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  • The Self and the Screened World:Walker Percy's The Moviegoer
  • Bill Scalia (bio)


The COVID-19 pandemic has necessarily increased the amount of time we spend engaged with people, and the world, via screens. This not only isolates us from authentic engagement with others, but also compromises, in a way, our sense of self—especially as "self" is qualified by authentic engagement with the world. The pandemic puts me in mind of Walker Percy's 1961 novel The Moviegoer, in which Percy deals with exactly these concerns in his examination of what he terms the "malaise" of modernity.

Percy has described The Moviegoer as an exercise in philosophical anthropology, in which he sets a protagonist, 30-year-old Binx Bolling, a New Orleans investments manager, into a specific setting. Binx is not only aware of his alienation, but is happy in his alienation.1 Binx refers to himself as a "moviegoer" and describes the act of moviegoing as key to his ongoing "search" for a way to situate himself in the world. But, Binx's moviegoing is the act of experiencing the real world through a negotiation of the screened world. This is another way of saying that the screened world is indifferent to Binx's intention. Because cinema is made of the world (photography is always denotative) a phenomenology of cinema is also a phenomenology of being in the world. Percy frames the novel with two relationships that have the most immediate effect on Binx's relation to the world and his sense of self; one is with his (truly) alienated cousin Kate, who has been under psychiatric treatment since witnessing the death of her fiancée; the other is with his half-brother Lonnie Smith, whose selfless love for Binx transforms Binx by breaking through his self-isolation and engendering an authentic engagement with the world of others. [End Page 138]

The Loss of the World is a Loss of Self

Gabriel Marcel's 1950 essay "Being in a Situation" (which Percy knew) provides an interesting perspective on the concerns Percy actualizes in his novel. Marcel's essay concerns the act of contemplation when a subject reaches into the depths of self and engages the world authentically. For Marcel, this act moves in two directions; it is a looking inward ("ingatheredness") in order to look outward (or, look beyond). Marcel writes,

there can be no contemplation without a kind of inward regrouping of one's resources, or a kind of ingatheredness; to contemplate is to ingather oneself in the presence of whatever is being contemplated, and this in such a fashion that the reality, confronting which one ingathers oneself, itself becomes a factor in the ingathering.2

Contemplation as an intersubjective pose must occur within the context of the situation itself; thus, the subject after the situation is the same as the subject before, but altered—that is, re-formed.

However, failing to turn perception of the world inward, as "an outer show with no inner meaning," the subject fails in understanding the world as both "something else and something more."3 That is, "the spectator betrays his own nature when he chooses to regard himself as a mere recording apparatus." But, "it is enough, indeed, for him to reflect on the emotion which a spectacle is capable of arousing in him, for the image of himself as a mere apparatus, with which he was satisfied enough at first, to be at once shattered."4 Binx lives at Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage, similar to Marcel's mere "recording apparatus"; he lacks Marcel's ingathering. Moreover, Binx perceives the loss of the world as the world's receding from him; that is, the world has lost itself.

The most evident marker of Binx's alienation is the malaise, which he defines in this way: "The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you are no more able to be in the world than Banquo's ghost."5 Percy makes a similar argument in his 1956 essay "The Man...


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pp. 138-145
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