Image and Presence
A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia
Natalie Carnes



Came Down From Heave and Was Made Human

Abiding Presence

It is the moment Mary becomes two lives instead of one—the hour her belly receives the promise of a bulge.

They bend toward each other, the girl Mary and the angel Gabriel. Each is haloed in gold visually reprised in the trim of their luxuriant gowns, the arched wings of Gabriel, Mary’s throne-like chair, and the light encircling the dove. The bird hovers over Mary, near a relief sculpture of an older man turned toward the dove, his hand raised as if sending or blessing it. The stone man and the brooding dove symbolize the Father and the Holy Spirit. The missing Trinitarian member is the Son, who, in the very moment the painting depicts, becomes flesh. The script of Mary and Gabriel’s speech fills the space between them to confirm this as the hour of incarnation. Ecce ancilla domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, Mary says in the painting. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.” The fiat mihi echoes the fiat lux of the first creation and announces the second, when God enters the visible world by the womb of Mary. In the painting, the words fiat mihi are indiscernible, hidden, it seems, behind the pillar of Mary’s home. No matter how earnestly the viewer strains to discern the graced words that mark this wondrous miracle, her eyes meet only the stony ordinariness of a pillar. This painted altarpiece stages a scene shot through with divine presence, even as the pillar denies a glimpse of the Word coming to dwell among us.

Fra Angelico’s altarpiece at Cortona is a gorgeous tribute to the visible that also insists on its limits. In its sumptuous colors, exquisite detail, and light-catching gold, the painting entices the gaze. In the stony pillar obscuring the fiat, it blocks it. The relief of the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit suggest a glance into the divine, and still the stubbornly ordinary pillar chastens claims to divine sight. The painting affirms and negates the visible, for it both reveals and veils the divine workings in the world. It sounds an ambivalence toward the visible in tune with both iconophilic and iconoclastic refrains. Like iconophiles, Fra Angelico makes images of the divine. Like iconoclasts, he identifies limits of what can be seen in an image. Where the Byzantine iconomachs replaced images of Christ with crosses, Fra Angelico gives us a pillar.1

Fra Angelico’s much-loved image of the incarnation admits a sympathy with the iconomachs because the logic of the abiding presence of Christ entails both an affirmation and negation of the visible world. This chapter teases out such ambivalence, while incorporating it into a robustly incarnational approach to images. It is not that the iconomachs’ arguments are correct, but that they are serious. They express profound insight into the temptations and possibilities of images. The interlocutors who can aid us in elucidating precisely how the iconomachs’ insight can be recovered for the modern world are unlikely ones: twentieth-century American Catholic fiction writers Walker Percy (principally) and Flannery O’Connor (secondarily).

Percy and O’Connor advance the conversation about images by extending ancient conversations linking the human, Christ, and images—linguistic connections forged in the conciliar disputes of the first few centuries of Christianity. For the Byzantine iconomachs and iconodules, Christology determined the fate of the image; their debate centered on questions of who and what Christ is. During the debates about who and what Christ is in the earlier councils centuries prior, anthropology provided the crucial examples for settling language about Christ; these debates drew from descriptions of the human as composite to illumine something about the composition of Christ. Anthropology points to the plausibility of orthodox Christology, which then either legitimates images (as the iconodules aver) or proscribes them (as the iconomachs protest). Is there some logic uniting these three categories of human, Christ, and image? Yes, and Percy and O’Connor help articulate it: They share a logic of what I call amphibiousness. Christ is human-divine, the human is animal-spirit, and the image is visible-invisible. Fidelity to the dual natures of these amphibians requires certain forms of iconoclasm—particularly, apophaticism and confession, which recuperate idols by making them proper images, faithful to Christ the Image, who renders God visible without reducing God to that visibility, who becomes flesh without being exhausted by flesh, who abides in the world while transcending it.

Byzantine Iconomachy

In the iconomachy (literally, “image struggle”) surrounding the Seventh Ecumenical Council (in 787), the icon of Christ became the test case for Christian images, and prior Christological disputes supplied the criteria for validating and invalidating icons.2 Both the iconomachs, who codified their doctrine in their council of 754, and the iconodules, who anathematized that council in what is now remembered as the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II), waged their battle by invoking labels of heresy generated at the previous councils.3 They hurled “Arian” and “Nestorian” and “Monophysite” as epithets that could devastate the claims of their opposition.4

According to the iconomachs, the iconodules were Arian because, by insisting that Christ could be depicted as an image when God clearly could not, they ruled out the possibility that Christ could be God. What is represented as Christ is not God, they claimed, but a “mere man”—at best a demoted divinity.5 Or perhaps, as the iconomachs accused, the iconodules erred like Eutyches, who mixed the two natures in a heresy known as Monophysitism.6 The image, in this charge, represents divinity as if it were humanity, thus confusing the two natures and vitiating their integrity. Then again, the iconomachs argued, the iconodules blunder like Nestorius, who did not refute Christ’s divinity but set it aside, compromising its union with Christ’s humanity.7 As Nestorius verbally separated the two natures, the iconodules—so the iconomachs claimed—visually disjoined them, depicting only Christ’s humanity and so sundering it from his divinity. The iconomachs’ triple charge amounts to this: to draw (or in the case of icons, to write—in Latin, scribere) a person is to claim she is circumscribable, and so what is uncircumscribable is either discounted (Arianism), confused with the circumscribable (Monophysitism), or separated from the circumscribable (Nestorianism).8 These strangely contradictory charges express a fundamentally similar anxiety, that imaging is simply incompatible with divinity. To make an image of God is either to attenuate the reality of Christ’s divinity or erode its bonds to his humanity. For the iconomachs, the image-makers did not present the one true Christ with their icons; they supplanted him with idols.

In one way, the iconomachs’ various contradicting charges against the image resonate with the conversations today in visual studies. As the iconomachs and iconodules of Byzantium struggled over whether the image can be reconciled to the divinity and humanity of Christ, so contemporary image conversations struggle over the immanence and transcendence of the image. Picture theorists like Gottfried Boehm, Hans Belting, Horst Bredekamp, and W.J.T. Mitchell worry about a Platonic or Kantian (or Hegelian) approach to the image that reduces the image to meaning—to how, that is, the image points beyond itself to a significance located elsewhere. The image, in the view these picture theorists criticize, is oriented toward the transcendent in a way that devalues it. Their correction is to value the image in terms of its immanent significance, to regard the presence of the image itself. Sometimes image theorists make this correction by disavowing transcendence all together. Douglas Hedley positions his book The Iconic Imagination as an intervention in this discussion, as he attempts to display the way the Platonic emphasis on the transcendence of the image need not devalue the image. Believing the anxieties of the image theorists to be overblown, Hedley argues that in rejecting the transcendence of the image, contemporary image theorists actually vitiate the grounds for valuing the image.9 As the Byzantine iconomachs worried about the inability of the image to hold together the divinity and the humanity of Christ, so contemporary conversations around the image exude anxiety about the image holding together immanent encounter and transcendent meaning. There is a resonance in these Byzantine and late modern conversations.

The other major argument that the iconomachs brought against the image has no parallel in contemporary image discussion, for this argument concerns the Eucharist. According to the iconomachs, it is the Eucharist alone that makes Christ present to the faithful. Instituted by Christ himself, the Eucharist is the paradigmatic image that reveals, they claimed, the criteria for all true images: consubstantiality with Christ and opacity to human eyes.10 Painted icons are inadequate and therefore false, not to mention superfluous. The Eucharist mediates the real presence of Christ; what could an icon add to that?

Given the arguments of the iconomachs, the iconodules faced two major fronts in the battle over images: Christological heresy and the Eucharist. For the latter, their argument was largely defensive and negative. They repudiated the claim of the Eucharist as an image—Christ did not call it one—and so claimed an image need not be consubstantial with what it represents.11 There was little else they said about the Eucharist’s relation to icons. This chapter displays that there is more that might be said. In what follows, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor help to develop a theology of icons that affirms an iconophilic stance while identifying a more positive role for the Eucharist in a theology of icons. The centrality of the Eucharist, in fact, strengthens iconophilia by guarding it against the threat of idolatry.

As for the arguments over Christological heresy, the iconodules argued along both defensive and offensive lines. They staked the orthodoxy of their argument on the incarnation of Christ. If God is not circumscribed by being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, then God is not circumscribed by being written (inscribed) in an icon.12 As Father Maximos Constas beautifully puts the point, “Byzantine defenders of icons affirmed that Christ’s depictability . . . was a necessary corollary of his embodiment. The reverse is also true: artistic representation is itself an act of embodiment, a kind of birth, but also a kind of death. . . . To consent to have a body means to be framed by the narrow edges of the manger, confined to the lap of the mother, fixed to the arms of the cross, and figured in a work of art.”13 The image makes Christ visible in a way similar to how Christ makes God visible. As God in Christ abides in the world, so Christ abides in the icon. The argument then turns from the defensive to the offensive, shifting from the idea that images are justified because Christ became incarnate to the idea that renouncing images is renouncing Christ incarnate.

