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“Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.”

August 24, 2010

During our discussion this past Sunday of Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, during Session 4 of our five-part Adult Ed series (see below), we read together the following excerpt from Paul Elie’s book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own:

The solitude of The Moviegoer isn’t the solitude of a rebel or an independent, but that of a man who is alone in a crowd… The oratory in the book… [is] a voice-over—the present tense monologue of the person who does not tell a story so much as offer a running commentary on life as it passes before his eyes.

The Moviegoer… seems to describe the way we live now, for it describes a society in which alienation is collective, whose every aspect seems mediated, contrived, statistically anticipated, manipulated in advance, so that the direct experience of life can seem as elusive as the experience of God…

It is a familiar story of quiet desperation… Bolling spends his life watching other people… What he sees is phoniness and calculation, the gap between experience and what is said about it… What does Bolling believe? He is commonly described by critics as some sort of religious figure—a mystic, an anchorite in the “desert” of suburbia, a pilgrim and wayfarer—and his story, set during Holy Week, is read, on slender evidence, as a conversion story.

But what Bolling believes is less important than what he does not believe… He is an admirable nihilist, whose main virtue is integrity—a refusal to believe what others believe just because they believe it… professing what [Flannery] O’Connor called “a kind of sub-religion which expresses its ultimate concern in images that have not yet broken through to show any recognition of God who has revealed himself.”

…Bolling never did [believe]… He was brought up on… a blend of Catholic, Episcopal, Buddhist, and classical teachings… He worships in [a movie theater], so to speak… [and he] sees people “dead, dead, dead” to the “mystery and wonder” of everyday existence…

Bolling’s struggle is not with the promise of the past but with the emptiness of the present. All he knows is that his own experience of life is not enough. What might the mystery of existence be? It is impossible to say. He will know it when he sees it, and the best sign of its authenticity will be that he wasn’t looking. Meanwhile, he will keep watching and wondering what it all means.

This description of Walker Percy’s novel, published in the early 1960’s, inspired one member of our group to recall the 1999 movie, “Fight Club,” directed by David Fincher, and starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. The description above of the protagonist of The Moviegoer could very aptly describe the protagonist of “Fight Club”–a man who has such a hard time finding anything stirring and meaningful in his day-to-day life that he forms a club where men can gather anonymously and have fist-fights purely for the immediate, visceral thrill of feeling totally alive while doing so. Here’s a short video that splices together two speeches by that main character (as played by Brad Pitt):

As we discussed “Fight Club” and “The Moviegoer,” we got into the topic of alienation, of how rarely we modern Americans feel that we have authentic experiences of life, much less authentic experiences of God. And that led us back to a line of Flannery O’Connor’s written in a letter in the 1950’s, also from our readings:

“If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical  positivist you ever saw right now.”

It was a fairly intense conversation and many left thinking we needed to go rent “Fight Club.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Judy Terwilliger permalink
    August 28, 2010 6:16 pm

    Fight Club was on TV Friday night. I was as shocked by the action and narrative as I was the first time I watched it probably because I kept thinking, “OMG, I recommended this flick to my church study group.”

    A quote of O’Connor, in the context of wondering about my fascination with the film, has led me to an epiphany of sorts. In writing about her own work, O’Connor explains, “The stories are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe there are many rough beasts now slouching towards Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported on the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

    When I watched Fight Club for the first time with my son, he was at the age where a loving mom might imagine that his body was now inhabited by an alien—a rough beast “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.” That night watching the film with Thomas, I had “hold of the wrong horror”. In many respects, I am Tyler Durden. That was my epiphany.

    Judy Terwilliger


  1. “I am Tyler Durden” « Cathedral Crossings

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