The Dream Screen in 'The Moviegoer.' (by Walker Percy)
Lawson, Lewis A., Papers on Language & Literature
It is not often noted, but, the narrative proper of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (1961), while it offers a very seductive "virtual present," is actually a representing of selected events from an eight-day period that occurred at some point over a year in the past.(1) The Epilogue establishes the fact that Binx has been representing to himself the feelings that he had earlier experienced, but had not been able to articulate; Percy's technique is illuminated by Charles Sanders Peirce's model of consciousness: the self-which-is silently, converses with the self-which-is-just-coming-to-be. Percy implies such a strategy in "From Facts to Fiction":
When I sat down to write The Moviegoer, I was very much aware of discarding the conventional notions of a plot and a set of characters, discarded because the traditional concept of plot-and-character itself reflects a view of reality which has been called into question. Rather would I begin with a man who finds himself in a world, a very concrete man who is located in a very concrete place and time. Such a man might be represented as coming to himself... (9)
The man coming to himself is the Binx who has selected and arranged a group of images so that their form conveys, represents, names his feelings to himself. These images--and, indeed, the form they take--would have been formed from and influenced by dreams, so that it is appropriate that dreams and dreaming are inescapably prominent in the content of the narrative. The boy Binx who got "excited" about Freud's Interpretation of Dream (138), but was rebuffed by his mother's lack of interest, the thirty-year old Binx who is unconsciously driven by dreams caused by the rebuffing mother to "act out," and is in the Epilogue the Binx who, by virtue of his conversion to Christianity (a restitution of the most object), can now understand and name his past condition for himself.
During the eight days of his life that he recollects, Binx goes to the movies four times and refers to twelve identified and several unidentified movies. There is some truth to the diagnosis of Binx provided by Harvey R. Greenberg:
One encounters chronic moviemania in rigid, inhibited types who feel exquisitely uncomfortable when forced into close interpersonal contact. Safe only in well-defined social situations, intolerably anxious if called upon to improvise, these people sleepwalk through the day's routine and only come alive at second hand, as proxy participants in the adventures of their screen idols. (Walker Percy's elegant novel The Moviegoer describes such a case.) (4) But there is not enough to Greenberg's analysis. Binx shows no interest in cinematographic technique, nor indeed does he say much about acting technique; he comments on a film narrative or a character's action only if it re-presents in some way some aspect of his life. The movie screen is his dream screen, in the sense that Robert T. Eberwein describes the connection between the two screens in Film and the Dream Screen.
Throughout Binx's recollection it is the image of the movie theater, rather than the memory of a specific movie, which offers the more evocative impression. As Esther Harding interprets a theater as a dream symbol: "This is the place where the typical stories of a man's life are shown, that is, the mythogems are presented to consciousness" (171). When Binx describes his "neighborhood theater in Gentilly" (7)--the evocative gen the source of so many birth-related words--he emphasizes its form, not its function of presenting constantly changing attractions: the theater "has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little" (7). He adds, "[t]he fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie," his choice of preposition suggesting the primacy of the experience of enclosure in his moviegoing. It is not too much to suggest that he experiences "nyctophilla," defined by Bertram Lewin as "an erotic pleasure in darkness, which enters as a wish-fulfillment element in fantasies of being in the ~womb,' or more properly, as the German word Mutterleib suggests, of being in the mother's body" (The Image, 40). In short, Binx has a need, whether by dreaming or by moviegoing, to regress to "the first incestuous objects of the libido," as Freud puts it (350).
When Binx begins his recollection, he indicates that he had been awakened to the possibility of a search by a dream of his wounding in the Korean War, an event to which he will refer several times in his narrative. That event was no doubt traumatic, yet the imagery which Binx uses to describe it suggests that that memory "screens" a memory of a more primal wounding:
I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush.... My shoulder didn't hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. (10-11)
Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch. (145) The first citation is made meaningful by J. C. Flugel's comment about anxiety, during his discussion of "birth fantasies." Tracing the word anxiety back to the Sanskrit anhus, meaning "narrowness or constriction," he argues that anxiety "bears witness to the fundamental association of fear with pressure and shortness of breath, which--the former owing to the passage through the narrow vagina, the latter to the interruption of the foetal circulation--constitute the most menacing and terrifying aspects of the birth process" (70). The second citation is a rather vivid description of the moment of birth.
