Existentialism in Cormac McCarthy's Works

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  • 14 Oct 2015 at 6:31 am #7704


    What I mean by above is: would a ‘true’ existentialist ever accept the idea of the authentic self? It seems to me that the great existentialist heroes of Literature, Raskolinikov, Meaursault, Roquentin et. al, signally failed to find, or tragically misrecognized, their authentic selves – their failures, a vital part of the existential message. If Sam Spade stays true to his authentic self, a success of sorts, then perhaps he’s not really your typical existentialist.

    14 Oct 2015 at 11:36 am #7705

    Richard L.

    Re: “…would a ‘true’ existentialist ever accept the idea of the authentic self?”

    Oh, c’mon, cantona, the term “authentic self” is Existentialism 101, and it doesn’t refer to some other authentic self, but to the individual’s own meaning of self created from his own experience. Sartre used the concept in what some consider to be the bible of existentialism and it has been in common use in discussions of existentialism ever since.

    Authenticity is an ideal, just something to be strived for in this vale of foggy propaganda and rabid conformity.

    As for humanism, Sartre claimed that existentialism is a humanism and some existentialists insist that it is the only true humanism. I always appreciate your posts, however. Thanks for stopping by these sparsely attended discussions.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 4 months ago by  Richard L..
    14 Oct 2015 at 3:38 pm #7707

    Candy Minx

    “Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes an artless art, growing out of the unconscious.”
    ― D.T. Suzuki

    “To speak conventionally – and I think it is easier for the general reader to see Zen thus presented – there are unknown recesses in our minds which lie beyond the threshold of the relatively constructed consciousness. To designate them as “sub-conciousness” or “supra-consciousness” is not correct. The word “beyond” is used simply because it is a most convenient term to indicate their whereabouts. But as a matter of fact there is no “beyond”, no “underneath”, no “upon” in our consciousness. The mind is one indivisible whole and cannot be torn in pieces. The so-called terra incognita is the concession of Zen to our ordinary way of talking, because whatever field of consciousness that is known to us is generally filled with conceptual riffraff, and to get rid of them, which is absolutely necessary for maturing Zen experience, the Zen psychologist sometimes points to the presence of some inaccessible region in our minds. Though in actuality there is no such region apart from our everyday consciousness, we talk of it as generally more easily comprehensible by us.”
    ― D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

    The unconscious mind is still viewed by many psychological scientists as the shadow of a “real” conscious mind, though there now exists substantial evidence that the unconscious is not identifiably less flexible, complex, controlling, deliberative, or action-oriented than is its counterpart. This “conscious-centric” bias is due in part to the operational definition within cognitive psychology that equates unconscious with subliminal. We review the evidence challenging this restricted view of the unconscious emerging from contemporary social cognition research, which has traditionally defined the unconscious in terms of its unintentional nature; this research has demonstrated the existence of several independent unconscious behavioral guidance systems: perceptual, evaluative, and motivational. From this perspective, it is concluded that in both phylogeny and ontogeny, actions of an unconscious mind precede the arrival of a conscious mind—that action precedes reflection. John A. Bargh

    I am from the camp that the unconscious mind isn’t some dualistic power upon us. It is something that can be tapped and merged with through meditation, art-making, story0telling, experiments in perception, group talk therapy, and pattern recognition (and other means but I’m trying TRYING to keep this simple heh heh)

    The dualistic mind and world is a belief system of the industrial societies, especially those who are still focusing on Freud’s idea of the unconscious….which may not be very much useful post-therapy.

    R.D. Laing’s quote you used earlier (#7702) is relevant to those people who live in a culture where the stories, lives, jobs, schools and community maintain the idea that we can live and function dualistically or without personal behaviour modification that actually merges and brings the conscious and unconscious together. Some cultures do not have those dualistic or polarized static concepts or behavior.

    I think R.D. Laing is actually incorrect, or misled in the second paragraph of quote where he sats “Unfortunately people through millions of years of evolution are still manipulated by their unconscious mind.