To declare that God abides with us in Christ and Christ abides with us in a special way in the icon is to claim that the divine inhabits the ordinary visible world as the divine. Scripture witnesses to this complexity of Christ’s abiding as well as the visibility and invisibility it entails. For example, Christ presents himself as an image of the invisible God in his conversation with Philip, who asks Jesus to show him the Father. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” Jesus asks. “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8–9). To see Christ is to see, in some sense, the invisible Father, who nevertheless remains distinct from Christ. The difficulty for Philip is that God becomes visible as an ordinary-looking human. God abides within the everyday, and as Christ tells his disciples, when he ascends, he, too, will be invisible to all but those who have learned to see him in the world that is yet not him (John 14:19, 16:10). What does it mean to discern Christ’s abiding presence in the complexity of this visibility and invisibility, presence and absence? How, as both iconodules and iconomachs asked, is an image of Christ possible? How does one receive the abiding presence of Christ, who may appear in and as the everyday? This last question is urgent, though hidden, in the lives of fictional characters Jack “Binx” Bolling in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and O. E. Parker in Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back”—two iconophilic seekers who help to elucidate the visible-invisible image that finds its paradigm in the God made human.

Binx and Parker, Iconophiles and Seekers

Everydayness is the enemy for Jack “Binx” Bolling, the hero of The Moviegoer. It defeats what he calls “the search,” which then dissipates into malaise. Binx is an iconophile of sorts, an attitude the novel telegraphs in its title by identifying him as a gazer of the moving image.14 The image, for Binx, both opens onto the search and betrays it, handing it over into the malaise of everydayness. The narrative arc of The Moviegoer traces Binx’s search, from its beginnings through its seeming successes and apparent failure to its eventual transformation. The Moviegoer is the tale of a seeker who does not know exactly what he is seeking.

Beyond defeating everydayness, the search’s object remains unknown to the reader. Though it is tempting to claim the object is the divine or the transcendent or meaningfulness, Binx rejects any attempt to name it. The object of the search remains obscure; its directionality does not. Binx narrates both a vertical search and, following its failure, a horizontal one. The vertical search—sometimes called simply the search—moves upward toward a unifying formula for all things, a “key to existence” (the search’s proximate, not final, object) that Binx pursues through “‘fundamental’ books” on “key subjects.”15 After reading one such book and watching the movie It Happened One Night, he finds that “though the universe had been disposed of, [he him]self was left over.”16 The vertical search, it turns out, may abjure the everyday, speak to humanity’s higher nature, and soar high into invisible and transcendent ideas that unite the universe, and still inevitably fail. For, even if it discards the universe, it cannot ditch the seeker. More concretely, it cannot expunge the seeker’s physicality, which can only be ignored so long. Eventually, the materiality of life reasserts itself.

With the burden of the self unrelieved, Binx embarks on his horizontal search.17 Rather than moving upward into the heights of the transcendent and invisible, the horizontal search moves outward, into the everyday and the visible. Binx calls this search “the little way.” It chases “the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and warm deep thigh.” If Binx cannot abolish the everyday, then in his “little way” he seeks fleeting reprieve from the malaise that makes the everyday so unbearable.18 Intersecting with the vertical search in its goal to overcome malaise, the horizontal search differs from the vertical in that it surrenders aspirations to transcendence. It is a search within an immanence shorn of transcendence. In some ways the two searches are one another’s inverse—the vertical oriented toward the transcendent and the horizontal toward the immanent. In another way, they resemble one another, for images help to sustain (and transform) both.

These are separate activities: images sustain the vertical search, on the one hand; on the other, they transform it. Then again, they sustain the horizontal search and transform it as well. How and why can images work so divergently? Thicker, richer answers come into view by drawing The Moviegoer into conversation with O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” In that story, O. E. Parker is, like Binx, an iconophile who avoids his given name. As a young boy, he goes to the circus and is captivated by a man covered with a tattooed arabesque of paradisal creatures.19 Seeing those tattoos rippling on the muscles of the circus man fills Parker with wonder. It is the first time he, an extraordinarily ordinary boy, becomes dimly aware that the fact of his existence may be anything other than wholly ordinary. The awareness is so dim that O’Connor compares it to that of a blind person turned gently in a new direction. He has not yet grasped that his path has an altered end.20

The end nonetheless finds him, in the form of an apocalyptic tractor accident. It has been years since the tattooed man filled him with wonder, and in the intervening years, he has covered his own body with tattoos and married a woman who hates those tattoos. His wife, Sarah Ruth, is severe in her religiosity, and like the tattoos, she seems to promise a satisfaction she never fulfills. Parker wants them both without understanding why. After the accident, Parker stumbles from the rubble and keeps walking until he reaches a tattoo parlor. His life’s two strong desires—for the love of his plain and pregnant wife Sarah Ruth and for the splendor of the tattooed man—converge in his decision to get a tattoo of God on the one untattooed part of his body: his back. Flipping past the familiar images of Jesus in the tattoo book, Parker chooses one that is strange to him—he has never before seen a “Byzantine Christ”—at the same time the image is familiar. The “all-demanding eyes” remind him of the “icepick eyes”21 of Sarah Ruth, whose piety is so stringent she believes churches are idolatrous. Parker does not understand why he is so compelled by his wife, though he knows he is. He does not show tenderness toward her, but he does tell her his first two names, which he has not told anyone else. And he desperately wants her affection. Once Sarah Ruth sees the tattoo, he believes, she will have to love him. It is a picture of God, after all, and, “She can’t say she don’t like the looks of God.”22 As for his own response to God’s “looks,” when Parker sees the silent, still face of the Byzantine image, he turns white.

After a day and two multi-hour tattoo sessions, Parker returns home. The door is jammed shut. Sarah Ruth refuses to open it, answering each of his pleas with the question: “Who’s there?” She refuses his thrice-given answer, “O. E.” He turns as if someone behind him might answer her, then sees a tree flame with light on the horizon, and falls against the door as if speared. Then he answers, “Obadiah.” At this confession of the name he has long suppressed, light enters him, turning his soul into an arabesque of colors, “a garden of trees and birds and beasts.”23 And he completes the confession: “Obadiah Elihue.” He gives up, for this moment at least, concealing his name.

Sarah Ruth’s anger is unquenched. In fury, she opens the door to him. She is a volcano of invective, which Parker interrupts to insist she look at his back. Unmoved, she lays into him for getting another tattoo. His anguished insistence that it is a picture of God only makes matters worse. She screams: “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” She beats him with a broom until large welts form on the face of his Christ tattoo. He is outside now, and she looks at him mercilessly, her ruthless eyes denying her own given name. “There he was—who called himself Obadiah Elihue—leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.”24 So ends her iconoclastic violence.

The Promise of the Image: Awakening to the Search

Images inspire both Parker and Binx to undertake their ambiguous searches. Parker first knows his life as anything other than purely ordinary when he encounters the circus man’s rippling tattoos of flora and fauna. They are, for him, a flash of paradise—a fleeting sight of a time when God walked with humans and the abiding presence of the divine remained unbroken by sin and death. Through the paradisal images, Parker glimpses a world beyond what is visible to him, even a divine presence formerly unimagined by him. His ordinary self and world has been touched by the divine.

Though it is not exactly an image in the conventional sense that initiates it, Binx’s quest begins when the ordinary appears to him as something other than flatly ordinary. Just after he receives an injury in the Korean War, he spies a dung beetle, which inaugurates the search for the first time. He forgets about his search until years later, when he looks at a pile of belongings on his dresser. Once as “invisible as his own hand,” they become “unfamiliar and full of clues,” and here the search begins anew. In seeing what was formerly invisible in its ordinariness as unfamiliar and full of possibility, Binx finds that his search itself has become possible.25 His ordinary world appears to him as if pointing beyond itself; something more than the ordinary is present to it.

As the search progresses, images—movies, really—energize it. They dramatize the vertical search in their storylines, for they show a person “coming to himself in a strange place.”26 Like Binx, the movie hero begins by seeing the ordinary as strange and unfamiliar. The content of movies, in this way, reflects the content of the search. It is not just movies’ content that mirrors the search. Their form does, too. To watch a movie is to go into a dark theater and have the projecting light draw the beholder’s consciousness into a strange place and time. The once-invisible moving images become suddenly visible on the screen, as the moviegoer sees a world, however familiar, presented as unfamiliar—larger, more luminous, and in those ways, more visible.