If Binx's memory of his war wound is a re-presentation of his birth trauma, it is significantly appropriate that he thinks of the wound in connection with all three women who play psychosexual roles in his life. As a result of the car collision on their way to the Gulf Coast, Sharon has to cut away Binx's T-shirt:
I was shot through the shoulder--a decent wound, as decent as any ever inflicted on Rory Calhoun or Tony Curtis. After all it could have been in the buttocks or genitals--or nose. Decent except that the fragment nicked the apex of my pleura and got me a collapsed lung and a big roaring empyema. (126) It is noteworthy that Binx's wounding results in a lung condition, for there is a long tradition of suspecting nostalgia as a cause of some lung conditions (Rosen 448-50). When Sharon, the mother substitute, sees the scar, she obligingly becomes maternal: "Come on now, son, where did you get that?" (126) Binx is jubilant, must think that his seduction is as good as done. Later, at the fishing camp, Binx uses the episode of his wounding to try to get his mother to understand how he has felt about his entire life: "What I am trying to tell you is that nothing seemed worth doing except something I couldn't even remember" (158). In other words, through the screening process he represses any recognition of the primal wound and therefore regresses in fantasy and in acted-out Don Juan behavior. And, finally, when he realizes in Chicago that he is falling in love with Kate, he says: "There I see her plain, see plain for the first time since I lay wounded in a ditch and watched an Oriental finch scratching around in the leaves..." (206). Binx implies that his mental visualization is finally free of "the parent in the percept."(2) His ability to choose an appropriate mate enables him to transcend his yearning for the mother who will not nurture.
The first movie that Binx mentions is not one that he actually attends during the time being recollected; this strategy gives Binx the opportunity, to imply from the outset that his moviegoing is a la recherche du temps perdu--almost all of the movies to which he refers are re-releases. Since it is unidentified by title--thus losing its individuality, becoming a generic movie--the movie he mentions is just one that he "saw last month out by Lake Pontchartrain" (4) with his then-sweetheart Linda. What he says about the theater, little as it is, says much about his psychosexual regression:"[a] strong wind whipped the waves against the seawall; even inside you could hear the racket" (4), and "the theater was almost empty, which was pleasant for me" (5). For Binx the theater replicates his intrauterine residence, which he would of course like not to share.
In this regard, it is significant that the theater is "out by Lake Pontchartrain" and Binx has a date with him. Binx is acting out Sandor Ferenczi's contention that man has a drive to water as it symbolizes his phylogenetic history both as a fish and as a foetus. Such a drive activates the fantasy of copulating with the mother; since this activity is forbidden, the actual copulation must occur with a substitute object, which is what Binx's succession of secretaries represents, kill of whom he takes to the Gulf Coast. Ferenczi's "situation of the penis in the vagina, the foetus in the uterus, and the fish in the water" (45) will surface again.
In his state of regression from the reality-principle, as Freud called it, Binx would have watched this movie closely:
The movie was about a man who lost his memory in an accident and as a result lost everything: his family, his friends, his money. He found himself a stranger in a strange city. Here he had to make a fresh start, find a new place to live, a new job, a new girl. It was supposed to be a tragedy, his losing all this, and he seemed to suffer a great deal. On the other hand, things were not so bad after all. In no time he found a very picturesque place to live, a houseboat on the river, and a very handsome girl, the local librarian. (4-5) The Thalassan content of the movie thus replicates the meaning that the theater has for Binx.
The theme of the movie is "[a]mnesia[,]...the perfect device of rotation."(3) Binx very carefully neglects the ending, stopping his recapitulation at the point of rotational triumph, at which point the ego-hero has reached Eden, "a very picturesque houseboat on the river," and an ideal mother-substitute, "the local librarian." For if rotation climaxes, post-coital depression is inevitable; rotation's "only term is suicide or self loss." (Percy, "The Man" 95). Just a few minutes later, Binx admits premature withdrawal from the not:
The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like, to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place--but what does he do? …
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Publication information: Article title: The Dream Screen in 'The Moviegoer.' (by Walker Percy). Contributors: Lawson, Lewis A. - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 30. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 1994. Page number: 25+. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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