Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Warren's Night Rider and the Issue of Naturalism: The `Nightmare' of Our Age

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Warren's Night Rider and the Issue of Naturalism: The `Nightmare' of Our Age

Article excerpt

A year prior to the publication of Night Rider (1989), Warren was working on the materials which eventually became All the King's Men. Among the many elements which shaped the early versions of those materials were a series of related issues which he later characterized as "... the theme of the relation of science (or pseudo-science) and political power, the theme of the relation of the science-society and the power state, the problem of naturalistic determinism and responsibility...." (1) The links suggested here between a "pseudo-scientific" world view and the huge dilemmas of the modern world not only inform Warren's famous Pulitzer Prize-winning work, but provide the major themes for his ambitious first novel as well.

The core of these issues which Warren was pondering was the crude determinism popularly derived from scientific assumptions; empiricism, narrowly understood, had, he felt, become the ruling premise of the modern world, the mythology of the "science society." In his views of the consequences of that mythology, Warren is clearly the student of John Crowe Ransom. Both mistrusted this mythology they called "scientism," and both traced a good many of the ills of the modern world to its destructive underlying assumptions. In 1930, Ransom had devoted an entire book, God Without Thunder, to the problems posed by the acceptance of this deterministic or "naturalistic" world view. "Naturalism," he asserted, is based on the "belief that the universe is largely known, and theoretically knowable...." (2) It means accepting what William James called a "block universe" in which everything is finished and predictable and where effects flow inalterably from definable causes. The determinism inherent in such a world view must lead, Ransom felt, to an alarmingly truncated view of experience and of the nature of man. No system of values or ethics can be founded upon such a narrow empiricism; no reason for being or motive for action is implicit in it. It not only leaves out the chief part of man's subjective experience, it reduces the whole cosmos to meaninglessness. The consequence for the individual life, he implied, must ultimately be nihilism.

While Warren agreed substantially with Ransom's assessment of the problem, his use of these assumptions in his fiction has been surprisingly tentative and skeptical. Night Rider is characteristic of Warren's best work in that such ideas--his own or opposing ones--are treated as hypotheses to be tested rather than as conclusions to be demonstrated. In his first novel, Warren explores a world view he hates but cannot entirely repudiate, and which he disbelieves but cannot satisfactorily disprove. Night Rider is thus a philosophical novel in the best sense of the term: it does not argue a position; the action dramatizes, intelligently and comprehensively, the major facets of a philosophical problem--one which Warren was later to call the "nightmare" of our age. (3)

I

The novel opens with a description of the crowded train that brings the protagonist to Bardsville for a rally of tobacco growers who are protesting against the monopolistic buyers. The scene is emblematic of the uncertain relationship between human will and the impersonal forces of history. In a sense, it presages the action of the entire novel. The protagonist, Perse Munn, packed in a coach with a crowd of passengers bound for the same rally, is hurled against the man in front of him by an unexpected change in the velocity of the train. He is caught up by a "pressure that was human because it was made by human beings, but was inhuman too, because you could not isolate and blame any one of those human beings who made it." (4) Munn strikes the man in front of him because he "was not braced right," and the other man blames the anonymous and invisible engineer--a figure who stands perhaps for all explanations of how things come about. The whole passage is a complex emblem which parodies both the problem of knowledge and the venerable issue of free will. …

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