An Antisuicide Note

The Thanatos Syndrome, by Walker Percy (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 372 pp.; $17.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Robert Coles, professor of medical humanities and psychiatry at Harvard University and author of Walker Percy: An American Search.

Some of the world’s truly great novelists have tried hard to work ethical and religious ideas or concepts into their stories—George Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, for instance, in the nineteenth century, and in our own, Camus and Sartre, as well as, nearer home, Flannery O’Connor.

Right now, Walker Percy is America’s novelist who best does that extraordinary feat—takes the complexities of moral philosophy or theology and gives them the concreteness that well-narrated fiction offers. In every Percy novel, and this is his sixth, a main character is trying to figure out how one ought properly and decently get through this twentieth-century life as we in our country live it. This character is one of us—a stockbroker, a doctor—and so he is well aware of what we take for granted as our guiding sources of assurance, if not faith: the promises of the natural sciences; the chatter and neologisms, the dreary banalities of the so-called social sciences; the promises of politics; and most of all, the notion that somehow, someday a growing knowledge will be “applied” in such a way that any and all problems—personal or social—will yield to the various “solutions” devised for them.

Each Percy hero (or antihero) is as skeptical of such a confident, secular meliorism as the author has told us he tends to be (in his two important and edifying books of nonfiction: The Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos). In this novel, the central figure is Dr. Tom More, whom we have met in an earlier novel, Love in the Ruins, where he took a hard, wry look at an exuberant and fatuous medical messianism that flourished in its own egocentric cheerfulness, no matter the moral madness and political rot that abounded near and far.

Now, in The Thanatos Syndrome, Dr. More returns, a psychiatrist who is a man apart in several senses. For one thing, he has just been released from a minimum-security federal prison in Alabama, where he served a two-year sentence for peddling pep pills to truck drivers. He has returned to Louisiana to try to resume living his life—yet is not at all like his colleagues, who, as Dr. Percy describes them, have become “brain engineers, neuropharmacologists, chemists of the synapses.”

Dr. More is, in spirit, an old-fashioned (though unusual) psychoanalyst, someone who doesn’t worship Freud, as many of us have done and still do, but who is grateful to him for his stubborn refusal to grasp at straws—to see our fate on this world as less than tragic. Psychoanalysis may have its own blind spots, and Freud was certainly capable of being vain and foolish—that is to say, he was a human being—but the heart of psychoanalytic thinking is much like the heart of the ancient Greek literary tradition, from which Freud borrowed an idea or two. Accordingly, psychoanalysis acknowledges in its own manner man’s inherent sinfulness—the so-called death instinct, or Thanatos, of Freud. Put differently, Dr. More of The Thanatos Syndrome is someone who has no doubt that there is a destructive side to us, a self-centered and greedy side; no doubt, too, that this life on this earth, finite as it is, was not meant to offer us a heavenly world.

A Peaceful Existence

The novel is, in a way, a funny and intriguing working out of that message. Dr. More has begun to notice that his patients, and indeed, just about everyone he meets, have become different in a crucial way. No longer are they nervous, anxious, worried, frightened. Now they are all too well-behaved. They are living “a peaceful animal existence.” They experience less stress. Their sexuality is assertive—though teenage sexuality and homosexuality decline. In sum, the society seems strangely calm and quiescent for a change, the result of project Blue Boy: substantial amounts of heavy sodium put into the water supply of Feliciana Parish, where Dr. More lives and practices.

Article continues below

Meanwhile, the same authorities who are regulating society through the magic of sodium in the water are also setting up Qualitarian Centers, where unwanted newborns and the elderly are being killed, under a “Right to Death provision in the recent court decisions.”

In The Name Of Progress

All of this, of course, amounts to a tough, penetrating satire directed at certain secular trends in contemporary American thinking. As Dr. More uncovers the dimensions of a project, if not a plot (the novel offers a detective story as well as shrewd, sardonic social and cultural criticism), the reader gets a chance to contemplate where it is that this dying twentieth century is headed. Moreover, through Dr. More’s friend, the priest Father Smith, the reader is given a reminder of what that century has already offered us—the Nazi concentration camps, the gulag, murderous war after war, all in the name of “progress” and “civilization” and all sorts of other slogans proclaimed not among jungle tribes or in Third World countries, but by the leaders of the world’s various “civilized” nations.

