The Death and Resurrection of Desire: A Girardian Reading of Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer”

Binx Bolling’s conversion to Christianity in Walker Percy’s first novel,  The Moviegoer, has been seen by some critics as a poorly conceived, and poorly executed, conclusion to the story. Among those who have expressed this view, Kieran Quinlan has been one of the most prominent. In his book, Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist, he claims that Binx’s acceptance of the Christian message is discordant with the rest of the narrative–a “surprise that strains [the] credulity” of the reader (Quinlan 95). This conclusion, in his estimation, compromises an otherwise promising  debut novel, by reducing it to “Catholic propaganda” (Quinlan 96).

I not only fail to see the merit in Quinlan’s argument, but see in Binx Bolling’s conversion a thematically resonant conclusion which follows the structural trajectory of the novel. In arguing for this point, I will draw on the work of the French theorist and literary critic, Rene Girard, whose mimetic theory has exerted a profound influence in the field of literary criticism, as well as a number of other disciplines. In what follows, I will argue that, when read in light of Girard’s mimetic theory, Percy’s narrative should be understood as one which follows the logic of Christian conversion from beginning to end. This narrative logic can be discerned through the structure of the work, which corresponds to what Girard calls “novelistic conversion.”

This essay will be divided into two sections. I will begin by providing a brief overview of two key concepts outlined in Girard’s seminal work, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: “mimetic desire” and  “novelistic conversion.” In the second section, I will provide a reading of the The Moviegoer which takes Girard’s insights into account.

Mimetic Desire and “Novelistic Conversion”

With the publication of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, in 1961, Rene Girard made a simple, profound, and controversial claim about the nature of human desire, namely, that it is a fundamentally “mimetic,” or imitative phenomenon. Desire, he argues, is an exclusively, and essentially, human phenomenon, which differs from instinct in two important respects. First, he points out that, while instinct is innate and biologically hardwired, desire is learned by internalizing the example of others. In other words, instincts are automatic internal processes, while desires are formed through external, social processes. Second, he argues that desire and instinct are oriented toward very different things. Instinct directs our attention toward objects or conditions which are inherently valuable, in that they are necessary for survival. Desire, however, has little to do with the inherent value or utility of its object; it is, instead, the value we perceive others attaching to an object which renders it desirable. To claim that desires are mimetic, Girard explains, “is to root them neither  in their objects nor in ourselves but in a third party, the model or mediator, whose desire we imitate” (Resurrection from the Underground 144).

Though the model directs the subject’s gaze toward an object, the mediator remains the focal point of desire, for it is only by reference to them that an object is attributed with any value. We desire a particular object because we perceive it to be essential in providing our model with an ontological status–a quality of existence–which we do not possess. As Chris Fleming explains, “metaphysical desire is a fascination with figures that signify a certain fullness of being, a substantiality that the desiring individual feels that they lack” (24) Desire, Girard argues, always has this metaphysical aspiration as its most essential feature; the particular object to which a model directs our attention is but a means to this end. “Imitative desire,” Girard argues, “is always a desire to be Another” (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel 83).

While Girard emphasizes that mimesis plays an essential role in human development and socialization, he also identifies a couple of very serious problems which inevitably accompany it.  The first problem which Girard identifies as inherent to mimesis is conflict. Whether interpersonal or global in scale, all conflict and violence, he claims, can be traced back to mimetic origins, as the same person who models a desire for us quickly becomes the obstacle standing in the way of its fulfillment (love triangles are an obvious example), and therefore quickly becomes a rival or enemy. The second problematic aspect of mimesis identified by Girard is frustration: because mimetic desire is based upon the illusory perception of the superior ontological status of the other, mimetic desire will invariably fail to deliver what it promises. Girard identifies two forms of frustration which inevitably result from mimetic desire: either we are prevented from acquiring the object of our desire by our model, and our desire “keeps intensifying painfully as a result of the deprivation,” or we acquire the object we desire, only to find that the “prestige of our model collapses and our desire weakens and dies as a result of being fulfilled” (“Literature and Christianity” 279).

It is this latter form of frustration—what he calls “the death of desire” or “post-mimetic desire”—which is the focus of Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. In this book—a study of the works of Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, and Proust—Girard makes the claim that the greatest works of literature not only expose the reality of mimetic desire, but explore this theme of the “mortality” and “finitude” of desire. This he claims is a very serious problem, since “it destabilizes even the most fundamental institutions, beginning with the family” (“Christianity and Literature” 282). Psychoanalytic and psychological theories don’t even acknowledge the problem, says Girard, however, “great literature has a lot to say about that subject” (282). “Great literature,” he says, “shares in that wisdom [the understanding of the failure of desire] because it does not cheat with desire. It shows the necessary failure of undisciplined desire. The greatest literature shows the impossibility of self-fulfillment through desire” (283).

In these works, Girard identifies a consistent narrative structure which involves what he calls a “novelistic conversion.” What these novels depict are characters who are initially trapped within the destructive cycles of mimetic desire, and come to experience the profound despair and depression which result from its failure to deliver on it promises. Their experience is the living death which results from the absence of desire; it is this death which gives way to a new, qualitatively different perspective, in which mimetic desire is demystified, and the pride of seeking a state of self-sufficiency and autonomy is ultimately renounced in favor of alternative, non-rivalrous models. For Girard, the Romanesque, or “novelistic,” work is characterized by an ending which amounts to a repudiation of metaphysical desire, which results in the protagonist adopting a new mode of interpersonal relations not predicated on “the slavish but largely unwitting imitation of others” (Fleming 14).[1] These works, Girard argues, follow the same pattern as Christian conversion: they depict a kind of death and resurrection, a radical transformation which results in the renunciation of old models and desires and the adoption of “Christ-like noncompetitive models” (“Christianity and Literature” 283).

The Conversion of Binx Bolling

The experience of Percy’s protagonist in The Moviegoer follows this narrative structure. At the beginning of the The Moviegoer, we find Binx Bolling living in Gentilly, carrying on the most “ordinary life imaginable”: he manages a small stock brokerage firm during the day, and at night he lives the life of a dedicated moviegoer (The Moviegoer 9). Binx identifies himself as a “model tenant and a model citizen” and says that he takes pleasure in doing “all that is expected” of him (7). What he receives in return for his conformity to the role of “model citizen” is a “neat styrene card with one name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist” (7). Among his most prized possessions, which he keeps locked away in a strongbox, are a number of such “certifying” documents: “birth certificate, college diploma, honorable discharge, G.I. insurance, a few stock certificates” (7). The “Little Way” which Binx adopts in this relatively small, suburban community outside of New Orleans, might properly be described as an unconsciously mimetic existence, conforming to the most generally prescribed models available to an American living in the early 1960’s.

Binx derives both his sense of self and his perception of what is desirable from those around him. He repeatedly makes the claim that he is able to see reality with greater clarity through the eyes of others.  He says of his Uncle Jules, “I see his world plainly through his eyes and I see why he loves it and would keep it as it is” (31). His Aunt Emily has a similar effect on him: “It seems so plain when I see it through her eyes. My duty in life is simple. I go to medical school. I live a long useful life serving my fellowman. What’s wrong with this? All I have to do is remember it” (54).

Binx is also subject to the feeling that those around him possess an ontological status that somehow evades him—a condition at the root of mimetic desire. This dynamic is best illustrated in his moviegoing. He often attributes a “peculiar reality” to the actors he sees in the cinema—a perception that is only confirmed when he sees William Holden on the streets of New Orleans: “An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it” (17). Binx, however, sees himself as constantly in danger of become an “Anybody” living “Anywhere.”

Everything projected on the screen takes on this peculiar glow of reality, for Binx. Upon seeing his neighborhood projected onto the screen, Binx’s perception of it undergoes a transformation: “Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a 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). It is not until his neighborhood has been certified–rendered desirable through the eyes of the other–that Binx is able to inhabit it with a sense of solidity.

Binx’s peaceful existence in Gentilly, however, is interrupted when he recalls an experience he had in the Korean War in which he awoke to the possibility of a “search”: I came to myself under a chindolea bush….Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search” (11). Having dreamt of the experience, Binx experiences a re-awakening.

The result of these experiences is a transition out of what Girard identifies as the first stage of “novelistic conversion”–unconscious mimetic desire– into the second, which is characterized by a growing frustration or disillusionment with the elusive promises of mimetic desire. Once he discovers this deeper contact with reality, his usual pursuits-money, his secretaries–are relativized, and grow increasingly dissatisfying for him. For example, when Binx finally secures the object of his desire in the form of his secretary, Sharon, he makes the “remarkable discovery” he does not love her “as wildly” as he did the day before in the presence his model—whom he calls his “triangulation point”—her “macaroni” boyfriend.  (135). Later in the novel, he confesses to his mother that “nothing seemed worth doing except something I couldn’t remember,” and that even  if he had absolute assurance that he could “find the cure for cancer and compose the greatest of all symphonies” he wouldn’t be interested (158). Bereft of the illusory promises offered to him by means of mimetic desire, he has to constantly battle the “malaise” and the despair which characterizes the “death of desire.”

