Saturday, June 19, 2010

McCarthy, culture and capitalism

Max Weber, writing in 1946, identified what he saw as the ‘disenchantment of the world’, characterised by the increase in rationalism and scientific enquiry arising from the Protestant reformation and the Enlightenment. As a result of these, the role of myth in our lives, and of magic and of religion, becomes diminished. This has a clear impact on art – once the means of disseminating ritual and of creating awe, a visual (or aural) representation of something unfathomable in our psyches, be that religious or humanist, it now serves a different, diminished purpose.

Walter Benjamin examined the same issue in his discussion on art in the age of mechanical reproduction. The aura that once surrounded a work of art withers once mass reproductive techniques bring it into the reach of all. Both Weber and Benjamin next identify capitalism as further cementing the intellectualisation of modern life. Decisions are made, directions are chosen, in relation to worth, not wonder. The results, for art, are significant: for Benjamin, art becomes a commodity; for Weber, art becomes inextricably linked with economic concerns. Theodor Adorno, too, suggests art becomes a product of mass production and mass consumption. Adorno goes on to further argue that ‘the culture industry has become so successful that “art” and “life” are no longer wholly separable’, the result of which is that much artistic output is predictable and formulaic. [1]

It is instructive to look at the work of Cormac McCarthy in the light of some of these observations. McCarthy’s universe, especially in the non-Border Trilogy novels, is entirely and unmistakably his own. He has made a career of subverting the cliches of various artistic genres – southern gothic, Western, thriller, sci-fi – and has resolutely portrayed his own vision of a world in crisis. There is no mistaking his work for anyone else’s and there is equally no mistaking his art with real life – other than in the portentous terms that he intends. This is a key reason why he locates his novels at moments of rupture in society – the better to allow his work to stand in relief, separate from everyday reality. Thus, the world he creates in Blood Meridian is a hell far removed from any notion of existence that the vast majority of us could ever contemplate.

It is entirely feasible, too, to establish a critique of capitalism in McCarthy’s work. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, focused on outsiders, Owmby the backwoodsman, Ratner the criminal and Sylder the bootlegger. They are each, but especially Owmby, placed in the context of economic progress, symbolised by the developments of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Border Trilogy consistently harks back to older ways of living and working, identifying the threat of the new on the American side of the border, (while, nonetheless, refusing to play the patronising game of aggrandising life on the Mexican side). In No Country For Old Men we see a critique of capitalist society in starkest relief. The modern world has become obsessed with commodity, with money, to the extent that commerce and crime become virtually indistinguishible. Greed has compromised morality. The world has descended into violent chaos where the only rule is: “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use is the rule?”

But then this capitalist hell of consumption and greed is counterpointed, right at the end of the novel, with a symbol of something entirely different, from another age, a piece of artisanry so beautiful it evokes wonder: the trough, ‘hewed out of solid rock… about six foot long and maybe a foot and a half wide and about that deep. Just chiseled out of the rock.’ This, clearly, is an example of pre-mass-production art, infused with the sense of magic and awe that Benjamin and Weber attributed to pre-enlightenment art. To make such a thing, something that will last a thousand years, requires a ‘promise in the heart’. Is such a promise possible in today’s world?

And so McCarthy is deliberately standing aside from contemporary life – his novels do not have present day settings – and deliberately refusing to accept current artistic conventions. He does so in order to allow his work to stand as a critique of modernity. That critique is economic – in terms of an attack on capitalism – but also cultural and spiritual. Something has been lost in the modern world, something which was once captured by art but which is now displaced by avaricious concerns.

[1] A fuller discussion of the views of Weber, Benjamin and Adorno can be cound in Kristina Karin Shull', Is the Magic Gone? Weber’s “Disenchantment of the World” and its Implications for Art in Today’s World. Anamesa. pp. 61-73,

1 comment:

foxofbama said...

Charles Bowden was on this last weekend here in the United States.
His nonfiction work in some ways shouts that Cormac McCarthy is the Gospel.
It even explores a distant God and yearnings for forgiveness, for redemption in a kind of gray slate McCarthy tone.
Check out the Bowden interview about his book Murder Capitol on Juarez Mexico; Blood Meridian true.