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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823

Offered as a tongue-in-cheek, pre-holocaust tale, Love in the Ruins is subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Its protagonist and narrator, Dr. Tom More, is named for the famous sixteenth century saint who authored Utopia (1516). More is a...

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Offered as a tongue-in-cheek, pre-holocaust tale, Love in the Ruins is subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Its protagonist and narrator, Dr. Tom More, is named for the famous sixteenth century saint who authored Utopia (1516). More is a rueful psychologist who has developed an instrument for research which he calls the “lapsometer.” The lapsometer is a device that measures certain psychic forces in the brain and thereby makes it possible to determine the source of irrationality, which for Percy is characterized by one of two extremes.

In Percy’s view, the two most evident maladies of modern life are angelism, the tendency to abstract oneself from the ordinary circumstances of life and attempt to live above them in aloof intellectualism, and bestialism, the tendency to live as a brute consumer with an unrestrained, animal-like preoccupation with sex without procreation. This protracted indictment of modern culture surfaces frequently in Percy’s later fiction, most prominently in Lancelot and in The Thanatos Syndrome.

The narrative is bracketed into five main sections, followed by an epilogue that delineates what has happened in the five years subsequent to the July 4 climax. It is an apocalyptic time in which the social institutions that are supposed to provide stability and continuity have broken down or become ridiculous parodies of themselves. The halls of academe, the medical profession, civil government, and a host of venerable religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, are all satirized as ineffectual and compromised, each having sold out to the spirit of modernism and therefore being contemptible to Percy.

Racial tensions have erupted into violent confrontations as the very fabric of American society is about to unravel. Under the accumulated weight of centuries of guilt and alienation, “ordinary folk” find their self-image slowly disintegrating, their sex lives impotent, and their digestion failing; they seek help from two main sources, proctologists and psychologists.

The reader discovers Dr. More in the midst of a personal and professional crisis made all the more difficult by heightened racial tensions across the United States but particularly in his region of the South. He looks out over an interstate cloverleaf and describes the four quadrants of his city. One quarter is occupied by conservative Christian businessmen. Another is the federal complex, where government funding has produced a hospital where More works, a NASA facility, a Geriatrics Center, and the Love Clinic. A third quarter encompasses Paradise Estates, the suburb where More lives in his deceased wife’s house. The fourth is the Honey Island swamp, where assorted antisocial derelicts, castoffs, and the ferocious Bantus, a group of militant black guerrillas seeking social justice, reside. As he speaks, More is awaiting the end of civilization, surrounded, nevertheless, by three attractive women—two erstwhile girlfriends and his loyal nurse, Ellen.

More’s financial and professional situation is precarious, and he makes a dubious, Faustian bargain with the diabolical Art Immelmann, who promises to market More’s invention and help him earn favor with foundations to fund further research. More soon realizes that Immelmann is not to be trusted—he alters More’s device so that it not only detects but also remediates the psychic imbalances, then distributes lapsometers to ill-trained students who misuse the instruments with sometimes hilarious consequences.

A racial uprising of Bantus, planned for July 4, provides the comic backdrop for the novel’s ambiguous ending. Praying to his sainted ancestor, Sir Thomas More, Tom More succeeds in thwarting Immelmann’s evil plans. The social upheaval proceeds apace, however, and in the epilogue, More intimates that black people have displaced white people as the ruling class but have acquired the same social pathologies that had plagued black-white relations in the first place. More, on the other hand, has settled peacefully into the “slave quarters” of a large apartment complex down by the bayou. Here he is safely ensconced in a new middle-class life, having married his faithful nurse, Ellen, content to live out his natural life in a new, though obviously imperfect, Eden.

Tom More serves Percy’s satire of modern sensibilities toward spirituality and social decorum in two ways. First, as a “bad Catholic,” More exhibits a healthy skepticism toward what Percy believed was an unwelcome shift away from tradition and authority in the American Catholic Church. More holds no quarter for liberal scavenging of Christian doctrine. Second, More is heroic in standing against the excesses and the megalomania of the medical profession. Percy mercilessly skewers his own compatriots in the practice of psychology for their preoccupation with relatively trivial or peripheral matters while ignoring the major sources of human foibles and sin.

Percy revived the character of Dr. More seventeen years later for an even more devastating sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome, in which the disintegration of the morality in the modern world is laid at the feet of the medical profession in its advocacy of abortion rights, euthanasia, and genetic engineering.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

On July 4, Dr. Thomas More, with a carbine on his knees, sits in a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the decaying interstate cloverleaf. A sniper has shot at him earlier in the day, and from this point he commands a view of all four directions. In one quadrant is the city, inhabited largely by conservative Christian businessmen; in another, the Paradise Estates, a suburb where he ordinarily lives in a house inherited from his deceased wife. In still another direction, there is the federal complex, which includes the hospital where the narrator works, a medical school, the NASA facility, the Behavioral Institute, the Geriatrics Center, and the Love Clinic. In the remaining quadrant, the huge Honey Island swamp shelters assorted social rebels and castoffs: white derelicts, young dropouts pursuing love, drugs, and the simple life, and ferocious black Bantus, who use the swamp as guerrilla base for launching raids against outlying suburbs and shopping centers.

Immediately below Dr. More’s lookout post, an old, abandoned Howard Johnson’s motel, long deserted after a devastating raid in years past, is a temporary shelter for Dr. More’s two girlfriends, Moira and Lola, and his loyal nurse, Ellen, whom he also loves. The action of the novel covers, in retrospect, the preceding four days, during which this awkward personal and public crisis came to a head.

The amiable Dr. More, though hardly responsible for the persistent failure of American society to eradicate racial inequality and bigotry, does nevertheless share some obscure guilt for the peculiarly volatile situation on this particular day. He has learned that a racial uprising is planned for the Fourth of July, with the Bantus intending to take over the Paradise Estates. He has been discreetly warned by a black friend and an old Catholic priest to vacate his suburban house and move into his mother’s place in town.

What Dr. More really is worrying about, however, is a more general catastrophe, a possibly explosive and poisonous interaction between the heavy sodium which characterizes the soil in the area and fallout from the gross misuse of his invention, the More Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer. He has, through ambition and pride, allowed this sensitive instrument to fall into ignorant and evil hands.

The nondescript Art Immelmann plays the Mephistopheles to More’s Faust in this matter. Art’s original offer was to see that More’s article explaining the lapsometer would be published in a prestigious journal of psychiatry. He promised, moreover, to use his influence with the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations for substantial grant money so that More could submit the device to extensive scientific testing. The lapsometer measures certain psychic forces in the brain, especially angelism and bestialism, which may be responsible for the increasing irrationality and instability among otherwise healthy Americans. Art wants patent rights in exchange for this service.

When Art offers an appendage to the lapsometer so that it not only measures psychic imbalances but also amends or at least changes them with the twist of the dial, More signs the fateful agreement, dreaming of a Nobel Peace Prize in his future. To his consternation, however, Art passes out lapsometers to ignorant students, with hilarious but potentially dangerous results. Later, on this eventful Independence Day, Dr. More manages, by praying to his sainted ancestor and namesake Sir Thomas More for help, to exorcise his devil.

An epilogue five years later shows More living in relative peace in former slave quarters, happily married to one of his sweethearts. He has dissipated his first wife’s fortune in an unsuccessful attempt to promote his lapsometer, but he still believes in its promise. Racial prejudice may be partly responsible for the doctor’s cool reception as a scientific innovator, since the relative prestige of blacks and whites is now reversed—not, however, because of the Bantu revolt five years ago. Blacks are now beginning to demonstrate some of the psychological pathologies that had afflicted the ruling white class.

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