In this state, he is unable to inhabit his surroundings with the same level of comfort which he had previously enjoyed. As a response, he seeks to cultivate a sense of “wonder” and a genuine contact with reality through his search, and the techniques of “rotation” and “repetition.” While these techniques do serve as a temporary stay against despair, they do not constitute a cure, leading him to conclude that “No search is possible. Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength. Now nothing breaks it—but disaster” (145).

Though he grows disillusioned with his habituated state, he is unable to free himself from its grip. On a train to Chicago, he makes one last attempt at deriving substance from desire. Mirroring Dante’s Paolo and Francesca (whose adultery is inspired by the depiction of Lancelot’s kissing Arthur’s queen), Kate and Binx emulate the promiscuous escapades of a character from one of Kate’s comic books, Tillie the Toiler (199). Thinking that this experience would be the “real thing,” they make a go at it, only to find that “flesh poor flesh”—“summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope—quails and fails” (200). In the absence of an alternative model, who could direct him toward substantive desires, Binx is enslaved, with no alternative. Without a guide the only possibility is “falling prey to desire” (228).

The model which is provided by Percy, it should come as no surprise, is counter-intuitive. One might expect Binx to confide in a wise elder—some enlightened guru who could lead him down the path of enlightenment. Instead, Binx’s model arrives in the form of Binx’s crippled teenage brother, Lonnie Smith. In this relationship, Lonnie acts as a mediator between Binx and God. As Terry Newkirk observes, Lonnie takes communion and performs penance on behalf of Binx, offering himself as a sacrifice, in a sense “becoming Eucharist for him,” and thereby, “in a mysterious way brings Binx into actual contact with God” (Via Negativa 183). While Christian conversion is ultimately a miracle and a mystery, it seems that an understanding of mimetic theory might make clear at least one aspect of how Lonnie’s acts of sacrificial, self-giving mediation might make God’s grace available to Binx: In Lonnie, Binx finds a “non-competitive, Christ-like model” whose actions are a witness to a reality which has been hitherto unintelligible to him—that of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. This reality is revealed to him through Lonnie, whose actions not only reveal the “pierced heart of Jesus Christ” to the otherwise indifferent Binx, but also provides him with a model for an alternative set of desires (137).

At one point in the novel Binx says that he “would not mind trading places” with Lonnie, and Newkirk claims that that is precisely what takes place: in his marriage, “he now reflects God’s fidelity for Kate as Lonnie had mediated Christ’s passion for Binx.” (Via Negativa 183). At the conclusion of the novel, we see the resurrection of desire in Binx, who having renounced his illusory desires, has instead given himself to the imitation of Christ, which takes the form of active, self-giving love for Kate, who is deeply troubled.

Far from compromising Percy’s artistic achievement in the novel, Binx’s conversion at the end of the novel consummates an achievement which is incredibly rare, in that it not only unveils the workings of mimetic desire, but depicts a character who successfully navigates the “death of desire” and emerges on the other side. When read in light of Rene Girard’s concepts of mimetic desire and “novelistic conversion” it becomes clear that, far from striking a discordant note with the rest of the narrative, Binx’s conversion resonates thematically, and remains structurally consistent, with the rest of the novel.

 

 

Works Cited

Fleming, Chris. Rene Girard: Violence and Mimesis (Key Contemporary Thinkers). Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.

Girard, Rene. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961.

— .”Literature and Christianity.” Mimesis, Desire, and the Novel: Rene Girard and Literary Criticism. Pierpaolo Antonello and Heather Webb, Ed. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2015. 279-290.

—. Resurrection from the Underground: Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. James G. Williams. New York: Crossroad, 1997.

—. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Newkirk, Terrye. “Via Negativa and the Little Way: The Hidden God of the Moviegoer.” Renascence 44.3 (1992): 183.

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

Quinlan, Kieran. “The Existentialist.” Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press. 1996. 84-99. Print.

 

[1] In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard did not identify the exposure of mimetic desire as being common to the novel as a genre, but made a distinction between the works which expose this mechanism and those which propagate the notion that desire emerges spontaneously from within the individual without the mediation of a model (what he termed the “romantic lie”). The former he calls romanesque or “novelistic” works; the latter he identifies as romantique or “romantic” works.

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