The Paranoid Style in McCarthy's Fiction

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  • 07 Nov 2012 at 8:23 am #2311

    Glass
    Member

    I’m curious whether others see parallels between the themes explored in Richard Hofstadter’s essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics and the fiction of Cormac McCarthy and, if so, what you make of that.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paranoid_Style_in_American_Politics

    Full text of the essay: http://karws.gso.uri.edu/jfk/conspiracy_theory/the_paranoid_mentality/the_paranoid_style.html


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    • This topic was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by  Glass.
    07 Nov 2012 at 12:00 pm #2313

    Richard L.
    Member

    I can certainly see the paranoid style in American politics, but don’t see how this ties in to McCarthy’s works, except for BLOOD MERIDIAN, where the paranoid, racist, Captain White and company ride against non-whites in an historical context.

    The paranoid style seems much more rampant in the works of some other famous American authors–Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, or J. D. Salinger, say.

    What is the Mencken quote?  In America, “If you are against demagogues, then you are against democracy.  If you are against Christianity, then you are against God.  If you are against trying a can of old Dr. Quack’s Cancer Salve, then you are in favor of letting Uncle Julius die”     H. L. Mencken – “The Citizen and the State”

     

     


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    07 Nov 2012 at 9:17 pm #2318

    cantona
    Member

    “The paranoid style seems much more rampant in the works of some other famous American authors–Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, or J. D. Salinger, say.”

    I would agree that it’s not exactly “rampant” in McCarthy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. I would argue that it prevails in a quieter form – say in what lies behind the ‘where did it all go wrong’ utterances of someone like Sherriff Bell. Georges Guillemin in ‘The Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy says: “The most intriguing literary aspect of McCarthy’s fiction is that his narrative voice is increasingly at odds with his narrative vision.” I agree. My point is: don’t be fooled by the folksy sentiments of Sherriff Bell (voice); think instead at what Bell and the other narrative voice in NCFOM forces us to see (vision).  Not just paranoia, but paranoid schizophrenia. Yikes!


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    08 Nov 2012 at 3:11 am #2320

    cantona
    Member

    Not sure where the edit button is here, so I’ve revised my earlier post a teensy-weensy bit.

     

    “The paranoid style seems much more rampant in the works of some other famous American authors–Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, or J. D. Salinger, say.”

    I would agree that it’s not exactly “rampant” in McCarthy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. I would argue that it prevails in a quieter form – say in what lies behind the ‘where did it all go wrong’ utterances of someone like Sherriff Bell. Georges Guillemin in ‘The Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy says: “The most intriguing literary aspect of McCarthy’s fiction is that his narrative voice is increasingly at odds with his narrative vision.” I agree. My point is: don’t be too taken in by the folksy, elegiac, sentiments of Sherriff Bell (voice); think instead at what Bell and the other narrative voice in NCFOM are asking us to consider.  Not just paranoia, but paranoid schizophrenia. Yikes!

    It’s interesting that Richard mentions Pynchon, Heller and Salinger as exemplums of American paranoia. However, whenever I think of the paranoia in NCFOM, I think of Joan Didion and her diatribes against the Sixties and the Counter-Culture. Bell is Didion in drag.


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    08 Nov 2012 at 4:30 pm #2323

    Glass
    Member

    Richard and Jim: Insightful comments and much appreciated. And, yeah, Didion is no slouch. I read a piece of hers recently in which she was allowed inside the governor’s mansion in California when Ron and Nancy Reagan were living there and she was offended by nearly everything inside the place, said the yokel sensibilities exhibited by such things as the books displayed on the shelves was evidence enough to send them out onto the streets. So good.
    As far as the paranoid style, I also thought first about NCFOM and possible parallels there, but more broadly
    I thought of all the Manicheanism or the strains thereof that run through nearly all of McCarthy from the first book

    onward. That “shadow of the axe hangs over every joy” vibe evoked by White in Sunset Limited.


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    • This reply was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by  Glass.
    08 Nov 2012 at 6:44 pm #2324

    Richard L.
    Member

    Re: The Sunset Limited

    Black and White are balanced here.  Everyone dies, but not today.

    Reminds me of when I was in high school and the Cuban Missile Crisis was going on.  In an informal discussion, one student talked himself into hysterics, saying, I wish they’d go on and bomb Russia, have a nuclear war and get it over with now; they’re going to anyway.

    To which the teacher said, that’s illogical.  That’s like saying, you’re going to die anyway, why bother to live?

    That “shadow of the axe” that hangs over every joy is simply death, and we should not live in denial of it.  Knowing that all will die, Mankind is divided between smilers and frowners, glass-half-full or glass-half-empty people.  Much of McCarthy’s fiction has genuine beauty and wonder in the moment, though even the “ardent-hearted” are aware “that beauty and loss are the same thing,” as they should be.

