Episode 63: Existentialist Heroes in Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men”

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On philosophical issues in McCarthy’s 2005 novel about guys running around with drug money and shooting each other, and about fiction as a form for exploring philosophical ideas.

What can morality mean for people who have witnessed the “death of God,” i.e. a loss in faith in light of the horrors of war? For both the protagonist and antagonist in “No Country for Old Men,” morality is about being satisfied with your own actions, even if what you’ve done is set in stone forever, and even if it were to be the last thing you do before death. This is not purely subjectivist, though, seemingly not just dependent upon our whims. In McCarthy’s sort-of Nietzschean world, we have duties toward the dead, and duties towards ourselves. It’s clear that this sort of “ethic” is not coincident with “ethics” as we’re familiar with it, as it’s something shared by both the risk-taker-with-a-heart-of-gold hero and the I’ll-kill-you-like-cattle baddie.

What does McCarthy himself think? Who knows? Like many good philosophical novelists, he puts philosophies in the mouths of his characters to try them out as world views, to see how they hang psychologically and what fate they lead to, in the author’s best estimation. Another peculiarity of the novel as ethical philosophy is that is provides a full-blown concrete ethical situation to analyze instead of a classroom abstraction.

We discuss these issues and more with Eric Petrie, Professor at Michigan State University, who’s an old friend and teacher of Dylan’s. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “My Grandfather” by Dylan Casey (2001).

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Comments

  1. Adam Dreaver

    September 21, 2012

    First!

    I’ve been waiting for this eagerly, I’ve been going to partiallyexamindlife.com 3x a day for the last 2 weeks, maniacally refreshing the page in hopes of Ep. #63; I think I might have a problem, I’ve become addicted to philosophy discussion from the PEL crew. Thank you PEL, you’re humanity’s only hope.

    • Avatar of Seth Paskin

      Seth Paskin

      September 22, 2012

      Thanks Adam. I hope for everyone’s sake we are not humanity’s only hope. Or if so they pay us accordingly.

      • Wayne Schroeder

        October 1, 2012

        The check is in the mail.

  2. Tim

    September 21, 2012

    about halfway through listening to the episode, but I wanted to make a note of this before I forgot…

    you talk about the scene where Chigurh is about to kill Carla Jean and she objects that her husband is dead, so why is he killing her, and he responds by saying “his word is not dead.”

    there’s a really strong parallel between that line and this quote from Judge Holden in Blood Meridian:
    “Words are things. The words he is in possession of he cannot be deprived of. Their authority transcends his ignorance of their meaning.”

    I initially read that in a sort of magical/juridical context (i.e., the law applies to every citizen whether they are aware of and understand it or not), but seeing that parallel between the quote makes me think about it in a more existential context as well (i.e., Nietzche’s oaths). of course the two contexts overlap. I was a bit disappointed that you guys stayed away from talking about the elements of political philosophy in the book (or maybe I just haven’t gotten to it yet) – all of McCarthy’s work seems to be obsessed with borders and border violence, and I think there’s a lot to be said about that in relation to this stuff about pretending to be God, or meaning having objective or external significance or whatever (borders, of course, are fictions that acquire objective reality through the violence that reinforces them)

    • Avatar of Seth Paskin

      Seth Paskin

      September 22, 2012

      If we didn’t cover it, I welcome you to bring it to the table.

  3. Bear Mathun

    September 22, 2012

    Literature has often been used in Philosophy. One of the earliest examples of this is the Iliad. The opening canto/chapter describes the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon. The fundamental problem that the poem explores is that in the ethical understanding of the players, neither Achilles nor Agamemnon is at fault, and yet it leads to this rather destructive dispute.

    There are many other Philosophical questions that the Iliad explores, but this is the central theme.

    And there are many other Philosophical novels, and I would agree with you that literature is a good way of exploring Philosophical themes. I would also add that for the novel to be successful, it has to work as literature, which grounds any Philosophy in some reality.

    • Avatar of Kenneth Daly

      Kenneth Daly

      June 26, 2013

      Bernard Williams doesn’t use the term “mind experiment” but he does have some good comments in Shame and Necessity on why philosophers should not make up their own characters/situations, but should rely on good writers/literature. This is the book where he examines the philosophical implications of a number of classical Greek plays.