When he is not at the movies, Binx often pursues the kind of reality movies create as a denser, more vivid version of reality. He describes the way movies “certify” existence.27 They render the places that appear in them more real than they otherwise are. They elevate the people who encounter movie stars to a heightened reality that temporarily dispels everydayness.28 Movies are not the objects of the vertical search, but they and their aura approximate for Binx the search’s object. Binx, then, is a moviegoer because he is a seeker, because the moving image resembles a more vital, more legible reality that it therefore seems to promise.

The Betrayal of the Image: Illusion, Object, Idol

O’Connor and Percy do not simply celebrate the image in their stories. Images also take on a darker role in their narratives, for the image that inspires the search also troubles it. In O’Connor’s story, Parker misunderstands the splendor of the images he saw on the tattooed man. For years, he strives to recreate the splendor by filling every inch of his body with tattoos, only to be constantly disappointed with the results. They give him a temporary lift that withers away. Again and again he is dissatisfied. His dissatisfaction is inevitable, for he pursues images qua objects rather than qua images. He does not, that is, see and venerate them as signs; he collects them like things, talismans that might magically conjure the experience he once had of the tattooed man.

As Parker’s iconophilia fails to lead him out of his misery, so, too, does Sarah Ruth’s iconoclasm fail to fulfill her own desires. Her drive to extirpate images from her faith undermines itself, as her very iconoclasm generates the story’s final cruciform image. She so worries about idolatry that she forswears the institution of the church from which her anxiety about idols derives, and after breaking faith with her institution, she breaks faith with her anxiety. She makes the very thing she hates.

Sarah Ruth’s hatred of images nests in a bed of antipathies toward the visible and the material world. Early in the story, Parker hopes to excite Sarah Ruth’s physical attraction by showing off his tattoos. Later, he tries to elicit jealousy by pretending he works for a beautiful woman. In both cases, she remains unmoved by the visible. The only time the visible world moves her in the story, it is to fury, and then she beats her husband into an image of Christ crucified. Both Parker and Sarah Ruth are thwarted by images: Parker in his grasp at splendor and Sarah Ruth in her efforts at aniconic faith. Images vex the attempts to figure both the visible as if cocooned from the invisible and the invisible as if unmoored from the visible.

The Moviegoer gives some insight into why images disappoint these efforts. There is a character in the novel who, though quite unlike Sarah Ruth otherwise, resembles her insofar as he, too, aspires to aniconism. Binx describes him as a romantic. He is the perfect vertical searcher, a person so caught up in his idealized world that he cannot bear the messiness of actual life. He is the kind of person who can manage to say an ordinary word like “bus” only if he says it ironically. He is, in Binx’s words, a moviegoer who does not go to the movies.29 There is something of a symmetry here between Sarah Ruth, a Christian who does not go to church, and this moviegoer who does not go to the movies. What this romantic moviegoer makes plain, though, is that the desire to eschew images is a temptation the image itself can arouse. It is his love of the movies, Binx implies, that prevents the romantic from going to them. We have a clue here that movies can delude the search they also catalyze—they can incite desire for something that they themselves defy.

Binx is aware of this peril intrinsic to moviegoing. He describes it as the “danger of slipping clean out of space and time,” for in seeing the moving image, a person sees “one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time.”30 As an image, the movie makes present what it is not. Movies present another world, another setting, other characters, other dialogue. There is a danger that this world the movies mediate will be so absorbing that it will overtake the visible, material world into which it is projected. The Moviegoer everywhere adverts to this danger, as Binx often finds his personality overtaken by the affects of movie stars like Rory Calhoun and Gregory Peck, and the romantic is caught up in a similar venture of living life like a movie.31

The danger is that the image might become more real than reality—an image that disowns its status as image. If, for Parker, the image becomes an object, for Binx the danger is that his image relationship will degenerate into one similar to the image relationship pornography names in Chapter 1: an illusion, both more and less real than an image. In The Crossing of the Visible, Jean-Luc Marion thematizes a similar danger as intrinsic to the televisual image. For Marion, the televisual image “has no original other than itself and itself alone” and so the image becomes the original.32 Usurping the role of prototype, the image no longer points beyond itself. It absorbs the beholder into its own world, as if the image is the ultimate reality. In television, Marion insists, something “attains being . . . only insofar as it accepts not only being reduced to self-as-image but above all conforming this first image to the draconian laws of another image—the idol (of desire) of the viewer.”33 Nothing is if it is not seen, according to this logic, and so television establishes the regime of the visual, the tyranny of the image. The image displaces the prototype as the screen substitutes for the world by taking hold of desire itself. Marion’s televisual image is an illusion that works against the logic of images, for it ceases to point to a prototype.34

In the Moviegoer, the ironic romantic gives himself over to a logic of illusion similar to what Marion describes. If an illusion is a way of relating to the image that spurns the visible, concrete world in which one encounters the image, then the romantic is well on his way to living life as illusion. After using the image to reject the visible realm, he then rejects the image by dismissing its visible reality as well. He is a moviegoer who doesn’t go to the movies, as Binx says, an iconophile whose particular brand of iconophilia ends in an iconoclastic imagelessness.

Binx is not blind to the possibility that movies might tempt him into an image relationship of illusion. Alive to this danger, he tries not to surrender to it. He authors a strategy to combat the illusion tendency of film images. Intending to prevent the movie from swallowing up reality, Binx speaks with the ticket seller to learn about the theater and the people with whom he sees the movie.35 That way, he might avoid becoming an Anybody Anywhere, or, as he also calls it, a ghost.36 He wants to remain a Somebody concretely located in space and time, even as he gazes at the image that mediates an elsewhere in another time. He pursues that goal by negating the image in a way that reminds him it is an image. Binx’s conversations with the ticket seller restore the “is not” to the moving image, negating it so that it does not mediate a presence that overtakes, possesses perhaps, the material reality of Binx’s existence. Whereas Marion commends film festivals and film shoots as locations that highlight the image status of films and combat illusion, Binx goes to pains to locate and name the world outside the image in order to maintain the image in its image status.37

In addition to becoming illusions, movies can go awry in two other, related ways. Though they begin with such promise—“a fellow coming to himself in a strange place”—they forsake that promise by ending with that same fellow mired in the everyday, living the life of a nice, very ordinary citizen. “In two weeks’ time,” Binx scoffs, “he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.”38 As the promise of the search is embodied in both the movies’ subject and medium, so, too, is this danger mirrored in form as well in content. After two hours of awakening in the dark to the strange place of the movie’s setting, the viewer goes back to her ordinary existence, perhaps sunk into the everyday. This is the second of the two problematic responses the moving image provokes, and it resonates with Parker’s own promise-and-despair cycle of pursuing tattoo images. It is a contrasting case with the romantic, for whom the movies inspire a quest for the transcendent cut loose from the immanent. For the romantic, the movies work like illusions. But in this second case, the movies themselves substitute for the transcendent that the moviegoer desires. In figuring themselves as the end of the search, the movies reconcile the moviegoer to the immanent. They displace the transcendent from the seeker’s horizon. In claiming transcendence for itself, the moving image becomes an idol—the second image danger. And this slides into the third image danger. In the way it refuses mediation to the invisible, an idol is a small remove from a talismanic object, an image danger fully realized in Parker’s tattoos.

The journeys and transformations of Binx and Parker illumine three different degradations of the image: images that act as illusions, as idols, or as objects. And these three degradations suggest two directions in which the search fails, by tempting the seeker to eradicate the visible (illusion) or to exclude the invisible (in contrasting ways, idol and object). The vertical search spawns illusions as it dispenses with the world (though not the self), while the horizontal search issues idols and objects as it seeks nothing outside the visible, treating the visible as if it were total. These failed searches and resultant degradations of the image rely on a picture of the world in which beyondness comes over and against everydayness. They close the visible to the invisible, and so the everyday is either excluded or totalized. To put it in more philosophical terms: transcendence is ontologized against immanence. The vertical search seeks to jettison the everyday, to escape the ordinary into some immaterial realm. The horizontal search devotes itself to the material as the only reality. In both, the visible and the invisible are sealed off and alienated from one another.

The vertical and horizontal searches rely on structurally similar approaches to the world. Once the vertical search, with its wrongly ontologized transcendence, fails to banish images and visibility, Binx takes up its inverse, a wrongly ontologized immanence, in the horizontal search. Binx narrates his transition from vertical to horizontal search, in that same evening after he has been reading a fundamental book and watching It Happened One Night: “A memorable night. The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left 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. . . . Before I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.”39 Anything that takes one away from the immediate, immanent world diverts from the search, because the horizontal search has abandoned the wholly transcendent for the wholly immanent. Once the vertical search has been abandoned, Binx’s metaphysics demands this kind of move, because the transcendent is divorced from the immanent. The here and now is ripped away from the beyond.

