While in London recently, I was trying to understand the complex mash-up of classical paganism and Christianity that is England. I’ve remained curious about architecture and how classical mythology emerges and re-emerges as an influence and decorative element.
Oddly enough, it turned out to be perfect timing that I finished reading a novel published in 1961: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.
My mind perked up when, in The Moviegoer, young stockbroker Binx is with disturbed, flighty Kate in Chicago and he passes some attractive young women and realizes he is not distracted by them. So unusual it is, Binx wonders about it. From there, he begins to think that old paganism would have heartily engaged in sexual relations while Christianity would have a firm prohibition against fornication. But for Binx, as he says, his American experience has been neither one of hearty sex nor one of firm prohibition — sex has been a kind of mushy, tempting-but-uncertain possibility, weakly held out and glanced at askance.
Along those lines, on the train ride to Chicago, Binx struggled to become “intimate” with Kate on the train, and seems to chastise himself for his weakness, and somewhere along the way Binx realizes that moderns can’t even sin anymore. This echoes a Kierkegaard text (different from the one at the book’s opening, from “Sickness Unto Death”). In “Either/Or,” Kierkegaard writes that his contemporaries are too spiritually paltry to sin, so he prefers Shakespeare and Old Testament, because in those texts, people hate, murder their enemies, and curse their descendants — while these days, no one can even be fully bad, never mind good.
Binx’s analysis is really an amazing rendering of modern despair and spiritual malaise: the West is no longer old pagan or Christian, and it doesn’t know what to do with itself. In their best forms, paganism and Christianity both presented integrated world views and outlooks on life — certainties and philosophies and rituals and stories that under-girded everyday existence as well as the destinies of entire nations and even cultures. With paganism and Christianity dispatched (and today we could add other grand-narrative views like Marxism), there is no longer a common understanding of the world, even within individual cultures and nations, and so modern humans are adrift. Or, at best, modern humans are tribal within the dying culture and nations — tribal as in, this works for us, that works for you; you stay over there, we’ll stay over here. Which sounds good, but at the cost of greater social and cultural cohesion. The result is a loss of community and an understanding of common humanity. (This why Alan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, can advocate classical literature, Shakespeare and Rousseau as non-religious guides to tutoring young passions via tutoring young imaginations — while also holding contempt for the pop music-obsession of college students, because pop music has become the replacement for deep, imaginative understandings of the world and relationships offered in older literature.)
I bring this up with my re-reading of the book because, early on, Binx says he doesn’t like the old part of New Orleans, which I think might be analogous to classical paganism. He prefers his non-descript suburb (anywhere) to the located-ness and historically rooted older parts of New Orleans (somewhere). Binx is a man who is adrift and prefers being adrift, prefers that to his culture’s and family’s old-pagan (analogously) roots. Movies, in any theater, with no religious tradition (like the other side of his family) and no classical pagan stories, are Binx’s preference.
Later, at the end, when Aunt Emily questions Binx about his becoming-intimate with Kate on the train, she questions him from the standpoint of old paganism, not religion. A sense of order and virtue, but not in a Judeo-Christian religious sense, has been violated. Aunt Emily thought Binx was more part of that neo-classical Southern culture than he actually was. She is disappointed. Binx doesn’t seem to care. From beginning to end, Binx is adrift, between classical pagan Aunt Emily and devout Christian, soon-to-die half-brother Laurence.
Beyond that, I’m not sure of what to make of the ending of The Moviegoer, except to guess that maybe Kate’s insistence that Binx will think of her — while she’s on a New Orelans bus to run an errand — is sort of her new way of experiencing a deeper love. Binx’s thoughts of her are enough to keep her from becoming lost, as she has become time and time again throughout the novel. Even when Binx is not physically with Kate, Kate can be sure that she is in Binx’s thoughts, and that validates her existence. She is located in Binx’s mind, and therefore not lost. To know that one is loved might be the best way to no longer be adrift, the best way to find oneself — in a world in which, as Binx often notes, “somewhere” can become just “anywhere.” This understanding of love — being in Binx’s thoughts during her emotionally perilous yet mundane journey — calls Kate from her anxiety and despair and into full being. At least I can hope that’s the case, because the novel ends rather lightly and almost anti-climatically, so I guess Percy was teasing our thoughts in a direction without spelling them out for us.
Considering Percy’s future, more-religious works, he might be hinting in his first novel at a kind of remedy for despair and malaise. Maybe it’s enough to know that one is in God’s thoughts; God’s love calls the individual into fullness of being.
Much-needed copy-editing took place on May 30, 2015. Otherwise, the context has not been updated.