Saturday, July 5, 2008

Betrayal, Free Will, and Cormac McCarthy

Over on The Extended Table, there was a conversation I missed back in April. My life lately has been a blur. I've commented little in the blogosphere and actually posted here even less. But the thread on this blog generated by the post on mercy below, led Piper to point out the earlier exchange over at his place. I eventually left a comment there, but rather than get long-winded on Piper's site, I decided to bring the bulk of my remarks here.

The aspect of his thread that generated the most thought for me was the assertion of one commenter that the why of "betrayal" wasn't necessarily important. That she had done something with good intention but bad result that left a friend feeling betrayed. For that commenter, as I understood her, this meant that she had betrayed that person. I disagree. Here's why.

I wrote an entire dissertation on Cormac McCarthy. Really, it was a very personal exploration of McCarthy's concept of God and man's relationship to him. I chose McCarthy because he seemed to put most of what I believed into words with far better skill than I could hope for. When I read that thread over at Piper's place, and that commenter's opinion on the seeming precedence of result over intent, I couldn't help but think back to my own work on McCarthy, his ideas, his fictional world, and how it applied.

Bottom line: intent is the important thing in truly establishing the character of an act.

But here, if you're interested, is the expanded version, extracted from my earlier writing:

Beginning with Judge Holden in Blood Meridian and continuing through Cities of the Plain with a varied cast of outspoken and occasionally somewhat unlikely philosophers, McCarthy gives voice to a system in which destiny is both real and immutable, a system which has governed events in McCarthy’s fictional worlds even before he gave voice to it through such spokespersons.

One important facet of such a system is a very Catholic belief that God (or Ben Telfair’s “something”) does know all that will be and has been, as well as every alternative that never was nor will be. While this system effectively negates man’s capacity to choose or control the course of events in actuality, it nevertheless preserves his illusion of choice. The key difference between man’s belief in choice and the fact of choice’s non-existence rests in the difference between consequence and intent. In this system, man can only intend. In such a system, the consequence of any act is destined before the act itself even takes place; therefore, the act is destined as well. But because man cannot foresee that consequence, the illusion of choice remains bright for him, and he believes that he chooses one path over another based on the consequence he intends to bring about. That the said consequence may or may not ever come to pass is beside the point. Intention is all. In intention rests free will. God has determined outcome. Man is nonetheless left free to intend what he will. This is the philosophy of McCarthy’s metaphysical spokespersons, and this is the reality of McCarthy’s fictional world.
When I wrote that, McCarthy wasn't still an unknown--he'd won the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses. But he had still granted only one interview, ever. This was pre-Oprah, pre-Pulitzer. Maybe it's time to get to work on publishing that dissertation as a book. I've been a little distracted of late, but this "year of change" is half over. By Christmas, I should be settled into new routines. God only knows whether that will be the case or not, but I intend to be. ;-)

(I love the point in the interview where Oprah asks him, "You haven't worked out 'the God thing' or not, yet?" His reply: "Well," chuckling, "it would depend on what day you asked me." Ain't it the truth.)