Binx’s horizontal search remains firmly within the everyday, a “little way” that parodies the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux, to whom Percy nods with a character named Thèrése (the inversion of the accented e’s intimating Binx’s inversion of the little way). Thèrése even appears just after Binx introduces his little way, as if to highlight the connection. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Little Way will be explicated shortly. Binx’s little way is a simple-minded hedonism, and in it, the moving image is a diversion, a pleasure that makes life bearable.

Binx’s little way is not the only form a life devoted to the immanent can take. His Aunt Emily’s stoicism represents an alternative to his horizontal search. She, too, despairs of the vertical search, of securing the world’s meaning by identifying transcendence. Her vision of life is tragic: the world crumbles around her. Once populated with Catos, it is now going to seed.40 Aunt Emily’s response to total immanence and the necessary tragedy it entails is to figure immanence as a kind of transcendence. “Man” is a tragic hero, who, though destined to go down, must live by his lights, as she says more than once.41 There is no coming salvation, no transcendent hope, but marshalling his inner strength, man can approximate divinity by living as if he is transcendent.

Both horizontal-seeking Binx and Aunt Emily live in reduced, wholly immanent worlds, though they position themselves differently in those worlds. Binx suffers from a chasm he continually opens between an inaccessible transcendence and an immanence he has ontologized against it. Aunt Emily tries to live into an immanence that figures itself as a kind of transcendence. It is his lights—his own light—by which a man transcends the crumbling world around him. Goodness is destined to be defeated, but a man must fight because, she claims, to do any less is to be less than a man. As for images, though her immanence figured as transcendence mirrors a temptation movies pose, Aunt Emily never goes to the movies in The Moviegoer. Why would she need to? She can see everything she needs to see to live in the world. She has her own lights and lives by those alone.

The vertical and horizontal—the transcendent and immanent—aspects of these searches and image relationships also echo O’Connor’s characters of Sarah Ruth and Parker. Just as Sarah Ruth aspires to the invisibility that religion and images point to—and then renounces the scaffolding of religion and images—the vertical searcher aspires to the invisibility images present—minus the images themselves. From the other direction, as Parker reduces the splendor of images to their visibility, their immanent aspect, so the horizontal seeker assesses images as objects, as purely visible objects rather than windows to something beyond. To put this in terms of the picture theorists’ conversation, on the one hand, Sarah Ruth embodies the degenerate Platonism the picture theorists worried about—one that reduces images to what they point to, and so makes them invisible. On the other hand, the attempt to reclaim images from this transcendence runs the risk of denying the element of transcendence to the image, similar to Parker’s approach. One pursues images vertically, the other horizontally. The unsustainability of these searches is thus epitomized by the end of “Parker’s Back” and by the collapse of the vertical into the horizontal search in The Moviegoer. And the unworkability of these searches is a symptom of the false anthropology they assume.

The Betrayal of the Human: Angels, Beasts, and Angel-Beasts

Percy frequently invokes birds and soldiers in The Moviegoer to characterize people, their fears, and their journeys. At one point when she is near despair, Binx’s step-cousin Kate wishes that she could be a soldier in order to have a flesh and blood enemy. (“What a lark!” she sighs.42) Later, as she travels with Binx to Chicago, he worries about the great “genie-soul” of the city perching on his shoulder “like a buzzard” because he is leaving the place where he is rooted.43 Kate’s stepmother, Binx’s Aunt Emily, is described as both bird and soldier. She was a bird in her earlier years when she believed in and sought transcendence, but as her stoic despair sets in, she is described as a soldier.44 Though they can appear together and can even describe the same person, birds and soldiers speak to contrary ways of being in the world: as soldiers are grounded in physicality and materiality, birds soar into the airy heights above most flesh and blood. On the face of it, their pairing is mysterious. Yet it is not entirely anomalous in Percy’s corpus.

While the bird and soldier images that fill so much of The Moviegoer do not return in later works, a version of this figuration appears in Percy’s later novel Love in the Ruins (1971). Instead of birds, it uses angels, and instead of soldiers, beasts. Angelism in that work names the anthropological fallacy that elides the physicality of human nature. It is the human’s struggle to live as a spirit and thus be more angelic than human. Perhaps it is not intuitive that the intensification of angelism coincides with great violence in Love in the Ruins—though this coupling of soaring and brutalizing is anticipated in The Moviegoer’s pairing of birds and soldiers. Even so, there is a profound logic to this connection. Because angelism abstracts the self, it obscures the fragility of the body in a way that facilitates violence against it. For similar reasons, angelism often comes joined with its antithesis, bestialism, in which one is governed by the instincts of her animal nature, divorced from reasoning, morality, and higher-order thought. To suffer from bestialism is to succumb wholly to one’s appetites, especially the appetite for sex, alcohol, and other physical pleasures. Bestialism names a self who lives wholly according to literalized desires. If angelism is the self straining to transcend its physicality, bestialism is the self stooping to complete immanence to its physicality. Characters in Love in the Ruins often suffer from angelism-bestialism disorder in a way similar to Binx’s alternation between a vertical and horizontal search.45

The relationship between angelism-bestialism and Binx’s searches exceeds their similarly oscillating structures. Binx’s vertical search actually tends toward this angelic (bird-like) view of the self. Like the vertical search, the angelic view of the self also produces a kind of iconoclasm, in the form of the moviegoer who does not go to the movies. Angelism aspires to be image free. This is a false invisibility, one that ignores the visible, material world—until the visible world inevitably reasserts itself, swinging the one suffering from angelism into bestialism, from a self soaring toward the transcendent to a self sealed off from the transcendent.

Angelism and bestialism equally, though antipodally, deny the duality of the self as spiritual and animal. These anthropological distortions mirror Christological ones—just as the anthropological union of soul and body serves as the most frequently invoked analogy for the human-divine union in Christ. The resemblances between angelism and bestialism and ancient Christian heresy are noteworthy. For example, angelism reduces humanity to its spiritual nature and so trumps the immanent with the transcendent; similarly, the divinity of the Monophysite Christ swallows his humanity. In bestialism’s reduction to the material, it parallels Arianism’s attenuation of Christ’s divinity in favor of his humanity. The truly transcendent is considered, by Arians and bestial humans, out of immanent reach. Bestials are not even convinced it exists. And the entire angelism-bestialism phenomenon—for the two distortions can come together in one complex—strikingly approximates the heresy that most dominated Byzantine discussions of images: Nestorianism. The sickness of angelism-bestialism names a splitting of the spiritual and material aspects of the self, the soul and the body.

The danger of angelism-bestialism is hinted at in It Happened One Night, the movie that forms an important turning point for Binx. He moves from vertical to horizontal searching after watching this movie and solving the problem of the universe but then finding that he himself is left over. What is it about this romantic comedy that energizes the turn from the vertical to the horizontal search? One clue is found in the movie’s powerful visual metaphor, a blanket (“the walls of Jericho”) that separates the characters of Peter (played by Clark Gable) and Ellie (played by Claudette Colbert) as they change clothes and sleep, allowing them to maintain their sense of an unmarried couple’s proper distance from one another. Drawing on the history of film censorship in the time of the movie’s release, Stanley Cavell argues that the blanket is also like a movie screen, an image that both censors its object (withholding it from the audience) and also gives it to the audience in the movements on the screen.46

But at a climactic moment of the film, as the pair lie in their separated beds, Peter describes his vision of a woman he could marry. Moved by the vision, Ellie crosses to Peter’s side of the blanket-wall to embrace him as that woman, and Peter fumbles, stupefied, telling her to go back to her side of the barrier. His dream comes to him as flesh and blood, and he does not know how to receive it. “Why can he not allow the woman of his dreams to enter his dream?” Cavell asks. “But just that must be the answer. What surprises him is her reality. To acknowledge her as this woman would be to acknowledge that she is ‘somebody that’s real, somebody that’s alive,’ flesh and blood, someone separate from his dream who therefore has, if she is to be in it, to enter it; and this feels to him to be a threat to the dream, and hence a threat to him.”47 Cavell interprets this moment as one in which the blanket figures the censoring of Peter’s knowledge that there is a human on the other side of it. It identifies Peter’s difficulty in connecting Ellie’s body and soul, a separation that “does violence to” and “makes monsters of” others.48 We make monsters because we are afraid of risking ourselves, our dreams, our loves on one who could reject them, threaten them, or make them true—transform them, that is, into reality instead of dreams. By the end of the movie, Peter risks his dream becoming flesh and receives his romantic reward. But the difficulty dramatized in It Happened One Night, of recognizing a dream when it comes to you in flesh and blood, of recognizing the soul that comes to you in this body, is repeated by Binx himself. He cannot hold spiritual and material, soul and body, dream and flesh, divinity and humanity, visible and invisible together. He abandons his airy transcendent for the earthy immanent, his vertical for the horizontal. In his separation of the two, he veers into angelism, then bestialism, then angelism-bestialism—what Cavell calls a monster.

Binx’s angelism-bestialism ends in a howl, for “howling desire” is how Binx narrates what has happened to himself as he reaches the end of his horizontal and vertical searches. He rehearses a litany of despair that ends, “there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.” He repeats, “Nothing remains but desire, and desire comes howling down Elysian Fields like a mistral. My search has been abandoned.”49 The howl evokes both wind and wolves—the desire to which he is “prey” and that is “like a mistral.” The howl figures the self made simultaneously beast and angel. It also conjures the hollow created by the distance between those selves. And Binx abandons himself to a howling desire: the togetherness of his animal and spiritual natures comes under pressure and begins to fray, opening a chasm through which the howl travels. His life with images has led him to this howl that is at once Arian, Monophysite, and Nestorian. Something has gone astray in his image gazing. Angelism, bestialism, and angelism-bestialism—these anthropological analogs to the old Byzantine heresies invoked in the iconomachy—indicate that something is wrong in his relationship both to images and to Christ. To discern what has gone wrong, one must also learn what the human is, if not an angel-beast.

Pilgrims of the Ordinary

The human is neither angel nor beast nor angel-beast. She is an animal-spiritual hybrid, whom Percy describes as a pilgrim. She is a wayfarer in trouble, as he writes, and trying to get out of it. Her journey takes her through a world whose essential character is elucidated by the sacraments: filled with ordinary things like water, bread, and oil, which are given the highest significance.50 These sacraments illumine the pilgrimage as a journey through the ordinary that opens up to the extraordinary.

In his 1989 essay, “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” Percy describes the pilgrim anthropology as “the best recipe for novel writing,” and he was already drawing on this recipe almost three decades prior in The Moviegoer—his first novel—and quite explicitly.51 By the end of The Moviegoer, Binx no longer prattles on about searches. He now narrates his life as a “dark pilgrimage.”52 The significance of this transition is at least partially signaled by the adjective. The darkness of the pilgrimage contrasts with the lights Aunt Emily lives by. It names for the reader the complicated perception of grace, which, by the end of the novel, comes as a “dim dazzling trick.”53

The moves from search to pilgrimage and from lights to darkness speak to what it means for a spiritual-animal hybrid to seek a divine-human being—a God who became ordinary without ceasing to be God. Christ’s ordinariness, as the anthropological analogy expresses, yields a surplus without yielding its place to that surplus. As the soul is not circumscribed by the body, neither is Christ’s divine nature circumscribed by the human. Moreover, as the animality of humans cannot be removed so that they may live out a purely spiritual existence, neither can the humanity of Christ be circumvented to encounter his disincarnate divinity. The animality of humans and the humanity of Christ are something like Fra Angelico’s pillar, declining to yield to us naked divinity.

Yet Angelico’s pillar is not simply blocking us from Christ. It is also giving us Christ, who is a column. Columna est Christus, as 1 Timothy 3:15 claims in the Latin of the Vulgate. Like the flesh of the Word, the column both veils God and presents God. This in a sense is what is accomplished in the sacraments, which are so important to Percy and which point to the human’s status as pilgrim. They give to and in the ordinary, visible world a Christ who is not an obvious departure from the ordinary.

It is worth noting that only two characters are mentioned as receiving sacraments in The Moviegoer. One is anonymous. The other is Binx’s half-brother, Lonnie, who receives extreme unction and fasts during Lent, despite his physical difficulties. He is distinct among his immediate family—Binx’s mother’s and stepfather’s family—for treating the sacraments as anything other than (only) ordinary. He is also distinct among them because he is, as Binx claims, a moviegoer, like Binx. As a moviegoer, Lonnie, like Binx, is attentive to the image. In Lonnie’s case, the moving image does not tempt him to become an angel or a beast—a bird or a soldier. It sustains him in his pilgrim life of the true Little Way of love.

The ambivalent role the moving image plays in The Moviegoer displays the complexity of images in this pilgrim life. They convey beyondness—they offer something additional to the world in which they appear—and insist on hereness. Like humans and like Christ, images have an amphibious character—a hybridity or duality in which they do not exist in between two natures but fully comprise both. They are present in and make present to this world, and in making present they also underscore the absence of that which they make present. They render visible and, in doing so, show us the invisible that remains unenvisagable to us. The “is” and “is not” form of images means that they encompass visibility and invisibility, presence and absence, immanence and transcendence. An image that attempts to deny the visible world becomes an illusion. An image that excludes the invisible by denying the invisibility of its own nature becomes an object; if it does this while claiming for itself the significance of the invisible, it becomes an idol. This is both why images can go so wrong—they can tempt us into one side of these polarities—and why they are so important—they speak to the hybrid nature of humanity and communicate the dual-natured Christ.

“Parker’s Back” conveys the amphibiousness of images in the antagonistic characters of Parker, who chases immanence through images, and Sarah Ruth, who disdains images in favor of an unmediated transcendence. Parker’s search begins when the tattooed man images paradise and awakens him to a sense of wonder, which he seeks to recapture through his own tattoos throughout the story. While the image communicates something invisible to Parker, he tries to replicate what it gives him by focusing only on its material reality, as if it were wholly visible to him, like an object. Near the end of the story he receives his invisible soul image (the arabesque of beasts and flowers), which recapitulates both the image of the tattooed man and his own Byzantine Christ tattoo, which later merges with his own suffering body to generate an image of Christ crucified. It is significant that the soul images appear only after he has sought and seen the Byzantine Christ with eyes that remind him of the icepick eyes of his iconoclastic, transcendence-oriented wife, Sarah Ruth. This is not an image that sides with transcendence against immanence, or immanence against transcendence, as contemporary image theorists sometimes do. Only once his wholly immanence-oriented iconophilia has incorporated something of transcendence-oriented iconoclasm does he receive the world-opening image he seeks. Only once his relationship to the image shifts from the visible closed in on itself to the visible that is negated does that image open onto the invisible.

Aside from icepick eyes, what exactly does this iconoclasm internal to iconophilia, this negation internal to presence, look like?

Apophaticism: An Iconoclasm of Fidelity

Comprised of both the visible and the invisible, images are always in danger of teetering toward visibility or invisibility and so becoming objects, idols, or illusions—all terms that name false image relationships. How does one resist these dangers? Binx tries to prevent the degeneration of image into illusion by grounding the image in the material realities of the world. But what of the threats of objecthood and idolatry? Of the two, objecthood is the less complicated. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an object as object. It simply signifies nothing beyond itself. It mediates no presence except its own and attempts no negation of itself. Though it is unfortunate when objecthood is the result of degrading an image, an object in and of itself need not pose a problem. An idol does. Like an object, an idol signifies nothing beyond itself. Unlike an object, it claims a presence beyond itself as its own. It negates nothing about itself and so refuses to be an image. Yet even while it points only to its own immanence, an idol paradoxically claims transcendence. An object has not achieved image-hood; an idol has betrayed it. For idols, then, we need iconoclasms of fidelity. These iconoclasms will also prove salutary for objects to the extent such objects aspire to an illusion of transcendence, inasmuch as they are talismanic, like Parker’s tattoos.

In identifying iconoclasms of fidelity to restore the image, I diverge again from Marion. Worried though he is about the image-saturated age and the idolatry of the televisual image, Marion cannot commend iconoclasm as a response. For him, iconoclasm simply inverts the problem of the idol. If the idol wrongly prioritizes the visible, iconoclasm wrongly prioritizes the invisible. Iconoclasm therefore confirms the divorce between the two. In Percy’s language, it can only lead to a howl. But this, of course, is to assume that iconoclasm always looks like the iconoclasm of Sarah Ruth or of the romantic, that iconoclasm is always an iconoclasm of temptation. I insist there are other forms of breaking and chastening images, and that these can be rehabilitative because they restore to imaging the negation that makes imaging possible. The first strategy of negation—one with which Marion might sympathize—is apophaticism, a negation aggressively deployed in The Moviegoer.

Searching, as Binx Bolling knows, frequently produces idols, what he will call “shit.” In the critical address in which Binx abandons himself to howling desire, he claims that his only talent is “a good nose for merde” in this, “the very century of merde.” He goes on to elaborate what qualifies as merde: “the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone.” Everydayness seems to have won, for “malaise has settled like a fallout.”54 Shit is the staunch immanence that parades as a new transcendence in scientific humanism and ultimately leads to an angelism that ends in malaise. It is the closure, or totalization, of the visible.

Binx’s declaration of his shit-smelling talent immediately precedes his reception of grace. These two events are not unrelated. For, far from worthless, his capacity to smell shit is a gift that helps him identify divine work in the world. It is a kind of apophatic identifying of what is not God. To relate to something as an idol that pretends transcendence? Shit, not God. Yet to impugn idols by naming them as shit is not to condemn them to eternal separation from God nor to declare they lack capacity for meaning. The final scene before the epilogue communicates the way shit may be received as itself a medium of grace.

