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Diane

Walker Percy (1916-1990)

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Rod Dreher links to the movie's website and tells us: "By the way, I heard the other day from Win Riley, the New Orleans documentarian who's working on a film about Percy. I've learned that he's short of funds to finish the movie. If you're a Percy admirer and can help, by all means follow the link in this item and contact Win."

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Living Out the Day: The Moviegoer turns Fifty

Unnoticed in the shadow of Catch-22′s wings, another book is marking its golden anniversary this year, one that also felt and still feels terribly important to me. I don’t remember how I learned that Catch-22 — along with another favorite book of mine, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road — had lost its bid for the 1962 National Book Award to a slim volume by a man with the strange name of Walker Percy. Literary awards obviously don’t constitute the last word on merit, but I was curious to read the book judged superior to touchstones of my young reading life. I didn’t get around to The Moviegoer for two years after finishing Catch-22, but when I did, I knew that insofar as book awards have a power of ratification, the National Book Award committee had done its job in 1962. Still, when it comes to great literature, laurels like the NBA are paltry acknowledgments of a book’s real power; I found this to be especially true of Percy’s book. Catch-22 had been important to me as a student of literature, and Revolutionary Road had been important to my early development as a writer. But The Moviegoer was important to me as a human being. Like few other books I’ve ever read, it changed me.

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I suppose I need to re-read THE MOVIEGOER. By the time I got to it, I'd already read through quite a few other Percy works, and it didn't rock my world. But given that it is, according to conventional wisdom, far and away Percy's best novel, I'm probably missing something.

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The Millions has a write-up of The Moviegoer for its series Post-40 Bloomers:

The Moviegoer narrates a few days in the life of Binx Bolling, a disaffected young New Orleans man on the eve of his 30th birthday and on the brink of growing up. Describing it in a few words is an empty exercise — this is a novel of nuance and inference, about unarticulated feelings, the fear of malaise, and the life force that simply will not be denied. Percy was thinking hard about Kierkegaard, especially his postulation in Either/Or that “Boredom is the root of all evil… The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” His exploration of the fault lines between alienation and engagement in The Moviegoer is both strange and exhilarating, with moments of stunning beauty. Percy sets his readers up to refute the assumptions he’s handed them: Bolling is a self-identified outsider yet he’s very much in the world, and while he goes to the movies to escape, at the same time they bring him to life. There is a moment at a drive-in when Binx is watching a Western — sitting on the warm hood of a car in the company of a new girlfriend and his beloved, disabled half-brother Lonnie — that made me feel as alive as any words on a page ever have[....]

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A fascinating read on the story behind how Percy's The Moviegoer won the National Book Award in 1962 from Slate:

Of all the principals [Percy] behaved with the greatest aplomb. After accepting the award he returned home to Covington, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, and resumed work on his next novel, The Last Gentleman. In a letter of thanks to Stafford he acquitted Knopf of any neglect and, marveling at the fortuitousness of his situation, reflected on how unlikely the ultimate source of his gratitude was. “If I understand it correctly,” Percy wrote, “had it not been for Mr. Liebling (and his recent interest in Louisiana) The Moviegoer might never, would never have been considered. To think then, that if it hadn’t been for old Earl, etc. For the first time, I feel kindly toward the Longs.”

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Alan Jacobs has a must-read post up at Books and Culture:

"Percy and Sagan in the Cosmos"

One fun bit among many:

We are not encouraged to think about how the structures of mediation work because that would cause us to question them and our relation to them. That is, we might start reflecting on the semiotic construction of the self, and begin to see the formation of our selves as problematic, none of which is good for business. American media culture, Percy believed, involves a lunatic oscillation between absolute indulgence of the self (Donahue) and absolute evasion of it (Sagan). Looked at in one way—in any number of ways—Phil Donahue and Carl Sagan have very little in common; looked at in Percy's way, they serve an almost identical function as guides who gently distract us from attention to how we're being formed and how we might be formed differently. Percy's task, therefore, is to bring the self with all its contradictions into proper focus, to subject it to the harsh light of truth.

