The Sunset Limited, McCarthy and pessimism

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  • 24 Aug 2015 at 9:32 pm #7536

    adrianb
    Member

    There’s been a recent vogue for pessimism, or a pessimistic view of the human condition, due largely to its prominence in the first season of HBO’s True Detective. Nic Pizzolatto, the shows’ creator and only writer, has acknowledged that the origin for the particular brand of pessimism put forth in the show (even down the language used by the central character Chole) was Thomas Ligotti, from the latter’s non-fiction book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, published in 2010. However, anyone who has read McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, published 2006 (but written, or at least started, in the 90’s?), will know that the character, White, expresses a striking similar view, in strikingly similar language, to that used by Ligotti in his book and in turn by Pizzolatto in the first season of the HBO show. Here are a couple of examples from The Sunset Limited:

    White: …I don’t regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world. I regard it as the world itself. Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility.

    …If people saw the world for what it truly is. Saw their lives for what they truly are. Without dreams or illusions. I don’t believe they could offer the first reason why they should not elect to die as soon as possible.

    …Show me a religion that prepares for death. For nothingness. There’s a church I might enter. Yours prepares one only for more life. For dreams and illusions and lies. If you could banish the fear of death from men’s hearts they wouldn’t live day.

    Anyone who has read Ligotti’s book or seen the first season of TD will immediately see the similarities to McCarthy’s formulation of White’s pessimistic views, even down to the language used. Obviously there’s a long tradition of philosophical pessimism from Schopenhauer onwards. But this particular contemporary brand of pessimism seems to me clearly to have been articulated by McCarthy throughout his career. As a matter of fact, I would claim that Cormac McCarthy has been fiction’s ‘high priest of pessimism’ for the last 50 years. The Schopenhauer of fiction, if you like. More so than any other writer. (I know others have seen Schopenhauer in McCarthy). So many examples. In Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s specific use of the Boehme quotation, which stands as Boehme’s (and McCarthy’s) thesis that the very basis of existence is something negative (this could be a definition of pessimism). McCarthy continues to hammer home again and again in book after book — more forcefully, I might add, than the lessons we learn (or fail to learn) from reality — that the very fabric of existence is suffering or negativity. This from The Road:

    He walked out into the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of an intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover.

    It’s interesting, then, that throughout the entire run of the first season of True Detective, and still even now, I’ve seen no real mention of McCarthy in relation to the show or to the pessimistic views celebrated therein. And not only in regard to the pessimism expressed on the first season, but in its use of dialogue, the Southern gothic mood and atmosphere, etc. Nor does McCarthy seem to crack a mention from so-called horror (or weird) fiction fans either (though I did see this recently: http://www.teemingbrain.com/2013/05/16/the-meaning-of-horror-and-that-dark-sorcerer-cormac-mccarthy/). Because McCarthy is probably also the greatest horror writer of the second half of the twentieth century (of course, I’m not the first to say this). Take any passage from any novel, for example, this from Outer Dark:

    The road went on through a shadeless burn and for miles there were only the charred shapes of trees in a dead land where nothing moved save windy rifts of ash that rose dolorous and died again down the blackened corridors…Before him stretched a spectral waste out of which reared only the naked trees in attitudes of agony and dimly hominoid figures in a landscape of the damned. A faintly smoking garden of the dead that tended away to the earth’s curve…A stale wind blew from this desolation and the marsh reeds and black ferns among which he stood clashed softly like things chained.

    Compare a passage like this to any passage by a horror or weird fiction writer and McCarthy probably beats them at their own game. Anyway, I think secretly McCarthy was the true influence on Pizzolatto for the mood and atmosphere and dialogue of TD.


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    25 Aug 2015 at 11:08 am #7539

    Richard L.
    Member

    Well, as far as THE SUNSET LIMITED goes, White does have the last word–until the next time. Like McCarthy’s other fiction, it is open to interpretation, but my take is that the sunset is, like the French expression, that hour between the dog and the wolf. White and black co-exist in the same being, and black will always be about to jump and white will always be trying to talk him out of it.

    And is there pessimism in THE ROAD? Yes, along the way, but the conclusion shows the man becoming aware that he has been living in Plato’s Cave, and the uncertain ending makes you believe that Hemingway’s Nick Adams might soon reappear among leaping trout in some mysteriously humming river somewhere.

    When Oprah ask McCarthy what he wanted people to get out of THE ROAD, he replied that he would like it to be a cautionary tale, that he wanted people to be grateful, even if they did not know to Whom to be grateful.

    I think I could name pessimists in every age. The Hemingway of A CLEAN, WELL-LIGHTED PLACE was certainly a pessimist, at the time in the spell of Pio Baroja whom Papa Hemingway considered the greatest novelist then living. Baroja’s greatest work (unfortunately now out of print in English) was THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, a coming of age tale in which the protagonist becomes increasingly pessimistic at each new revelation about the world. The more he learns, the darker the world appears.

    THE ROAD has been influential, but it amazes me how influential A CLEAN, WELL-LIGHTED PLACE continues to be. I seem to hear someone use that title phrase at least once a week now on television or read a reference to it just routinely, it seems, when I’m not looking for it. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name.

    Just today when listening to the audiobook of THE ESSENTIAL WRITING OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON and again in the opening paragraph in the preface to THE CASS MASTERN MATERIAL:THE CORE OF ROBERT PENN WARREN’S ALL THE KING’S MEN.

    Such a simple little story, with such simple nondescript characters, yet with such a significant meaning for a lot of us.

    Anyway, I don’t think that McCarthy set out to be a pessimist, but like the Hemingway of A WELL-LIGHTED PLACE, he does try to be a humanist, and being human implies suffering, as the Buddha and later Christ both pointed out.


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    25 Aug 2015 at 7:55 pm #7540

    adrianb
    Member

    I think McCarthy is definitely a pessimist, but I’m not saying that pessimism is a bad thing, or something that he should be trying to avoid. Quite the opposite, it is a realistic view of the world and human existence, and so very much a humanistic view (like you said). McCarthy is such a powerful writer primarily because he acknowledges the suffering we experience and the negativity that is the basis of existence, where other writers don’t, they shy away from it, or write in a positive way about the human condition that rings false. I think the conclusion of The Road is still consistent with the pessimism throughout. It’s an equivocal conclusion. I saw McCarthy as saying that, even though there is not much hope for human civilization or for human existence being any good, the natural world, of which humans are a part, is still a mysterious and can often be a beautiful place. Which is true.


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    26 Aug 2015 at 10:25 am #7541

    Richard L.
    Member

    Right. McCarthy is a pessimist like Shakespeare.

    The trouble with the alarmist school of pessimism behind True Detective (and I wouldn’t include Nietzsche nor Schopenhauer in this school, let alone McCarthy) is their level of anxiety at the news that life involves suffering and we are nothing. They react like Wiley Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon, finding himself suddenly over the cliff, looking down with bug-eyed fright at the nothingness below his feet.

    So what if life involves suffering and dying. As Nietzsche says, we ought to live our lives in such a way that we would be glad to live them over and over again. This is the greatest horror imaginable to many Buddhists and to some of the alarmist pessimists I have been reading lately (and let’s see, that’s Thomas Ligotti, John Gray, E. M. Cioran, and Eugene Thacker, along with Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective).

    I would advise these guys to just relax and lighten up. Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES got it right.


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    26 Aug 2015 at 10:38 pm #7542

    adrianb
    Member

    Yes, McCarthy is certainly more magnanimous in his pessimism than these other writers, those whom you’ve called alarmist pessimists. But I’ve found more resignation than alarm in their writings. If the alarm comes from somewhere for these guys, I think it comes from a desperation to recruit others to the ‘pessimist cause’, to wrench the everyday person from their stubborn Panglossian illusions about the quality of human life. McCarthy, of course, never sets out to do anything as vulgar as this. That’s why his pessimism is more universal and more powerful than the pessimistic writings of these contemporaries will ever be.


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    28 Aug 2015 at 11:10 am #7552

    Richard L.
    Member

    Well there are lots of pessimists who are quite happy to go on living as pessimists, and some who even make espousing their pessimism about the worthlessness of life a good reason for living.

    The sentiment voiced by McCarthy’s character, Ely, in THE ROAD, that we’ll be better off when we’re all dead and gone, is merely a reflection of that sentiment expressed in SUTTREE, that the dread of being dead is not something the dead feel, but rather something only the living carry with them. Ely’s comment is Shakespearian comic relief in THE ROAD (in the book, but unfortunately not in the transfigured movie adaptation).

    Let’s talk about suicide in McCarthy for a moment.

    In McCarthy’s first three published novels, for all of the murders involving animal men, the word suicide does not appear even once.

    In the fourth novel, SUTTREE, it appears only in a simile, as Suttree’s lover lay in the drenched sheets “like a suicide.”

    In the fifth novel, BLOOD MERIDIAN, it appears only in the words of Captain White, saying that only one man was lost on Doniphan’s expedition, and he “all but a suicide.”

    In the entire western trilogy which followed BLOOD MERIDIAN, the word “suicide” does not appear a single time. Three books. Not one time.

    Then in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the word appears only once, when Sheriff Bell is going on about the symptoms of a world going to hell: rape, murder, drugs, and suicide.

    Next we have THE SUNSET EXPRESS, which is about whether suicide is best choice.

    Then we have THE ROAD, in which the human race has committed suicide, or near to it, and the mother has committed suicide before the novel opens.

    Next (brushing THE COUNSOLER aside), we have THE PASSENGER, in which one of the main characters, again a woman, has committed suicide before the novel begins.

    So what pattern do we see? Suicide is virtually absent from the first two-thirds of McCarthy’s works, but is prominent in the last third of them.

    Later scholars will probably spot the suicide girls among the Greek gods (or at least among those for whom constellations are named) here and there in McCarthy’s greater works. But there is more.
    _______

    It’s estimated that only 40 percent of suicides are the result of chemical imbalance, while the remain 60 percent are caused by undetermined factors. We know that people are ten times more likely to kill themselves in a city than in other kinds of environments.

    The hours between noon and six can be bad.

    And the month of May.

    And winter makes the numbers go up.

    Or if you don’t drink coffee your chances of suicide are three times higher than if you did.

    Ditto if you are a woman who uses the pill instead of a diaphragm, or are a man with tattoos on his neck or lower arms, or are a child with green eyes, or have any silver fillings.

    If you were born under the signs of Aries, Gemini, or Leo, you are at a higher risk of suicide.

    You are more likely to want to kill yourself if you are male, or white, or over sixty-five.

    It helps if you live anywhere in the United States other than Nevada, Wyoming, Alaska, or Montana, although the experts so far can’t figure out why. Nor have they figured out why Native Americans once tended to kill themselves more often than any other group, but then, fifteen years ago, stopped killing themselves significantly.

    They do not know why, generally speaking, white suicide victims tend to shoot themselves, while black suicide victims tend to poison themselves, Hispanics tend to hang themselves, and teens to cut themselves.

    –from John D’Agata’s masterwork of non-fiction, ABOUT A MOUNTAIN (2010)

    H. L. Mencken believed all the negative stuff that Ligotti, John Gray, et al believe, yet he was cheerful, was a magnanimous host, and had a merry zest for living. After he wrote some cynical articles about the meaningless of life, there happened to be a flurry of suicide on one particular college campus and a university official, asked to comment on the cause, replied, “Too much Mencken.”

    Mencken wrote an article in reply, saying, among other things, that curiosity about the future should be reason enough to go on living.

    But Mencken also loved his wife.

    In Jack London’s THE SEA WOLF, the narrator observes the heartless men of the crew and wonders where all the women are in their lives. He surmises that all of them, even the materialist Wolf Larsen, might have been better, more civilized men if they had been blessed with mothers, sisters, and especially good wives.

    When I was reading Mencken’s translation of THE PHILOSOPY OF FREDERIC NIETZSCHE, I was struck by the author’s musing that Nietzsche might have been much different if fortune had only provided him with a good, loving wife.

    All of which reminded me of the civilizing effect my wife had on my own life. And that McCarthy might have been better off if he’d stayed married to his second wife.


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    30 Aug 2015 at 12:48 am #7557

    adrianb
    Member

    That’s interesting. The appearance of suicide (the idea and the act) in the later novels is striking, especially since the earlier novels are completely innocent of it (or at least seem to be). I liked the “Too much Mencken”. It reminds me of the notorious Hegesias of Cyrene. Hegesias believed that happiness was an illusion, that the only real thing is suffering, and that death is as good as life. After teaching his pessimistic doctrine in Alexandria, apparently his words were so convincing and so seductive, there was a rash of suicides in the city, so many in fact, that King Ptolemy was forced to prevent Hegesias from delivering any more lectures as a measure of public safety.

    I think it might be worth separating the ‘life circumstance pessimist’ from the philosophical pessimist. Suggestions that “there’s always something to be curious about” or “you should get more fun out of life” or “you just need a good woman”, might be enough to move those who are drawn to pessimism because of their own personal unhappiness, or because they’ve read too much Ligotti. But they’re probably not going to effect the philosophical pessimist, who has arrived at his pessimistic views because that is where the arguments have led him, not the other way around. For example, David Benatar, a philosopher, whose book Better Never to Have Been, is a sustained analytical philosophical argument for antinatalism, or the view that coming into existence is always a harm, so we should not have children.

    His argument for antinatalism is based on the truth of an asymmetry about pleasure and pain. The asymmetry is this: we have World A and World B. In World A, Joe exists; in World B, Joe never exists. We can agree that: the presence of pain in World A is bad, and the presence of pleasure in World A is good; the absence of pain in World B is good (even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone), but the absence of pleasure in World B is not bad (unless there is somebody in existence for whom the absence of pleasure is a deprivation or suffering). If we accept this asymmetry, the only conclusion we can draw is that no matter how much good occurs in the life of a person we bring into existence, the alternative of never being brought into existence is always better.

    But of course, this is an argument for antinatalism (i.e. that it is better never to have come into existence), not an argument for suicide (i.e. that is is better to cease existing once one has been brought into existence). Once one has been brought into existence the absence of pleasure would be bad, because there is someone existing for whom the absence of pleasure involves suffering. Professor ‘White’ in The Sunset Limited seems to give an argument for suicide (a modern-day Hegesias).

    Interestingly McCarthy is not an antinatalist, as demonstrated by his procreative efforts. Though I’m certain he’s aware of the view and the arguments for it — he knows about everything — so he must reject the view.


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    30 Aug 2015 at 9:30 am #7558

    Richard L.
    Member

    Re: “Interestingly McCarthy is not an antinatalist, as demonstrated by his procreative efforts. Though I’m certain he’s aware of the view and the arguments for it — he knows about everything — so he must reject the view.”

    I think it’s pretty clear that McCarthy has always rejected that view. The death of the baby in OUTER DARK may have been a symbol of McCarthy’s own abandonment of his son (the circumstances of which may have been autobiographically inserted into SUTTREE), but as Jay Ellis prophetically pointed out (in NO PLACE FOR HOME), the reconciliation between father and son was pending in McCarthy, in his works as perhaps in his life.

    Among a synthesis of other things, OUTER DARK was the playing out of McCarthy’s symbolic albatross of guilt over this abandonment by way of Sophocles by way of Freud. He left and paid no alimony, very much like Edward Abbey abandoned his family (and my source here for that is the interview with Abbey’s son Josh in John D’Agata’s ABOUT A MOUNTAIN).

    Nay, when McCarthy was writing THE ROAD, his synthesis of sources more likely included Plato and the stoic Marcus Aurelius, not for the characters’ thoughts or actions, but for the on-looking narration. Which is, that we ought to our lives as if they were things borrowed, which they are, and ought to be prepared to give it back any time, saying, here, I thank you for this life which I have had in my possession.

