Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 16, 2008

An exchange on Cormac McCarthy from Feral Scholar

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

This is an exchange from Stan Goff’s Feral Scholar. It was prompted by a post there from “Malooga” of the Moon Over Alabama blog that originally appeared as a comment on my own blog about Cormac McCarthy. John Steppling is a partisan of Cormac McCarthy. DeAnander is not.

John Steppling:

Well, it dissapoints me that the response here is so predictable. The complaint that no progressive voice is heard in the film, or book, is really the basic problem of leftist critics these days…..maybe always. Art is not here to lecture. Lectures do that fine, and essays. The questions McCarthy raises are about personal identity and the chain of relations in bougeoisie society that implicate everyone in the violence around us. The dialogue in the film (and the film has several big problems…..most clearly in how Chigurh is depicted) is straight from McCarthy, so to call it southern fried homilies suggests a rather bad ear on the part of the listener. Im curious what people here think of as good art these days? Im serious in this…….because for me McCarthy is perhaps, along with Pinter, the best living writer in English. The narrative reflects the world as it is, not as it should be. Thats not what art is meant to do. The pathologies of modern society, the inequalities and contradictions of advanced capital find expression in the wholesale sadism of these characters — and the sheriffs slowly dawning awareness of compassion and more importantly his own complicity. Alientation operates this way. Adorno certainly understood this about culture……as did Horkheimer and Marcuse. So the quote above is almost ironic given the comments so far.

* * * * *


Steppling: “The narrative reflects the world as it is, not as it should be. Thats not what art is meant to do.”

I was thinking about this contention, which is routinely invoked by everyone from pornographers to propagandists — er, what am I saying? by pornographers and other propagandists — to claim that their work is not propaganda, but is somehow “objective” (ah, the good ol’ Objectivity meme).

Here I’m inclined to quote (or misquote) D Jensen: “every writer is a propagandist — including me.” every piece of literature is a kind of propaganda in the sense that it has been filtered repeatedly through authorial, editorial, and publishers’ agendas.

C McCarthy chooses — in the tradition of H Ellison and other horrormongers of the literary world — to focus narrowly on what is worst and most brutal in the human condition. except for a less absurdly clunky prose style I am not sure how far different he is from a Bret Easton Ellis.

At any moment in time, the human race is busy committing atrocities and cruelties, and also, maybe right next door, committing acts of great courage and altruism. the first act of non-objectivity is the choice, from among an infinite number of historical or contemporary subjects, of a particular story to tell. it could be the story of the Chiapas uprising or the Mondragon co-ops or the Maquis. or it could be the story of a Mafia family or a serial killer. a decision has to be made, and someone makes it.

What narrative the writer chooses to narrate, and whom he chooses as protagonist, is relevant; it serves the writer’s agenda, it demonstrates the writer’s position, it is not “objective.” even an allegedly fact-based book like one of Junger’s (The Perfect Storm was his big hit), or a biography, still serves the author’s intent and presents us with a moral-of-the-story which is meant to instruct us.

When people hotly claim that Art need not and should not represent a moral agenda, they forget Zinn’s dictum that you can’t be neutral on a moving train 🙂 art is not reality; it is a highly filtered cartoon of reality, and that cartoon is always a political cartoon, one way or another. the story, and the moral the story tells, will always be pointed and selective. it will humanise some characters and dehumanise others, internalise some points of view and externalise others, tell us that some things are believable and some things are unrealistic, some things are possible and some things are not, some behaviours are rewarded and some are punished.

And it will tell us what matters in every line and paragraph: the choice of narrative, cast, which interactions are described in full and which are left in the background, which objects and artifacts and settings are described and how they are described, will tell us repeatedly (whacking us over the head repeatedly with, in fact) what the author thinks is important and relevant and therefore, by mirror neurons or whatever mechanism you want to blame or credit, what we as the reader will — temporarily — also accept as important and relevant for the duration of our suspension of disbelief and our immersion in the experience. if the book is a very powerful one, or if we have a habit of reading in a specific genre with consistent narrative rules (boyshit suspense/adventure, for example, or girly supermarket romances), the repeated messaging about what is important and what is not important may eventually become permanent programming. and isn’t that what propaganda aims at?

When this is done flagrantly and clumsily, especially in service of an agenda that may not even be the writer’s own (i.e. paid PR flacks, professional black-ops myth-makers, and other salaried liars and spinners) we do call it propaganda — and sneer at it. when it’s done flagrantly and clumsily in earnest service of a worthy moral agenda, like tediously predictable “racial reconciliation” movies or quaint Victorian or Edwardian morality tales for the kiddies, we also sneer at it a bit and call it preachy; sermonising often spoils a good story, at least if you’re an adult (kids can probably overlook, for example, the heavy handed Christian symbolism of C S Lewis’s kid-books, but for an adult reader it gets to be a bit much after a while).

