Thursday, July 22, 2010

'The Moviegoer' by Walker Percy

The MoviegoerThe Moviegoer by Walker Percy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I liked it, a lot. Binx and Kate were real characters for me. I love the idea of the "search," what a person would pursue if not stuck in the everydayness of his/her own life. There's a sense of "becoming" that is still very much in play in Binx's search, in play even for an established, working, responsible citizen like himself.

I had some sense of the undercurrent of this book that others might not have had: Percy starts with a quotation from Kierkegaard's "Sickness Unto Death." I have read that book, which is most succinctly (if not best) described as existentialist philosophy and intuitive psychology -- not easy reading, but for a certain cast of mind and quandary of heart, it can hardly be called boring. "Sickness Unto Death" is an anatomy of despair, it's different forms and impacts, and it is quite thorough.

After I (finally finally finally) finished this book today on a train from Bath to London, I started re-reading it.

While in London, I've been trying to understand the mash-up of classical paganism and Christianity that is England. I'm also curious about architecture and how classical mythology emerges and re-emerges as an influence and decorative element. So my mind perked up when Binx is with Kate in Chicago and he passes some attractive young women and realizes he is not distracted by them. It's a rare moment; I think some of us understand. So unusual it is, Binx wonders about it. From there, he goes off on a tangent on how old paganism would have heartily engaged in sexual relations and how Christianity would have a firm prohibition against fornication. But for Binx, as he says, his American experience has been neither one of hearty sex nor one of firm prohibition -- a kind of mushy, tempting-but-uncertain possibility, weakly held out and glanced at askance.

Along those lines, on the train ride to Chicago, Binx struggled to become "intimate" with Kate on the train, and seems to chastise himself for his weakness, and somewhere along the way it is noted, following another Kierkegaard text, that moderns can't even sin anymore. It echoes another Kierkegaard text. In "Either/Or," Kierkegaard writes that his contemporaries are too spiritually paltry to sin, so he prefers Shakespeare and Old Testament, because in those texts, people hate, murder their enemies, and curse their descendants -- while these days, no one can even be fully bad, never mind good.

Binx's analysis of not being distracted by the attractive young ladies is really an amazing rendering of the existentialist theory of modern despair and spiritual malaise: the West is no longer old pagan or Christian, and it doesn't know what to do with itself. In their best forms, paganism and Christianity both presented integrated world views and outlooks on life -- certainties and philosophies and rituals and stories that under-girded existence and the destinies of entire nations and even cultures. With paganism and Christianity dispatched (and today we could add other grand-narrative views like Marxism), there is no longer a common understanding of the world, even within individual cultures and nations, and so modern humans are adrift. Or, at best, tribal within the dying culture and nations -- tribal as in, this works for us, that works for you, which sounds good, but at the cost of greater social and cultural cohesion. Set aside for a moment whether "this works for us, that works for you" is desirable (most of us probably think it is, at least politically and legally); at issue is the loss of a broader, common, world view. (This why Alan Bloom, in "The Closing of the American Mind," can advocate classical literature, Shakespeare and Rousseau as non-religious guides to tutoring young passions via tutoring young imaginations -- while also holding contempt for the pop music-obsession of college students, because pop music has become the replacement for deep, imaginative understandings of the world offered in older literature.)

I bring this up with my re-reading of the book because, early on, Binx says he doesn't like the old part of New Orleans, which I think might be analogous to classical paganism. He prefers his non-descript suburb (anywhere) to the located-ness and historically rooted older parts of New Orleans (somewhere). Binx is a man who is adrift and prefers being adrift, prefers that to his culture's and family's old-pagan (analogous) roots. Movies, in any theater, with no religious tradition (like the other side of his family) and no classical pagan stories, are Binx's preference.

Later, at the end, when Aunt Emily questions Binx about his becoming-intimate with Kate on the train, she questions him from the standpoint of old paganism, not religion. A sense of order and virtue, but not in a Judeo-Christian religious sense, has been violated. Aunt Emily thought Binx was more part of that neo-classical Southern culture than he actually was. She is disappointed. Binx doesn't seem to care. From beginning to end, Binx is adrift, with Aunt Emily as the classical pagan and his half-brother Laurence as the devout Christian.

Beyond that, I'm not sure of what to make of the ending, except to guess that maybe Kate's insistence on Binx's thinking of her -- while she's on the bus to run an errand -- is sort of her new way of experiencing a deeper love. Binx's thoughts of her are enough to keep her from becoming lost, as she has become time and time again throughout the novel. Even when Binx is not physically with Kate, Kate can be sure that she is in Binx's thoughts, and that validates her existence. She is located in Binx's mind, and therefore not lost. To know that one is loved might be the best way to no longer be adrift, the best way to find oneself -- in world in which, as Binx often notes, "somewhere" can become just "anywhere." This understanding of love -- being in Binx's thoughts during her emotionally perilous journey -- calls Kate from her anxiety and despair and into full being. At least I can hope, because the novel ends rather lightly and almost anti-climatically, so I guess Percy was teasing our thoughts in a direction without spelling them out for us. Considering Percy's future, more-religious works, he might be hinting in his first novel at a kind of remedy for despair and malaise. Maybe it's enough to know that one is in God's thoughts; love calls the individual into being.

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