Dr. Percy is brave to render this priest’s confession; its gist is the terrible reminder that most of us are all too vulnerable to the seductions and blandishments, or the fearful imperatives, that one or another country has offered its citizens in the name of “reform” or “progress” or “the future” of a particular ideology. True, retrospectively we are horrified by what we know to be the wanton murder of millions of innocents—in the name of ideas, in the name of history, in the name of a race or a people or a class or a belief. But were we faced with a set of circumstances similar to those that obtained, say, for the ordinary people alive in Germany during the 1930s, how many of us would have the moral courage and decency to take a decisive stand against a dominant political authority, not to mention all the social and economic influence it can mobilize to its side?

The heart of Percy’s story is this confrontation—Dr. More and Father Smith, the psychiatrist and the priest, posing a moral matter of the utmost significance to all of us. Have we stopped to give pause to our moral direction, and yes, to take a close look at our spiritual situation? What principles and values do we truly uphold—and for how long, and in the face of which prevailing, secular practices? Do we have any notion of what is happening to us as a people, year by year—as we make changes in our personal lives, in our moral assumptions or purposes?

These are questions that badly need to be examined—and Dr. Percy does so in a novel that puts our entire contemporary American culture on the line. We are the ones, he more than implies, who may have developed, already, our own version of the “Thanatos Syndrome”—a culturally sanctioned moral nihilism. Even as Dr. More tries to alert others to the steep slope of moral decline upon which a world has embarked—while conning itself that the best of all possible worlds is around the corner—so Dr. Percy, through his lively, arresting, and brilliantly suggestive fable, warns us to stop, to take a look, take heed, lest we commit suicide as a people.

Article continues below
Dr. Sullivan’S Secret

An Excerpt

“My psychiatric faith I got in the old days from Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan, perhaps this country’s best psychiatrist, who, if not a genius, had a certain secret belief which he himself could not account for. Nor could it be scientifically proven. Yet he transmitted it to his residents. It seemed to him to be an article of faith, and to me it is as valuable as Freud’s genius. ‘Here’s the secret,’ he used to tell us, his residents. ‘You take that last patient we saw. Offhand, what would you say about him? A loser, right?… You’re thinking the most we can do for him is make him feel a little better, give him a pill or two.… Right? Wrong. Here’s the peculiar thing and I’ll never understand why this is so: Each patient this side of psychosis, and even some psychotics, has the means of obtaining what he needs, she needs, with a little help from you.’

Now, I don’t know where he got this, from Ramakrishna, Dr. Jung, or Matthew 13:44.… But there it is. ‘Okay, that patient may look like a loser to you—incidentally, Doctors, how do we know you don’t look like losers to me, or I to you?’ said Dr. Sullivan, a small ferret-faced man with many troubles. But there it was, to me the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in a field, that is to say, the patient’s truest unique self which lies within his, the patient’s, | power to reach and which we, as little as we do, can help him reach.

TV Revivalism: Show Biz And Big Biz

Televangelism: The Marketing of Popular Religion, by Razelle Frankl (Southern Illinois University Press, 224 pages, $19.95, cloth). Reviewed by Quentin J. Schultze, professor of communication, Calvin College, and author of Television: Manna from Hollywood?

Most of the books written about the so-called electronic church fall into one of two categories. On the one hand are the utopian odes to the spiritual and moral triumphs of media evangelism. On the other hand are the alarmist tales about the alleged egomaniacal actions and intolerant beliefs of the major broadcast preachers. Not surprisingly, the former are usually written by successful televangelists and the latter by cynical journalists or impassioned defectors from religious broadcasting.

Televangelism breaks tradition by attempting a balanced examination of the historical road from early urban revivalism to contemporary religious television, especially the major syndicated and cable broadcasts. Frankl’s cogent thesis is that the electronic church is a hybrid of earlier revivalism and modern secular television programming. Although her study is not informed by the real scope and diversity of American evangelicalism, its conclusions are fairly argued and provocatively stated. The evangelical community ought to look beyond some of the book’s theological and cultural oversimplifications and wrestle seriously with its implications for televangelists and their audiences.

