In partial fulfillment of the degree of Master of Arts in English, University of Washington, December 1990.
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
— Matthew 19:24
To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle.
— Walker Percy, Lancelot
Overview: Percy’s World
In his essay “The Mystery of Language,” Percy quotes Heidegger’s definition of the human self as “that being in the world whose calling it is to find a name for Being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing.” The spatial image touches upon a certain persistent ontology of limitation in Percy’s fiction. Percy’s characters discover freedom only through limitation. Being is named only by providing a clearing for it, establishing its boundaries.
That Percy’s own achievement as a novelist fulfills the Heideggerian edict is an underlying assumption I feel obliged to confess at the outset. The truth of the matter is there is no place I feel more at home than in a Walker Percy novel, any Walker Percy novel. And the mission of what follows will be in large part devoted to a more or less personal effort to try to discover why that is. Why do I feel so at home with Binx Bolling et al, chasing women and God, drinking bourbon and gin, gripped by everydayness and morning terror? Why else but that in the course of any one of his novels Percy somehow manages this rare miracle: he hits upon a name for Being and invites me to join in clearing a space for it. 
Percy, his protagonist and I form a kind of triple alliance it would seem, a “three musketeers” of sorts, wielding shovels against the excremental pile-up in this “the very century of merde.” What is the merde? It is all that would obfuscate our senses, dim our awareness (of even the merde itself), deprive us of meaning. It is that abstracting and devaluing force which would subsume us and turn us into the living dead. Violence and satire — what Percy has spoken of as the element of malice in his writing — thus arise as a necessary means of providing the clearing for that mystery which Heidegger refers to as Being. Lancelot, the most shadowy of Percy’s protagonists, states the case thus: “Don’t talk to me of love until we shovel out the shit.” Shovels in hand, we dig with Percy and his protagonists. Our secret delight, though, is in the naming and knowing and clearing a space for further revelations of the mystery lurking under our very noses.
In Percy’s novels such revelations occur first as small glimmerings of awareness, of seeing, which ultimately blossom into some larger vision of and participation in reality.
* * *
The world of a Walker Percy novel is not the one we find described in newspaper headlines. The predicament Percy alludes to is not characterized by the turbulence, brutality, sinfulness or depravity of the modern world — except insofar as our hunger for the shock of such headlines bespeaks a graver predicament. No, the world of a Walker Percy novel is our own standard stuck-in-the-mud-and-only-dimly-aware-of-our-wheels-spinning-ever-more-deeply-into-their-ruts, Wednesday-afternoon-weary world. It is a world of not much account, more paltry than sinful (a point Sutter explicates at some length in his “casebook” in The Last Gentleman), more to be pitied for its mediocrity than condemned for its evil, more befogged by noxious particles and psychic fallout than delineated by clear sign-posts of truth and action, good and evil. In short, it is a world in despair. And the specific character of the despair is, as the Kierkegaardian epigraph to The Moviegoer states, that it is unaware of being despair.
The world Percy posits is also essentially linguistic in nature. It is “a world of signs.” We know the world, not directly as the angels know it, nor strictly mechanically as organisms responding to an environment, but indirectly and mysteriously as symbol-mongers, laying word and thing side by side and coupling them in the act of language to form what Percy suggests might be termed “concrete concepts” or “abstract percepts” — akin to Hopkins’s “inscape.” Most all of the vast and subtle interactions of the universe may be understood in terms of dyadic relationships, e.g. “particles hitting particles, chemical reactions, energy exchanges, gravity attractions between masses, field forces.” At a more complex level “the interactions of organisms with each other, whether sexual, combative, or predatory, could be similarly understood.” The coupling of word and thing, however, can only be understood with reference to a triadic framework. According to this scheme, the terms of which derive from Charles Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure, the signifier is not a stimulus which sends the hearer looking for the signified — as, for example, my neighbor’s dog goes hunting for his favorite tennis ball when the word ball is spoken. Rather the three elements — name, named and namer — form an irreducible triangle whereby not a chain reaction but a coupling of name and named occurs, and meaning arises.
Percy’s favorite emblem for the wondrousness of the language event is Helen Keller at the well-house. In her autobiography Helen tells of having learned to make the signs for cake or doll when she wanted these things. She was at this early stage, Percy points out, responding as a creature in an environment. Then came the breakthrough. Helen felt the water rushing over her hand, felt the teacher spelling the word water in her other hand and suddenly made the connection: “I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant that wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand…. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.” What Helen found at the well-house was nothing less than the world of signs, the human community. What Percy found there was a startling paradigm or touchstone for both the individual process of language-acquisition which occurs in most two-year-old humans and the collective process by which “man became man by breaking into the daylight of language.”
The world of the novels, however, is one in which the linguistic daylight has grown depressingly dim. Words have been deprived of their meaning, says Father Smith in The Thanatos Syndrome. And it is precisely this deprivation which lies at the heart of the plague of unawareness and malaise constantly threatening to infect Percy’s protagonists. Things have long since ceased to quiver with the life bestowed by language. The world is cut off from the self who finds himself (or herself, as in the case of Allison Huger in The Second Coming, the nearest Percy came to creating a full-fledged female protagonist) in the world but painfully separated from it as a kind of Banquo at the feast. Hardly better off are these alienated misfits than was Helen before her discovery at the well-house.
In thus portraying our alienation, as I think Percy often succeeds poignantly and genuinely in doing — in the mere portrayal — already something like a renewal of Helen’s breakthrough begins to occur. The sore spot is located, touched, named. A reversal occurs. In his essay, “The Man on the Train,” Percy cites Kafka’s Joseph K. as a primary example of this reversal of alienation through its portrayal. Kafka simply affirms “alienation for what it is and as the supreme intersubjective achievement of art set[s] forth the truth of it: how it stands for both of us…. pointing at and naming alienation has already reversed it, healing the very wound it re-presents.” Percy’s artistic strategy falls largely into such a Kafkaesque vein. Yet, unlike the case of Joseph K. whose only glimpse of hope comes as an ambiguous hand beckoning from an ambiguous window shortly before he is murdered, Percy’s protagonists themselves partake of the reversal. In one way or another, by fits and starts, Percy’s protagonists “come to themselves,” begin to see their predicament and catch a glimpse of that mysterious life which Helen discovered at the well-house.
As William Dowie points out, these glimpses form the basis of a kind of concrete or sensual substructure of Percy’s novels. “All of Percy’s protagonists,” says Dowie, “become watchers, wanderers, listeners — thus opening themselves primarily to the sensual experiences of things around them.” While this is a valid observation, it is also important to note the manner in which the protagonists watch and listen and wander. They open themselves, yes, but this opening comes only as part and parcel of a simultaneous setting of boundaries, marking of zones, accepting of limitations. Binx Bolling wakes up one morning, not just in the ordinary sense, but in the more radical sense of recovering the vitality of things newly named. Making a frame with forefinger and thumb, he discovers he can actually see the little pile of belongings emptied from his pockets the night before. Will Barrett similarly discovers that the bricks of city buildings ordinarily lost to him are made available when delimited and encapsulated in the lens of his $18,000 German telescope. Lancelot Lamar claims that the narrower the view, the more you can see, and Tom More looks out upon the ruins through the narrow turrets of his allergy-swollen face. All of these awakenings to the sensual and the concrete are attended with a concurrent parcelling out of space — not a broadening but a narrowing of horizons; or, perhaps more accurately, a narrowing of horizons through which a broadening and a blossoming out occurs — much as Helen’s experience narrowed down to that one word, water, only to flourish outward like a fountain to encompass every object she subsequently encountered — as, in a similar fashion in The Second Coming, Allison insists she must go down to her Sirius dwarf-star self before she can hope to blossom out into her genuine self and live an ordinary life. Life is made manageable by capturing a small segment of it and providing for it a clearing.
