Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

I don’t yet know how to define our modern malaise, but I see it everywhere. Our obesity epidemic, frequently blamed on sugar and processed foods, is at bottom a spiritual crisis, a desperate attempt to fill a nameless void. Another glaring symptom: our inability to sit still, to be quiet, to endure boredom and the company of our own inner voice. Entertainments are ubiquitous, made “multiplatform” so that we can listen to music while we walk or drive, play video games at our computers or on the toilet, or watch movies and television shows on subway trains and airplanes. The incessant buzz of our smartphones interrupts us at all hours of the day and night, and we answer the call, as we have been trained to do, reflexively, compulsively. Entertainment long ago passed from mere diversion to an identity, central to how we self-define: witness the many “conventions” around comic books, movie franchises, and television shows, or the neologism “fandom” invented to describe their attendees, who decorate their homes with thematic memorabilia (bobbleheads, coffee mugs, posters, car stickers – the possibilities are endless). Ours is now a consumer society, so naturally identity becomes a matter of dollars: where and how you spend them. When did this process begin? Here is Wordsworth, in 1802, levelling a similar accusation at England: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Probably it’s a matter of degree, and what bothered Wordsworth at the start of the 19th century took two more centuries to evolve (or devolve) to our present condition.

As far as America is concerned, one of the earliest voices to sound the alarm belonged to Walker Percy, a former physician whose debut novel, The Moviegoer, published in 1961 when he was in his mid-forties, sounded the void and became a national bestseller in the process, catapulting its then-unknown author to literary stardom. The tone is set for us before the novel begins, first by the title, which anticipated the conflation of entertainment and identity, and then by a quotation from Kierkegaard: ” … the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” Our narrator-protagonist is Jack “Binx” Bolling, a veteran of the Korean War now working as a stockbroker in New Orleans. Early in the narrative, he explains his predicament thus: “Everything is upside-down for me, as I shall explain later. What are generally considered to be the best times are for me the worst times, and that worst of times was one of the best.” What, exactly, is wrong with his present? He is young, handsome, successful, able to attract a string of beautiful women for short-term affairs, while behind him he has the traumas of the Korean War. And yet he is aware of a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction, and this sense propels him forward, on a personal quest for meaning. “What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” I am reminded of an old thought experiment concerning the nature of God. What is it that God – all-powerful, all-knowing, infinite – lacks? Answer: limitation. The modern world has been arranged for Binx Bolling in such a way that comfort and convenience are the default settings, but his nature – man’s nature – cannot find meaning or purpose without challenge. “For years now,” he tells us, “I have had no friends. I spend my entire time working, making money, going to movies and seeking the company of women.” He is, in other words, emblematic of the modern man, even more so today than when his character was created a half-century ago.

Stripped of purpose, Binx attempts to substitute the high drama provided by film, but this is a futile undertaking, and one that risks making him a spectator in his own life. When he attends a movie, he makes a point of making himself conspicuous, not merely anonymously seating himself, for otherwise he would risk losing time entirely:

If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me.

If Binx is noble at all, it is because he suffers from an awareness of his condition, whereas the many people he sees around him are small-minded enough to positively enjoy their narrow lives. “For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead,” he tells us at one point, and he carries this awareness with him:

It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. I hear myself or someone else saying things like: “In my opinion the Russian people are a great people, but–” or “Yes, what you say about the hypocrisy of the North is unquestionably true. However–” and I think to myself: this is death. Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord.

A living death, then, all the more disturbing because, like Kierkegaard’s despair, it goes unacknowledged. “Losing hope is not so bad,” Binx says at one point, channeling his spiritual master. “There’s something worse: losing hope and hiding it from yourself.”

At one point in the novel, the protagonist’s aunt, a hardass with old school Christian convictions, loses patience with Binx: “You will be thirty years old. Don’t you think a thirty year old man ought to know what he wants to do with his life?” It’s the question upon which the entire novel – and, to be frank, my generation – turns. Binx cannot answer it, and five decades after his invention, neither can most of his flesh-and-blood descendants. The predicament identified by Percy has not been solved; in fact, it has metastasized, multiplied, to the point that is has become the common lot of 21st century man. That is a very roundabout way of saying that time has vindicated Walker Percy’s observations, and made The Moviegoer more relevant today than when it was written.