clues.  His bizarre utterances may elicit raised eyebrows around Paradise Estates, and his credibility has been badly damaged, but this is exactly what Percy intends.  We readers too are invited to suspect Dr. More’s veracity as a witness.  Are people really shooting at him?—though the bullet holes may speak for themselves.  Do evil vines actually sprout from every crevice?  Neighbors fail to notice them.  These and further instances may well compromise Dr. More, but they fail to undermine our uneasy intuition that he may prove the one character in the novel we can believe.  Percy endows Dr. More with sincerity, impeccable honesty and a rare purity of vision.  Bad Catholic and madman, true, but Dr. More alone will wear the saintly sackcloth in the end when he passes, or stumbles, into what Kierkegaard called the “religious” sphere (which is why the pun on More proves so apt.)

What further sanctions Dr. More’s angry testament is the somewhat phantasmagorical context into which he finds or believes he finds himself thrust.  Being-thrust-in-the-world is an existential metaphor Percy borrowed from the likes of Heidegger, Sartre, Marcel and others years before the publication of his first novel and during the period when he was being treated for tuberculosis, a disease which made his intended medical career impossible.  The idea is also a perennial theme of gnostic thought, as Eric Voegelin points out in his Science, Politics & Gnosticism.  Gnosticism is, above all, a state of mind, a worldview.  Its history, as traced meticulously by scholar Hans Jonas, need not detain us here.  But Voegelin’s work proves extremely relevant to understanding Percy’s position on the subject.  The gnostic, Voegelin writes, experiences this world as “an alien place into which man has strayed and from which he must find his way back home to another [world] of his origin.”  The timeworn existentialist admonition that man must make himself reflects this point of view with chilling precision.  Voegelin goes on to say that gnostic man, who “remains shut off from transcendent being,” substitutes  gnosis (or knowledge) for lost, yearned-for transcendence.  But man’s gnosis can only prove incomplete and illusory when severed from any connection to divine or sacred origin.[1]  Thus, all gnostic movements, Voegelin writes, “are involved in the project of abolishing the constitution of being with its origin in the divine, transcendent being, and replacing it with a world-immanent order of being, the perfection of which lies in the realm of human action.”  One notes that man does not merely lose sight of the transcendent, he actively binds himself to it in his frenetic attempt to impose a substitute of his own devising in its place.  Catholicism would regard this maneuver as a fall from grace—obviously Percy’s position.

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But it is not Dr. More who falls from grace in Love in the Ruins.  Nothing can shake his faith however much he attempts to engineer a scientific means, i.e. gnostic, of achieving inner peace (on which more later).  He admits that he stopped eating Christ in Communion after the death of his daughter, that he is a bad Catholic; he is, however, a bad Catholic surrounded by gnostics who have apparently triumphed in their fervor to secularize culture.[2] Accordingly, like the original Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Love in the Ruins is a socio-political satire, and a satire directed not at some situation that might come to pass in the 1980s or beyond but what Percy directly observed when writing the book in the late 1960s.  The fifteen-year-war in Ecuador is, for instance, a thinly veiled reference to the war in Vietnam; the dropouts who flee to Honey Island Swamp are the hippies who formed what Theodore Roszak called at the time a “counterculture”; the swamp Bantus are, of course, black militants.  Yet the real object of Dr. More’s ill will and what he universally rejects in gnostic culture is a phenomenon he calls “self-abstraction,” the spiritual malaise Percy claims began with Descartes, the man who “ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own home.”  Dr. More’s patient, graduate student Ted Tennis, is a potent case study:  he has “so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things a theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world.”  His psycho-physical symptoms include “massive free-floating terror, identity crisis and sexual impotence” (the latter of which Dr. More regards as a “liberal” disease, whereas large-bowel complaints are “conservative disorders.”)  Ted’s curiosity about the etiology of his impotence prompts Dr. More to snarl that anyone using such a word cannot be anything but impotent.  The doctor’s prescription?  Ordeal Therapy—which, for Ted, means the concrete agony of a six-mile trek through the swamp.  Note also the semi-pun on Ted, close to Tod, German for death.

Ted’s case inspires Dr. More to muse upon the problem of evil, which transmutes soon enough into his rhapsodic fantasy of becoming a kind of St. George confronting the dragons of Descartes and gnosticism.  The passage is well worth examining in its entirety:

                        The question is:  how to account for man’s wickedness?

Biologists, for some reason, find it natural to look for a wicked monkey

in a family tree.  I find it more reasonable to suppose that monkeys

are blameless and that something went wrong with man.  Many

people hereabouts, by the way, blame the recent wave of atrocities

on killer apes . . . .

If you measure the pineal activity of a monkey . . . with my

lapsometer, you will invariably record identical readings at Layers

I and II.  Its self, that is to say, coincides with itself.  Only in man

do you find a discrepancy:  Layer I, the outer social self, ticking

over, say, at a sprightly 5.4 mmv, while Layer II just lies there,

barely alive at 0.7 mmv, or even zero! – a naught, a gap, an aching

wound.  Only in man does the self miss itself, fall from itself

(hence, lapsometer!)  Suppose I could hit on the right dosage

and weld the broken self whole!  What if man could reenter

paradise, so to speak, and live there both as man and spirit,

a whole and intact man-spirit, as solid flesh as a speckled trout,

a dappled thing, yet aware of itself as a self?

Aside from allusions to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christian eschatology, Dr. More takes his stand against the theories of innate aggression popularized in the late 1960s by writers like Konrad Lorenz when he attributes evil to man rather than to apes.  This means that whatever went wrong has something to do with man’s greater capacity for intellectual and spiritual development; it is thus attitudinal, not genetic, and more pointedly, it tempts man to alienate himself from both himself and the world.  It may seem as if Dr. More is himself so alienated since he spends so much time criticizing it, but clearly he feels alienated not from the word per se as from what contemporary gnostic have made of it; he is, in effect, alienated from alienation.  But if Gnosticism can transform a lovely ordinary world into a kind of Sartrean heal, Dr. More’s message is that man also has within him the means of transforming it into something paradisaical as, indeed, the name of his suburb suggests.