But when the sermonising or preachiness upholds an agenda that we are not allowed to name (like, say, heteronormativity or male supremacy or capitalism or neodarwinism) it passes for “objective” just because our literary feelers aren’t calibrated to scan the bar code on the agenda; we come up against a Laingian void — the Unmarked Category — be it neoliberalism or masculinism or US exceptionalism or whatever, and have to resort to unfamiliar “left-specific” jargon, clumsy locutions, and “argh can’t quite put my finger on it” unease to identify it.

Imho there is an established ideology of despair regarding the human condition; nihilism, cynicism, anomie, whatever you want to call it. and it has a powerful literature of propaganda conveying the moral lesson that life is meaningless, people are stupid and cruel, everyone is our for him/herself, no one can be trusted, the most you can hope for is to grab some bling while the grabbing is good. this moral lesson greatly serves the imperial/capitalist system… first, it defines ugly, greedy, grabby, and violent criminal behaviour as perfectly normal and only to be expected — indeed, as all that is possible or reasonable; next, it defines altruism, loyalty, compassion, and so forth as unrealistic, fictional, mythical, not to be attempted or expected in the “real” world (else the attempter will meet with severe negative consequences); third, it seeks to instil despair and a loathing for our fellow humans, just as flagrantly and overtly as chirpy feel-good kiddie stories seek to instil hope or good dental hygiene or kindness to elders. it is essentially a propaganda for the normalisation of sociopathy, and in a sociopathic and elitist economic and political regime it is — predictably — a preferred and encouraged literary and artistic form.

Above all, superaccumulator elites (whether they be pharaohs or kings or CEOs) need to convince the people that another world is NOT possible: that justice is a chimera, loyalty and commensality are a pathetic delusion, there is nothing to be done and nothing to hope for or strive towards. the literature of despair serves this agenda well.

Literature that blissfully denies the potential wickedness of human behaviour is no more preachy or biased or unrealistic than literature that denies the potential goodness of human behaviour. the literary school of the Unrelentingly Grim and Ugly (not to be mistaken for the Cautionary Tale as in Swift or Sinclair) should not be accepted passively, w/o critique, as some kind of objective form outside politics and ethical discourse; it is a sermon in its own right, just a sermon for a different creed.

Much of contemporary pornography is, I would say, the distilled essence of the nihilistic school of literature, w/o any highbrow pretensions to cloak the sermon: it openly celebrates cruelty, greed, and hatefulness, and expressly denies that any sexual relations other than instrumentality and exploitation are possible.

And now we get to the big weaselly area: under what circumstances is a deeply dystopian, grim, dour, and hopeless piece of literature a cautionary tale, i.e. a warning against the worst excesses of our human nature, rather than a normalisation of them? satirists and cautionary fabulists have often been accused in their day of undermining moral fibre, being too shocking, too graphic, too negative, stripping away the decencies that make human society bearable. was e.g. Lord of the Flies a cautionary tale, or just a cry of despair? I’m not enough of a lit crit to pinpoint the distinctions but I would say that in most cautionary tales there is at least one character or group of characters who represent the other world that is possible, i.e. altruism, decency, kindness. they may or may not “win” (the story could have a happy or tragic ending) but they do exist and their moral qualities are not derided as illusory (though they may not be sufficient to carry the day).

I’ve got a relevant quote or two somewhere around here…

This one will do…

What encourages me in this process is the “delight” that I take in the human struggle. Delight in mankind [sic] — that was the idea launched or rather relaunched in the twelfth century by the forces of humanism as they woke society from its Dark Ages.

The Roman poet, Terence, had said long before: “I am human and nothing human is foreign to me.” It was an attitude the humanists embraced in what they saw as a struggle between delight and self-loathing — delight in your fellow man and woman, sympathy for them; in other words, a sense of society.

— J R Saul, The Unconscious Civilisation, peroration of ‘The Great Leap Backwards’.

I could pick quite a few nits here; the glorification of the Enlightenment and the glib dismissal of a very rich and varied historical period as “Dark Ages”, for one. A big dose of Eurocentrism, for seconds… but JRS imho is onto something in his analysis of the difference between a stance of loathing for one’s fellow human beings, and one of delight and/or sympathy. We will not build a society of sharing and mutual aid if we believe that none of the people around is is decent or deserving of help, that they are all a bunch of greedy dirty ratfinks. The very concept of “society” (the very existence of which neolibs like Margaret Thatcher openly denied) presupposes a kind of mutual regard, interest, and trust for our fellow human beings.

So (winding up this overlong comment at last) I agree with Malooga’s analysis that literature/movies which present us (people) as uniformly self-interested and/or helplessly trapped in structures which prohibit the expression of our human sympathies and empathies are — whether expressly intended to be or not — a very effective propaganda for the new right and the new corporate/financial aristocracy.


  1. Orwell, I think: All art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.

    The world as it is, not as it should be? Well, look at the world, really look at it, and anybody will soon see that Cormac McCarthy’s view of the world is a terribly stunted one. There is so much human decency in the world. There is tremendous solidarity in the world, as people resist exploitation and struggle together. There is great kindness and decency in humanity, an immense capacity for love, for tenderness, for solidarity, for mutual support, but you’re not going to get much of that in McCarthy.

    I enjoy the baroque. At his best, McCarthy has written some very impressive prose. But that just ain’t enough. I know that violence exists in the world. I know that racism and sexism exists in the world. I’m a good way along in my understanding of why.

    What does McCarthy do to help me understand why it exists? McCarthy shows us nasty, vicious, brutal, inhumane people and their victims, who are often enough as helpless to resist as cattle. This tells us that we are stuck in an unchanging world of utter depravity and there’s little or nothing we can do to change that, which is the oldest trick in the book.

    McCarthy tells us to despair, and not much else, I’m afraid. Which plays into the hands of the ruling class so very well.

    Comment by Chris Daniels — February 17, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

  2. here is my follow up to deanander…..because i think it clarifies a bit more of what i was trying to say.

    well, let try to answer a few things here……though I may not to get all your points DeAnander.
    First…I never used the word *objectivity* — nor would I. So, I think the very notion of realism or naturalism or objectivity is specias when applied to any cultural artifact. You seem to be criticizing McCarthy for what he chooses to focus on. That seems to be a rather pointless undertaking. *He* wrote about what he chose to write about — thats his vision, and not yours. Now, you can argue that what he chose to focus on is irrelevant or meaningless — but I would argue the contrary. In fact, given another week of school shootings, more bloodshed in the name of western superiority — the imperialist expandsionist project— a book like No Country for Old Men (I will get to the film version in a second) resonates rather profoundly. Now, if you are suggesting, as you seem to be, that an artist *should* choose a morally uplifting protagonist, then I think you would have to deny most of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Flannery O Connor, Beckett and Genet and Pinter. So, clearly art would tends to, historically, focus on the failures and weaknesses of man, of the human condition. Beckett said once *failure is more interesting than success*. In any case, its not hard to find countless very negative progtagonists….killers, liars, weaklings, traitors, and collaborators. Are you actually suggesting these works are all to be discounted for this reason?

    Now, next, you seem to be saying that a McCarthy (and i guess shakespeare and Dante and Kafka and Mann etc) are ideologists of nihilism. Correct me if Im wrong here, but I would argue art is not about moral instruction — if it were we would have a very different literary canon than we do. Maybe you think that would be a good thing, I dont know. Adorno said cynicism is just another mode of conformity. So it is, but i see nothing cynical in McCarrthy, in fact I see a highly moral writer….same as Melville and O Connor and Sophocles for that matter. WE might profitably introduce the idea of what is tragedy at this point. But first……art that focuses on what is wrong does not need to provide *solutions*……and second, most importantly, a Cormac mccarthy or a Flannery o Conner or a Melville do NOT instill self loathing and apathy in people. This is just a very wrong headed idea and Im almost at a loss as to how to explain the many ways in which it is wrong. Your logic would demand we have *happy endings* and positive clearly defined moral lessons. This is usually how one can describe bad art. Its afterschool specials and its cheap best seller bromides. Your basic hollywood romantic comedy is what instills loathing…..and anomie…..because IT LIES!!!!!!!!!!!!! Life is not like that…….for me life is a great deal closer to the world of McCarthy. Art is there to awaken people and to do that art must disrupt and subvert expectations —- and it cannot do those things by telling polyanna stories about noble and altruistic do gooders. Life is tragic….as the buddhists say, it IS suffering. It is short and brutal (as someone else said :)) And so I would suggest the exact opposite of your conclusion. You may or may not think McCarthy is a good or great writer…..thats a good discussion, but what you are arguing in the above comment is a confused and reductive notion of how art operates. i would even say undialectical. Tragedy, to return to that idea, is the flip side of comedy…..hence those greek masks….they contain each other…..Beckett certainly saw that……….but shakespeare as well….and all of these notions evolve through time. We dont relate to greek tragedy as the greeks did….clearly, because of our notion of civic responsibility etc…..but we still to some degree feel close to Shakespeares. After WW1 aned the industrialized death of the western front and then Hiroshima, the anonymous death of air warfare……our notion of sacrifice and tragedy is altered….in complex ways. Its not nearly as simple as you would like it to seem. I have little interest in *cautionary tales* for they are usually bad art. They are simplistic and reductive. Good art and good books and films are always about many things….they raise questions and demand engagement…….and are often not pretty and are usually disturbing. McCarthy is always disturbing….but for me is a truthful writer and he writes of a world I see everyday…the brutality of advanced capital.

    Comment by john steppling — February 17, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

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