    I’m not sure that an acknowledgement of death jives exactly with a “paranoid style.”


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    09 Nov 2012 at 6:57 pm #2326

    Glass
    Member

    Well put, Richard. I like that.

    Briefly, a few of the areas or themes that recur in McCarthy that I’ve been thinking about which might have some relevance to the topic at hand would include:

    Scapegoating.

    Eschatology and a preoccupation with prophecy and end times.

    Watching or the feeling of being watched. “You would not believe what watches.” (Suttree 461)
    Animism. Especially in Outer Dark it feels as if the landscape could come to life and reach out and get you. Lots of that in Rinthy’s walks, as I recall.
    Harbingers of Doom.


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    11 Nov 2012 at 10:25 pm #2345

    Glass
    Member

    Could the judge’s contradictions be understood in part through Leo Strauss’s ideas on exoteric and esoteric writing?

    Strauss discusses it here: http://books.google.com/books?id=tPemdJ2ic2UC&pg=PA63&lpg=PA63&dq=leo+strauss+esoteric+exoteric&source=bl&ots=HOj6hIKAwn&sig=2QEeH7owDtTQmiPRcYAAth1Ywb8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=oYCgUJPQJoqU2wXR-IAw&ved=0CEQQ6AEwCA


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    • This reply was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by  Glass.
    14 Nov 2012 at 3:01 am #2369

    cantona
    Member

    Paranoia might be part of McCarthy’s attempt to dismantle the historically unsupportable myth of pastoral. In the best American writing, there has always be a sense of disquiet behind even the most blissful evocation of pastoral. Leo Marx notes this in Jefferson’s much vaunted, much derided, agrarianism:

    “Yet Jefferson, as we have seen, could not give full credence to the myth. Although he never entirely repudiated it, he knew perfectly well that it did not encompass all of the essential truth about American experience. In detached  moods,he recognised the restless striving of his countrymen, their get-ahead, get rich, rise-in-the-world ambitions.”( The Machine in the Garden, p143)

    There is a kind of etiology here: by the time we get to this late stage in modernism such self-doubt turns into outright paranoia, with the myth itself devouring the type of conscience represented in a lot of modern American literature. Here is Leo Marx, again, on Jefferson: “an exultant pastoral wish image may well emanate from a mind susceptible to the darkest forbodings” (p144). Is this, in a nutshell, the tragedy of Sherriff Bell, and his like?

    ( Peter, I remember a post of yours where you cited Zizek’s interpretation of a Greek myth used by Lacan. I would like to look at that again, especially in relation to this thread, but can’t seem to find it).


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    14 Nov 2012 at 6:02 am #2370

    Richard L.
    Member

    Gosh.  Again, it is not paranoia but self-knowledge gained from experience that makes a man certain that power corrupts, that the individual stands and will always stand in opposition to power.  The agrarian stands for naturalism, logic and balance against the grasping, all-consumptive psychopathic materialism of the id.  The life of the mind against the brute.

    The brute corporate psychopath sees a utopian infinity of riches to gleaned from an earth of finite resources.  Want to read about the agrarian mind, beyond that of Allan Tate and Robert Penn Warren in I’ll Take My Stand?  See:

    http://trackofthecat.blogspot.com/2012/04/due-to-propaganda-of-its-media-left-and.html

    The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government(2012) by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.  The economy of the Democratic Republic is a garden which must be tended and maintained.

    Even when the pastoral world vanishes, the pastoral outlook is eternal, something that goes hand-in-hand with the humanities.  The brutes yammering for Ayn Rand materialism will have their day until, as McCarthy might say, they run plum out of country, until they consume themselves (blaming their fall, Limbaugh-like, on the meek) but the humanities will rise again, out of the ashes.

    Like love vine, out of the weeds.


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    14 Nov 2012 at 7:14 am #2371

    cantona
    Member

    Gosh my extraordinarily lovely behind. I don’t think you really read my points through – just decided to run off a list of books to make your slightly off-topic response sound all the more conclusive. But that’s alright: I do that meself sometimes.


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    14 Nov 2012 at 9:35 am #2373

    Richard L.
    Member

    I think that McCarthy makes death, and the fear of death, his recurring theme.  He said as much in one of his rare interviews before NCFOM was published.  Paranoia, in the Eric Hoffer true believer sense, is the fear of death subliminated and transfigured into fear of the Other.

    I have not yet seen the paranoia in McCarthy’s work that you and Mr. Glass are talking about, but I am open to the idea if you will offer excerpts or illustrations that are about paranoia rather than McCarthy’s simple acknowlegement of death.

    I know of a few (but not nearly enough to label McCarthy’s style as paranoid).  There is the Witch of Fuck, for instance.  In this Halloween episode, Suttree has sex with her but then has a vision that she is just flesh and bones, destined to rot, and he sees her that way and is frightened; she becomes death personified.  This episode is one of many in Suttree’s continuing quest to overcome his fear of death (which he eventually does).  I can see how this might look like paranoia on the surface.