But there remains a problematic pressure exerted by the world outside of these small clearings. In one of his long footnotes in Lost in the Cosmos, Percy dismisses deconstructionism as a “whimsical stepchild” of French structuralism. Nevertheless, as evinced in Patrick Samway’s provocative essay on the centrality of the “purloined letter” in Lancelot, deconstructionist concepts may provide a useful way of approaching Percy’s narrative strategy — especially with regard to the constant framing and delimiting in which I am suggesting Percy’s protagonists, and Percy himself as author, are engaged. “In a Derridian mode,” according to Samway, “Percy’s ways of framing help us see the artistry before us, knowing, as we do, that any framing device will be partial and never satisfactory insofar as one referent opens out and generates other referents and systems.”
Where Derrida “wants to avoid making the signifier the signified,” however, Percy sees a coupling and an integrated inscape. For Derrida, a frame “delineates both the within and the without, and thus can set up contradictions.” Percy is concerned with the potential for contradictory shifts of signification only insofar as such shifts take on an existential character indicative of an existential predicament. Ultimately, it seems, Derrida sees the duplicitous character of language as its own indictment. Language is illusory. There is finally no meaning at all because all meaning contains its own contradiction. Percy, on the other hand, views the situation in light of radically different assumptions. The struggle with shifting signifiers is part and parcel of the struggle of the human self with freedom and limitation. It is the struggle of Adam and Eve with the temptation to become like gods, to transcend the concrete world of fixed names and attain a view of reality in terms of abstract dichotomies such as “the knowledge of good and evil.”
In the Genesis story, God brings every creature to Adam to be named; then Eve is created and all is well: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” To name one’s world, and to accept a name oneself, is to accept the limitation of designation and experience the mysterious “inscape” of things as Helen Keller returning from the well-house. Striving to deny or escape such limitations, the Genesis story as well as Percy’s own narratives seem to suggest, brings on disorientation, contradiction, alienation and shame. Thus at the heart of Percy’s semiotic and fictional concerns is an awareness of linguistic duplicity and Derrida’s problematic “play of differences.” Yet this problematic situation is “informed by a certain belief about man’s nature and destiny,” that is, the doctrine of original sin and the possibility of redemption.
The play of differences faced by Percy’s characters assumes the nature of a sundering force driving them away from edenic awareness and self-complacency into a dead-end realm of inflated possibility. According to Binx, Mercer seems to “dissolve” when he fails to see himself as either faithful retainer or expert on current events and instead seeks guidance from a Rosicrucian pamphlet entitled How to Harness Your Secret Powers. Lancelot Lamar sees the present as a tape head: “There is too much feeding into the tape head — the new tape is too empty — too many possibilities — but the recorded tape is too full.” When Will Barrett arrives in New Mexico it seems to him that “what a man can be the next minute bears no relation to what he is or what he was the minute before.” Twenty years later Allison sees herself as the giant red star Betelgeuse “trying to expand and fan out and take in and please the whole universe.” In Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome Tom More is caught up in a struggle to locate the center that has not held in a world polarized and dehumanized in its extremes of what he calls “angelism-bestialism.” Each of these cases indicates a struggle with freedom and limitation, a struggle with naming and accepting a name. The human self is hemmed in, by the beasts on one side and by the gods on the other. In his novelistic worlds, Percy explores and sometimes brutally satirizes the ways we seek, as Adam and Eve of old, to escape this condition; the spiritual anomie and despair that results, and the signs of hope that mysteriously arise (and here is where the satire often blends into a comedy of grace) offering to reawaken us to life.
What these signs, appearing amid the general squalor, these small framings of reality and gleamings of awareness, ultimately point toward is perhaps the most Catholic aspect of Percy’s fiction; that is, his sense of the sacramental. In this respect Percy acknowledges a debt to the Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins:
And this is a much more, I guess, consciously Catholic attitude [in contrast to the Kierkegaardian vein in Percy’s writing] toward nature — nature, created nature, as a sacramental kind of existence. Hopkins made a great thing in poetry of being able to look at a cloud or a leaf or even a piece of rock and see in it what he called a certain “inscape,” and thinking always that if your gaze was sufficiently fresh and if you could see it sufficiently clearly, you would see it as an act of existence, a gratuitous act of existence which was evidence of God’s existence. 
Percy’s protagonists may not go so far as to see evidence of God’s existence in nature (except in the irony, as Binx says, that all evidence however convincing cannot alter our “invincible apathy”). Yet they are onto something. And that something is, as one explanation of the catechism states it, part of “the pattern of God dealing with man according to his nature” — man’s nature being not that of a beast or an angel but rather a complex mixture of the two, a muddled symbol-monger and fallen sojourner, fitful amnesiac and exile of Eden.
The loss of meaning and awareness, the inflation of the self and anarchy of the soul which characterize the world of a Walker Percy novel have not of course left God’s sacramental pattern nor Christendom itself unafflicted. “The old words of grace,” says Percy, “are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in.” A second fall seems to have occurred, a restructuring of the human consciousness “which does not presently allow [the self] to take account of the Good News.” Accordingly, Percy, “having cast his lot with a discredited Christendom and having inherited a defunct vocabulary,” sees it as his task not merely to clear such small spaces as can be cleared for the renewed apprehension of Being — Heidegger’s somewhat vague term won’t quite suffice — but also to at least point or hint at a larger sacramental pattern of God’s dealings with humankind.
How does Percy approach this daunting task? In one of the finest essays on Percy I have encountered, Richard Pindell outlines an answer in terms of style: “Precariously maintaining itself in its cool savvy, its puckish verve, and lyric vigor, undersung withal by the rhetoric of a lost love, the style engages the modern loss by keeping the right desires active and the courageous distinctions unblurred.” Although Pindell refers exclusively to The Moviegoer, I think his comments apply just as well to Percy’s entire production as a novelist. Percy keeps the right desires active: the desires of the castaway washed up on a strange new shore, open to each small thing he (or she) may encounter but especially looking for the message in the bottle containing news from across the sea which might somehow explain and alleviate his predicament. Percy keeps the courageous distinctions unblurred: the distinction between man and beast, the distinction between man and angel, the distinction between life and death-masquerading-as-life. Percy’s style locates us in such a way as to touch our wound and at the very same time touch that pattern, that “thread in the labyrinth,” of God acting sacramentally in history — through the Jews, through the incarnation and crucifixion, and through the Church — to heal our wounds and wake us up and carry us through the narrow way and the needle’s eye.
1. The Message in the Bottle (hereafter referred to as MB), p. 158. See “Works Cited,” p. 46, for specific editions. In Part I of this essay, I am using footnotes exclusively. In Part II, the references to The Moviegoer and Lancelot appear parenthetically within the text.
2. Cf. Percy’s use of this expression in “The Man on the Train,” MB, p. 83.
3. The Moviegoer, p. 228.
4. See “Questions They Never Asked Me, So He Asked Them Himself,” Conversations With Walker Percy, p. 170 (also reprinted in Critical Essays on Walker Percy).
5. Lancelot, p. 179.
6. Ibid. p. 292.
7. Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, p. 178.
8. Lost in the Cosmos, p. 102. See also “Metaphor as Mistake,” MB, p. 82: “We know, not as the angels know and not as dogs know but as men, who must know one thing through the mirror of another.”
