Walker Percy in his 1971 dystopian novel "Love in the Ruins" paints a picture of a morally degenerate America consumed by hedonism, wallowing in ignorance, led by kleptocrats and fools, fragmented into warring and often violent cultural extremes and on the cusp of a nuclear war. It is a country cursed by its failure to address or atone for its original sins of genocide and slavery. The ethos of ceaseless capitalist expansion, white supremacy and American exceptionalism, perpetuated overseas in the country's imperial wars, eventually consumes the nation itself. The accomplices, who once benefited from this evil, become its victims. How, Percy asks, does one live a life of meaning in such a predatory society? Is it even possible? And can a culture ever regain its equilibrium when it sinks into such depravity?
The novel's main character, a doctor named Tom More, is a suicidal alcoholic and a womanizer. He has invented the "Ontological Lapsometer" to measure human souls. He notes that "the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man" has worsened "ever since the famous philosopher Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house."
Percy, echoing the Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, argues that the capitalist, rationalist ethic that crushed empathy and understanding and replaced it with the primacy of personal gain, cruelty and profit doomed Western civilization. The basest lusts are celebrated by capitalism. Success is defined by material advancement, power and the attainment of celebrity. Those, like Donald Trump, who amass enormous wealth, often by cheating, abusing and defrauding their employees and associates, are treated like pagan idols.
Percy, who like the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was a medical school graduate, was steeped in the classics, theology, philosophy, literature and history. He knew the common denominators of decaying societies. The elevation of the morally degenerate in the last days was never accidental. These corrupt elites embodied the warped values of a dying culture. They reflected back to the society, as does Trump, its spiritual emptiness. The feckless Romanovs in Russia, the megalomaniacal Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany and the doddering head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph I, in the last days of the European monarchies exhibited the same stupidity, self-delusion and self-destructiveness seen in the late American Empire. The moment of terminal decline is always marked by an inability to acknowledge reality and by monstrous, ill-fated schemes, often expressed in wars, to restore a supposed golden age.
"In every civilization its most impressive period seems to precede death by only a moment," the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote. "Like the woods of autumn, life defies death in a glorious pageantry of color. But the riot of this color has been distilled by an alchemy in which life has already been touched by death. Thus man claims immortality for his spiritual achievements just when their mortal fate becomes apparent; and death and mortality are strangely mixed into, and potent in, the very pretention of immortality."
Our capitalist elites have used propaganda, money and the marginalizing of their critics to erase the first three of philosopher John Locke's elements of the perfect state: liberty, equality and freedom. They exclusively empower the fourth, property. Liberty and freedom in the corporate state mean the liberty and freedom of corporations and the rich to exploit and pillage without government interference or regulatory oversight. And the single most important characteristic of government is its willingness to use force, at home and abroad, to protect the interests of the property classes. This abject surrender of the state to the rich is expressed at this moment in the United States in the new tax code and the dismantling of environmental regulations. This degradation of basic democratic ideals -- evidenced when the Supreme Court refuses to curb wholesale government surveillance of the public or defines pouring unlimited dark money into political campaigns as a form of free speech and the right to petition the government -- means the society defines itself by virtues that are dead. The longer this illusion is perpetuated, the more an enraged public turns to demagogues who promise a new utopia and then, once in power, accelerate the assault.
All of our institutions are corrupted by a neoliberal ideology. It has contaminated the press, the academy, the arts, the courts and religious institutions. Christian theology has ingested the toxic brew of American exceptionalism, the myth of American virtues and the conflation of freedom with unfettered capitalism. The liberal church, like the bankrupt liberal class, holds up multiculturalism and identity politics as an ethical imperative and ignores the primacy of economic justice. It tolerates the intolerant, giving credibility to those who peddle the heretical creed of the "prosperity gospel," a creed that says God showers divine favors in the form of wealth and power on the Christian elect. This idea makes Trump one of God's favorites. It is also an idea that is a complete inversion of the core message of the Christian Gospels.
In Percy's novel, the Roman Catholic Church has rebranded itself as the American Catholic Church, based in Cicero, Ill. It celebrates Property Rights Sunday. The priest raises the Eucharistic host in the Mass, conducted in Latin, to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Sermons focus on how the rich in the Bible -- Joseph of Arimathea and Lazarus -- were specially blessed by God. Evangelical Christians stage ever more elaborate spectacles and entertainment, including nighttime golf -- the Moonlight Tour of the Champs--advertised with the slogan "Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All."
Today's secularists have their own forms of hedonism, self-worship and idolatry. Spirituality is framed by puerile questions: How is it with me? Am I in touch with myself? Have I achieved happiness and inner peace? Have I, along with my life coach, ensured that I have reached my full career potential? Am I still young-looking? What does my therapist say? It is a culture based on self-absorption, a vain quest for eternal youth, and narcissism. Any form of suffering, which is always part of self-sacrifice, is to be avoided. The plight of our neighbor is irrelevant. Sexual degeneracy -- narcissists are incapable of love -- abounds in a society entranced by casual hook-ups and pornography. In the Percy novel's "Love Clinic," "volunteers perform sexual acts singly, in couples, and in groups, behind viewing mirrors in order that man might learn more about the human sexual response."
"I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all," More says. "Generally I do as I please."
The single-minded pursuit of happiness, with happiness equated with wealth and power, creates a population consumed by anxiety and self-loathing. Few achieve the imagined pinnacle of success, and those who do are often psychopaths. Building a society around these goals is masochistic. It shuts down any desire for self-knowledge because the truth of our lives is unpleasant. We fill the spiritual vacuum with endless activities, entertainment and nonstop electronic hallucinations. We flee from silence and contemplation. We are determined to avoid facing what we have become.
Renegades in the novel have formed armed guerrilla bands in the swamps. These "castoffs" and "disaffected" rebels include "dropouts from Tulane and Vanderbilt, M.I.T. and Loyola; draft dodgers, deserters from the Swedish army, psychopaths and pederasts from Memphis and New Orleans whose practices were not even to be tolerated in New Orleans; anti-papal Catholics, malcontented Methodists, ESPers, UFOers, Aquarians, ex-Ayn Randers, Choctaw Zionists who have returned to their ancestral hunting grounds, and even a few old graybeard Kerouac beats. ..."
The United States in Percy's book has been fighting a war in Ecuador for 15 years. The old and infirm, like the poor and disabled, are abandoned by the society. The elderly are shipped off to a euthanasia facility called Happy Isles Separation Center where they are finished off with the "Euphoric Switch." All those pushed aside by the corporate state live in misery and poverty and are treated as a criminal caste.
More -- whose ancestor was St. Thomas More, the writer of "Utopia" -- and his three paramours escape to the abandoned ruins of the local Howard Johnson's. The faded Rotary banner still adorns the banquet room. It reads: "Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships?" More and one of his lovers, Moira, sit on a moldering bed and read "above the Gideon Bible" scrawled on the wall the words "For a free suck call room 208."