Rereading Walker Percy at age 30 is a bit unnerving.
When I first read The Moviegoer, at age 18, it was a mesmerizing, eye-opening experience. I entered an entirely new world, and fell in love with the protagonist, Binx Bolling. I saw him as revolutionary, uniquely perceptive, a sighted man in a world of the blind. Here was a true romantic, a man -- however fictional -- who had figured out society's ugly secrets and had formulated a way to separate himself from them: He took his ideals from the movies. I aspired to be more like him, to consider my life philosophically, to feel myself on a search.
It's astonishing now to discover just how much I misread the book.
Originally published in 1961, The Moviegoer won the National Book Award in 1962, and is generally considered Percy's masterpiece. Percy trained as a doctor, with a specialization in pathology and psychiatry, but when he was 26, in the early 1940s, he contracted tuberculosis and was confined to a sanitorium. Percy began reading philosophy during his convalescence, particularly the writings of the existentialists. Not long after, he made the radical decision to become a writer.
Percy's biographer, Jay Tolson, has described this change as the central mystery of Percy's life: "An intelligent, attractive man in his early thirties, a man with a promising medical career ahead of him, decides not only to abandon his profession and become a writer but also to embrace a religion, Catholicism, upon which he, an ardent believer in science, had previously looked with respectful but thoroughgoing skepticism. He also decides at roughly the same time to give up the ways of a minor Lothario and marry a young woman he had met a few years before and with whom he had since conducted a fitful on-again off-again relationship." This is also the central idea of The Moviegoer, and the heart of most of Percy's novels: the hero as knight-errant, the search as spiritual odyssey, the solution as a most improbable return to religious feeling in the midst of modern civilization.
In fact, this religious sense permeates the novel, though it is perhaps less overt in The Moviegoer than it is in Percy's later works, particularly The Second Coming. But the spirituality is definitely there; Binx is hesitant to speak about the object of his search in The Moviegoer, though he alludes to its location:
What do you seek -- God? you ask with a smile.
I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached -- and therefore raising a question in which no one has the slightest interest. Who wants to be dead last among one hundred and eighty million Americans? For, as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics -- which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker. For myself, I enjoy answering polls as much as anyone and take pleasure in giving intelligent replies to all questions.
Truthfully, it is the fear of exposing my own ignorance which constrains me from mentioning the object of my search. For, to begin with, I cannot even answer this, the simplest and most basic of all questions: Am I, in my search, a hundred miles ahead of my fellow Americans or a hundred miles behind them? That is to say: Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?
On my honor, I do not know the answer.
This passage is notable, not only for the lyrical flow of Percy's writing, the way one sentence loops you inexorably into the next, but also for its focus on the idea of "everydayness." Everydayness, malaise, despair -- these, for Percy, are the bane of modern existence, foggy states of mind that must be fought against. Unfortunately, the whole of modern culture, from its technologies to its relationships, works to maintain exactly that sense of the everyday. This is the origin of Binx's attachment to the movies, and his conviction -- which one can see played out in an entire range of contemporary novels -- that movies have become more "real" than reality, that nothing can be "certified" as real until it has been seen in a film:
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
This notion of certification is one of Binx's numerous philosophical inventions throughout the novel, the frames by which he attempts to control and explain his life. This philosophizing, and this attachment to the movies as creators rather than reflectors of reality, were what first drew me to The Moviegoer. At 18, doing the first serious reading of my life, I passionately believed in Plato's dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living; Binx's search, and his determined rejection of the "deadness" he sees in everyone around him, were precisely the kind of self-consciousness by which I hoped to live.
Years later, I find myself agreeing with Binx's aunt when she accuses him of being incapable of truly caring for anyone. Binx has philosophized himself into a moral and emotional deadness of his own, living at an altogether irresponsible remove from his own life. I see in Percy's narrative a shockingly late coming-of-age story, in which a 30-year-old man comes to terms with his adulthood by locating the object of his spiritual quest in his connections to those around him.
What I wonder, however, is what I made of the novel's ending 12 years ago. I honestly don't remember my reaction. This time I found the ending -- am I giving too much away by revealing that Binx gets married? -- distinctly unsettling. I don't think I was supposed to; Binx's reconciliation with the world around him seems only positive, bound up in love for his family. But what of the dangers of the entry into everydayness? Can Binx live in the world without being of it?
I'll have to spend more time with Percy, rereading his other novels before I attempt an answer -- perhaps to see if they've changed in the last 12 years, too.