Yeats Redux: Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” (2006)

William Butler Yeats

Image via 1913 Lockout.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

– From “Sailing to Byzantium” by W. B. Yeats (read more at Poets.org).

No Country for Old Men

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which takes its title from Yeats’ poem, presents a dark view of contemporary American society and its future. The social landscape of this novel is as stark, harsh, and unforgiving as the physical terrain of its setting, the borderland of Texas and Mexico. Its population is enslaved by Mammon: addicted to large, ill-gotten profits, drug-addled, amoral, narcissistic, and fatalistic. It draws a similarly pessimistic portrait of human nature, which in the milieu of this novel grows more hopeless and depraved with age. As they get older, McCarthy’s characters realize that the principles and beliefs in which they put faith in their youth have not stood the test of time. The mistakes and flaws that they thought they would overcome become heavier burdens to bear, while the aspirations and goals that they thought they would achieve come to seem insubstantial and elusive. In a vernacular nutshell, life for McCarthy is just one long karmic beat-down.

chigurh

The avenging dark angel of this worldview is Chigurh. An apparently very well-read former Special Forces officer who served in Vietnam, he intellectualizes and rationalizes his penchant for killing with a pseudo-Nietzschean personal philosophy that sets himself up as the Uebermensch. Beyond good and evil, Chigurh’s only standard is himself, although he attempts to convince his victims that his actions flow from a kind of natural justice, rather than from his psychopathic narcissism. In the Coen brothers’ film adaptation of the novel, Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Chigurh captures his coldly impersonal intensity so well that it is frightening to watch.

Bell

In opposition to Chigurh is Bell, the sheriff of a rural Texas county on the Mexican border. A veteran of the European theater of World War II, he represents the American worldview of his generation, one that is crumbling as Chigurh’s brand of existential nihilism gains ground. When Moss, a young working-class man from Bell’s jurisdiction, comes to Chigurh’s attention and becomes his target, Bell feels honor-bound to try to protect him. Moss makes the serious error of taking several million dollars of cash that he finds when he unexpectedly comes across the carnage of a massive heroin deal gone bad in the badlands just north of the Mexican border. Chigurh, who is sort of a mixture of stone killer and “cleaner” (as both are depicted in Quentin Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction), is hired to recover the money for the American party to the deal. Meanwhile, the Mexican side has sent its own thugs after the same prize, but they are no match for Chigurh.

Moss

Once he comes up on Chigurh’s radar, so to speak, Moss realizes that he will spend the rest of his life on the run. However, he does not cooperate with Bell’s efforts to help him, opting instead to try to survive in a gray area between law and lawlessness, between good and evil. McCarthy seems to use Moss’ story to show how one step towards the “dark side” is more than enough to condemn a person to a swift, painful demise. He also casts doubt on the power of those who wear the white hats, such as Bell, to defend their constituents from those who have no regard for law or morality. In fact, McCarthy goes further, undermining the apparent “goodness” and integrity of men like Bell. Ironically, the only character with integrity is Chigurh, who is unswervingly true to himself.

There are a few plot inconsistencies that diminish the painful enjoyment of McCarthy’s novel. For example, it is unclear why Wells, a former Special Forces comrade of Chigurh, who is hired by the American drug dealers to stop Chigurh’s killing spree, practically delivers himself to Chigurh like a sacrificial lamb. Another annoying aspect of the story is the ease with which Moss’ pursuers are able to find him, even when they have lost their ability to track him electronically. Although these examples might be symbolic of the seductiveness, relentlessness, and unstoppability of evil, they also do not make sense by the novel’s own logic.

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy (AP Photo/Alfred A. Knopf,Derek Shapton)

Nevertheless, No Country for Old Men delivers its powerful message through masterfully simple and direct prose. McCarthy has an ear for Texas dialect and knows the social and physical terrain well. Moreover, he has clearly thought long and hard about the social transformation of the United States that occurred during the second half of the twentieth century. He does not offer any answers for the ills that he describes in the novel, however, and seems content to emulate Yeats’ role of apocalyptic prophet:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
 
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

– “The Second Coming” by  W. B. Yeats. See more at Poets.org.

Note: this is a revised version of a post from
FRISCO KID's other blog.