I heard the news in late May as I was walking into the Sno-White Cafe here in Pine Bluff, Ark.
Walker Percy died, Roger Coley told me. Roger is a Mississippi boy who’s now design editor at the Pine Bluff Commercial. Newspapers have titles like Design Editor these days. He stopped in front of the dusty door to tell me. I walked right in, even managed to order a cheeseburger uptown—that’s with tomato, lettuce, and mayonnaise—but I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. We talked about the weather.
A drenching-wet spring was turning into the kind of dry-as-dust summer that I used to revel in when I was younger. On the first really hot hot day in Pine Bluff, when the heat turns every metal surface into a grill, and bounces off walls like it’ll never stop, I used to make a point of wandering through the warehouse district a couple of blocks away around Third and Alabama, just to feel the summer returning like a Southern childhood, coming on like the world everlasting. I’m not quite up to that any more, not after a sunstroke a few years ago, but the return of unbearable summer still fills me with unreasonable joy. I have a friend who on the first night when the heat won’t stop no matter how late makes a point of driving out in the country along Bayou Bartholomew with his air conditioning going full blast but all the car windows down, so he can both survive and breathe in the absolute rankness of spring utterly undone by summer as the bugs splatter on the windshield. If Herbert W. Armstrong is on the radio with news of The Wo-orld Tomorrow, it’s the epitome of South. I guess everybody has his own ritual, his own sign and wonder. It’s like the rainbow given to Noah and his crew, an assurance that the cycle goes on and on. And then I hear Walker Percy is dead.
I knew he was sick—I heard he resigned from the LSU board of trustees or some such awhile back for reasons of health. But you’re never prepared, never, for something like that. You hear about it and you realize the minute hand of your own life has slipped forward and, though nothing has changed outwardly, everything’s different inwardly. The scenery shrivels and the colors change; it’s not the same without him to see it.
I have to tell you I was hurt nobody told me any sooner. Here in Arkansas we’re always treated like poor relations. I had read about the death of modernist playwrights and ex-governors and such in the public prints, but there was nary a mention of Walker Percy that I saw. His obituary in the New York Times must have been in one of those that stack up before I can get to it. I felt like an old and not very suitable beau that the bride’s family sends a wedding invitation on the day of the ceremony—so they’ll be sure he won’t show up and embarrass everybody. It’s not the same, celebrating—or mourning—out of sync with everybody else. It’s a kind of chronological alienation. It lends perspective, all right, which is just what the modern world has too much of now. You can’t take it as hard as you want to, seeing how it’s a week or two past. Yet it’s news to you. You don’t know how to behave, except in the most polite, acceptable way.
Me, I ate my cheeseburger and kept talking, talking to poor Roger about The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s first book, and how much it meant to me at the time. That must have been about 1962, when I was between jobs and careers and women and cities. The Moviegoer does more than stand up on rereading; it changes every time, or at least my reaction does. Come to think, that’s just why Binx Boiling, its hero—well, protagonist—keeps going to old movies: not because they change but because he’s changed enough for them to tell him something different. The same chinaberries may be crushed against the same sidewalks outside more and more remote neighborhood theaters, but the movie itself hasn’t changed. It’s the one standard measurement—like the golden yardstick you hear about somewhere in the federal vaults—by which everything else can be measured. I guess movies were ol’ Binx’s first day of real summer. He kept coming back to them to escape what he called the Malaise.
Malaise used to be a good word before Jimmy Carter ruined it, and a lot better than the literary equivalent, Anomie. Malaise was just the right word circa 1962, when The Moviegoer was first published. Now the politicians have absconded with the word. Binx was much afflicted with it. Malaise didn’t make him evil or sinful. The beauty of Binx is that there was nothing unique about him, including his incapacity to do anything as meaningful, as human, as to sin. That’s what terrified him, the absence of terror. Walker Percy had that just right.
Malaise: I remember how Walker Percy had Binx describe it that evening in Gentilly back in the early sixties, when the buildings were low against the sky and deserted at the end of the day, and the occasional gas station attendants hosed down the concrete under their “glowing discs and shells and stars.” For once and ever the reader saw the beauty and transience and ordinariness of it, and the emptiness of our distractions.
On the way home, I stop off at the Tivoli. It is a Jane Powell picture and I have no intention of seeing it. However, Mr. Kinsella the manager sees me and actually pulls me in by the coat sleeve for a sample look. He says it is a real pleaser and he means it. There go Jane and some fellow walking arm in arm down the street in a high wide and handsome style and doing a wake up and sing number. The doorman, the cop on the corner, the taxi driver, each sunk in his own private misery, smile and begin to tap their feet. I am hardly ever depressed by a movie and Jane Powell is a very nice-looking girl, but the despair of it is enough to leave you gone in the stomach.