9. Lost in the Cosmos, p. 85.
10. Ibid., p. 88.
11. The problem of solipsism is answered here by the fact that a namer implies a co-namer, that language is social in nature: “you have to point to an apple and name it for me before I know there is such a thing — and the existence of a world of apples outside ourselves.” Lost in the Cosmos, p. 102n.
12. “The Delta Factor,” MB, pp. 34-5.
13. Ibid., p. 45.
14. The figure of Banquo at the feast is an example of what one might call Percy’s personal typology. Another that comes to mind is that of Crusoe stumbling upon the footprint in the sand. Percy appropriates these images from Shakespeare and Defoe and makes of them fitting emblems for the states of being and intersubjectivity he is describing.
15. MB, p. 97. See also, Lost in the Cosmos, pp. 120-22, on the transience of this reversal.
16. “Walker Percy, Sensualist Thinker,” Critical Essays on Walker Percy, p. 160.
17. Lost in the Cosmos, p. 87. As for structuralism, Percy accuses certain of its proponents — namely, Levi Strauss and Michael Foucault — of denying, “on what seem to be ideological grounds, the very concept of the human subject.”
18. Patrick Samway, S.J., “Another Case of the Purloined Letter (in Walker Percy’s Lancelot),” New Orleans Review, 16:4 (Winter, 1989), p. 44. Subsequent quotations referring to Derrida in this and the following paragraph are also from Samway.
19. Genesis 2:25 (King James Version).
20. “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” MB, p. 111.
21. The Moviegoer, p. 24.
22. Lancelot, p. 108.
23. The Last Gentleman, p. 356.
24. The Second Coming, p. 93.
25. “Walker Percy Talks About Kierkegaard: An Annotated Interview,” Conversations With Walker Percy, p. 124.
26. John Gilland Brunini, Whereon to Stand, p. 165.
27. “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” MB, p. 116.
28. Ibid., p. 113.
29. Ibid., p. 118.
30. “Basking in the Eye of the Storm: The Esthetics of Loss in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer,” Critical Essays on Walker Percy, p. 113.
31. Love in the Ruins, p. 254.
The Moviegoer and Lancelot
In his early study of Percy, Martin Luschei points out the danger inherent in the critic’s task of making explicit what the novelist, especially one whose method is as essentially “phenomenological” as Percy’s, has left implicit: “To describe these realities explicitly, even where that is possible, would be to fall into abstraction and lose the live reality.” Here I will consider two of Percy’s novels, with the intention that by mirroring one work in the light of the other some insight will emerge that would otherwise be lost to abstraction. Implicit in my present strategy is a view of a larger pattern according to which Percy’s entire literary enterprise may be understood.
Percy’s last two novels, The Second Coming and The Thanatos Syndrome, are quite deliberate textual extensions and ontological revisitations of their respective progenitors, The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins. The pattern thus established puts one in mind not only of Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition, but also of Percy’s epistemological emphasis on language as the coupling of disparate elements such as word and thing, subject and predicate. Percy’s conception of language as the knowing which arises when we place one thing alongside another seems in fact to apply to his oeuvre as a whole: the last three novels form a kind of predicate which answers to the subject established in the first three. In this sense Percy fits his own description of the contemporary novelist’s concern with “sequelae”: “What happens to Dodsworth after he lives happily ever after in Capri? What happens to the thousand Midwesterners who settle on the Riviera? What happens to the Okie who succeeds in Pomona and now spends his time watching Art Linkletter? Is all well with them or are they in deeper trouble than they were on Main Street and in the dust bowl?” Percy keeps going back. He continues to question, not only the assumptions of the culture which would set a thousand Midwesterners down on the Riviera, but also his own assumptions which would lead the novelist to set Will Barrett down in a Buick dealership in Georgia or set Tom More down on his new Sears Best with his new wife to twine about each other as the ivy twineth. Percy continues to ask: “What happens after?” Years pass and the sequelae follow.
The Moviegoer and Lancelot, though they do not form a direct sequence, share striking features which suggest the tendency toward sequelae which the Will Barrett and Tom More novels exhibit more explicitly. The figure of Lancelot Lamar could not really be said to be an exploration of the aftermath of Binx Bolling’s fate in The Moviegoer. Instead, Lance represents an exacerbation of certain personality traits which by the end of The Moviegoer Binx seems to have abandoned. The Second Coming addresses what happened after The Last Gentleman; in relation to The Moviegoer, however, Lancelot addresses what would have happened. What would have happened to a Binx Bolling who did not abandon his despairing “Little Way” and in fact lived that way for years reading Raymond Chandler novels and watching the news every hour? What would have happened to a Binx Bolling who actually married one of his Marcias or Lindas or Sharons? What would have happened to a Binx Bolling who took to heart his aunt’s grim stoicism? And what manner of quest would have ensued had this Binx been startled into awareness, not by a mortar shell in Korea, but by a wife’s infidelity in Louisiana? In this way Lancelot Lamar’s madness may be viewed as a kind of sequela to Binx Bolling’s moviegoing.
To a greater extent than Percy’s other protagonists, Binx and Lance share a certain monkish solitude and irony-laden separateness from the community. Binx’s basement room in Gentilly and Lance’s “pigeonnier” at Belle Isle (or, later, his cell at the Center for Aberrant Behavior) are places of exile, snug habitations where the pain of loss, as Binx describes it, may be felt less acutely. “The world is lost to you,” Binx tells us, “the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost” (120). Yet one may take measures to cope with this loss. Binx and Lance do so by enclosing themselves in their snug cocoons, by simplifying and narrowing and performing modest daily rituals against the dissipating and abstracting onslaught of information, facts, theories, slogans and advertisements. Like the worldly man of faith Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio describes in Fear and Trembling, Binx and Lance might be mistaken for average citizens, at home in their roles as stockbroker and lawyer, useful members of the community. Behind their disguises, however, these two southern gentlemen are holding on for dear life. They are ghostly but watchful exiles, ever on the alert for an opening whereby they may enter the concrete world of the here-and-now. They are in stable but critical condition. Binx refers to this precarious stabilization as the Little Way: “not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh” (135-6).
The time existing before the present tense of The Moviegoer is, as Binx occasionally recounts it, made up largely of the failed attempts at “the big search,” failed efforts on Binx’s part to fit himself into the world in the manner of his forbears. As embodied in Aunt Emily, these forms of conduct are part and parcel of a kind of overarching Southern-aristocratic-gnostic-stoicism. Included under this rubric, is the two-fold variation of it which Binx later says killed his father: science and romanticism . Binx tries to accept these forms of conduct as his inheritance, but finally cannot abide in them.
The pursuit of science Binx describes as his “vertical search,” wherein he read “fundamental books” and “stood outside the universe and sought to understand it” (70). When he had come to what seemed the end of this enterprise, however, he found that although everything in the universe had been explained or was in theory explainable, he himself was left over . Similarly, when Binx was to spend one summer engaged in a scientific inquiry into “the role of acid-base balance in the formation of renal calculi,” he found that “the mystery of summer afternoons” was of more vital concern to him than the outcome of the experiment. He left the project in the hands of his lab-partner, Harry Stern, who was content to hide his ghostliness in a lab coat: “absolutely unaffected by the singularities of time and place … no more aware of the mystery which surround[ed] him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in” (52). Binx seeks, not knowledge per se, but awareness. Like the amnesiac in the movie mentioned in the novel’s opening pages, Binx has a vague recollection of an accident, a clouded awareness of something having gone wrong in the world; the untempered attitude of scientific objectivity, Binx discovers, only worsens the amnesia.
