Homer without the Gods (or, the Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy)
The man therefore who does what he ought moves steadily towards his fate and his death. It is defeat and not victory that lies at the end. To understand this is itself a virtue; indeed it is a necessary part of courage to understand this. But what is involved in such understanding? What would have been understood if the if the connections between courage, friendship, fidelity, household, fate and death had been grasped? Surely that human life has a determinate form, the form of a certain kind of story. […]
[I]n heroic society character of the relevant kind can only be exhibited in a succession of incidents and the succession itself must exemplify certain patterns. … [C]haracter and incident cannot be characterized independently of each other.
The text quoted above is from Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of the virtues in Heroic societies, as exemplified by the Iliad, in After Virtue. It is also—and here, wholly inadvertently, as the novels I’m thinking of had not yet been written—an apt descriptor of the world of Cormac McCarthy’s southwest.*
The world of McCarthy’s novels is, like the world of the Iliad and heroic tales generally, one where the heroes/protagonists are faced with threats to their very survival. “Good writers deal with issues of life and death,” he told the New York Times not quite two decades ago, shortly after the publication of All the Pretty Horses, and in applying this dictum to his own work McCarthy seems to have taken it to an (occasionally brutal) extreme. While the setting of the southwest novels—somewhere on the edge of civilization, where its misfits can slip into and out of myth, or so the narrator would have you believe—ties it to something that feels primitive, almost archaic, the crises presented in each novel are what set them apart from the time in which they were written. Even Faulkner and Dostoevsky, two of the novelists McCarthy feels meet his aforementioned qualification, don’t deal with matters of combat, where a man and his enemy must, ultimately, meet so that at most one can live.
These crises present more than just questions of what one must do in order to survive. Also at stake are questions of what one ought to do in order that survival be worthwhile and life itself worth living. But the “ought” which faces McCarthy’s protagonists is not the “ought” we know. It is not something to be puzzled over, to be solved kata ton logon or even by mere phroneisis. Even more than pre-Kantian, it is pre-Aristotelian. It is the “ought” of the poorly translated (because untranslatable) Greek dein, better served by “it is necessary that I do” than “I ought to do”—but even then, it is a word and an idea etymologically closer to “I am constrained to do” than either of the preceding. (But within the constraint, some semblance of narrative alternative when face-to-face with Fate.)
The question that John Grady Cole faces in Cities of the Plain** is not, then, what he feels he ought to do, or that he must do, but what it is objectively necessary for him to do—what is, in other words, required of him in order to live a worthwhile life. Though he has plenty of choices, and is regularly presented with alternative routes, once he realizes events (history, in this strange corner of the world, I suppose) have constrained him to a single path, there is no doubt about what will happen.
From early in the novel, there is little question that the girl will be killed for trying to leave and that John Grady Cole will attempt to avenge her, likely fatally, and that this act will have long-term consequences on Billy Parham as well. The only question is a matter of how this will unfold: of whether, and when, and in what way history will constrain Cole to a single path and force that terrible Homeric dein upon him. His story, in many respects, is closer to that of Hektor or Akhilles than to Raskolnikov, Quentin Compson, or Joe Christmas.
Yet McCarthy’s world is accused of nihilism, its violence without meaning even within the world of the stories, its vision of man bleak and unforgiving—while very few would accuse the Homeric poems or the Heroic world of the first two, or quite as strenuously of the last. The difference falls on whom (or what) are absent in McCarthy: the gods. Though fickle, perhaps even more so than their human children/playthings, they give testimony to an underlying and undying order to the Heroic universe. Indeed, it is an order even they cannot change, though they might want to from time to time. It is possible, in the world of the Iliad, for a path to have been truly dein, truly the sole road to which one had been constrained; it is, by the rules of this world, possible to construct a better or worse life through the way one approaches its end.
McCarthy’s southwest has no such reassurances. We can judge the choices and lives of John Grady Cole and Billy Parham and Blood Meridian’s kid by the criteria we, as readers, bring to their tales, but whether they live in worlds that have moral criteria is unknown and unknowable. One wants to believe there is something at stake beyond the line between living and dying when John Grady meets Eduardo, or consults with Billy.. Whether this is the case is a question rendered almost inscrutably murky by the absence of the gods and their inherent acknowledgement of order.
*Perhaps also his southeast; I simply haven’t read any of his earliest works and can’t comment.
**It is my example primarily because it is freshest in my mind, but it is also a novel in which the protagonist has more easily defined choices in the face of Fate, or maybe just his doom.