The Sumerian Device: The Book of the Artifice and Abominations
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The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place -- but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks' time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.
The movie theater is Binx's church, because it offers the temptation of an escape from "everydayness" and despair. Binx discusses how he believes a place has been "Certified" when it has been in a movie, and becomes "Somewhere and not Anywhere". The movies are pleasant, and make for a nice distraction from the humdrum boredom of life.
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But The Moviegoer is really not about movies at all, and actually contains precious few of them. As Binx himself says in a criticism of a young, passionate Romantic who characterizes the Beatnik generation yet to be born :. The real problem is settling down, take up a wife and kids, make a stable living at a stable job, succumbing to the "everydayness".
So in his own way Binx stays aloof. He chews on his thoughts. He notes "it is true that my family was somewhat disappointed" in his choice to be a stockbroker, but "there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable".
He strolls up to a local deserted playground, spreads out a phone book and schedule and map, plots out a journey to the theater, and "I stroll around the schoolyard in the last golden light of day and admire the building.
Naturally, as soon as I recovered and got home, I forgot all about it. He spots a movie star on the sidewalk, and notes the cool way a boy offers him a light without being too starstruck. He was won title to his own existence," and "He is a citizen like Holden; two men of the world they are. All at once the world is open to him.
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The problem is something with Binx's cousin, the only one who really understands him, and something of an alter-ego. Kate has just cut off her engagement, is listlessly moping around the house, "is getting to be a little nervous". Ever since her last fiance died in "the accident" and she walked out unscathed, Kate has been a little lifeless and cold. Kate and Binx understand each other perfectly though, in a way that Aunt Emily does not. Aunt Emily supposes that Binx is shell-shocked from the war, that Kate is shell-shocked from the accident, and that once Binx commits to a real job and Kate commits to a new marriage, everything will settle down and everyone will straighten out.
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As Binx and Kate discuss:. That's my secret , just as the war is your secret. And this is what The Moviegoer is about. We've become so discomfited from society that we've lost our sense of ourselves.
We're disoriented, endlessly sucked in by a vortex of unimportant distractions. We only really feel alive when something spontaneous, even a terrible accident, knocks us back to reality. We trip and almost fall down the stairs and are exhilarated when we don't. A plate shatters in a crowded restaurant, and everyone is excited by the commotion. Your fiance dies in a car crash, and what surprises you most is how little you're really upset by it. So Binx wanders New Orleans, meditating in his smooth jazz narration, working himself up to some commitment before pulling away so as to not endanger "the search".
Where "the search" is really an endless series of distractions, seeking to escape the "everydayness" of one's own life. Or as Kate puts it in another scene:.
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Can you believe it was a relief to suffer extreme physical pain? Hell couldn't be fire -- there are worse things than fire. I said above that The Moviegoer was "obviously Catholic," and this is why: the "vortex of unimportant distractions" at the heart of The Moviegoer is really a God-sized hole.
We all, Binx and Kate and the rest of us, seek to escape the "everydayness" of our lives by finding something greater than ourselves. Walker Percy makes this obvious not by the abundance of Catholic images, but by their conspicuous absence. Binx considers and dismisses Catholicism. Almost the whole book is set against the week-long preparations for Mardi Gras, and Binx finds himself little concerned about them. Kate, too, feels no great desire to participate in the festivities, only wishes to avoid them.
This tension plays out across the book as Binx and Kate seek to escape Mardi Gras as the community around them comes together for it. They eventually end up in Chicago on the day of the event, and it's significant that the climax of the book occurs not on Fat Tuesday but on Ash Wednesday. This is made most clear when Kate has her revelation after the almost-expected suicide attempt:. Oh dear sweet old Binx, what a joy it is to discover at last what one is. It doesn't matter what you are as long as you know!
Please don't let me forget. I am a religious person. What I want is to believe in someone completely and then do what he wants me to do.
If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that corner by the Southern Life and Accident Insurance Company and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people -- you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the happiest girl in Jackson, Mississippi?
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I would. As noted above, our society has been through an intense period of self-criticism and reflection. This has produced many wondrous things, many of the marvels of the modern age. But without the moral foundation of a belief which cannot be undermined , people become discomfited. Life becomes a parade of anxieties, no matter how prosperous or safe.source link
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And so we settle in for the "everydayness" or else "the search". This theme, "the dislocation of man in the modern age," in Percy's words, is the great theme of Percy's life and work. He himself was greatly dislocated, when his father committed suicide and his mother died in a suspicious accident two years after. He and his brothers moved in with his cousin son of a senator , Percy struck up a lifelong correspondence with Shelby Foote best known for his 3-volume history of the Civil War , and converted to Catholicism. Percy became a prolific Catholic writer, one of the greatest of the South, and developed the fervor of the convert to a new religion.
Because, really, it's a funny thing -- as Percy extols the benefits of a faith which cannot be undermined, "to believe in someone completely," his faith is the faith of someone who had to go through struggle and doubt to obtain it. This dynamic is expressed well in an mock-interview Percy gave himself, "Questions they never asked me so I asked myself":. Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: Yes. That's what attracted me, Christianity's rather insolent claim to be true , with the implication that other religions are more or less false. So this is Walker Percy's answer to the existential questions of the age. We need a "complete" belief in something God which must, by definition, assert itself against the criticism of alternatives. It takes insolence. Anything less than that and we fall into distractions, anomie, and "the search". Personally, I find Percy very readable and very enjoyable, but for I admit that for some reason he did not resonate deeply with me.
He has resonated deeply with a great number of people I highly respect, so I do not wish to dismiss it out of hand. The Moviegoer is a fine book, and it sings with something of Binx Bolling's distinct voice and cadence. Maybe I need to read it again. But I wonder. Since our society has passed through a period of self-criticism, the world has moved on.