Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

Note: This piece was originally written in September 2016, in the run-up to that year’s U.S. national election.

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

Prophetic Parallels
Percy is best known for his National Book Award-winning first novel, The Moviegoer (1962), but Love in the Ruins[3] (1971) perhaps better speaks to our present condition. Like most of Percy’s fiction, Ruins is dense with meaning and metaphor, but its persistent (if dark) humor renders it more accessible than many of the philosophers and classics it converses with. Paradoxically, the over-the-top camp which the book’s original reviewers found so overbearing gives Percy’s satire a certain staying power. Because his dystopia, as Melvin Bradford wrote reviewing the novel in 1973, “is not the warning of an evil to come so much as it is a mere caricature of the present shape of things,”[4] this eerie (if slightly off) portrayal of contemporary life seems prescient today. It is certainlove-in-the-ruinsly a product of nerve-wracking, post-1968 America, but not much of substance has changed in the intervening decades.

One need not look far to see the parallels. In politics, Percy pictures both major political parties so completely at loggerheads that, instead of standing firm on principles, they’ve allowed the slurs thrown at them from the opposition to become their identities. The Republicans have become the “Knothead Party” after an attempt to rename themselves the “Christian Conservative Constitutional Party” created a Soviet acronym (CCCP), which the Democrats called “the most knotheaded political bungle of the century.”[5] The Democrats, likewise have been renamed by their foes, with the Knotheads rattling off a list of what they saw the New Left Party standing for: “LEFT usually it is, sometimes LEFTPAPASAN…, hardly ever the original LEFTPAPASANE, which stood for what, according to the Right, the Left believed in: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-Pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia.”[6]

Or consider entertainment. In addition to such pastimes as night golf and watching the “Stereo-V” at home, denizens of Percy’s mixed up modernity have grown numb to spectacle in film and literature, requiring absurd levels of stimulation—up to and surpassing the pornographic—to even bother watching or reading anything.[7]

Religion gets special attention also. The novel is subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, and the faith of protagonist/narrator Tom More (named after his ancestor Sir Thomas More) is never far from the storyline. Percy skewers the falling away of faith into kitsch with some very cheeky asides. A golf tournament starts off with a “Bible Brunch” under a banner reading, “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All.”[8] The American Catholic Church, which has split off from Rome, observes “Property Rights Sunday” when “a blue banner beside the crucifix shows Christ holding the American home, which has a picket fence, in His two hands.”[9]

Beyond that, the world of Love in the Ruins features race relations broken to the point of armed conflict (complete with a Black Panthers-style militia), sexual appetites sundered from any sense of reason or consequences (with examples throughout), and a complete failure of foresight reflected in the lack of desire to repair or rebuild anything (broken down cars litter highways because people would rather buy another than fix them). Even so, most people ignore the larger problems in favor of continued comfort and wealth: “The center did not hold. However, the gross national product continues to rise.”[10]

Tom More, Soul Doctor
Attention to these problems that everyone else ignores sets Tom More apart from the predicament Percy places him in. In some ways, he is a mirror for all the foibles in the story, a jumble of affability, despair, arrogance, paranoia, complacency, sentimentality, cunning, and libido. In spite of this, though, he sees through the fog, functioning as a prophet of sorts and the conscience of the novel. His is a voice crying in the wilderness, anticipating a disaster even as he is ignored, ridiculed, or pitied by all who hear.

More is the sympathetic heart of the story, the one to whom we find ourselves looking for some glimmer of hope amid the gloom he forecasts. “Hope” may be a bit of a stretch, but More’s despair is winsome, managed at home in Paradise Estates with equal parts indifference to discomfort and Early Times. In the midst of the story’s chaos, he channels his famous ancestor’s desire for Utopia by using his knowledge of modern medicine and electronics to invent the “More Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer,” which he calls a “caliper of the soul.” With his device in hand, Dr. More idiosyncratically imitates the sainted elder More, standing between his country and what he sees as the coming existential disaster, to which the masses are blinded.