      A novel that works as a great story, but that expresses as many profound philosophical questions/views as No Country for Old Men is Moby-Dick.

  4. Daniel

    September 22, 2012

    Towards the end one of you mentioned the use of the cattle-gun by Chigurh. More specifically, that he only used it on certain people because he did not have respect for their lives because they were not in any sense that he was willing to recognize Actually living a life. They were examples of “the herd” etc. That, I think is an accurate understanding of his character and shines light on his stance towards those characters who he did respect and whose lives he wanted to see end with dignity (i.e. the account you mentioned towards the end about how Chigurh has that Heideggerian stance that you never see your life as a whole unless you are viewing it from it’s end (or always veiwing every choice as if it was the last one which would be the end and thus finish off your life (like a work of art let’s say))). Therefore, you could easily look at the character Moss and realize that Chigurh respects him because he takes his life into his own hands. He does not get pushed around but rather makes choices and Chigurh is there to make sure such actions meet their consequences and the action-takers accept the responsibilities.
    He respects those people who are as invested and involved in deciding their paths and their lives. However… He is also (as I you all discussed earlier on) very disappointed when the people who might have been examples of “Authentic” persons (in that Heideggerian sense) don’t accept the end with dignity. They are at that moment when they can finish their life and see it as a whole and instead of accepting it and letting it end as a beautiful whole they, in some way or another, tarnish it with fear and refusal to accept total (unforgiving) responsibility.

    Great episode guys, thanks.

  5. Daniel

    September 22, 2012

    One more thing… Mark,

    Could I have your interpretation of Chigurh with the addition of a particularly memorable quote from him in mind: “If The Rule You Followed Brought You To This….Of What Use Was The Rule?”
    I don’t remember where that line is… it’s been years since I’ve read the book and at least 2 years also since I’ve seen the film so it may just be from the film. If not, however, I would like to read a bit on how you would address this line in the context of the rest of Chigurhs philosophy as a whole.

    Thanks.

    • Steve

      October 2, 2012

      That line is from Chigurh’s conversation with Carson Wells in the hotel room. Stone cold.

      I really appreciated the perspective near the end regarding literature’s mission to raise questions and not supply answers. That ambiguity of message is actually the mark of great writing (particularly novelistic writing) and what sets McCarthy, Kundera, and Kafka apart from Orwell, Sartre, and Golding.

      Great podcast, guys…I’m cherry-picking all of the language/linguistics episodes from iTunes and just love it. The Wittgenstein episodes back in the spring were gold.

      • Avatar of Mark Linsenmayer

        Mark Linsenmayer

        October 2, 2012

        Thanks, Steve! Welcome! You may like the Camus one, looking way back…

  6. Mark Babcock

    September 22, 2012

    Chigurh is a mechanism. He does not believe in free will. Carla Jean does believe in free will. “you don’t have to do this”. Bell says “good people don’t need much government, bad people can’t be governed at all”

    The Epilogue of Blood Meridian is relevant here. McCarthy names off kinds of wanderers. Those who gather the bones, and those who do not gather. And the “artist” with his tool who enkindles fire from the hole that god has put there. It’s a gnostic god, there by the hole it leaves.

    All three Abrahamic religions have their gnostic sect, Hermetic Christianity, Sufi Muslims, Jewish Kaballahists. McCarthy has read Jacob Boehme. A follow up to this line might be one of his texts.

  7. Bear Mathun

    September 22, 2012

    I took the novel as being an exploration of a Nietzschean worldview, and the considerations of a slave morality against the Uebermensch. Each of the characters can be seen to embody an aspect of what Nietzsche wrote about.

    The first obvious one is Bell – is a sheriff, a lawman to enforce the old morality. However, he himself has fallen short of this morality: his sin was that he abandoned his unit to die. In usual military ethics, this is unacceptable. And this sin is one which Bell carries with him for the rest of his life – enslaving him.

    The other main characters – Chigurh and Moss – have transcended the slave morality of the past. In Moss this shown by the contrast he is to Bell: he was a sniper rather than in a regular regiment. Thus, he operated with his spotter alone. Also snipers are also seen to be elite soldiers able to change the course of a battle – so they are much more like Achilles than a soldier in the ranks. Also, unlike Bell he does go back to dying people and he helps people.

    Chigurh is clearly a Nietzschean Ubermensch – he does things because he can. He does things to please his own aesthetic, such as escape from custody. Also in the contest, he is ultimately victorious – defeating other heroes, such as Wells.

    The interesting thing about the novel, and I think an important part of the Philosophical aspect of the novel is the criticism of Nietzsche.

    Bell is obviously the failed man – he fails to stop any of the murders, and fails to catch Chigurh. In the end he resigns, gaining nothing. If we recall that Bonaparte was one of Nietzsche’s heroes, and one of the models of the Ubermensch. Bonaparte is notorious for having abandoned his army in the Middle East, and let them be slaughtered. However, as Emperor of France, Bonaparte was an embodiment of the law and the slave morality, just as Bell is the Sheriff and embodiment of the law. Bonaparte’s career ended in the French losing most of their empire, and losing any status as a world power. Just like Bell, Bonaparte is the failed man who lost much more than he ever gained.

    Moss and Chigurh are different aspects of the Ubermensch – neither being bound by traditional morals. Moss has compassion because it pleases him – just at the Ubermensch shows mercy out of strength rather than weakness. At their meeting, Moss fails to have sufficient brutality to kill Chigurh when he has the chance.

    Chigurh is obviously meant to be identified as the Ubermensch, since he allows himself to be captured to see if he could escape. However, he is flawed in this: he decides to kill people on the toss of a coin. However, he does not accept responsibility for his decision, saying that the victim is responsible. So he considers himself an instrument of fate, rather than he superior man. He also lack any of the positive characteristics of the Ubermensch.

    So, in the end, the Ubermensch is defeated by another, who is the hand of fate.

    • Wayne Schroeder

      September 22, 2012

      What if Chigurh is McCarthy’s symbol, metaphor and archetype of Evil whose every response is measured to be arbitrary and destructive, the representative and backdrop of merciless, mechanistic violence, the Death and harmfulness that this world brings irrespective of person, the hand of Fate himself, herself or more likely, itself?

  8. Wayne Schroeder

    September 22, 2012

    The epitome of the intersection of philosophy/literature in my opinion is Albert Camus: his revelation of nihilistic/existential (existence preceeds essence, etc) in the literature of “The Stranger,” “The Plague,” “The Fall” etc. was accompanied by his philosophical views as well–”The Rebel” and the in-between “The Myth of Sysyphus.” All Cormack McCarthy needs to do now is produce his version of “The Rebel” which I think would be “The Nihilist,” not unlike “The Rebel.”

  9. Wayne Schroeder

    September 22, 2012

    Sartre was no slouch either, with his “No Exit,” “Nausea,” “The Wall” etc. to supplement his philosophy.

  10. dmf

    September 23, 2012

    it may be helpful to remember that existentialism isn’t just a set of themes but really a focus on knowing via experience vs abstract knowing about, such that Kierkegaard wants to put us on the path up the mountain on the way to slay our beloved child and not racing ahead to the moral at the end of the story, so to the degree that a novel or a play can give you a more visceral experience of the dilemmas, if not aporias, of coping with the emerging complexity of life, choices made from in the midst of things and not from on high or in hindsight, than they are perhaps more fitting vehicles than standard textbooks on ethics or such.
    here is a review of a novel about a philosophy class of the future who are living with the consequences of our choices:
    http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/33196-ethics-for-a-broken-world-imagining-philosophy-after-catastrophe/

  11. Charles McCants

    September 24, 2012

    I was happy to hear such a fair treatment of McCarthy on your podcast. Good on you all for a brilliant take.

    I first came to the idea of the novel as a work of philosophy in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, which provides a certain back-and-forth between the aesthetic life and the utilitarian counterpoint. Obviously No Country treats a very different set of matters, but I do think the two novels, can both shed light on the novel as a serious vehicle of philosophical discourse.

    The novel may be the only true way to do philosophy, if philosophy is to be seen on the ground, even if that ground is fictional.

