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McCarthy and the freedom of the will

Written by son of rambow on Thursday, January 28, 2010

In this thread I want to discuss the work of Cormac McCarthy and the degree in which it is concerned with the freedom of the will. My claim, such as it is, is that his work is an extended examination of the extent to which a man (for it is always a man) is free in this world or if his life is mapped out for him and he ultimately has no choice but to follow his path wherever it takes him and eventually ends for him.

I had intended to work on a much longer piece but not everyone has read McCarthy. I therefore decided to leave his other works, particularly Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, until later; to begin with, I will look at No Country For Old Men because there is a good chance that those who have not read the book might have seen the recent film by the Coen brothers, which gives an excellent insight into the character Anton Chigurh, who - in my opinion - is played by the incomparable Javier Bardem as one of the truly mesmeric and unforgetable villains of cinematic history, although to call Chigurh a villain is a mistake as we will hopefully see.

Briefly, in No Country For Old Men a man named Llewelyn Moss comes upon a drug deal gone wrong and is faced with a dilemma; namely, whether or not to take a suitcase full of money from the scene. No one is around (those involved in the deal are all dead, bar one) so he goes ahead. The sole survivor is a dying man who asks Moss for water, which he refuses because he has none. However, later that evening Moss returns because he feels guilty about not giving the man water (this is the decision that places him on his final path), and when he gets there the owners of the money have come looking and find him and chase him, and so he is pursued for a long time throughout the book. Anton Chigurh is hired to find the money and he follows both Moss and those looking for him, killing a variety of people along the way in a strangely detached fashion.

There are three main scenes in which Chigurh talks to potential or actual victims, and these are where we find the most philosophical discussion. The first occurs when Chigurh visits a petrol/gas station and meets the owner, who quickly decides that he does not like the look or sound of Chigurh and tries to get him to leave. Chigurh asks him what is the most he has ever seen lost on a coin toss; he then tosses a coin and invites the owner to call it. The owner is reluctant because he says he has not bet anything but Chigurh tells him he has been always been betting; he just did not realise it. Eventually, he calls heads and is correct. Chigurh gives him the coin and suggest he keep it as a charm. When the man fails to understand, he says the following:

No Country For Old Men

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It's just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it's just a coin. Yes. That's true. Is it?

In the second scene, Chigurh has captured Carson Wells, another assassin who has been attempting to find the money but also find and kill Chigurh. Facing Wells with a gun pointed at him, Chigurh asks: "If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?" Wells refuses to look away from the gun and challenges Chigurh to just get on with it and kill him, but Chigurh will not and clearly wants Wells to look away, to accept and resign himself to what is about to happen. Again, Chigurh brings up the sequence of events that leads people to their current situation - to an accounting:

No Country For Old Men
It's not the same, Chigurh said. You've been giving up things for years to get here. I dont think I even understood that. How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life? We're in the same line of work. Up to a point. Did you hold me in such contempt? Why would you do that? How did you let yourself get into this situation?

What Chigurh cannot understand is why Wells - or anyone - can hate him for being the instrument of his accounting. The choices we make lead us to where we are and at the end of our lives, whenever that should occur, the responsibility lies with these choices and not with the instrument. They talk some more and finally Wells tells Chigurh to just do it and looks away, whereupon Chigurh kills him.

The third scene involves Moss's wife. Earlier in the story, Chirgurh talks to Moss on the telephone and tells him that it is too late to save himself but that if he gives himself up then Chirgurh will not harm his family. Moss refuses and so Chigurh finds himself much later sitting with Moss's wife, again with gun in hand, explaining that due to Moss's earlier decision he has no choice but to kill her. It is almost as though Chigurh is to kill her on principle, because he gave his word to Moss. Here is part of their conversation:

No Country For Old Men
Chigurh smiled. It's a hard thing to understand, he said. I see people struggle with it. The look they get. They always say the same thing.
What do they say.
They say: You dont have to do this.
You dont.
It's not any help though, is it?
So why do you say it?
I aint never said it before.
Any of you.
There's just me here, she said. There aint nobody else.
Yes. Of course.
She looked at the gun. She turned away. She sat with her head down, her shoulders shaking. Oh Mama, she said.
None of this was your fault.
She shook her head, sobbing.
You didnt do anything. It was bad luck.
She nodded.
He watched her, his chin in his hand. All right, he said. This is the best I can do.
He straightened out his leg and reached into his pocket and drew out a few coins and took one and held it up. He turned it. For her to see the justice of it. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and weighed it and then flipped it spinning in the air and caught it and slapped it down on his wrist. Call it, he said.

For Chigurh, "the justice of it" is important because again the decisions that various people have taken throughout their lives have led to the point at which he sits with Moss's wife. He tells her: "For things at a common destination there is a common path. Not always easy to see. But there." She loses the coin toss but, like Wells, she resists his argument and he does not yet act. He tries to explain further and she finally resigns and accepts her fate, like Wells:

No Country For Old Men
I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.


When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You're asking that I second say the world. Do you see?
Yes, she said, sobbing. I do. I truly do.
Good, he said. That's good. Then he shot her.

For Chigurh, the key is not to understand him as a coldblooded murderer but as the means by which the world undertakes its accounting. He does not kill because he enjoys it or because he refuses to let people live as they might; instead, he kills precisely because the world is such that we make decisions and they eventually lead us to the end of the paths we have chosen, which always involves death. Our mistake is in assuming that death can come early or unfairly when in fact whether we are killed by someone like Chigurh or die in our sleep it remains the case that our decisions have led us inevitably and irrevocably to that point.

Chigurh is the embodiment of the argument that we cannot truly reconcile in ourselves the freedom of the will with the fact that our choices determine our destiny. We think we are free to choose our paths but when we arrive at the end of them we deny that we are there and try to continue, even though if our choices really were free then we can have no complaint. The force of this is carried in the book via the character of Chigurh and he is an assassin because the same argument would hold little strength were he a saint. The people he kills must resign themselves to the inevitability of it because he confronts them with the incompatibility of their beliefs, that they can choose freely and yet try to avoid the consequences. We see this every time we try to shirk responsibility or deny that some event is our fault, but because Chigurh brings death instead of an unpleasant or uncomfortable situation the problem is placed in such stark relief. Hence "if the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?" The freedom of the will is a nice idea but when confronted with the argument taken to its conclusion we deny it.

All of the above is not necessarily what I believe to be true but how I prefer to read the book and what I take McCarthy to be exploring through it. In his other works he looks at this in more detail, even though No Country For Old Men is more recent, so I think Chigurh might represent the embodiment of what he had earlier hinted at but now chose to confront his readers with. In this sense, The Road is the aftermath. I will return to this thread and these other titles in due course but for now I am interested to see what others make of it and of No Country For Old Men. [source:

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