Let Us Go Around the Prickly Pear; Ramblings on No Country For Old Men
Nothing upsets people more than a well-meaning conversation about religion. Fuck them.
But that’s not the point of this post.
Cormac McCarthy starts off his novel No Country for Old Men with a monolouge from Sheriff Bell. Born and raised a Texan he writes asides to the reader. In the first one, “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville.” Further along the same page we get to a teasing Lolita of a question: “I really believe that he knew he was goin to be in hell in fifteen minutes. I believe that… I didnt know what to say to him. What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul?”
His question is the prickly pear of our hallowed lands and it has never been answered. Underneath that Texas drawl Bell is a man that looks at the defining question of our intellectual life: “the problem of evil.”  Interestingly, McCarthy’s dead-on-arrival villain is a man that not only accepts and understands his actions, he relishes in them. Compare that to Eichmann declaring “With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter. I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a non-Jew; I just did not do it.” What characterized Adolf Eichmann’s testimony, both that transcribed by a former S.S. officer in Argentina and in Jeruslame is a “tone of someone who was sure of finding ‘normal, human’ sympathy for a hard-luck story.” Did Eichmann think that he was going to heaven because of all the obstacles life had thrown in front of him? Perhaps. It’s a question to mull over, provided that Hannah Arendt’s account can be trusted. By jumping whole-heartedly into the fray of evil Cormac McCarthy prepares the reader’s mind for a singularly frightening character whose eyes are “wet stones.” Anton Chigur. Ah, a brilliant portrait.
In the words of Bell, ‘I thought about it a lot.’ Is McCarthy’s vision of evil self-aware, and does that make it truly evil or is evil simply evil? It could simply be the case that McCarthy only wanted to use the scene and question as a foil for Bell himself, without much regard for evil itself. I doubt that. What I think is that McCarthy acknowledged evil as to be something more than the loud but empty voice of T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men. Equally, he wanted to avoid (or, just as likely, simply did not believe) the aggrieved resentment or wimpy confusion of the type of evil present in Jerusalem and Nuremberg. He wanted to open up our minds to a type of throwback evil, where one had no doubt about their villainy, but he put on it a new face. A new body. A new weapon. For that I tip my hand to him. I loved the book and I can’t wait to read more.
- “Nightmare and Flight,” Partisan Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1945), reprinted in Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, edited by Jerome Kohn (Harcourt Brace, 1994), pp. 133–135.