The Thanatos Syndrome
I first encountered Walker Percy’s novel The Thanatos Syndrome, a the 1987 National Right to Life convention. I’d heard of Percy (mostly through seeing the titles of his books of my parent’s bookshelves), but as I examined a copy of the book with a cover that seemed most appropriate for a thriller of some sort, I wondered, What is this doing here?
After reading the book, the answer was clear, of course. In The Thanatos Syndrome, one of twentieth-century America’s most interesting and provocative novelists offers a vivid and challenging treatment of the consequences of devaluing human life.
Percy’s hero, as in Lost in the Ruins, is Dr. Thomas More. More, a psychiatrist,close observer of the human condition, and self-identified “bad Catholic,” has just been released after serving a two-year prison sentence for distributing illegal amphetamines to truckers. Back in practice in the swampy parish of Feliciana, Louisiana, he notices odd behaviors in his patients: linguistic regression, animal-like sexual behavior, as well as idiot-savant recall of obscure information and calculations performed “out of context,” as Dr. More puts it, without reference to self.
More’s detective work leads him to conclude that a secret consortium of scientists, including his friend and unofficial parole officer, Dr. Bob Comeaux, has intentionally dumped heavy doses of sodium into the area’s drinking water. Once he’s discovered, Dr. Comeaux — not at all ashamed — reports proudly to More what has happened since the water was treated: incidences of undesirable social pathologies from crime to teen pregnancy have dropped precipitously. The heavy sodium, they’ve discovered, suppresses regions of the brain that prompt human beings to push boundaries, misbehave, defy authority, and act with passion. In other words, the sodium has interfered with human freedom — a freedom, although potentially destructive, that makes us unique among animals.
Through this secret project, as well as through his work as director of the local “qualitarian center” at which the very legal practicies of “pedeuthenasia” (killing of infants up to eighteen months old — calling Peter Singer…), and “gereuthanasia” (killing of the elderly) is carried out under government supervision, Comeaux engages in his vigorous eugenics work, which he defends on the grounds of social calm and compassion for suffering. “Can you honestly tell me….that you would condemn a child to a life of rejection, suffering, poverty and pain?” he challenges More.
Dr. More is the one who exposes Comeaux and eventually works to dismantle these projects. But the prophet who goads him to see the wider implications on the insidious activities is the eccentric Father Renaldo Smith, who lives as an ascetic, a modern-day Simeon the Stylite, high in a forestry watch tower.
When he was a young man, he tells More, he traveled to Nazi Germany where he encountered physicians and scientists, cultured men dedicated to the betterment of humanity.
It was these same men, he reflects, who gave medical sanction to the Holocaust.
“Do you know where tenderness leads?….to the gas chambers,” he challenges an uncomprehending congregation near the end of the novel.
(Here Percy is giving tribute to Flannery O’Connor, who originated that seemingly paradoxical phrase in her introduction to a book called A Memoir of Mary Ann, a slim volume about a seriously ill and severely disfigured young girl cared for by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. The book is not in print but O’Connor’s essay is reprinted in the collection Mystery and Manners. O’Connor wrote: “In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness, and tenderness leads to the gas chamber.”)
In The Thanatos Syndrome, physician and philosopher Walker Percy has given us a work that is compelling on the level of a mystery. In addition, this powerful, frightening, and even prescient book shows us what happens to a society that concludes that the best solution for human problems is no less than the elimination of humanity itself.
Originally published at www.amywelborn.com.