President Obama vs. Walker Percy (and Another Jefferson Lecturer)


Rock Island, IL

In The Thanatos Syndrome Walker Percy’s beleaguered hero, Tom More, is interested not in the attendant symptoms of his patients but in “the abatement of symptoms”—the abatement

of such peculiarly human symptoms as anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, suicidal tendencies, chemical dependence. Think of it [he tells, Lucy, an epidemiologist] as a regression from a stressful human existence to a peaceable animal existence.

He fears that the cure to these “peculiarly human symptoms” might be worse than the symptoms themselves.

A few pages later we get a larger sense of why he fears this: a physician named Bob Comeaux admits to poisoning, by clandestine means, a segment of the population with doses of heavy sodium. He justifies this with statistics of improved social behavior: fewer murders, fewer teen pregnancies, fewer instances of sexual deviance, etc.—in fine, with evidence of better living through chemistry.

(“Better” is suspect in this novel: tenderness, says the alienated Father Smith, taking a page out of Flannery O’Connor–who distrusted tenderness cut off from the source of tenderness–leads to the gas chamber.)

Tom More is, and Bob Comeaux is not, worried about the how of things. Tom would have symptoms treated at their origin (whatever that is—at this point he isn’t sure); Bob would merely have those symptoms eliminated, whatever the costs. And he would ignore the costs by pointing to the results, which are always unimpeachable. The elimination of symptoms is all he can manage to worry about, whereas Tom worries that their elimination—their abatement, as he calls it—comes too dearly, though at this point in the novel he has no prescription. He, like the novelist, is mostly a diagnostician.

(An example of the difference between Bob Comeaux and Tom More—one not meant for virgin ears: Bob, unconcerned with symptoms, asks Tom if he doesn’t think that the new mosaics made of recycled material and pasted to public cinder blocks aren’t an improvement upon “the old fuck-you graffiti.” Tom’s answer: “No.” He, Tom, would not have a chemically induced morality. Like Milton, he won’t praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.)

One of the things this novel concerns itself with is the context of knowledge. Tom More notices that all kinds of people will answer the question “Where is St. Louis” without first asking why they’re being asking where St. Louis is. Somewhat like computers they have developed server-like brains fully capable of answering questions that have no bearing on their lives, and they can do so because they no longer have the capacity to contextualize the disconnected things that they know, but they aren’t in the least bit curious about why they’re being asked where St. Louis is.

Tom believes that if you ask a normal person to tell you where St. Louis is, he’ll ask you why you want to know before he tells you. Such a man thinks from within a context. Tom’s patients (including his wife, Ellen) do not. They know a great deal, but they cannot contextualize what they know. They are computational geniuses: they “have an average twenty percent increase in IQ,” says Bob, “plus an almost total memory recall. . . . Ask them a question: What did you do on your fifth birthday”? and, Tom, I’m telling you, it’s like watching the mainframe at NIH scanning its data bank. They retrieve it! If it’s in the neurons, they get it!”

As far as Tom is concerned, however, such people make good Bridge players but not good human beings. Who gives a damn if you have total recall of your fifth birthday but can’t call a thing–such as infanticide–by its rightful name?

That I was perusing these passages in a full-blown noplace—namely, the Detroit airport—is bad enough, for airports are interesting only inasmuch as they remind you that everyone has a story. Beyond that they are soul-less loci of waste: of energy, packaging, time, eyesight, and hearing. Everything is in a state of expenditure, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame, as Shakespeare said of lust.

But in a desperate attempt to redeem the time I’m reading Percy, whereupon a TV I’ve purposely turned my back to–and a speaker in front of me I’ve failed to notice–breaks in with coverage of President Obama’s speech in Chapel Hill on the problem of student loans. Bob Comeaux would impinge upon human rights by administering heavy sodium in the drinking water; someone else would infringe upon mine with ubiquitous “news” shows broadcast into every dark corner of the universe, including gate C-32 in Detroit, which is an outer-limit if ever there were one.

I credit Mr. Obama whenever I can. I’m disappointed in him. I preferred him to his witless opponent in ’08, and it appears I’m going to have to prefer him to his next witless opponent in ’12. But still I’m disappointed in him. (This is a theme applicable to all Democratic presidents in the years I’ve been of voting age. But I hasten to say that “disappointed” does not begin to express my dissatisfaction with Republican presidents in that same time period.)

But, sympathetic though I am with the plight of college students, I cannot credit Mr. Obama for the speech he is giving in Chapel Hill.

He tells his audience that he didn’t pay off his own loans until eight years ago. He does this without mentioning anything about the cost of higher education. (This speech is all about borrowing and interest rates.) He calls higher education “an economic imperative” and says that “we can’t price most Americans out of a college education. We can’t make higher education a luxury. . . . Every American should be able to afford it.”

Because it needs saying, I’ll be the one to go ahead and say it: making higher education an “economic imperative” misses the point of higher education entirely. Until we manage to decouple higher education from the job market, we are going to persist in misunderstanding education’s true end. It may well be that in the past—i.e., in a debt-based economy incapable of imagining how top-heavy things eventually fall over—a college degree has been a stepping stone to the middle class, but those days are over. An economy that can’t help a college graduate retire an enormous debt is not going to look upon a college degree as a stepping stone to the middle class. Colleges, obviously, will continue to look thus upon the degree (how they will wield the mighty frame of education, how build, unbuild, contrive to save tuition costs), but this is just one more thing among many about which they will be wrong.

And although it is true that we shouldn’t make higher education a luxury, it is truer still that we shouldn’t make it a commodity. When it once again becomes difficult, it will be neither a luxury nor a commodity. Making it so “every American should be able to afford it” is no different from making it so every American can do it, which is the same thing as rendering it meaningless.

My reading is interrupted by something else that Mr. Obama says:

Previous generations made the investments necessary for us to succeed, to build a strong middle class, to create the foundation for America’s leadership in science and technology and medicine and manufacturing. And now it’s our turn. We’ve got to do the right thing. I want one of you to discover the cure for cancer, or the formula for fusion, or the next game-changing American industry. And that means we’ve got to support those efforts.

I marvel (actually, I don’t) that there is no mention here of music, art, art history, philosophy, theology, literature, history, church history, classical studies, languages, or political theory. And so I return to my book, which continues to work hard on the notion that context matters, that statistics and facts in and of themselves, ripped from their necessary if neglected situation, are not only meaningless but dangerous.

That, at any rate, was in large measure the message delivered at the Kennedy Center the night before. A man giving the Jefferson Lecture (as Walker Percy before him once did) can afford to say so. A man seeking election or re-election apparently can’t.

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