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The Fire and the Wolf
Cormac McCarthy on what matters.
"If you had to say something definitive about the world in a single sentence, what would that sentence be? Dr. Cohen asks Alicia. It would be this, she answers. The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy".
This winter, after a literary silence of sixteen years, the famously reclusive author Cormac McCarthy published two new novels.
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Arguably the greatest living American writer, McCarthy has spent six decades carving out a vision of America through novels such as Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men. More than that, he has constructed an oblique yet distinctive philosophy – one that divides opinion due to its darkness and elemental violence. Disaffected young men tend to love it. Other people, perhaps less so.
For this reason, McCarthy has earned a reputation as the king of macho 'bro lit.' This is unfair: he's a complex writer of the first order. In a similar vein, critics often describe him as a nihilist: someone who thinks that ultimately nothing matters, that there's no objective good or bad, right or wrong – just ephemeral human judgments with nothing to underpin them.
McCarthy's latest – and possibly last – novel, Stella Maris, initially seems to justify this interpretation. The quote above distills the worldview not only of Stella Maris' protagonist, Alicia, but very likely McCarthy as well. "The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy."
Bleak, for sure. But on closer inspection, McCarthy's cosmic pessimism is only part of his philosophy. He's not, in fact, a thorough-going nihilist – even if bearded edgelords in Creative Writing classes the world over think that he is. Because across a dozen novels McCarthy also points us towards what matters.
The Gnostic religion
To understand McCarthy's philosophy, we have to turn to one of its main influences: the ancient and esoteric religion of Gnosticism.
For decades now, scholars have debated whether Gnosticism is a single religion or just a loose group of sects bound together by a few common beliefs. All that can be said with certainty is 1) that it emerged from Jewish and early Christian communities in the 1st century CE and 2) that it's surely the most mental religion ever to exist.
According to Hans Jonas, the defining characteristic of the religion is a fundamental alienation from the world. This is clearest in the Gnostics' belief that the physical world, the world we live in, wasn't created by God. Although the Gnostics believed in God – who they called 'the Monad' – they claimed that He exists only in a distant 'world of light' wholly unconnected to our own.
Although human souls are divine fragments of the Monad, the world and everything in it was instead created by an evil demiurge called Yaldabaoth. Sometimes depicted as a snake with the head of a lion, Yaldabaoth is meant to be evil incarnate: having made the world to trap our souls in prisons of flesh, destined to endure a life of pain and suffering.
All is not lost, however. Because according to the Gnostics, salvation can be found in understanding the world's true nature and living in a thoroughly ascetic fashion, denying the pleasures of both the mind and body. If – and only if – one lives this way, then after death, the soul will return to the world of light and reunite with the Monad.
Unsurprisingly, given their pessimism, the Gnostics thought that such salvation was the exception rather than the rule. Because during life, there are always corrupting temptations leading us away from the truth: wealth and power, rage and lust, riches and decadence. To ensure that humans do perpetually fall prey to these temptations, Yaldabaoth set agents of chaos loose upon the world: individuals known as the Archons—basically, people like Pablo Escobar or Hugh Hefner.
The blind dogs of the sun
I seriously doubt McCarthy literally believes in Yaldabaoth, the Monad, and the Archons. And in a way, whether he does or doesn't is immaterial: more important is that the world as he presents it in his novels is tonally consistent with the above.
McCarthy's books frequently bar us from his characters' interior lives, whether that be through an omniscient narrator or even dialogue. Instead, we're treated to bare descriptions of action and reams of sparse dialogue, as stripped of emotional content as they are punctuation: "It was dark outside and cold and no wind. In the distance a calf bawled. He stood with his hat in his hand. You never combed your hair that way in your life, he said".
The effect is to distance us from the rich human entanglement with the world that novelists typically seek to convey. Here we're forced to witness the passage of events from the outside, all the better to see their cosmic meaninglessness. Sometimes protagonists even die off-screen – just one more of the countless deaths occurring every day.
The upshot is that we become numbed to the fate of individual characters at the same time as we increasingly despair at the brutality of the world as a whole – not unlike an ancient Gnostic. This is the case even when McCarthy's protagonists endure horrors or are drawn into cycles of brutal violence – which, to be fair, is about every twelve pages. Life itself is presented as a constant struggle, as Alicia tells us in Stella Maris: "imperilment is bottomless. As long as you are breathing, you can always be more scared".
Sometimes the struggles of McCarthy's protagonists are their own doing: the result of ignorance, greed, or misguided sentiment. But sometimes, the bloodshed and trauma are turbo-charged by powerful and malevolent beings – characters like the ruthless polymath Judge Holden in Blood Meridian or the Terminator-like assassin Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Even if we never meet Yaldabaoth in McCarthy's books, both Chigurh and Judge Holden are eerily reminiscent of his supernatural sentinels, the Archons.
And what of God in McCarthy's literary universe? Well, unsurprisingly, it's not a pretty picture. Like the Monad of the Gnostics, God may well exist, but if so, He's wholly absent from this world.
