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“Jesus Christ, the movies:” Acting Vs. Observing in Percy’s “Lancelot”

In the midst of a pill-induced high, preparing for an apocalyptic act of vengeance that could destroy himself and everyone within the Belle Isle milieu, Lancelot Lamar makes a simple, laconic statement about the effectiveness of the pill: “The drug was acting” (Percy 208). Lance, of course, is explicitly stating that the drug he ingested only minutes earlier is beginning to take affect, the chemicals acting on his neurons. However, the sentence achieves duality in that Lance is implicitly providing commentary on the actors and movie affiliates who have inhabited his home for the previous weeks, declaring that their behavior has been detrimental to his family and is thoroughly corrupting society due to its deceptive nature. Lance has quietly watched the mannerisms of the movie folk throughout their stay at Belle Isle, observing, critiquing, noting (often with confusion) their social habits – frequently indistinguishable from their movie personas – and how his wife and children have picked up on these habits, ultimately exclaiming with exasperation at his daughter, Lucy’s, Hollywood affectations: “Jesus Christ, the movies” (Percy 206). Lance’s frustration stems from the constant duplicity of his acting counterparts, and Lance – the observer, the audience – sinks into solipsism caused by his general distance and inability to connect with any facets of these characters’ personalities. What Lance fails to understand in his diatribes and his eventual destruction of those whom he believes to be deceivers is that his own personality is split between a Lance who attempts to imitate these Hollywood types in hopes of inclusion and one who despises them due to an inability to understand – two equally destructive profiles on the same fatal coin. Through focusing on the flawed Hollywood personas instead of reflecting on personal unhappiness, Lance is practicing his own form of self-deception.

Duplicity pervades Percy’s novel. As critic Arthur W. Wilhelm states in his essay, “Movies and Myth in Lancelot”: “The thematic and symbolic importance of movies and moviemaking in Lancelot is an integral part of a doubling process that informs the structure of the entire novel…Through this doubling process, all characters in the novel are like actors in a film playing various roles” (69). Before Lance’s wife, Margot, became an actor and associated herself with the likes of Jacoby and Merlin, she was a renovator, remodeling Belle Isle until it fit her ideal of the southern manor, and Lance found himself adopting new mannerisms as he played the role of “Southern Aristocratic Gentleman” she assigned to him. Lance notes “I even found myself playing up to the role, pacing up and down, stopping now and then to make a legal note at my plantation desk in her Florentine-leather notepad, stopping at the cypress cupboard-turned-into-bar to pour a whiskey from crystal decanter into silver jigger, the way Southern gents do in the movies” (Percy 121). Like the actors he later despises, Lance has found his personality to be malleable, yet he diverts the responsibility to Margot and refuses to notice his own fallibility in his actions, the same fallibility he finds no problem noticing in the Hollywood types at Belle Isle. He describes the actor, Troy Dana, as “a blank space filled in by somebody else’s idea” (Percy 147), basing his claim on the director, Merlin’s, statement that “Dana himself is nothing, a perfect cipher” (Percy 147), with the director even claiming him as his own creation. Perhaps this is why Lance identifies best with Merlin out of all the movie folks residing at Belle Isle: Merlin is a director, a manipulator of people, and – as an observer – Lance often manipulates characters into identities he has created for them and remains faithful to his personality manipulations. As he says, “If you tell somebody what to do, they will do it. All you have to do is know what to do. Because nobody else knows” (Percy 196). Lance considers himself to be fixedly number one among his counterparts, and the others are zeroes, perfect ciphers. This “awareness” of others but lack of self-awareness demonstrates a major flaw in Lance’ role as observer.

The closest Lance comes to self-reflection is literally an encounter with a mirror in his pigeonnier. He remarks, “Looking at oneself in a mirror is a self-canceling phenomenon. Eyes looking into eyes make a hole which spreads out and renders one invisible. I had seen more of myself in that single glimpse of a ghostly image in the pier mirror, not knowing it was I” (Percy 64).  Lance’s universe is very self-centered; he is a planet who revolves around his own sun, and if he were to divert his eyes to the mirror more frequently, he would eclipse this solipsistic image of himself as the galaxy’s most important star. The Hollywood stars at Belle Isle can often be as self-centered as Lance, yet they possess an advantage in that they are accustomed to viewing themselves in third person – on the movie screen. Philosopher Walter Benjamin – in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” claims that “The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera… is basically the same kind of estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the image has become separable, transportable…Never for a moment does the screen actor cease to be conscious of this fact” (Benjamin X). The estrangement Lance feels before the mirror is natural, perhaps even supernatural in that the third-person image he identifies with is real, as opposed the affected third person images of the actors in front of a movie camera. Lance’s image remains within the frame of the mirror, not to be reflected on again, while the actors transport their affectations to other facets of their life, outside of filming.