“Does a scientifically minded person become a romantic because he is a left-over from his own science?” Binx asks (88). Further examples from his past seem to suggest such a dialectic at work. Binx’s excursions into romanticism occur after he returns from the war in Korea. First, he joins Walter Wade  and other comrades on a houseboat to drink fine liquor, eat duck Rochambeau and play cards all day and night. Later Binx sets out with a couple of fellows on what his aunt would call a “Wanderjahr”: hiking along the Appalachian trail, sleeping under the stars and spieling “about women and poetry and Eastern religion in pretty good style” (41). These attempts to deal with the left-over self, however, aim too high. Binx feels “the stretch of the old tightrope, the necessity of living up to the friendship of friendships, cultivating an intimacy beyond words” (40). The effort is too distracting and only exacerbates the pain of loss.
Both of these extremes, the science and the romance, abstract from and thereby exclude the ordinary mystery and wonder of human existence in the concrete here-and-now of Wednesday afternoon. The essence of Binx’s Little Way, his “secret existence among the happy shades in Elysian Fields” (99), is wonder . It is a valiant struggle to remain open, in the face of manifest distraction and malaise, to Helen Keller’s well-house wonder. Binx organizes his life around this principle. He spends all his time “working, making money, going to movies and seeking the company of women” (41) because these activities do not distract from the wonder — they may not enhance the wonder either, but at least they do not distract from it — “and not for five minutes will [Binx] be distracted from the wonder” (42).
The possibility of wonder, even in the depths of the malaise, carries with it the tenuous hope of a recovery, a cure for the pain of loss. People often ask Binx “what is wrong in the world and also what [he does] in Gentilly” (39). The answer to the latter is intimately related to the former. Romanticism and science, 19th- and 20th-century variations on old Adam’s sin, have left the world “dead, dead, dead” (102); dead to the wonder and mystery of ordinary life which perhaps holds the secret of something more. Binx therefore resolutely maintains his Little Way, shielded and secure, if not by the faith which 98% of the population claim to possess (14), at least by a sincere (albeit ironical ) instinct for wonder .
Lancelot Lamar’s exile figures as a more desperate one. The previous decade had been spent working for equal rights: “The blacks after all were right, the whites were wrong, and it was a pleasure to tell them so. I became unpopular. There are worse things than being disliked: it keeps one alive and alert” (59). During the following years, however, after his first wife died and he married his second wife, Margot, Lance underwent what he describes as “a gradual, ever so gradual, slipping away of [his] life into a kind of dream state in which finally [he] could not be sure that anything was happening at all” (57). Margot had restored the pigeonnier at Belle Isle and converted it into a study, complete with “plantation desk and chair made by slave artisans,” for Lance to inhabit in her vision of him as a type of Jefferson Davis writing his memoirs. There was one problem, however. Lance “had no memoirs. There was nothing to remember” (18).
Like Binx, who uses movies, women and money to cheer himself up in his exile, Lance has his panaceas. The “joy of falling in love” (122) with Margot has given way to “the bottle — a different love story” (119). Instead of writing his memoirs, Lance sits in his pigeonnier and drinks, listens to Beethoven, reads Raymond Chandler novels. In fact, reading one such novel for the fourth or fifth time was, Lance says, the one strand keeping him from the pit of desperation: “it didn’t just give me pleasure, it was the only way I could stand my life” (24). Perhaps the image of “Philip Marlowe taking a bottle out of his desk drawer in his crummy office in seedy Los Angeles in 1933 and drinking alone” (25) represented and in some measure reversed Lance’s alienation. Or perhaps, as Percy says of the man who has finished his twentieth Perry Mason novel, Lance was “that much nearer total despair than when he started” . At any rate, Lance’s exile in the pigeonnier has deteriorated into a more critical state than Binx’s basement displacement.
Binx and Lance are both waiters and watchers, but Lance’s watchfulness is a degenerated sequela to Binx’s in that it has become rigid and abstracted. When Binx “hardens” himself against his Aunt’s music “which once united [them] in a special bond” (47), it is precisely because he is suspicious of the romantic abstraction characteristic of such emotions. Lance, on the other hand, has hardened himself into abstraction: “For years, I realized, I had lived in a state of comfort and abstraction, waiting for the ten o’clock news, and had not allowed myself to feel anything” (66). The evening news, which “one watched as one watches a lewd act come to climax” (72), provides Lance with the same keen expectancy and “worm of interest” which had first possessed him when, as a child, he discovered his father’s dishonorable money-dealings (42). The pattern established by this event continues with the death of Lance’s first wife which “seemed simply curious” (84), and the discovery of Margot’s infidelity which Lance describes as an “interesting horror” (32). Lance decries the present as “the age of interest” (138) and concludes “that the only emotion people feel nowadays is interest or the lack of it” (21). In his pigeonnier exile, however, he has outdone the age in veritably making of the interesting, as Binx Bolling makes of the wonderful, an organizing principle for his existence:
I had actually made a path. My life had fallen into such a rut that it was possible to set one’s watch (Suellen told me this) when I walked out the front door at night. It must be two minutes to ten because he likes to get there [to the pigeonnier] just in time to turn on the ten o’clock news. News of what? What did I expect to happen? What did I want to happen? (52)
The foreboding vigilance with which Lance watches the evening news echoes Binx’s insomnia, the “dizzy dutiful alertness” (189) which calls Binx from sleep: “Not so fast now. Suppose you should go to sleep and it should happen. What then?” (84) Yet there is a subtle but crucial difference in orientation.
Binx watches from his basement, which Luschei and others have pointed out is a Kierkegaardian image describing the “aesthetic” or sensual stage of existence, but which also signifies that he is firmly anchored and, if not caught up in, at least in touch with the fray of human affairs. Citing a sociologist’s report that “a significantly large percentage of solitary moviegoers are Jews” (89), Binx identifies his exile with that of the Jews, which is to say, it is an exile which longs to re-enter the lost homeland. Passing a Jew on the street for the first time “is like Robinson Crusoe seeing the footprint on the beach” (89). Binx’s sense of wonder, though it may in isolation lead to Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic damnation,” is characterized by a certain humility and humanness, an accepting of limitations and a desire for a sign or message which will help him make sense of his predicament and recover what has been lost.
Lance similarly seeks a recovery. The orientation of his pigeonnier vis-a-vis the world, however, forms a noteworthy contrast to that of Binx’s basement. The pigeonnier suggests a kind of cerebral tower from which “even the horrors of the age translate into interest” (21), a narrowing and limiting of the self which is accompanied at the same time by the elevated Cartesian ratiocination of the solitary scholar in his tower. The evening news becomes the text through which Lance seeks to “know” the world without participating in it. Binx, on the other hand, spies on the world from within, rising from his bed at night “to try to fathom the mystery of this suburb at dawn” (86). Lance’s version of the Little Way, then, is one that does not quite rid itself of the disease of abstraction. Even as Lance rebels against the “milksoppery” (179) and “triumphant mediocrity” (23) of the present age, his rebellion is informed by the very same abstracting spirit which he abhors. Lance’s exile is a repetition of Binx’s, with the difference that “something went wrong” (107). The present-tense framework of the novel, in these terms, is therefore a repetition of the repetition — in which Lance, once again exiled in a little room looking down on the world, exhibits the same self-defeating tendency toward abstraction, but this time in relation to Percival’s quiet presence constantly calling him back to the actual and the human.
