What follows is a long, rambling post about the thoughts jumbling around in my head after having read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer for the first time, been confused by much of it, and having so very much made clear by reading Ari N. Schulman’s honors thesis about Percy, The Moviegoer, and Alasdair MacIntyre. I’ve been working on this thing for two days, and realize that it’s not going to get into shape as an essay. Consider it a bunch of notes toward … well, maybe toward a novel.
Ari’s thesis is about a hundred pages long, and dense in parts; I wouldn’t recommend it for the average reader. Some of it I lack the philosophical chops to understand. But most of it not only made me read The Moviegoer in a new light, but made me see my own life, and the struggles I’m facing, in a new light, because of how it helped me see the Percy novel.
Below, I’ve quoted big chunks of Ari’s thesis, and am adding my own stray thoughts and speculation. Ari’s stuff is in italics; mine, not. Consider all of this from me to be open-ended speculation, an invitation to you to start a conversation, not end one.
Percy’s work follows the genre of alienation established in part by both Hemingway and Camus, but it is more like the work of Camus than Hemingway in that it depicts a particularly existential alienation, in which despair results not so much from living without purpose, but from living in a world in which the concept of purpose itself has become incoherent.
Which brings us, of course, to Alasdair MacIntyre and After Virtue. More Schulman:
MacIntyre’s diagnosis of the decay of moral tradition provides a remarkably apt description of the society depicted in The Moviegoer. “In a world of secular rationality,” MacIntyre writes, “religion could no longer provide such a shared background and foundation for moral discourse and action.” It is precisely that world in which we find our poor Mr. Bolling adrift. Emotivism, according to MacIntyre, arises whenever a society’s understanding of itself as inextricably bound to some unifying tradition breaks down. This tradition must include, among other things, some conception of a shared social good; a set of descriptions of the types of lives that are worth and not worth living; and an understanding of which human traits are virtues and which are vices, justified in terms of their effect on the social good. In modernity, such a breakdown first began on a broad scale during the Enlightenment, but MacIntyre is careful to note that it did not immediately affect every part of the Western world, and that some societies underwent such a breakdown at later dates.
Indeed, the cultural self-understanding of the characters in The Moviegoer indicates their awareness that their society is in the final stages of such a breakdown.
This is why Binx is lost and drifting. We are by nature narrative creatures; we understand ourselves and what we are to do with our lives by the stories we consider ourselves a part of. Binx grasps intuitively that he lives in a time in which the old stories by which people used to understand themselves and their purpose in life have lost their authoritative hold — and indeed, the possibility of embracing a narrative is lost to us, because we are conscious of narratives as something one chooses. This is what David Brooks was getting at the other day in his column summarizing Charles Taylor and A Secular Age. Brooks:
When faith is a matter of personal choice, even believers experience much more doubt. As James K.A. Smith of Comment Magazine, who was generous enough to share his superb manuscript of a book on Taylor, put it, “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”
Individuals don’t live embedded in tight social orders; they live in buffered worlds of private choices. Common action, Taylor writes, gives way to mutual display. Many people suffer from a malaise. They remember that many people used to feel connected to an enchanted, transcendent order, but they feel trapped in a flat landscape, with diminished dignity: Is this all there is?
Binx is not a religious man, and has closed off religion as a possibility for himself. He lives among people of his social class, who may not be religious, but who understand themselves as embedded in a social order that transcends their individuality. Binx sees through all this, and understands what they do not: that they’re all acting out roles. He doesn’t confront them or call them phony; in fact, he plays along, not out of mockery, but because, well, why not? What else is there to do? But he cannot commit to any of the options available to him, because he knows how transient and relative these modes of existence are. There is nothing of the Absolute and Eternal in them. They have no hold on his imagination, no claim on his soul. The Tradition is breaking down, but the news hasn’t reached Aunt Emily yet.
I find it interesting that Binx is not a rebel against Tradition; he simply shrugs it off and gets on with his life, choosing to play the roles assigned to him with indifference and irony. Schulman points out that it dawns on Aunt Emily in the end that not only is Binx, the Bolling family scion, unwilling to defend the gate against the advancing barbarians, but that he himself is a barbarian, because he is unable to identify with or even to understand the Tradition by which his people have lived. You can sympathize with Aunt Emily to a certain point, but it’s hard not to sympathize with Binx, because he understands what she does not: that Aunt Emily’s high-flown aristocratic morality is a justification for the way of life of her social class. It can be a beautiful way to live, but it is only that: one choice among many, “arbitrary and artificial,” in Schulman’s words. It is not the Gospel.
