Corpses of Souls
Walker Percy in his 1971 dystopian novel “Love in the Ruins” paints a picture of a morally degenerate America consumed by hedonism, wallowing in ignorance, led by kleptocrats and fools, fragmented into warring and often violent cultural extremes and on the cusp of a nuclear war. It is a country cursed by its failure to address or atone for its original sins of genocide and slavery. The ethos of ceaseless capitalist expansion, white supremacy and American exceptionalism, perpetuated overseas in the country’s imperial wars, eventually consumes the nation itself. The accomplices, who once benefited from this evil, become its victims. How, Percy asks, does one live a life of meaning in such a predatory society? Is it even possible? And can a culture ever regain its equilibrium when it sinks into such depravity?
The novel’s main character, a doctor named Tom More, is a suicidal alcoholic and a womanizer. He has invented the “Ontological Lapsometer” to measure human souls. He notes that “the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man” has worsened “ever since the famous philosopher Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.”
Percy, echoing the Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, argues that the capitalist, rationalist ethic that crushed empathy and understanding and replaced it with the primacy of personal gain, cruelty and profit doomed Western civilization. The basest lusts are celebrated by capitalism. Success is defined by material advancement, power and the attainment of celebrity. Those, like Donald Trump, who amass enormous wealth, often by cheating, abusing and defrauding their employees and associates, are treated like pagan idols.
Percy, who like the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was a medical school graduate, was steeped in the classics, theology, philosophy, literature and history. He knew the common denominators of decaying societies. The elevation of the morally degenerate in the last days was never accidental. These corrupt elites embodied the warped values of a dying culture. They reflected back to the society, as does Trump, its spiritual emptiness. The feckless Romanovs in Russia, the megalomaniacal Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany and the doddering head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph I, in the last days of the European monarchies exhibited the same stupidity, self-delusion and self-destructiveness seen in the late American Empire. The moment of terminal decline is always marked by an inability to acknowledge reality and by monstrous, ill-fated schemes, often expressed in wars, to restore a supposed golden age.
“In every civilization its most impressive period seems to precede death by only a moment,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote. “Like the woods of autumn, life defies death in a glorious pageantry of color. But the riot of this color has been distilled by an alchemy in which life has already been touched by death. Thus man claims immortality for his spiritual achievements just when their mortal fate becomes apparent; and death and mortality are strangely mixed into, and potent in, the very pretention of immortality.”
Our capitalist elites have used propaganda, money and the marginalizing of their critics to erase the first three of philosopher John Locke’s elements of the perfect state: liberty, equality and freedom. They exclusively empower the fourth, property. Liberty and freedom in the corporate state mean the liberty and freedom of corporations and the rich to exploit and pillage without government interference or regulatory oversight. And the single most important characteristic of government is its willingness to use force, at home and abroad, to protect the interests of the property classes. This abject surrender of the state to the rich is expressed at this moment in the United States in the new tax code and the dismantling of environmental regulations. This degradation of basic democratic ideals—evidenced when the Supreme Court refuses to curb wholesale government surveillance of the public or defines pouring unlimited dark money into political campaigns as a form of free speech and the right to petition the government—means the society defines itself by virtues that are dead. The longer this illusion is perpetuated, the more an enraged public turns to demagogues who promise a new utopia and then, once in power, accelerate the assault.
All of our institutions are corrupted by a neoliberal ideology. It has contaminated the press, the academy, the arts, the courts and religious institutions. Christian theology has ingested the toxic brew of American exceptionalism, the myth of American virtues and the conflation of freedom with unfettered capitalism. The liberal church, like the bankrupt liberal class, holds up multiculturalism and identity politics as an ethical imperative and ignores the primacy of economic justice. It tolerates the intolerant, giving credibility to those who peddle the heretical creed of the “prosperity gospel,” a creed that says God showers divine favors in the form of wealth and power on the Christian elect. This idea makes Trump one of God’s favorites. It is also an idea that is a complete inversion of the core message of the Christian Gospels.
In Percy’s novel, the Roman Catholic Church has rebranded itself as the American Catholic Church, based in Cicero, Ill. It celebrates Property Rights Sunday. The priest raises the Eucharistic host in the Mass, conducted in Latin, to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sermons focus on how the rich in the Bible—Joseph of Arimathea and Lazarus—were specially blessed by God. Evangelical Christians stage ever more elaborate spectacles and entertainment, including nighttime golf—the Moonlight Tour of the Champs—advertised with the slogan “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All.”
Today’s secularists have their own forms of hedonism, self-worship and idolatry. Spirituality is framed by puerile questions: How is it with me? Am I in touch with myself? Have I achieved happiness and inner peace? Have I, along with my life coach, ensured that I have reached my full career potential? Am I still young-looking? What does my therapist say? It is a culture based on self-absorption, a vain quest for eternal youth, and narcissism. Any form of suffering, which is always part of self-sacrifice, is to be avoided. The plight of our neighbor is irrelevant. Sexual degeneracy—narcissists are incapable of love—abounds in a society entranced by casual hook-ups and pornography. In the Percy novel’s “Love Clinic,” “volunteers perform sexual acts singly, in couples, and in groups, behind viewing mirrors in order that man might learn more about the human sexual response.”
“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,” More says. “Generally I do as I please.”
