Saturday, June 4, 2011

McCarthy, Metaphysics, and the Moral Structure of the World

Cormac McCarthy is a philosophical novelist, even if he might not apply such a label to himself. He combines a subtle portrayal of the complexities of human nature and moral judgments with metaphysical ruminations on the deep structure of the world. He does this without explicitly invoking philosophers or having his characters engage in much lofty dialogue. His characters, with few exceptions, do not contemplate deep questions. And yet, those deep questions pervade his works and form the logical structure under which events unfold in his narratives.

Some writers deal subtly with moral quandaries and moral values--Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dostoevsky come to mind--but the world is taken for granted. The characters in their novels face moral dilemmas and decisions are made against the backdrop of a more or less intelligible world. Conversely, some genres and authors bend the normal rules of the world or play on the limits of our ability to understand it. The detectives in the novels of Hammett and Chandler are like Kantian investigators struggling to distinguish appearance from reality. They often fail for Kantian reasons: there is no way to see past the phenomenal realm into the noumenal. They are then left to select one of a range of equally possible but incompatible explanations; their minds provide the explanatory structure into which the details of the events of the case are fit. Sci-Fi novels and the works of Thomas Pynchon freely exploit the space of possible worlds and alternate histories, but within those possible worlds action is generally connected to event in a reliable and intelligible way.

The relation between the world and action in McCarthy is at once subtler and simpler than in most other fiction. Although McCarthy provides plenty of detail about the inner lives of his characters, many of his characters seem to lack the sort of self-reflection you sometimes see in literature. But even in cases in which his characters demonstrate self-reflection, they often appear to be moved by forces beyond their control. It is almost as if their actions are entailed by the moral structure of the world they inhabit. Actions are connected to the world, but the causal arrow goes in the opposite direction from what we are accustomed to. It is the world that produces changes in human action, not the other way around.

A few examples:

Rinthy Holme, the female protagonist in Outer Dark, stalks the pages of the novel like a dispossessed Madonna who has been separated from her Christ-child. But there is seemingly no reflection in Rinthy: she wanders around the countryside looking for the "tinker" who she believes has her "chap," but doesn't appear to have ever decided to do it; neither does she seem to have any plan for what she's going to do if she ever finds her son. This quest becomes the defining feature of her character.
I don't live nowheres no more, she said. I never did much. I just go around huntin my chap. That's about all I do any more.
She seems impelled by precognitive forces within her.
She did not know that she was leaving. She woke in the night and rose half tranced from the bed and began to dress, all in darkness and with gravity. Perhaps some dream had moved her so.
Her quest has no direction but at the same time it seems unaltered by anything that happens to her. She never finds her son--in the end the symbolic Christ-child is sacrificed by grotesque hillbilly magi who consume him in a cannibalistic sacramental rite. But unlike the Biblical story, there is no salvific component to this transubstantiation. The narrative of the novel grinds to a macabre halt at the place of the execution-- a road that leads to nowhere in a world unredeemed.

In The Crossing a teenage Billy Parham catches a Mexican wolf in a trap and sets off to return it to the mountains across the border. He doesn't seem to have any sort of internal debate about the wisdom of such an adventure. At dinner with a friend of his father he explains why he's doing it:
I aint takin her to give to nobody. I'm just takin her down there and turnin her loose. It's where she come from.
It doesn't appear to cross Billy's mind that there is any other course of action available to him. The moral structure of the world he inhabits simply dictates that the wolf should be returned to her homeland; it's where she belongs. When the wolf dies, Billy is moved, again without any apparent decision, to see to it that the wolf's body is returned to the mountains. Billy retraces the trajectory of action in reverse when his brother is killed and buried in Mexico. Billy finds the grave and exhumes the body in order to return it to his home. As he digs up the coffin it crosses his mind that this is unnecessary.
You could just shovel the dirt back in, he said. It wouldn't take an hour.
But it is no more than an abstract possibility.
He walked over to the saddlebags and got out his matches and came back and lit one and held it out over the grave. The box was badly caved.  A musty cellar odor rose from the dark ground. He shook out the match and walked over to the horse and unhitched the rope and came back coiling it in his hand and he stood with the coiled rope in the blue and windless dusk and looked off to the north where under the overcast the earliest stars were burning. Well, he said. You could do that.... Finally he climbed down into the grave and by that pale and fluttering light he began to pry apart the boards with the spade and and cast them out until the remains of his brother lay wholly to sight, composed on a pallet of rotting rags, lost in his clothes as always.
Anton Chigurh is the psychotic hit man in No Country For Old Men. Obsessed with fate, he forces random strangers to "call it" when he tosses a coin. If they win the toss he lets them live; the survivors never even know the stakes of the game. Fate determines the outcome of the toss, as if the universe is deciding whether the participant lives or dies.
Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting. And after that nothing is the same.
Chigurh's moral code prevents him from failing to keep his word. He told Llewelyn Moss that unless Moss returned the money he'd found at a crime scene he would kill Moss's wife Carla Jean, so when he refused the deal Chigurh is determined to keep his word. Their exchange reveals his motivation:
You got no cause to hurt me, she said.
I know. But I gave my word.... [W]hat's done cannot be undone. I think you understand that. Your husband, you may be distressed to learn, had the opportunity to remove you from harm's way and he chose not to do so. He was given that option and his answer was no. Otherwise I would not be here.
Chigurh then offers Carla Jean a coin toss, showing that the only thing that can override his twisted sense of duty is the reliance on the moral structure of the world to produce the right outcome.
He straightened out his leg and reached into his pocket and drew out a few coins and took one and held it up. He turned it. For her to see the justice of it. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and weighed it and then flipped it snipping in the aid and caught it and slapped it down on his wrist. Call it, he said.
Carla Jean calls wrong. After protesting that it is up to Chigurh to determine whether she lives or dies, he claims no responsibility; instead he lays it at her feet.
I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous.
In McCarthy's worlds there is a deep moral structure that puts severe constraints on the choices available to his characters. Action follows by an inexorable logic from states of affairs, rather than the other way around. The metaphysics of free will in McCarthy thus tends toward the deterministic. There are choices, but there is very little that can change the outcomes that fate has predetermined.

The accounting is scrupulous.

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