Sunday, June 20, 2010

Love in the Ruins

One of my goals over the week of vacation I just had was to get through Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins. I wanted to read it mostly because he's an important Catholic American writer, whose name always comes up as one of the few Catholic writers of note: Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene being I think the only other two biggies. J. F. Powers and Jon Hassler are two more, but they are minor and regional, of interest to me because both lived here and taught at St. John's/St. Ben's.

Like Flannery O'Connor, Percy is a Southerner, most often associated with New Orleans. Also like her, he is harsh! Love in the Ruins is a satire, published in 1971, when it caused quite a stir. To read it now, 40 years later, is difficult. I always felt I was missing major context. It doesn't help that the narrator, Dr. Tom More, an ancestor of St. Thomas More, is on staff/patient status at the local mental hospital. He is enacting his own apocalyptic scenario but without, it seems, the participation of the rest of the public. Which isn't to say he should not be paranoid, because people are actually shooting at him.

The book takes on race (in the most unsavory terms) and hippies and the bourgeoisie and psychology and New Age medicine and a lot more. Another reason I wanted to read it is because I do feel that our current political moment is the closest we've come to the political divisions of the 1960s. Things have not yet exploded, but the gulf between the two extremes is palpable and seemingly unbridgeable. The Tea Party vs. the Far Left is not very far from Percy's splintered society of fringe swamp-dwellers and country clubbers, although the two political parties: the Knotheads vs. the LEFTPAPASANE (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-Pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia), known in the book simply as the Left, are almost indistinguishable. Also, the book takes place in a future (1983, the edge of Orwell's 1984) that is five years after the Auto Age. Cars become useless when they break down and there is no one to fix them. America has the capacity to make new things but, in this dystopia, not to repair them.

I can think of other reasons why the Auto Age may come to a crashing halt. One involves millions of gallons of oil spewing into and ruining the oceans. Though it looks like we're going to handle that the way we handle everything-- find someone to pay for the damage and move on. (Don't get me started!)

In terms of Catholicism, it has split into three factions, the Roman Catholics (a remnant of a remnant) and the American Catholic Church, headquartered in Cicero, Illinois. The American Catholics believe in God and America, sing the national anthem at the elevation of the host and have instituted a new religious holiday, Property Rights Day. Priests and nuns who wanted to marry left the Roman Catholics for the Dutch Catholic Church.

The moments I liked best in the book were the ones that grappled with Catholicism. Here it is, 1971, and it must indeed have felt like the Church had split. The Second Vatican Council changed everything, and there were those who wanted to hold onto the old and those who wanted to race forward with the new. Neither is portrayed very well here, especially Father Kev Kevin, who has left the priesthood to marry Sister Magdelene and now works in the sex research lab (collecting data from the vaginal console). Between patients he sits reading Commonweal.

The best passage, however, is when he describes, in a flashback, his experience of going to Mass whlie traveling with his first wife, back in the age of long road trips. It's a bit long, but worth it:

Sunday mornings I'd leave [my wife] [in the hotel room] and go to mass. Now here was the strangest exercise of all! Leaving the coordinate of the motel at the intersection of the interstates, leaving the motel with standard doors and carpets and plumbing, leaving the interstates extending infinitely in all directions, abscissa and ordinate, descending through a moonscape countryside to a -- town! Where people had been living all these years, and to some forlorn little Catholic church up a side street just in time for the ten-thirty mass, stepping up on the porch as if I had been doing it every Sunday for the past twenty years, and here comes the stove-up bemused priest with his cup (what am I doing out here? says his dazed experession) upon whose head hands had been laid and upon this other head other hands and so on, for here off I-51 I touched the thread in the labyrinth, and the priest announced the turkey raffle and Wednesday bingo and preached the Gospel and fed me Christ--

-- Back to the motel then, exhilarated by -- what? by eating Christ or by the secret discovery of the singular thread in this the unlikeliest of places, this geometry of holiday Inns and interstates? back to lie with Doris all rosy-fleshed and creased of cheek and slack and heavy-limbed with sleep, cracking one ey and opening her arms and smiling.

"My God, what is it you do in church?"

What she didn't understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning.

Isn't that a wonderful passage? The universal church, the experience of walking into a church, even in a different country, and recognizing the liturgy, being able to participate in the liturgy, whether you know the language or not. The year I spent at St. John's University, I went to evening Mass quite a bit. One evening Lech Walesa was there for Mass, up in the choir stalls, with a small entourage. He was speaking later that evening. He didn't know English well enough to fully participate, but he was attentive, prayerful, throughout the Mass. There had been a time I'd wanted to go to Poland, as an undergraduate, to try to figure out how it was that religion, namely Catholicism, played such a real role in politics and in people's daily life. It seemed to me that the Church in Ireland and in Poland still had a hold on people the way it did not in the United States. The symbols, language, music, culture, prayers, artifacts, were all part of people's real life-- how they stayed connectd to the earth. There was nothing "spiritual" about it. I wanted that. I wanted to touch the singular thread.

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