Friday, December 19, 2014

Lessons from the Moviegoer

...when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness.  Everydayness is the enemy.  No search is possible.  Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength.  Now nothing breaks it--but disaster.  Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.  

In a sudden rage and, as if I had been seized by a fit, I roll over and fall in a heap on the floor and lie shivering on the boards, worse off than the miserablest muskrat in the swamp.  Nevertheless I vow: I'm a son of a bitch if I'll be defeated by the everydayness.  

(The everdayness is everywhere now, having begun in the cities and seeking out the remotest nooks and corners of the countryside, even the swamps.) 

Jack "Binx" Bolling is the Moviegoer.  He enjoys watching movies, making money, and romancing his secretaries.  He is selfish, unfeeling, and uncommitted.

He sits back in his theater seat to casually watch the unfolding of life, an observer rather than a participant.  Most people mark their memories by critical, moving events in their lives: births, marriages, deaths.  Binx, on the contrary, recalls the movies he has seen.  They are an escape from reality, from responsibility and ownership.

Yet, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Binx feels the nudge of the "search."  Something is missing.  Something is not quite right.

The idea of a search is the basis of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.  The novel was Percy's first and most well-known work.  It was published in 1961 and won the U.S. National Book Award.  The narration is definitively Southern in tone and detail, the events of the book taking place within the week of Mardis Gras in New Orleans.  

Percy was a reader of Kierkegaard and begins his novel with a quote from the philosopher: "...the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair."

On the surface, it seems like Binx has everything he needs.  He leads a comfortable life, has a secure job, enjoys the company of his interchangeable secretaries--romances with no responsibility or commitment required.  Yet, he is a man riddled with despair, constantly plagued by "the malaise."

Upon entering a movie theater, Binx must speak with the ticket-seller or owner of the theater, to ground himself in the concrete "here" and "now."  Otherwise, he fears slipping into the mercurial "anywhere" that threatens him, for this very movie he will watch could be seen in any city in any state by any person.  He doesn't want to be Anybody in Anyplace.

He wants to have meaning.  And therein begins the search.

Binx describes one morning looking at the collection of items loosely scattered across his dresser's surface: his wallet, a notebook, pencil, keys.  They are objects he fingers every day, places in his pocket each morning and carries along with him.  Yet he never stops to truly examine them, to note their details or individual qualities.  Though with him at all times, they are for the most part, invisible.  

It seems to be an insignificant scene of little weight, but I think it points to the lesson Percy addresses in his work.

What do we carry around with us, each day, without ever being fully aware of its presence?  How often do we stop to examine grace?  Grace keeps us alive.  It is our life-source.  But are we even aware of it?

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life...To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.  Not to be onto something is to be in despair.   

To realize that there is a search...that there is something the first step.  Without a search, there is despair: the daily grind, the wheel of time spinning day in and day out.

The Moviegoer is a book about existentialism.  What's the purpose of existing?  Are we all just movie-goers, set to watch life unfold?  The despair of apathy, of lukewarmness is the enemy here.  "So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:16).  In a passage with similar meaning, Percy writes:

Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something.  They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it.  There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise.  The highest moment of a malaisian's life can be that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human being (Look at us, Binx--my vagabond friends as good as cried out to me--we're sinning!  We're succeeding!  We're human after all!) 

Percy's novel is highly subtle.  It is not plot-driven and there isn't much resolution.  It seems, in the end, that Binx has changed a little, in the sense that he isn't wandering but now committed in marriage to someone else.  

There is no St. Paul conversion moment for Binx.  Like I said, the book is quite muted in its message--very nuanced.  Maybe it harkens to Percy's own religious experience.  Percy was no stranger to tragedy, both of his parents having committed suicide.  Over time, Percy was drawn to Catholicism by the example of his roommate, who faithfully attended daily Mass. That quiet witness was the spark of conversion.

Percy may have written The Moviegoer as a critique of contemporary America.  It certainly is relevant today, fifty-four years later.  So many Americans live affluent, comfortable lives and are utterly depressed.

The Moviegoer isn't a "feel-good" book.  I don't know if Binx lived "happily ever after."  But  life isn't a movie and things don't always wrap up perfectly in the end.

Maybe, however, that's the point.  Things aren't supposed to be tied together and solved.  It's all about the search.  And the minute someone abandons the search, he or she is already lost.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lessons from Ivan Ilyich

Maybe I didn't live as I should?

A friend once said that we should pray for final perseverance at least once per day.  Final perseverance is the gift of remaining in a state of grace--of being united with God--until the moment of death.  As Our Lord said, "He that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22).

So, upon this wonderful recommendation, I've acquired the habit of praying for final perseverance right before I fall asleep.  As my head hits the pillow, I close my eyes and pray to God that mortal sin will never separate me from Him.  I pray that my husband, our children, our parents, my siblings, all our family & friends, and those souls most in need of God's mercy...that all of these people will know God's friendship and be reconciled and united with Him before death comes.

