Existentialism in Cormac McCarthy's Works

This topic contains 60 replies, has 8 voices, and was last updated by  Richard L. 1 year, 2 months ago.

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  • 30 Dec 2015 at 9:13 pm #7978


    It is pretty much inarguable that Salinger’s writing impetus is propelled by Advaita Vedanta, not the literal movement of “Existentialism”.

    31 Dec 2015 at 2:30 pm #7981

    Candy Minx


    31 Dec 2015 at 2:38 pm #7982

    Candy Minx

    Richard said,
    “Re: how are you going to fix that?

    There’s no fix for the human condition, and there is no plausible agenda to cure it.

    Individuals, aware of the monstrosity, can make decisions as best as they can according to their own lights. Or, as the existentialists all point out, choose not to choose, the choice of conformists everywhere.”

    And my differing of perspective with yours is…the assumption that the human condition includes monstrosity, or choice, or the interest in freedom or choice in the same way you define choice.

    Applying one’s own angst and existentialism over top all of the worlds human condition is the part I am re-acting to.

    For other societies and other economies and cultures…alienation, angst, monstrosities have a place within an intereconnected framework. They are not norms or even expected or spoken of in the manner in which you express your own personal existentialism.

    Trapped inside a grid or framework in other societies…has a message and purpose and ethos of their own.

    This is not to say I don’t think other narratives have existentialist themes.

    However…it is mostly in totalitarian agriculture where one could possibly say

    “There’s no fix for the human condition, and there is no plausible agenda to cure it.”

    Only people in industrialized economies and cultures would consider that a “truth” or “fact”.

    The human condition in our other societies is not legislated by someone who lives in the world you live in. We live in a different realm.

    I do agree with you that there is no “agenda”…good gosh, no one mentioned an agenda. Assuming an agenda is being proposed at all shows thinking inside the grid of industrial society.

    One must try to shake loose the social constructs piled on by totalitarian cultural religious economies….

    31 Dec 2015 at 2:45 pm #7983

    Candy Minx

    In short, or postscript…try to think about the words you are choosing Richard…there are clues inside those words that demonstrate social conditioning an programming…think about your own choice of words….rather than trying to convince someone of your ideas…your jail is revealed by the language….

    And thank you for such an amazing discussion…I greatly value these topics and you folks…

    In Gassho

    22 Jan 2016 at 9:19 am #8033

    Richard L.

    The phrase “unreliable narrator” was not coined until 1961. There were unreliable narrators long before that, but they were not grouped under the concept. The same is true for the concept of existentialism. It runs forward and backwards through much of our literature.

    I recommend From Shakespeare to Existentialism by Walter Kaufmann (decidedly not for you, Candy, but for anyone else here).

    It will also be interesting to see what Sarah Bakewell has to say in her new book, due out in March, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others .

    Several years ago, I read and reviewed Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer and it was mighty good.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 1 month ago by  Richard L..
    21 Feb 2016 at 8:42 pm #8175


    I’m late coming to this and will try to reply to a few points in a very brief few sentences.

    Re: McCarthy and Existentialism–it’s all through _Suttree._ I’m more and more convinced that McCarthy had a copy of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death on hand while writing it.

    Regarding American Existentialists–
    I’d try Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and of course Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, not to mention Barthes’ End of the Road.

    22 Feb 2016 at 3:05 am #8176

    Richard L.

    Thanks for that, SYarbrough, and of course I agree.

    Walter Kaufmann says that Dostoevsky gave us an entire overture of what was to come in the later writings on existentialism.

    THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH may also play a part in Cormac McCarthy’s pending THE PASSENGER, as the institutionalizing of the individual treats the sickness but can never cure it, after Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN.

    I’ve recently read Cass B. Sunstein’s new book, CHOOSING NOT TO CHOOSE, which ties into existentialism in many ways, though the author seems unaware. It is certainly worth reading, and I read it alongside another new worthy, Matthew B. Crawford’s WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: ON BECOMING AN INDIVIDUAL IN AN AGE OF DISTRACTION.

    1Q84 by Haruki Murakami was certainly interesting for its existentialist ways. The title is a play on the Japanese use of Q and on Orwell’s 1984. Life is a fugue, yes, the more aware you are the more aware you are of modern life’s 1984-like tyranny and misery. But rather than being mad or going mad, Murakami shows us a better way, finding a separate peace, and that is the way of love and gratitude. Yep, it’s been done before–see the endings of Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22 and Ken Kesey’s ONE FLEW OVER THE COOKOO’S NEST–but it still rings true in 1Q84, never better.

    Murakami gives us lots of music–including Bach–but also “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” which will no doubt be the main theme when this masterpiece is made into a movie.

    If I were teaching 1Q84 in a class, I would have to get into existentialism and the super-positioning of choice, along with quantum mechanics. Murakami playfully has his female protagonist choose to get off the road near the beginning of the book, and we would have to analyze the crisis or climatic moments. The string in the maze.

    04 Mar 2016 at 10:14 pm #8204


    Here is an interesting and enjoyable explanation of some key ideas :


    11 Mar 2016 at 11:57 am #8215

    Richard L.

    Thanks, that was from the Sarah Blakewell book that I touted above.

    Here’s another excerpt from Flavorwire:


    05 Sep 2016 at 12:12 pm #8549

    Richard L.

    Sarah Bakewell, from the work cited above:

    “…existentialist ideas and attitudes have embedded themselves so deeply into modern culture that we hardly think of them as existentialist at all. . .The unnamed object of desire here is authenticity. This theme also haunts modern entertainment, just as much as it did in the 1950s. . “

    “In films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the Wachowskis’ Matrix, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.’

    “Existentialist heroes of more traditional kinds, wrestling with meaning and decision, feature in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man, Steven Knight’s Locke, and any number of Woody Allen films, including Irrational Man which takes its title from William Barrett’s book.’

    “In David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees of 2004, rival existential detectives battle over the difference between gloomy and positive visions of life. In another part of the forest, we find the ecstatic Heideggerian films of Terrence Malick, who did postgraduate research on Heidegger and translated some of his work before turning to film-making.”

    Not to mention Cormac McCarthy’s protagonists in THE BORDER TRILOGY.

    No existentialist would claim to be a member of any school of thought, let alone any “movement” such as the obvious one in the 1950s. The membership consists only of non-members and wannabes. Bakewell cites Norman Mailer as one of the rare self-proclaimed existentialists, running on the “Existentialist ticket” for political office.

    But the one glaringly bright existentialist in American letters unmentioned by Bakewell is Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford. As Geoff Dyer points out in OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE HUMAN CONDITION, Ford’s early work attempted a neo-Faulknerism that rang false, and it wasn’t until he engaged Frank in THE SPORTSWRITER that he was able to reach, define, and express an authenticity that strikes so many of us as brilliant.

    Ford’s next book, INDEPENDENCE DAY, is said to have been written in his “existence period,” which seems clearly to mark the existentialism that extended to his later books as well.

    Richard Ford’s deservedly-acclaimed Frank Bascome novels have become my comfort read, along with the undeservedly obscure John Marshall Tanner private-eye novels of Stephen Greenleaf.


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