All of this, however, is anterior to the central events that would make up a plot summary of either The Moviegoer or Lancelot. Binx’s habitual worrying wonder and Lance’s chronic apprehensive interest present themselves as two similar (though essentially divergent) modes of exile whereby the individual existence comes to a point of tension followed by sudden awareness and expansion — the pattern of Helen at the well-house once again. The “Little Way,” both Binx’s and Lance’s, forms a kind of coming to a head, a gravitational concentration of consciousness which suddenly shakes loose, unfurling into the action of the novel like an expanding universe. One may also conceive of it according the geometry of Percy’s semiotic triad: Binx and Lance focus themselves upon the corner of the triangle where signifier and signified join, struggling against the malaise and lethargy which invade even that small corner; then the entire diagram shifts, revealing the sides of the triangle opening outward to encompass, as Samway says, “other referents and systems” — the sprawling, problematic world.
Binx insists that what he remembers are not moments from his past but the heightened reality of such moments as “the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man” (7) . Nevertheless, it is the recollection of a very real event from his past which suddenly alters the perspective from his basement window.
But things have suddenly changed. My peaceful existence in Gentilly has been complicated. This morning, for the first time in years, there occurred to me the possibility of a search. I dreamed of the war, no, not quite dreamed but woke with the taste of it in my mouth, the queasy-quince taste of 1951 and the Orient. I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush…. My shoulder didn’t hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search. (10-11)
Notably absent here is the usual adroit movement of merciless irony, the cold eye which Binx is capable of casting upon anything falsely idealized, whether it be a “larger-than-life” image from the movies or a nostalgic reminiscence from one’s past. The reference to “the search,” in spite of his pervasive sense of irony, is a serious and critical moment. What Binx says of the movies, that they “are onto the search, but they screw it up” (13), applies as well to his own “tidy and ingenious life in Gentilly” (191). The movies, Binx says, “like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place — but … in two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead” (13). Similarly, Binx’s Little Way — though its virtue is in its response to scientific and romantic abstraction — is in itself a dead end. Hence Binx’s momentary relapse into irony as he continues recounting his wartime discovery of the possibility of a search: “Naturally, as soon as I recovered and got home, I forgot all about it” (11). Now he has remembered, however, and the recollection is not characterized by romance or nostalgia — which only blind one to the ordinary and remove one yet further from the present — but is, instead, marked by a profound reawakening to the commonplace and the here-and-now. The scales fall from Binx’s eyes and the search becomes possible.
It is not a memory which jars Lance’s vision loose, but rather a radical revision of memory which suddenly alters his perception and heightens his awareness of the present. The earthshaking event — discovering that his daughter could not actually be his — does not land him on the ground among the dung beetles. It does open up a new world, though, suddenly clearing away the dross of existence like the layers of pigeon droppings Margot had removed from the pigeonnier:
How strange it is that a discovery like this, of evil, of a kinsman’s dishonesty, a wife’s infidelity, can shake you up, knock you out of your rut, be the occasion of a new way of looking at things! In the space of one evening I had made the two most important discoveries of my life. I discovered my wife’s infidelity and five hours later I discovered my own life. I saw it and myself clearly for the first time. (51)
This new clarity of vision, moreover, makes it possible for Lance to give up his addictions to news and alcohol and “become watchful, like a man who hears footsteps behind him” (46). He awakens to the concrete world of the present in a strange sort of inversion of Binx’s sudden sense of the actuality and presence of the smallest usually invisible details: dung and dung beetles, the contents of one’s pockets piled on the bureau, one’s own hand. Lance awakens not to the presence of such details, but to their absence: “I listened. There was no sound: no boats on the river, no trucks on the road, not even cicadas. What if I didn’t listen to the news? I didn’t. Nothing happened. I realized I had been afraid of silence” (66).
Silence figures here as part of a complex pattern of negation in Lancelot, an undercurrent of nullification which continually informs Lance’s ravings. His having “nothing to remember” (18) and later “nothing to say” (85), Siobhan’s O blood type (20), the absence of emotions in the present age (21), the “sheer negativity” (81) between Margot’s legs, the sheriff in Merlin’s movie who is both erotic and racist and therefore “canceled so to speak, half bad half good, back at zero” (115), Merlin’s remark that Dana is “a perfect cipher” (147), the references to words and actions which “do not signify” (105, 115) — all culminate in Lance’s silent watchfulness. He seems to have arrived, through the shock of his discovery (which is itself a kind of negation of his paternity), at a place in which Derrida’s “play of differences” has finally brought itself, as Lance says of the sheriff in the movie, back to zero.
Where Binx sees the little pile on his bureau with the vitality of the newly named, Lance sees the raw vitality of negation, of the sweeping away of the old worn out words and things which “do not signify.” Not having explored and rejected his stoic-romantic heritage in the way Binx had, Lance falls prey to it at this point in the form of what Cleanth Brooks and Lewis Lawson have pointed out is a modern form of gnosticism. Instead of accepting the vitality of limitation which Binx had discovered in the dirt in Korea, Lance, thrown into a darker pit by his discovery of betrayal, chooses to take the route of “the Gnostic impatience with human limitations which can [and does in Lance’s case] convert into a hubristic denial of one’s own limitations” . Newly awakened to the blank slate of his negated world, Lance reintroduces his own play of differences, his own cosmic search for the knowledge of good and evil, which he refers to as his quest for “the Unholy Grail” (138) — an inversion, in more ways than one, of Binx’s search.
The search, Binx says, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” He goes on to describe his sudden awakening out of everydayness as being like that of a castaway washed up on a strange shore. “And what does such a castaway do? Why he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick” (13). For Binx, this means first of all to “listen to people, [to] see how they stick themselves into the world” (233).
Everyone Binx encounters has some “trick” for living, or, more likely, failing to live. Most people, it seems, live a “shadowy and precarious existence” (16) ameliorated only on rare occasions, such as when one encounters a movie star in the flesh or when one’s neighborhood becomes “certified” (63) by appearing in a movie. In these instances one’s existence falls within an “aura of heightened reality” (16), a momentary brightening which quickly fades. In the face of this dilemma, this dissolution of the fabric of meaning, people strive after other, often illusory means of certifying or just surviving existence. Nell and Eddie Lovell pull the fabric together “into one bright texture of investments, family projects, lovely old houses, little theater readings and such” (18); to immerse themselves thus solely in hobbies and consumerism, however, is to be “tranquilized in their despair” (86). Mercer, on the other hand, turns to a “volume put out by the Rosicrucians called How to Harness Your Secret Powers” (24). Instead of accepting the limitations of his concrete existence, Mercer, suffering from a mild case of gnostic hubris, wishes to conjure a new self out of thin air. He wants a new name, but a “secret” name, which has no connection to the reality of himself as he finds himself on this ordinary Wednesday afternoon in Louisiana. Then there are others: Uncle Jules and his “deep dumb convictions” (177); Binx’s mother, who has “settled for the general belittlement of everything” (142); the romantic on the bus, who finds himself under the necessity of “slumping in an acceptable slump, reading an acceptable book on an acceptable bus” (215); the salesman on the bus, who lives his life as a “one-track metaphysician” (217); the cliche-ridden populace of believers transmuted through the airways on the radio show “This I Believe” (109); the writers of rival political journals whose hatred for each other strikes Binx “as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world” (100). Finally there is Aunt Emily, who in her stern stoic rectitude triumphs over the “going down of the evening land” even as she despairs of it.
