Sunday, July 05, 2009

Summum bonum

More from Eric Voegelin, here discussing Hobbes' (deliberate) omission from Leviathan of the motivating factor of the summum bonum, the highest good.

If there is no summum bonum... there is no point of orientation that can endow human action with rationality. Action, then, can only be represented as motivated by passions, above all, by the passion of aggression, the overcoming of one's fellow man. The "natural" state of society must be understood as the war of all against all, if men do not in free love orient their actions to the highest good.

This is a perfect summary of the state of play in Blood Meridian in which, as the judge tells us, 'War is the ultimate because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.' McCarthy, then, in true gnostic fashion, is revolting 'against the world as it has been created by God' and in so doing 'arbitrarily omits an element of reality [the summum bonum] in order to create the fantasy of a new world.' In order to promulgate his world view he has created, in Blood Meridian, a society where the highest good does not exist as a concept. This follows the approach of Hobbes in Leviathan, but it is a significant failing. However, there is a further, even more significant failing. Voegelin continues:

The only way out of the warfare of this passion-conditioned state of nature is to submit to a passion stronger than all others, which will subdue their aggressiveness and drive to dominate and induce them to live in peaceful order. For Hobbes, this passion is the fear of the summum malum, the fear of death at the hands of another, to which each man is exposed in his natural state. If men are not moved to live with one another in peace through common love of the divine, highest good, then the fear of the summum malum of death must force them to live in an orderly society.

Not only does McCarthy create a world where violence and warfare are the only currency and the highest good is an unconsidered option, he further manipulates his characters and situation. Hobbes was clear that, in the absence of the summum bonum, men would be motivated by an aversion to the summum malum, and that the subsequent fear of death would result in civilised society. But McCarthy omits even this regulating factor: there is no fear of death in Blood Meridian. The novel is characterised by brutality and fatalism and, despite living amongst so much bloodshed, its characters remain wholly unmoved by it. This is most memorably the case in the ending of the book. What happens? The kid goes voluntarly to the jakes and allows himself to be enfolded in the deadly embrace of the judge. He submits. He finally accedes to nihilism and goes willingly to his death. Where, here, is the fear of the summum malum of death?

And so we have a situation where McCarthy manipulates his plot so that his characters can be motivated neither by the highest good nor the fear of death. And in such a circumstance only one thing can prevail: the anarchic nihilism of the judge. But this is not a fair or credible representation of reality. This is propaganda.


Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

Glad to see discussion of Eric Voegelin and Cormac McCarthy together in the public sphere-- way to ruin my build-yer-own-Phd bid, jerk. (I am sure I would gotten a job in 7-14 years depending on the impending catastrophe.)

Good stuff all around. Good comments bring out good commentators, myself excluded. I am on a writing sabbatical (or, a 'vacation' for the employed).

I have a different take on the relationship between EV and CM, but related they are. I've seen a new facet via your blog, thank you.

Still reading, so shoulda waited to post. I will credit you for anything I take, or that you published first. But the squirls and the homeless just won't leave me alone, so. (And so it goes.)

Thanks for your time and attention,

The Anonymous

Tom Conoboy said...

Carlos, thanks very much for writing. Hope you stick around and continue to comment, because it's good stuff.

I agree that there is a lot of mileage in reading Voegelin as a way of getting to understand McCarthy. They're both fascintating writers. Hope your researches go well, when you get back to them. Keep in touch


Anonymous said...

Hey Tom,
As a corollary to my recent posts on your threads “The Waste Land and Suttree” and “Why I write about McCarthy”, I should add a couple of notes (also, below is my direct reponse to this thread, "Summum bonum"). Both of my posts presuppose a bit of knowledge about the work of Eric Voegelin (without explication), which was dumb since these are McCarthy-centric threads and I don’t know how many of your readers know Voegelin. You do, so I suppose I was following up my whimsical post of a few months ago. Now I am no longer at the beach or on sabbatical, and so you will note my dour face and lack of humor. (Haaa… .)

In the years since Voegelin and McCarthy started their most seminal work (say, 1955 and 1975, respectively, roughly and arbitrarily) it's arguable that much in the public sphere of the modern West has changed for the better. So, some might say, “…of what social/spiritual pathology or disorder are you speaking?” One could list arguments in support of the fact there is still a lot screwed up with the modern West (both the archetypes of success and strength, as well as with the alienated underbelly), but that will tend to devolve into a discussion of particular viewpoints on particular issues (rather than of literature as a valuable inquiry into the human condition).

For my part, I am not religious, per se, nor do I think the sky is falling on the West. I do believe that McCarthy and Voegelin probably share an implied Christian view of the world and history, though they would both take issue with such a circumscription. I think it best to say that the works of McCarthy and Voegelin have value for the Western secular humanist in search of new theoretical foundations for moral action and good societal order, because they each help to understand what went wrong with things in the 19th and 20th centuries. One need not believe in G-O-D to see the supremacy of the libido dominandi as a bad thing (though CM and EV would probably beg to differ). -But then, they get the glory; we get to talk out of turn and drink beer while we do it.

With regard to your frustration about McCarthy’s contracting of human experience into its lowest parts, I think you’re right, but reach the wrong conclusions about his work. As opposed to seeing this as proof that McCarthy is deliberately subverting or omitting the good and valuable in humankind (and so creating a false reality), perhaps look at it as McCarthy’s extreme critique of the modern West— that it rewards such omission and subversion.