The novel’s last scene takes place on Ash Wednesday. A man Percy names a “Negro” leaves a church. His “ambiguous sienna color and pied” forehead makes it “impossible to say” whether he has received ashes. The dark color of the man’s skin and the darkness of the ashes make this moment an apt illustration of how Percy thinks about the workings of grace in the world. For the dark and pied forehead that may or may not be marked with the grace of penitence itself images what Percy calls the “dim dazzling trick of grace.”55 Has grace come through darkness on darkness? It is “impossible to say.” The question can be answered only in hope.

It is fitting that the medium of possible grace is the ash of penitence. The ash of Ash Wednesday reminds the faithful that the shit of idolatry may become, through confession, the ash of grace. To assail the closed off visibility of an idol, to name it shit, is also to name a way it can be received anew, by being reincorporated into the ordinary in which grace comes to us. It is difficult to discern these idols-turned-shit-turned-ashes, because they are received within the ordinary. The difficulty of discerning such ash mirrors the difficulty of receiving Christ, by whom we also receive God in and as the ordinary. Percy’s ash-touched Negro in this way figures the Christ who abides with us, visible dimly. It is no coincidence that the great image defender John of Damascus used similar language, describing images of invisible things as “provid[ing] in bodily form a dim understanding of what is depicted.”56 God’s abiding in our world is dim to us, even if it is a dimness that is also dazzling.

Like the idols-turned-ashes, God, too, became dust, ash to dwell in our shit-sodden world. Christ is difficult to discern because he is like us in all ways except sin. Augustine writes of the difficulty this creates for the world in perceiving Christ, who “was plainly visible to the carnal eyes of the world, while manifest in the flesh; but [the world] saw not the Word that lay hid in the flesh: it saw the man, but it saw not God.”57 Pseudo-Dionysius describes the paradox of Christ’s plainness and hiddenness, claiming, “the transcendent has put aside its own hiddenness and has revealed itself to us by becoming a human being. But he is hidden even after this revelation, or, if I may speak in a more divine fashion, is hidden even amid the revelation.”58 Christ appears to the world seemingly indistinguishable from the world, true God appearing as truly a human as any other human. Vladimir Lossky describes this “paradox of the Christian revelation” in terms of transcendence and immanence. He writes of how the God who is transcendent reveals himself as transcendent in the immanent. Such a paradox, Lossky claims, implies “the existence of an apophatic attitude,” which he glosses as “a going beyond everything that has a connection with created finitude.”59

Binx adopts an apophatic attitude when he names idols as shit, which is a way of distinguishing the transcendence that created finitude can claim from the radical transcendence of God. Even as Binx nears despair, his words, read through Lossky’s paradox, suggest real hope. For Lossky claims that an apophatic attitude is a way of knowing God by eliminating all that is not God. It culminates in the impossibility that any human knowledge finally can contain God.60 For Binx, this looks like rebutting false claims of transcendence—naming idols as shit—so that the rebuttal itself signifies the radical transcendence of God. Rejecting the false transcendence as not-God opens up immanence to point to a transcendence both within and beyond it. The idol becomes an image of God by indicating what God is not. The shit, in Binx’s case, is reclaimed as ashes.

Confession: Another Iconoclasm of Fidelity

Binx ends his speech about merde by declaring that he has to find a girl. At that moment, a girl comes to save him. It is not any girl. It is a specific girl: Kate, his step-cousin, closest friend, and fiancée, who comes to him as a figure of grace.61 And the way she mediates grace is both by the pledge to him her presence signifies at that moment and by what she does next. She confesses.

The significance of confessing is tipped by the novel’s original title, Confessions of a Moviegoer. It is more obliquely indicated at the end of the novel, which returns to Søren Kierkegaard, who supplies the book’s epigraph. In the epilogue, Jack (like O. E., Binx grows into his given name by the end of his story) explains why there is nothing more he wants to say about the search, and he alludes to the “great Danish philosopher” who offered “edifying discourses” because he had no authority to give sermons. “[I]t is not open to me even to be edifying, since the time is later than his [Kierkegaard’s], much too late to edify or do much of anything except plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself—if indeed asskicking is properly distinguished from edification.”62 The first of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses to be translated into English was Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing: Spiritual Preparation for the Office of Confession (1938). It is a discourse that prepares for confession. For himself, Binx does not exactly claim to edify. Asskicking—booting that which produces shit—is all Binx offers. And still, it is reasonable to think that connected as it can be to edification, asskicking, too, prepares for confession. The novel moves toward confession as its culminating moment; that is all there is to say now about the search.

There is a great building toward confession in the novel, and yet only one character ever describes her speech as confession: “I’ll make you a little confession,” Aunt Emily declares, in the speech that drives Binx to near-despair. Then she works up to a rousing defense of herself and her kind: “But one thing I am sure of, we live by our lights, we die by our lights, and whoever the high gods may be, we’ll look them in the eye without apology.”63 What she has made, with her unapologetic god-eyeballing, is an anti-confession. She has shored up her self and returned to her inner lighthouse.

Kate is the next character to arrive on the scene after the anti-confession. She is Aunt Emily’s countertype. Where Aunt Emily lives by her lights, Kate’s eyes are always turning to discs, as if to protest false light. Shortly after she appears, she and Binx watch the Negro enter the church. He is ordinary, “more respectable than respectable” and “more middle-class than one could believe.”64 His gestures, moreover, indicate to Binx that church is routine for him. Binx watches him go in, and Kate begins confessing to Binx. She confesses her crippling fear. She confesses her neediness. She confesses that she lacks conviction she will ever really truly change. She begs him not to laugh at her.

Throughout her marvelous display of vulnerability and dependence, Kate cannot make a clean confession: her solemnity is “not-quite-pure.” As impurity cuts through her solemnity, so her actions of self-harm unravel the edges of her confession. She picks at her thumb, tearing away little pieces of flesh. Unlike Peter in It Happened One Night, Jack knows how to receive a vision that has come to him as flesh and blood. He takes her hand, kisses the blood, and says, “But you must try not to hurt yourself so much.” “I will try! I will!”65 Kate’s eager response draws her back to repentance. She offers in her confession a natural analog to the holy sacrament.

At just that moment, the ordinary Negro reappears from the church, perhaps marked with an ashen cross. He is an image of the “dim dazzling grace” that Jack has received through Kate and she through him. Why, Jack wonders, has the man come? “It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bon Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say.”66 It is difficult to discern a divine who comes to us in the ordinary, especially when that divine points beyond the visible to the invisible.

Parker, too, confesses near the end of his story. Sarah Ruth, the only person who knows Parker’s first names and his shame about them, refuses to open the door until he identifies himself by them. After she dissents twice to open to “O. E.,” he acknowledges himself by the name he has avoided his whole life, “Obadiah Elihue”—at last identifying himself with a lifelong source of shame. Instead of repressing his name to project a false (or at least incomplete) image of who he is, he claims his full name—and then receives grace. With Parker’s confession, he breaks his self-image and his soul, once a “spider web of facts and lies,” receives the invisible, splendorous arabesque he had been seeking in tattoos all his life. His soul opens in a new way to the invisible world.67

In apophatic naming of God, idols are broken so that they might image God. In confession, the self is broken, so that it, too, might resist closing in on the visible. It is broken as a false image and as a false beholder of images. For if what an idol names is a wrong relation to the beheld, then the self relating to what is beheld must also be addressed. Like a doctor setting a bone, confession breaks the self to bring it into line with the invisible God. Gregory of Nyssa describes the way the self is opened to the love of God as a wounding, a puncturing of our sin-sick selves that enables us to see Christ rightly.68 A person, Gregory writes, must be wounded in love; then is the visible rightly related to the invisible. Confession names one kind of wounding, this breaking that orders the realm of images to the realm of the invisible. Confessing his name, Obadiah Elihue Parker images the paradisal arabesque in his soul; confessing her sickness, Kate opens new possibilities for healing and for deeper unity with Jack.

The Little Way That Transfigures the Everyday

These iconoclastic-iconophilic strategies of apophaticism and confession—iconoclasms of fidelity—aim not at forswearing the everyday in favor of some transcendent invisibility, nor at fencing off the everyday from transcendent visibility. They aim, as did Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s Little Way, at the transfiguration of the everyday. Where Binx’s little way embraces little everyday physical pleasures as if they are the sum of life’s meaning, Saint Thérèse’s Little Way extends love to everyone she meets and everything she does in her everyday life. Imitating the Christ who became everyday, Thérèse meets Christ in the everyday by her little sacrifices of love in her routine and ordinary life. The Little Way is a path through the ordinary that recognizes and imitates a God who came to abide in the ordinary. For without scorning the ordinary, Christ orients it in a new way toward divine life. We meet this abiding Christ in images that negate the visible to open them to the invisible. We betray this abiding Christ through abandoning the visible, as pure iconoclasts do, including Sarah Ruth, the romantic, and Binx in his vertical search, as well as through attempts to close the visible in on itself, as certain kinds of iconophiles do—including Parker in most of his life and Binx in his horizontal search. Breaking the idols of these iconoclasts and iconophiles enables them to open to the invisible, to see and become divine images that mediate the presence of the Christ who abides in the ordinary without being reducible to the ordinary. This is not a form of breaking that destroys idols but that turns idols into images. It is a breaking that recognizes the world as an image of God and images as both transcendent and immanent, neither vitiating the other.