Binx’s keen observance of the manifest self-deception and trickery by which people live their lives is at first tinged with irony. He listens to and watches the lives and foibles of others as a primarily selfish means of shoring up his Little Way, to avoid “the danger of slipping clean out of space and time” (75). As the Little Way gives way to the search, however, Binx’s ironical exuberance is superseded by more serious concerns:
The search has spoiled the pleasure of my tidy and ingenious life in Gentilly. As late as a week ago, such a phrase as “hopefully awaiting the gradual convergence of the physical sciences and the social sciences” would have provoked no more than an ironic tingle or two at the back of my neck. Now it howls through the Ponchitoula Swamp, the very sound and soul of despair. (191)
Binx’s armor of irony begins to wear thin as the manifest trickery by which people make their way in the world is revealed in its despair. None of these tricks is good enough for Binx. Even the most astute insight imaginable, by which one could “find the cure of cancer and compose the greatest of all symphonies” (158), would not be good enough. But at the same time Binx begins to catch a glimpse of a more profound sort of trick which might indeed be good enough: the “dim dazzling trick of grace” (235) by which God breaks into our mundane lives.
Yet the search falters at the question of God. The search halts before God because “God” does not signify: “The proofs of God’s existence may have been true for all I know, but it didn’t make the slightest difference…. I have only to hear the word God and a curtain comes down in my head” (145). Even God, especially God, falls prey to everydayness and devaluation, because too much has been said and news of God has become “more commonplace than the Exxon commercial.” Binx’s crippled half-brother, Lonnie, to whom we are introduced when Binx brings Sharon to his mother and step-father’s fishing cabin, is the primary catalyst through whom Binx begins to penetrate the commonplaceness in which God has been lost.
He [Lonnie] is my favorite, to tell the truth. Like me, he is a moviegoer. He will go see anything. But we are good friends because he knows I do not feel sorry for him. For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business. (137)
Through a bond of sympathy and affection, Binx at least tentatively accepts Lonnie’s terms; subsequently echoing, with specific reference to himself, this statement concerning the indifference of humankind. It is important to note that Binx’s reflections come when he has woken in the middle of the night to discover that his own little tricks, his “rotations” and “repetitions,” have failed him and left him in the grip of everydayness — because “places get used up by rotatory and repetitive use” (145). Perhaps Binx has been heartened by talking to Lonnie who seems, like the Jews, to be a kind of sign, a footprint in the sand. It seems, moreover, that Lonnie helps draw aside the curtain in Binx’s head; because of his halting speech and simple faith, Lonnie’s “words are not worn out” (162), and he therefore helps expand Binx’s newly discovered ability to see which had prompted the search in the first place. At any rate, Binx turns from his aesthetic game-playing and vows “not to move a muscle until [he] advance[s] another inch in [his] search” (146). Instead of seeking a new rotation with Sharon, Binx tenaciously holds on, in “a death grip with everydayness” reminiscent of Jabob’s wrestling match with God. Finally, before going back to sleep, Binx sits up and scribbles in his notebook:
Starting point for search:
It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God.
Yet it is impossible to rule God out.
The only possible starting point: the strange fact of one’s own invincible apathy — that if the proofs were proved and God presented himself, nothing would be changed. Here is the strangest fact of all.
Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God’s ironic revenge? But I am onto him. (146)This represents a crucial turning point in Binx’s search. Instead of merely placating himself in the aesthetic diversions of his Little Way, he is accepting suffering. By cunningly enlisting his own indifference in opposition to itself, Binx is in a very limited but important sense joining in Lonnie’s suffering offered “in reparation for men’s indifference.” He is beginning to invest himself and participate in the sense of wonder he had heretofore only reveled in.
Thus, in the following chapter, Binx turns his attention to Kate Cutrer, his aunt’s step-daughter and the one person, other than Lonnie, with whom he has an emotional attachment that is not a mere dalliance of the Little Way. Kate shares Binx’s awareness of despair, but faces it perhaps more squarely — and certainly falls prey to it more radically — than does Binx; she is the one person that is “onto” Binx (in the same way he seems to be “onto” everyone else) and is able to see through and call into question the diversions of Binx’s Little Way: “all your gaiety and good spirits have the same death house quality … I’ve had enough of your death house pranks” (192). At the same time, nevertheless, Kate admits that she needs Binx: “The only time I’m not frightened is when I’m with you” (234). Her ironic but sympathetic reference to him as “the unmoved mover” (197) and her dependence on him to help her set limits and give order and meaning to her life seem to indicate that Binx is becoming for her a kind of sign, a sacramental intimation however faint and tenuous of that reality which is the subject of Binx’s search.
The sacramental quality of the relationship between Binx and Kate is qualified and developed during their train ride to Chicago and the subsequent turmoil of their return to face Aunt Emily. On the train, as Aunt Emily later phrases it, Binx and Kate are “intimate.” With what Kate sees as the failure of everything else, she turns now to plain-old bawdy sex in the manner of the “Tillie the Toiler” comic book one of Aunt Emily’s maids had shown her: “So — when all is said and done, that is the real thing, isn’t it?” (199) This desperate bid for “the real thing,” however, only leads to further desperation:
Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit (for despising is not the worst fate to overtake the flesh), but until this moment seen through and canceled, rendered null by the cold and fishy eye of the malaise — flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope — quails and fails. (200)
Yet this failure is not irreparable — though, when they return to face the music at Aunt Emily’s the following day, Binx seems irrevocably defeated: “My search has been abandoned; it is no match for my aunt, her rightness and her despair, her despairing of me and her despairing of herself” (228). Now it is Binx’s turn to “fall prey to desire” and it is Kate’s turn to rescue him. Her positive assent to his previous marriage proposal now introduces the prospect that flesh poor flesh might indeed be “hallowed by sacrament” in spite of its failure.
The possibility of a sacramental relationship between Kate and Binx is underscored at this point by Binx’s sudden realization, as he sits in Kate’s car and watches a black man in the rear-view mirror, that it is Ash Wednesday. The man’s forehead is “an ambiguous sienna color and pied” (echoing Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty”), obscurely suggesting that he has received the penitential ashes:
It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus? (235)
The emphasis of the Lenten season in the Catholic Church, beginning with Ash Wednesday, is on the sacrament of penance — “dealing with the restoration of the soul from supernatural death.” It is the mystery of this restoration, of God’s “dim dazzling” invasion of our mundane lives, that Binx’s search has finally come upon. Binx cannot explain the event he has just witnessed, he cannot even be certain of it; he can only experience and affirm it in the manner of Helen Keller experiencing and affirming the quickening of the thing water by the word “water” — hence the closing scene of the novel, an echo of Dostoevsky’s sacramental vision in The Brothers Karamazov. Binx, although he has become reticent about his search, nevertheless affirms to his young half-siblings the hope of the resurrection, the ultimate culmination of God’s sacramental infusion of life and meaning into desolate matter and monotonous history.
Lancelot Lamar’s inversion of the search, his “quest for the Unholy Grail,” also figures as an attempt to establish a sacramental union of spirit and matter. Unlike Binx, though, Lance ultimately rules God out of the equation. Lance undertakes in his quest not to affirm God’s incarnational union with humanity, but to somehow gain a cognitive apprehension of such a union through his own effort. In discovering Margot’s infidelity, Lance has woken from a state of alcohol-numbed abstraction and disconnection; a way seems to have opened up whereby he may re-enter the concrete world and actually live his life. In Samway’s words, “Lance searches for his own way of making the abstract concrete.” Yet in his Hamletesque brooding and plotting, Lance never really abandons abstraction, never really integrates the abstract and the concrete. Instead Lance demonically imposes abstraction upon the concrete world, arriving only at a further negation of meaning in the act of violence by which he had hoped to find some dark significance: “Violence … is horrible not because it is bloody but because it is meaningless. It does not signify” (105). With the murder of Margot, Jacoby, Dana and Raine, Lance’s via negativa quest for meaning comes to a dead end: “There is no unholy grail just as there was no Holy Grail” (253). In the telling of it, the quest therefore becomes a complicated and elusive double-quest: a reliving of the failed quest for evil, and at the same time the introduction of a new quest, an effort to discover what went wrong (137).
