Cormac McCarthy: An American Philosophy
One of the more preeminent and influential American novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights of the 20th century, Cormac McCarthy has presented a unique and stylized version of American life. His view of an American-centric philosophy is based around three main characteristics: violence, existing outside of the law, and alienation. Living in the oppressive and harsh environments of the American frontier and undeveloped parts of the country, McCarthy presents violence as a necessary means of survival. Law enforcement is disparaged in McCarthy’s works as those who are supposed to uphold the law either turn against it for their own benefits or have a tendency to fail. Alienation and solitude are also seen throughout McCarthy’s philosophy where living away from society is the only way to grow and evolve as a person, and often McCarthy’s characters have the most development when they are at their loneliest. These three ideas are key to McCarthy’s view of understanding what it means to be the free American.
An overt and prominent theme of McCarthy’s work is extreme and excessive violence, either performed by or enacted upon the novel’s main protagonist. Each of his novels features moments of physically violent acts, usually related to a character’s self-preservation instincts. In The Road, McCarthy’s 2006 novel about a father and son travelling across post-apocalyptic America, the unnamed protagonists must at times resort to violence in order to survive. At one point in the novel, the nomadic pair encounter a stranger on the road, who encourages them to join his group. The father refuses, and the boy is held hostage by the stranger at knifepoint. The father tries to reason with the stranger stating, “You think I won’t kill you but you’re wrong. But what I’d rather do is take you up this road a mile or so and then turn you loose…You won’t find us.” When the stranger refuses, in order to save his son, the father must use one of his precious few bullets and kills the stranger. The actions of both the stranger and the father show that McCarthy places preservation at the head of all human instincts. In a world where all people should be working together to survive and improve their chances of thriving when modern technology and conveniences are lost, McCarthy demonstrates how our animalistic instincts supersede our human rationale.
In what is considered the most popular adaptation of a McCarthy novel, the film No Country for Old Men highlights McCarthy’s penchant for violence through the character of bounty hunter Anton Chigurh. Chigurh, portrayed with an Oscar-winning performance by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, commits gratuitous acts of violence in his journey to recover $2.4 million stolen by Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss following a botched drug deal. The film opens with two graphic violent deaths which show the two sides of Chigurh’s murderous nature. Within the first five minutes, Chigurh is arrested and brought to a sheriff’s office, where he proceeds to strangle the deputy to death with his handcuffs. The scene seems to go on far longer than it actually does, and the visage of Chigurh’s face as he chokes the life out of the struggling deputy shifts from animalistic insanity during the act to calm and calculating afterward. Then, after stealing the deputy’s car, he pulls over a car in the middle of an empty desert road and kills the driver with his captive bolt pistol. The cleanliness of the kill, as well as the precision and speed with which he kills, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the deputy’s messy murder.
A true psychopath, Chigurh channels his inner Harvey Dent as he allows the flip of a coin to determine the fate of characters he comes across and deems “accountable.” The ruthless hitman is a mix of controlled violence and unrelenting cruelty, with a warped sense of morals and unquestionable talent for tracking down his targets. It is interesting, however, that the most intense sequences of the film occur when simply the foreboding shadow of violence hangs over Chigurh. The hitman fills his gas tank at an isolated gas station and begins to pay, when the owner makes an off-hand comment about him coming from the direction of Dallas. This leads Chigurh to grill the man about what his reasoning is for paying attention to where Chigurh was coming from. The increasingly uncomfortable interrogation contains the underlying threat of violence, given Chigurh’s previous actions. He eventually becomes disgusted with the gas station owner’s story after he mentions that the store was originally owned by his wife’s father – “married into it” as Chigurh calls it – and flips a coin to determine the owner’s fate. He asks the owner how much he has ever lost in a coin toss, and to call the flip. After successfully calling heads, the tension dissipates and the owner noticeably exhales as Chigurh leaves the station. Chigurh’s violent tendencies is a reflection of the setting where McCarthy places No Country for Old Men, the crime-riddled and harsh environment of the American-Mexican border, thus making Chigurh the physical manifestation of the loss of American control and the difficult life that faces those who live in the desolate and lawless parts of America.