But he knows that we do not wish to experience this, so he follows Kierkegaard's model of ironic and comical "indirect communication." Percy is to us what Virgil was to Dante, but cannot fulfill that role straightforwardly because of our hostility to anyone who claims moral authority. But maybe a sardonic, foul-mouthed, bourbon-drinking Catholic Virgil is the one we both need and deserve.

And a wonderful conclusion:

Lost in the Cosmos is the most peculiar book of Percy's career, and in my judgment his finest achievement. I read it when it first appeared, and if you had asked me at the time whether I expected the book to be relevant in 30 years, I probably would have said no. It seemed so topical, so of its moment; and how long could that moment last? But re-reading it in preparation for this essay I saw how little it matters that many people today will know nothing or nearly nothing about Phil Donahue or Carl Sagan. Their immediate heirs are with us every day when we turn on the TV. And Walker Percy's social vision remains as acute and discomfiting today as it was in 1983. That says a great deal for him as a writer and cultural critic; but it also, I believe, teaches us that our culture is, in its bones, changing less quickly than we have accustomed ourselves to believe. It's the same old Cosmos, declaring the same old Glory, and we're just as prone to getting lost in it as we ever were.

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This may be suited to a different thread, but it's rooted in Walker Percy, so hopefully it's alright if I post it here. There's an interesting reflection in The Atlantic about how the author self identified too much Binx Bolling from The Moviegoer.

 

But what stuck out to me were these two paragraphs:

 

 


Re-reading is essentially a childish act. Kids are serial re-readers. Kids want to return again and again to the world they find in a particular book, to try it on for size, to imagine themselves there, to take a few laps around their alternative world before returning home. Part of the fun is knowing you can make the trip anytime, as many times as you want, and always come back safe.

 

One of the clichés of literature is that one really can’t read the same book twice. The idea is that with each re-reading, the reader brings new experiences, new insights, new emotional depth to the book, thus transforming it. But this credits readers with too much power and books with too little. Certain books have a way of stripping us of the emotional and intellectual armature that is commonly called maturity. One of my friends, for example, once told me that she never has been able to read Winnie the Pooh to her kids without crying. 

 

 

 

I agree that re-reading is a childish act, but I view that as one of its best features, whereas the author seems paint it with broad, disapproving strokes. There's a hint of admonition. I can't help but be reminded of Chesterton here, in one of my favourite passages from Orthodoxy:

 

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

 

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This may be suited to a different thread, but it's rooted in Walker Percy, so hopefully it's alright if I post it here. There's an interesting reflection in The Atlantic about how the author self identified too much Binx Bolling from The Moviegoer.

 

Besides the author's criticism of the act of re-reading, this bit struck me. After over a decade of re-reading, "Now, I’m not quite as attracted to Binx’s wit, to his charm, to his antic detachment. Now when I read The Moviegoer, I mostly notice the psychic danger just beneath the surface."

 

Methinks it's a good thing he has re-read the book so much, that he now perceives this.

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Oddly enough, the two books I have re-read the most in the last 10 years are the first volume of James Kochalka's American Elf comic strip collection (for some reason) and Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos. The latter book just seemed to demand countless re-readings, and I've still yet to feel like I really know it.

Edited by Joel

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Besides the author's criticism of the act of re-reading, this bit struck me. After over a decade of re-reading, "Now, I’m not quite as attracted to Binx’s wit, to his charm, to his antic detachment. Now when I read The Moviegoer, I mostly notice the psychic danger just beneath the surface."

 

Methinks it's a good thing he has re-read the book so much, that he now perceives this.

 

 

 

I wholeheartedly agree.It's important to see rereading as a form of course correction instead of bias confirmation. I also found it interesting that it was seeing Binx's potential future laid out in John Gregory Brown’s Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery (which I guess technically counts as a sort of fan fiction of The Moviegoer, to an extent), that got his mind processing the character and how he himself read the book. 

 

I've always liked the idea that books are in dialogue with other books. We don't always see how, although in this case Andrew Santella (The Atlantic author) did, but how we read other books always changes how we read the next, and how we reread old ones.

 

This is especially true of Moby-Dick, and well, most of Melville's works. His books are in deep conversation with other books, be they philosophy, history, or literature.

 

And, in attempt to tie this all together back on topic, I think it rings true of an essay Percy wrote on Melville in Signposts in a Strange Land. He talks of Melville's intertextuality, and how that engagement with other writers and books helps to bring out the freedom in writing.

