[percy-l] Walker Percy: We Still Live Within the Mediated, Alienated World of “The Moviegoer”
honeyjbc at gmail.com
Tue Jan 29 17:36:07 EST 2019
My biggest wonder is what Percy would make of the dislocations of our society today.Does anyone here ever ponder how Percy would consider the extremes of twitter or the main stream media in their search and destroy missions?Wouldn't it be funny to read Percy's take on current events?
The ease with which Senators and journalists feel justified as they destroy a man's name without any corroboration just because it fits their political need of the moment, the early morning raid of a private citizen's house, conveniently captured by CNN television cameras, when the authorities could just as easily asked him to turn himself in, the delight of using destructive rhetoric even if it means the death of policemen or private citizens, the way one day Russia is not a problem, but a president who wants to stop communism is the problem, but now Russia is turned into evil inc. - things like this are so ready for satire.The double standards of who is behaving badly depending on who is in power at the moment...
Do others ever think about these questions?
How valuable a Percy novel about our time would be for us!
On Tuesday, January 29, 2019, 4:14:38 PM EST, Jim Forest <jhforest at gmail.com> wrote:
The New Yorker / January 2, 2019
We Still Live Withinthe Mediated, Alienated World of “The Moviegoer”
By Paul Elie
That it isn’t really about movies is the first surprise.Binx Bolling, the novel’s main character, is only an occasional moviegoer, bothby the standards of postwar America (when Martin Scorsese would see a movie aday) and those of the present, when many of us spend most of our time looking atone screen or another.
“The Moviegoer” isn’t really about movies, and yet the titleremains unexpectedly apt, just as it was when the novel, published in 1961,became a surprise winner of the National Book Award and made a sudden Southerneminence of its author, Walker Percy, a nonpracticing physician and self-taughtphilosopher in early middle age. It’s apt because it moves the novel (and ourexpectations for the novel) out of the South. It intimates that this novel, setin New Orleans, the region’s most storied city, isn’t about history or legacy,isn’t about place at all: it’s about how we see things—a novel of perceptionand sensibility, dealing with the search for authenticity in a scripted,stylized, mediated world.
Percy’s contemporary Flannery O’Connor characterized theliterature of the American South at midcentury as set against the typical. InO’Connor’s view, there was no typical Southern novel, and that was a goodthing; for her, the best Southern novel was atypical just as life in the South(in her time, as she saw it) was atypical of American life as a whole. TheSouthern novel she celebrated takes unusual, extreme, even grotesque, behavioras its starting point. Such a novel is rooted, she explained, in “someexperience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which theordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. . . . Yet thecharacters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their socialframework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns,toward mystery and the unexpected.”
“As I Lay Dying,” and “Wise Blood,” and later “A Confederacyof Dunces” and “The Color Purple” and “Fishboy”: these novels are fiercelyatypical. But the originality of “The Moviegoer” is more paradoxical thantheirs. Unlike the novels of the South that have something of the heightenedquality that came to be called gothic, “The Moviegoer” becomes atypical throughits scrutiny of the typical. It takes ordinary experience—“everydayness,” Binxcalls it—and makes it the subject of fitful philosophical inquiry. It promisesa typical moviegoer but delivers the inimitable Binx. It calls literarycategories to mind by leaning away from them.
“The Moviegoer” makes scant reference to the Civil War, toracial conflict, to old houses and barrel-aged whiskey and the notion of theSouth as a place where people sit around telling tall tales on front porches,whose “tragic” history somehow binds them together. It’s a novel of New Orleanswhere the protagonist winds up missing Mardi Gras for a stockbrokers’convention in Chicago.
It’s a Catholic novel (the main action takes place in thedays before Ash Wednesday), and yet one whose protagonist considers himself notmuch of a Catholic at all, but a skeptic whose “unbelief was invincible fromthe beginning”—who tells us, “I have only to hear the word God and a curtaincomes down in my head.”
It’s a distinctly American novel, but one that stands apartfrom the main line from Hawthorne to Twain to James and Wharton and then to Fitzgerald,Hemingway, and Cather—the double helix of innocents at home and innocentsabroad. Its key antecedents are the European existentialists Kierkegaard,Sartre, and Camus—the latter two of whom were also important for Ralph Ellison,who drew inspiration from them a decade before Percy, in writing “InvisibleMan.”
