Ash Wednesday and Existential Longing in The Moviegoer

"Golden Theater" by T. Hawk. CC License. 

"Golden Theater" by T. Hawk. CC License. 

Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, has settled for an ordinary life. Foregoing his previous intent to study law or medicine or engage in scientific research, he no longer desires to do “something great.” Instead, Binx prides himself on having given up “grand ambitions” and “the old longings” and now “sell[s] stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quit[s] work at five o’clock like everyone else” and dreams of “having a girl and perhaps one day settling down.”

And so Binx partakes in the ritual of the everyday. He lives in the suburbs rather than amid the excitement of New Orleans whose “old world atmosphere” incites within him feelings he cannot control. Instead, he prefers predictability: living as a model citizen and perfect tenant, armed with the paraphernalia of modern life by which he circumscribes his identity. Binx’s longing for normalcy and stability is unsurprising given that his life has been marked by tragedy—with a brother dying from pneumonia and another from an accident, losing his father at a young age, and being wounded himself while fighting in the Korean War.

Determined to stave off yet more devastating losses, Binx fills his wallet full of “identity cards, library cards, credit cards” and stuffs his lockbox with “his birth certificate, college diploma, honorable discharge, G.I. insurance, a few stock certificates,” and the deed to land inherited from his father. Consumerism drives his life, as he purchases popular products of the day, derives guidance from advice columns, and even models his relationships on movie plots.

Yet, try as he might to reduce himself to a cog in the machine, Binx remains unalterably human, with an innate hunger for significance, meaning, and purpose. To satisfy this hunger, he adopts the ceremonies of his thoroughly secularized culture—the moviegoing of the novel’s title being the most prominent. The routines of mid-twentieth-century America give him forms by which to understand his life, and he dignifies those routines with official titles like “certification,” “repetition,” and “rotation.” An evening radio program This I Believe, he tells readers, serves as his “compline,” referring to the traditional night prayer that completes the Church’s work that day.

But Percy’s novel shows just how dissatisfying these counterfeit, superficial, secularized rituals are, how little they are able to sustain a meaningful existence. The story’s events transpire in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, with parties and floats and general raucousness planned on the periphery of Binx’s central concerns. He is approaching his thirtieth birthday, and his aunt—the principal authority figure—is pressuring him about his future plans. He has none, and worse, though ill-equipped, he has been charged with caring for his depression-riddled step-cousin Kate. All he offers, all he can offer, is desacralized sex and a relationship mimicking the interaction between a director and his actress.

Even Binx himself recognizes the insubstantial nature of such a foundation on which to build a life, on which to found a marriage: “Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit [. . .]—flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope—quails and fails.”

The spiritual malaise of Binx and Kate, which parallels the spiritual malaise of the world they inhabit, is underscored by contrast with the onset of Lent, Ash Wednesday being the culmination of the novel’s events.

The novel’s most admirable figure, Binx’s terminally ill younger brother Lonnie, is a devout Catholic, and his childlike faith combines with wisdom beyond his few years to squelch any sympathy the readers might be tempted to harbor for Binx’s self-imposed existential despair. In the midst of his debilitating illness, Lonnie’s concerns are for the state of his soul, confessing feelings of pleasure over his brother Duval’s death, and for the state of Binx’s soul, praying for him when he takes communion.

It is Lonnie whose sufferings point beyond himself to Christ; it is Lonnie who revels in the life he is offered, perhaps out of knowing its limits. And it is Lonnie of whom we think when Binx and Kate watch a parishioner enter church to receive his ceremonial ashes.

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, the period leading up to Easter which calls Christians to spiritual preparation for the day marking the lynchpin of our faith—the resurrection of Christ. On this day, services and ritual highlight two themes: human mortality and sinfulness. Ministers mark worshipers’ heads with ash as a sign of grief for the human condition and repentance for our own participation in the sins of mankind.

The ashes—while an external sign—function on a level not possible for Binx’s material-bound rituals. In reaching back through history to the origin of humanity itself—touching on a multiplicity of biblical stories along the way—these ashes bind us, to each other, to our creator, and to our redeemer. They tell us who we are, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and what we should do with that knowledge, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Binx’s rituals, on the other hand, fail to answer these big questions, or if they attempt to do so, the answers themselves fail. These citizenly duties—purchasing his auto tag, heeding public service announcements, contributing to the economy—merely situate him within his society. They provide a guidebook for making his way through the social maze. These rules and roles offer him little exploration of the human condition, more expansively construed.

For man is both more and less than Binx envisions him. Man is not merely the physical creature Binx reduces him to, nor is he the epitome of reality. The ritual of Ash Wednesday corrects both misconstruals, pointing to our creator God as the author of our existence, the source of our identity, the framer of our purpose, and the vehicle of our redemption.