Schulman goes on:
As Binx notes, “For her too the fabric is dissolving, but for her even the dissolving makes sense.” Their attitudes represent the two plausible and mirror reactions to that breakdown. On the one hand, Aunt Emily recalls a time when the old tradition structured society, and indignantly clings to it even though she understands that its organizing power has dissolved. On the other hand, Binx senses that the old codes of behavior now appear as artifice in the people who still follow them (including himself), but he has never known a society in which they were otherwise.
The Moviegoer, then, depicts a protagonist on the cusp of a society before and after a breakdown of the tradition required to make rational sense of public and personal moral questions. Binx and Emily represent not just the two plausible reactions to such a breakdown, but the two sets of attitudes and beliefs necessary to articulate it: an indignant but incoherent defense of the old ways on the one hand (for a tradition, on MacIntyre’s account, dissolves precisely when it fails to maintain a coherent understanding of itself); and on the other, a dismissive belief that the old ways have been unmasked and rendered irrelevant by new theories.
Reading this in Schulman clarified something that I hadn’t been able to see clearly about my own history. My dad really was Aunt Emily in the sense that he embodies a tradition that he could not articulate, but clung to by force of will; I was as a young man a version of Binx, someone who did not accept the old ways, not fully, but could not articulate what I was for, because I didn’t know. I tried to keep everything at an ironic distance — this is what the novel Generation X was about — but that is no way to live. There was something inside me that instinctively knew there was more to life than what was on the surface. But how do I know what it is? Hence the search that preoccupied me from about age 19 to 25. So this paragraph from Schulman resonates deeply with my own experience:
MacIntyre claims, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” But for Binx, this question can only be answered if he can answer the prior question, “Of what world or worlds do I find myself a part?” And indeed, the attempt to answer this question is one of his central preoccupations, manifesting as his fascination with “the singularities of time and place.”
This is why travel has always been so important to me, I think, even beyond the level of curiosity and the craving for diversion. I often feel at home when I’m in other worlds. For some reason, walking across the Luxembourg Gardens, in a strange city, among strangers speaking a language I barely understand, felt like my world in a way that driving 25 minutes from where I sit now, to Woodville, Mississippi, does not. On the other hand, as much as I enjoyed Philadelphia and Dallas, neither felt like my world in the way St. Francisville does. Yet New York City (parts of it anyway) did feel like my world when I lived there. I can’t account for this. It’s not that one place is more pleasant than the other place. It’s deeper than that, but I don’t understand why this is. This bears thinking about.
More on this from Schulman:
A clue to what Percy means by “magic identification” comes from the distinct similarity between this term and the term “genie-soul” that he uses in The Moviegoer. That term is used to describe Binx Bolling’s sense of the feel of particular places, and, as noted, it also refers to the effect that that sense has on the very way that he forms his thoughts. What was elided in the previous quote about Binx’s summer in the laboratory turns out to offer further insight into the nature of that effect: after informing us that his lab partner “was absolutely unaffected by the singularities of time in place,” Binx elaborates, “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.” Binx’s sense of place seems to color and even determine the range of possibility for his thoughts; more than just having some effect, it is crucial that Binx be able to understand the aesthetic sense of the world in which he finds himself before he can evaluate the truth or falsity of empirical propositions within it.
I’m so, so grateful to Schulman for illuminating this. When I read that passage in The Moviegoer, I knew exactly what Binx was experiencing, because it happens to me all the time, but I have never been able to account for it or to explain it. The connection between aesthetics and my identification with a place is profound, in ways that I perceive, but do not understand. Again, the Luxembourg Gardens: I delighted in the way I thought when I was there, and in the way I felt. I have been to London, to Rome, and to Istanbul, to name three of the most beautiful and dramatic cities I’ve visited. I felt like a slightly different person in each, but none made me feel as Paris always does, and to be precise, none make me think like Paris does. People say the geographical cure is false, but for me, it’s not really false at all. I lived near the beach in sunny South Florida for three years, in one of the most desirable parts of the world, and the entire time felt like a stranger wandering in the desert. I cannot explain why. I need to think about this.
More Schulman; stick with him, because this is heavy going:
Yet MacIntyre notes elsewhere that actions understood with reference to purposes, intentions, and final causes must always make reference to some particular social framework located in some particular historical place and time. And it is just that sense of temporal, geographical, and social particularity that is at the heart of Percy’s descriptions through Binx of the “genie-souls” of places—and that is hence also a crucial component of his “magic modes of identification.” An account of the culturally particular includes an account of that culture’s understanding of which types of lives are worth or not worth living, which traits do or do not direct an individual toward such lives, how those lives contribute to some shared social good, and so on. Percy’s insight is thus that
such an account must also include an aesthetic account of how it feels to live within that framework, and how the world looks both within that particular framework and in the particular time and place in which that framework is at home.
