Love in the Ruins

by Walker Percy

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Last Updated on August 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy is a novel that was very much in tune with the culture and political temperature of the United States during the 1960s. This was a time of social upheaval and dissatisfaction in many forms: many readers will think of the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, anti-war protests, and other hallmarks of the sixties. The story centers around a protagonist who is aware of his society's dysfunction but is at first apathetic about it. He is also an alcoholic, which symbolizes him being in a spiritual or mental inebriation. In addition, he is a prolific womanizer. This tells us that the protagonist is a seeker of pleasure, but is not merely driven by desire and primitive impulses; he is a person who is trying to find ways to escape the realities of the world. Like the Buddha—who was attached to carnal pleasures and luxury as a prince before self-discovery—the protagonist is headed towards some kind of spiritual and mental awakening. Spirituality and religion, or lack thereof, are important stylistic markers in the novel.

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The fictional place that the novel is set in is called Paradise, a town in Louisiana. There is an irony here because Louisiana—and the South as a whole—was not a "paradise" for African Americans and other minorities. Likewise, the entire country was not a paradise. The decade in which the story takes place was filled with turbulent internal politics, intense racial tension, international conflicts, violence, and general rebellion. This satirical name goes to show that sometimes, rhetoric and labels fail to tell the whole story.

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When the protagonist invents the Ontological Lapsometer—a device that is supposed to diagnose and treat psychological abnormalities—a government agent intervenes. This element of the story shows the naiveté not of the author, but of Utopian seekers who want to believe that there is a singular solution for the complex social issues of the world—that there is some kind of device that can eliminate evils inherent within the human psyche. It cannot and will not be done simply, smoothly, or fully. Additionally, the government’s interference with such a device is reminiscent of governmental distrust in the 1960s general public. Trust in the government notably faded in the sixties, with the Vietnam War being one influence.

The agent wants the protagonist to win the Nobel Prize for his invention but has a secret intention regarding the device. This is because the Ontological Lapsometer can cure the social ills going on in American society, including everything from racism to government corruption. The government agent represents the attempts by the elites to disrupt revolutionary acts, and that defending the power structure is more important than "curing" the country of its ills. This is certainly a social commentary. Rather than saving the country from turmoil, the agent plans to increase tensions for the benefit of those in power.

The interesting blend of comedy and speculative fiction creates an almost uneasy feeling. These huge conflicts are happening, and cities are split into factions (largely controlled by socioeconomic status). Yet, Tom More is initially apathetic and removed from his faith. He is humorously referred to as a “bad Catholic” even amidst the unrest and chaos that is brewing all around him.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294

Love in the Ruins is a devastating satire of many of the social, political, religious, and scientific shibboleths of the modern world. Percy steps on so many toes that even the offended may laugh at discomfort shared so equitably with opponents. Percy is not only a Christian satirizing Christians but also a physician exposing his own profession as often absurd and misguided.

The Love Clinic is an outrageous commentary on behavioral research and on modern sexual mores, which have managed simultaneously to liberate sex and to reduce it to its lowest common denominator. In the clinic, doctors study the physical and emotional mechanisms of sexual intercourse and masturbation through two-way mirrors, seeking to remedy impotence among the bored. A dissident Catholic priest operates the vaginal console with its orgasm button, while casually reading Commonweal, a Catholic layman’s magazine which has published articles by Percy. The priest is the clinic chaplain, who advises patients to love or die. This is more obvious irony than Geoffrey Chaucer’s ambiguous motto, “Love Conquers All,” on the worldly prioress’ brooch, but it is of the same general order.

The doctor’s lapsometer, with its fusion of metaphysical concepts and scientific measurement, is the perfect symbol for the existential preoccupation with the alienation of modern man from self, nature, God, and his fellowman. One of the implications may be that neither science nor religion nor humanistic philosophy offers an entirely convincing explanation of human nature. Dr. More himself calls his lapsometer “the first caliper of the soul and the first hope of bridging the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man ever since the famous philosopher Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.”

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