God, isn’t that the truth? What Binx wanted, what we want, is some relief from the Malaise, and recognizing it is the first step. Walker Percy didn’t just name it, the way some textbook on Existentialism 101 would, complete with index, genealogy, and required reading, but made blank art of it, as close and as distant as New Orleens Land of Dreems. Reading The Moviegoer made you want to drive down to Metarie right now just to see what wasn’t there, till you snapped to and realized you might as well stay where you were, ‘cause it wasn’t here, either.
In Walker Percy, the post-sixties at last got our counterpoint to Faulkner—the Dixie Express, Flannery O’Connor called him. And the roar and rumble of him was so great and thick and all-encompassing when he went by that nothing but it existed, and we just can’t live immersed in all that all the time. Besides, everything was changing, as it always does, and who would record this different South, or even non-South?
Damn it, Faulkner has become part of the Malaise, too. He has become the great backdrop against which those who come after have to carry on, play our parts, recite our lines, live our scripted lives long after the whole theater has crumbled around us. Jose Ortega y Gasset says somewhere that culture is a series of swimming strokes amidst the continuous shipwreck that is life. (I guess not knowing life is shipwreck is Malaise.) The strokes keep us afloat, but once the seas calm they’re no longer necessary. We keep practicing them anyway, and making sure the successive generations learn them ever so exactly, not realizing that they have become ornamental rather than necessary—Culture rather than culture. You can sense it happening to Faulkner even if I’ll be damned rather than admit it.
A great artist is a great inner tyrant; he can’t help but dictate. Some of the devotees read through the Faulknerian canon every year, the way churches go through the Bible. Is it possible to do that and lead one’s own life? Isn’t it mesmerizing and exhausting enough just to read Light in August every December, in time for Christmas? To study Scripture, a wise rabbi once told me, one has to know how to do two things: to enter and to emerge. The entering is the easy part, the irresistible part. But how emerge? And what is left when one does? A sense of loss. The Malaise.
Faulkner crystallized that sense of loss forever in his world squeezed into a sentence, his inexhaustible world carved in interminable sentences, and so deprived us of our own sense of loss. But Walker Percy emerged out of Mississippi (of course) and restored it to us—a whole different sense of loss, ineffable and inexplicable but unmistakable. A recognized emptiness, even if there was the danger of feeling it too strongly, of sentimentalizing it. In our rapture with The Moviegoer, we were reduced to talking in italicized prose—like one of Walker Percy’s less appealing characters. Our enthusiasm knew no boundaries or articulation. We loved Binx as surely as we loved, or hated, or despaired of ourselves. He had that wonderful, almost unaware sense of vacancy that still waits for us at every turn. The specific character of despair, Kierkegaard said, is precisely this: It is unaware of being despair.
There were moments, just moments, when John Bickerson Bolling of Metarie, La., did grow aware, when he beat the Malaise, even if he didn’t think he had. For example on Page 99 of my edition of The Moviegoer:
For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me; yes, beyond a doubt, this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. I hear myself or someone else saying things like: “In my opinion the Russian people are a great people, but”” or “Yes, what you say about the hypocrisy of the North is unquestionably true. However”” and I think to myself: this is death. Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord. Wednesday as I stood speaking to Eddie Lovell, I felt my eye closing in a broad wink.
Haven’t you had that feeling? Don’t you even now? Would you believe that in the middle of some board meeting or press conference or lovely occasion, it is all I can do to resist standing up and saying in a loud voice: “Do you know all of us are going to die?” I hold back; I don’t want to be thought some kind of fanatic. But my soul thirsts. I can hear it panting. I keep running across the kind of phrase that caught Binx’s attention (“ . . . hopefully awaiting the gradual convergence of the physical sciences and the social sciences”) and that left him abandoned on the endless plateau of Malaise. Do you have any idea how many times a day an editorial page editor sees phrases like that?
I always liked sportswriters, but used to think of myself as a cut above. How many synonyms can you think of for Win, Lose, or Tie? How many ways to tell the same story, even if the names and stadia are different? But of late it’s hit me. Political and social commentary are an unchanging game, too. Only the names change. How many synonyms are there for Win, Lose, Tie, and hubris? For just a blessed moment—I think it’s blessed—one becomes aware of the Malaise, which may be the only way to overcome it.
It wasn’t the same reading Walker Percy after The Moviegoer, though there were flashes in his other books. The desperate questions he raised were so much better than any of his wise answers. The Malaise has all the answers; it’s the questions that still rouse and return us to life. That’s why I’ll keep reading The Moviegoer.
Paul Greenberg is Editorial Page Editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial.