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Joseph Schwartz: Walker Percy's Wise Answers

It is unfortunate that Paul Greenberg’s appreciation of Walker Percy in these pages (November 1990) should have been marred by his misreading of The Moviegoer. Greenberg has fallen into the common critical error of reading that novel as if it were somehow radically different from Percy’s others:

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.

This is pure John Dewey, an important part of the postmodern American intellectual’s baggage: It is not the destination of the march that counts but the bravery displayed along the way Deweyism (as even Lionel Trilling admitted) is not characteristic of the literary masterpieces of the West that are generally rich in “wise answers”—Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevski, and, in fact, Percy.

It is precisely Percy’s point in The Moviegoer that the Malaise contained no answers, which is why it is a malaise. There is within it no Archimedean point by which one could get a bold on reality. Binx, Will, Tom, Lance—all Percy’s heroes”act out that scenario. It is only something from outside the malaise (or so forgotten that it appears to be from outside) that speaks to their desperate questions.

We need to know bow you stand vis- -vis your predicament, that is, knowledge of it and remedy for it. E.g., do you have such knowledge? Have you requested help? Has help arrived? Did you accept help? (Lost in the Cosmos)

From whence come the “wise answers” in Percy’s fiction? Who stands for “wise answers”? For Will Barrett it is Sr. Johnette Mary Vianney, Fr. Boomer, Fr. Weatherbee; for Tom More it is Fr. Smith; for Lancelot it is Fr. Percival”all bearers of the sacred mysteries, all unabashedly kerygmatic. What about Binx? One must remember that be is a nominal Catholic and that his family remains firmly Catholic; his journey is essentially a rediscovery (like Tom More) of what has always been available to him but lost in a post-memory-of-Christianity age. Binx says, “What I am trying to tell you is that nothing seemed worth doing except something I couldn’t even remember.” Instead of using the kind of deus ex machina embodied in a formal religious figure that Percy favors in his other novels, we have instead Binx’s Catholic family, most notably the saintly Lonnie, that stands for “wise answers.”

Let us look at a few of the signals that are sent to the reader so that be can appreciate the “wise answers” of Christianity in the novel.

By the time we reach the “Epilogue,” Binx has learned that “it is not too late.” He has married Kate, and, no longer drifting and without purpose, has committed himself to medical school. There be will learn bow to carry out his vocation of listening to people, not (as before) finding them dead, but banding them “along a ways in their dark journey.”

The most obvious (and moving) instance of this shift is when Binx comforts his brothers and sisters who are questioning him about Lonnie’s fate. Yes, says Binx, be will die. Yes, he was anointed, and, yes, the Lord will raise him up on the last day and make him whole. (It is Maytime.) The scene is a direct mimic of the magnificent ending of The Brothers Karamazov. Both Alyosha and Binx tell the children this absolutely essential Christian truth”that we will live again, and in both novels the children cry out “Hurrah” in benediction. (Unless you are like a child, we are reminded.) Binx is no more lying than is Alyosha. That is the whole point of the comparison with Dostoevski, a novelist Percy uses sometimes for this purpose. We shall rise from the dead with joy and gladness and see each other. Further, to invoke one of Percy’s favorite Gabriel Marcel words, in both novels “intersubjectivity” triumphs over isolation. “And now we go hand in hand,” cries Alyosha. Binx promises to think about Kate on the streetcar, and he waits for “my brothers and sisters [who] call out behind me.” He humbly refuses to be edifying, but he will “plant a foot in the right place as opportunity presents itself.”

Most of the action of the novel takes place within the shadow of Ash Wednesday, on which day by “a trick of grace,” a sacred ritual, we receive “God’s own importunate bonus” while we think we enact our secular rituals.

While the tale ordinarily contains all that the teller intends, it is sometimes the case that the teller speaks in a non-fictional context as to the meaning of his work, as Percy did about this novel in his Ingersoll Prize acceptance speech. Binx, he said, recreates himself in a “microcosm of the spiritual history of the West.” He is a thirteenth-century pilgrim in a novel using the “oldest tradition of Western letters: the pilgrim’s search outside himself rather than the guru’s search within.” What he discovers is that there are ways of knowing, beyond the scientific, of “critical significance to one’s personal life.” This kind of knowing is dramatized by the character of Lonnie who is anointed and overcomes an habitual disposition to sin. Binx says, “I would not mind changing places with Lonnie.” The novelist, Percy said further, is like a diagnostician. He can point out and name what is wrong toward the end that one “might at least have hope and in the end get well.”

