Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Place
I recently finished reading Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer. Published in 1961 (it won the National Book Award that year), the novel is almost prophetic in its depiction of the type of existential crisis that has become common through the early part of our century. It is a crisis of existence that has to do with meaning found within place and time, one that finds expression in our day as the drive to “keep [insert place name] weird”, and our growing love for locality.
The novel is the account of John “Binx” Bolling, a Korean War veteran and a New Orleans stock broker. Nearing his thirtieth birthday, Binx embarks on his so-called “search” as Mardi Gras approaches. Binx defines his search in seemingly ambiguous terms:
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” (13)
Binx is not searching for God, but for a greater sense of what makes his life meaningful at all. He has become acutely aware of how easy it is to be caught up with the monotony and particulars of life in such a way that one could be lost without knowing it, not even aware of the meaning of their own existence.
In reflecting upon a scientist he once worked with, Binx discovers:
“He was absolutely unaffected by the singularities of time and place. His abode was anywhere. It was all the same to him whether he catheterized a pig at four o’clock in the afternoon in New Orleans or at midnight in Transylvania. He was actually like one of those scientists in the movies who don’t care about anything but the problem in their heads…I do not envy him. I would not change places with him if he discovered the cause and cure of cancer. For he is no more aware of the mystery which surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in.” (52)
Further reflecting on his urge to converse with an individual in every theater that he patronizes, Binx notes:
“If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me.” (75)
Many in our days (particularly among millennials) feel the need for such a “horizontal” search. We are surrounded (particularly in suburban America) by particulars of life that are not distinguishable as regards to a specific place or time. When I walk into Barnes & Noble on a Monday morning, what sets this experience apart from any other person walking into a Barnes & Noble at any suburban shopping center throughout the country (not to mention the further ambiguity of Amazon)?
Binx’s search helps give language to what I think many feel, but so few are able to articulate. We must begin to live in such a way that allows us to reconnect the specific place and the specific time in which we live. This requires that we reconnect ourselves not just with the places themselves, but with the people around us at that specific place in that specific time.
In the day of online shopping and social media, this is a hard pill to swallow for many of us. Many of us are not even aware of how much our lives have become divorced from place. It is much easier in the short-term to live in such a way. But does such a lifestyle have taxing long-term effects on the way we live? I imagine that it does.