 

 

Surely this is the key to the paradox -- the ineffable sociability in writing. Intertextuality, if you please.  As lonely as is the craft of writing, it is the most social of vocations. No matter what the writer may say, the work is always written to someone, for someone, against someone. The happiness comes from the ineffable sociabilities, when they succeed, when the writing works and somebody knows it.....the happiness of Melville in Moby-Dick is the happiness of the artist discovering, breaking through the freedom of his art...the novel - the freedom of its form often paralyzing to the novelist - suddenly finds itself being shaped by a larger unity which cannot be violated. Everything works. One kills six birds with every stone. One can even write a treatise on cetology, which comes off as a kind of theology. 

 

 

 

I don't know how much Percy wrote on the subject, but I'm primed to hear more.  I'm currently reading a biography, Melville: The World and His Work (2005), by Andrew Delbanco, and he mentions Percy by name as one of the best readers of Melville. I'd love to see or read perhaps how Percy's novels are influenced by or written in response to some of Melville's books.

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This may be a stupid question, but is what Bolling/Percy calls a "moviegoer" supposed to be commendable or good?

 

It's quite easy to identify with.  A "moviegoer" is involved in "the search" in a particular way, and the search doesn't ever seem to have a temporal satisfaction.  It's certainly a way of looking at the world that pays closer attention, or at least it seems to at first.  Yet from the book I can't tell if Bolling ultimately thinks his status as a "moviegoer" is healthy.  His predictions for the future of "the romantic" are pretty dismal, and he makes those predictions precisely because the romantic is a "moviegoer" who just happens not to go to the movies.  His aunt is certainly a stereotype, and her criticisms are biased, but their bias certainly seems a whole lot less relevant at the end.  His half-brother is also a moviegoer, understanding things with Bolling that no one else does.  But his half-brother isn't an adult, and doesn't yet have some of the responsibilities that the book's other moviegoers seem to ignore.

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Isn't it supposed to be symptomatic, more than anything else? I'm going on a couple years, but I seem to remember having the impression that the movie-going was the result of a sort of modern[ist?] malaise.

 

Then again, as I mentioned up-thread, I wound up uncertain as to what, exactly, to do with the book. It's due a re-visit.

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I should re-read it again myself. But the "psychic danger just beneath the surface" is exactly the theme I perceived when I first read it - a sort of companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye, with an older, more mature protagonist who has "sold out" and numbs the unease through his movie going.

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I haven't read Lancelot. Care to elaborate?

Movie-making is a substantial narrative element in Lancelot. To avoid spoilers, let's say that Percy takes it to some very creepy places.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I haven't read Lancelot. Care to elaborate?

Movie-making is a substantial narrative element in Lancelot. To avoid spoilers, let's say that Percy takes it to some very creepy places.

 

 

 

Hmmm. I recently ordered Lancelot on a whim in a shipment of used books from Better World Books (which, incidentally, is having a sale for 22% off 4+ used books). Now I can specifically anticipate something interesting in it.

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I've tried more than once to read Percy and have failed. Now Nook is offering Lancelot for $1.99 -- a tempting opportunity to give Percy another shot. Searching this thread, I see that Ryan is a big fan of the novel.

 

I tell myself I can always get the book at the library, but these $1.99 opportunities to own the dang thing are so tempting.

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I suppose this is the place to chime in and say that I picked up and read LOST IN THE COSMOS a little while ago, mostly on the spurring of the Alan Jacobs piece, and absolutely fell in love.

 

I should say, I'd read THE MOVIEGOER a few years ago, again on the recommendation of so many on this board, and while I liked it, I wasn't rabid about it. But now I think I'll have to re-read LOST IN THE COSMOS soon, because I think I liked it a little bit too much for it to really be that great. ;)

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Now Nook is offering Lancelot for $1.99 -- a tempting opportunity to give Percy another shot. Searching this thread, I see that Ryan is a big fan of the novel.

 

I tell myself I can always get the book at the library, but these $1.99 opportunities to own the dang thing are so tempting.

I've gone and done it. I've bought Lancelot -- no thanks to any of you! ;)

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