The Eucharist: Presence and the Centrality of the Invisible

The sacrament of confession prepares the supplicant for another sacrament. It is Walker Percy’s paradigmatic example of how a sacrament confers holiness on ordinary things—the very one, in fact, that iconomachs used to dismiss images—the Eucharist.69 The iconomachs insist that the Eucharist is the paradigmatic image. According to them, it reveals that images work by being consubstantial with the imaged. But this argument both underplays and overplays the role of negation in images. It underplays the role of negation because it insists that images must be so like the imaged that they are all consubstantial with it. The argument thus neglects how strongly the image can not be what it presents. While Christ is consubstantial with the Father, that strong form of identification is not necessary for all images, which are both like and unlike what they image.

If the iconomachs’ description of the Eucharist underplays the negation, it also, for the Catholic Church of O’Connor and Percy, overplays it. While the Eucharist involves a deep form of likeness between sign and signified, one shared by no image except for Christ himself, the Eucharist also entails a deep change in the signifier that images do not. The theology of the Eucharist is not uniform across churches or times, but Thomas Aquinas articulates a version of Eucharistic theology importantly different from image theology. He describes the way the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ by a negation unlike the negation of images. The way the Eucharist negates itself, unlike the way images do, involves a change in the signifier. The substance of the bread and wine does not just mediate the substance of Christ’s body and blood; it becomes it. One is tempted to speak of displacement or erasure, but Thomas Aquinas, for one, refuses such language. He prefers instead to speak of change. The substance of the bread and wine are like air consumed by a fire. The air is no longer there but neither is it annihilated; it has become—been converted to—the fire.70 And this deviates not only from images. It diverges from the incarnation as well. For Christ’s consubstantiality with the Father does not come at the cost of his consubstantiality with humanity. As we have explored in this chapter, Christ is amphibious in the way that images are. Both negate by opening, not eradicating or, in the case of the Eucharist, consuming. In this way, Christ and images are importantly dissimilar with the Eucharist. As a sign of Christ, the Eucharist is sui generis. Strangely, though the bread and wine before consecration can be images of the body and blood of Christ, they become their own type of sign through consecration.

Even if the Eucharist does not model how all images must work, it is an important channel and sign of Christ’s presence, and as such, it shares certain interesting features with images. One is this: though the bread and wine of the Eucharist resemble the flesh and blood of Christ, they do not look exactly like flesh and blood, nor do they look more like flesh and blood than ordinary bread and wine. One looking at the Eucharist does not physically see Christ’s body. In this way, the Eucharist insists both on the importance of visibility and the ultimate invisibility of the presence it mediates. It is important that the bread and wine resemble flesh and blood, and it is also important that they cannot be visually confused with flesh and blood. Whereas Binx alternates between the invisible and the visible in ways that disjoin the universe and himself into a howl, the Eucharist points to a God who is visibly present in the world in a way that is ordered to the invisible and discernible in the visible. We might draw on Lossky to say that the Eucharist is like apophatic speaking in that it has silence (invisibility) built into its mode of making present.

While not an image, the Eucharist must be pivotal for how we approach images, for it points to the centrality of both the invisible and the ordinary. Paul Evdokimov draws on this affinity between image and Eucharist when he writes, “The veneration of the gospel book, the cross and the icon are united together with the liturgical mystery of the presence that the church proclaims from her Eucharistic heart: ‘Our doctrine is in agreement with the eucharist and the eucharist confirms our doctrine,’ according to St Irenaeus.”71 The iconomachs were right, then, to go to the Eucharist to confirm or contradict the legitimacy of icons. They were wrong in their insistence of Eucharist as the paradigmatic image. As a means of presence, the Eucharist shares with images important structural similarities—especially the important orientation toward the invisible. At the same time, it is not perfectly equivalent to images. Neither the type of presence the Eucharist bears (sacramental or real) nor its way of bearing that presence is identical to what is found in images. When the Eucharist is made essential to a theology of and practice around images, the image remains oriented to the invisible without discarding its visibility. When the Eucharist is distinguished from images, a diversity of presences within images is possible.

The Amphibious Image

Christ, humans, and images—they are all analogies for one another because they share an amphibious structure. That amphibious structure is constantly in danger of being misconstrued. As both human and divine, Christ can be misrepresented as human rather than divine (Arianism), as divine rather than human (Monophysitism), or as a disunified conjunction of human and divine (Nestorianism). As both animal and spiritual, humans can be misconceived as animal rather than spiritual (bestialism), as spiritual rather than animal (angelism), or as bipolar creatures who oscillate between the two (angelism-bestialism). These Christological and anthropological misunderstandings are frequently registered in our life with images. Images are hybrid in that they are visible-invisible and can be misunderstood in ways that include denying the invisible (idolatry or objecthood) or denying the visible (illusions). They can emphasize their transcendence at the expense of their immanence (a degenerate version of Platonism) or their immanence at the expense of their transcendence (a degenerate version of the picture theorists’ correction). But images are both; they are amphibians, like the human and divine Christ.

They are linked, these three amphibians. The characters of “Parker’s Back” and The Moviegoer who relate wrongly to images also relate wrongly to themselves as humans and to Christ. They find healing—however slight or murky that healing is—through employing strategies of negation. Parker incorporates the transcendence-seeking, icepick eyes of the Byzantine Christ and Sarah Ruth into his tattoo; and he identifies with his name that has caused him such shame. In negating the tattoo image, his desire for images, and his self-image, all of these open up to the invisible, to the divine in hopeful ways that do not leave behind the visible. Through Kate, Jack also learns to negate the self through confession, which proves a better strategy of negation than his attempts to prevent movies from becoming illusion. These negations mean that the visible opens onto the invisible; that the invisible remains central to what an image is—a lesson that the Eucharist reiterates each time it is celebrated.

Maria Orans: Revealing the Abiding Presence of the Hidden Christ

In the icon called the Virgin of the Sign, Maria orans stands with her hands out in prayer, dressed in the clothing typical for Eastern icons: head covering, long sleeves, draped dress. Overlying this clothing, a large circle opens in the middle of the image. Spanning the length of her torso, it exposes the Christ-babe her pregnant body nurtures. The image may seem, in one way, to be the inverse of Fra Angelico’s altarpiece at Cortona. Where that painting introduced a pillar that blocked the divine from view, this icon pulls back the curtain of Mary’s clothing and flesh to display the God made human. The contrast is too facile, though, for Maria orans does not simply displace hiddenness with revealedness. She reveals the Christ-babe as the hidden Christ—hidden, that is, in both the mother of Jesus and in the mother church.72 Rowan Williams puts it well in a meditation on this icon, “But if we think of the essential hiddenness that the image reminds us of, we must not suppose that being aware of that presence will necessarily make it easier for us to pin down where it is.”73 We cannot pin down the center of Christ’s presence in the church any more than Jack can confirm that the Negro received ashes. The Virgin of the Sign expresses the difficulty of discerning Christ in a world where Christ became human. It is an image about the mystery of imaging.

The Virgin of the Sign icon unites the three amphibians—the visible-invisible image, the animal-spirit human, and the human-divine Christ—to convey the mysteriousness of discerning Christ’s presence. It is mysterious because, in Christ, God abides with those who are not God by becoming what is not God. God is discernible in and as not-God without being reducible to not-God. In the Virgin of the Sign, Christ is discernible in and as the body of Mary, the church, and humanity, without being exhausted by those realities. It is also, then, an image that alerts us to the dangers of images. As Williams writes, the church imaged in the Virgin of the Sign is “suspicious of idolatry, able to stay with the mysteriousness of Christ’s presence rather than creating an accessible but false picture to hang on to.”74 This, finally, is why the iconomachs were right that iconoclasm is at times an important response to images: iconoclasm can be wielded to break images that are overly hasty identifications of the invisible God in the visible—what I have been calling idols. Iconoclasms of fidelity found, for example, in confession and in apophatic ways of naming God, make the mystery of the invisible God central to our relationship to images. Such iconoclasms negate the visible to make present the abiding Christ, so that we may better love the visible image of the invisible God.

