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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
A Successful Repetition
The first time I finished reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, I was sitting in Caribou Coffee on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, ducking my college orientation. I had skipped every session that weekend to read; the final 30 pages of the book are the first time I can recall having one of those really out of body reading experiences. It’s happened to me maybe only three or four times—the text appears as if at the end of a brightly lit tunnel, my hands light with adrenaline. Probably caffeine plays a large role in the feeling. My point is that The Moviegoer was a formative reading experience for me, as important as any since I finished Put Me in the Zoo in my grandmother’s breakfast nook the summer before kindergarten.
At the time, I felt as if Walker Percy were reading my diary to me. I was eighteen and prone to seeing the world as tailored to me personally, but even still the novel was a perfect fit. The muted raciness and frustrated lust of it (it is as much about sex as any novel whose most graphic phrase is the supremely unsexy “flesh poor flesh failed us” can be) feels like a beacon to readers at the age where sex still feels like a secret. I recall feeling as if the book were the most perfect and grandest social commentary I’d ever read. I tested the word “prescient” out on my father after I’d finished it.
Sometime after that, I was talking to my former high school principal, a Dr. Humble, whom I’d idolized in a distant sort of way for a few years. Dr. Humble is a huge man with stooped shoulders and a monk’s encroaching baldness, with a dry wit delivered in a baritone so professorial as to be laughable given how well it fits his whole gestalt. From time to time during my freshman year, I’d visit my high school and try to impress him with the books I’d read. I knew that he’d written his Masters’ thesis on Percy, and so I told him that The Moviegoer was my new favorite novel.
Humble has a self-parodying way of speaking to students with exaggerated pauses and obscure devices. He told me in his halting way that of all the Percy books he’d read, The Moviegoer was the one he understood least, and then he made some jokes about how it was an obvious sign of my own intelligence that I’d enjoyed it. Dr. Humble is a good principal for many reasons, not least of which is his ability to flatter the egos of insufferable budding young intellects.
At the time I thought: what is he talking about? What could be simpler than this book? It’s about the passivity of consumer culture, and women’s asses. Open and shut, I thought, and appreciated Humble’s sly compliment.
The second time I finished The Moviegoer was a little more than a week ago, on a flight back from Boston. I’d started it again on the flight there, and gulped it down by the time I was somewhere over St. Louis on the return. Except now I couldn’t recall exactly why I remembered the book the way I did. In the parlance of the book, I was vexed by a repetition:
“What is a repetition? A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”
To re-read the book, I’d gone as far as finding the same edition that I’d read five summers ago. It’s a blue-spined Avon edition with a watercolor of a man standing outside a theater on the cover. The print in the book is tiny, and the overall effect of the edition is a sort of cheapness in keeping with the sweltering New Orleans setting and tawdry escapism Binx pursues. Without remembering the repetition passage per se, I had the sense that I wanted to control as many variables as possible to re-discover what was so entrancing about the novel. But even with an exact replica of the original artifact in my hands, I couldn’t connect to that feeling I’d had inside Caribou Coffee. Not the pleasure of the reading—that remains wholly intact—but the particular excitement of having been singled out, and my conviction of the book’s “prescience” were now a mystery to me.
In fact, it’s fair to say that the whole book is something of a mystery to me right now. As Binx examines his life from the mundane to the metaphysical as part of an existential “Search,” I find myself retracing passages half a dozen times, mulling them over instead of hurtling through to the end. Just as caffeinated as I was on first reading, this clarion cultural criticism has turned into a beguiling morass. Family, obligation, love and its overlap with lust now populate the pages where once I read something like a neatly trimmed indictment of late capitalism.
In the five years since I last read it—the time elapsed between repetitions—five years’ worth of life has accumulated. Reading my chosen terms of “family” and “obligation” as thematic signposts is as obvious a reflection of my present life as “asses” was for my eighteen-year-old self. If my first reading was an initiation into the narcotic and transformative powers of reading, this second time is my initiation into the truth of the repetition. Of time isolated as a variable, its effects measurable amongst the data of memory.
Five years is not much time. It’s enough time to earn a degree, to get married, to move cross-country, but it isn’t much. On the axis of a life, five years is hardly worth charting. And yet it’s enough to almost shift the words bound in a book. The same cover, the same edition, and yet the repetition reveals another room on the other side of the door. For Binx, in the depths of his confusion, a successful repetition is about eliminating the “adulteration of events that clog time” and keep you from accessing the past. After following his lead, it seems the lesson of the repetition is that the adulteration is inextricable from the time.
Danny Nowell is a blogger and writer living in Portland. His writing about the NBA appears at ESPN TrueHoop Network blogs, Portland Roundball Society, and HoopSpeak, and he reviews books for The Oxford American online. What he lacks in finesse he makes up for in zeal.