A Genteel Genocide
C.S.Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome
I always enjoy the chance to link C.S. Lewis to the American South because a contrary part of me thinks he would have enjoyed the sharp, sometimes sardonic wit and wry observation of Southern gentlemen like Walker Percy.
In fact, both men, in their own way and in their own culture, cooked up a proper jambalaya of a dystopia. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is rightly considered a dystopic novel, but Percy’s Thanatos Syndrome is often overlooked—perhaps because of its humorous tone and genteel Louisiana setting. Nevertheless, a dystopic novel it is, and an important one at that.
In 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. For Lewis the smooth subtlety is that of the English aristocrat, the snobbery of the academic establishment and the superiority of the scientific secularists.
The shabby chic sophistication of Percy’s world 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 got 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.
This is where Percy’s novel connects with Lewis’ science fiction nightmare. The scientists at the N.I.C.E (National Institute of Coordinated Experiments) are also planning to usher in a brave new world through medical technology.
Both novels are written under the shadow of the Nazi threat. Lewis’ book was written during the Second World War while Percy integrates a Catholic priest named Fr. Smith into the story, who has connections with the Nazi past. Like St. Simeon Stylites, Fr. Simon Smith lives in a tiny forest fire watcher’s tower. He 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.
Lewis’ novel echoes the same horror. As the protagonist Mark Studdock gets to know the estimable academics at N.I.C.E. he soon realizes that the place is a dark tower of murder, torture, blackmail, vivisection and unspeakable, Frankensteinian horrors.
Percy’s antidote is subtly stated. It is by being rooted in common sense, humility, faith and tradition that horrors are countered. It is the hard headed, down to earth characters, such as 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.
Similarly, the characters of the St. Anne community in Lewis’ tale are down to earth, humorous, prayerful and humble. The Dennistons and Dimbles, McPhee and Ivy Magg (not to mention Mr. Bultitude the bear) are simple, strong and good. Like Percy’s heroes, they are clear minded about the reality of evil and stand for the true utopia—first foreshadowed in simple, Christian community and then fulfilled in the eternal Everywhere of God.