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A Short Interview with Walker Percy

Patrick Samway

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The minimum a seventy-year-old man deserves is a birthday present. Since the person in question happens to be a writer, and since he has shown in a self-interview that he is the best man to answer the questions, the birthday present is that he can ask the last question.

Question: Since you are a satirical novelist and since the main source of the satirist's energy is anger about something amiss or wrong about the world, what is the main target of your anger in The Thanatos Syndrome?

Answer: It is the widespread and ongoing devaluation of human life in the Western world--under various sentimental disguises: "quality of life," "pointless suffering," "termination of life without meaning," etc. I trace it to a certain mind-set in the biological and social sciences which is extraordinarily influential among educated folk -- so much so that it has almost achieved the status of a quasi-religious orthodoxy.

If I had to give it a name, it would be something like the "Holy Office of the Secular Inquisition." It is not to be confused with "secular humanism," because, for one thing, it is anti-human. Although it drapes itself in the mantle of the scientific method and free scientific inquiry, it is neither free nor scientific. Indeed, it relies on certain hidden dogma where dogma has no place.

I can think of two holy commandments which the Secular Inquisition lays down for all scientists and believers. The first: In your investigations and theories, thou shalt not find anything unique about the human animal even if the evidence points to such uniqueness. Example: Despite heroic attempts to teach sign language to other animals, the evidence is that even the cleverest chimpanzee has never spontaneously named a single object or uttered a single sentence. Yet dogma requires that, despite traditional belief in the soul or the mind, and the work of more recent workers like Pierce and Langer in man's unique symbolizing capacity, Homo sapiens sapiens be declared to be not qualitatively different from other animals.

Another dogma: Thou shalt not suggest that there is a unique and fatal flaw in Homo sapiens sapiens or indeed any perverse trait that cannot be laid to the influence of Western civilization. Examples:

1. An entire generation came under the influence of Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and its message: that the Samoans were an innocent, happy, Edenic people until they were corrupted by missionaries and technology. That this turned out not to be true, that indeed the Samoans appear to have been at least as neurotic as New Yorkers has not changed the myth or the mind-set.

2. The gentle Tasaday people of the Philippines, an isolated Stone Age tribe, were also described as innocents, peace-loving, and benevolent. When asked to describe evil, they replied: "We cannot think of anything that is not good." That the Tasaday story turned out to be a hoax is like an erratum corrected in a footnote and as inconsequential.

3. The ancient Mayans are still perceived as not only the builders of a high culture, practitioners of the arts and sciences, but a gentle folk--this despite the fact that recent deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs have disclosed the Mayans to have been a cruel, warlike people capable of tortures even more vicious than the Aztecs. Scholars, after ignoring the findings, have admitted that the "new image" of the Mayans is perhaps "less romantic" than we had supposed.


It is easy to criticize the absurdities of fundamentalist beliefs like "scientific creationism" --that the world and its creatures were created six thousand years ago. But it is also necessary to criticize other dogmas parading as science and the bad faith of some scientists who have their own dogmatic agendas to promote under the guise of "free scientific inquiry." Scientific inquiry should, in fact, be free.

The warning:

If it is not, if it is subject to this or that ideology, then do not be surprised if the history of the Weimar doctors is repeated. Weimar leads to Auschwitz. The nihilism of some scientists in the name of ideology or sentimentality and the consequent devaluation of individual human life lead straight to the gas chamber.

This is an excerpt from a 1987 interview with the late Walker Percy found in the book "Signposts in a Strange Land," edited by Patrick Samway and titled, "An Interview with Zoltan Abadi-Nagy.

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Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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