Existentialism in Cormac McCarthy's Works

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  • 05 Oct 2015 at 4:03 am #7655

    Richard L.

    H. L. Mencken, in one of his letters, expressed what he thought was the main issue in life: the individual against society. This, indeed, is a problem confronting all existentialists, but existentialist literature is sometimes divided between those who see the internal conflict, man against himself, and those who see the oppression without.

    We get both in SUTTREE, who is lonely despite all his relationships with others, nor can he find his niche in the outer world, and at the same time Suttree is always in rebellion. He rebels by feeling compassion for those despised by society.

    Some reviewers accused Suttree, and McCarthy by implication, of slumming.

    Small wonder that McCarthy’s publishers sought out Nelson Algren to review SUTTREE.

    “Algren’s conventional setting is the lower depths–whether Chicago, the Rio Grande Valley, or New Orleans. His commitment is consistently to the lumpenproletariat, those who have fallen off the socioeconomic ladder. He writes about drug addicts, prostitutes, pimps, con men, and hustlers. . .

    Leslie Fielder charged Algren with a perverse romanticism, labelling the novelist “the bard of the stumblebum.”

    Nelson Algren frequently argued that the legitimate legacy of American literature was not only of the upper and middle classes, that such figures as Whitman, Dreiser, Crane…and most significantly, Ernest Hemingway, wrote of this radical rebellion against society. The truly legitimate American writer, he asserts, must take a position outside of and in opposition to society.

    One way to claim such a position is to utilize a narrative strategy emphasizing reciprocity between narrative voice and socially despised characters.”

    Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren by James R. Giles (1989)

    And that is what McCarthy does so adroitly in SUTTREE.

    The main protagonist in Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES gets sent to prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s family. He escapes prison, and spends the rest of his life hiding from the police, in an existential mode much like that of COOL HAND LUKE, who was sent to prison and to his ultimate doom for taking the heads off parking meters.

    Existentialists are always rebels because society, if not actively oppressing them, is always pressuring them to conform. In the grotesques of Algren and McCarthy, the principles gnawing at us all are illustrated in bold relief.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 4 months ago by  Richard L..
    05 Oct 2015 at 8:44 am #7657


    I imagine that Nelson Algren must have found much to like in Suttree. Consider this example of Algren’s use use of an abusive catalogue: “…while upon the rusty elevator clanking miserably downward forever would go all copper johns, double clockers, lush workers and mush workers, deadpickers and turncoats, rats, pigeons, stooges, short faders and crap catchers, deadheads and deadbeats who had ever stood drinks for Kolowsky, loaned him a dollar or applauded that big flannel mouth” (Algren, 1949, The Man with the Golden Arm, p. 184). And compare that to McCarthy’s: “… within the shire of McAnally and there did squander several ensuing years in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees” (McCarthy, 1979, Suttree, p. 457).

    After Lee’s graduation from the University of Tennessee in December 1960, McCarthy and his wife moved to Chicago where they lived for a year or so. I wonder if McCarthy and Algren had any direct contact with each other during that time.

    05 Oct 2015 at 9:34 am #7658

    Candy Minx

    What you all are calling existential, the rest of us call life.

    Rick in Casablanca, and Sam Spade are guys who although alone and single….do the right thing.

    What I believe I understand in the previous posts is that because Rick/Sam are outside the general control system that makes them existential. Outside of authority makes them existential. No….they are not existential. they are guys who actually believe in what good is. They believe in a traditional conventional community where goodness is taught through customs, manners, compassion. Sam(s) find themselves in a world where authority is corrupt and selfish, not existing for the common good but for profit.

    Rick/Sam isn’t existential, he is sad. Rick/Sam know life is a game and you can be a good sport or a sore loser. Rick/Sam isn’t making brave decisions because he is existential….he is the opposite of existential. He is a person who knows what the right thing to do is in a world where doing the right thing is cheated. Call them Call the corrupted authority anything you want…fascists, corporations, institutions have taken customs, rules, manners, compassion and used them as tools to gain power over regular folks. Rick/Sam know this and take the small bit of action they can…despite the odds against them. The house always wins….but Rick/Sam still does the right thing. Life is a game. You can be a good sport or a sore loser.

    Rick/Sam are only acting “alone” because of the corruption in the community.