The corruption and failure of law enforcement is prevalent throughout McCarthy’s novels, as police officers and sheriffs are consistently portrayed as either ineffective against crime or crooked themselves. They do little to alleviate the problems and violence brought up in McCarthy’s works, and often times contribute to the hardships experienced by the protagonists. This is most noticeable in All the Pretty Horses, where protagonists John Grady, Lacey Rawlins, and Jimmy Blevins are taken prisoner by corrupt police officers after escaping from a group of rangers. After being brought to a decrepit Mexican prison, they are interrogated and beaten profusely. The boys attempt to flee but are captured and Blevins is executed. This disparaging view on law enforcement further reinforces his conceptions on American life and freedom. Law enforcement officers are either unrelentingly violent or self-described as “overwhelmed” as in No Country for Old Men. In order to embrace McCarthy’s American philosophy, one must avoid law enforcement at all costs, as it is those characters that exist not within the law but within their strong moral code which survive in a McCarthy novel.
Isolation and separation from civilization also play integral parts of McCarthy’s works. Most of the protagonists featured in McCarthy’s novels are in settings or situations where they are alone or cut off from any sort of organized society. Whether it is Child of God’s Lester Ballard, who purposefully lives away from social order and the daily life of the suburbs and cities, or The Kid in Blood Meridian, journeying along across the American West predominantly alone, McCarthy’s characters split off from what is considered the societal norm. The settings of McCarthy’s novels are also key in setting up the isolation and solitude felt by the protagonists. Many of his works take place prior to the instant-gratification and interconnected society that the modern world is accustomed to, “Essentially isolation and alienation are never complete because technology subverts the ability to remain alone.” In order to fully establish the feelings of solidarity and loneliness, McCarthy places his characters in time periods where modern comforts cannot be afforded, or in remote locations devoid of human life and connectivity.
The character’s isolation and separation from civilization reflects McCarthy’s philosophy on American life and culture. In many of McCarthy’s works, the character development and action takes place in largely uninhabited areas of the American wastes. Whether it is rural Tennessee, the desolate Texas frontier, or a post-apocalyptic hellscape, having the characters cut off from society allows them to interact with one another without outside interference. In most cases, the main characters feel so isolated that they are even abandoned by God, completely removed from the rest of the universe except for the action occurring as a result of their own actions. This provides a look into McCarthy’s philosophy, that all men are in fact alone and responsible for their actions. Throughout the difficult life that comes from surviving on the fringes of human society, the only people who are saved are the ones who save themselves. McCarthy’s own self-imposed isolation is a testament to his commitment to his principles, cutting himself off from the world and living mainly in solitude. He is a man who spends the majority of his time working with the Santa Fe Institute Research Center and writing. He rarely gives interviews and, like his characters, he avoids contact with the general public as much as possible. Those characters that look out to help others and try to coexist with others end up meeting an unpleasant fate. The father in The Road ends up dying from a respiratory infection and an arrow wound from protecting his son, and the aforementioned Jimmy Blevins in All the Pretty Horses is executed trying to save his friends.
McCarthy’s work stands as a monument to his interpretation of American life and the American’s struggle to find an equal balance of sanity and success. The violence that pervades McCarthy’s novels highlights the struggle of both American expansion and the life of those who survive on the American plains and frontiers. Whether it’s combatting with the harsh natural reality of living in poverty or against those who stand to benefit from another’s pain, violence is a natural part of the American story. McCarthy shows his distrust of the law and the legal process throughout his works, with the most successful characters living outside of the law and surviving by their own morals. These both tie in to his belief in the importance of isolation and solitude; freedom for McCarthy lies in alienating oneself from the rest of society. Living outside of society’s restrictions or simply in lawlessness provides the American people with their true freedom. His perception of what freedom and human nature are lays a sturdy foundation for a new school of thought on American philosophy, and he forces his readers to stand back and analyze what it truly means to be free and alive.
 McCarthy, Cormac. The Road (Vintage Books, Random House Inc., 2006), 65.
 No Country for Old Men, directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (2007, Santa Monica, CA; Miramax Films; 2008), DVD.
 King, Lynnea Chapman. No Country for Old Men: From Novel to Film (Scarecrow Press Publishing, 2009) Plymouth, England. 63
 Bloom, Harold, ed. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Cormac McCarthy (Infobase Publishing, 2009) New York, New York. 42
 Greenwood, Willard P. Reading Cormac McCarthy (ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009) Santa Barbara, California. 1
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