Search and Sacrament in The Moviegoer

The following guest post for our celebration of Walker Percy’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of The Moviegoer comes from my self of two decades past, an excerpt of the essay I wrote for a master’s in English in 1990. At the time, I was living a fairly Binx-like existence in a basement room in Seattle. I was a believer, and a defender of the Catholic Church in late-night-beer-soaked debates, but hadn’t quite got up the nerve to follow my hero Walker Percy’s pilgrim footsteps all the way inside. Eventually, I did, and here I stand, but that’s another story.

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.

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