Thursday, July 9, 2015

Poetry in Percy's "The Moviegoer"

Last post, I wrote about the African American presence in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Today, I want to continue the discussion about Percy's novel, but I would like to focus on something I found fascinating this time around. While reading the novel, I kept thinking about two of my favorite poems: W.H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" and e.e. cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town." The themes in these poems are nothing new, and reading them in relation to The Moviegoer doesn't seem like that big of stretch. Both poems, and the novel, deal with a certain anonymity that society creates about an individual, and in the novel Binx struggles to find his own identity and existence in a world that seems somewhat foreign to him. He goes to the movies to escape and to actually feel at times.

At the beginning of the novel, Binx comments on his ideal citizenry and the fact that even as an ideal citizen people do not necessarily recognize or acknowledge him. Speaking about his life in Gentilly, Binx says, "I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in all that is expected of me" (6). He lists all of the pieces of identification he carries (library card, driver's license, and credit cards) and the ones he keeps safe in his house (birth certificate, diploma, stock certificates, etc.). Of these items, Binx says, "It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one's name on it certifying, so to speak, one's right to exist" (7). Binx's thoughts on how society perceives him immediately made me think about Auden's "The Unknown Citizen," a poem that chronicles the life of JS/07 M 378. The numbered citizen worked hard, paid his union dues, served in the war, bought paper everyday, got married, bought material items, and had five kids. From all accounts and purposes, he lived the perfect, modern American Dream life. However, the narrator asks at the end of the poem, "Was he free? Was he happy?" After hearing about his life, this question seems rather absurd, and the narrator acknowledges as much, adding, "Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." From the viewpoint of a detached, bureaucratic narrator, nothing appears wrong with JS/07 M 378's life, but from his view, something may have been amiss. Binx, in essence, correlates to JS/07 M 378, and we see from his point of view the struggles of the modern man to navigate a society that seeks to make him a number and not an individual that, no matter what outside appearances show, may be struggling with his very existence.

The other poem that came to mind during my last read through of Percy's novel was cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town." As he thinks back to the days when he read only "fundamental" books, Binx comments, "During those years I stood outside the universe and sought to understand it. I lived in my room as an Anyone living Anywhere and read fundamental books and only for diversion took walks around the neighborhood and saw an occasional movie" (69). The use of the pronouns "Anyone" and "Anywhere" made me think of cummings. Binx reads to becomes anyone anywhere, a person of non-consequence to those around him. In the poem, anyone lives his life in a town, and the other people (the someones and everyones) do not necessarily notice him. He marries a woman named noone and life continues. Eventually, anyone and noone die and the other citizens continue on with their lives, reaping and sowing. Thinking about Binx, this recalls his own existence. He lives in a world where he appears almost invisible except to the immediate people around him. He struggles to find love, eventually ending up with his cousin, and does not really accomplish anything in his quest.

One other instance that reminded me of cummings comes earlier when Binx talks about a movie being "certified." A movie becomes "certified" when you, as a viewer, see your neighborhood on screen. Binx says, "But if he sees ha movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere" (63). Seeing the area on screen, in essence, verifies the viewer's existence, making him or her realize that the place is an actual place, a Somewhere, and not a fantastic, or far off locale, an Anywhere. It legitimizes the life. While reading this section, I also couldn't help but think about the song "Cinema Air" by The Gloria Record. The song focuses on the same existential themes that Percy's novel and the poems discussed here. It talks about getting lost in the movies, how they create a sense of escape and a form of identification with the screen. A video of the song is below.

What are your thoughts here? Let us know in the comments below.

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Faucet Columbine, 1996. Print.


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