Dé Céadaoin, Feabhra 10, 2010

Where to Even Begin?

"Some novels are not ostensibly political but nevertheless have a special appeal for conservatives, especially those in the Augustinian tradition. Such people are skeptical about plans for improvement and cynical about the morally pretentious. They think we live in a fallen world and that natural law is a lie told by an atheist. Their favorite authors are Pascal, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and, in our day, Cormac McCarthy, America's greatest living novelist. McCarthy's 'The Road' recently has been turned into a film. A better introduction to his work may be 'No Country for Old Men', itself the subject of a superb movie. McCarthy's message is that evil walks the land, that fate rules the world, that God owes us nothing, and that his silence is unbroken. Those who accept this have a certain nobility, but redemption comes only through His grace. 'No Country' is the story of a chase, of a hunter and the hunted, of a hit man and his victim, told through the prism of a sheriff, the novel's moral center. The hunter, Anton Chigurh, is an avenging angel, the agent of amoral fate in a dark world, the most frightening character you'll ever encounter. 'If the rule you follow led you to this of what use was the rule?' asks Chigurh, before he pulls the trigger. The sheriff follows moral rules, but like Chigurh does not expect they'll help him in any way, which is why Chigurh permits him to live."

F.H Buckley, Writing in the National Review Print edition in a feature for "Best Conservative Fiction" 2/8/10

Mccarthy may well be the best American novelist today, but that is where my agreement with this article ends is clear that Buckley is quite well endowed with his own moral pretensions and feels cynicism only for other peoples' It is perfectly obvious to all that we live in a "fallen world", obvious that human beings and their societies are imperfect and that evil (Which is to say cruelty, or man's inhumanity to man in evil leftist jargon. Whether or not one ascribes a mystical quality to human cruelty matters not at all.) exists. The idea that to reject the historical Christian or modern conservative explanations for why this is is to be filled with either nihilism or mushy-headed utopianism an all-time classic moral conceit that Buckley clearly subscribes to. And since when is it atheists who invoke a non-existent natural order in demanding their way? It is not atheists who have insisted that hierarchies based on race or gender are the divinely mandated order, nor is it athiests who declare that homosexuals are in willful rebellion against laws of manhood and womanhood that are iron-clad and universal.

I myself would not declare "No Country" to be a liberal novel. I do not know what if anything Cormac and McCarthy may agree upon. I do know that Sheriff Tom Bell is the novels moral center because he learns to overcome moral pretensions of his own that are quite clearly conservative in nature; the conceit that he is upholding a primordial moral order that is patriarchal in nature and forever being degraded by the next generation of children, ( Anytime you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am' the end is pretty much in sight.")the idea that adhering to this order provides his soul with protection and distance from the world and its evils, the notion that he has ever had the choice of whether or not to be a part of this world. ("What you got ain't nothin new,You can't stop what's comin. Ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity.")

Although often described as "an agent of fate" or death incarnate, Anton Chigurh is better understood as a classic Satan figure, feeding off moral failings brought about by moral vanity. But he is a distinctly American Satan, having more in common with Twains Mysterious Stranger than the Devil who brought down Faust. His preferred point of attack is not the specific vanities his victims hold towards themselves but rather the social vanities they have embraced, moral weaknesses that have been brought about by embracing self-justifying culture myths. His favorite targets are Carson Wells; the vivacious and boisterously independent bounty hunter; the unnamed drug lord who hires both him and Wells, who fancies himself as the coldly self-interested businessman and modern aristocrat; and of course Llewelyn Moss, the common man boldly striking out to improve his material state.

Moss himself is quite obviously an American take on the hubristic hero. He first exposes himself to danger by returning to the site of the failed drug deal so that he can give water to a gut-shot smuggler; a criminal with no hope of survival who turns out to have been long-dead anyway by the time that Moss's conscience overwhelms him. ("I'm fixin to so something dumber than hell. But I'm doing it anyway.") In the same manner of all tragic heroes, Moss chooses the heroic option over the practical one specifically because it is the heroic option.

While Chigurh is clearly an American style of devil he also a most-decidedly anti-American villain. In our mythology heroes are never brought down by their moral hubris, rather it is hubris that provides them with the strength they need to bring about the unequivocal triumph of justice. Chigurh is an excellent judge of character who needs very little contact with his victims before he knows how to bring them down. He is immediately aware of Moss's hubristic nature and takes obvious relish in giving him the ultimatum he knows that Moss will refuse; his death in return for his wife's life.

The death of Carla Jean Moss is simultaneously the story's tragic nadir while also being the closest thing it has to a moral victory. Carla Jean is neither greedy or arrogant, and accepts her death without bargaining or any delusion that good behavior provides any reward. The car crash that breaks Chigurh's arm reveals his own hubris and heralds his defeat. He is not an agent of fate but just a fucked up man subject to the same savagerys of chance as everyone else. Sheriff Bell, for his part, is both broken and enlightened by the whole saga. He has learned the value of "carrying the fire", of upholding decency in an indifferent world; without hope for victory or reward, that Carla Jean has always known. (Infused as all McCarthy women are with mother wit.) He has been cleansed of his moral vanities but finds himself unable to act in the world without them. So he sits bored at home and chats with his wife.

"No Country" is ultimately a sublime refutation of the John Wayne triumphalism that has caused so many American men to fall into suspended adolescence. Where McCarthy is conservative it is the grimly responsible and regretfully pessimistic conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. While it is clear that this is the conservatism that F.H. Buckley imagines, the line about a 'lie' told by athiests, not a fallacy or mistaken notion but a lie, tells us all we need to know about the degraded state of the modern American Right. If it is foolish to expect favor from God, then what exactly does his 'grace' entail and why do we need it? What other reason could there be for God's unbroken silence except his nonexistence? How much will conservatives suffer for the sake of hubris before they realize that hubris is not a virtue? How many secret evil motives shall they attribute to liberals for the sake of avoiding self-doubt? How much nonsense are they willing to stuff into brains for the sake of satisfying their egos from both sides? Perfect self-assurance and self-confidence for themselves, cold-hearted, 'realistic' judgment for everyone else.

In the end, the only salvation is to be wholly devoid of illusion, especially the delusion that me and mine are especially good and loved.

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