Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

Divinations of Agency in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

Divinations of Agency in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men

Article excerpt

In Blood Meridian, the free will problem manifests itself as a violent clash between nihilistic affirmations of individual agency and the brute fact of external delimitation. James D. Lilley suggests that the "central question of McCarthy's fiction has always centered on the possibility of agency" (2), which is no doubt true, but in Blood Meridian McCarthy also imagines a world in which some of the characters reject the question, opting instead to affirm agency even if it is impossible. The clearest example of this is perhaps Joel Glanton's final coupling of a belief in destiny with a stubborn claim to free agency:

He'd long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men's destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he'd drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he'd ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them. (243)

As Kenneth Lincoln has pointed out, there are certainly echoes of Melville's Ahab here (86), but there is also a pragmatism in Glanton's defiance that resonates with Alejandras aunt Alfonsa's pronouncement in All the Pretty Horses: although human existence may very well be a puppet show in which the strings that control the first set of puppets are held not by a puppet-master, but rather by another set of puppets ad infinitum, there is simply a point at which "we cannot escape naming responsibility. It's in our nature" (241). But is this simply soft determinism, or is McCarthy suggesting that humans are actually capable of a kind of agency that is consistent with free will?

Clearly, the matter of sorting out what McCarthy might believe with respect to the free will problem is rather complex."To say that McCarthy does or doesn't believe in human agency is probably a gross simplification, since he wrestles with it in his writing," writes J. A. Bernstein, "which helps to explain, at least in part, why he's managed to elude his many critics" (399). In Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, however, McCarthy charts a course that is linked explicitly to the coining and circulation of specie while he also draws upon varieties of determinism that apply additional pressures to the self-determination of his flawed protagonists. At the same time, there remains an aura of underlying possibility in the characters of Llewellyn Moss and the kid, which seems to suggest that human agency is indeed possible in McCarthy's fiction, but that its achievement is nearly miraculous, and limited to only the devoted few in the rarest of cases. The coinage and circulation of purely symbolic wealth cannot wholly supersede the actual relation between agents and acts, but it does appear that the advent of economic modernity has largely succeeded in effecting an ideological determinism whereby most individuals will readily compromise their own principles in the interest of financial profit.

As Bell's recognition of Mammon and the kid's dream of the judge and the false moneyer illustrate, the primary antagonist of each novel is a kind of demonic forger, and the chilling placidity of Chigurh's manner seems to demonstrate both the attainment and the interminable nature of the judge's endeavor. As McCarthy's only novel set in the nineteenth century, Blood Meridian offers a foreboding vision of American history and progress that is fulfilled in No Country for Old Men. Put another way, Judge Holden is the prophet of the nihilistic determinism of which Chigurh is the modern priest. In the first section of the article, I discuss those aspects of the judge and the kid that illustrate McCarthy's historically rooted interest in questions of agency and determinism and its connection to conceptions of coinage, while in the second I synthesize a reading of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men alongside a larger critique of economic determinism, which I read as a continuation of concerns expressed by Ezra Pound and Henry Miller in the first half of the twentieth century. …

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