Blood Meridian’s horrific portrait of a key decade of American expansionism could, with a few tweaks and name changes, be a work about the Empire’s doings in the second Boer War, or the dark continent generally. In this sense, the work is counter-propaganda; a history written by the victors without the aid of white-wash. (And yes, Judge Holden, as evil incarnate, does go dancing and fiddling into the sunset.) As you noted in another thread, McCarthy often writes exactly the opposite of what he means. The trope is on us.

Thanks for your time, and pardon the verbosity.

Tom Conoboy said...

Still working my way through your comments... Don't apologise for them, by the way, I'm finding them absolutely terrific.

It seems to me that the West, currently, is undergoing a real crisis of confidence. I'm not sure how many people would say things have changed for the better. I'm certainly not sure (if a positive about a negative makes sense) that McCarthy would say so. Part of that, it seems to me, is a feeling that somehow we have lost a sense of spirituality - whether that is classically religious or some modern interpretation of spirituality, eco-political or whatever. I don't agree with this sense of fin de siecle, but it does seem to be a feeling within western society. In some respects, it's been going on for 100 years - the modernists were the first to identify a malaise in our culture. This, it feels to me, is a major force in McCarthy's work. EV puts it into a context, the gnosticism he saw in the totalitarian political religions of his time. As you say, each of them can help teach us about what has gone wrong with 19th and 20th century cultures.

As for the libido dominandi, it depends at what level you're talking about it. At the political level, it surely leads to the sort of political religions EV warned against, yes; but at a personal level some degree of 'will to power' is necessary, as Zarathustra would put it, to prevent stagnation. The result of this can be seen in (some) current Muslim society and formerly in Christian society, when the poltiical religion is so dominant any form of dissention is forbidden, and those who could/should dissent do not have enough libido dominandi to do anything about it. Not a good thing. EV kind of picks up on this in New Science of Politics when he talks of the 'brethren' and the 'worldlings'. The elite may create their institutions, but only if they are allowed to. And if modern wars are, as he suggests, gnostic - in that they are fought between parties who are bent on mutual destruction - then the only way they can be prevented is through the worldlings rising against their brethren. Which may be what we are currently seeing in Iran. I have a feeling I've wandered off the point a little...

On McCarthy, if BM is, as you say, an 'extreme critique of the modern West— that it rewards such omission and subversion', then I don't recognise that depiction of the West. In moments of crisis, yes - McCarthy very deliberately locates his novels at moments of rupture - and in certain individuals yes, but in general terms and in ongoing terms, no, I don't agree with him.

Anonymous said...

Those are good points, Tom. I was painting with overly-broad brush strokes, so your precision is appreciated. (The discussion on the BM thread proper has been enlightening.)

Re the West's current 'crisis of confidence', actually I agree and you put it well. I was trying to head-off rhetorically posters who might say "..what the hell are you talking about? -we are eating better than ever, everyone has the vote, and now almost everyone has access to a car or public transportation". I had originally written a much longer post (but couldn't fit it) and I think the truncated version may not have communicated well.

Returning to the connection with the fin de seicle-- great that you should elucidate that. The background idea in my larger research vision ties into that notion that the poets were early diagnoser's of that malaise. I am a Voegelinian in that I think that the source of the disorder is the sense of disorder in the failing meaning of the symbols of traditional Western authority. The paper I have been writing (by the way, that's where I have been- I've got a solid draft that's 40 pages, so I'm going to have to get out the hatchet later on...) is an exploration of this Voegelinian idea with regard to the Border Trilogy. I think that the sad character arc of Billy Parham's life, he becoming more and more skeptical and disillusioned throughout the last two books, reflects this Western crisis, and the implied author's various (and sometimes) heavy-handed intrusions into the texts act as discursive exploration of the issue. (How have we come to this, and where to go from here?)

In this regard, your insights that McCarthy's settings and characters are always "on the margins" (I think you wrote elsewhere) to me is indicative of his exploration into the failing backbone of meaning in Western life; the vacuity in being reduced to consumers. The borderlands, hinterlands, and ghettos, like the desert of biblical times, are fertile grounds for the discovery of insights into societal order and disorder.

-Thanks, see you soon,

Tom Conoboy said...

The background idea in my larger research vision ties into that notion that the poets were early diagnoser's of that malaise.
Vonnegut's canary in the coalmine idea - artists should be the first to spot when things are going awry. It doesn't seem a fashionable concept at the moment, sadly, and I think, at least, McCarthy is definitely going against that grain.

I am a Voegelinian in that I think that the source of the disorder is the sense of disorder in the failing meaning of the symbols of traditional Western authority. The paper I have been writing (by the way, that's where I have been- I've got a solid draft that's 40 pages, so I'm going to have to get out the hatchet later on...) is an exploration of this Voegelinian idea with regard to the Border Trilogy.
Sounds like a fascinating idea. I was re-reading ATPH last night and there's a key quote from the Duena: "So this was the community of which he spoke. The beautiful boy. Who had given everything." The community, of course, have just lynched him.

Carlos said...

Thanks for the Duenna reference. I am re-reading The Crossing now, but ATPH is next. Having read each and largely written the paper, I am re-reading the texts in their entirety to make sure I am not completely wrong. heh. It's perhaps not the best way to go about research but since it's not for any grade or deadline, well, any way works.