In Lance’s view, an inquiry into “whether there is evil in the world” (139) figures as the only quest appropriate to an age which defines evil Ä- according to a behavioristic model — as sickness or “aberrant behavior,” emptying evil of any metaphysical dimension. The point of departure Lance thus chooses for his quest seems to be rooted in his childhood discovery of his father’s dishonorable business practices. Dishonor, as opposed to honor, “holds a secret” (213). Having discounted God, Lance has reference only to this ethical distinction informed by his stoic heritage to provide him with a metaphysical clue. The sacramental dimension of Lance’s quest is further suggested by his conclusion that the locus of “the secret at the heart of dishonor” (213) must reside in human sexuality:
Could it be possible that since the greatest good is to be found in love, so is the greatest evil. Evil, sin, if it exists, must be incommensurate with anything else. Didn’t one of your saints say that the entire universe in all its goodness is not worth the cost of a single sin? Sin is incommensurate, right? There is only one kind of behavior which is incommensurate with anything whatever, in both its infinite good and its infinite evil. That is sexual behavior. The orgasm is the only earthly infinity. Therefore it is either an infinite good or an infinite evil. (139-40)
Lance is correct in his view that the human self participates in a mystery which is incommensurate with and cannot be explained by materialistic theories. Yet his identification of the orgasm as “the only earthly infinity” is itself a distorted and reductive attempt on Lance’s part to categorize that which he has already said “belongs to no category at all, is unspeakable” (16). As John Desmond has pointed out, Lance contradicts himself in, once having admitted an irreducible mystery, proceeding to “collapse metaphysical mystery into empirical categories.” Epistemologically, Lance is thus beset by a typical Gnostic dilemma. He instinctively rejects a purely materialistic categorization of the human self, yet he also abhors the possibility that he may participate in a mystery that is beyond his comprehension. Once again, Desmond’s comments on this point are especially lucid: “Thus [Lance’s] frustration is with the very essence of human existence and its limitations. Instead of accepting these limitations, he becomes an Ethan Brand and Roger Chillingsworth in modern dress, consumed by a demonic passion to plumb the heart of the mysteries of evil and sexuality. But to attempt to penetrate these mysteries is to exceed human limits, and this results in a perversion of the human and the sexual.”
Like Updike’s irreligious couples, Lance thus makes a mock-sacrament of sex, a kind of idolatrous or mimetic replacement of the devalued symbols whereby Christianity maintains God communicates grace to humanity. Lance ironically employs sacramental terminology to describe his earlier sexual practices with Margot: “That was my communion, Father — no offense intended, that sweet dark sanctuary guarded by the heavy gold columns of her thighs, the ark of her covenant” (171). Later, on the night of the storm and explosion at Belle Isle, Lance engages in sex with Raine and describes it in terms of metaphysical gnosis: “The Jews called it knowing and now I knew why. Every time I went deeper I knew her better. Soon I would know her secret” (236). Kneeling outside Margot’s door to listen to Margot and Jacoby, Lance describes himself as “an unconsecrated priest hearing an impenitent confession” (238). In these instances Lance opts, in a more maniacal fashion, for the way of Binx and Kate on the train. Flesh is neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit; the only option left therefore is for flesh to serve as an object of worship, gnosis and confession. In short, Lance becomes guilty of idolatry.
As with Binx and Kate, moreover, the burden is too great. In defining sex as the absolute and only earthly infinity Lance sets in motion a dialectic whereby he careens from idolatrous hedonism to Manichaean rectitude:
I won’t have it. I won’t have it your way or their way. I won’t have it your way with your God-bless-everything-because-it’s-good-only-don’t-but-if-you-do-it’s-not-so-bad. Just say whether a sweet hot cunt is good or not. I won’t have it your way and I won’t have it their way, the new way. A generation stoned and pussy free and devalued, pricks after pussy, pricks after pricks, pussy after pussy. But most of all pussy after pricks. Christ what a country! (177)
The proposition with which he begins his inquisition of Margot’s infidelity is that sex is either infinite good or infinite evil; any mystery which would blur this either/or proposition is intolerable. Never mind that human nature is fundamentally characterized by such a mysterious and ultimately irreducible blurring and blending of elements — of honor and dishonor, nobility and cowardice, spirit and matter, good and evil. Lance criticizes Percival’s “old tolerant Catholic world-weariness” for blurring distinctions by loving everything (131). Yet one hears in this complaint the echo of a more fundamental epistemological grievance reminiscent of the semanticists who are scandalized by the interpenetration of signifier and signified: “Say whatever you like about a pencil, Korzybski used to say, but never say it is a pencil. The word is not the thing, said Chase; you can’t eat the word oyster.” Lance is similarly scandalized by this mysterious blurring and blending and loss of distinction which occurs in the innermost sanctum of human knowledge and on a grander scale is expressed in the sacraments of the church as represented by Percival. Therefore, where Binx apparently opts for flesh hallowed by sacrament, Lance chooses to despise flesh — he chooses to keep the thing separate from the word by reviling the thing. His entire monologue is in fact an exercise in the isolation of words.
Counterpoised against Lance’s torrent of words is Percival’s silent presence. In Percival, Lancelot is once again confronted with the silence he had feared and had sought to evade by watching the news and reading Raymond Chandler novels. Percival’s silence serves finally to consummate and alter the pattern of negation in the novel. It is a silence framed by Percival’s increasingly sacerdotal presence; thereby silence itself becomes a persistent communication of the existential mystery and sacramental vision which so scandalizes Lance and which he seeks to evade through his reductive raving. In spite of Lance’s at times arrogant resistance of Percival, moreover, there nevertheless arises a bond of sympathy within the context of Percival’s silence:
I don’t know why I want to talk to you or what I need to tell you or need to hear from you. There is something … about that night … I discovered something. It’s strange: I have to tell you in order to know what I already know. I talk, you don’t. Perhaps you know even better than I that too much has been said already. Perhaps I talk to you because of your silence. Your silence is the only conversation I can listen to. (85, Percy’s ellipses)
… something went wrong. I am glad you are simply listening, looking at me and saying nothing. Because I was afraid you might suggest either that I had done nothing wrong — like the psychologist here: no matter what I tell him, even if I break wind, he gives me the same quick congratulatory look — either that I had done nothing wrong or that I had “sinned” — and I don’t know which is worse. Because it isn’t that. I don’t know what that means. (107-8)
Lance maintains an attitude of abstraction which finally culminates in the “feeling of numbness and coldness” (253) which had overcome him as he cut Jacoby’s throat and which persists now at the end of his monologue. By remaining silent, Percival meets Lance in that vacant space created by the explosion at Belle Isle. In suspending judgement, Percival allows Lance space to name his own being, to come to terms with his limited and flawed yet sacred nature, and to receive grace if he should choose to accept it. Whether Lance will accept it is doubtful; but there are signs that, for all his ranting and raving, Lance has listened attentively to Percival’s silence and will now perhaps listen to Percival’s words.
