Existentialism in Cormac McCarthy's Works

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  • 06 Sep 2015 at 3:58 am #7569

    Richard L.

    The concept of existentialism has been so stretched and misused that it needs be clarified with examples, with quotes from McCarthy’s books and with comparisons to quotes from other existential authors.

    My first example will be that of the kid in BLOOD MERIDIAN confronted with the Judge near the end of the novel. An existential moment, an observable moment of decision, of free agency if you will. Readers of Hemingway will of course recognize this, but existentialism has fallen so far out of favor that you need to be of a certain age to even get it.

    Or so it seems.

    Jack London has such a scene in THE SEA WOLF and gives us an almost exact quote as Hemingway and McCarthy. And again earlier in THE CALL OF THE WILD where Buck is being beaten but decides that, although he can get up, he won’t get up. Free will is usually a free won’t.

    Existentialism involves agency, it involves choice. We aren’t presented with existential choices every day, but we do have them.

    Yeah, I know. All the materialists say that there is no free will or, worse, that it consists in gratifying only our own material interests or those of our masters to whom we are but slaves.

    Sing it, boys:

    who are on the road,
    must have a code
    that you can live by.
    And so
    Become yourself.
    Because the past
    is just a goodbye.

    16 Sep 2015 at 12:58 am #7599

    Richard L.


    “A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” Ernest Hemingway, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA

    Men are not born existentialists.

    The making of an existentialist decision requires reflection on experience. Existentialists are veterans, or rather experienced individuals, who have had their losses and are able to draw meaning from experience. They live by a code, but it is not a code taken from some religion or political party, say–or from some slave morality, to use the Nietzschean terminology, but rather it is their own personal code they live by.

    They decide who they are. They make their own code.

    Author Robert Stone, writing in THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: INTERVIEWS WITH NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNERS, credits Ernest Hemingway with the rise in the number of existentialists in our culture, both in fact and in fiction:

    “And if they are sad and existentially melancholy, if they are overshadowed by a sense of tragedy, it does not daunt them. They proceed to live with as much class and dignity and style as they can in the face of this tragic destiny, which is very noble and inspiring. . .I think the great thing about Hemingway is that he created an entire mode of morality, a kind of understated, stoical way of being a man and meeting with war in the middle of the twentieth century–as in the well-known phrase ‘grace under pressure.’

    “And then it went into the movies. Rick in Casablanca, Sam Spade in the Dashiell Hammett books, the Raymond Chandler detectives–all of them, I think, owe a great deal to Hemingway and to the kind of courageous, understated, shadowy, anti-fascist hero of few words who went on to loom so large in popular fiction and in Hollywood.

    “Casablanca, for example, ostensibly has nothing to do with Hemingway, but it is extremely Hemingwayesque in terms of its aura and its philosophical underpinnings. So in a way, Hemingway was responsible for creating a whole world.

    Well, yes and no. Hemingway certainly helped things along and inspired a lot of other novelists. But Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON, helped along with Bogart, may or may not owe anything to Hemingway. Sam Spade is the epitome of the existentialist. He lives by his own code.

    George J. “Rhino” Thompson, the author of HAMMETT’S MORAL VISION, says that the existential question is “honesty,” a searching for the authentic self. The existentialist decision is always to be true to your own inner self.

    But American existentialism seems older than either Hemingway or Hammett. James Angell argues just that in his rather brilliant book, MARTIN EDEN AND THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS: THE ADVENT OF EXISTENTIALISM IN AMERICAN LITERATURE. Both Jack London and Henry Adams were well read in Nietzsche, and I think that Jack London’s dog, Buck, in THE CALL OF THE WILD makes an existential decision when he decides not to conform to the wishes of the men who are beating him.

    That scene reminds me of Paul Newman being beaten in the movie, COOL HAND LUKE, another great existentialist movie that ends exactly the way it should. You script writers out there, you who are trying to get a BLOOD MERIDIAN script written–please take note.

    16 Sep 2015 at 4:34 am #7600


    Of course David Holloway in his The Late Modernism of Cormac McCarthy uses a lot of Sartrean concepts – ‘practico-inert,’ ‘counter-finality,’ and so on – in his analysis of the Border Trilogy.

    Richard, I’ll try and find the Angell book you mention, but do you know of any criticism that covers, extensively, the post-war American existential novel? I would be very interested in a reading a book like that.


    • This reply was modified 2 years, 5 months ago by  cantona.
    16 Sep 2015 at 4:37 am #7602


    Sorry about all the italics. Can’t quite work out the formatting yet.

    16 Sep 2015 at 10:54 am #7603

    Rick Wallach

    Quick note Richard: “Before man was war waited for him” is about as counter-existentialist as you can get: here, essence precedes existence with..er…ah…with a vengeance.

    17 Sep 2015 at 11:01 am #7604

    Richard L.

    The French version of existentialism is always tied to nihilism and the question of suicide, while the Hemingway version is tied to stoic courage and endurance, despite Hemingway’s own suicide.

    The post-World War II “movement” promoted the idea of not joining any movement or agenda other than from the individual’s own particular meaning derived from the individual’s own particular experience. But certain philosophical ad-ons to existentialism became popular, such as Paul Tillich’s secular Christianity and Hemingway’s grace-under-pressure stoicism.

    It seemed like every boy I attended school with who considered himself an intellectual also considered himself to be an existentialist without knowing exactly how to go about it. But we weren’t reading Camus and Sartre. We were reading Hemingway and those authors he most influenced–such as Nelson Algren, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, James Jones, Walker Percy, Thomas Berger, Donn Pearce, sometimes John Steinbeck, as well as the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler school of existential noir.

    I don’t know of any existing book-length work devoted to the many existential novels that were produced back then, but there has been much written on existential noir as it existed in books and movies during that time.

    Acedia, lack, nothingness–these concepts are quite old, as the Buddha saith. The OXFORD CONCISE DICTIONARY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH says that from the 5th century “accidie” has been that state of restlessness that allows one to neither work nor pray and it is considered one of the seven deadly sins. The existential crisis exhibited by the jumper in THE SUNSET LIMITED and in the two works examined in James Angell’s book belong to the French school of existential nihilism.

    I’m much more interested in the Heminwayesque existentialism of the kid confronting the Judge in BLOOD MERIDIAN, or that of, say, Ab Jones in SUTTREE, living by his own code and refusing to knuckle under to the police, even though he is repeatedly beaten because of it.

    There is yet another ad-on of existentialism in literature that I prefer to these.

    19 Sep 2015 at 6:25 pm #7605


    It seems to me that Melville is our first existentialist. We know from Hawthorne that Melville had made up his mind to be annihilated. Yet he carried on -through the almost certain suicide of a son – for a thirty something years after the bad reception of his last major novel (Pierre). Reinvented himself as a poet who gave himself almost no chance of success while he worked a dead end job (see Bartleby again), Is A Clean Well Lighted Place even possible without Bartleby the Scrivener? Ishmael goes to sea to shake off depression, and we know from his descriptions of Ahab that he considers ‘depression’ to be the mark of a deep soul. We also know that Moby Dick is the one novel that Hemingway wished he had written. In the late glory of the Old Man and the Sea we see him crib from Melville regarding sharks feeding off his noble fish.

    21 Sep 2015 at 11:01 pm #7613


    The American Existentialist Novel does not exist. Why? Well, because existentialism functions only as a trope or sub-genre vying with other, sometimes more dominant styles, such as the romance epic. The latter’s dominance is, in turn, vitiated by its own reliance on allegory. To compound the polyphonic madness, allegory in its American usage is invariably weakened by an inherent mistrust of allegory; in this sense, the use of allegory by, say, Melville and McCarthy, is very, very meta. I hope I’m making sense!

    In short, the American Existentialist Novel does not exist because of a refusal in the fictions to submit to generic fiat. We can only, and this especially applies to McCarthy, take such a reading so far.

    22 Sep 2015 at 12:44 pm #7615

    Richard L.

    Well, yes, from the point of view of the writer; but from the point of view of the reader there are many existentialist American novels, all of them with enough recalcitrance to provide a boatload of readings.

    MOBY DICK seems existentialist to this reader who reads it existentialistly.

    24 Sep 2015 at 1:05 pm #7621

    Richard L.

    I offer the following example, from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, LES MISERABLES:

    A man overboard!

    What matters it? The vessel does not halt. The wind blows. That somber ship has a path which it is forced to pursue. It passes on.

    The man disappears, then reappears; he plunges, he rises again to the surface; he calls, he stretches out his arms; he is not heard. The vessel, trembling under the hurricane, is wholly absorbed in its own workings; the passengers and sailors do not even see the drowning man; his miserable head is but a speck amid the immensity of the waves. He gives vent to desperate cries from out of the depths. What a spectre is that retreating sail! He gazes and gazes at it frantically. It retreats, it grows dim, it diminishes in size. He was there but just now, he was one of the crew, he went and came along the deck with the rest, he had his part of breath and of sunlight, he was a living man. Now, what has taken place? He has slipped, he has fallen; all is at an end.

