Humanities 445

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Percy and O'Connor on "tenderness" and "sentiment"

In her collection of essays Mystery and Manners, Flannery O'Connor has a selection, her "Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, in which she muses on the life and early death by cancer of twelve-year-old Mary Ann, whose beauty of soul was inversely matched by her face which was grotesquely disfigured by a tumor. O'Connor writes:

One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him. ... Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus' hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents. In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber. (p. 226-227)

Walker Percy echoes O'Connor's insights. In the Epilogue of his post-humously published collection of essays, Signposts in a Strange Land (1991), is the re-published "An Interview with Zoltan Abadi-Nagy" (originally published in The Paris Review, Summer 1987). At the end of the interview, Abadi-Nagy says that, at seventy years old, Percy deserves to be able to ask his own questions -- and asks Percy to ask the last question. Percy does, and answers it as well (394-96). Percy's question and answer follow:

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 mindset in the biological and social sciences which is extraordinarily influential among educated folk -- so much that it has achieved the status of a quasi-religious orthodoxy. ... 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. ... The first: In your investigations and theories, though shalt not find anything unique about the human animal even if the evidence points to such uniqueness. ... 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. ... Conclusion: 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. (pp. 394-396)

What are Percy and O'Connor saying here? What do they mean by " the gas chamber"? Why do "tenderness" and "sentiment" lead to the gas chamber? O'Connor refers to the dangers of "theory" and Percy refers to the dangers of "devaluation of individual human life" -- are these two connected in any way? How?

In an later essay (originally published in 1990), also anthologized in the same collection, Percy speaks more about these ideas:

The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which in an individual patient, could be characterised as dementia.

As the century draws to a close, it does not yet have a name, but it can be described.

It is the most scientifically advanced, savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.

I will give it a name which at least describes what it does. I would call it the age of the theorist-consumer. All denizens of the age tend to be one or the other or both.

Darwin, Newton, and Freud were theorists. They pursued truth more or less successfully by theory -- from which, however, they themselvs were exempt. You will look in vain in Darwin's Origin of the Species for an explanation of Darwin's behavior in writing Origin of the Species. Marx and Stalin, Nietzsche and Hitler were also theorists. When theory is applied, not to matter or beasts, but to man, the consequence is that millions of men can be eliminated without compunction or even much interest. Survivors of both Hitler's Holocaust and Stalin's terror reported that their oppressors were not "horrible" or "diabolical" but seemed, on the contrary, quite ordinary, even bored by their actions, as if it were all in a day's work.

The denizens of the present age are both sentimental and an age of theory and consumption it is appropriate that actions be carried out as the applications of theory and the need of consumption require....The face of the denizen of the present age who has come to the end of theory and consumption and "personal growth" is the face of sadness and anxiety...such a denizen may discover that he is open to a search for signs, some sign other than theorizing or consumption. There are only two signs in the post-modern age which cannot be encompassed by theory. One sign is one's self. No matter how powerful the theory, whether psychological or political, one's self is always a leftover. Indeed, the self may be defined as that portion of the person which cannot be encompassed by theory, not even a theory of self. This is so because, even if one agrees with the theory, what does one do then? Accordingly, the self finds itself ever more conspicuously without a place in the modern world, which is perfectly understood by theorizing. The face of the self in the very age which was itself designed for the self's understanding of all things and to please the self through the consumption of goods and services -- the face of the self is the face of fear and sadness, because it does not know who it is or where it belongs. (pp. 309-312)

So for Percy, theory -- esp. scientific theory, a result of the process of the scientific method -- is an abstracting into generalizations based on a collection of individual, particular instances or persons. But in the process, the individual person is lost. What happens when that happens? True intimacy, commitment, and love becomes transformed into an abstract and general "tenderness" or "sentimentality" which involves NO particular or known individual. So, you are a Nazi officer at the table of the "Final Solution." If Jews are categorized by scientific theory as racially inferior to Aryans (as they actually were categorized by the Nazis), how simple to "improve" society through efficient solution of the gas chamber. But if your wife, mother, or child were a Jew, could you in any way make such a decision?

For futher discussion, see also:

Copyright(c) 2002 by Karey Perkins / E-mail: