Existentialism in Cormac McCarthy's Works

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  • 12 Dec 2016 at 3:27 am #8720

    Richard L.
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    When Oprah had Cormac McCarthy in the witness chair, she asked him if he believed in God, which was good, but she missed the opportunity to ask him if he believed in free will.

    My hunch is that he would have quoted the reply of William James who, when asked the same question, quipped, “What choice do I have?”

    McCarthy scholar Edwin (Chip) Arnold argued that McCarthy wanted BLOOD MERIDIAN to have no meaning other than what the reader saw in it. We choose our meaning, a world-building where existence precedes essence. The meaning of free will, as David Foster Wallace said, is that we can choose to go against the default position, which in our society is always self-aggrandizement, the pursuit of materialism and of the comfort of conformity.

    Which brings me to David Foster Wallace’s THIS IS WATER. He opens with the cartoon where two young fish encounter an older fish who bids them good morning and asks them, “How’s the water? The two young fish swim on for a while, then one of them asks the other, “What the hell is water?”

    This parable was also used in one or two of the scientists’ books I’ve read lately, who add to it a parallel question: What is your velocity? Of course we are unaware that we are traveling millions of miles an hour. We may sit still in a moving airplane, but the earth spins as it rotates around the sun and the universe expands and us all with it. Not to mention even more subtle things.

    Wallace then goes into the everyday situations that we all experience and the different choices we have in thinking about them, if indeed we bother to think anyway different from the default position.

    You should read the entire address, but here’s an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s THIS IS WATER:

    …there are different kinds of freedom, but the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

    The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.

    The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race. . .I know that this stuff doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech’s central stuff should sound. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish, but please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death.

    The capital-T Truth is about life before death. . .

    It is about the real value of a real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

    This is water. This is water.

    I wish you way more than luck.


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