    There are telling lines in the text which point to this view, such as “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed tears with which to sorrow it.”

    Remember, he told Oprah that he wanted people to be thankful, even if they did not know whom to thank.


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    02 Sep 2015 at 9:02 am #7566

    Richard L.
    Member

    Re: “For example, David Benatar, a philosopher, whose book Better Never to Have Been, is a sustained analytical philosophical argument for antinatalism, or the view that coming into existence is always a harm, so we should not have children.

    His argument for antinatalism is based on the truth of an asymmetry about pleasure and pain. The asymmetry is this: we have World A and World B. In World A, Joe exists; in World B, Joe never exists. We can agree that: the presence of pain in World A is bad, and the presence of pleasure in World A is good; the absence of pain in World B is good (even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone), but the absence of pleasure in World B is not bad (unless there is somebody in existence for whom the absence of pleasure is a deprivation or suffering). If we accept this asymmetry, the only conclusion we can draw is that no matter how much good occurs in the life of a person we bring into existence, the alternative of never being brought into existence is always better.”

    No, that argument has the wrong end of the stick. The logical argument is actually the on the other side.

    The argument is played out in a literary fashion in McCarthy, but it is presented much more explicitly in Jack London’s THE SEA WOLF and in Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES as well. Even among nihilists there is a divide between glass-half-full and glass-half empty. The alarmist nihilists take the empty path. The Senator, in LES MISERABLES, takes the materialist side but argues that epicurean delights outweigh the suffering. In THE SEA WOLF, the poet argues that since illusion is inevitable, the illusions of love (which bring happiness) trump the illusions of nihilism (which bring angst and the ultimate emptiness).

    And make no mistake, there are illusions on both sides of the argument. You do not even have to resort to the Bayes’ Rule (See THE THEORY THAT WOULD NOT DIE: HOW BAYES’ RULE CRACKED THE ENIGMA CODE, HUNTED DOWN RUSSIAN SUBMARINES, AND EMERGED TRIUMPHANT FROM TWO CENTURIES OF CONTROVERSY by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne).

    Wolf Larson, and for that matter, Max Stirner, Nietzsche, Ligotti, et al, all say that slave morality holds humanity in its grip, and of course that was a tremendous insight, but ultimately short-sighted. For the ego, unfettered by the altruistic addictions of love and humanism, is STILL subject to other illusive addictions as these works of art (and indeed, history itself) make clear.

    There is a striking scene in THE SEA WOLF, where all boats are away hunting seals and the sky gets black and Wolf Larson’s hackles are up as he prepares for a hurricane and he tells the narrator to expect some fun soon, in a joyous way which is exactly what BLOOD MERIDIAN’s Capt. White tells the kid when he sees the oncoming Comanches with their horse herd.

    When the storm hits, the narrator says, “It struck me that he was joyous. . .that he was glad that there was an impending struggle.”

    Since Jack London wrote this scene, science has determined that what we experience at such times is the onslaught of endorphins. That the experience of such danger that Larson says is the experience of is feeling truly alive is only a temporary chemical experience. That Larson, Capt. White, and the other such addicts of action become addicted to the feeling, but it is illusionary. They are simply junkies, like everyone else.

    And of course the egoist materialist gets addicted to power and thus becomes a slave to his lust for money and to the accumulation of other material things, all of which are illusionary nothings. Thus materialists all wind up as empty as Black in THE SUNSET EXPRESS.


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    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by  Richard L..
    08 Sep 2015 at 9:12 pm #7580

    adrianb
    Member

    Richard L.: Let’s talk about suicide in McCarthy for a moment.

    In McCarthy’s first three published novels, for all of the murders involving animal men, the word suicide does not appear even once.

    In the fourth novel, SUTTREE, it appears only in a simile, as Suttree’s lover lay in the drenched sheets “like a suicide.”

    I was reminded recently that Suttree actually begins with a suicide. They fish a guy out of the river who jumped off the bridge.

    Hey Suttree.
    He turned. Hey Joe, he said. Did you see it?
    No. They say he jumped last night. They found his shoes in the bridge.


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