The single-minded pursuit of happiness, with happiness equated with wealth and power, creates a population consumed by anxiety and self-loathing. Few achieve the imagined pinnacle of success, and those who do are often psychopaths. Building a society around these goals is masochistic. It shuts down any desire for self-knowledge because the truth of our lives is unpleasant. We fill the spiritual vacuum with endless activities, entertainment and nonstop electronic hallucinations. We flee from silence and contemplation. We are determined to avoid facing what we have become.
Renegades in the novel have formed armed guerrilla bands in the swamps. These “castoffs” and “disaffected” rebels include “dropouts from Tulane and Vanderbilt, M.I.T. and Loyola; draft dodgers, deserters from the Swedish army, psychopaths and pederasts from Memphis and New Orleans whose practices were not even to be tolerated in New Orleans; antipapal Catholics, malcontented Methodists, ESPers, UFOers, Aquarians, ex-Ayn Randers, Choctaw Zionists who have returned to their ancestral hunting grounds, and even a few old graybeard Kerouac beats. …”
The United States in Percy’s book has been fighting a war in Ecuador for 15 years. The old and infirm, like the poor and disabled, are abandoned by the society. The elderly are shipped off to a euthanasia facility called Happy Isles Separation Center where they are finished off with the “Euphoric Switch.” All those pushed aside by the corporate state live in misery and poverty and are treated as a criminal caste.
More—whose ancestor was St. Thomas More, the writer of “Utopia”— and his three paramours escape to the abandoned ruins of the local Howard Johnson’s. The faded Rotary banner still adorns the banquet room. It reads: “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships?” More and one of his lovers, Moira, sit on a moldering bed and read “above the Gideon Bible” scrawled on the wall the words “For a free suck call room 208.”
“I am surrounded by the corpses of souls,” says Father Rinaldo Smith, the pastor of the tiny remnant of Catholics who refuse to join the American Catholic Church. “We live in a city of the dead.”
“There are Left states and Knothead states,” Percy writes—Knothead being the new name of the Republican Party—“Left towns and Knothead towns but no center towns. … Left networks and Knothead networks, Left movies and Knothead movies. The most popular Left films are dirty movies from Sweden [one depicted fellatio being performed in mid-air by two skydivers in free fall on an outdoor two-hundred-foot screen.] All-time Knothead favorites, on the other hand, include The Sound of Music, Flubber, and Ice Capades 1981, clean movies all.”
The Democratic Party is now the Left Party. The political agenda is captured in the acronym LEFTPAPASANE, which stands for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-Pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia.”
The elites, who live in well-protected gated communities, all get along with each other whether they are members of the Left Party or the Knothead Party. They are, like the Clintons and the Trumps, members of the same exclusive club.
“The scientists, who are mostly liberals and unbelievers, and the businessmen, who are mostly conservative and Christian, live side by side in Paradise Estates,” he writes of the gated community in the novel. “Though the two make much of their differences—one speaking of ‘outworn dogmas and creeds,’ the other of ‘atheism and immorality,’ etcetera—to tell the truth, I do not notice a great deal of difference between the two.”
“Paradise Estates, where I live, is a paradise indeed, an oasis of concord in a troubled land,” More says. “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, San Francisco against Los Angeles, Chicago against Cicero. Vines sprout in sections of New York where not even Negros will live. Wolves have been seen in downtown Cleveland, like Rome during the Black Plague. Some southern states have established diplomatic ties with Rhodesia. Minnesota and Oregon have their own consulates in Sweden (where so many deserters from these states dwell).”
“People look and talk and smile and are nice and the abyss yawns,” he writes. “The niceness is terrifying.”
In the novel’s raging culture wars, the political triumphs of the left include removing the words “In God We Trust” from pennies. The Knotheads enacted a law that required “compulsory prayers in the black public schools and made funds available for birth control in Africa, Asia, and Alabama.” An exclusive private school, Valley Forge Academy—like the privatized education being implemented by Trump appointee Betsy DeVos—is “founded on religious and patriotic principles and to keep Negroes out.”
Students in the universities, radical multiculturalists and moral purists “are a shaky dogmatic lot,” Percy writes. “And the ‘freer’ they are, the more dogmatic. At heart they’re totalitarians: they want either total dogmatic freedom or total dogmatic unfreedom, and the one thing that makes them unhappy is something in between.”
Percy is describing what Kierkegaard called “sickness unto death”—the numbing of the soul by despair that leads to moral and physical death.
“Even now, late as it is, nobody can really believe that it didn’t work after all,” Percy writes.
The old 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. Moon Mullins blames it on the niggers. Hm. Was it the nigger business from the beginning? 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 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 for you because you already had passed the big one. One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That’s all.
One little test: you flunk!
God, was it always the nigger business, now, just as in 1883, 1783, 1683, and hasn’t it always been that ever since the first tough God-believing Christ-haunted cunning violent rapacious Visigoth-Western-Gentile first set foot here with the first black man, the one willing to risk everything, take all or lose all, the other willing just to wait and outlast because once he was violated all he had to do was wait because sooner or later the first would wake up and know that he had flunked, been proved a liar where he lived, and no man can live with that. And sooner or later the lordly Visigoth-Western-Gentile-Christian-Americans would have to falter, fall out, turn upon themselves like scorpions in a bottle.