Precisely what Percival the priest will say is a burden Percy the novelist consigns to the reader’s imagination. As in the case of The Moviegoer — as in the case of all of Percy’s novels, for that matter — Percy thereby aligns the reader with a consciousness that does not pontificate any simplistic answers, but indirectly and tentatively manages to affirm and convey a sense of mystery and life. Lance’s vow that he will “no longer tolerate Sodom” (255) and Binx’s rejection of the “shithouse of scientific humanism” (228) are violent reactions to the deplorable predicament in which they find themselves. Yet these outbursts against death-in-life merely serve to wipe the slate clean, clear a space and delineate the territory wherein life may reemerge. Through our complex interactions with Binx and Lance, our sympathy and our aversion, Percy finally leaves us where he found Helen Keller: on the verge of a discovery that we must make for ourselves.
1. Martin Luschei, The Sovereign Wayfarer: Walker Percy’s Diagnosis of the Malaise, p. 74. It is interesting to note in this connection that, since writing his critical study of Percy, Luschei has turned his own efforts largely in the direction of novel writing.
2. Percy suggested this division when, after completing his first three novels, he characterized them as “a gloss on Kierkegaard” and said he would never again write anything like them. As it turned out, of course, he returned quite explicitly to his earlier protagonists, not to continue worrying Kierkegaard (though as Martin Luschei points out in his wonderfully parodic, “Confessions of a Huguenot Yankee,” Percy is an avowed Kierkeholic and it is a hard habit to shake) but rather to return, in a very Kierkegaardian way but also in a way that is rooted in Percy’s semiotic epistemology, to retrace and more deeply explore the established situation. In fact, Percy’s two books on semiotics, The Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos, partake of this same pattern, the latter being a splendid and outrageously provocative blossom on the philosophic vine established by the former, not an exploration of new territory so much as a new exploration of old territory. In the Kierkegaardian terminology of “The Man on the Train” and The Moviegoer, Percy’s is more a literature of repetition than of rotation. Though Kierkegaard himself might applaud this (somewhere he says it is a greater achievement to write the same book twice than to write two different books), some of Percy’s critics have taken exception on this point. One not entirely unsympathetic reviewer, for example, did Binx Bolling one better and called Percy’s corpus of fiction an exercise in “everynovelness.”
3. “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” MB, p. 103. Percy’s use of the term “sequela,” with its medical connotations, underscores his conception of novel-writing as a diagnostic enterprise and harks back to his training as a physician. See Percy’s essay “The Diagnostic Novel: On the Uses of Modern Fiction,” Harper’s Magazine, 272 (June 1986), 39-45.
4. See Lewis A. Lawson, “English romanticism … and 1930 science in The Moviegoer,” Following Percy, pp. 123-137. Lawson identifies both science and romanticism as modernized versions of Platonic idealism and relates them to Binx’s moviegoing tendencies.
5. As has been widely noted, Percy is here echoing Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel’s philosophic system, i.e., that it explained everything except Hegel himself.
6. The name suggests “wading” in narcissistic shallows as opposed to Kierkegaard’s image of faith: swimming out across “the seventy thousand fathoms deep.” Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 256.
7. Later on in the novel, as if to make clear the distinction between the nature of Binx’s aesthetic pilgrimage and that of romanticism, Binx encounters a romantic young lad on the bus whom he describes as “a moviegoer, though of course he does not go to movies” (216). The romantic is so abstracted that there is no correlation between his actions in reality and his self-conceived image.
8. Binx considers irony, which he also refers to as a nose “for every species of shit that flies” (228), to be the one positive aptitude inherited from his father — whose eyes in the picture on Aunt Emily’s mantel, Binx has often noted, are “beyond a doubt … ironical” (25).
9. For further discussion and debate centering on the theme of wonder in The Moviegoer, see J. Donald Crowley’s remarkable cataloging of Percy criticism in his introduction to Critical Essays on Walker Percy, pp. 14 and 31n.
10. Lance’s “little cell” echoes his earlier placement in the pigeonnier. Once again he insists that there is nothing worth remembering because “the past, any past … is so goddamn banal and feckless and useless” (105). Later, however, he says that there might be a clue in the past. The difference between the pigeonnier and the cell is the presence of Percival in the latter, with whom Lance can kick through the ashes of Belle Isle: “I couldn’t do that alone. But we could do it” (106).
11. “The Man on the Train,” MB, p. 83.
12. See above, p. 8.
13. Binx’s irony here is subtle and multi-layered. Since this statement is preceded by a reference to how other people “treasure memorable moments in their lives,” he is implicitly identifying such remembered moments with the artificiality of cinema. In either case, however, the ordinary has fallen prey to a false romantic perfection, whether it be an idealized memory or moviescreen image. See “The Man on the Train,” pp. 94-5, for a relevant discussion of “gestural perfection” in the movies.
14. Although, in another sense, Lance’s entire monologue is an effort of memory, a revision and reconsideration of his original vision, which has been prompted by the “catalyst” (13) of Percival’s presence.
15. Cleanth Brooks, “Walker Percy and Modern Gnosticism,” Critical Essays on Walker Percy, p. 206. See also Lewis A. Lawson’s essays on this topic in Following Percy, pp. 197-225.
Compare the figures of the castaway which appear in “The Message in the Bottle” (MB, pp. 119-49) and in the thought experiment which concludes Percy’s chapter on “the depressed self” in Lost in the Cosmos, pp. 75-79. It was this latter vignette, with its startling distinction between the non-suicide and the ex-suicide, which, as I had been reading along in this strange book as an innocent diversion in the college library one evening, first awakened in me a sense of Percy’s at once radical and homely vision Ä- starting me along the path of becoming, as Lawson says, a “far-gone Percy reader.”
For an alternative reading of this passage, see John Hardy, The Fiction of Walker Percy, pp. 40-41. Hardy disparages the other ways Binx would have Mercer see himself, i.e., faithful retainer or expert in current events, as grotesque stereotypes. According to my reading, that may still be the case. The main point, however, is that an authentic existence must be anchored in the concrete, and those two roles (whether they are stereotypes or not) offer Mercer such an anchor Ä- a way of naming and thereby to a certain degree knowing and being himself authentically.
“Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” MB, p. 117.
This episode from the 32nd Chapter of Genesis also contributes to Percy’s typological repertoire. Jacob seems to be a model for the tenacity and almost downright orneriness which sometimes characterizes the attitude of Percy’s characters when they approach God. See “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself,” Conversations with Walker Percy, pp. 175-6:
“This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and to be asked what you make of it and have to answer ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and wouldn’t let go until God identified himself and blessed him.”
It is from this poem that Tom More quotes in Love in the Ruins.
Whereon to Stand, p. 167.
“Another Case of the Purloined Letter,” p. 44.
My reading of the metaphysical dimension of Lancelot’s quest is informed by John F. Desmond’s valuable essay, “Love, Sex, and Knowledge in Lancelot: A Metaphysical View,” Mississippi Quarterly 39:2 (1986) pp. 103-109.
Desmond, p. 107.
See Simone Vauthier, “Story, Story-Teller and Listener: Notes on Lancelot,” Critical Essays on Walker Percy, pp. 184-99. Vauthier applies Rene Girard’s theories on the mimetic process to the relationship between Lancelot and Percival.
“The Mystery of Language,” MB p. 155See “The Message in the Bottle,” MB, p. 148: “In such times, when everyone is saying “Come!” it may be that the best way to say “Come!” is to remain silent. Sometimes silence itself is a “Come!”