Thursday, May 21, 2009

The notion of free will in Blood Meridian

[edited and expanded from a previous post]

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote:

For every strong and natural species of man, love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger, affirmative acts and negative acts, belong together. One is good on condition one also know how to be evil; one is evil because otherwise one would not understand how to be good.

Nietzsche, of course, is a hate-figure for many of our more Dostoevsky-leaning writers and 'preachers of death'. They caricature his thought in order to create a straw-man which they can proceed to burn with the relish of a Torquemada. They rank him alongside Darwin as the evil twin promulgators of modern, rationalist, anti-Christian dogma. The one shouts ‘God is dead’ and calls for the assumption of the superman, while the other proclaims that we are all just apes. Except, of course, neither of them said any such thing.

Nietzsche was absolutely clear that the Overman (which is a more literal translation of the German Ubermensch) was not some Darwinian improvement on our current humanity, but rather our current humanity taught to think differently, to overcome ressentiment, to find enlightenment. Those, like Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, who create Nietzschean tableaux (Wise Blood or Blood Meridian) are focusing their (and, by extension, our) ire on a false target.

And likewise, in constantly pursuing a rigidly Darwinian line, and in promulgating the notion that we are, essentially, apes, McCarthy does a disservice to Darwinian thought. When we talk of evolution as a physical process, and as a mental process and, crucially, as the process which sees the development of consciousness, we are talking of different, though necessarily inter-related concepts. McCarthy allows no such distinction. Instead, he tells us (in Blood Meridian) of the violence of ‘men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes.’ Elsewhere, throughout his entire oeuvre, people are described as ‘simian’, or as ‘primates’. The corollary is clear: this is man as animal; indeed, worse than animal, because it is man as malignantly aggressive, man who kills man for no valid reason.

But this is to bastardise Darwinian thought. This is to turn it into a cartoon. This is an appeal to ridicule, a logical fallacy. RG Collingwood, writing of the new, rationalist Enlightenment understanding of our progress from barbarism to civilisation, warned of the dangers of exaggerating polarity in this way:

For a mind that has assimilated the results of this late eighteenth-century development in historical thought there can be no sharp line between civilization and barbarism; it becomes clear that any such line is only the effect of telescoping into nothing a process which has no absolute beginning and no absolute ending.

McCarthy is perpetuating the same error here for his own eschatological ends. He is contracting the evolutionary progress of millennia and ignoring, in that, the gradual development of consciousness which separates man from animals. He is telescoping into nothing the sentience of humanity. In so doing, he is promoting the godly (whoever McCarthy’s god might be), and denying that which makes us human: love, pity, hope. Now Nietzsche, of course – to return to where I began – would dismiss that latter remark as symptomatic of the cult of sentimentalism that has lessened the virtuous strength wrought by the Renaissance and left us in a weakened state: thus, I could be accused of trying to have it both ways here. I accept that argument, and so, after Nietzsche, to each of my positives I will ascribe an associated negative – hate, contempt, despair – which also combine to form the totality of human experience.

But my point is that, in the same way, Nietzsche accepts both the good and the bad of humanity, while understanding they are not polar opposites, and while refusing to accept that evil must be automatically pre-eminent. Yes, he calls on war as a means of progress; but he speaks also of love. McCarthy seems to have difficulty making a similar concession. His Blood Meridian is a place devoid of morality. It is impossible to speak, there, of good and bad, because no such judgement is permitted. All that appears to exist is the pre-ordained gnostic evil with which man is cursed, and if that is all there is there can be no prospect of overgoing, nor even of redemption, to use that loaded Christian ideal. And yet, in his 1992 interview with Richard Woodward, McCarthy says:

I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.

I think there is a tremendous irony in this because, to me, with his subjugation of the human will to the outer darkness, he is doing precisely what he cautions against. Nietzsche, who McCarthy deliberately echoes throughout Blood Meridian with the words of judge Holden, would not understand his surrender of the human will. He would dismiss McCarthy as weak and fatalistic. He would consider his obsession with suffering rather than overcoming to be poisonous and ‘life-destructive’. He would wonder what happened to beauty in McCarthy’s country. Finally, he would wonder how, in a world so dark and emotionless, someone could write something as moving and beautiful as, for example, this from Blood Meridian:

The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell to any pilgrim in his passing how it was that that people had lived in this place and in this place died.

He would, in short, wonder at the paradox of someone like Cormac McCarthy being able to exist in Cormac McCarthy’s world.


Court said...

Fine post, Tom.

I would quibble with a small point: one must be careful not to ascribe telos to evolution. Which is to say, the notion of "development" typically conjures images of improvement and goal-seeking behavior. Evolution, per se, does neither, at least as I understand it. It is an unfolding process that leads to greater complexity - until that complexity is wiped out and it starts over again.

I think McCarthy's perspective in Blood Meridian , insofar as it can be determined, is not so pseudo-Nietzschean as you suggest. Judge Holden apes some Nietzsche, and does it badly. Holden is a nihilist at best, or perhaps an incarnation of an all-destructive demon; whereas Nietzsche, as you point out, was emphatically not a nihilist. The scene of BM is one devoid of hope and morality, yes; just as I would say nature is. Hope and morality are useful parts of our evolutionary mental architechture, as reflected in the various cultural memes in which they exist, and so are evolutionary in that way, in that they evolved in the human mind. But it is worth considering that we are only a few meager percentage points of DNA removed from our simian relatives, for whom hope and morality play only the minutest of roles, and only a few more percantage points removed from animals for whom they play none. McCarthy, I think, simply strips away those percentage points, if you will. Which does not make him a nihilist, even if his characters appear to be; it is simply a chromatic rendering of the human drama, without the usual accoutrement of sentiment, good and bad.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Court, thanks as ever

Interesting you mention telos, as it's the teleology of McCarthy that is increasingly coming to interest me. You're right about the notion of evolution not being a journey, with any notional end, or with conscious self-improvement at its heart. I'll look again at what I've written in that respect.

McCarthy, howver, may be said to have had an end in mind throughout his career (even if initially he didn't necessarily know exactly where or what it might be). That ending, it now seems, is The Road - nothingness. I'm curious as to how he got there. He's not a nihilist but, in human terms, it's a nihilistic ending he proposes.

The scene of BM is one devoid of hope and morality, yes; just as I would say nature is.But there appears to be nothing else in BM either. At least in nature there is symbiosis, life living off other life (and not just the predations of the food chain, but pollenation etc). Even in nature there is a sense of community, of Gaian togetherness.

I have to say, stripping away the accoutrements of sentiment, good and bad, as you say, is fascinating. It undoubtedly forces you to think in an entirely different way. And perhaps McCarthy's intention was that people react to it the way I have.

But, back to the point of teleology, the apocalypse of The Road might suggest otherwise?

Court said...

I would have been unsurprised if McCarthy had retired after The Road . I mean, where else is there to go beyond total apocalypse? But instead it looks like he's working on multiple (!) novels. So while I think he already belongs to the contemporary pantheon, if he can come up with some new, as-yet untried direction with his subsequent novels(s), then he will truly be staking a claim to all-time greatness. I await with as eager anticipation as anyone.

Like you, I have also thought that McCarthy seems to be tending somewhere in his works; the endtimes, it would seems, which finishes the chromatic portrait BM began and the Border triology and NCFOM were lesser chapters of, and which the earlier works were preparation for, as he moved out of the South and to the West (albeit that part of the) West that is also part of the South, including his own spiritual journey in Suttree.

Is this is a form of telology? I don't know, but I'll wager we'll start to get an answer with his forthcoming novels. And undoubtably it will be one we'll discussing and debating for years to come.