Looking for a Reason to Get Out of Bed: Binx Bolling’s “Search”

Notes From the Mockingbird Book Club

Ben Self / 7.12.21

Just as many Americans were beginning to flock back to movie theatres for the first time in over a year, Mockingbird’s Zoom Book Club reconvened last month to discuss Walker Percy’s mid-century classic, The Moviegoer. By my reckoning, it’s well worth reading if you haven’t yet. Of course, the novel isn’t really about going to the movies. It’s about the curious spiritual journey of suburban stockbroker John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, who by all appearances lives an extraordinarily ordinary existence and seems to like it that way. As Binx explains,

For the past four years now I have been living uneventfully in Gentilly, a middle class suburb of New Orleans. Except for the banana plants in the patios and the curlicues of iron on the Walgreen drugstore one would never guess it was part of New Orleans. […] But this is what I like about it.

He does venture downtown from time to time to visit his colorful relatives, including his Aunt Emily and emotionally volatile cousin Kate. But apart from these occasional excursions, Binx likes to keep things “very peaceful.” At almost 30, he lives alone in a basement apartment. He works a respectable job, pays his bills, never goes out drinking, has no interest in politics, always wears long-lasting deodorant, and reads Consumer Reports religiously. Binx boasts, “I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in doing all that is expected of me.”

When he isn’t at the office boosting his stock portfolio, Binx spends most of his time pursuing a string of seemingly interchangeable women — all with names like Marcia, Linda, and Sharon — and either takes drives to the Gulf Coast or goes to the movies, both usually with his gal du jour by his side. And it’s at the movies where Binx feels most in his element. As he muses,

I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park … What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

For Binx, moviegoing is a spiritual discipline. He speaks of movies, theatres, and actors with a special reverence. After seeing William Holden on the street, for example, he describes the actor as having “an aura of heightened reality” that affects “all who fall within it.” Elsewhere, he waxes eloquent on a “phenomenon of moviegoing” he calls “certification” — a kind of consecration by film, when one’s “very neighborhood” shows up in a movie and suddenly makes it possible for a man “to live […] as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”

But for all of Binx’s little amusements — making money, chasing secretaries, worshipping at the altar of the silver screen — something still isn’t quite right. He is plagued by bouts of “malaise” that he constantly endeavors to keep at bay and yet always seem to encroach on his happiness. When the crowd cleared after the Holden sighting, for example, it seemed to Binx that “a thin gas of malaise … settled on the street.” On all his dates or trips to the coast, he can’t stop worrying about being “defeated by the malaise.”

What is this malaise? Binx defines it as “the pain of loss,” but it’s not so much the pain of any specific loss as of a kind of general alienation, a symptom of despair. He explains: “The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.” Elsewhere he says, “For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.”

That image — of drifting through the world like Banquo’s ghost — really hit home when I read it, because I think I know what that feels like. “Malaise” was life during the pandemic — the endless restlessness, the diffuse nagging sadness, the social deprivation, detachment from the outside world, the sense of aimlessness, the “invincible apathy.” I don’t know about you, but I spent much of my pandemic watching shows and movies to try to escape that malaise, to experience something other than my daily reality. And it worked in short bursts, but never for long.

Yet the malaise was already there; the pandemic just made me more aware of it. For Percy, malaise is not merely a response to such unique stressors but a symptom of our modern “mediated, alienated world,” as Paul Elie put it in the New Yorker. Here’s Elie:

“The Moviegoer” seems to describe the way we live now, for its affectless protagonist observes a society whose every aspect seems mediated, contrived, statistically anticipated, manipulated in advance, so that direct experience of life can seem as elusive as the experience of God.

Hopelessly mediocre and self-absorbed as he is, Binx’s great strength is in fact his willingness to acknowledge the malaise, the spiritual death that abounds, the despair that’s actually there — when the people around him seem to pay it no mind or be ignorant of it altogether.

And it’s out of this context — a rebellion against insufferable “everydayness” — that emerges Binx’s great “search,” in some sense what the whole book is about. At the outset, he tells us that “things have suddenly changed. My peaceful existence in Gentilly has been complicated. This morning … there occurred to me the possibility of a search.” He boldly declares his commitment to embark upon the “search,” but then, strangely, doesn’t seem to do much about it. The search is clearly of a spiritual nature, but he doesn’t go on any retreat or pilgrimage, doesn’t fast or pray or mortify the flesh, doesn’t consult gurus or ingest peyote. He mostly just continues about his business, only intermittently alluding to his “search.”

He also doesn’t really define it. The best explanation we get is in the first chapter:

The search is what anyone would undertake if he 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.

Is it God he’s after? Maybe, but he’s unwilling to say as much. As Binx continues,

I hesitate to [say that it is God I seek], 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 … [A]s everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics — which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker.

Clearly, it’s not mere “belief” he seeks. As he puts it elsewhere, “My unbelief was invincible from the beginning. …  The proofs of God’s existence may have been true for all I know, but it didn’t make the slightest difference.” Instead, Binx is after something else, something all-consuming, something that touches his benighted existence — a reason for getting out of bed, someone to love, an answer to the “mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.” To the extent that Binx seeks God, it is for something like that of which John Donne wrote in Holy Sonnet XIV: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free”.

There was an uncomfortable familiarity for me in reading about Binx’s “search.” For us too, neither “belief” or “unbelief” is really enough. We long for more and feel that longing sharpest when the malaise surfaces. Binx’s “search” felt like a kind of reminder to me of something important left unattended to, something that so easily gets lost in the everydayness of life.

The “search” is a good thing, whatever it is exactly, but it involves an irresolvable discomfort. As British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once said,

It is only possible to succeed at second-rate pursuits — like becoming a millionaire or a prime minister, winning a war, seducing beautiful women, flying through the stratosphere or landing on the moon. First-rate pursuits — involving, as they must, trying to understand what life is about and trying to convey that understanding — inevitably result in a sense of failure. A Napoleon, a Churchill, a Roosevelt can feel themselves to be successful, but never a Socrates, a Pascal, a Blake.

There’s no doubt Percy hoped to convey the value of “first-rate pursuits” in The Moviegoer. He later posited that the book “attempts a modest restatement of the Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual … He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim.”

And yet, bizarrely, Binx gives up on the “search” in the end, with no obvious results. He decides to marry his suicidal cousin Kate and move into the city, seemingly on a whim. As Elie puts it, Binx suddenly seems determined to “embrace everydayness with quasi-religious devotion.”

Percy leaves it for us to surmise exactly what happened, what became of the “search”. But perhaps the result is implicit in Binx’s decision: He seems to be marrying Kate at least in part to save her from herself. He doesn’t “love” her like the other women he pursues — but unlike them, he does love her. So here we see him stepping out of himself for the first time, setting aside his own desires. But none of that is made to sound momentous or heroic — on the contrary, Binx is utterly matter-of-fact about it all, as if none of it is very important. Is this really the endpoint of Percy’s pilgrimage — the only answer we find — to love and be loved, matter-of-factly?

In the end, Percy leaves us with one other clue. It is Ash Wednesday in New Orleans and Binx sees an African-American man out on the street leaving a church:

His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure he has 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.

[Note: This month’s session of the Mockingbird Book Club is this weekend and we’ll be discussing Marilynne Robinson’s latest book, Jack.]