"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Cormac McCarthy And The Shape Of Our Lives–A Function Of Soul Or Of Random Events?

Much has been written about the relative influence of genetics and environment in shaping personality and behavior.  Most cognitive theorists conclude that one’s genes are at least half of the equation; and the more the human genome is mapped and understood, that percentage is likely to increase.

Those who persist in the conviction that environment will always be the prevailing factor in determining choice, argue that no matter how small the proportion, its influence must be weighted.  How one is brought up, educated, and trained must be given a weighted average.  Genes may predispose us to certain behavior or at least give a predisposition to it; but the impact of emotional or traumatic events will always play a disproportionate role in determining outcome.

Since there is a scientific way to determine genetic predisposition – already geneticists are close to identifying not only chromosomal abnormalities such as  Down’s Syndrome but behavioral attributes such as shyness – but since environmental factors are infinite and more importantly no one individual has been subjected to the very same ones, the growing trend is to opt for genetic determinism.
In Cormac McCarthy’s book All The Pretty Horses, an important character suggests that neither argument is essential; and that the answer has more to do with the nature of the individual soul than any scientific inquiry.
In the Spaniard’s heart is a great yearning for freedom, but only his own.  A great love of truth and honor in all its forms, but not in its substance. And a deep conviction that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed.  Virgins, bulls, men. Ultimately God himself.  When I look at my grandniece I see a child…And I will never know what her life is.  If there is a pattern there it will not shape itself to anything these eyes can recognize.  Because the question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact.  Because otherwise we are nothing.

Yet the grand-aunt cannot convince herself that individual shape was indeed there from the beginning, a divine endowment which validates life.
For me the world has always been more of a puppet show.  But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upwards he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their strings which trace upward in turn, and so on. 
She reiterates the philosophy of Tolstoy who argued that human actions are only attributable to the thousands of purposeful and random action which have preceded them.  Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino was because he had caught cold precipitated by a negligent groom who had forgotten to bring his gum boots to the battlefield because he had been distracted by thoughts of his unfaithful wife.  Her own infidelity was predicated on an equally complex series of events, each one the result of those that preceded.


Yet there is something missing in this nature-nurture question, a consideration of philosophical and religious theology.

In the Old Testament a human being is a living soul rather than having a soul. Instead of dividing a person into two or three parts, Hebrew scholars saw  a unified being, a psychophysical being that is profoundly complex.

Christian theologians have defined soul as the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, that which confers individuality and humanity, often considered to be synonymous with the mind or the self.  St. Augustine spoke of the soul as a “rider” on the body, making clear the split between the material and the immaterial, with the soul representing the “true” person (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

Drawing on the words of his teacher Socrates, Plato considered the psyche (soul) to be the essence of a person, being that which decides how we behave. For Aristotle, the soul is the organization of the form and matter of a natural being which allows it to strive for its full actualization.  (Wikipedia)

In other words, the true nature of an individual has less to do with either genetics or environment.  Not only does God endow each person with a soul, but a unique one .  This is what the grandaunt was referring to when she asked whether the shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning – whether it was the soul or the psyche of an individual which was a spiritual essence which determined his character and how he saw, evaluated, and interacted with the world; or whether an individual was nothing until acted upon.

In The Crossing McCarthy elaborates on his view of God, the creator of all, who stands alone and apart from those he created.   This was the existential tragedy, said McCarthy – God could have no witness.
Nothing against which He terminated. Nothing by way of which his being could be announced to Him.  Nothing to stand apart from and to say I am this and that is other.  Where that is I am not. He could create everything save that which would say to him no.
Yet God must exist without witness because without Him, our world would have no anchor, no meaning, and no substance.
The truth is rather that if there were no God then there could be no witness for there could be no identity in the world but only each man’s opinion of it.
God stands alone needing no witness; and understanding this essential nature of him helps the individual to break free of a world of perceptual dishonesty.  Although we may seem to exist only in the eyes of others, our true existence is a function of God’s endowment.
There is another who will hear what you never spoke.  Stones themselves are made or air.  What they have power to crush never lived.  In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his grace.
A world of complete subjectivity cannot possibly exist, reasoned McCarthy. There has to be an existential anchor; one permanent, absolute truth; one fixed reference point, a spiritual North Star.
For the path of the world also is one and not any and there is no alter course in any least part of it for that course is fixed by God and contains all consequence in the sway of its going and outside of that going there is neither path nor consequence nor anything at all. There never was.
In other words, God may have created the world with no meaning, purpose, or consequence; but the understanding of that illogical conundrum is the essence of faith.  One may seemingly act randomly within this apparently random world, but the contract with God is that, because of man’s soul, no act is meaningless.

It is this concept – that regardless of genetic determinism or environmental influence the soul remains ordinate, primary, and essential.  Who we are, what we do and how we act can never be the result of purely secular forces.  As a result, we cannot ignore or deny responsibility for our actions.  A plea of determinism is not enough when considered within the context of divinity.  Although we may be conditioned to act according to prescribed physical laws, a God-given soul demands that we act with more than reflexive action.

McCarthy is, like Tolstoy, inconsistent in his philosophy because of his search for meaning.  His characters share the same intellectual curiosity as Levin (Anna Karenina) who wants to believe in purpose and meaning, but cannot convince himself that life is anything more than an ironic life of a few decades of living and an eternity of death.   Yet he – like Tolstoy after his own real odyssey of spiritual discovery – discard their nihilism and embrace goodness and love. 

The soliloquy of the grandaunt in All The Pretty Horses and the old man in The Crossing are as close as McCarthy comes to avowing faith and the divine inspiration behind individual action.

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