This has been on my mind frequently as I recently finished Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  Tolstoy wrote this short work in 1886, after his religious conversion.  I enjoyed his Anna Karenina so much (and was still awaiting my next book from interlibrary loan!) that I decided to read about Ivan Ilyich.

The book opens the day of Ivan Ilyich's funeral.  A friend and coworker, upon paying his respects, notes:

He had grown much thinner and was considerably changed since Piotr Ivanovich last saw him, but his face, as with all the dead, was more beautiful and, more important than that, more meaningful than it had been in his lifetime.  The expression on the face suggested that what needed to be done had been done, and done as it should be.

The reader's curiosity is immediately piqued: what, exactly, needed to have been done?

Tolstoy then moves back in time and, starting with Ivan Ilyich's childhood, narrates the dead man's life--much like one would read in an obituary.  There emerges two clear pursuits of his life: pleasure and propriety.  He marries, but doesn't love his wife.  They have children, but he seeks his pleasure outside the family--often in playing cards.  Ivan Ilyich enjoys his career as a judge, but mostly from the power it affords him to ruin another man's life.

Things take a turn for the worse when Ivan Ilyich, attempting to hang curtains in his family's new, high-society  home, falls and injures himself.  His pain increases, medical help is sought, but no remedy relieves his discomfort.  Instead, it only becomes more acute.  He who once enjoyed the power of directing someone else's fate finds himself powerless over his own.

Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying and was in continual despair.

Ivan Ilyich cannot reconcile the notion of death with himself.  Death is natural, of course, but certainly not something that should happen to him...not now, not in this way.  I am sure many of us might feel the same.   

But soon Ivan Ilyich can pretend no longer.  Ivan realizes the dreadful truth and suffers from the baneful lies offered to him by the doctors and his family and friends.  His wife chastises him for not taking his medicine properly--that if he only did this or that, he would get better.  His doctors offer false hope.  Conversation at his bedside politely side-steps the blatant truth that Ivan Ilyich is dying, the subject matter instead revolving around trite and trivial matters.

 Ivan Ilyich suffered most of all from lies--the lie that everyone accepted, for some reason, that he was just ill, not dying, that he need only keep calm and take his medicine and something splendid would come of it...this was the propriety he had served all his life.  He saw that no one would pity him, because no one even wanted to understand his position.

There is greater suffering to come for Ivan Ilyich, though not of a physical sort.  His pain grants him some insight and, for the first time, as he lays on his deathbed, Ivan Ilyich begins to see that he has not lived as he should.  

He once, as a young professional, donned a medallion inscribed with respice finem: look to the end.  Ironically, this is the very thing Ivan spent his life not doing, as he was intent on pleasure and propriety.

Ivan Ilyich searches his memory, recalling the moments of his life, questioning what is missing.  As he is dying, Ivan Ilyich sees with great clarity that his life was not what it should have been, but still he listens for the answer as to what he had done wrong.  The answer is given to him when--through his immense pain and affliction--he feels his sons's compassionate kiss on his hand.  

It was jut as this point that Ivan Ilyich fell through, saw the glimmer of light, and it became clear to him that his life had not been what it should have been, but that it could still be put right.  He asked himself, what is it, and fell silent, listening.  Here he felt someone kissing his hand.  He opened his eyes and glanced at his son.  He felt sorry for him.  His wife came up to him.  He glanced at her.  She was gazing at him, with a look of despair on her face, her mouth open, unwiped tears on her nose and cheeks.  He felt sorry for her...He was sorry for them, he had to stop them suffering.  Free them and free himself from all this pain.

His whole life, Ivan Ilyich lived for himself.  But he died for others.  He died with compassion in his heart.

I was grateful Ivan Ilyich found his answer before it was too late.  I am grateful God seeks out every possible means to bring back the lost sheep.  So many points when reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich I was reminded of Relient K's song "Deathbed."  

Yet, it is tragic to reflect that here is an individual who spent his entire life living the wrong way.  Thank goodness he corrected his error before death, but how different would things have been had Ivan Ilyich lived the right way originally?

In our culture, Christmas crowds out Advent in so many ways.  But we need Advent: the sobering, quiet time preparing one's soul for Christ's coming...on Christmas, yes, but also for His Second Coming.  Am I living as I should?  If death should meet me today, would I be ready?

That's why I am so grateful for the habit of praying for final perseverance at the end of the day.  Each night, as day ends and darkness comes, I am reminded: how am I living?  

And I recall the end for which God created me, the end for which Christ was born on Christmas and died so that I may one day know the eternal bliss that is heaven.  Am I striving for that end?  Is that my focus...or is it pleasure and propriety? 

Respice finem.  This Advent and always.