Friday, April 23, 2010

On Matters Asinine

Here is a portion of Part I Chapter 6 from one of my favorite books, The Thanatos Syndrome, by one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy. I've thought about this passage regularly in the 15 years since I first read it and have wished that I'd read it 10 years earlier so I might not have wasted so much energy engaged in so many heated and pointless political arguments in high school and college. In part of this section, Percy writes about the interaction of old-style Southern whites and blacks: that is worthy of another transcription of another small section of this same novel.

Bob Comeaux likes to argue. I don't much.

For two years I was caught between passionate liberals and conservatives among my fellow inmates at Fort Pelham. Most prisoners are ideologues. There is nothing else to do. Both sides had compelling arguments. Each could argue plausibly for and against religion, God, Israel, blacks, affirmative action, Nicaragua.

It was more natural for me, less boring, to listen than to argue. I was more interested in the rage than the arguments. After two years no one had convinced anyone else. Each side made the same points, the same rebuttals. Neither party listened to the other. They would come close as lovers, eyes glistening, shake fingers at each other, actually take hold of the other's clothes. There were even fistfights.

It crossed my mind that people at war have the same need of each other. What would a passionate liberal or conservative do without the other?

Bob Comeaux reminds me of them. He comes just as close when he argues, must closer than he would in ordinary conversation, his face, say, a foot from mine. He wants to argue about "pedeuthanasia" and the Supreme Court decision which permits the "termination by pedeuthanasia" of unwanted or afflicted infants, infants facing a life without quality.

I can tell he has hit on what he considers an unanswerable argument and can no more resist trying it out on me than a lover can resist giving his beloved a splendid gift.

"Can you honestly tell me," he says, coming even closer, "that you would condemn a child to a life of rejection, suffering, poverty, and pain?"


"As you of all people know, as you in fact have written articles about" -- he says triumphantly, and I can tell he has rehearsed these two clauses -- "the human infant does not achieve personhood until some time in the second year for the simple reason, as you yourself have shown, that it is only with the acquisition of language and the activation of the language center of the brain that the child becomes conscious as a self, a person. Right?"

He waits expectantly, lips parted, ready, corners moist. His eyes search out mine, first one, then the other.

"Do you see what I mean?" he asks.

"I see what you mean," I answer.

He waits for the counter-arguments, which he already knows and is prepared to rebut.

He is disappointed when I don't argue.

Instead, I find myself wondering, just as I wondered at Fort Pelham, what it is the passionate arguer is afraid of. Is he afraid that he might be wrong? that he might be right? Is he afraid that if one does not argue there is nothing left? An abyss opens. Is it not the case that something is better than nothing, arguing, violent disagreement, even war?

More than once at Fort Pelham I noticed that passionate liberals, passionate on the race question, had no use for individual blacks, and that passionate conservatives could not stand one another. Can you imagine Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson spending a friendly evening alone together?

One of life's little mysteries: an old-style Southern white and an old-style Southern black are more at ease talking to each other, even though one may be unjust to the other, than Ted Kennedy talking to Jesse Jackson -- who are overly cordial, nervous as cats in their cordiality, and glad to be rid of each other.

In the first case -- the old-style white and the old-style black -- each knows exactly where he stands with the other. Each can handle the other, the first because he is in control, the second because he uses his wits. They both know this and can even enjoy each other.

In the second case -- Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson -- each is walking on eggshells. What to say next in this rarified atmosphere of perfect liberal agreement? What if one should violate the fragile liberal canon, let drop a racist remark, an anti-Irish Catholic slur? What if Jesse Jackson should mention Hymie? The world might end. They are glad to get it over with. What a relief! Whew!

Frowning and falling back, Bob Comeaux even gives possible arguments I might have used so that he can refute them.

"In using the word infanticide, you see, you are dealing not with the issue but in semantics, a loaded semantics at that."

"I didn't use the word."

Bob shrugs and turns away, his eyes suddenly distant and preoccupied, like an unsuccessful suitor.

1 comment:

  1. John, this is one I haven't goes on my list!