Clint Eastwood: Well is that it, Major?
Richard Burton: Yes, that’s it, Lieutenant.
Clint Eastwood: Do me a favor will ya? Next time you have one of these things, keep it an all british operation.
Richard Burton: I’ll try, Lieutenant.
So ends Where Eagles Dare, a blockbuster World War II movie from 1968. An impressive Allied team of agents set out to rescue a U.S. General held captive in a Nazi fortress in the Bavarian Alps. Throughout the ordeal, tension is high, death looms around every corner, and lovers are united, despite the treacherous nature of their mission. As with a classic action narrative, the film ends in success. Or so it seems, as long as we do not consider what lies beyond the last scene. What sort of life do the characters actually look forward to?
Victorious though they are in this chapter of their lives, one seriously wonders if there is any real happiness in their lives at all. Sure, the Major is a brilliant commander, but his experience of the world has left him cold and cynical; the American Lieutenant is a deadly soldier, but he, too, is cold, even grudging in the help he affords his British allies; and Mary, a crack undercover agent and the Major’s love interest, does not seem likely to inherit a felicitous future with a man like the Major. There’s a victory, to be sure, but not the attainment of human happiness.
This question of happy endings looms large in Walker Percy’s award-winning novel, The Moviegoer. The protagonist of the novel, Binx (or Jack) Bolling, is a twenty-nine year-old stock broker of New Orleans. He, like the heroes from movies, has had his share of adventure and drama previous to his ordinary life in Gentilly, a middle-class suburb of New Orleans. A World War II veteran who saw active combat and almost died in the Orient, he studied the Great Books, entertained noble ideals, and suffered the loss of both his father and brother at a young age. Similar to the characters from Where Eagles Dare, he survived the mission, so to speak, and its aftermath is the subject of the novel. With such an illustrious past, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that he came out as a man grown wise through suffering and experience. But he is not; he is a mediocre stock broker, whose highest priority is catching the latest William Holden movie. He gives off the impression of never having undergone such life changing experiences. Binx knows how to make money and likes doing it, and his entertainment is largely confined to watching movies, going on dates, and visiting his relatives. He likes his risk-free easy-going life. One day he’d like to get married, settle down, and have kids. On the surface, his life looks like the American Dream, the happy ending, the reward for his noble ideals. He calls it despair.
Returning home after the war, there was no real sense of joy or happiness, as lots of movies suggest would be the natural outcome of a quest like his. True, he has attained freedom from the physical dangers of war, but not from the arguably greater threat of depression and mediocrity. There is something missing in the happy ending to his war story that robs him of substantial happiness and makes him settle for finding a shadow of it in idle pleasures like answering surveys, endlessly watching movies, and forever visiting his manipulative aunt. He has lost all of his ideals and has despaired of achieving anything more than a superficial happiness. Far from shouts of joy at his safe return, music hailing his meaningful triumph, and inner peace at knowing he was back where he was supposed to be, there was silence and emptiness. For Binx, life is a horizontal plane of work and emptiness, which affords momentary pauses in his monotony and fleeting relief, but not more. No single triumph promises happiness.
It is easy to look for the root of his emptiness in the absence of his faith. One wants to believe his life would be fulfilling if he were a practicing Christian. That diagnosis would be more compelling, however, if it were not for the fact that the religious people in the novel, too, have the same despair. In fact, almost everybody who walks through Percy’s novel suffers a similar thing, whether or not they know it, Faith in God or not, noble ideals or not. His aunt is a champion of the Great Books and a philanthropist; his mother’s family are all practicing Catholics; and his friends are war heroes and successful businessmen. There’s no lack of ideals or work ethic among them. And, what is more, they all seem to have achieved that happy stage of life, which comes after the dangerous quest of youth, and which promises to be lined with joy and success. And all of them seem to live a relatively peaceful life, though it is the apparent peace of asphyxiation, not the calm peace of the saints. Each one of them has attained the “happy ending” they hoped for; yet they are listless and mediocre. Somehow success, safety, and even religion were not enough to fill them. Something fundamental is missing.
Binx himself would still be living that noxious peace in his comfortable little Gentilly if it were not for something he calls “the search,” and it is this search which forces him to realize that he has settled for too little.
“What is the nature of the search? you ask.
Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.
The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
Binx has settled for enjoying everydayness over the search for happiness. Interestingly, this former term is fraught with misunderstanding. As Screwtape, the master tempter in The Screwtape Letters, says so well of another word, “Here again, our Philological arm has done good work.” From one angle, the word fills the romantic part of our belly with a good feeling. Remembering fondly the classic movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s—from White Christmas to Rio Bravo—who does not have at least a flicker of nostalgia for the dream life dangled in front of our eyes, where happiness is only a fireplace, a lover, and a white picket fence away? We, too, long to have the peaceful everyday life that Bing Crosby looks forward to in White Christmas and the romance that John Wayne shares with Angeline Dickinson in Rio Bravo. The question becomes, “What then?” When we have achieved those earthly dreams (dreams, which often for religious people even include being pious), is the quest of life over? Has the real pilgrimage come to an end? Has one, in a way, attained what he was looking for, and the rest of life is just coasting or suffering until Heaven or oblivion? At least for Binx, the quest was over until he became aware of his problem.
In other words, for Binx, the remembrance that life is essentially a quest not a rest is enough to make him realize that his complacency in settling for regular pleasures is little more than despair. An end goal did
not give direction to all his actions and thoughts because he had already achieved the “happy ending”. So, too, with all of his friends and relations. They are bored and listless because they act as if they were made for the happy ending promised in movies. Achieving their prize, the quest has ended for them, but it has not given fulfillment. This is true of the Christians in the novel, as well, who live as if their little regime of piety and good works were the prize, not the road. The road gives weariness and joy, but not abiding rest.
Those who have faith in God are often no less guilty of this complacency than those who do not. For both, they rest in the comforts (or sufferings) this world affords. Once they have achieved a modicum of success or comfort, little by little, they cease an active quest for meaning and begin an often unconscious rest in what they have. As the term goes, they begin to “settle down” and look forward to the prospect of just retiring to what they have acquired over the years. Rather than a strenuous quest to the end of the journey, at a certain point it is just a waiting game. It’s a shift in focus, as it were, from Man’s Search for Meaning to Waiting for Godot. When this happens, the quest is over and despair is near, for what else can it be called to think that such temporary delights can satisfy the human soul. If you think you’ve stumbled into the happy ending in your life, you might just want to pick up The Moviegoer. As George Herbert long ago warned, settling for less than we were made for does not ever work.
When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by, “Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie, Contract into a span.” So strength first made a way; Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. When almost all was out, God made a stay, Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, Rest in the bottom lay. “For if I should,” said he, “Bestow this jewel also on my creature, He would adore my gifts instead of me, And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; So both should losers be. “Yet let him keep the rest, But keep them with repining restlessness; Let him be rich and weary, that at least, If goodness lead him not, yet weariness May toss him to my breast.”