He purports to diagnose man’s fall from spiritual wholeness (medicalized as “pineal selfhood” and other such terms), seeing their disease as “angelism-bestialism.” Percy, digging deeply into Kierkegaard, crafts a fictional psychological diagnosis in which patients rove between utter abstraction of the self and the unthinking embodiment of the basest biological urges—a spiritual/physical bipolar disorder. In pursuing special, often scientific, knowledge to explain their own lives, those suffering from this condition become separated from their physical lives, which their world of ideas degrades to the status of animal survival mechanisms. In doing so, they deny the tension between spiritual and physical reality—man is both an embodied soul and an ensouled body.[11]

Such a malady is expressed in the story by characters who, having dislodged their reality through intellectualism, spiritualism, or narcissism (angelism), attempt to re-enter it through unhealthy abuses of sex, food, violence and other base urges (bestialism). If ever there is a diagnosis for the afflictions of the 21st century West, this is it. We are more gnostic than the Gnostics, bifurcating body and soul without even realizing it. We quest for authenticity everywhere but in simple, responsible living. We clamor for purpose, but fail to look beyond ourselves, swaying back and forth between Kierkegaard’s ethical and aesthetic. We feel the dislocation, medicate it with wanton pleasure, and rail against anyone that attempts to restore order.

Body and soul cry out against being forced to live this way, subverting God’s good design for man as a melding of flesh and spirit. After just such a bitter realization (getting caught in fornication because of an allergic reaction to fancy mixed drinks), More makes a half-hearted attempt at suicide, seeks medical attention, and gets committed to a psych ward. Coming to himself among the patients there, he says, “I felt so sad that I groaned aloud an Old Testament lamentation AAAAIEOOOOOW! To which responded a great silent black man sitting next to me on the blocky couch: ‘Ain’t it the truth though.’ After that I felt better.”[12] More finds the “crazies” saner than the doctors and professionals in the “normal” world. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, Percy labels Western man as mentally and spiritually ill.

Welcoming the Apocalypse
Even as More is able to cut through the crap around him, his solution is just as much a product of selfishness and materialism as everything he complains of. In his arrogance, he seeks scientific remedy for spiritual problems, looking to blood chemistry, “heavy sodium”, and his own invention for salvation. His gnostic delusions of grandeur get the better of him and everyone else. In the not-so-subtle Faustian allusion of More’s encounter and bargain with Art Immelmann,[13] Percy sets up a cautionary parable in the climax—those who would use others (even under the pretext of helping them) as a tool for their own glory end up “feasting on death” and losing themselves besides. Immelmann’s devil serves to unleash the good doctor’s pride on the angels and beasts of the story with predictably disastrous results.

The chaos presided over by Immelmann is intended to be seen as hell-on-earth, complete with sulfur and suffering. Tellingly, though, Percy has Immelmann describe this as a place of our own making: “We never never ‘do’ anything to anybody. We only help people do what they want to do…. Doc, we’re dedicated to the freedom of the individual to choose his own destiny and develop his own potential.” [14] In this, Percy channels C. S. Lewis, who writes in The Great Divorce: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”[15] Ralph Wood says this is “the breakthrough prophecy that Walker Percy delivered more than four decades ago: Hell is not only a post-earthly state. It is also this present evil age we inhabit. Though we may outwardly thrive, we inwardly rot.”[16]

As the events of the story come to a head, More watches with detached horror as his device (so gleefully shared around by Immelmann) turns all the various characters into exaggerated parodies of their worst impulses—or, perhaps, into their true selves, freed of inhibition. He cannot quite bring himself to act (or to know how to act). This moment is where the story opens (the rest told in flashback), with More coming to himself, alone, anticipating with palpable excitement whatever calamity he feels to be coming. Has he, in fact brought it about?

More’s paralysis comes from a collapse of love. He has no hope in any human code of ethics, recognizing that systems of corrupt man will fail—both unable to stop the corruptions of men or to show the way to real virtue or righteousness. Nevertheless, More clings (until the end of the story) to the hubris of playing savior through his lapsometer. Only in a Christian vision of the world can there be any hope. His faith (however weak) should have taught him to trust in the Lord and those in whom He is at work to deliver him from evil, but, as Bradford says, “despair and expectation of the last days have diminished this facet of More’s orthodoxy.”[17] In God’s wrath for sin, according to the book of Romans, men “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened,”[18] but, in His mercy through Christ’s atonement, He does not leave us there. Forgetting redemption abandons us to selfish inaction when we think on ultimate things. As Dylan sang (albeit in reference to nuclear war) “Some people are thinkin’ that the end is close by / ’Stead of learning to live they are learning to die.” [19]

The Mirror of Politics
While Percy pokes fun at the inanity of politics early in the book, it becomes one of his inescapable themes. Politics does not exist outside of ourselves, but is rather an extension of our own desires and dysfunctions, a mirror of our collective ego. Political life matters because it is the surface of which all our other problems are the substrate. In the world of Love in the Ruins, all things have fallen into the political binary, and the center has not held. Neighbors and relatives, towns, businesses, doctors, students, churches, institutions, movies, consumer products, and all the rest are described as Knothead or Left.

