What Happens When You Treat Living Life Like Watching a Movie?
A discussion and analysis of Walker Percy’s internationally acclaimed classic novel ‘The Moviegoer’
I was in a café one afternoon waiting for my friend to arrive — only to have her cancel last minute. I ended up resorting to watching other people do their own thing.
During times like these, the ordinariness just seeps in: The realization that you are not the main character of the story. You are just a main character among other main characters.
People watching is fun because you get to put yourself in the shoes of strangers and guess what they are feeling. That lady sitting in the corner waiting for her coffee? I wonder what her story might be.
The relaxing piano café music and the way the café is constructed to strategically allow in light — not too dim to not allow work, yet not too bright that it dissipates the comfy atmosphere — paints an artistic ambience that reminds me of how it feels to be in front of a Vermeer.
People watching is fun because you get to put yourself in the shoes of strangers and guess what they are feeling.
This experience is similar to Jack “Binx” Bolling’s view of the world, in which he adopts the role of a passive viewer instead of active participant. However, it differs in that instead of finding the beauty in the ordinary, the mundane is deemed so unexciting that it sickens him.
A cautionary tale
Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is a cautionary tale against nihilistic attitudes that are so easily adopted by young people nowadays: a sense of hopelessness amidst the bombardment of distressing news, the powerlessness against preexisting bureaucracy and systems, and a sense of alienation towards a significant proportion of aspects in our own lives.
As the back cover describes it, The Moviegoer is a book about “a young man’s search for meaning in a shallow consumerist world.”
The novel’s main character, Binx Bolling, represents many of the readers who — at this period of history — predominantly spends their lives “looking at one screen or another,” as Paul Elie, a reviewer from The New Yorker, described.
Binx Bolling’s approach to life is to say “No” to the things conventionally worshipped by everyone around him and instead deliberately abstains from participating in anything. Adopting the role of the passive watcher instead of active participant, he treats real-life like how he treats movies.
During college, his indifference is cemented further day-by-day as he sits on the frat front porch doing nothing. He did not have any activity listed on his yearbook except for being a member of his fraternity. Under his photograph, the only description of him was: “Quiet but with a sly sense of humour.”
He is devoid of any ambitions whatsoever, despite his relatives continually trying to persuade him into pursuing scientific research and “better” employment plans.
Nonetheless, Binx remains adamant to stay where he is: a 9 to 5 job at his uncle’s brokerage business. He likes it there, for the sole reason that he has ample time after work to watch movies (that he isn’t even that passionate about) and play around with his female secretaries.
Adopting the role of the passive watcher instead of active participant, he treats real-life like how he treats movies.
Boundary-setting hero or slacker?
What I love about The Moviegoer is that Walker Percy does not moralize his characters at all. The book is ambiguous in its stance: Is the book about people encouraging Binx Bolling to quit being a slacker, or is The Moviegoer a story of a man who bravely puts into question the true worth of existing value systems and asserts his own standard of what a “good life” is?
I suppose the purpose of the book isn’t to say which is right or wrong. The way I interpret the book is that I see it as a prediction of the inevitable result of certain types of thinking. Looking at Binx Bolling’s schema of the world, — that reality is too boring to withstand and the only time it is interesting is when an artist puts his spin on it in a film — it makes sense why he does the things he does.
And the thing is, his approach to living is becoming more and more common, with people “escaping” painful realities using the click of a button. Personally, I do not think Binx is bad at all. In fact, I admire his vehement defiance in living his own life regardless of how other people view him.
Is the book about people encouraging Binx Bolling to quit being a slacker, or is The Moviegoer a story of a man who bravely puts into question the true worth of existing value systems and asserts his own standard of what a “good life” is?
The book simply predicts the external manifestations of the main character’s internal world, his schema determining his interpretation of cues and his reaction to them. It made me question a lot of my own schemas and enabled me to more clearly predict how they caused me to react in certain ways.