Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mindfulness in The Big Easy, 1960

The Moviegoer 
by Walker Percy

I vaguely remember reading The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and Love in The Ruins in my college years, then The Second Coming shortly after it came out in 1980. Now, listening to Christopher Hurt’s narration of The Moviegoer I’m struck by Percy’s wonderful lyricism, and the obvious care given to the choice of every word, the cadence of the sentences, the natural rhythm of the dialogue ("deftly modulated" according to the book jacket). If Percy was a musician it's not mentioned in any of the biographical information I've found. It's even more surprising that he never published any poetry because, along with John Cheever, he is to my ear and eye one of the greatest metaphor/simile/analogy makers I've ever read.
Once I started re-reading The Moviegoer after all these years I felt as if, as Graham Greene put it, God was "tugging at my sleeve" and saying "pay attention. Your Howard Brown is in much the same boat as young Jack "Binx" Bolling." Had I picked up The Second Coming the connection would have been even tighter, given the similarity in the age and life experiences of Will Barrett and Howard.
The "boat" that the fella tugging at my sleeve is referring to is described in many different ways throughout The Moviegoer, probably the most obvious being events that have left both characters, Binx and Howard, at the precipice of an existential abyss. Percy doesn't belabor the connection between Binx Bolling the injured Korean War vet and Binx the stockbroker in Gentilly but it doesn't take much analysis to infer that the war experience has blown a hole in Binx's sense of belonging to the white southern society in which he lives. Even so, he keeps up appearances and responsibilities, as does Howard. But Howard is no war survivor, at least not in the physical sense.
Howard’s war has been to maintain some sense of dignity and personal pride in a family and professional environment that is consistently pushing him to be something that he is not. His healing will come when he fully understands his own family history and can actually be the person he’s always been, free of judgment and scorecards; in control and free to “self-actualize”.
Percy paints Binx Bolling’s conundrum in different light. His “malaise” as he sometimes calls it springs from the “everydayness” of life and is best challenged with a “search”:

“What is the nature of the search? you ask.
Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.
            The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick.
            To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. No to be onto something is to be in despair.” (p 12)

What I think most people would today recognize as clinical depression - unnamable bouts of melancholy and despair that require some sort of jarring event - like getting shot through the shoulder in a war, or falling in love - is Binx’s primary challenge. It’s also a problem for his cousin, Kate, whom Percy portrays as more obviously bipolar.
            Yet throughout the novel the term “depressed” and “depression” are rarely used. Even the descriptions of Kate’s therapy with Dr. Merle don’t refer to depression as we might refer to it today.
It doesn’t really matter what Binx’s, or Kate’s, or Howard’s inability to get comfortable in his or
her own skin is called. However it’s interesting to observe that the popularization of psychiatry in the last 50 years has demystified the behavior of many famous characters (Emma Bovary and young Dmitri Karamazov come to mind as classic “bipolar” characters). Still, it’s not as if I’m reading of Binx’s “despair” and “malaise” and thinking “a little Zoloft might help”.
Today, if an author is going to create a character that suffers from depression, (as I have with Howard, his sister, their father and characters yet to come), and the character is living in mainstream society vs. the backwoods or the alleys, you really can’t get around the question of “treatment” and the potential effectiveness or ineffectiveness of medications if your character is going to continue acting crazy. Contemporary bipolar characters are interesting because they’re so happy in their mania the last thing they often want to do is take meds that will bring them down. As a result they inevitably get into trouble until their mania subsides, so you end up with a character whose actions are defined by whether they are on or off their meds.
Enough of psychodrama. Back to The Moviegoer and Binx Bolling’s inscrutable search. One thing I find curious about Binx: though he speaks of everydayness as being an enemy to searching, it’s in paying rapt attention to the everyday things that gets him thinking about a search in the first place:

“...I dressed as usual and began as usual to put my belongings into my pockets: wallet, notebook (for writing down occasional thoughts), pencil, keys, handkerchief, pocket slide rule (for calculating percentage returns on principal). They looked both unfamiliar and at the same time full of clues. I stood in the center of the room and fazed at the little pile, sighting through a hole made by thumb and forefinger. What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it. It is as invisible as his own hand. Once I saw it, however, the search became possible. I bathed, shaved, dressed carefully, and sat at my desk and poked through the little pile in search of a clue just as the detective on television pokes through the dead man’s possessions, using his pencil as a poker.” (P. 12)

            What Binx describes here - the process of seeing, examining, questioning, objectifying an item or collection of items that are as everyday as anything could possibly be - is what some people today might call “mindfulness”, and what Binx also refers to as poking around the neighborhood and never missing a trick.  In becoming mindful of something, in “seeing” it for what feels like the first time, Binx becomes aware of the possibility of a search. Later he refers to it as “the idea of a search”. In other words it is not yet a search, it’s just the idea that there’s something out there, or “in here”, to be found.
            “The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place - but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.” p. 13
It’s the “settling down,” or otherwise not retaining the sense of mystery that accompanies “coming to himself in a strange place” that the movies screw up, according to Binx. Yet consider this passage where what seems like the epitome of everydayness brings a “splendid sense of the goodness of creation”.

“I stroll around the schoolyard in the last golden light of day and admire the building. Everything is so spick-and-span: the aluminum sashes fitted into the brick wall and gilded in the sunset, the pretty terrazzo floors and the desk molded like wings. Suspended by wires above the door is a schematic sort of bird, the Holy Ghost I suppose. It gives me a pleasant sense of the goodness of creation to think of the brick and the glass and the aluminum being extracted from common dirt - though no doubt it is less a religious sentiment than a financial one, since I own a few shares of Alcoa. How smooth and well-fitted and thrifty the aluminum feels!”

Again, this uncommon attention paid to something as plain and everyday as aluminum sashes and the good feeling it evokes in Binx could be interpreted as a moment of mindfulness. The difference, as it develops in the narrative, is in order to search you first have to see what is there - pay rapt attention. A later paragraph gives us a more definitive view of Binx’s “idea” of a search:

“What do you seek - God? you ask with a smile.
I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached - and therefore raising a question in which no one has the slightest interest. Who wants to be dead last among one hundred and eighty million Americans? For, as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believed in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics - which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker.” (p 14)
Binx’s “search” is such a wonderfully common and familiar human trait as well as an equally common literary theme that part of the appeal of The Moviegoer and indeed all of Percy’s work is his uniquely existential, Southern way of characterizing it. By the end of the story, Binx has experienced a transformation that he’s not even aware of himself. But it is apparent in his attitude pertaining to “the search”.

“As for my search, I have not the inclination to say much on the subject. For one thing, I have not the authority, as the great Danish philosopher declared, to speak of such matters in any way other then the edifying. For another thing, it is not open to me even to be edifying, since the time is later than his, much too late to edify or do much of anything except plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself – if indeed asskicking is properly distinguished from edification.” (p 237)

I don’t think this is the cop out it might appear to be, rather it’s another way of saying that he doesn’t feel the same compulsion as he did in the beginning of the story. Though it’s hard to say that Binx has found what he sought (if only because he doesn’t know or isn’t able to articulate what he’s seeking) it’s safe to say that he has found several things he did not have before – or now “has acquired”, since “found” would imply that he acknowledges and is conscious of these changes, which he does not appear to be.
A contemporary Western Buddhist interpretation might observe that Binx is reaping the benefits
of not only examining his life and himself, but through mindfulness of where he is, he has come to accept where he is, which at any given moment defines who he is. In marrying his cousin Kate (I’m still a little foggy on how the Southern “kissin’ cousins” angle plays here) he finally accepts and becomes comfortable as a member of this quintessentially dysfunctional New Orleans family.
With acceptance comes compassion, and it’s difficult not to interpret his desire to marry Kate as primarily a desire to take care of a very fragile individual that can’t make her own way in the world. Kate claims many times throughout the story that Binx is “worse off”, in terms of mental instability, than she is, even though Kate is a card-carrying manic depressive. Stood next to each other, Binx is a portrait of even-keeled Southern sensibility. But, as Kate knows, Binx is a watcher; a solitary moviegoer that prefers observation to involvement. But his mindfulness of the things and goings-on about him, along with his pursuit of the rich moment (“spinning along the gulf coast”), he manages to get outside of the fear that often paralyzes Kate. She realizes that he understands her, and he realizes that, like a recovering alcoholic picking his drunken comrades up from the gutter, the best way to treat his own fear of the abyss is to focus on caring for someone else who has the same problem.  Sure enough by the end of the story he’s following his aunt’s advice and going to medical school.
Binx Bolling spoke of the possibility of a search as to be “onto something”, and though it appears as though he doesn’t make the connection at the end, his seeking has produced a profound discovery: love. Kate and Binx don’t declare their love for each other. They simply live it by caring for one another. But it is only by paying rapt attention and examining, questioning, seeking, that the right conditions are created for real love to bloom.  It is the mindful everydayness that is constantly tugging at the sleeve: Snap out of it. Open your eyes. Poke around the neighborhood and don’t miss a trick.
The final passage of The Moviegoer is to my mind one of the most beautiful closers I’ve ever read. It portrays the small acts of kindness that ultimately put all of the grand searches into the context of mindful everydayness where, as they say, the rubber meets the road:
Binx says to Kate:
“…Will you do me a favor?”
“I’ll be up here all day with Lonnie and the children. Will you go downtown for me and pick up some governments at the office? Your mother has decided again to keep them at home. She thinks that if war comes, her desk is safer than the vault. Will you go?”
“Yes. You can ride the streetcar down St. Charles. It is nice sitting by an open window.”
“I wouldn’t know what to ask for!”
“You don’t have to. I’ll call Mr. Klostermann and he’ll hand you an envelope. Here’s what you do: take the streetcar, get off at Common, walk right into the office. Mr. Klostermann will give you and envelope – you won’t have to say a word – then catch the streetcar at the same place. It will go on down to Canal and come back up St. Charles.”
“I don’t have any money.”
She considers the quarter in her palm. “Here’s the only thing. It’s not that I’m afraid.” She looks at a cape jasmine sticking through an iron fence. I pick it and give it to her.
“You’re sweet,” says Kate uneasily. “Now tell me…”
“While I am on the streetcar – are you going to be thinking about me?”
“What if I don’t make it?”
“Get off and walk home.”
“I’ve got to be sure about one thing.”
“I’m going to sit next to the window on the Lake side and put the cape jasmine in my lap?”
“That’s right”
“And you’ll be thinking of me just that way?”
“That’s right.”
“Good by.”
“Good by.”
Twenty feet away she turns around.
“Mr. Klostermann?”
“Mr. Klostermann.”
I watch her walk toward St. Charles, cape jasmine held against her cheek, until my brothers and sisters call out behind me. (pp 241-242)


A side note:

It was after reading The Second Coming that I got the notion that “I can do this”, as in write a novel. I was struck by the image of the protagonist, Will Barrett, falling down for no reason while playing golf, and later in the story, the impact the young asylum escapee, Allison, has on the North Carolina lawyer and society man. It stuck with me, and my first stab at writing a novel roughly ten years later was begun on a similar premise: straight-edge corporate droid is nearly crippled when hit by a punk bike messenger in San Francisco and they fall in love. The novel, entitled Crater, was written in some ancient word processing program in 1990 or thereabouts and now looks like this:

`Y_r¨©±ìƶπ1Ñœñâ‘t ıUk«ˇQ@kîµsÅ-Ï∆ƒµ--SHZ~•hZu)g,RßëJÙwöÀI2ç!OÁ∫`~KJ.ÁS”+7#`G˚Ñ,ç\ä—+@Éo˙Ç÷ãBôKWNañ*€ò•

I imagine I can find some geek to decode it.
I didn’t start Hack until 1999 and by then Crater was already gobbledygook.

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