Walker Percy and The God Question
With his novel The Moviegoer Walker Percy succeeds in summing up the postmodern condition in the character of one Binx Bolling. The accomplishment is remarkable when one stops to consider that this was Percy’s debut novel, published in 1961 when he was middle-aged, a novel that won the National Book Award for Fiction. Percy was influenced by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and The Moviegoer is chock-full of existential questioning, but, unlike many dark existential works, such as those of Sartre and Camus, Percy’s prose is characterized by a somewhat whimsical quality punctuated by a pronounced Southern sensibility.
In the novel, Binx Bolling, the narrator, is adrift. Scientific objectivity has left him disconnected, an itinerate moviegoer who seeks glimpses of treasurable moments that the age of scientific objectivity has removed from his life. He has affairs with secretaries who come and go like actresses, never quite real, virtual as opposed to authentic. He lives in an age when the phrase, “hopefully awaiting the gradual convergence of the physical sciences and the social sciences” becomes “the very sound and soul of despair”. His is an age in which life is like a film being watched by the actors and actresses as they play out their roles.
The tone of the novel, by and large poetic and light, is notable considering that Percy’s personal life was filled with tragedy. Percy’s father committed suicide in 1929 when young Walker was thirteen. Two years later, his mother drove a car off a bridge in Mississippi. Percy took this act to be intentional on his mother’s part, another suicide. Raised as an agnostic by the first cousin who took him and his brothers in after his mother’s death, Percy very well could have developed a rather grim outlook on life. Instead, he embraced Catholicism and was received, along with his wife Mary, into the Catholic Church in 1947. He later became an oblate of St. Joseph Benedictine Abbey in Louisiana, making his final oblation in 1990, just a few months before his death from prostate cancer.
Even more remarkable is that the novel encapsulates the entirety of Western civilization, from the ancient Greeks, to the Middle Ages, through to a twentieth century marred by world wars, the shattering of traditions, and by an unprecedented faith that scientific reasoning and modern education could recreate a new Eden, a utopian paradise. This panoramic perspective is presented in the whimsical, slightly ironic tone of Percy’s prose.
To understand the depth of The Moviegoer, it is helpful to read Percy’s philosophical essays. Percy’s worldview, it goes without saying, emerges from a rich tradition in which Thomas Aquinas plays a central role. At stake is the very nature of the human soul.
According to Thomistic philosopher D.Q. McInerny, “Man’s nature is bilateral, having as it does two distinct sides to it, a corporeal side and a spiritual side.” This, in a nutshell, is what begins to demonstrate why the human soul is radically distinct from the souls of other creatures. Humans alone, as far as we are able to ascertain, possess the ability to reflect on their own spiritual nature and, in so doing, experience the longing for God. It is The God Question that makes us distinctly human. In other words, asking of ourselves “Does God exist?” allows us to emerge fully into being human, a mode of being in which faith is an inherently creative act.
One might object to such an assertion by citing the fact that we share 85% of our DNA with something as radically different in appearance and behavior from humans as the zebra fish, and we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. In either case, but especially that of the chimpanzee, it could be seen as arrogant, at first glance, to suggest that the human soul is radically different from other mammals or even fish. Upon further reflection, however, there is little evidence that chimpanzees, let alone zebra fish, employ symbols to signify their belief in a higher power, although there are recorded instances of chimpanzees placing stones in hollow trees, a behavior that could be termed as proto-ritualistic. Even if these instances were the beginnings of formal ritual, it would not in any way indicate that chimps believed in or even conceived of a higher power. Every distinctly human culture discovered to date has exhibited religious symbolism of some manner, from the use of red ochre in Neanderthal burials to contemporary church services of various denominations and religions. It can be cogently argued that this religious behavior not only distinguishes humans as unique but also provides a window into the nature of their souls.
McInerny goes further in demarcating the human soul: “But the human soul, the rational life principal of a human being, is quite a different thing” [from other kinds of souls, that, presumably, exhibit rationality in a markedly different manner than humans]. Skeptics might argue that there are many examples of animals exhibiting rational behavior, from chimps using tools to crows reasoning out complex problems. Here again, at first glance, they would seem to have a valid point. However, it is not being claimed here that engaging reason to solve problems is the sole providence of human beings but, rather, that rationality at the human level is marked by an intuitive longing for transcendence. This kind of longing, as universal and intense as it is, could not be a cruel aberration, a genetic mutation, a mistake of nature, because we live in a rational universe.
Aquinas might today argue that because the universe is rational, the evolutionary trait of longing for God and immortality would not increase survivability for the sake of survivability alone, as this would be yearning for a fantasy, like a lonely child craving a friend and creating an illusionary companion whom she knows, deep in her heart, is not real. If the universe is rational, then evolution, by default, must be rational as well. Longing for transcendence, intuiting that there is something beyond the finitude of this mortal coil, if impossible to achieve, would cause the longing for transcendence to appear absurd, a kind of hell found in in the existential philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Absurdity is the state of the irrational, i.e. that which is void of rationality. As the Charlie Sheen character in Oliver Stone’s film Platoon put it, “Hell is the impossibility of reason.”
