Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Backworldsman

The connection between Cormac McCarthy and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra is frequently made, most often in connection with Blood Meridian. The Road, too, could be read in a Nietzschean light, and it has been suggested that its opening, when the man wakes in ‘the dark and cold’ is emblematic of the eternal return. Maybe so, but if it is, it is not Nietzsche’s eternal return that McCarthy is describing. The first thing to note about Nietzsche’s eternal return is that it isn’t necessarily meant literally. Nietzsche was much more playful than he is given credit for. The second thing to note is that, as regards the soul, Nietzsche doesn’t necessarily agree that it is a separate entity. And he doesn’t go along with the notion that – as a separate entity – it is reborn. Zarathustra tells us: ‘Only where there are tombs are there resurrections’. The first mention of soul in Thus Spake Zarathustra, linking it to God and the ‘poisoners’ who ‘speak of superearthly hope’, describes it pejoratively:

Once the soul looked contemptuously on the body, and then that contempt was the supreme thing: the soul wished the body meagre, ghastly, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth.

This is not to say that Nietzsche does not accept the idea of the soul – he plainly does, as it reappears throughout TSZ, but he does not seek to place it on a pedestal. On the contrary:

Oh, that soul was itself meagre, ghastly, and famished; and cruelty was the delight of that soul!

But ye, also, my brethren, tell me: What doth your body say about your soul? Is your soul not poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency?

Of what is this soul comprised? In Nietzschean terms it is only part of the body. Zarathustra tells us:

"Body am I, and soul"- so saith the child. And why should one not speak like children?

But the awakened one, the knowing one, saith: "Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body."

The soul, then, is a part of the individual, and could be construed as the state of overgoing wisdom. In this, there may be some connection with the idea of eternal return, in as much as this concept is key to understanding Nietzsche’s idea of the progress of man from herd to overman. For Nietzsche, eternal return is a way of reconciling oneself with the past. The overman can only be attained if one learns to love life completely, such that the idea of eternally returning to each moment bcomes acceptable. This is a troublesome concept, of course, in moral terms, because it entails final acceptance (though not approval) of events such as, say, 9/11 or a murder of a close relative and so on. People therefore tend to get stuck on the concept of eternal return here, but again I stress that I don’t think Nietzsche is being literal: it is not the event, but one’s connection with it and understanding of it that matters. It is rooted in the love of the present, the here and now. Through understanding the past, accommodating it, reconciling onself to it, removing all anger and resentment and negative emotion from our understanding of it, we allow ourselves to live more fruitfully in the present. We find redemption, in other words, because redemption comes from ourselves and our connection with the world, not from a god who, at the end of a life, graciously bestows it on the worthy. By accepting the past we affirm the present. We feel no need to prepare ourselves for the great redemption of the end. John Updike, in one of his last poems, Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth, nails this beautifully, when he writes:

To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life.

Now, it may be that I am falling prey to my usual kindly, naïve humanist perspective here. Nietzsche was more definite. He said: 'To redeem the past and to transform every ‘It was’ into an ‘I willed it thus!’ – that alone do I call redemption!' Again, taking the 9/11 or murder example, it is possible to reach the point I suggest – understanding, reconciliation – without too much difficulty, but to reach the Nietzschean moment of ‘I willed it’ is more of a struggle. But he goes on: 'The will cannot will backwards; that it cannot break time and time’s desire – that is the will’s most lonely affliction.'

Now it may be that I’m misunderstanding McCarthy (very likely) or that I’m misunderstanding Nietzsche (even more likely). But it may also be, it seems to me, that McCarthy is also misunderstanding Nietzsche. The result of the Nietzschean universe created in Blood Meridian appears to be an indifference to suffering or pain or injustice. This is a simplification of Nietzsche’s views. It is, to go back to the 9/11 example, to say that one doesn’t care that it happened, which is not at all the same thing as saying one accepts that it happened.

For Nietzsche, eternal return is a life affirming belief. Thus, to transplant it into the context of The Road, where life is in the process of being annihilated, is surely to go against his thinking. So, we have a ‘long shear of light’ (or, in Blood Meridian, ‘the evening redness in the west’ or ‘reefs of bloodred cloud’ beneath a ‘red and elliptic sun’ in All The Pretty Horses) which might each be described, in Nietzschean terms, as the ‘coloured vapours before the eyes of a divinely dissatisfied one.’ In other words, the views of the backworldsmen, those ‘sick and perishing’ who:

despised the body and the earth and invented the heavenly world, and the redeeming bloodrops… From their misery they sought escape, and the stars were too remote for them. Then they sighed: “O that there were heavenly paths by which to steal into another existence and into happiness!” Then they contrived for themselves their bypaths and bloody draughts!

And so we have our bypaths. The Road begins in a cave before the time of man. In Blood Meridian we hear ‘cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.’ The Orchard Keeper’s forest ‘has about it a primordial quality, some steamy carboniferous swamp where ancient saurians lurk in feigned sleep’. Outer Dark’s triune ‘could have been stone figures quarried from the architecture of an older time’. In Suttree, we are ‘come to a world within the world’, and in The Crossing the ancient wolves know that ‘there is no order in the world save that which death has put there’, and ‘if men drink the blood of God yet they do not understand the seriousness of what they do.’

All of these, it seems to me, could be part of ‘that "other world" ... concealed from man, that dehumanised, inhuman world, which is a celestial naught’. In other words, we are indeed in the company of one of Nietzsche’s backworldsmen, those doomsayers constantly casting portents in our way, warning, always warning, of the death to come. Zarathustra describes them thus:

Backward they always gaze toward dark ages: then, indeed, were delusion and faith something different. Raving of the reason was likeness to God, and doubt was sin.

Too well do I know those godlike ones: they insist on being believed in, and that doubt is sin. Too well, also, do I know what they themselves most believe in.

Verily, not in backworlds and redeeming blood-drops: but in the body do they also believe most; and their own body is for them the thing-in-itself.

But it is a sickly thing to them, and gladly would they get out of their skin. Therefore harken they to the preachers of death, and themselves preach backworlds.


And so, in The Road, far from experiencing an eternal return of the soul, we find ourselves placed at the very edge of destruction, preaching the death of everything. It is hard to know where the soul could reside in such a landscape. Or why it would wish to do so.

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