    No….I’m not convinced this is true We don’t have to time travel to another world to see this is wrong. We can study the relationship of peoples here, now outside of dominant popular industrial culture and see a healing merged life and society that not only has a different attitude to irony, to dualism, to the connectedness between the spiritual and the material….than people who believe these things are written in stone.

    Perhaps the Flitcraft anecdote is Spade sharing how a man has an epiphany, uproots his behaviors and changes his life only to return to conformity and build the same life over again. Is that really true? Are all women and children the same….oh just another okie-cutter family? Another ball and chain? Or is it possible that the patterns are the same but the inner workings and personalities of the people involved are more conducive in his new life to an existentist philosophy. Perhaps his new wife is an astounding poet of the now existentialist who publishes and writes poems about existentialism?

    There is also brought to my mind…the koan “Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment chop wood and carry water.” Maybe he needed to break away from past life and wife in order to re-boot and find that it was his attitude that had changed and no way his former family would have tolerated his new philosophical outlook. Like the wife in AMERICAN BEAUTY. He had to change out one similar circumstance for a similar circumstance with a different family. And I believe that would be just as humorous to Sam Spade as if he just went back to the same-old-same-old.

    But for the sake of this discussion….so Sam Spade is laughing at this poor existentialist who just went and made a new family with the same old problems (or the suspected stereotype that a wife and kids is some kind of drudgery that an existential freedom loving man must escape). So he went right back to the trap of conformity as you define marriage and kids. Or Sam Spade defines marriage and kids? Maybe Sam Spade isn’t as cool as I thought he was all these years?

    But lets say this man returns to conformity portrayed as making a whole new family. And Sam Spade laughs….maybe he is laughing at the absurdity of trying to imagine our lives have some kind of separate manifestation should we become enlightened? Is that perhaps what Spade laughs at? In a Beckett kind of way?

    I have known many many addicts in my life, through volunteer work and through interfaith discussions groups and though many AA groups…and not one of them ever drank/fucked/imbibed, shot up.or drugged.or shopped in order to escape their conformative lives. They imbibed in order to escape the pain of their unresolved childhood trauma. End of story. Period. Fin.

    Nothing about “conformity” aids anyone to escape mechanisms from existential angst. In fact, “authentic” existential angst can not be pacified at all. It is a power, tribal, spiritual experiential force that haunts those out-of-sync in the industrial societies. People usually drink or imbibe in order to let it run free. Alcohol is the “yes impulse” says William James. And it’s other word is “spirit”. It is not an escape from conformity….it is the unaware-humans non-conformity, and the addicts escape from traumatic memories.

    When people are merged with their dualistic discontent….they quite often are happily found embracing lifes more mundane or regular choices. Like Jimmy Stewart kissing the newel, or hugging his kids, and home-body “plain-jane” wife at the end of IT”S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

    It is the speaking out loud, in a soliloquy weighing the pros and cons of loving a murderer…that Sam reconciles his struggle to live as a free man in a prison-making society and economy to the most fullest. Like Hamlet, he finds out what he really thinks by speaking it out loud. Talk therapy style merges the queasy sensation of a lurking “unconsciousness.” Curing him of the dualism of his society and work. He is not being conscious or unconscious he is being wholistic and able to fully think act through his speaking out loud!

    In an interview for the delightful movie THE WAY Martin Sheen describes the function of the pilgrimage as “an attempt to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the body”

    And what after all, is the McGuffin in THE MALTEASE FALCOLN but a catalyst for a journey, with strange characters met along the way though a strange city filled with angels and devils? Sam Spade reconciles any existential angst he may have had by the marriage of his body to his work. Not through his mind at all! But rather by listening to his own voice and the variables….by the act of speaking.

    And speaking of speaking…this place is pretty quiet of voices…I asked a lot of people at the conference if they ever post here…and some do and some lurk. A lot of lurkers….and I put out an appeal to join in and share ideas and said how much the forum has given to me all these years. The yardstick gets held up….and the matter of saying things “out loud” on the forum helps process where we are and what we think and feel about what we read or write….

    I hope some of those scalawags show up here and give us a challenge!