Roots In Revivalism

Frankl first argues that the organizational and theological roots of contemporary televangelism are to be found in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century American revivalism. Citing the evangelistic strategies and techniques of Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Sunday, she concludes that urban revivalists “adapted [the] business techniques of selling to their religious callings and established entrepreneurial organizations for their evangelical purposes.” Some of the contemporary televangelists, such as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, and Jimmy Swaggart, are “direct descendents” of the urban revivalists. Others, including Pat Robertson and the ousted Jim Bakker, are more directly heirs of commercial television, such as talk shows and variety programs, than of the urban religious revivalists.

Article continues below

While such comparisons and contrasts are informative, Frankl overlooks other significant historical precedents. Certainly the early itinerant preachers such as George Whitefield developed successful techniques for attracting and influencing large American audiences. Also important were the Bible and tract societies, which in the 1800s pioneered in printing and distributing popular religious literature. Moreover, Frankl’s leap from Billy Sunday to Oral Roberts neglects the phenomenal accomplishments of radio evangelists such as Charles E. Fuller, whose programs were financed largely by small donations from thousands of supporters. Evidence suggests that in the years before television, Fuller’s broadcast was one of the most popular on all of American radio, including the major networks.

Commercial And Rational

Televangelism’s most important contribution to our understanding of Christian television is its perceptive analysis of how the medium has increasingly influenced the message. Here Frankl wears her sociological glasses, pointing out how the latest televangelists have enthusiastically adopted the same production values and visual techniques used by commercial broadcasters to attract and hold viewer attention. Like secular television, she argues, televangelism today is increasingly commercial and rational; it is both revivalism and big business, with growing emphasis on the latter. “No longer driven by the charisma and zeal of the urban revivalist,” asserts Frankl, “these television programs are driven by the rational-legal authority of the television industry.”

An important concern for the Christian community is the extent to which the rapid growth of parachurch broadcast ministries has accelerated the secularization of the church. Frankl seems to suggest that because urban revivalists and their broadcast offspring were “detached from congregational and denominational activities and practices” they easily adopted the ways of the world, especially fund-raising practices and a show-business mentality. Thus, some televangelists define success in terms of audience ratings and money raised. Could it be that Christians in general are enamored with pecuniary success? Might not this be what attracts some viewers to particular religious programs that depict ostentatious lifestyles?

One of the book’s more controversial conclusions is that future televangelists will probably model their programming after secular broadcasting instead of after traditional religious revivals or worship services. This could mean, to extend Frankl’s argument, that the future growth of religious broadcasting will likely parallel the development of Christian contemporary music in recent years, where it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between “secular” and “sacred” styles and performers. Traditional broadcast revivalists might even vanish from the airwaves as their aging audiences disappear. Replacing them will be a new breed of televangelist with informal, upbeat messages and contemporary, entertaining styles.

The Ethos Of Show Business

Unfortunately, there is an alarmist tone in Televangelism. Frankl apparently wrote the book partly out of concern about evangelical broadcasting’s “key role in the social and political agenda of the New Right,” which she believes was instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan as President. Like Prime-Time Preachers, cowritten in 1981 by Frankl’s colleague, Jeffrey Hadden, this book paints a simplistic and misleading portrait of evangelicalism and its broadcasters. As anyone within evangelicalism knows, there is actually great political and significant theological variety across the movement. Moreover, there is little evidence to support the claim by Frankl and others that religious broadcasts “mobilize” evangelicals for political action. This is the type of hype that sells books and periodicals but further distorts public perceptions about evangelicals.

Article continues below

Nevertheless, if Frankl is correct about the impact of commercial values on religious broadcasting (and in light of the Bakker fiasco), it is clearly time for the evangelical community to reevaluate its use of television. Perhaps the place to begin is to ask how we can insure that the gospel will be communicated authentically in a medium driven by the love of money and infused with the ethos of show business.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.