More (emphasis mine):
Alasdair MacIntyre and Walker Percy are both inclined to think that modern society may indeed collapse under the weight (or lack thereof) of these governing theories. An analysis of that claim is beyond the scope of this work, but it should be noted that, if the central claims of this thesis are correct, then the innate human tendency to live life as a narrative and aesthetic whole persists even though it is no longer supported by dominant theories. So perhaps it is the case that this mode in fact continues to govern modern culture, and that the dominant theories enjoy proclaimed support but are not followed in the practice of human lives. If that is the case, then Percy is wrong in reaffirming Kierkegaard’s claim that “the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” Rather, MacIntyre shows that the specific character of despair is precisely this: it was not in despair until it invented its own awareness. Once this is understood, the recovery of the creature comes not in facing despair or tricking it, but in seeing through its illusion, vanquishing it to the past, and returning to that eternal struggle for the self through which the creature writes its own story.
I think MacIntyre is correct, and it brings to mind what Prof. Schufreider told us decades ago in one of his lectures on Kierkegaard, explaining what it means to claim that “truth is subjectivity.” For Kierkegaard, that does not mean that truth was relative. Rather, it means that in order to live in existential truth, one has to find something that is true for oneself, and hold onto it with passionate inwardness. Christianity may be objectively true, in the sense that the truth claims it makes may be factual. But it is not enough to assent intellectually to the propositions Christianity makes. John Douglas Mullen, in his great little book about Kierkegaard, writes:
[T]o become a religious person cannot be like becoming a Rotarian; it must be rather to transform one’s entire life. So we don’t speak of a religious “believer” as we would ask concerning UFOs is someone is a “believer.” We speak rather of a religious exister.
For Kierkegaard, the only proper object (subject) of anyone’s total devotion was the Absolute, the Eternal. In other words, God. Everything else is relative. This is a lot more complicated than I care to get into here. What I’m not quite sure of is what Schulman is getting at in the paragraph above. Is a person in despair when they are absolutely committed to a false telos – hedonism, say, or social respectability — or are they in despair when they realize, as Binx does, that everybody is just playing a role, and that there is nothing lasting behind it?
Is Aunt Emily in despair? I’m not sure. Insofar as she is unaware of her true condition, I suppose she is. But then, she apparently feels that her way of life is the Way Things Are. That is, she takes it as realistic, as true. Who is better off: Aunt Emily or Binx? Plainly Binx is in despair in the MacIntyrean sense, and I find it hard to imagine that Percy didn’t see Binx as despairing. That’s why I’m not quite sure what Percy meant by saying that one is in despair when one doesn’t realize one is in despair.
Binx Bolling, then, must identify not just with his aesthetic sense of the past but his connection to his own narrative history; and he must identify this unified sense of the past with an aesthetic and narrative imagination of his future. Until he conceives of his life as a narrative and aesthetic whole, he is condemned to inauthenticity and despair. While Percy seems to hint—both through Binx at times and through Percy’s own nonfiction—that recovery is possible, the conclusion of The Moviegoer is clearly pessimistic. For on both MacIntyre’s and Percy’s account, the traditional understanding of human life as a narrative whole has dissolved; and without that theoretical coherence provided by a culture, no individual within that culture can truly live in the traditional mode. Binx, it seems, has been too affected by both the successful and the failed theories of his society—both the theories that destroyed the old traditions, and the old traditions which failed to maintain their coherence in the face of new theories. Binx’s culture must redeem or reconstitute the old traditional coherence and the narrative mode before he can. But it is precisely that commitment to history which gives both Percy and MacIntyre such cause for pessimism—for just as Binx cannot simply by choice escape the aesthetic mode and the way it has shaped his life, neither could society, even if it chose to, simply abandon the history and influence of its modern dominant theories.
There is no way to live without being affected by one’s time and one’s place. Therefore, you can’t un-know what you know, simply from having been part of your culture, and having absorbed not only its way of thinking, but also — this is crucial — its ways of existing. What’s more, You can’t just choose to believe — and believing becomes extremely hard when you live in a culture in which you are aware of just how much of what we consider to be permanent is actually transient and culturally constructed and conditioned. But as Charles Taylor says, this is precisely what it means to be modern, to be secular: to have that awareness of the relativity of things, and of the freedom we have to choose. Even religious believers today are aware that they have the option not to believe. Faith today cannot be held easily or lightly.
Here is how all this helps the author of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming understand his predicament. Ruthie and Paw were pre-modern in the sense Percy and MacIntyre mean. That is, they fully inhabited their roles in the time and the place into which they were born. Aspects of their identity that I saw as relative goods — being a member of our family, being from this place, affirming the cultural preferences of our caste — were for them primary goods. My inability to share this with them struck them as a failure of love, and, well, a failure, period. My moving away was my choosing to exist in untruth, from their point of view. They honestly couldn’t see this any other way. I’m not trying to excuse it, but I am trying instead to understand what it felt like to be my dad and my sister, looking at me and trying to fit me into a coherent narrative of the way the world works. I couldn’t be subsumed into it; therefore, I was a fraud, and could only be a fraud, because if I wasn’t, then the world that made sense to them wasn’t what they thought it was.
