The Thanatos Syndrome
This past weekend Ron and I went to the first annual Walker Percy Weekend in St. Francisville, Louisiana, which is in the region where one of Percy’s novels is set, The Thanatos Syndrome.
We flew into New Orleans and drove across the Lake Pontchartrain causeway to Covington, where he lived, and then on up to St. Francisville, where we left our suitcases at the St. Francisville Inn and walked a few feet across the lawn to the park for the first official event, a crawfish boil. We met some local people, cracked and ate an entire tray full of crawfish each, talked to Walker Percy fans from Washington D.C., New York City, and Vancouver, B.C., watched a documentary about Percy underneath the live oaks draped with Spanish moss, and then crossed back to the Inn to sit on the porch, have a drink, talk to a few more folks, and be served with birthday cake by one of them who had brought it to share.
Saturday we split up so that I went to “Cinematic Catechism: Moviegoing and the Meaning of Life” at the West Feliciana Court House and Ron went to “Lost in the Cosmos: Is Science Enough Without Religion?” at Temple Sinai. We met for lunch at the Magnolia grill and compared notes, whereupon it seemed that my session had been slightly better. After lunch, I told the LSU oral historians how we had bonded over our love of Walker Percy at Hendrix College and named our son “Walker,” and then in the afternoon, I went to “Place and Non-place: Walker Percy and the Search for Home” and Ron went to “Will Percy’s World: Stoicism and the Southern Aristocracy,” after which it seemed to us that Ron’s session had been slightly better. We dashed off for a tour of the Nuclear Energy Plant at River Bend, which figures peripherally in The Thanatos Syndrome, and then we came back to St. Francisville for the “front porch bourbon tasting tour,” where we drank a sazerac, “LiberTea,” shoo-fly punch, and mint julep, riding back to the park on a trolley for the “Louisiana flavors” dinner, where we sat at a table with Walker Percy’s daughter Mary Pratt and her friends Alice and Robert and ate cochon de lait, fried catfish, and grilled oysters. Robert and I figured out that he knew the imaginary friends we were going to spend the evening with the next day. After the dinner there was music and finally we walked back to the Inn, where we sat on the porch with the people from British Columbia, some local St. Francisville residents, and Rick from New Orleans, who told me about some good places to see the next day.
We slept a little bit too late to see as much of New Orleans as we had planned, parking at Audubon Park at noon. We rode the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue (and then a bus and then another streetcar) to Canal Street, where we got off and walked around the French Quarter. We poked our heads into a few of the shops and bought a few souvenirs (finger narwhals and a t-shirt from a store named Jazz Funeral). We didn’t make time for a sit-down lunch, but bought a slice of pizza and a frozen daiquiri served in a Styrofoam cup with a lid and straw. Walking out of Jackson Square on the French Market side, we came upon a jazz combo playing. Finally, we hopped in a cab to get back to our rental car at Audubon Park.
We drove to Baton Rouge and knocked on the door of a house where my imaginary friends Nancy and Jenny, along with Joe and Randon and Jazz, their dog, were waiting to meet me and Ron in person. For me, at least, it was one of those meetings of imaginary friends where nothing was surprising. They were exactly as I’d thought they would be, and we picked up conversation pretty much where we’d left off the last time we’d talked. At dinner, they served gin and tonics and crawfish etouffee, which was fabulous, and then they let me sit in a rolling chair on a hardwood floor and gave me rhythm instruments, all things my own family usually won’t do. It’s the first time I’ve ever met someone in person for the first time and spent that night at their house, and it turned out so well I didn’t even have a chance to look at the book Nancy had picked out for my bedside table (although it’s on my library list now) and we got up early to go out for beignets together before Ron and I had to be on our way to the airport.
On the flights back, I re-read Walker Percy’s novel The Thanatos Syndrome, re-discovering an envelope I’d used as a bookmark, hand-addressed to Lewis Lawson (who gave it to me) from Walker Percy.
The Thanatos Syndrome is about what happens to Dr. Tom Moore after Love In the Ruins. Frank, a black janitor in the hospital who has known Tom for forty years, greets his return from prison (where he ended up after the events of Love In the Ruins) by saying “I knowed they couldn’t keep you! People talking about trouble. I say no way. No way Doc going to be in trouble. Ain’t no police going to hold Doc for long. People got too much respect for Doc! I mean.” In a passage reminiscent of the one about the British use of subtext in Tigerman, Dr. Moore says
“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. What he was pleased to say was: So you got caught, didn’t you, and you got out sooner than I would have, didn’t you? Even his pronounciation of police as po-lice was overdone and farcical, a parody of black speech, but a parody he calculated I would recognize.”
Dr. More, on probation, is not interested in regaining his license to dispense drugs to cure patients’ psychological problems, but wants to work with some of them on what he calls “the old-fashioned talking cure.” With one patient, he says
“We talked about failure. What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print. But in the movies they don’t show the failures. What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and starts, mostly fits. Life doesn’t have to stop with failure.”
Ironically, Dr. More finds himself in the middle of the same kind of plot that was not rounded-off in the 14 episodes of the canceled TV show Firefly, but finally given closure in the movie Serenity. His habits of observation and curiosity lead him to discover a secret, an act that a fellow psychiatrist defends by asking “What would you say if I gave you a magic wand you could wave…and overnight you could reduce crime in the streets by eighty-five percent?….Child abuse by eight-seven percent….Teenage suicide by ninety-five percent….Wife battering by seventy-three percent….Teenage pregnancy by eight-five percent….Hospital admissions for depression, chemical dependence, anxiety reduced by seventy-nine percent….AIDS by seventy-six percent.” Anyone who has seen the movie Serenity knows how this kind of thing turns out.
The satire from Love In the Ruins continues along the same lines it followed in that novel, although now some of it has been institutionalized by law:
“What you’re talking about is pedeuthanasia and gereuthanasia. What we’re doing, as you well know, is following the laws of the Supreme Court, respecting the rights of the family, the consensus of child psychologists, the rights of the unwanted child not to have to suffer a life of suffering and abuse, the right of the unwanted aged to a life with dignity and a death with dignity. Toward this end we—to use your word—dispose of those neonates and euthanates who are entitled to the Right to Death provision in the recent court decisions.”
As one of his patients says to Dr. More (about witnessing one part of the Final Solution for Jewish children in Germany during the 1930’s) “Soldiers are interested, not horrified. Only later was I horrified. We’ve got it wrong about horror. It doesn’t come naturally but takes some effort.”
It doesn’t take too much effort to see the cumulative image of the novel as satiric: “hundreds of black men and women, the men bare-chested, the women kerchiefed, bend over the rows” of cotton at Angola prison, singing a spiritual as they work. One of the characters says to Dr. More: “It beats Attica and Sing Sing, doesn’t it?” If the answer wasn’t obvious before, this picture of slavery makes it obvious.
As part of Walker Percy weekend, we were offered a tour of Angola. We declined, but not before the invitation, in my e-mail, caused Facebook to ask me to “like” a page for “Friends of Angola Prison.” That’s an irony almost worthy of Percy himself.
Have you ever heard of Walker Percy? If you haven’t read any of his novels, my suggestion would be to start with Lancelot or The Moviegoer. We suggested that our kids, during their first year of college, start with The Last Gentleman, mostly because of the part where the characters go to college. If you’ve read him, which novel or essay is your favorite?