On the contrary to Sartre and Camus, the nature of the human soul is existentially geared to become what it is, and here The God Question is indispensable. According to McInerny,
If we want to understand man, the real man as he actually is in all his existential reality, then it is imperative that we recognize him as a creature who finds himself in a state which is considerably less than ideal. Man’s present condition is a crippled condition, and he therefore labors under burdensome handicaps as he strives to “become what he is”.
In other words, the human soul longs for the perfection of being and, within this very longing, we implicitly understand that we are far from perfect.
In his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy draws upon the Danish philosopher who so influenced his thought: “As Kierkegaard said, once a person is seen as a specimen of a race or a species, at that very moment he ceases to be an individual. Then there are no more individuals but only specimens.” Percy goes further in his essay, “The Delta Factor.” Here he observes that by the end of the modern age scientists and humanists were at odds with the artists and poets. The objectivity of science claimed to have allowed humans to understand both themselves and their place in the world to a fuller extent than ever before. The humanists promoted education and the application of Christian ethical principles, assuming that in doing so they were sure to improve the lot of humankind. But the artists and poets disagreed, claiming something was amiss, that, in spite of such humanism, or perhaps because of it, humans felt more alienated than ever.
In the same essay, Percy implies that the alienation delineating the end of the modern age was symptomatic of two world wars, mass killings, unspeakable atrocities, the atomic bomb, the gulag and the holocaust. Yes, scientific reasoning proved to be “miraculous”, terribly so. It could cure disease but could also devise the most wicked and depraved means of torture, and the mass slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale. Science and education, then, are tools; and they have the potential to do great good and great harm. The one thing they cannot do is to re-create or establish the new Eden:
So the scientists and the humanists got rid of the Fall and re-entered Eden, where scientists know like angels, and laymen prosper in good environments, and ethical democracies progress through education. […] Then Eden turned into the twentieth century.
Unable to cope with the longing for transcendence, rebel souls turn to science and education believing these will bring perfection to the human species. Unable to bear the awe-full burden of longing, they seek to control it by dominating the world around them. Instead of focusing on being, they fixate on having; instead of the spiritual, that which is immortal in their soul, they focus on materiality, believing that to have is to control. Somewhere deep down, somehow, they must know that all returns to the dust from whence it came; science and education have no ultimate control of the inevitability of the disintegration of all things material. In that light, having and controlling lose relevance.
What this all amounts to is a jettisoning of the Greek sense of Arête, or moral excellence, in favor of a dogged mediocrity in pursuit of material “progress”. In Percy’s novel, Binx Bolling’s aunt, in a not-so-light passage, sums it up aptly:
Oh I am aware that we hear a great many flattering things nowadays about your great common man—you know, it has always been revealing to me that he is perfectly content to be so called, because that’s exactly what he is: the common man and when I say common I mean common as hell. Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will not be remembered for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the streets, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If the human soul is inherently poetic, the poetic use of language is its most compelling form of expression. Percy understood as much:
In the very age when communication theory and technique reached its peak, poets and artists were saying that men were in fact isolated and no longer communicated with one another.
In the very age when the largest number of people lived together in cities, poets and artists were saying there was no longer a community.
In the very age when men lived longest and were most secure in their lives, poets and artists were saying that men were most afraid.
In the very age where crowds were largest and people flocked closest together, poets and artists were saying that men were lonely.
In the age where young people, rather than speaking directly to one another while sitting at a table, text messages on smart phones; in the age where counselors must explain to clients that they should not feel depressed because their friends on Facebook appear to be living such perfect lives; in the age where mainstream literature and art avoid or deride religious themes and, instead, strive to promote a bland homogeneity through political correctness via identity politics; in this age The God Question looms large, and, as Pascal pointed out in his famous wager, the question comes natural to human beings—we cannot escape it. Mainstream society would do well not to ignore it.
Neither science nor education is capable of fully unfolding our human potential, a potential that is evinced by the peculiar nature of our souls and which demands an answer to The God Question. In an age where technology isolates us from nature rather than creating community, such seclusion might engender self-reflection and bring The God Question back to the forefront of mainstream thought. For it is for The God Question that the human soul, naturally poetic, is geared.
The close of The Moviegoer is somewhat enigmatic. In choosing to give up movie-going and by becoming a doctor and getting married, Binx Bolling appears to have chosen what Kierkegaard termed the ethical mode of life over the purely aesthetic mode. This, however, is a far cry from Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith. When Binx ponders the man exiting the church on Ash Wednesday at the end of the novel, he wonders why the man is there. Is it just part of the complexity of being in the world or is it something else, something deeper and more mysterious? The passage is worth quoting:
The Negro has already come outside. His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure that he received ashes. When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?
It is impossible to say.
It is impossible to say. Here Binx is on the brink of asking The God Question. And in accepting the unknown, the impossibility of knowing with scientific objectivity the answers to the mysteries of life, the only way to proceed is through faith. Binx Bolling has now become authentically human, the moviegoer converted.
Walker Percy’s corpus of work is an important contribution to a long Catholic tradition which has sought to maintain the dignity of the human person. Percy cast the age-old questions concerning what it is to be human into the context of the twentieth-century. His place in Southern Catholic literature, alongside other acclaimed writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Katherine Anne Porter, and J.F. Powers, should serve to buoy a new generation of Catholic writers who must, at times, feel adrift in a sea of mixed-messages where postmodern uncertainty has the potential to be transformed into a garden of faith.