Paul Greenberg: “A Foot in the Right Place”

This is a joke, right? Professor Joseph Schwartz has to be the last great straight-faced kidder in academe, a gifted satirist out to demonstrate that art is but doctrine illustrated. Hesto presto, mix and match, and, by some kind of magical contra-alchemy, insubstantial gold is elevated to the purest lead. Step right up and see bow mere literature is magically transformed into catechism. He’s got to be kidding, right? I fear not. I’ve had this conversation before”with critics who explain that poor Flannery O’Connor overworked her one drab theme, the ineluctability of God’s grace. They explain that all the electrifying, open-ended power that leads one to read and re-read her, feeling new each time, is but premeditated ornamentation. Ever been told that 1984 is but a latter-day version of Zamyatin’s We? Note bow Character X equals Character Y, and Theme 1 matches Book B. Just mix and match, fill in the blanks, complete the schematic drawing according to the approved manual from the Dept. of Comp-Lit and Automotive Mechanics, and you need never ask another question or feel another dubious feeling. It’s like one of those machines that will give you a complete diagnosis of your car while you wait only briefly, except in this case you submit your soul. No charge if not completely satisfied”unless you count being depressed as hell. What such explanations suffer from is, of course, a surfeit of explanation. 

Result: Instead of two readers nodding in wordless communion at having independently discovered the same exact message in The Moviegoer or any other intimate treasure of your choice—George Orwell, Flannery O’Connor, The Tempest, the authentic old Book of Knowledge —each begins to harbor the suspicion that the other has read a different work by the same title and author. And each wanders off after a while, shaking his bead and muttering, “be just doesn’t understand . . . be just doesn’t understand . . . ” It’s depressing. And it’s even more embarrassing to argue about, and have to Point Out things. It’s like fighting over a sacrament. You want to reach down and clean off what’s been done to it, yet you fear you’ll cheapen it by the effort. I’m obliged to Professor Schwartz, kind of, for explaining how I misread The Moviegoer and precisely what Walker Percy’s point was. Here all along I thought the book bad more to do with desperate questions than wise answers, with faith more than certainty, with searching more than finding. I’m still back there with Binx in Chapter One:

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 be were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life . . . . To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. 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 be do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow be is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time be is so sunk in everydayness that be might just as well be dead.

Give ‘em a happy ending every time and the search is over. As in some of the simpler branches of mathematics, the answers were there in the back of the book all along—in this case in Walker Percy’s Epilogue as banded down by Professor Schwartz. How could I have missed them? They’re so obvious, like the moral printed at the end of a fable. At last Binx Boiling straightens out and decides to go to medical school. settle down with a girl the family approves, and prove what a nice fellow be is to little children. If we accept this version of a Moviegoer that I didn’t know and, forgive me, don’t want to know, in two weeks time Dr.-elect Boiling will be so sunk in everydayness that be might just as well be dead. When ol’ Binx said the movies screw up the search, be may not have considered the possibilities offered by professors of literature. Brother Schwartz sounds less catholic to me than parochial, and his parish is the deadeningly familiar one of Theolit.

Walker Percy’s Epilogue a la Schwartz is almost as soul-satisfying as the one to the Book of Job, with its tacked-on happy ending. God, the malaise is so thick you want to scratch it off the page and see what is underneath the easy words of comfort. Why is the uncomforted Job so much more interesting, more real? Why do the generations not ponder over the Job whose sons and camels and she-asses are replaced so happily, but rather the one who still searches? Why is poor, searching Binx the stockbroker so much more to us than Professor Schwartz’s happily married medical student at the end of the book? And bow did Shakespeare wind up among Professor Schwartz’s exemplars of the Power of Positive Thinkers in Western Lit? I thought that was why Tolstoy bated him—because Shakespeare didn’t have a message. And must we drag John Dewey into this? And what about Naomi?

But seriously, folks: In the wilderness, the search is possible. It is not possible in slavery, or in the promised land. Those may be only other names for the same thing—everydayness, the malaise. Lawrence Kushner, the Sudbury (Mass.) rebbe says: “The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. Even if just for a moment every now and then each day. For it is the only way to being.” He sounds eerily like Walker Percy’s Binx. I think he’s on to something.

Yes, we enter the wilderness with our literary testaments—with Joseph’s bones—but their significance for us changes as, let’s hope, we do. In my innocence I thought that was why Binx kept going to the same old movies—not to repeat the experience but to appreciate and apprehend the changes in himself, and cut through the malaise, and renew the search. I thought that was how the book got its title.

Professor Schwartz is kind enough to say of Binx Bolling that he “humbly refuses to be edifying, but he will ‘plant a foot in the right place as opportunity presents itself.’” The whole paragraph from The Moviegoer is so much more satisfying and unsatisfying, mystifying, and edifying, and, well, whole. Listen to this. It deserves to be read carefully:

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 than 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 ass-kicking is properly distinguished from edification.

Amen, Binx, and more power to you. Alas, just about all you can do sometimes is kick ass. And that is an even less dignified posture than that of the kickee, who may have offended in all innocence; else he could not be so sure.

Professor Schwartz may persuade me yet of his interpretation of Binx if he keeps pointing out that my misunderstanding of The Moviegoer is common among critics. My inadequate defense to that charge is that even the critics may be on to something sometimes.

Anyway, I think Binx deserves the last word. Please note that it is from the Binx of the Epilogue:

Further: I am a member of my mother’s family after all and so naturally shy away from the subject of religion (a peculiar word this in the first place, religion; it is something to be suspicious of.)

Joseph Schwartz is Professor of English at Marquette University.

Paul Greenberg is Editorial Page Editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial.