Love in the Ruins

by Walker Percy

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Walker Percy’s novel Love in The Ruins, subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, is a highly unusual mix of romance, comedy, satire, and post-apocalyptic fiction. It was written in 1971 and focuses on many aspects of twentieth-century American society.

Dr. Tom More is a Catholic psychologist who has designed an instrument to measure irrationality in the human brain. The instrument, which More dubs the “lapsometer,” places its subjects on a spectrum between two extremes, the upper extreme being “angelism,” or the tendency to feel oneself somehow intellectually above and detached from the rest of humanity, and “bestulism,” the tendency to over-indulge one’s physical desires. The device, then, can diagnose such harmful states of being—and ideally prompt treatment.

More’s America has reached a state of social and political meltdown, with the various institutions that once granted it stability and prosperity now impotent and corrupt. This includes the Catholic church (hence the novel’s subtitle). More, however, appears to be one of the only people who is taking notice and expressing concern. More’s city consists of four districts, one housing affluent entrepreneurs who have maintained their Christian faith, the second receiving the majority of federal funding and thus boasting a range of facilities (such as a space research center, and a hospital that More works at). The third resembles Beverley Hills, called Paradise Estates, with a range of large luxurious houses. This is where More lives: in the home of his wife who left. The fourth, Honey Island swamp, is home to a plethora of social outcasts and criminals.

More lives with three “girlfriends,” Ellen, Moira, and Lola, each of whom embodies a particular ideal of femininity. He is attracted to all three of them in one way or another, but cannot, until the end of the novel, form a meaningful relationship with any of them. More has introduced his instrument to his friends and associates, but his description of the device in spiritualistic terms has earned him nothing but skepticism. Impoverished and desperate, More finds an investor for his new invention in the deeply unsympathetic character of Art Immelman, but Art tampers with the device so that it becomes capable not merely of detecting but of altering the balance of irrationality in the human brain. Immelman then begins issuing these devices to More’s students, who misuse them with chaotic results.

More is able to defeat Art Immelman’s plans with the spiritual help of his namesake from the sixteenth century—an English saint by the name of Thomas More—but he is prevented from building on his success by a racial uprising in his local city. This uprising is led by the Bantus, a militant Black rights group who, as it is intimated in the novel’s epilogue, are successful in overthrowing white rule and instating a new order. Here, the pathological hatred once inflicted on Black people by white people is flipped on its head in a form of estrangement. As for More, having hidden in an abandoned hotel during the uprising, he marries Ellen, who is his nurse and longtime friend, and settles down to an unremarkable life of comfort, now living in the “slave quarter” from which the Bantus had originated.

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