    14 Oct 2015 at 6:15 pm #7709



    Thanks for tsk tsking my point. It really did take me back to my undergraduate years when a certain teacher would roll his eyes at everything I would say. It didn’t deter me.

    In fact, I do understand the importance of authenticity in Existentialism. My point, playfully put, I should add, was that if a person self-recognizes his ‘authentic self’ then in such grasping he has failed. I know that your argument would be: it’s not Sam Spade who recognizes his authentic self, but the perceptive reader – yourself. However, I think that this is still a mistake, as it suggests a hope that there really is such a thing as a fully-realized existentialist.

    Authenticity, freedom, cannot be spontaneously apprehended. Otherwise it becomes a conceit – falls into the realm of bad faith. It’s rather like Sartre’s example of the waiter who identifies too much with, um, being a waiter. “Hey look at me, I’m authentic!’

    Yes, and I enjoy your posts too. In spite of your tendency to thwack those who are in disagreement with you.

    14 Oct 2015 at 6:52 pm #7710


    Oh, and I agree with Richard and Candy that it would be nice to hear from other Cormackians on this. I really do think that it’s an important topic.

    So, apropos of my comments above, don’t you think that the passages in The Crossing in which Billy and Boyd are shown to be stripping off their (American) clothes suggest the futility of finding something truer than the life left behind – the meaningless search for the authentic if you will? McCarthy seems to suggest this; for in spite of the short-lived joy, there is some kind of misapprehension of what freedom means.

    15 Oct 2015 at 1:59 am #7711

    Richard L.

    Re: cantona: “…in spite of your tendency to thwack those who are in disagreement with you.”

    Yes. My wife, looking over my shoulder, used to ask me why I seemed to take on a different persona when in a Socratic forum such as this–something of a know-it-all cad, she would say. Quite unlike my more polite, more generous, and rather self-depreciating manner in public. I would often change my posts, making them clearer and gentler upon her recommendations.

    Unfortunately, I can no longer feel her hands upon my shoulders. All I can say is, I’ll try again to do better.

    Re: Candy: “…and the matter of saying things “out loud” on the forum helps process where we are and what we think and feel about what we read or write….”

    Yeah, synthesizing ideas and putting them into words here is a way of thinking, a way of sounding them out. It is a pastime, a distraction, like any other, like watching baseball games, say, or watching reruns of QUANTUM LEAP and SLIDERS. Talking about existentialism is just another way to help keep the existential angst at bay.

    Re: Candy: “It is the speaking out loud, in a soliloquy weighing the pros and cons of loving a murderer…that Sam reconciles his struggle to live as a free man in a prison-making society and economy to the most fullest. Like Hamlet, he finds out what he really thinks by speaking it out loud. Talk therapy style merges the queasy sensation of a lurking “unconsciousness.”

    Yes, indeed.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 4 months ago by  Richard L..
    15 Oct 2015 at 6:59 am #7719

    Candy Minx

    I don’t think either of you did anything to need explaination or apology. To get into the ideas and to read closely and discuss closely one has to draw a line in the sand. One needs to thwack each other with ideas…sometimes returning to re-phrase it. It’s not about you. It’s not about us. It’s about pushing to find ideas.

    Rigourous and close reading doesn’t happen until there is a risk and ritual. Name-calling is not kosher….but testing and argumentation is what keeps a forum like this alive. Feeling futile, or in a vacuum is the way to kill off discussion.

    One needs to be vulnerable in order to open oneself up to learning….and experience. Vulnerability and risk is how we have paradigm shifts.

    When a website loses it’s taste for disagreement then it dies.

    “idealism is life-killing” Nietzsche.

    “Experiment must give way to argument, and argument must have recourse to experimentation” Bachelard.

    “freedom only being realizable in association with others” Bataille.

    15 Oct 2015 at 7:09 am #7720

    Candy Minx

    Richard said…”Yeah, synthesizing ideas and putting them into words here is a way of thinking, a way of sounding them out. It is a pastime, a distraction, like any other, like watching baseball games, say, or watching reruns of QUANTUM LEAP and SLIDERS. Talking about existentialism is just another way to help keep the existential angst at bay.”

    Yes and no. I mean pastime is one way to put it. Of course it’s fun to sit in the pub and shoot the shit.

    But it’s also not that. I would actually say that for me….it’s about giving in to the moment and being vulnerable. It’s about opening up to listen to others. It’s about surrender. Now I have come to learn these last few years living in a foreign country, that this country doesn’t really believe in being vulnerable or in surrender. It’s a very strange sensation being around a society that puts individualism ahead of common sense and community. And disdains vulnerability and surrender.

    For me, surrendering to others ideas and thoughts is a kind of active meditation. speaking ideas an arguing is also a kind of active meditation ….and I can see that that may be compartmentalized in a consumer culture as “past time” in order rt try to undertnd why anyone would give so much time to shooting the shooting the shit, or screwing the pooch.

    The idea that there may be some kind of precedence or tradition in sharing emotional and experimental communication as a means to a paradigm shift or heightened experience or learning….has been lost. I get that. It’s not encouraged…

    We can call it shamanistic, or existential if that makes it easier to justify to our families why we love sitting around talking about McCarthy or movies or books.

    but in a way thats a little sad….there are people all over the world who do this all the time.

    For me it’s about talking or feeling what is the nature of reality. Is it what you think…is it what I think? Is it in Dostoyevsky? Or McCarthy? Or Danielle Steel? O the tv show Lost?

    And this approach to living is not weird in other cultures. It’s not weird to explore the nature of reality in other settings. However…it is something often mocked or downplayed in United States. So fascinating…

    don’t be so hard on yourselves kids…lifelong learning!

    15 Oct 2015 at 7:40 am #7722


    Ah, Dostoyevsky! It’s the second time that you’ve mentioned him today. I’ve just finished Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s fantastic translation of Crime and Punishment. There’s a passage on suicide that could quite easily be dropped into Sunset Limited without anyone noticing. Also Raskolnikov’s wanderings through St Petersburg reminds me so much of Suttree’s own wanderings through Knoxville. Both evocations, so particular yet so universal. I don’t think a discussion on Dostoyevsky and McCarthy would be out of place on this thread – but we could start a new one??

    16 Oct 2015 at 4:09 am #7724

    Richard L.

    Re: cantona: Dostoevsky

    One of Cormac McCarthy’s four favorite authors. I downloaded the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT {1992, 1993) and will read it later today. Nelson Algren was also greatly influenced by Dostoevsky.

    Re: Candy: Sam Spade’s laughter

    My take is that he was laughing at the absurdity, one response to the existential crisis. There are a good many authors whose work reflects their absurdist philosophy, Tom Robbins being my favorite among them, but I can’t help laughing at Bob Black’s Groucho Marxism:



    Re: Candy: the unconscious mind, just an aside,

    “I read once that whenever we meet someone new, the body makes up its mind independently and instantaneously whether or not he’s someone we would have sex with. We go through life seeing new people and being polite to them while deep within us the mating selector is going yes, no, no, yes, yes, no, no, no. We don’t even register the ones that are no. The yesses we do, no matter how distracted we may be.

    It’s like even when your house is burning down around you, if the fireman who carries you out is a yes, your body taps you on the shoulder and says, “note to self.”

    That’s the female protagonist talking in THE FLIES OF AUGUST by P. J. Lee, a murder mystery I downloaded last August when I was looking for a free seasonal read. It is nicely done, and to the author’s credit, the book reverses the usual expectations. Conscious mind trumps unconscious inclinations.

    Re: Conformity

    I agree with Nelson Algren (among others), in that the free individual’s fight is against a society that is always pressuring him to conform. Yet without conformity there would be no standards of speech nor understanding of concepts among us. One of the reasons I enjoy dancing at Louisville’s Bop Club is that everyone displays such good manners–I realize that this conformity and I like it.

    Jack R. Ernest, in his book REMARKS ON EXISTENTIALISM, takes a more extreme view:

    “Man unfortunately grows up enshrouded in such conformist opium. . .because deep within the dungeons of their consciouness they can hear the reptiles scream that life is in actuality meaningless and that the individual faces a certain death. . .The majority’s drug of choice is conformity because of their fear…”

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