    Their morality is based on a traditional group cooperative set of behavior learned or intuited in a time or place before the corrupted world they find themselves in as adults.

    Existentialism is no guarantee of life-affirming behavior. Existentialism is a fancy word for growing pains. The experiential qualities of existentialism can manifest as either good and bad behaviors.

    If one walks away with the idea that existentialism is somehow about the individual then one has totally lost the physiological and evolutionary adaptive purpose we experience existentialism.

    05 Oct 2015 at 6:53 pm #7663

    Richard L.

    Re: Casablanca and existentialism

    Author Robert Stone made that comparison and I quoted it. Your interpretation is fine, but I can also see an existential interpretation of Rick.

    Rick recoils from his relationship with Elsa, thinking that she stood him up, that she jilted him for another man. He bares a grudge and becomes hard–I don’t stick my neck out for any man, he says. His reaction and change of mind are existential decisions.

    Elsa comes back into his life and he goes after revenge, tries to manipulate her. But then he discovers that she did not really stand him up for another man, that he was the other man all along, due to circumstances now understood.

    Then he has an existential decision to make. If he loves Elsa only with a possessive love, which is not love but is what general humanity unfortunately takes for love, then he will keep Elsa, keep the club, and turn his rival over to the Germans. He considers this, but he decides that he really does love her, and the decision he makes is not for his selfish interest but instead for her continued happiness.

    This decision also bodes well for his authentic self, standing against authority and being in favor of the underdog, something that Nelson Algren would understand. But if Elsa hadn’t shown up, he might have still gone on being just a member of the Drunkard Party, as he said when the German officer asked his politics. Louie sees through him and makes his own existential decision.

    But I see your point too, that existentialism is just another human invention, an adopted philosophy used as an alternate response to the discovery of the groundlessness of existence. Other than to become, say, one of the alarmist nihilists or a suicide.

    06 Oct 2015 at 5:58 am #7673

    Richard L.

    Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren by James R. Giles (1989), by the way, gives an existential reading to THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM and Giles draws connections between existentialism and naturalism. The addictions that appear in his novels, crutches men cling to in order to escape being alone with their empty selves and the meaninglessness of existence, also appear in McCarthy’s novels to a marked degree.

    Giles says that Nelson Algren’s body of work belongs with that of Jack London, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and other naturalists, and that seems right to me. Cormac McCarthy might well be placed in this group. I would also add Herman Melville, Walter Van Tilberg Clark, James Jones, and a few others.

    Algren publicly denied knowing anything about existentialism a couple of times but Giles quotes some of his letters to show that he was very much aware of it and in tune with it.

    Algren said that his major influences were Dostoyevsky, Stephen Crane’s Maggie, Kuprin’s Yama, and Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. I would certainly add Joseph Conrad to that. Some of the stories in THE NEON WILDERNESS remind me of some of Conrad’s stories. In turn, Algren influenced Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, and a host of others.

    06 Oct 2015 at 6:40 am #7674

    Richard L.

    Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work (2008)
    by Curtis White (Author)

    Existentialists are often rebels, for to be true to yourself (in step with your own meaning derived from your own experience) is often to stand against society. Every day you change, the world changes, and you have to make that existential decision again.

    Curtis White speaks political talk on the left, but in the above book he conjures up Thoureau and goes beyond bipartisan politics and speaks about the truth. Or rather, about the lack of truth.

    It recalls Dustin Hoffman playing an existentialist part in the satirical movie, HERO. He calls his son over and says that he is finally going to have that man-to-man discussion with him about the truth of the world. The truth is that there is no truth, he says. There is only bullshit, layers of it, stacked on top of one another. What you do is, you pick out the bullshit you like, whatever it is, and from then on, that’s your bullshit.

    Existence precedes essence.

    10 Oct 2015 at 6:14 am #7685

    Richard L.

    Re: Hammett’s Sam Spade, Cormac McCarthy, and existentialism

    When Cormac McCarthy sat there in the Santa Fe Institute, the modern version of Plato’s Academy, in dialog with Oprah before untold thousands on national television, Oprah asked him about the lack of female characters in his work.

    I don’t know anything about women, McCarthy said, rather off the cuff, the way Bogart did it as Hammett’s Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON.

    Well, let’s examine this a minute in detail.