  12. Fred

    September 24, 2012

    I really enjoyed the last two episodes. I am glad you introduced me to Candide and Voltaire. I am not familiar with McCarthy, however it is great learning.

    The last couple shows have been really been interesting. Thanks guys.

  13. Russ Baker

    September 25, 2012

    Really enjoyed this episode! Hope you’ll do more novels. I’d love to hear you discuss The Brothers Karamazov and some Shakespeare. Plenty of existentialist themes to explore there.

  14. Todd Costa

    September 26, 2012

    I just want to say great job guys on the Cormac McCarthy episode, I was left very confused when I saw this movie in theatres and it just goes to show that you can’t always trust your interpretation upon first glance. I wanted to say that just hearing that you will do an episode on Celebrity phenomenon with Lucy Lawless I simply had to suggest a short essay that I believe sheds a lot of light on this phenomenon, it is called “Matt Damon is a Vast Sinister Conspiracy” by D.E. Wittkower, in a collection of essays titled “Philip K. Dick and Philosophy” that just came out last year. He talks about the social manipulation of celebrities upon how our groupthink works and that celebrities make us all feel like we are part of the same tribe or unit because we all have someone in common we know and how this influences our free will. I would love for you guys to consider doing an episode about science fiction and philosophy since you just touched on another episode concerning literature and philosophy and you seemed to talk well of literature’s ability to carry a message that resonates with many people sometimes over vast spanses of time and space, why not one that seeks to constantly bend the rules of both, at best for a meaningful purpose. Just for listening to that I’m going to make a donation because I really did enjoy the last episode and being a philosophy undergrad I have been listening to you guys for well over a year now and really hope you guys continue to do this. Thanks a lot PEL, look forward to the next one.

    Todd Costa

    • Avatar of Mark Linsenmayer

      Mark Linsenmayer

      September 26, 2012

      Thanks, Todd. I’m a big P.K. Dick fan, though the Celebrity episode has already been recorded…

  15. Leishalynn

    September 27, 2012

    How do I join/become a member/get access to Eric Petrie’s essay?

  16. Eric Petrie

    September 29, 2012

    I want access too. Let me know as soon as you are ready!

  17. Scott

    September 30, 2012

    Mark,

    Have you read or considered reading “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes? In this and the Danto episode you strongly argue on behalf of authorial intent, which is disregarded in literary criticism for the most part.

    • dmf

      September 30, 2012

      not so much disregarded, at best, as understood as not being the final word, the guiding/grounding/author-itative force, in determining reader-responses/interpretations.
      Many authors report finding their way, voices, in the process of writing, and would likely reject any post hoc attempts to reduce their work to a singular/predetermined intention.

  18. Wayne Schroeder

    October 2, 2012

    I believe that McCarthy’s novel SUTTREE is the rosetta stone to interpret most of what he is up to in his other novels, including No Country for Old Men (NCOM)–here’s part of my Amazon summary:

    SUTTREE is perhaps the best of his novels to get to know Cormac McCarthy’s personal perspective on life. I would call this novel the Autobiography of Man (through McCarthy’s eyes). We find ourselves in the Suttree world that McCarthy describes through every adjective in the book, and that he reveals through the uniquely mundane everyday life of Cornelius Suttree.

    Suttree becomes a fisherman–as opposed to a fisher of men. While the plot seems to be going nowhere for the first half of the novel, that becomes the basis for his “story.” One of my impressions of the first half of the novel at one point was that this is the Great American Novel, similar to Tom Sawyer (Suttree) traveling down the Mississippi with Jim (Harrogate), giving us his unique slice of “American” life.

    So much happens to Suttree, some by his choice, so we get to see his reactions and actions which reveal his values. Finally, in a near death experience, Suttree does not see any light to go toward, but rather a Felinni-type of nightmare, a Grand Inquisition of what he has done with his life. He learns that there is only one Suttree, and takes his most meaningful action by leaving Knoxville forever.

    We are waiting to see Suttree living the enlightened life (that is for each of us to find out for ourselves), but then the novel wisely ends.

    Applying this to NCOM, McCarthy always seems to be presenting through the protagonist, Moss in this case, choices we individually have to make in the face of existence alone. We are haunted by existence until we stare it in the face, own it in all its limitations, as uniquely our own. My own take on Chigurh (see above) is that he is the expression of the randomness of the universe in human form. This is classic Sartre.

    • Russ Baker

      October 2, 2012

      Thanks Wayne for the Suttree recommendation. I had read Blood Meridian, The Road and was thinking of buying Suttree in reading a few reviews of it. Your plug for it has me headed to Amazon to give it a try.

      • Avatar of Sean Parker

        Sean Parker

        October 21, 2012

        Suttree is indeed a great book, probably the least fantastic and most human of his novels.

  19. Wayne Schroeder

    October 2, 2012

    Cool. However here are the caveats: you may be put off by the primary emphasis to tell a novel through description of the environment through lots of poetic prose (get out your dictionary), and a consequent downplay of the traditional emphasis on plot. This is the work of genius. Also just finished CITIES OF THE PLAIN–very forgettable–go figure.

  20. Craig

    October 4, 2012

    When I saw the film, I had interpreted it as a commentary on karma. I saw this theme of the dependency between past, current, and future actions, with most of the characters choosing to just “pass along” their bad karma and/ or accept that this is where those actions have lead. Perhaps I just have fuzzy memory or should have read the book, but I kept expecting some mention of it to come up in the conversation.

    Side note: Dylan’s end song … a little Buffalo Tom influence?

  21. Avatar of Nate Tarnoviski

    Nate Tarnoviski

    October 21, 2012

    Thank you for such an amazing podcast. I have become a sort of Cormac neophyte and really appreciated your insights. I realize you like to have an eclectic mix of discussions, but would you ever consider examining Blood Meridian which I’m sure you know is the epitome of the philosophical novel.

    I did have a question concerning Professor Petrie’s essay.

    Can one conclude that Chigurh has a sort of “divine revelatory” status in light of his understanding that man must follow a rule, promise underwritten by a sort of being-towards-death? As I believe you noted, Chigurh understands every step of his life in light of his recognition of death, hence he has no fear of death. However, does Chigurh actually have a specific promise or rule that he lives by?

    Moss’s principle of everything is a something seems to indirectly acknowledge the higher model on which it is based: that he lives his life according to this rule knowing full well that he may die, but must commit to his promise, hence he sees his choices in light of death as does Chigurh, indirectly. But Chigurh seems to have no specific principle; instead he seems to affirm the highest form of the promise: that one must promise to some rule as an accounting in light of death, to justify one’s life. Perhaps his specific principle is simply to account for others acknowledgement of this truth; he is a temporal debt collector whose [promise is built on accounting for or converting those in his path to this truth, but unlike the philosopher who returns to the cave, Chigurh kills the prisoners.

    Thus could you argue that Chigurh is as one apprehends Plato’s Forms in themselves and thus has no need of superficial principles (Moss’s everything is a something) and Moss is as one who sees the shadow of the Forms and thus has a higher form of wisdom than the prisoners like Wells, but still does not openly understand the highest truth as Chigurh does?

    I apologize for the rambling thoughts.

    • Avatar of Wayne Schroeder

      Wayne Schroeder

      February 18, 2013

      Far from rambling, I would say you hit the nail on the head (or the human in the head with a cattle gun), as Ghigurh was the random dispenser of death, the TEMPORAL DEBT COLLECTOR. I really like that Plato’s cave analogy as Chigurh killing the prisoners. I think that after reading Plato’s Republic, we should really get on with it. I don’t think Chigurh understands the highest truth so much as is the messenger who shoots us. (And who has the capacity to be random anyhow?)

  22. Brad Ballard

    March 22, 2013

    Wow, I’ve just discovered PEL’s podcast and have been really enjoying it. Thanks for doing an episode on Cormac McCarthy. Having read all McCarthy’s books I found PEL’s discussion a great insight into his work.

    I wanted to link to a Science Friday episode from April 2011 that has Cormac McCarthy, Werner Herzog, and Lawrence Krauss. A less well known appearance by McCarthy that you all might find interesting.
    http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/04/08/2011/connecting-science-and-art.html

    Brad

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