This absence comes across clearest in The Road, McCarthy's post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son traveling across America in search of food and safety. At one point, we see the father driven to despair by the hopelessness of their situation, turning to God in anger. "He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? He whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God".
But there's no reply. Nothing but the "cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running".
Of wolf and man
I said earlier that, contrary to popular belief, McCarthy isn't a nihilist. After reading the litany of misery above, you're probably thinking: how on earth is he not a nihilist?
The answer is the very same one as a Gnostic would give: that according to McCarthy, some things do matter objectively, and some conduct is morally right and wrong. The fact that the world is a hostile place makes it hard to live by what matters, in accordance with the Good – but live by it, we can.
So what matters?
Two things. The first is life. Nature might be a ruthless system, red in tooth and claw, but in McCarthy's works, living beings themselves have a special significance.
The most striking example comes in the second installment of his Border Trilogy, The Crossing. In it, we see a young cowboy, Billy Parham, try to capture a pregnant wolf with the romantic notion of returning her to Mexico. The adventure is bound to fail, and sure enough, it does. After a series of increasingly terrible events in Mexico, Billy is forced to shoot the wolf in an act of mercy. What's wild mustn't be tamed, McCarthy seems to be telling us.
The tale above is told in McCarthy's typically detached style. But then, as Billy mourns the loss of his wolf, we're hit with a passage of shattering, almost religious intensity. It can't be fully quoted out of context, only earned by reading it in its proper place. What's crucial for our purposes is the importance McCarthy attributes there to the lifeforce seeping from the wolf's body: something "of great beauty" that "cannot be held" yet has the "power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world."
He goes on to say that the world "cannot lose" life, meaning that it must not be lost. To drive his point home, that's exactly what he depicts in The Road: a wasteland where the last remaining living beings, like the father and the boy, are forced to eke out a terrible existence through fragments of a disappearing world.
In The Road, McCarthy describes, almost in passing, the slow death of the biosphere as "salitter drying from the earth." The reader could easily gloss over the reference – but if they do, they will miss one of the book's key points because the word appears to have been used exclusively by the German philosopher and mystic Jacob Böhme. Salitter is Böhme's name for the God at work in the world, manifesting as living beings. Given McCarthy's identification of life with goodness, he cannot then be using salitter to point to Yaldabaoth's construction of the world. Instead, it can only refer to the true God, the Monad: suggesting that all living beings, not just humans, have a share of the divine.
Like the Gnostics, though, McCarthy holds that humanity is ultimately the most important thing.
However despicable McCarthy may show some individual humans to be, humans as such possess a great worth. Why? Because they "carry the fire": the possibility for goodness and recognition of beauty.
In us, McCarthy seems to be saying, is the divine spark of God. Again this comes out strongest in The Road precisely because we're forced to confront the prospect of human extinction there. With terrible clarity, the father now sees his son as holy – better, he sees the holiness in his son. The boy is described as the "word of God" and "glowing in that waste like a tabernacle." With his purity of heart, the boy represents the best that humanity can be: doing what's right and trying to steer his father away from wrong. He burns like a beacon, shining all the brighter in the dark.
Keeping the fire burning
The identification of human beings with fire crops up not only in The Road but also in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men. The last is perhaps the most crucial because there it ties together not only what matters – life, and human life in particular – but also McCarthy's ideas about how to live in accordance with the good.
In a number of his novels, the protagonists are cowboys and, in one case, a sheriff: icons of America's self-mythology. None of McCarthy's are heroes, exactly, and many are lost in the modern world, but still: something about the cowboy and sheriff remains, for McCarthy, heroic. Certainly, both appeal to his Burkean conservative leanings.
In McCarthy's worldview, both represent the striving for stability in a hostile world. The cowboy acknowledges and respects the brutality of nature and, in response, cultivates an unsentimental inner fortitude. In this way, they're able to carve out the economic basis for a human world within nature, all the while maintaining some kind of balance with the latter.
Similarly, the sheriff represents the law and order that hold the darkest of human impulses at bay. But, crucially, the sheriff's justice is not the abstract, remote, impersonal kind belonging to the modern centralized state. Instead, the sheriff is a human figure: Belonging to a community, embodying its grounded common sense, and maintaining law and order on that basis.
Even if you reject McCarthy's conservatism and find his cosmic pessimism extreme, as I do, it's possible to acknowledge an element of wisdom and truth in his philosophy.
Suffering may not characterize life, but some is inescapable. The average human being may be better than McCarthy recognizes, but some are monsters. And the edifice of civilization that shields us from the worst of both nature and human nature is a fragile construction.
Perhaps McCarthy's right to say that focusing on these truths helps keep the ship steady. He's also right that modern life is too preoccupied with what doesn't matter, like the furious production and acquisition of material goods, and too little concerned with what matters most: keeping human and non-human life in a reasonably equitable balance.
In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell has a dream of his father wherein “we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night”. Through the cold and the dark and the snow – the hostility of nature – Bell's father perseveres, both literally “carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do”, and metaphorically carrying the fire of humanity: in his resilience and determination to stake out a place for human life in nature. “And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there”.
A tough message, undoubtedly. But not, after all, a nihilistic one.
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