Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Thanatos Syndrome, by Walker Percy

Christina's World,
by Andrew Wyeth
This was the last of Walker Percy's novels, published in 1987, three years before his death. I've had his first book, The Moviegoer, on my to-read list for years, but this one crossed my path sooner.

This book reminds me of a pot-luck supper tossed together by a group of fine chefs -- each dish is outstanding, but the menu lacks a certain cohesion. Likewise, Mr. Percy tackles a number of interesting themes -- as I read, I felt like a diner who samples everything on the buffet table and enjoys each dish on its own merits but comes away feeling that it wasn't exactly a meal.

The story's narrator, Dr. Tom More, is a psychiatrist who has just returned to his home in Louisiana after serving a prison term for selling pharmaceuticals. He discovers that some of his former patients' behaviours are now radically different than before, but with a similar pattern of aberration. It doesn't take him long to determine that a small cabal of powerful local men has begun to introduce heavy sodium -- Na-24 -- into the tap water.  They argue that the social benefits outweigh any other concerns:  crime is down; academic performance is up. Of course, there is the odd side effect or adverse reaction here and there, but when compared to the almost miraculous improvements in quality of life, those are negligible.  Right?

Percy gives that question its due consideration.  He notices that one of his former patients no longer shows signs of depression and anxiety; in fact, she seems not only more confident, but downright sexually aggressive. Whether it's something that has been slipped into the water supply without the consumer's knowledge, or whether it's a prescription drug that radically alters personality, he seems to ask, is that really better than learning to live companionably with one's gremlins?
There are names for her disorder, of course -- agoraphobia, free-floating anxiety -- but they don't help much. What to do with herself? She did some painting, not very good, of swamps, cypresses, bayous, Spanish moss, egrets, and such. I thought of her as a housebound Emily Dickinson, but when I saw her on the couch in my office -- she had made the supreme effort, gotten in her car, and driven to town -- she looked more like Christina in Wyeth's painting, facing the window, back turned to me, hip making an angle, thin arm raised in a gesture of longing, a yearning toward -- toward what? In her case, the yearning was simple, deceptively simple. If only she could be back at her grandmother's farm in Vermont, where as a young girl she had been happy...
I contrived that it crossed her mind that her terror might not be altogether bad. What if it might be trying to tell her something, like the mysterious visitor in her dream? I seldom give anxious people drugs. If you do, they may feel better for a while, but they'll never find out what the terror is trying to tell them. At any rate, it set her wondering and made her life more tolerable. She wasn't afraid of being afraid. We were getting somewhere.
I loved Percy's reference to 'Christina's World' in this passage.  I know this painting well -- it's set in Cushing, Maine, not far from my own childhood home (and a print always hung in our own living room).  Christina was paraplegic, and the image of her lying in the field so far from the sanctuary of the house captures perfectly the longing and anxiety of a woman who is perhaps not physically but emotionally debilitated. Dr More's descriptions of the work he had done with his various patients before the water supply obliterated their symptoms spoke of a thoughtful, humane and highly individualised mode of treatment. Yes, he had a lapse in his medical ethics, but what about drugging an entire population without their knowledge and consent, even if the overall effect is for the better?

