Do we inhabit times where it is "no country for old men"? For old virtues? For Judea Christian conceptions of good and evil? Cormack McCarthy's epic novel, and its stunning if gruesome movie adaptation by the Coen Brothers, offer valuable lessons for our crazy and evil postmodern world.
I am not a movie buff, nor a regular movie goer. Alas.
But I have finally caught up with the Coen Brothers’ epic, the award winning adaptation of the classic Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men (2005).
It was worth the wait. Not only for the stunning Coen Brothers’ rendition of the novel, but for the meaning the book has for us, in Covid world, in postmodern, post-Christian world, post-moral world, post-everything world. Where evil reigns, often hidden from view in the guise of madness and ignorance.
In a review of the movie, Roger Ebert noted:
The movie opens with the flat, confiding voice of Tommy Lee Jones. He describes a teenage killer he once sent to the chair. The boy had killed his 14-year-old girlfriend. The papers described it as a crime of passion, "but he tolt me there weren't nothin' passionate about it. Said he'd been fixin' to kill someone for as long as he could remember. Said if I let him out of there, he'd kill somebody again. Said he was goin' to hell. Reckoned he'd be there in about 15 minutes."
There are lessons in this chilling novel, and the equally chilling movie, for our current condition.
Much has been written recently about the catastrophic state of the world. A godless world. A world prey to the “madness of crowds”. A world of ignorance, of faux education, but really a clueless world unmoored from the certainties of previous ages. GK Chesterton’s much quoted wisdom – that a world that ceases to believe in God doesn’t believe in nothing, but will believe in anything – seems especially relevant to the early twenty-first century. A world of technological progress, certainly, of human comforts unimagined in previous generations and centuries. Of a sense of moral superiority, with the smug know-nothing “knowingness” of a generation which has no sense of history or of anything, really. A world unmoored from our roots, a world unmoored even from the sense we actually have roots. Roots in history, in morality, in tradition.
McCarthy is a grim Hobbesian, at heart. Or he can be reasonably interpreted as one. Thomas Hobbes, writing in the seventeenth century, described our life as one that is “nasty, brutish and short”. A line that Hobbes is famous for. Any reader of McCarthy’s works would immediately understand that the world that he describes, the world of an unlawful, savage, frontier American existence of rugged imperialism and land wars with the indigenous, is a world of nasty, brutish and very short lives.
Hobbes has been seen as both a precursor of modern liberalism (Hobbes is endlessly linked with John Locke) and as the progenitor of the modern authoritarian state. And much else, besides.
McCarthy and Hobbes are both massively relevant to understandings of the crazy world of 2020. Let me explain.
There are three interpretations and explanations (among many, I admit) for the current, sad, state of the world.
One is madness.
See under Douglas Murray, for example. The “crowds” have literally gone “mad”, in their eagerness to adopt positions that defy reason. Murray draws upon Charles MacKay, among others. But Murray actually only describes our predicament, and laments it, to be sure. He does not, ultimately, explain it. Therefore, we may, or may not, be “mad”. It is, at best, a partial explanation of our society’s acceptance of second-best thinking and our willingness to go along with things that we, acting individually in the privacy of our own homes, probably find repugnant, or, at least, crazy-silly.
The madness thesis may be, indeed, a cop-out.
A second explanation is stupidity. This has massive plausibility, as we find oursleves in an age of devalued education emptied of its core content and meaning, placed in the utilitarian service of job creation, and now inflicted upon a hugely increased percentage of the population. Gazillions of people now get an “education”, but as we all realise, they will come to know – absolutely nothing! They will certainly not know how to think, or to question, or to know what it means to “know” something.
Shelley Gare called this phenomenon the “triumph of the airheads”.
A third explanation of our condition brings us closer to Cormac McCarthy.
This is the idea that our current predicament is the result of evil. Evil in the world, perhaps as explained in the Judeo-Christian account of the Fall of Man, and original sin.
McCarthy’s work basks in evil, in his No Country for Old Men and in his other works.
He describes it, in gruesome detail that is, at times, beyond harrowing, but perhaps without ever fully explaining it. Who can, fully, or even partially, explain the origins of evil, you might say? Spelling out the sheer physical gore of evil is McCarthy’s genre, and he does it better than anyone else that comes to mind. But with purpose, and strange literary beauty.
As one reviewer commented:
Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality …
And my word, did McCarthy expose us to evil. In gory, graphic but compelling detail. Exposing evil without ultimately explaining its existence or origins is not without purpose or merit, though.
There are literary precursors to Cormac McCarthy. Some are famous. As the Bard said:
“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Charles Bronson had a bit to say on this, as well, in his movie of the same name.
One might also consult the Good Book, a tale of human experience and failure beyond any other, and the ultimate chronicle of the evil that men do.
It is a reasonable hypothesis that the madness and the stupidity of our current, crazy world is the outworking of evil. And its ultimate expression.
No one can doubt the present of evil in the world. The fictional characters like McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter merely remind us of the evil that real men do, and on a daily basis, in good old Australia as elsewhere. Any anthology of serial killers will recall that these fictional characters are indeed mere facsimiles of real people that have inhabited our world. And still do.
Whether individual evil can be replicated in evil ideas is at the heart of the evil explanation of the world. Can ideas be evil? Is, for example, communism an evil idea? Pol Pot was evil. But was his ideology (if he had one) be similarly described?
Evil is everywhere, even the places that one would normally not find it to be. As St Paul VI said back in the 1960s, the “smoke of satan” has indeed infiltrated the Church of Christ.
What does it mean, though, that our world is “no country for old men”?
Old world men (and women) believe – or at least they used to, and were brought up to believe – in a world of virtue, of truth, of Godliness, of redemption, of ultimate categories of good and evil. Of the settled science of morals and of truth. Of a certain view of the essence, meaning and purposes of marriage, for example. They believe in the innate goodness of (admittedly fallen) man, man that through cooperation and a relationship with a personal God, can ultimately find redemption, in the face of the evil that McCarthy and others have so ably, even gruesomely, chronicled.
This does not fit with the postmodern world. Where there is no “truth”. No certainty. No moored values. No settled science of virtue. Where the entire project is to kill off those old fashioned and so un-twenty-first century values.
Is this project one that is evil, or mad, or ignorant? Or, indeed, all of the above?
No, our current, enfeebled, crazy world has lost the connect with a formerly accepted, indeed assumed, reality. With a sense of sin, of evil, of truth. It is, utterly, a world for young men, and women, making their own way in a crazy world but without any sense of what it all means. We have denied them that.
The Tommy Lee Jones character, Ed Tom Bell, in the movie brings us back to the question of the place of “old men” in our world. He is an old man, of old values, caught in a time that he does not remotely understand. An old man alone in a turbulent sea of meaninglessness, struggling without the remotest hope of making sense of the senseless. Of the violence without meaning.
I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can't help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can't help but wonder how they would have operated these times.
No country for old men.
Cormac McCarthy may or may not have set out to analyse our current postmodernist dilemma. His last novel – his is now 86 years of age – was written in 2006. Before the current wave of madness, of evil, had consumed us. Before the social media crucifixions that define our age came to pass. Before the apotheosis of degraded Western man, that, alas, defines us, hit its peak in the mindless, clueless, virtue-less 2020s.
But Cormac McCarthy got one thing right. Now is not the time to be an old man. Pale, male and stale is not a good place to be. We are no longer the ones to be carrying forward the values of this, or any other, generation. Our beliefs are all but gone in the world that we now occupy, but no longer rule.
Evil is passe. Truth is passe. Old man values are passe. Cormac McCarthy’s depiction of an endless, seemingly meaningless, self-absorbed and empty-headed existence, originally set in the deep south-west of violent, frontier America, has chilling resonance for our self-absorbed, meaningless times.
This is the human condition in a relativist universe, one lacking a moral code other than that of the mob, seen now on a daily basis on social media. An apocalyptic vison it may or may not be.
What lessons we will learn, I wonder?