Vertical search vs. horizontal search

In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), Binx Bolling distinguishes between his vertical search, where time and place are accidental and the universal is elevated, and his horizontal search, where time and place are essential and the particular is elevated. In the former search, he lives to be well read; in the latter, he reads to live well. A well-examined life may undertake both searches at different seasons, but it seems that Percy puts the accent on the horizontal search because it attaches us to real people, real things, and real places. I am not just “an Anyone living Anywhere” but a Someone living Somewhere. To baptize Heideggerian language, God has thrown me into the world, and where I am thrown is not merely incidental. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber is fond of saying, “All real living is meeting.” As much as I love the “fundamental books,” as Binx calls them, they can only offer me an enlargement of being. But being itself is not found in those books; it is found in those I-Thou encounters between myself and a meadow of blue bonnets or myself and a singing congregation.

Until recent years, I read only “fundamental books,” that is, key books on key subjects, such as War and Peace, the novel of novels; A Study of History, the solution of the problem of time; Schroedinger’s What is Life?, Einstein’s The Universe as I See It, and such. During those years I stood outside the universe and sought to understand it. I lived in my room as an Anyone living Anywhere and read fundamental books and only for diversion took walks around the neighborhood and saw an occasional movie. Certainly it did not matter to me where I was when I read such a book as The Expanding Universe. The greatest success of this enterprise, which I call my vertical search, came one night when I sat in a hotel room in Birmingham and read a book called The Chemistry of Life. When I finished it, it seemed to me that the main goals of my search were reached or were in principle reachable, whereupon I went out and saw a movie called It Happened One Night which was itself very good. A memorable night. The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next. But now I have undertaken a different kind of search, a horizontal search. As a consequence, what takes place in my room is less important. What is important is what I shall find when I leave my room and wander in the neighborhood. Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.


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