Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Radical indeterminacy, lots of bullets and several gallons of blood

I read No Country for Old Men late last year, as part of a spurt of fairly frantic Cormac McCarthy reading that began earlier in the year, with reading The Road. Shortly after, I re-read it, as I was both captivated and mystified by it.

At Faith in Honest Doubt, Dale makes a series of extremely perceptive comments about the book. (I haven't yet seen the film: I'm waiting for the DVD to come out in Germany to watch it in English -- dialogue being important in both Coen films and McCarthy books.) Dale's observations are in response to complaints by publius at Obsidian Wings that the book is 'logically incoherent':

So that's my complaint -- is No Country a story about choice and consequences, or is it a reflection upon how Nietzschean amoral Nature collides with Man. It seems like it can't be both -- but Chigurh certainly has elements of both. Maybe I'm missing something basic, but these strike me as inconsistent metathemes.

Dale says:

I don't think publius has missed anything, basic or otherwise. These are inconsistent metathemes but the incoherence belongs to life itself, not to the Coens nor to Cormac McCarthy. Good things happen to rotten people; rotten things happen to good people; good people can be brought down by their choices; bad people can be brought down by their choices; good and bad alike can be brought down by the timing with which a squirrel darts into the path of a moving car. Lightning can strike, hard work and persistence can pay off. A psychopath can show up and stake your life on a coint toss. As in the film's very last scene, you can do a favor for a stranger you later find is a cold-hearted killer.

You can go to work in the morning and find yourself in the very building that a fanatic has decided to destroy for the cameras and the creed. You surely made a choice to enter that building, and the fanatic will give reasons why your having been crushed under burning rubble was a proportionate and merited result of that choice. Your survivors and others will no doubt disagree with those reasons. Perhaps the people who called in sick that day will draw conclusions about providence, or perhaps they'll see blind luck. Which is the truth?

I think No Country is so unsettling because it presents these possibilities -- perhaps life's outcomes come from sheer chance, perhaps life's outcomes come from the choices we make -- presents compelling examples of each possibility, but in the end refuses to decide between them. This radical indeterminacy leaves knots in the gut no less than life itself does.

I agree completely with Dale's version of this, and the incorporation of such themes in several of McCarthy's books is what gives them much of their power.

One of the problems with publius's question is the false dichotomy between random nature and self-controlled 'Man' (with all the force that that capitalisation gives). As I noted recently, there are indications that this kind of distinction between 'nature' and 'Man' and between 'choice' and 'coincidence' is untenable, or at least not quite so clear as it would seem.

This includes the basic matter of plot. For instance, publius contrasts the character Llewellyn Moss's 'choice' to take the suitcase full of money with the apparent randomness of Chigurh's reliance on a coin-toss to decide whether particular people live or die. However, Moss's 'choice' is, of course, first only possible because of the coincidence of coming across the scene of a shootout while hunting. He certainly chooses to take the money, but with what motivation? Is this reason? Impulse? Who knows.

And while Chigurh's coin-tossing might seem 'random', he -- of all the characters in the book -- seems to embody a relentless devotion to a code of ethics. A sick code of ethics to be sure, but it is certainly one that is the product of a determined will (to adopt, for a moment, publius's Nietzschean language).

It is, in fact, the mixing of such notions of determination and coincidence that makes No Country such a powerful book. I keep reading complaints of the films 'abrupt' or 'indeterminate' ending, or of the 'unsatisfying' off-screen demise of some of the main characters (he said vaguely, trying not to give anything away), and -- having read the book -- I keep thinking, 'Yes, that's precisely the point.'

The last thing McCarthy would want to do, I think, is to suggest that the universe cares about us, even for a second.

Or about Nietzsche either, for that matter.

And, on this matter at least, I think he's right.

What, after all, is the contradiction in people (or characters) trying to make meaning in a meaningless world?


Dale said...

Thanks for the kind cite. You say, "He [Moss] certainly chooses to take the money, but with what motivation? Is this reason? Impulse? Who knows." This is what's so aggravating about the idea of free will -- we want to believe that he knew in some important sense "what he was getting himself into" by taking the money. But did he really? What did he think he knew and how did that compare with what actually ensued? I have to suspect a wide gulf between these.

When we know so little, it's hard to maintain the idea of choice. But denying it feels awfully wrong too.


JCWood said...


And this is in some ways even more the case with his decision to go back after finding the money. (I'm not giving anything away here: this happens early on.)

Clearly, taking the money and running -- especially when the chances of getting away with it are rather high -- can fairly straightforwardly be evaluated on the basis of rational self interest. But going back and exposing not only himself but other people to danger on the basis of a far less 'rational' calculation is the more difficult bit.

He does 'choose'. But he's not purely a rational actor. And he doesn't really, I think, know what he's getting himself into.

As with all of us, it may be that self-deception here plays its devilish role, convincing Moss that he can really pull off the reckless act he contemplates for irrational reasons.

It's his second choice rather than his first which seems the far more morally significant in the book. And that's the one that really leads to the consequences.

Moss comes across as a good man, but one who makes bad choices.

Or at least one.

Sigh indeed.