Another theme that I admired greatly is Percy's portrayal of social strata in Louisiana. I grew up in the northeast. When I first came to the deep south, I felt -- quite correctly -- that I'd come to a different country, and Louisiana is a world in and of itself, distinct from its neighbours, Texas and Mississippi. One of the first things I noticed as a Yankee in the south was that well wishes were ubiquitous but felt utterly insincere. The relations between the races at first glance seemed unchanged from the Jim Crow days, but surely there were layers of meaning that were lost on me?  Yes, indeed, there were. Dr. More greets Frank, the black hospital custodian, and Percy makes it clear that there are entire books to be read between the lines of their conversation.
One would have to be a Southerner, white or black, to understand the complexities of this little exchange. Seemingly pleasant, it was not quite. Seemingly a friend in the old style, Frank was not quite. The glint of eye, seemingly a smile of greeting, was not. It was actually malignant. Frank was having a bit of fun with me, I knew, and he knew that I knew, using the old forms of civility to say what he pleased.
I value his honesty -- even his jeering. He knew this and we parted amiably. We understand each other. He reminds me of the Russian serfs Tolstoy wrote about, who spoke bluntly to their masters, using the very infirmity of their serfdom as a warrant to scold: That was my encounter with Frank Macon a week ago, a six-layered exchange beyond the compass of any known science of communication but plain as day to Frank and me.
To his credit, Dr. More patiently and methodically considers the pros and cons of adding heavy sodium to the water supply. Yes, he concludes, a lower violent crime rate can only be a good thing, but if the cost is an overall deadening of passion, is it a good trade-off?
What's going on? What do they have in common? Are they better or worse? Well, better in the sense that they do not have the old symptoms, as we shrinks called them, the ancient anxiety, guilt, obsessions, rage repressed, sex suppressed. Happy is better than unhappy, right? But, but -- what? They're somehow -- diminished. Diminished how? Well, in language, for one thing. They sound like Gardner's chimps in Oklahoma: Mickey like -- Donna want --Touch me -- Ask them anything out of context as you would ask chimp Washoe or chimp Lana: Where's stick? and they'll tell you, get it, point it out. Then: Tickle me, hug me. Okay, Doc? Then there's the loss of something. What? A certain sort of self-awareness? the old ache of self? Ella doesn't even bother to look at her own photograph, doesn't care. Bad or good? For another thing, a certain curious disinterest. Example: Take the current news item: Soviets invited to occupy Baluchistan, their client state in southern Iran to restore order, reported advancing on Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. What to do? Let them have it? Confront them? Ultimatum? Two years ago people would be huddled around the tube listening to Rather and Brokaw. My patients? My acquaintances? No arguments, no fright, no rage, no cursing the Communists, no blaming the networks, no interest. Enrique doesn't mention liberals anymore. Debbie does not revile Jerry Falwell anymore. There's a sameness here, a flatness of affect. There was more excitement in prison...
In one of the thematic threads that I struggled to integrate with the others, Dr. More climbs a fire watch-tower where a priest has secluded himself.  He now babbles like a madman, a visionary, or both. The comparison to the desert mystics who removed themselves to the tops of high pillars -- the Stylites -- was unavoidable (and Percy later spells it out specifically). Clearly Fr. Smith disapproves of what he sees going on in the parish, and just as clearly Dr. More (who bears the name of a martyred saint) makes a few pilgrimages to the tower to seek the wisdom of the recluse, but he invariably rejects the priest's ramblings as senile, psychotic, or both. Still, even in these days of modern chemistry, there seems to be a place for faith, mystery and miracles...
I can tell you this on good authority because I know the people it happened to. Both desperate cases. One had a tumor of the womb which was diagnosed as malignant. The other, a close friend of mine, had a son working for Texaco who fell off a rig during a hurricane. After three days the Coast Guard gave up on him. Both of these people had the same impulse the same night, the exact same time, to get up and go for help from Father Smith. They did. Of course they couldn't get up the tower, so they both wrote their intentions on notes and pinned the notes to the steps of the tower. The very next day the first person's tumor had gone down -- the doctors could not find a trace of it -- and the other person's son was found clinging to a board for three days and three nights.
I've struggled to understand why, although I admired this novel in some ways, I don't love it. I come back to the lack of cohesion, and Percy's own mention of Tolstoy brought another comparison to mind. When I was reading Anna Karenina, I rolled my eyes as the author went off on his enormous sidebars about the lives of serfs and duck hunts, but I knew that in a mere hundred pages or so, he would eventually come back to Anna and Vronsky and the central plot of his novel. Walker Percy also has some other messages to get across, but instead of veering off on Tolstoyan tangents, he tries to integrate them with the main story line.  And it doesn't work well. As with Tolstoy, I'd rather he wrote separate novels about the Stylite priest in his fire tower and about the relations between the sexes and races in Louisiana. The main theme -- social engineering by tampering with the water supply -- was engrossing and horrifying enough on its own.

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