    He is in the tremendous sea. Under foot he has nothing but what flees and crumbles. The billows, torn and lashed by the wind, encompass him hideously; the tossings of the abyss bear him away; all the tongues of water dash over his head; a populace of waves spits upon him; confused openings half devour him; every time that he sinks, he catches glimpses of precipices filled with night; frightful and unknown vegetations seize him, knot about his feet, draw him to them; he is conscious that he is becoming an abyss, that he forms part of the foam; the waves toss him from one to another; he drinks in the bitterness; the cowardly ocean attacks him furiously, to drown him; the enormity plays with his agony. It seems as though all that water were hate.

    Nevertheless, he struggles.

    He tries to defend himself; he tries to sustain himself; he makes an effort; he swims. He, his petty strength all exhausted instantly, combats the inexhaustible.

    Where, then, is the ship? Yonder. Barely visible in the pale shadows of the horizon.

    The wind blows in gusts; all the foam overwhelms him. He raises his eyes and beholds only the lividness of the clouds. He witnesses, amid his death-pangs, the immense madness of the sea. He is tortured by this madness; he hears noises strange to man, which seem to come from beyond the limits of the earth, and from one knows not what frightful region beyond.

    There are birds in the clouds, just as there are angels above human distresses; but what can they do for him? They sing and fly and float, and he, he rattles in the death agony.

    He feels himself buried in those two infinities, the ocean and the sky, at one and the same time: the one is a tomb; the other is a shroud.

    Night descends; he has been swimming for hours; his strength is exhausted; that ship, that distant thing in which there were men, has vanished; he is alone in the formidable twilight gulf; he sinks, he stiffens himself, he twists himself; he feels under him the monstrous billows of the invisible; he shouts.

    There are no more men. Where is God?

    He shouts. Help! Help! He still shouts on.

    Nothing on the horizon; nothing in heaven.

    He implores the expanse, the waves, the seaweed, the reef; they are deaf. He beseeches the tempest; the imperturbable tempest obeys only the infinite.

    Around him darkness, fog, solitude, the stormy and nonsentient tumult, the undefined curling of those wild waters. In him horror and fatigue. Beneath him the depths. Not a point of support. He thinks of the gloomy adventures of the corpse in the limitless shadow. The bottomless cold paralyzes him. His hands contract convulsively; they close, and grasp nothingness. Winds, clouds, whirlwinds, gusts, useless stars! What is to be done? The desperate man gives up; he is weary, he chooses the alternative of death; he resists not; he lets himself go; he abandons his grip; and then he tosses forevermore in the lugubrious dreary depths of engulfment.

    This is a parable of the existentialist crisis, at least the French version. It is exactly the view of today’s alarmist pessimists, Thomas Legotti, THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE, the jumper in THE SUNSET LIMITED, et al. We’re all suffering with angst, struggling to stay afloat, and we are all doomed. Why not die now and get it over with?

    The author never heard of existentialism, never read Sartre nor Camus, but the reader who has read them can certainly read it this way.

    Let’s compare it to “HOME FROM THE SEA,” an episode of the series MAGNUM P. I. which aired on American television September 29, 1983, over thirty hears ago now.

    Thomas Magnum choses to be alone on the ocean on the Fourth of July, to get away from the celebrants, to meditate. His boat is capsized by a dark trinity reeking harm on many boaters along the coast, sort of like the dark trinity in CHILD OF GOD. The waves are so high that he cannot see the location of his own boat.

    He can see the Island mountains, which he figures are about three miles away, an easy swim for the athletic Magnum, so he swims for them. After an hour’s swimming, he realizes that the mountains are farther away than they were before, so he must be caught in the current. His only hope now is to be seen by another craft. So he stops swimming to conserve his strength and simply treads water.

    The claustrophobic/existentialistic pressure is heightened by the sudden appearance of a huge shark which turns and begins to slowly circle him. He provides some comic relief by naming the shark Herman, and talking to it. It might have been more interesting if he’d named the shark Harmon, as in OUTER DARK.

    Anyway, the shark disappears and he finds himself treading water all night, as much alone as the man in the LES MISERABLES quote above. However, his thoughts are not on the existentialist French suffering/suicide, but rather on the Hemingwayesque undefeated/endurance existentialism. Which was drummed into him by his father.

    At the close of the episode, of course, this being American television, he is abruptly rescued by his friends that love him. Still, this was a departure from normal television fare. We never find out what happened to the dark trinity. A thought piece, were you inclined to think.

    I don’t care if the authors of these respectively fictions meant to deliver an existentialist message. I derived an existentialist message from my experience of them. That, after all, is what existentialism is: to derive personal meaning from personal experience (and to live authentically in accord with this personal ethic).

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