The Thanatos Syndrome: Exciting, Horrifying, Disappointing

by Ralph C. Wood

Ralph C. Wood’s most recent book is The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 7, 1987, p. 857. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is not a restored religious humanism that will make Christian faith a vital answer to the thanatos syndrome. Perhaps Percy should consider writing a novel in which, instead of having apes teach humans how to communicate, Jews teach Christians how not to be ashamed of their scandalous specificity of God’s redemptive people.

Book Review: The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy (Farrar Straus Giroux, 372 pp., $17.95)

Walker Percy’s sixth novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (Farrar Straus Giroux, 372 PP., $17.95) , is at once his most thrilling and most disappointing book. The last three sections of the novel are so excitingly plotted that the reader is kept in nail-biting suspense. Percy’s mastery of the cliff-hanging plot may garner him a larger popular audience. But it also costs him much in both theological humor and moral insight.

That Percy can write a thriller is something of a surprise. In his earlier works, especially his internationally famous first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), the outward events do not matter really so much as the narrator’s witty meditations on his own inward life and the life of the world. Even in such an apocalyptic novel as Love in the Ruins (1971) , what fails to happen -- a Louisiana version of Armageddon -- is far more important than Dr. Thomas More’s desperate attempts to stave off Mephistophelian evil. More’s reluctant confession of his own sorry state served, in fact, to mark Percy’s early satire as Christian rather than pagan.

The Thanatos Syndrome purports to be a sequel to Love in the Ruins. Like its predecessor, the new novel has a futuristic setting -- no longer the Orwellian year of 1984 but a much later and worse time near the end of our century. The narrator is again the sardonic, disheveled, bourbon-drinking psychiatrist who cannot escape his Catholic past as a lineal descendant of the Christian humanist saint Sir Thomas More. But whereas the More of the first novel had begun to recover his mental and moral health after conquering suicidal tendencies, the More we encounter in the new novel has spent two years in prison for selling amphetamines to truck drivers. Ellen Oglethorpe, the ethically sensible wife who had helped restore More’s sanity, has become a champion bridge player and tongue-speaking charismatic.

Though neither of these drastic personality changes is made credible, the furious state of More’s mind is vividly and convincingly drawn. Like the bilious narrator of Lancelot (1977) , More is persuaded that an awful spiritual malaise has befallen the modern West. Ours is the age of mass death, he argues, and our chief malady is thus the thanatos syndrome. Yet if Percy has a spokesman it is surely Father Simon Rinaldo Smith, the priest who dwells alone atop a fire tower and thinks himself a latter-day St. Simeon Stylites.

Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer. . . . Never in the history of the world have there been so many civilized tenderhearted souls as have lived in this century. . . . More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together. . . . Do you know where tenderness always leads. . . . To the gas chambers

As these statements make clear, The Thanatos Syndrome is an angry and admonitory novel. For the first time in his fiction, Percy likens late 20th-century American life to the Weimar Republic. He finds harrowing parallels between our own behaviorists and the German scientists who practiced eugenics while quoting Rilke and Goethe and Schiller. Our culture shares with theirs, Percy suggests. a mere utilitarian regard for human life.

The logical conclusion of that view is that those who are "useless" to themselves or the world -- unwanted infants, nursing home residents and victims of severe mongolism, epilepsy, encephalitis, arteriosclerosis, progressive neurological disease and hopeless schizophrenia -- ought to be "compassionately" eliminated. In the absence of a "life with dignity," reasons one of Percy’s humanist technicians, those who make no ‘contribution" to society should all be accorded their right to a "death with dignity."

The sickness-unto-death that first manifested itself at Verdun and the Somme did not end with Dachau and Hiroshima; it has penetrated to the very core of American culture. Percy gives our spiritual disease terrifying expression by having a team of well-meaning humanists enact their own deceptively decent form of demonry. Secretly injecting heavy sodium into the local water supply of a south Louisiana parish, these psychiatrists are able to alter social behavior drastically. Such chemically induced brain control brings a virtual end to the evils of child abuse, wife battering, teen-age pregnancy, drug addiction, anxiety and depression, and even AIDS.

More’s opposition to these moral and medical "improvements" earns him the contempt of his fellow physicians. They accuse him of obstructing social betterment, just as other regressive types once opposed fluoridation for the control of tooth decay. Though he is a sorry Christian, More knows that it is nothing less than satanic to seek the elimination of spiritual suffering. To devise a medical cure for the human plight, More believes, is to destroy our very humanity.

The awesome freedom made possible by human self-consciousness -- by our condition as homo sapiens -- is indeed the source of the world’s wars and insanities and perversions. Yet only at the risk of such fearful misery, More discovers, can we have the self-awareness that confesses both sin and faith, that enables us to live in real relation to God and our fellows. Hence his healthy agreement with Freud that the modest aim of psychotherapy is to transform screaming rage into ordinary unhappiness.

The novel is not entirely a grim cautionary tale of spiritual death wrought in older to "improve the quality of life." Percy’s riveting plot centers on More’s wild, and wildly funny, attempt to halt this diabolical animalizing of our species. By giving his enemies an overdose of their own medicine, More transforms them into baboonlike creatures who pooch out their lips, utter subhuman hoo hoo hoo sounds, and mount each other from the rear. Perhaps Percy’s wickedest irony is to have the most brutish of these secular saviors learn -- from an ape that knows sign language -- how to communicate all over again.

Yet the novel’s lasting impression is not humorous but horrifying, especially in its recounting of the sexual perversions that attend the somber existence of sharing and caring. The same humanists who speak so abstractly about compassion have contempt for ordinary heterosexual love. Erotic depravity finds its psychological counterpart in an equally inhuman flattening of speech and vacancy of character. Percy introduces us to all manner of brainy people who have total recall for facts and numbers, but who have never asked what events and places are worth remembering. Other writers have named this new breed: C. S. Lewis referred to its members as trousered apes; Friedrich Nietzsche called it the herd and the hive.

Percy has been making a similar argument since beginning his writing career in the mid-’50s. His reiterated thesis is that the Holocaust and the Gulag, far from being genocidal betrayals of the Enlightenment tradition, are its very product. A humanism unleashed from its Judeo-Christian moorings -- a scientific and behaviorist humanism -- leads to beastliness. Not to believe in the God of Israel and Christ is, for Percy, no longer to believe in humanity either.

Yet Percy’s implied case for Christian humanism as the answer to our deadly ills remains itself disappointingly abstract. It seems to be a regulative ideal more than a historical reality, a private preference more than a corporate vision. Father Smith lives in eagle-eyrie isolation and in near-contempt for the body of Christ.

More’s moral fury is much more convincing than his religious faith. And they both seem to thrive on their anger, to relish their spleen, to be more than a little in love with their hate.

One fears that Smith and More, perhaps like their author, are drawn to Christianity mainly as a transcendent means for making their own cultural critique. They want to wield its truth like an ax in order to slay the behaviorist lie. Largely absent from The Thanatos Syndrome is the redemptive humor of Percy’s early work, in which he discerns that his own satirists need satirizing, that the gospel is not a divine stone flung angrily at the world, and that faith is God’s comic gift rather than our own stern decision. Here, instead, Father Smith declares that "in the end one must choose -- given the chance." "Choose what?" asks More. "Life or death. What else?" This is the stuff of a very romantic existentialism. And it threatens to. issue in its political contrary -- a repressive reactionism.

About one thing, however, Percy re

mains indubitably right. This is indeed the age of mass death, and its chief scandal is the continued existence of the people called Israel. "Since the Jews were the original chosen people of God," observes Father Smith, "they are a sign of God’s presence" which cannot be subsumed under any so-called larger truth. Yet Percy fears that, unlike the Jews, Christians have evacuated their central categories of all meaning. Smith complains repeatedly that salvation and sin, heaven and hell, are words that no longer signify. They have been worn slick by a trite overfamiliarity, and perhaps by a satanic maleficence.

What Percy fails to understand is that the language of faith may have ceased to register because Christians have abandoned their narrative and confessional particularity. Embarrassed at its cultural "irrelevance," the church has sought to generalize its specific story into vague consensus values, to translate its concrete doctrines into something as airy as Percy’s reverential regard for human life. This is to get matters exactly backward. To rely on a nebulous Christian-humanist synthesis as a guarantee that the Holocaust and Gulag will never happen again is perhaps to create the conditions under which they are likely to recur. A religious minority such as the Jews is the very first group to be persecuted in the name of our common humanity and a universal ethic.

It is not, I believe, a restored religious humanism that will make Christian faith a vital answer to the thanatos syndrome. Percy ought to take more seriously his own instinctively high esteem for the Jews. Perhaps he should consider writing a novel in which, instead of having apes teach humans how to communicate, Jews teach Christians how not to be ashamed of their scandalous specificity as God’s redemptive people.