Yet Lance – with his obsession with his wife’s affair and the personal pain it induces – doesn’t see this as an extension of character, but rather – as scholar Jerome Christensen in his essay, “Lancelot: Sign for the Times,” describes – a “disgusting infidelity of appearance to reality” (Christensen 108). Lance believes the contrived reality and consequent lifestyles of Hollywood types to be the most detrimental diseases to his utopic vision of the real world – an old-fashioned, innocent and sepia-toned world in which pornography (Lance refuses to acknowledge his own “cinema verite” project for the pornography it is) and deceit now rule. Lance is more-than-willing to provide his own theories on the State of the Union: “What was nutty was that the movie folk were trafficking in illusions in a real world but the real world thought that its reality could only be found in the illusions. Two sets of maniacs” (Percy 152).  While Lance’s statement is inherently true, and the real world has morphed into a confusing microcosm of the medium whose initial purpose was to produce a microcosm of the real world itself, Lance forfeits credibility because 1) he makes the statement from his room in an insane asylum, and 2) he (somewhat hypocritically) adopts the same tactic and attempts to record a movie of his own, a hidden-camera, reality TV-ish depiction of his wife and daughter’s sexual involvement with the Hollywood folk. As critic John Edward Hardy points out in his essay, Lancelot, “Lance constructed a ‘set-within-the-set’ peopled with a ‘cast-within-the-cast,’ and launched his own clandestine, subversive career as producer-director. Lance’s project – videotape, not film – is a marvel of parodic self-containment” (Hardy 164). Lance’s home movie serves only to further develop the microcosm and confuse the notion of reality. What Lance – perhaps earnestly – seeks to compose in imitation (and note his purpose for composing a movie: an attempt to view absolute truth) of others turns into a parody of himself and his actions. And, instead of giving him a more complete understanding of the people he is capturing on videotape, the faulty tape shows Lance distorted, blown out, “negative” images of the characters, which only complicate his comprehension of their personalities and miscomprehension of his own.

In her book Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age, Patricia Lewis Poteat writes “What Lance fails to realize is how closely he resembles these people…Like the actors in their way and the astronomer in his, Lance too stands over the world and its inhabitants as one who has abstracted himself out of his predicament and is ontologically ‘blown about’” (155). Lance is incapable of inclusion because he forcibly removes himself from the social world and establishes his place above, looking down on those below, the ontological moviegoer. Lance perceives with his senses only what he wishes to perceive, so – as Poteat points out – the negative effect of his videotape plays perfectly into the “dehumanized scenario” Lance has constructed for his people as a God-like observer (Poteat 157). Until his murderous vengeance upon his wife and the Hollywood types at the conclusion of the novel, Lance is a man of little action who accepts his role as observer, who even – as Lewis A. Lawson points out in “The Fall of the House of Lamar” – “exudes pride in the acuity of his sight,” frequently resorting to visual terminology to express himself (Lawson 231-2). For Lance, sight = knowledge, and in the company of Margot’s adultery mystery and the actors’ cryptic behavior, Lance is seeking something (scientifically) concrete with which to support himself. At one point in the novel, he proffers the questions “Why did I have to know the truth about Margot and know it with absolute certainty? Or rather why, knowing the truth, did I have to know more, prove more, see? Does one need to know more, ever more and more, in order that one put off acting on it or maybe even not act at all?” (Percy 89).

Here – substituting himself for the generic “one” – Lance is at his most insightful, discovering that his role as observer, not actor, has kept him in a state of stasis – blinded him in his overwhelming desire to see – and finally acknowledging that pulling everything within range for better control and perception (like a movie camera lens) might be a form of cowardice more detrimental than the masks behind which film actors hide. Would Lance’s opinion of himself in relation to others change if he frequently viewed himself from a third person perspective? The priest, Percival, will deliver this message of change to Lance only after he finishes reaffirming Lance’s constant first person notions with “yes’s”.

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