Binx Bolling was a movie-goer, but not in the literal sense of a man who walks into theatres and watches films. Bolling was a moviegoer to his own life. Instead of engaging with other people and his surroundings, he stepped back, withdrawing to a safe distance so that he could watch the story unfold as an audience, separate from both the ethos and pathos playing out on the screen.
The impetus to sever himself from self and society likely began when he was eight years old after his brother died. His aunt gave him the well-intentioned but disastrous advice to “act like a soldier,” instead of allowing him to grieve the loss. Bolling responded with relief. “This was true. I could easily act like a soldier. Was that all I had to do?” His aunt’s insistence that he behave with stoicism created a foundation of separateness that resolved into a shallow apathy when he became an adult.
The “search” was not a genuine quest. It was Bolling’s way of justifying his aloofness and lassitude in a way that made it seem as though his behavior was not only intentional; it had a greater purpose. “There is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings.” He exalts mundanity as a kind of virtue, ticking off everyday adherence to adult responsibilities like clicking the beads of a rosary. “My armpits never stink. I pay attention to all spot announcements on the radio about mental health, the seven signs of cancer and safe driving.”
Following this contrived virtue, Bolling eases himself away from the constraints of meaningful social connections. He lives alone in Gentilly, sending away friends that come calling instead of going out with them. When a friend asks why he never calls, Bolling replies that he has nothing to say. To himself he rationalizes that the associations distract him from the “wonder,” but in truth, the solitude and mindless entertainment of television are the diversions, placed as a barrier between him and the deep melancholy he cannot force himself to endure.
However, even before defining his search, Bolling reveals a hint that his outsider existence is unsatisfactory when he explains why he prefers to ride the bus rather than driving a car. “Whenever I drive a car, I have the feeling that I have become invisible. People on the street cannot see you; they only watch your rear fender until it is out of their way.” This fear of being invisible, perhaps even lost motivates him to buck convention and the convenience of his dates by using public transportation whenever possible. Even though he cannot motivate himself past his fear and detachment to approach a girl that he believes would be receptive to his advances, he still needs one that small thread of connection with other people; he wants to be seen.
In the end when Binx refuses to speak on “the search” I believe it is because his resolve to stand apart from life cracked. When his aunt crucified his character after he returns from his trip to Chicago, he was unable to escape his feelings. He tried to find a woman to bury himself into, subverting those terrible emotions into physical release. This urge to run by letting himself be consumed by sensation may be why he ultimately found the courage to commit to Kate. He recognized something of himself in her. She was afraid, but so was he.
It was when Kate arrives to rescue him from his turmoil that he was able to let go of it. He succumbed to his need to please his aunt by joining medical school. He gave up a life of emotional aestheticism by accepting the role as Kate’s husband and support system. When he engaged with life, it wasn’t just with Kate and his aunt; he became the kind of man that could put other people above his own needs. We see this when he offers to take his half-siblings on a train ride instead of meeting other obligations, but also in his readiness to forgive Kate if her anxiety keeps her from helping him with his task.
If Bolling discarded his search, it is not because he failed, it is because it was never a true goal. He could not find a deeper meaning by standing apart from life, and no observation, however astute or sincere, could ever hope to fill the emptiness that drove him to seek. When he became an actor in life, instead of the audience, the search was no longer necessary; he finally found what it was he needed.