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20 June 2023

What Cormac McCarthy knew

The American novelist understood the bleak truth that the world defies human understanding or control.

By John Gray

In Ridley Scott’s 2013 film The Counsellor, a Texan lawyer becomes involved with a Mexican drug cartel. He makes an investment with a drug dealer to buy a consignment from the cartel, but is warned of the dangers by one of the dealer’s associates; the Counsellor persists because of the enormous gains he expects to make. The deal goes bad after he does a favour for a woman accused of murder he is representing. The woman begs him to bail her son, a biker who has been arrested for speeding. The Counsellor helps the woman, but the son, who turns out to be working for the cartel, is decapitated in a trap set by the dealer’s girlfriend, who then steals the drugs.

The cartel holds the lawyer responsible for the loss, and they kidnap his own girlfriend. In an attempt to save her life he visits a senior cartel member, who – citing a line from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, “Wanderer, there is no road”– tells him that since his situation is the result of events that cannot be altered, he must accept what will now happen. The Counsellor’s girlfriend is beheaded, and a snuff movie of the killing slipped under the door of the hotel room in which he is hiding. The associate who warned him is killed with a garrotting device. The film ends with the girlfriend of the dealer – who died in a shoot-out with the cartel – discussing her plans for investing her profit over lunch with her banker in a London restaurant.

[See also: The high plain style of Cormac McCarthy]

The film’s screenplay was the only one written for cinema by Cormac McCarthy. Critics assailed it as a nihilistic tale of amorality and cruelty, containing no hope of redemption – a charge commonly levelled against McCarthy’s novels. The Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro, however, recognised the story as “a meditation on the illusory nature of normalcy”. It is a penetrating insight into McCarthy’s work as a whole. With his death on 13 June at the age of 89 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we have lost one of the greatest explorers of what lies beyond the shaky constructs on which we rely to guide us through life.

In a time in which human consciousness is regarded as possibly more real, and certainly more interesting, than anything that may exist outside it, McCarthy explored regions that are shut off from quotidian awareness. Our illusion of normalcy is a psychological defence mechanism. Human life is more discontinuous and extreme than our mental maps of it. We retain our balance by continually redacting our experiences, blocking out their riddling uncertainties with grandiose claims to knowledge.

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McCarthy loved the company of scientists, spending much of his later life in conversation with them at the Santa Fe Institute for the study of complex phenomena. But he saw scientific enquiry as demarcating the limits of understanding, and one reason his work resists interpretation is that for him the world defies explanation.

In Blood Meridian (1985), the oracular “Judge” Holden tells the gang of marauding killers he leads:

“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

“… the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”

[See also: Cormac McCarthy’s existential Westerns]

In its surrender to mystery, McCarthy’s sensibility was religious. Unlike the religions with which we are familiar, he does not offer any glimpse of a final harmony. Even Buddhism, by the standards of Western monotheism an atheist faith, holds out the prospect of nirvana, release from suffering. McCarthy comes closer to the faiths of ancient Mexico, on which DH Lawrence drew in The Plumed Serpent (1926). There is no evidence that he read the prolific English writer, but there are parallels between the religion implicit in McCarthy’s novels and that sketched in Lawrence’s writings on Mexico. In both, human beings are not accidentally embodied minds but mortal creatures of flesh and blood, whose fates are as random and inescapable as those of birds and toads. All living things find themselves in a state of war. As Judge Holden put it:

“It makes no difference what men think of war… As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

There are gaps in McCarthy’s sensibility. He is too dismissive of the literature of self-consciousness, which at its best – in Proust, for example – has an affinity with his own work in showing that we are not the images we have formed of ourselves. Another gap is the peripheral place of women. He was aware of this neglect, and tried to remedy it in his last book, the dialogic novel Stella Maris, published in December 2022, but its central figure, Alicia Western, a maths prodigy and psychiatric patient, is one of the least developed characters in his oeuvre.

Aside from his lapidary prose and lyrical evocations of the beauty of landscape, the chief feature of McCarthy’s writings is their relentless assault on solipsism. The reigning philosophies of the age insist the world can be remade in the shape of human ideas and beliefs. There is unending discussion of what “we” must do, as if changes in how a few people think or talk could deliver them and all humankind from the consequences of their actions. Idle chatter of this kind distracts from the reality that the world does not need our consent to its workings.

For those who cling, anxiously and ever more desperately, to faith in the transformative power of human thought and agency, McCarthy’s work can only be intensely disturbing, if not thoroughly repellent. What value could his bleak vision have for us? McCarthy turns the question back on itself. In the Coen brothers’ 2007 film No Country for Old Men, the assassin Anton Chigurh asks his fellow hitman Carson Wells before he kills him: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” A similar question can be posed to McCarthy’s humanist critics: if your philosophies have brought the world to its present state, of what value are your philosophies? No amount of thinking and no exercise of will can save the human animal from itself. For the intrepid literary explorer, grace in a human being means living with this truth.

[See also: The Passenger: The phantom world of Cormac McCarthy]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars