There's a long history of philosophers bashing poets, back to Socrates bashing rhetoriticians (poetry being a species of rhetoric, to him) for pursuing felicity of expression over an actual search for the truth. Though in the McCarthy episode, we were very upbeat about the utility of literature for conveying philosophical ideas, today I'm in a grumpy mood about it and feel the need to vent the other side of the matter.
Per my name drop near the end of the episode, I just finished a book (actually a three-volume book) by one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, called 1Q84. In this book, some characters have slipped into another world (the novel takes place in 1984, so one character names this new world 1Q84) that is nearly exactly like the ordinary world, but with a few differences that take a while to notice, which make the characters then question their own sanity and basically not understand what's going on. Like many of Murakami's books, it's a trippy metaphysical jaunt, and many of his characters talk about great literary figures and philosophical ideas while reflecting on their trippy, metaphysical circumstances. However, as I argued back in ep54 in our little discussion about what makes for good fantasy, the metaphysics never ends up getting explained: it's magic, and though it has certain internal laws that seem like they make sense, the forcefulness of these laws is merely a matter of how fervently the author makes you feel about them. It has less to do with the coherence of the laws than with the overall skill of the illusion. Much less detail is given for the magic in IQ84 than in Harry Potter; the story in fact stops at a point where, if you just got to find out what life was then subsequently like for the characters, you'd have some better idea of how this parallel worlds business really works. But that's not the point: the focus is the characters, and the apparently psychic and/or fate-based connection between them. It's a love story with a very drawn out build-up. Despite my tone here, I had a great time reading it, and would highly recommend it (and I've not spoiled much for you here, really).
As I was getting into this, though, I started at first noting all the philosophical references, and thinking that Murakami, like McCarthy, sure is an educated guy, and has thought a lot about these issues. But by the conclusion, I felt like it was all a dramatic device. I didn't learn anything about the possible nature of reality from this book. I didn't actually learn anything about destiny, or each of us only having one true love out there, or moral conflict (one of the characters is a hit man of sorts), or religion (the book is in part about cults). I did learn about the process of revising a poorly written book (this is an activity one of the characters engages in for a good chunk of the first 100 pages), and how weird things were in 1980s Japan (this is one of the joys of reading Murakami, who writes in Japanese but is translated into very consistently nice-sounding English). So literature, of course, has numerous merits of its own, in terms of drawing you into its world, laying moods on you, hooking you up to different or even impossible scenes and scenarios to soak in, but this is a much different thing than what philosophy does, which is not just supposed to be a good show, but getting at truth. Now, you can stretch the notion of truth to include the benefits of literature, e.g. showing you a true-to-life emotion or character or scene, and these are relevant to, e.g. making vivid a picture of a political or ethical outcome to some situation as we discussed on the McCarthy episode, but the fact is that literature does not require that these true pictures be actually explained, and in fact if it does, then the literature is typically bad, and may as well have been written as a treatise (see Brave New World).
I maintain that in No Country for Old Men, and in Blood Meridian, there is a suggestion of a philosophy in the antagonist, but not a philosophy as such. If there is a philosophical point that McCarthy is making, it's something like "look, in the real, harsh world, someone like Chigurh seems rational. Damn, that must mean the world sucks." Maybe it's a challenge for us to rebut that grim assertion. It's certainly an effective Rorschach test for us to make up theories like we did to fill out Chigurh's view and speculate about McCarthy's. But I'm guessing that people who came into the episode wanting to learn about existentialism didn't come away with any particularly clear ideas about it. We conveyed a couple of philosophical positions about life, e.g. Moss's claim that (from p. 227 in my paperback):
Your life is made out of the days it's made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I don't know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who's layin there?
But really, if this claim were made outside of a literary context, would we really have even thought it noteworthy? How could one argue for, or against, such a claim? It's pretty much self-explanatory. I think philosophy is often brought in as a literary tool, but ultimately what makes it good literature is not the quality of the philosophy in it. The better the book is, in fact, the less likely we are to notice when its uses of philosophy are fatuous. It's as if we as philosophers are so tickled when someone outside of a the context of an academic philosophy paper name-drops Nietzsche, or even reflects about God or freedom or whatever that we get all glowy inside, as if the work has given us the secret handshake for our geeky philosophers' club. If a fiction writer, like Sartre or maybe Camus (and keep in mind that even those guys are often considered lightweights when compared to a dude like Husserl), really has the philosophical goods, then chances are, you're going to see it spelled out in actual treatises. If you don't see this, then you've most likely got a philosophical debutante, a dabbler, someone who may be a great observer of human nature but can't actually concoct a coherent theory or two to express these insights.
I'm more than happy to admit of some exceptions, and have no wish to wrestle with Eric over McCarthy in particular, but I think you've got to be pretty down on the pretensions of philosophical theorizing to think that literature could really stand in for philosophical exposition. I'm not saying literature is useless to philosophers, but I think it's very easy to get sucked into discussing literature as literature, and never emerging to explicitly reflect on whether there are good arguments to be made or not for the positions that you've dredged out of (or read into) literary works. Beware that trap!