The Thanatos SyndromeIn the wonderful world of Walker Percy, old fashioned Southern gentility saunters in seersucker into sub human behavior and sips bourbon while planning a congenial genocide.

Their shabby chic sophistication makes the nefarious activities of the characters in The Thanatos Syndrome even more chilling. In dozy Feliciana parish, psychiatrist Tom More observes that something strange is going on. His wife and former patients are behaving in a bizarre fashion. They seem emotionally dead, answer questions with simplistic speech patterns and engage in simian sexual behaviors. They seem strangely happy and have lost their old anxieties, phobias, neuroses and unique personality traits. They have become cheerful zombies.

Dr. More figures out that the syndrome is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and he tracks its genesis to the local water supply. The artificial happiness is caused by a high dosage of heavy sodium in the water, and the conspirators are the leading figures of the town, including two of Tom’s colleagues. They try to get him on board with the conspiracy saying they have government funding and secret backing. Their plan is social engineering. By secretly suppressing certain behaviors they claim to have reduced crime, cured AIDS and gotten rid of anxiety, suicides and repeat offending by criminals.

By controlling the libido they have eliminated sex crimes and homosexuality, and by modulating the female reproductive cycle they have a built in population control mechanism. Suddenly there are no more teen pregnancies, no need for sex education or contraceptives, and abortion is a thing of the past. The utilitarian ideologues argue that a dose of heavy sodium in the drinking water is no worse than putting fluoride in the water supply.

Like St. Simeon Stylites, Fr. Simon Smith—an eccentric Catholic priest—lives in a tiny forest fire watcher’s tower. Fr. Smith tells the story of visiting Germany before the war and living with charming, sophisticated German friends. Well educated and cultured, the German doctors quote Rilke, play Brahms and discuss the rise of Hitler and the Jewish problem. When Fr. Smith returns at the end of the war he finds that his sophisticated friends were the very ones involved in eugenics, euthanasia and genocide.

As a “fire watcher” Fr. Smith provides a prophetic illumination of what is going on in Feliciana parish. The same good intentions combined with a utilitarian philosophy is bringing about a congenial genocide. There are no death camps and no ovens. There are no mass graves or corpses stacked like cordwood. Instead the humanity of the town folks is being chemically dissolved, and in the final comic-horror scene we see the final result: in a kind of retro-evolution, the main villains of the piece—child abusers who run a seemingly wholesome school—revert to ape like behavior. Their plan to eliminate human unhappiness has eliminated humanity. Without their phobias and foibles, without their neuroses and nastiness the residents of the town have not become best. They have become beasts.

Mr. Percy criticizes modern America for its mild mannered murder of the human soul. Americans are cut off from reality and so less than fully alive. Avoiding their misery they have created a chemical nirvana, an artificial arcadia, a Disneyfied, plastic Utopia. Percy’s zombies are not a fictional creation, but an observed reality. He would see them today in suburban Americans—loaded up with happy drugs, plastic surgery and every pleasure imaginable.

Through Fr. Smith’s flashbacks to Nazi Germany, Percy makes it clear that the same genteel, utilitarian utopianism that drove the Germans is driving the American dream of perfection. The fact that seemingly nice school teachers experiment on children and sexually abuse them shows that once the moral boundaries disappear the greatest horrors materialize.

Percy’s antidote is subtly stated. It is by being rooted in common sense, humility, faith and tradition that ideological horrors are countered. It is the hard headed, down to earth characters of More, Cousin Lucy, Uncle Hugh Bob, Fr. Smith and the farmworker Virgil who overcome the horror and establish a humane solution. It is their tough loyalty to truth and tradition that swamps the sentimental idealism that leads to evil.

The fire watcher Fr. Smith sums it up in his warning, “Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer. . . . Never in the history of the world have there been so many civilized tenderhearted souls as have lived in this century. . .  More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together. . . . Do you know where tenderness always leads. . . . To the gas chambers.”

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