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The medium of this alchemization (and a central theme in Percy’s fiction in general) requires the Kierkegaardian category of “repetition.”  Repetition demands that a context, or concrete spatio-temporal locus, remain utterly unchanged except for the crucial differences in perspective that it occasions in one who by chance or choice returns to it after having been away for some time—being absent can take the form of physical, psychological or spiritual detachment.  One recalls that Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer experienced repetition when he happened to fondle the same piece of chewing gum under the armrest of a movie theater seat that he had fondled years earlier (shades of Proust!).   Everything was the same—theater, seat, armrest, chewing gum—everything except Binx himself, who saw in a flash that everything and nothing had changed.  Dr. More’s repetition, which occurs in the epilogue and thus five years after the main plot events, is similarly revealing.  Nothing much has altered in Paradise Estates other than an expected increase in black political and economic power and the continued progress of gnostic secularization; the difference lies in Dr. More who has reconciled himself to it all and literally repeated his life by acquiring a new wife and daughter.  One could say that Dr. More becomes concretized after years of self-abstraction, albeit not without the occasional aid of some good old-fashioned booze and sex (which have apparently replaced his lapsometer).[3]

Dr. More had used the lapsometer to measure Ted Tennis’s pineal activity, which, he maintains, determines one’s degree of selfhood.  In “normal” subjects the two distinct readings at Layer I (outer or social self) and II (inner selfhood) must correspond—as they do not in Ted.  Dr. More further learns that heavy sodium radiation “stimulates Brodmann Area 32, the center of abstractive activity or tendencies toward angelism, while heavy chloride stimulates the thalamus, which promotes adjustment to the environment, or, as I call it without prejudice, bestialism.  A man, for example, can feel at one and the same time extremely abstracted and inordinately lustful toward lovely young women who may be perfect strangers.”  The seriousness of Dr. More’s quest both to diagnose and assuage the “manifold woes of the Western world” may obscure the ludicrous fact that all the while his object of reference is sodium chloride, or common table salt.  That southern Louisiana happens to be rich in salt deposits lends a kind of outrageous credibility to Dr. More’s hypothesis.

Part II, to be continued

[1] I do not necessarily agree with the eccentricity of Vogelin’s analysis, particularly with respect to his dismissal of Heidegger, yet the affinity of Percy and Voegelin is secure.  In some cases their views are so similar that the novel almost reads as a fictional version of the essays “Science, Politics & Gnosticism” and “Ersatz Religion” in the volume cited.  Curiously, when Voegelin discusses the gnostic vision of earthly perfection through progress, he cites Sir Thomas More’s Utopia as a representative treatise.

[2] In the chapter “Pessimism and the Ideal of the Sublime Life” of The Waning of the Middle Ages, J. Huizinga describes pre-Enlightenment Christianity in a way that makes it sound remarkably like a form of Voegelin’s Gnosticism.  Huizinga maintains that it was considered “bad form” in the fifteenth century to express optimism openly.  “At the close of the Middle Ages, a somber melancholy weighs on people’s souls.  Whether we read a chronicle, a poem, a sermon, a legal document even, the same impression of immense sadness is produced in them all,” Huizinga writes.  He discerns a strong rejection of what Percy calls this “lovely ordinary world,” and attributes the pessimism of the period to this rejection.  “Still,” he continues, “this very pessimism is the ground when their soul will soar up to the aspiration of a life of beauty and serenity.”  If Voegelin and Huizinga are right, it does indeed seem that the vision of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia verges on heresy, which is ironic enough, considering Sir Thomas’ relentless persecution of heretics.  Social optimism and the idea of progress does not emerge fully until the eighteenth century according to Huizinga; Voegelin agrees but extends the idea somewhat—when progress replaces faith, man has embarked upon a gnostic journey which may well lead him to annihilation.

[3] Dr. More describes the lapsometer as a wireless encephalograph that grew out of his interest in brain research as a technician and physician at Tulane, where he worked as a young man.  At that time he participated in the “New Orleans Heavy Sodium experiments,” which were designed to test heavy sodium radiation as a possible cancer treatment.  During these experiments he noted a correlation, his self-styled “More’s Paradoxical Sodium Radiation Syndrome,” between heavy sodium and/or chloride in the atmosphere and the well-being of his patients.  A reactor “got loose,” killed physicians, and sent up a “yellow cloud” over New Orleans.  Dr. More suspected that the cloud had something to do with a peculiar state of affairs occurring simultaneously at the hospital:  the worst patients got better and the better while several physicians got worse.  Yet the blood levels of both groups contained significantly elevated serum levels of heavy sodium and/or chloride.  Dr. More failed to realize at the time that these ions affected various brain centers differently, although he wrote an article on the connection he did observe and published it in J.A.M.A.  This, his first claim to fame, was followed by “twenty years of silence, during which he lost his wife and daughter, became a drunk, stopped eating Christ” and felt the pang of thwarted ambition.  He first conceived of devising a wireless encephalograph while hospitalized for a mental breakdown.  “Hardly a radical idea,” he admits, “but given such a machine, given such readings, could the readings then be correlated with the manifold woes of the Western world, its terrors and rages and murderous impulses? And if so, could the latter be treated by treating the former?”  The device obviously reflects Percy’s love/hate affair with science and technology, both supreme instances of not only gnosis but hubris.  And note the humor—the lapsometer measures, in everyday parlance, levels of common table salt.


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