    I confess that I did not get your connection between a paranoid style and the pastoral McCarthy, but I do think that the pastoralism in McCarthy is genuine.


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    14 Nov 2012 at 5:05 pm #2374

    Glass
    Member

    Jim, here is Zizek on Lacan’s Lamella Myth: http://www.lacan.com/zizalien.htm

    If you want to find the thread, go the Middle Novels and click on that. I think it’s under Blood Meridian.

    I don’t have time right now to respond to any of the points made today on this thread, though I hope to get back here soon to do so. Appreciate the comments!


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    20 Nov 2012 at 7:08 pm #2439

    cantona
    Member

    Is the bunker scene (138-150) in ‘The Road’ an example of smart paranoia?


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    01 Dec 2013 at 11:55 am #4761

    Glass
    Member

    “There are also enemies in the bowels of the earth.” (The Burrow)

    Reading Kafka’s short story The Burrow brought this thread to mind. There are some nice parallels between this little-read work by Kafka and McCarthy’s stories, such as Child of God, The Road, The Sunset Limited and maybe many others. The themes of “inside/outside,” both physical and psychological, explored so brilliantly by Kafka in The Burrow, are fun to think about in relation to McCarthy, particularly, for me at least, Ballard’s hellish subterranean existence in COG, the world he creates there and the transformation he seems to undergo in that space.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Burrow_(short_story)


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    01 Dec 2013 at 7:19 pm #4772

    Hi all,

    I’m always late to the party. I find this conversation fascinating, though I don’t have time to reread Zizek before The Walking Dead tonight. But I love the definition of paranoia that Richard offered. In my sophomore lit class, I have been using The Road as my exemplar for contemporary and postmodern lit, using in particular the following conversation between Papa and the boy to illustrate paranoia as the postmodern mood (as opposed to the nostalgia that marked high modernism):

    If you’re on the lookout all the time does that mean that you’re scared all the time?

    Well. I suppose you have to be scared enough to be on the lookout in the
    first place. To be cautious. Watchful. […]Maybe you should always be on the lookout. If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it. (151)

    Richard’s definition of paranoia (après Hoffer) certainly fits this scene, and perhaps the entire novel, perfectly. Thanks much!


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    01 Dec 2013 at 8:48 pm #4773

    Candy Minx
    Member

    Paranoia is just having the right information.
    William S. Burroughs

    -Toronto Star, 22 Apr. 1989
    A paranoid is someone who has all the facts. (William S. Burroughs)


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    29 Dec 2013 at 12:18 pm #4920

    Tom: Can’t believe some of the stuff in this thread.

    Theo: I too have wondered about a number of assertions.

    Tom: Classic examples of distortion of meaning!

    Theo: Are you perchance referring to the treatment of the word “paranoia”?

    Tom: Yeah. Its sense is stretched beyond belief.

    Theo: I would not put it quite that way. ‘Tis given a postmodern twist and a rather radical one at that.

    Tom: Well, radical equals incredible, like William S. Burroughs’ definition of a “paranoid”: “someone who has all the facts.”

    Theo: To give the devil his due, Burroughs may mean that once one fully accepts the overriding fact of being that life is ultimately death, then paranoia is a legitimate response to it. Of course, to me such a view is anathema.

    Tom: You’re too kind to Burroughs. His oral rubbish is like his written kind. Reading The Naked Lunch is like being hurled into one madhouse after another.

    Theo: ‘Tis difficult to follow the novel’s twists and turns. I read it as drug fantasy that leaps to and fro, hither and yon, until the story just stops.

    Tom: Because it’s the product of scrambled-egg brains that wear out writing it.

    Theo: As for paranoia in McCarthy’s works, I see little of it, except possibly in the character Chigurh of No Country for Old Men. In response to the drug chieftain’s concern about Chigurh’s enemies, the villain says that he has no enemies because he never permits them. This boast is clearly delusion of grandeur.

    Tom: No it isn’t. Chigurh’s terminated all his enemies with extreme prejudice. In the world of the novel his enemies don’t exist.

    Theo: But there is the possibility of threats to the drug cartel by future enemies. Chigugh implies that he will always be able to terminate these. In this sense he is quite deluded.

    Tom: No. He’s sane, like Judge Holden. Both represent resilient evil.

    Theo: Both are ultimately unreal.

    Tom: You need to suspend your disbelief.

    Theo: I always do up to a reasonable point.

    Tom: In The Road the father’s statement to the son to always expect trouble appears to be that of a paranoid. But it’s just plain common sense.

    Theo: I see your point. The world of this novel is devastated, peopled by cannibals. There is no other world. So one must always be on the lookout.

    Tom: Yep.


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