The political dysfunctions he talks about are, in a sense, angelism-bestialism on a societal scale. There is no center: no consensus, no desire to put others above self, only a fitful dragging of the country from one extreme to the other. In our time, the rise of Trumpism and the inexorable march of Clinton both feed on raw emotion. Their joint promises of “winning,” “rights,” “love,” and the rest are a quagmire of “bestial” reaction to the cool “angelism” of the Obama era, when unending rhetoric and “dreams” failed to take into account the messy realities of humanity. You cannot govern flesh and blood by abstractions. History also shows (and, unfortunately, will soon show again) that neither can you lead thinking, spiritual beings by only speaking to their fears and hungers.

Dislocated politics is the only politics a dislocated people can have. Broken men make broken homes. Broken homes make broken communities. Broken communities make broken nations. Sin has individual and corporate consequences. Everything is tied together. There are no ultimately political solutions to individual and family problems, and there are no merely personal solutions to political troubles. We attempt to fix ideas with experiences and correct physical problems with arguments, whirring from failure to failure. The interconnectedness of things must be confronted with a holistic vision of man’s relationship to God and His world. Neglecting home, you can’t repair society. Neglecting society, though, you’ll lose home, too.

Likewise, we ought to be aware of the mortality of both men and the systems they create. We cannot tinker with designs, ripping parts out of the machinery and replacing them with others, without someday ceasing to function. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, and neither are our nations. Percy, discussing this book, said, “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.”[20] Neither a nation of “angels” nor a nation of “beasts” can be long for this world.

What is Love?
The novel’s title, taken as it was, from Robert Browning’s poem of a tryst in the rubble of a castle, implies a warped sensuality. Somehow love itself is in ruins. Such sexual brokenness runs throughout the story. More, whose wife left him and then died, has become quite promiscuous, pursuing several women’s affections at once. He is constantly musing about “his” women and listening lustily to recordings of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In the large laboratory complex in town is the “Love Clinic” where scientists observe others engaging in sex acts with the same clinical detachment of zoologists observing animal copulation. In all this, Percy seems to be giving the lie to the notion that love is merely a sexual instinct.

More eventually comes to his senses, learning to love people as people and seeking their best interests as much as his own. At the end of the story, he finds himself living out his newfound faith by making love to his wife “at home in bed where all good folk belong.” [21] Instead of stockpiling goods in an abandoned Howard Johnson’s for his own selfish survival, he is clinging to what he loves for the sake of others in the light of our common grace. Commitment to another person, body and soul, through marriage is an antidote to seeing the other as a physical object to be used or theorized about. This is not to imply that a healthy marital sexuality is the telos of a healthy faith. Rather it is a synecdoche for the redirecting of all good desires back toward God’s design, the beginning of a redemption which can extend to all our other types of brokenness.

Barbecuing in Sackcloth
This then, is the solution to which Percy points the beleaguered reader. Life, to be genuine and grounded, must find its roots in the reality of Christ, but also in the reality of creation—even in the realistic parameters of the Fall. To attempt salvation by any other means only brings disaster. By God’s grace, change comes to sick men and sick systems through the ordinary faithfulness of doing the next right thing.

Recognizing this sanctified earthiness, this incarnation, is what sets More on the path to hope. During the heat of the crisis, he is repeatedly rescued by family, friends, and neighbors who remember the simple kindnesses he had done for them in the past. He is able to resist Immelmann’s cloying prudishness with swearing and prayer, dispelling the “angel of light” by calling him what he truly is. [22] He finds rest from abstracted lusts in the arms of his wife and the laughter of his children. He is able to move toward actual repentance of his sins through the comically reborn practice of mourning in sackcloth and ashes, even as he prepares a Christmas feast on the smoker.

Percy is not the cure for all that ails us. For all his propagandizing and moralizing,[23] Love in the Ruins is still merely a novel—and a sometimes “dirty” one at that (though what sex, violence, and cursing it contains is quite purposeful). It neither attempts nor succeeds in addressing all of life, but it raises many questions that we still wrestle with today, “in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world.”[24] Early criticism of the book centered on its structural deviations and exaggerated satire but even then recognized its theological force.