This, I think, is the meaning of my father’s dramatic back-porch confession that comes at the end of Little Way: his realization, in the twilight of his years, that he had given his life for something false, or at least something that he thought was absolute, but was in fact relative. And: after Ruthie died and I was asking my dad to explain her banked hostility towards me, he said that he thinks the fact that she never really left here made the world I lived in incomprehensible to her. She could not imagine that there could be another way to live that was equally as good as hers, because she didn’t know this, and chose not to seek it out. I’ve always been a seeker and a wanderer, he said, so I knew things she didn’t know. I knew about all kinds of ways to live; she only knew about one way to live. She could not see me as other than someone fake, who constructed his life out of debris he picked up among his wanderings, instead of accepting the tradition into which he was born.
She had a point, Ruthie did. I mean, I think she was deeply wrong, and that this had heartbreaking consequences for us. But she was not entirely wrong, from another perspective. It’s just that continuing the tradition by living as she lived would have been the utmost falsehood for me, and would have cost me my intellectual and spiritual integrity. Seen from this perspective, there’s a lot of pathos in the project of my entire adult life: finding a tradition that fits me, and is not just somebody else’s clothes. The trick here is really believing it. You have to wake up and find another man’s suit in your closet, and come to believe it is your own. This is not easy.
Finally, this passage from Schulman’s analysis:
Binx, that is, begins the novel in the aesthetic mode, but by the end, he has given up moviegoing and committed to society by becoming a doctor and getting engaged. But, as shown above, Binx’s radical choice to accept the ethical mode is a failure. We can understand this failure as Percy’s again having independently reached the same conclusion as MacIntyre: that the ethical cannot be simply radically chosen, because the notion of the radical choice is itself only at home in the aesthetic mode. Hence we find that Binx has simply become the consummate actor by fully committing to an ethical role. But of course, because he is still ultimately an actor, at the end we find Binx no less ironic, phony, or detached from being in the world.
The character of the actor embodies an understanding that humans must operate in a narrative mode, even if and when they consciously deny it. And so in its deep internal inconsistency the character of the actor also embodies the inherent failure of an aesthetic mode devoted to immersion in narratives; for simply being in some narrative mode is always the same as being in any and thus no mode. The narrative mode can only find its coherence through being lived in its entirety, from start to finish. The actor fails to understand that unless he adheres to one story, his life will dissolve into a series of fragmentary and inauthentic episodes.
I begin to perceive that the loss of my Roman Catholic faith was a bigger catastrophe than I have even suspected until now. I was not raised Catholic, but my conversion was entirely genuine. I put on another’s man’s clothes and thought they were my own. I really did, and I believed it with all my heart, soul, and mind. And then, over an agonizing four years, it all unraveled, in what felt more like a flaying. What I lost in that is confidence in my ability to believe in a narrative. If I could be so wrong about a narrative the truth of which in which I believed so strongly, and around which I built my adult life, then how can I trust myself when I believe anything else? I do not deny the Orthodox faith, not at all, but I hold it much more lightly than I held Catholicism, because the third-degree burns on my hands have not fully healed. They will scar over in time, but I will never regain the fine feeling I once had for religion, even though I find it utterly impossible to believe in anything else other than Jesus Christ.
I want to make sure you understand me here. I am not saying I don’t believe. I’m saying that I am agonizingly aware of how fragile my belief is, and how fragile belief is, period. The day most people convert to a different faith, or a different form of the same faith (as I did by going from Catholicism to Orthodoxy) is usually a moment of uncomplicated joy. For me it was an island of relief surrounded by an ocean of sadness. The sadness, I see, wasn’t so much for the loss of Catholicism per se, but for the loss of certitude and identity, and the feeling that I will never again have what I once had. The loss was not only religious, it was existential, because it shook to the core my faith in my own ability to discern the truth and commit to it. It is impossible to honestly regret learning the truth, at least if you believe it’s better to know the painful truth than a comforting lie. But that doesn’t mean the truth has set you free. More like condemned you to be free.
And yet … Chartres. I weep to think of it. I do. Sitting here in my armchair, I have tears in my eyes typing these sentences. The genie-soul of the place. If I am ever to regain what I lost, it won’t be through thinking, it will be through the spiritual alchemy of beauty. That much I can say.
Like I said, this is not a coherent essay, but a series of notes toward a new book, maybe a novel. Thank you, Walker Percy. Thank you, Ari Schulman.