On Guard Against Good Intentions.
By George Littleton
Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 37-38
The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987. 372 pp. $17.95.)
In Walker Percy’s latest novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, Dr. Thomas More, a psychiatrist recently paroled from federal prison, uncovers a nefarious scheme to “improve the quality of life” for the unsuspecting denizens of Feliciana Parish in southeast Louisiana. Such improvement is realized through the addition of the heavy sodium ion into the region’s water supply. Dr. More becomes suspicious when his female patients present themselves rearward during analysis, and the hospital’s black janitor, a hunting companion for forty years, addresses his friend with “standard, U.S. politeness, like a drive-up customer at Big Mac’s.”
In typical Percy fashion, this limited plot is carried along by the author’s wry and perceptive analysis of modern America and revealed through his well-wrought but tiny band of characters. Opposing philosophies are offered by the Qualitarian scientists from Fedville, who tamper with the water supply to gather statistical data to support their convictions, and Father Simon Rinaldo Smith, an alcoholic Catholic priest who, isolated in a fire tower above his hospice for society’s rejects, prattles on about his visit to Germany in the late 1930s. Providing the logical and philosophical link between these elements is Dr. Tom, the novel’s detached but keenly observant protagonist.
The story opens when Dr. Tom, fresh out of Fort Pelham Federal Detention Center, notices a variety of unusual occurrences, including the simian sexual behavior of his female patients and their willingness (and ability) to answer questions completely out of context. For instance, Dr. Tom might suddently [sic] inquire as to the exact location of Evansville, Indiana. His patients roll up their eyes, as though reading a computer printout, and provide latitudes and distances from major urban centers. Not knowing whether it is he or his patients who have changed during his detention, he seeks the help of his cousin, Dr. Lucy Lipscomb, epidemiologist, soybean farmer, and computer expert.
Together, they not only discover that sodium is in the water supply, but that it is being put there covertly by a select group of transcendent Qualitarians who plan to reveal their “numbers” just prior to the upcoming national elections. The Qualitarians, led by Drs. Bob Comeaux and John Van Dorn, will show that their project has undeniably improved the quality of life in Feliciana, and that any candidate who opposes their project opposes improved life for all Americans.
In the novel’s vaguely futuristic setting, the Qualitarians are they who believe in death with dignity. They believe it is better to terminate, through pedeuthanasia and gereuthanasia, a life that is a life without quality. They rhetorically ask Dr. Tom if he would condemn a little child to a life without love, or have someone needlessly suffer with AIDS.
When confronted with their colleague’s discovery of the sodium project, Comeaux and Van Dorn smugly defend their plot and invite Dr. Tom to “join the team.” The heavy sodium ion affects certain neurological and psychological traits through cortical suppression, they explain. Results of the project include drastic reductions in crime, child abuse, and homosexuality. Math scores improve 100 percent in schools within the test area, and students have total recall of imports, exports, and geographical relations. Black youths from the Baton Rouge housing projects apprentice themselves at gas stations and factories, and inmates et the Angola State Prison Farm sing spirituals in the fields and refuse to return to the cities upon release. Teenage pregnancies are eliminated by changing the female cycle from menstrual to estrus. How, ask the Qualitarians, can such results be argued with?
Dr. Tom, always the devil’s advocate, mentions civil rights, secret assaults on people’s psyches, and their speech and language function being reduced to two-word utter-
ances and the inability to write a complete sentence. Furthermore, the Qualitarians do not partake of the ion themselves, and there is the secondary discovery that Van Dorn is running a child pornography ring at his boarding school as part of what he calls the “sexual liberation of the Western world.”
Meanwhile, Father Smith refuses to leave the fire tower. Fixated by the memory of a trip to pre-war Germany, Father Smith recounts, in a twenty-page intermezzo called “Father Smith’s Confession,” how he spent time among the country’s most eminent psychiatrists, and how they argued over a book entitled The Release of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value.
Although he was not particularly taken with the psychiatrists, who as a group were great humanitarians and lovers of children, he recalled their debate over the relative importance of love of self and love of country. He also recalled them scoffing at Hitler’s radio ravings over the presence of the “alien” within the pure organism of “Das Volk.”
The true object of Simon’s fascination was his cousin Helmut, a Brownshirt who aspired to become a full-fledged SS and join the ranks of the German army and fight for the Fatherland in the imminent war. Helmut’s devotion to his cause and country inspired Simon in ways he had never known. Father Smith confesses to Dr. Tom that, had he been a young German at the time, he would have followed his cousin Helmut into the Hitler Jugend. Interestingly, he said, Helmut had little interest in the Jews, saying only that they had volunteered for the Jugend and had been turned down.
Father Smith’s next visit to Germany was as an American soldier liberating a children’s hospital. Its director had been one of the psychiatrists he had known from his earlier visit. A nurse there showed Father Smith a special room where the doctor regularly exterminated children with experimental gases.
Preparing to leave the fire tower, Dr. Tom asks Simon why he became a priest. Simply, says Simon, because one must choose life or death.
The book ends when Dr. Tom returns to the boarding school to rescue his children from the pederasts. In the novel’s funniest scene, the staff of Belle Ame are forced to drink molar concentrations of heavy sodium, whereupon Mrs. Cheney presents rearward to Coach, causing Dr. V. D. to thump his chest, bare his teeth, and attack. Their apelike aggression is mollified with a bag of Snickers until the police arrive to arrest the whole gang and shut off the sodium shunt. The crime rate rises, math scores plummet, and Felicianians engage in their conversation of old, as strange now as ever.
The Thanatos Syndrome is an eminently readable, very funny detective-adventure story peopled by a familiar crew we have all loved and despised. It is also a novelistic prophesy about the fate of modern America. Although the nature of this prophesy is ambiguous–after all, reduced crime and disease control are lofty achievements–we are partially tipped off by the book’s title. Dr. Tom calls the resulting behavior of the sodium recipients a syndrome. The drive towards Thanatos is the drive toward self-destruction. But it is not the unwitting sodium recipients who are self-destructive; they remain intact, carefree as the animals they have come to resemble. It is instead the scientists, the transcendent, magnificent demigods of our age, who have decided to improve the quality of life for those below them, and in so doing lead our society towards death.
An important parallel develops between the Qualitarians planning an improved society high in their Fedville offices, and Father Smith’s consideration, high in his fire-tower, of the transformation of Helmut’s personality. The divergent issue is that Father Smith realizes the best intentions can turn imperceptibly to horror and cruelty. One day the boys in Brown are filled with love of country, the next they are manning the crematoriums. Thinking of the Fedville crowd, Father Smith remarks that compassion is the first step toward the gas chamber.
In an early essay entitled “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World,” Percy acknowledged that his Catholic world view is “informed by a certain belief about man’s nature and destiny that cannot fail to be central to any novel I write.” A certain dose of this view is present here, especially in a general reverence for life and a consideration of man’s free will unfettered by science, heavy sodium ions and the like. But the import of this novel’s prophesy is more than a rehash of familiar principles.
The importance of the individual, already diminished by the enormous killing potential of modern weapons, is degraded even more as the aura of technology mixes with the aura of power. The purveyors of such power become transcendent over the world and truly believe they know what is best for those below them. In The Thanatos Syndrome, Fedville administers a “shotgun prophylaxis” to cure society’s ills, forgetting that what is best for one is not necessarily best for another. Thus, we as individuals must be on guard against those who would become extremists in pursuit of their good intentions. So too must the powerful remain sensitive to what it means to be human. We may be screwed-up, Percy seems to be saying, but it’s better than being dead.
George Littleton is a writer on the staff of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education in Montgomery.