    In the book (as well as in the movie), after Miles is killed, Sam tells a detective that he is leaving to break the news to Miles’ wife. He apparently changes his mind and calls his secretary to have her break the news to the widow, with instructions to keep her away from him. Spade has been sleeping with his partner’s wife, but apparently against his better judgment, something that existentialist Sartre might have said was in “bad faith.”

    The detective investigating the murders tries to catch Spade in a lie and asks him if he broke the news to Miles’ wife and how she took it. Spade then says the line, “I don’t know anything about women.”

    To those of us in the Greek chorus looking on, they speak truer than they know, these two, Sam Spade and Cormac McCarthy.

    We read the book or watch the movie of THE MALTESE FALCON realizing that Sam Spade really can’t know much about women if he allows himself to get mixed up with such an obvious phony as Miles’ wife, even for a short time. And later Spade falls for another obviously bad woman, the femme fatale Miss Wonderly, and has to existentially talk himself out of bending both the law and his personal code to accommodate her.

    Looking on, we think that if Sam Spade anything about women, he might have fallen for his plainly attractive secretary rather than for those more glamorous bad women who clutter up his life.

    Candy Minx doesn’t see Spade as an existentialist, but a lot of us did and still do. George J. Thompson, in his book HAMMETT’S MORAL VISION, says that Hammett’s protagonists get their meaning from what they experience, and that “identity was a matter of doing, a doctrine quite amenable to the existentialist. Andrew Malraux, Andre Gide, and Albert Camus were all admirers of Hammett.”

    13 Oct 2015 at 8:57 am #7697

    Candy Minx

    Let me put it this way….it’s not a question of whether or notI see Sam Spade as an existentialist or not. (or McCarthy)

    It’s a matter of whether we can go far enough with that framework.

    For me, it’s about whether or not existentialism is the only word we could use. Are we aiming to give existentialism a support by our approval as a tool for living. It’s a great tool for living.

    It’s more like, it can also be a format that is too specific to itself.

    I can discuss the existentialism fine….because I am choosing to accommodate your framework so you are comfortable in the discussion. Thats diplomacy. I can be diplomatic.

    However, we could also say that Sam Spade is using mindfulness to live his life. In fact…I think we could find that the place the writer and narrator of most of McCarthy’s work speaks from and observes the world is a place of mindfulness. If that mindfulness came from existentialism, or LSD, or Catholicism….I would be able to see those were fine viable arguments with some evidence we could support…the writer grew up Catholic, he took LSD, he probably read existential literature…and he probably saw Sam Spade filmed.

    I think that practices such as existentialism support an experiential opportunity for being in the present. for enhancing a mindful living.

    Sam Spade may be read as an existentialist….but I have to argue that we only need existentialism in an industrial society.

    It is the industrial society that seduces it’s citizens to consumptive addictions and distractions. To escape the forces and oppression of an unhealthy society humans turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, escape and then….sometimes to alternative more balancing practices like existentialism, religious rituals and readings, meditation, prayer.

    The ironic mindset, the existential philosophy is needed when the society is out of balance.

    When a society is built for the common health of a group….existentialism is not needed. That culture has rituals, initiations and practices, shaman, elders, witches, goddesses that help it’s citizens be mindful while the “big chief” or “circus leader” or “shaman” continue to reset the community with their wisdom and re-distribution of goods.

    We live in a society where film noir had to be created. Where existentialism had to be recognized. We live in a post-ironic time because people are realizing the structural oppression and turning back. Irony has become tainted and ineffectual. Irony belongs to existential failures to fight oppression.

    This weekend a wonderful paper was presented by Eliot White, called STATIS AND MOVEMENT IN THE ROAD. Eliot spoke about existentialism. And I can only barely paraphrase him…but I thought of this discussion here during his talk.

    At one point he said he found Victor Frankl who wins authority as an existential by his work in concentration camps and that Frankl said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

    And I too believe that Viktor Frankl wins when it comes to existentialism. There is no other existentialist for me. And it goes back to my first response here …you have the choice in life to be a good sport or a sore loser.

    And Sam Spade and Rick of Casablanca choose good sport in each movie. And that is why Bogart was so beloved.