FIGURE 3. Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512–16. Unterlinden Museum. Public domain (Wikimedia).


1. I use the term iconomach to refer specifically to the Byzantine image fighters and iconodule to refer to the image defenders, while iconoclast and iconophile refer to image resisters and image lovers across times, places, and images. As described in the Introduction, iconoclasm as a word postdates the Byzantine image controversy, which contemporaries referred to as an iconomachy, a struggle over images.

2. I use icon specifically to denote a material image of Christ—one that is kin to the painted wood images that the iconomachy addressed, whereas image refers broadly to all images of Christ, material or immaterial and including, for the iconomachs, the Eucharist.

3. The Seventh Ecumenical Council did not settle the issue of the image, even for the East. Not only did the struggle over the image continue during the decades immediately following that council, reaching some settlement in the Triumph of Orthodoxy (in 843), but iconoclastic energies returned with new force in the eleventh century. Charles Barber traces this history in his book Contesting the Logic of Painting.

4. The writings and transcripts of those deemed heretics by the church have been destroyed, so we have access to the iconomachs’ positions largely through the iconodules’ quotations from these materials.

5. Sahas, Icon and Logos (“Introduction,” 30).

6. Sahas, Icon and Logos, 244D. While both translate as “one nature,” Monophysitism and Miaphysitism resonate differently in theological conversation. The term Monophysite denotes the heretical position taken by Eutyches and his heirs, while the Miaphysite position is associated less with Eutyches and regarded more as a gloss on Cyril’s position as he defended the church from Nestorianism. Professed by oriental Orthodox churches today, Miaphysitism is considered in principle reconcilable with the two natures position of the Council of Chalcedon.

7. Sahas, Icon and Logos, 30.

8. Sahas, Icon and Logos, 260A/B, 341E. Just as circumscribe and scribe share the Latin root word scribere, in ancient Greek, perigraphein (to circumscribe) uses the same root as the term meaning “to write” (graphein) something, such as an icon.

9. Hedley, Iconic Imagination, 1–11.

10. Sahas, Icon and Logos, 264C. Jaroslav Pelikan narrates it this way:

But Constantine V developed this definition further by asserting that a genuine image was ‘identical in essence with that which it portrays.’ The term used here, ‘identical in essence’ [homoousios], came from the Trinitarian language of orthodox dogma, where it had been used to define the deity of the Son in relation to the Father; it was in this sense that the Son was ‘the image of the Father.’ . . . The very definition of a true image necessarily implied for the iconoclasts that no painting or statue could ever be an image of Christ. But the Eucharist could be, and in fact was, a true image, for only it was identical in essence with Christ. . . . At their [iconoclastic] council in 754, he and his fellow believers declared that apart from the Eucharist there was ‘not any other form or type capable of representing his incarnation of an image. (The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, 109–10)

Stephen Gerö claims that more attention should be paid to the role of the Eucharist in the iconomachy: “Less attention than it deserves has been paid by modern scholarship to the fact that this second phase of iconoclasm is also characterized by the emergence of a eucharistic argument: the bread and wine of the eucharist are the only true images of Christ” (“Eucharistic Doctrine of the Byzantine Iconoclasts,” 4).

11. Charles Barber describes the force of the iconoclasts’ argument as an issue of “truth in painting,” and he traces that idea in Figure and Likeness, ch. 3.

12. Sahas, Icon and Logos, 253E.

13. Constas, Art of Seeing, 106.

14. In the Introduction, I distinguished pictures from images by claiming that the latter are always signs, which point to a signified. The movies are commonly called moving pictures, but Binx is particularly interested in the way they are images—and the way they might be images of the excess of vitality in the world.

15. Walker Percy, Moviegoer, 69, 82.

16. Percy, Moviegoer, 70. Ralph Wood (Comedy of Redemption) notices the echo here of Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegel. He writes: “Percy discovered that Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel helped clarify his own misgivings about secularist science. ‘The same thing he said about the Hegelian system,’ Percy notes, ‘might be said about a purely scientific view of the world that leaves out the individual.’ Percy takes delight in Kierkegaard’s description of Hegel as the philosopher who, upon completing the magnificent crystal palace of his philosophical system, had to build a shanty wherein he could actually live” (146). Wood quotes Walker’s remarks from Dewey, “Walker Percy Talks About Kierkegaard,” 288.

17. Percy, Moviegoer, 70, 135.

18. Percy, Moviegoer, 135.

19. O’Connor, “Parker’s Back,” 657.

20. O’Connor, “Parker’s Back,” 659.

21. O’Connor, “Parker’s Back,” 666–7.

22. O’Connor, “Parker’s Back,” 670.

23. O’Connor, “Parker’s Back,” 673.

24. O’Connor, “Parker’s Back,” 674–5.

25. Percy, Moviegoer, 10–11.

26. Percy, Moviegoer, 13.

27. Percy, Moviegoer, 63.

28. Percy, Moviegoer, 15–18.

29. Percy, Moviegoer, 216.

30. Percy, Moviegoer, 75.

31. For example, Percy, Moviegoer, 70, 126.

32. Marion, Crossing of the Visible, 46.

33. Marion, Crossing of the Visible, 53.

34. Marion claims to be less worried about film than television, offering the unconvincing reason that one could find the actors at a film festival or film shoot, or learn who those actors were, thus maintaining a relationship between image and original. It is not entirely clear why this would be less true of television. It seems when he first wrote those remarks in 1996 (the date of the original French edition), he understood television actors to be more anonymous and less publicly accessible. More fundamentally, though, it seems strange to understand the actors as the original or prototype, rather than the medium. The classical understanding of drama, as in Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy, for example, is that it is a mimesis (imitation or representation) of an action, and that seems a more illuminating and intuitive way to go. Audrey Hepburn is not the prototype for the scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; she is more like the medium for creating the character Holly Golightly, much as oil paints are the medium for the Mona Lisa. What Breakfast at Tiffany’s images is, rather, something more complex, which we might describe as the competing and interweaving desires for love and social status in mid-twentieth-century New York City.

35. Percy, Moviegoer, 74.

36. Percy, Moviegoer, 63, 75.

37. Marion, Crossing of the Visible, 53.

38. Percy, Moviegoer, 13.

39. Percy, Moviegoer, 70.

40. Percy, Moviegoer, 23.

41. Percy, Moviegoer, 54, 224.

42. Percy, Moviegoer, 58.

43. Percy, Moviegoer, 201.

44. Percy, Moviegoer, 26–7.

45. Percy, Love in the Ruins.

46. Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, 80–3.

47. Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, 100.

48. Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, 109.

49. Percy, Moviegoer, 228.

50. Percy, “Holiness of the Ordinary.” The idea of the human as a “pilgrim” is so central to Percy’s way of thinking that a famous biography of him, by Jay Tolson, is titled Pilgrim in the Ruins. Robert Coles wrote an article on Percy for the New York Times and called it “The Doubtful Pilgrim.”

51. Percy, “Holiness of the Ordinary,” 369.

52. Percy, Moviegoer, 228.

53. Percy, Moviegoer, 235.

54. Percy, Moviegoer, 228.

55. Percy, Moviegoer, 234–5.

56. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, 26; emphasis added.

57. Schaff, St. Augustine, Tractate 75.2.

58. Pseudo-Dionysius, “Letter Three: To the same Gaius,” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Collected Works, 264.

59. Lossky, Image and Likeness of God, 14–5.

60. Lossky, Image and Likeness of God, 13.

61. There is an interesting convergence of readers insistently reading Kate as the disaster whom Binx saves and so saves himself—a reading I find mystifying given Kate’s earlier observation that Binx is “nuttier than she” and given the way she saves him in her arrival. Why is it that readers of The Moviegoer—insightful, sensitive readers—insist on reducing Kate to the role of damsel in distress, when she arrives on her bright and shining Plymouth to save Jack from the howling despair of desire?

62. Percy, Moviegoer, 237.

63. Percy, Moviegoer, 224.

64. Percy, Moviegoer, 233.

65. Percy, Moviegoer, 234.

66. Percy, Moviegoer, 235.

67. O’Connor, “Parker’s Back,” 672.

68. This theme emerges in Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on the Song of Songs, especially his fourth homily, which I treat in Beauty, ch. 4.

69. Percy, “Holiness of the Ordinary,” 369.

70. Thomas Aquinas treats the issues of change and annihilation in the second and third articles of Question 75 in the Third Part of his Summa Theologica. Mark Jordan has stressed to me the importance of understanding this change as occurring for Thomas at the level of substance—as conversio rather than mutatio (simple alteration) or motus (movement). My thanks to him and Matthew Whelan for helping to clarify Thomas’s view for me.

71. Evdokimov, Art of the Icon, 204.

72. Williams, Ponder These Things, 45.

73. Williams, Ponder These Things, 49.

74. Williams, Ponder These Things, 54, 55.