Through this violent Picasso painting of the modern soul, Percy calls us to a restored faith that informs all of life, not merely a holy corner that is more shaped by the culture than shaping it. The remnant of the Church in this story recognizes that it can only serve America by being in but not of it. More’s redemption comes in seeing and loving that which is nearby (wife, children, neighbor, and ultimately Christ) as the source of strength and a platform from which to rebuild. “Our old beloved U.S.A. is in a bad way,”[25] but to fix it, we cannot start at the national, political level.

As with Binx Bolling and Will Barrett before him, Tom More’s catharsis comes only through God’s grace, and it is manifested in his willingness to move into concrete action. No longer “orbiting and descending,” he comes home to roost in the rise and fall of daily life among those he loves. Wife, children, church, and neighbors draw his focus and care. [26] Life goes on, and work remains to be done, but Percy’s denouement points us to a sensible way forward through the madness.


[1] Micah 3:13, New American Standard Bible.

[2] Walker Percy, “Notes for a Novel at about the End of the World,” The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other, 1975, Picador, New York, 104.

[3] Apologies to Matthew Sitman, whose talk on this book at the 2016 Walker Percy weekend I missed but discussed with other attendees, and to Ralph C. Wood, whose brief aside on Love in the Ruins during his panel sparked those discussions. Wood, in “States of Despair: Walker Percy and the Modern Self”, and elsewhere has, I’m sure, covered the whole of this ground better and more thoroughly than I can.

[4] Melvin E. Bradford, “Dr. Percy’s Paradise Lost: Diagnostics in Louisiana,” The Sewanee Review, 81.4 (Autumn 1973), 840.

[5] Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins, Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, New York, 1971. Ballantine Books Ed., New York, 1989, 15.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 32. “It took a lot to get people out to movies in the last days of the old Auto Age. A gimmick was needed. In Homo Hijinks it is an act of fellatio performed by two skydivers in a free fall on 3-D Ektachrome on a two-hundred-foot screen.”

[8] Ibid., 72.

[9] Ibid., 154.

[10] Ibid., 16.

[11] Wood, “States of Despair”.

[12] Percy, Love in the Ruins, 90.

[13] Ibid., 140-144, 176-184. Percy clearly paints Immelmann as a Satan figure. No one knows him, yet he seems to know everyone (including their particular weaknesses). He shows up just as lightning crashes, the electricity goes out, and at the precise moment More wonders to himself if there is a way to use his invention to “treat as well as diagnose.” Later, Immelmann corners More in a restroom at a point of personal weakness and coaxes him into signing a deal. Always, he is described in terms of smell, often with “a whiff of brimstone.” He tempts More away from virtue and into “godlike” pursuit of his own loves.

[14] Ibid., 310.

[15] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1946. Revised ed., HarperOne, New York, 2015, 75.

[16] Ralph C. Wood, “The Pains of Hell and the Surprises of Purgatory: Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins,” in Heaven Hell…and Purgatory?, Michael Root and James J. Buckley, eds., Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Ore., 2015, 52.

[17] Bradford, 842.

[18] Romans 1:21, English Standard Version.

[19] “Let Me Die in My Footsteps”, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, Columbia Records, 1963.

[20] Walker Percy, “Concerning Love in the Ruins”, Signposts in a Strange Land, 1991, Picador, New York, 249.

[21] Percy, Love in the Ruins, 343.

[22] Ibid., 143, 184, 203, 310, 321, etc. There are multiple instances where More’s foul language and drinking staggers Immelmann, and he is finally undone as More invokes his ancestor in Catholic prayer: “Sir Thomas More, kinsman, saint, best dearest merriest of Englishmen, pray for us and drive this son of a bitch hence” (322).

[23] In a 1962 letter to his mentor Caroline Gordon, Percy wrote: “Actually I do not consider myself a novelist but a moralist or a propagandist…. What I really want to do is tell people what they must do and what they must believe if they want to live. Using every guile and low-handed trick in the book of course.”

[24] Percy, Love in the Ruins, 3.

[25] Ibid., 15.

[26] Even recognizing that Percy added further character development to Barrett and More (in The Second Coming and The Thanatos Syndrome, respectively), the immediate actions undertaken by those characters in response to faith in The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins are not completely contradicted in the later works, even as they wrestle with further sins and challenges.

Photo: The Meadowlands, Secaucus, New Jersey, June 2013.

7 thoughts on “Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

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