None of the material in this post is particularly original. However, I need help to make my points below.
Most of you understand that much of my life view was forged by devouring “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” – both by Ayn Rand.
But, only a few of you know the profound impact Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” has had on me.
Walker Percy was forty-six years old when his first published novel, “The Moviegoer”, was awarded the National Book Award in 1962. It was, in some sense, the public beginning of the second half of Percy’s life. I am now forty-eight, and really started to feel that I was operating on all eight cylinders when I hit my forty’s.
Percy himself wrote in 1972:
“Life is much stranger than art-and often more geometrical. My life breaks exactly in half: 1st half growing up Southern and medical; 2nd half imposing art on 1st half.”
But what, exactly, did Percy mean when he said this? In some sense, “The Moviegoer” is the beginning of an answer.
Percy was born in 1915 and lived his early life in Birmingham, Alabama. His grandfather committed suicide when Walker was an infant, and his father, too, committed suicide in 1929. Following his father’s suicide, his mother moved Walker and his two brothers to Mississippi. Percy’s family was one of the oldest families in the South, and he and his brothers soon found a father figure in the form of his cousin, William Alexander Percy – known affectionately as Uncle Will. Three years after his father’s suicide, Percy’s life was again marked by tragedy when his mother’s car went off a bridge, killing her and leaving Walker and his brothers in the charge of his Uncle Will.
Cork: So, obviously, as self-absorbed and ego-centric as I am, I understand part of Walker’s evolution. My own earthly father committed suicide after we lost my mother to cancer.
Percy went to medical school at Columbia University, where he contracted tuberculosis during his internship. In and out of sanitariums for several years, he finally returned to the South in his early 30s, getting married in 1946 and settling in the New Orleans area, where he lived the remainder of his life. It was at this time that Percy received an inheritance from his Uncle Will that allowed him to devote himself completely to his long-standing interest in literature and philosophy.
More Cork: So, this is where I really feel Walker Percy.
I (further) relate the biographical details because, as you read “The Moviegoer”, it seems (not surprisingly) heavily marked by Percy’s life experience, the author’s biography being one point of reference for the novel.
Even more Cork: I am therefore I Blog.
“The Moviegoer” is a peculiarly American and belated expression of the existential novel that had been so brilliantly articulated in France by Albert Camus. Like “The Stranger”, Percy’s novel focuses on meaning. In this case, the obsession of Binx Bolling, the novel’s narrator, on what he calls the “search”. /1
As Bolling says at one point:
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
And exactly what does this mean?
“To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
This is certainly an enigmatic definition. But, one which makes the reader who spends time with “The Moviegoer”, who reads the book carefully and reflectively, to think more deeply about his or her own life.
“The Moviegoer” is not a novel dominated by plot.
At a superficial level, the novel relates, in a wry and matter-of-fact way, a few days in the seemingly unremarkable life of Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker whose main activities are going to the movies and carrying on with each of his successive secretaries.
“Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own.”
What “The Moviegoer” suggests is resonant of Thoreau’s contention that most men lead lives of ‘quiet desperation’.
But it is a desperation that arises not from the ordinariness of everyday lives, but, rather, from the failure to transform that ordinariness through contemplation and self-reflection, through an appreciation for the mundane.
Thus, in the book’s epigraph, Percy actually quotes Kierkegaard:
“The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.”
As Percy has suggested in another of his books, “Lost in the Cosmos” (a work of non-fiction subtitled “The Last Self-Help Book”), we inhabit a society of alienated and despairing “non-suicides” who Percy wanted to transform, through his writing, into “ex-suicides”.
In Binx Bolling’s words:
“For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of the sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death . . . At times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say.”
So, in summary, “The Moviegoer” is a thoughtful and a thought-provoking book that should be read and then re-read, slowly and carefully, for every paragraph is laden with insight into the character of its narrator, the character of its author and, ultimately, the character of ourselves.
Read what I tell you to, or don’t speak to me. and, if you don’t like this, you can always fight me.