It’s a novel of the search—“the pilgrim’s search outsidehimself, rather than the guru’s search within,” Percy liked to say—but withoutthe usual signposting. There’s no journey to a strange culture, no savvy guide,no sloughing off of one self and the taking on of another; no raft and river,no feasting or fasting, no new world at the end of the journey. There’s justthe “everydayness” of Binx’s life in New Orleans and the slight diversion of anovernight train ride.
It’s a coming-of-age novel, but one whose protagonist isnearly twice the age of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. Binx is about to turnthirty, an age by which American men of midcentury were expected to havesettled into their adult lives. He is a college graduate, a veteran, astocks-and-bonds broker—and yet his self is “left over,” as Percy put it in anessay. Nearing thirty, Binx is gripped by “the possibility of the search” as iffor the first time. The novel was a surprise even to its author. As he wroteit, Percy, like Binx, was forced out of himself and compelled to court, asO’Connor wrote, “mystery and the unexpected” as never before.
In outline, Percy’s early life was more atypical than thatof any character he created. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916, theeldest of three sons in a prosperous family of planters, lawyers, andpoliticians. When Percy was thirteen, his father committed suicide (as hisfather had done before him). Two years later, his mother died in a car accidentthat was thought by some to have been an act of self-harm. Percy and hisbrothers, LeRoy and Phinizy, had gone to Greenville, Mississippi, to live withhis father’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, and there Walker Percy fell underthe spell of this Southern man of the manor, whom he and his brothers calledUncle Will. Educated at Sewanee and Harvard Law School, a veteran of the GreatWar, a bachelor, religiously inclined, Uncle Will ran the plantation, presidedover the civic life of Greenville, wrote poetry, exulted in orchestral musicand opera, and served, Percy recalled, as “something of a spokesman for theSouth.” And he raised the three orphaned Percys in the spirit of the questionshe liked to pose: “What do you love? What do you live by?”
In part to get out of the great man’s shadow, Percy wentnorth and east: to the University of North Carolina (where he was a steadymoviegoer) and then to Columbia University’s medical school, in upperManhattan. Drawn to the study of the causes of disease more than to the care ofpatients, he followed a course in medical pathology. As the Second World Warbegan, he interned at Bellevue Hospital, notorious as the place where thecity’s destitute were tended to—and there he contracted tuberculosis. Atsanatoriums in Connecticut and upstate New York, he followed the regimen ofrest and fresh air that was the nearest thing to a cure for the disease. As hisTB went into remission, he began to imagine that he could pursue a career as awriter rather than as a medical doctor. “I was in bed so much, alone so much,that I had nothing to do but read and think,” he recalled. “I began to questioneverything I had once believed.” Reading Thomas Mann, Sartre, and Kierkegaard,Percy came to see the novelist as a diagnostician and the novel—thephilosophical novel—as a tool with which to probe the pathology of the modernworld.
Religion became another instrument. Out of the sanatorium,prompted by conversations with a Catholic fellow-convalescent and recently madeaware (through William Alexander Percy’s late-in-life autobiography, “Lanternson the Levee”) of Uncle Will’s strong attraction to Catholicism, Percy himselfwas drawn to the church. He had fallen in love with a nurse he knew in NewOrleans, Mary Bernice Townsend, and they were married in a Baptist church; andthen he and Bunt, as she was called, converted to Catholicism and settled inLouisiana, first in New Orleans and then in the burgeoning suburb of Covington,across Lake Pontchartrain. Why the turn to religion? The reason, Percy latersaid, was that he saw Catholicism as true, and its truths as standards by whichto measure and assess the problems he saw with life in the twentieth century.
Ten years passed. Percy and Bunt adopted a baby girl, andBunt gave birth to another girl. Percy, living on inheritances, worked at beinga writer. He wrote two novels, each a Southern bildungsroman: “one a badimitation of Thomas Mann,” he later said, “the other a worse imitation ofThomas Wolfe—which is very bad indeed.” Inspired by the postwar philosophersGabriel Marcel (a French Catholic) and Susanne K. Langer, he began to writephilosophical essays, using them to puzzle out quandaries of everyday life—suchas those of the businessman-commuter in the essay he called “The Man on theTrain.” The essays, strong and strange, were published in quarterlies ofliterature and philosophy, and few people read them.
The Percys’ younger daughter, Ann, was deaf, and they placedher in a day school for students with hearing impairments in New Orleans. Percybought a small house nearby, in the Uptown district, where he spent time duringthe school day. There, away from his library, his immediate family, hishistory, his personal story of death and loss, disease and rejuvenation, hecame up with the character of John Bickerson Bolling and a loose narrative hecalled “Confessions of a Movie-Goer.”
A literary agent sent the manuscript to a junior editor inNew York, Stanley Kauffmann, who was also the movie critic for The NewRepublic. Kauffmann abbreviated the title and edited the textthoroughly—sharpening the quick cuts, juxtapositions, non sequiturs, and suddenshifts of topic and tonal register that give Binx’s narration, and the novel,its distinctive style.
Published in 1961, lightly publicized, little noticed, “TheMoviegoer” found its way to A. J. Liebling, The New Yorker writer, who hadwritten a biography of the Louisiana governor Earl Long and was steeped in theculture and flavor of New Orleans. Liebling shared the novel with his wife, thenovelist Jean Stafford, who was a judge for the National Book Awards that year,and the novel, not formally nominated, was put up for consideration. It was astrong year for American fiction: J. D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” JosephHeller’s “Catch-22,” William Maxwell’s “The Château,” and Isaac BashevisSinger’s “The Spinoza of Market Street” were all nominated. The award went to“The Moviegoer.” Percy, accepting the prize in New York, framed the novel interms he had explored in his essays (and which he would develop for the rest ofhis career): the sickness of modern Western society, the loss of the sense ofthe self, the role of the writer as diagnostician. Concluding, he made his mostvital point indirectly: “In short, the book attempts a modest restatement ofthe Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment,more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creativeindividual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim.”
Percy was a late starter as a novelist, and Binx Bolling islate coming of age, but Percy’s novel of Binx’s coming of age was ahead of itstime. With its slack and offhand protagonist, its present-tense narration, itseffortless mix of informal speech, images from popular culture, and frankruminations on the meaning of life, “The Moviegoer” is, in my estimation, thefirst work of what we call contemporary American fiction, the earliest novel torender a set of circumstances and an outlook that still feel recognizably ours.
Faulkner once characterized his approach to writing as“oratory out of solitude.” Of this approach Percy made a new thing altogether.The solitude of “The Moviegoer” isn’t the solitude of a rebel or anindependent, but that of a person who is alone in a crowd—in a movie theatre oron a sidewalk in the French Quarter. The oratory in the book isn’t that of theBible or of Stoic philosophy or of a Russian novel but of a voice-over—thepresent-tense monologue of the person who does not tell a story so much asself-consciously offer a running commentary on life as it passes before hiseyes.
The present tense of the narration has acted as apreservative in the novel. The manners and everyday details, so closelyobserved, are noticeably those of another time. Businessmen (no longer calledthat) no longer wear hats to the office, and their come-ons to their femalesubordinates are understood as coercive and manipulative, not perks of the job;the “silent reproaches” Binx discerns from his secretaries are said aloud.African-Americans are no longer confined to the back of the bus or prizedpatronizingly for their “devotion” to white people who employ them; Jewishpeople are no longer reflexively regarded as figures of displacement and exile.Cinemas are no longer called movie houses, and their managers no longer standunder the marquee offering passersby a “sample look” on a slow night. The trimcertainties of the “Baltimore Catechism” (the stuff of the novel’s epilogue)are now unknown to even the devoutest Catholic child.
And yet for all that, “The Moviegoer” seems to describe theway we live now, for its affectless protagonist observes a society whose everyaspect seems mediated, contrived, statistically anticipated, manipulated inadvance, so that direct experience of life can seem as elusive as theexperience of God.
Don DeLillo, a novelist of a generation younger than WalkerPercy, spoke of the qualities of the novels that emboldened him to writefiction, and fiction of a particular kind. “There’s a drive and a daring thatgo beyond technical invention,” he said. “I think it’s right to call it alife-drive even though these books deal at times very directly with death. Nooptimism, no pessimism. No homesickness for lost values or for the way fictionused to be written. These books open out onto some larger mystery.”
Southern, Catholic, ironic, oblique: “The Moviegoer” doesn’tadd up, quite. What is it about? What has come of Binx’s search? What hasprompted him to settle down with Kate and embrace everydayness withquasi-religious devotion? “It is impossible to say,” Binx remarks in the lastline of the novel proper. It is impossible to say. And yet “The Moviegoer,”like its central character, has an inner coherence. Its take on everydaynesshas the quality of wonder that is the novel’s true subject. It opens out onto somelarger mystery, one that we, no less than he, are still trying to solve.
Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown University, is theauthor of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”—a group portrait of Walker Percy,Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day—and “Reinventing Bach.
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