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.

No comments:

Post a Comment