    The sense of oppression and lack of freedom only occurs in the industrial capitalist culture. All other alternative cultures have a support system within themselves of goods redistribution and shared goals of making a living as a group. Existentialism…is an emergency response to a broken community.

    So I can not hold existentialism up as an ultimate approach to the characters in McCarthy or Bogarts work. Except that…we do need a dialogue on how to talk about a broken society and a society that is pre-collapse….and if you prefer we speak using the term existentialism. I can do that. But it doesn’t represent the community and society I live in: outside the dominant economy. I believe existentialism is a tool for coping with a pre-collapse society’s oppressive mindset. I will give you that.

    14 Oct 2015 at 3:29 am #7702

    Richard L.

    We’re not understanding each other on this yet, but let’s keep trying.

    I agree that such concepts as mindfulness and lack, as in lack of self, are as old as the Buddha and were appropriated or at least adapted to existentialism by Jean-Paul Sartre, and I also agree that existentialism has been adapted to various other philosophies, such as Hemingway’s stoic endurance and Paul Tillich’s Christianity. I thought I’d already made that plain, but evidently I didn’t.

    I suggest that I elaborate my take on Sam Spade as an existentialist, and I ask you to then elaborate your take on Sam Spade as a “good sport.”

    I think that Sam Spade is an existentialist because he seems to make up his moral code as he goes along. He has an affair with his partner’s wife. After his partner is killed, he isn’t crazy about avenging his death, though he admits that it was expected of him and might be good for business, for his reputation, sort of a code among private eyes and cops.

    But Spade stays true to his authentic self and immediately has his partner’s desk removed and the sign on the door repainted. That’s neither bad nor good, it’s just the way he is.

    The movie seems to concern the Maltese Falcon of the title, but that’s just the MacGuffin. The movie is a character study of Sam Spade. He’s old enough to have had lots of experience with women, but it hasn’t been good. He is damaged; regarding love, his unconscious mind is needy and naive and his conscious mind is jaded. His unconscious mind finds these bad women tremendously attractive for reasons that must venture into psychology rather than philosophy. But let’s stick to philosophy.

    The climax of the movie has nothing to do with the Maltese Falcon. Yeah, it’s revealed as the stuff that dreams are made of, imaginary, but the Fat Man insists that it’s still real, that it exists somewhere, and their mindless chase begins all over again.

    But then the real climax occurs, and Sam Spade has his existential moment. His conscious mind has to talk his unconscious mind out of loving a murderer. He weighs the pros and cons. It is his conscious mind that makes his existential decision based on his experience.


    A quote from REMARKS ON EXISTENTIALISM by Jack R. Ernest, influenced by R. D. Laing’s THE DIVIDED SELF and Rollo May’s EXISTENCE:

    The unconscious mind thus dictates a man’s drive. The decisions he makes in life and what he desires are unconscious. The conscious mind holds the reins with regards using logic. So the unconscious mind wants and the conscious mind determines whether this want is worth it. . .

    Unfortunately people through millions of years of evolution are still manipulated by their unconscious mind. So they think they are making a decision consciously when in fact the unconscious mind has greatly influenced that decision process.”

    Sam Spade tells of the Flitcraft episode, a previous case he had once worked on. A man had an existential experience, nearly dying from the fall of a beam while at work. It made him take stock of his life, the fleeting nature of it, and he disappeared, leaving his job, wife, and family behind. Spade tracked him down, years later, and found that he had left his life only to start the same kind of life over again, being sucked back into conformity after forgetting his existential epiphany.

    Sam has a laugh over this.

    Much has been written about the Flitcraft episode in THE MALTESE FALCON. Our existential insights are rare events, and we block them out with conformity or seek escape from them in drugs or alcohol or some other addiction. What we call everyday life is mostly conformity to the escape mechanisms shielding us from existential angst.

    14 Oct 2015 at 6:05 am #7703


    “We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” (Sartre)

    This is reflected in your sentence: “I think that Sam Spade is an existentialist because he seems to make up his moral code as he goes along.” Yep, that does seem consonant with the existentialist viewpoint.

    However, I’m not sure about what comes directly after: “But Spade stays true to his authentic self and immediately has his partner’s desk removed and the sign on the door repainted. That’s neither bad nor good, it’s just the way he is.”

    “stays true to his authentic self”? Sounds like humanism returning through the back door to me.

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