Cormac McCarthy and free will

In this entry I discuss the work of Cormac McCarthy and the degree to which it is concerned with the freedom of the will. My claim, such as it is, is that some of his works contain an extended examination of the extent to which a man (for it is always a man) is free in this world, or if instead 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 begin with 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, played by the incomparable Javier Bardem as one of the truly mesmeric and unforgetable villains of recent - and probably all - times (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 to the scene because he feels guilty about not helping the man (this is the decision that places him on his final path); when he arrives, the owners of the money have come looking for him, find him and chase him, 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 encourage 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 suggests he keep it as a charm. When the man fails to understand, the following passage occurs:

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 to locate and kill Chigurh. Facing Wells and pointing a gun 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:

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:

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:

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.

The key, in Chigurh’s view, 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 thus 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.

It may be that Chigurh is not so much a character as a personification of an idea, possibly God. On this reading, God visits his creation in the form of Chigurh so that McCarthy can confront his readers with the grating of the freedom of the will against the reality of consequences. The form of Chigurh’s actions is violence in order to make the point, not because it has to be; the reaction we have to his behaviour is placed in stark relief because it is so final. If we are free to choose our course in this life then we do not reflect on it at any given moment because the consequences just are; confronted with death, and forced to accept that death is as inevitable as any other result because our free choices took us there, we revolt even though there is no escape from the logic of it.

I do not think the fact that Chigurh himself suffers counts against this reading. The emphasis is on any actor that makes free choices in the world being bound by their consequences; we could view Chigurh as a Christ-like figure, made flesh in order to demonstrate our predicament. The point of the coin tosses is that if we agree to them then we are bound by the result: if we insist that we are free to choose then we are caught in the consequences, and although we scarcely notice this it is an inevitability we try to avoid when the chain of causes reaches its end. The real horror is in knowing that if we decline to accept that the chain is concluded then we must also allow that our earlier choices were not free after all; if it is not our fault and we should be allowed to change the fall of the coin then we were never really free to begin with.

Does Chigurh himself have choices? Perhaps, but he is almost performing a reductio of the other characters’ freedom; that is, by acting as the instrument of the “fate” that their free choices have brought them and showing them that they refuse, at the end, to accept the consequences of that freedom. In fact, it could be argued that Chigurh doesn’t need to kill anyone but only seem as though he is going to in order that the victim appreciate this lesson, although whether the harshness and understanding of that lesson would be as acute is another thing.

I think the key here is that the text explains, in greater detail that at any other stage, what the coin toss involves - a kind of justice that Chigurh cannot act against but also in which he has no faith in a person’s ability to change. The point is that this 50/50 chance brings into stark relief the problem of free will: we make a decision, a free choice, whether to live or die; and yet when the coin goes against us we reject the freedom of that choice and its result and argue instead that matters don’t have to and shouldn’t be this way - we want to play the game but refuse to be bound by the rules and results. Carla Jean is the only character who comes to understand the inconsistency and embrace her freedom completely.

I look next at Blood Meridian, considered by many to be McCarthy’s masterpiece (or at least until The Road, which is actually a far weaker work). Quotes are from the Picador edition of 1990.

The question of the freedom of the will arises in Blood Meridian chiefly via the character of the Judge, a giant, hairless man who has an otherworldly air and may even represent God or the devil. Judge Holden apparently existed in the mid-19th century and, as in the novel, was part of a group of scalphunters. He is supremely knowledgeable about myriad subjects as well as a killer, including of children. He regularly holds forth on predestination; for example:

The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon in save by my dispensation.

Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everything on this earth, he said.

The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

In accordance with my aim, I claim that McCarthy is also exploring here (amongst other things) the discord between free will and our unwillingness to accept finality. The judge repeatedly insists, as in these terms above, that fate is determined by free will and that in order to exercise this control over it we have to understand that no one but us can do so - no outside agency and no manner of excuses. Consider:

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate stake admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one.

It seems to me that the key aspect is, for the judge, a confusion between the agency that we take to choose the outcome (fate or God) and that which has led both men to this situation. The error consists in supposing that the death of one or other man is where the significance lies, which occurs because we wish to have our freedom of action but also to avoid the consequences when confronted with them; instead, the significance staring the players in their faces is that there is no longer any mystery to their lives and the imminent end of one of them: their choices have led them to this point and they now have no way of escaping the consequences of their freedom. The card game - in this form - is a kind of thought experiment that places an unavoidable emphasis on this.

Near the close of the book, the judge makes his case clearer yet:

Pick a man, any man. That man there. See him. That man hatless. You know his opinion of the world. You can read it in his face, in his stance. Yet his complaint that a man’s life is no bargain masks the actual case with him. Which is that men will not do as he wishes them to. Have never done, never will do. That’s the way of things with him and his life is balked about by difficulty and become so altered of its intended architecture that he is little more than a walking hovel hardly fit to house the human spirit at all. Can he say, such a man, that there is no malign thing set against him? That there is no power and no force and no cause? What manner of heretic could doubt agency and claimant alike? Can he believe that the wreckage of his existence is unentailed? No liens, no creditors? That gods of vengeance and of compassion alike lie sleeping in their crypt and whether our cries are for an accounting or for the destruction of the ledgers altogether they must evoke only the same silence and that it is this silence which will prevail? To whom is he talking, man? Cant you see him?

The man was indeed muttering to himself and peering balefully about the room wherein it seemed there was no friend to him.

A man seeks his own destiny and no other, said the judge. Will or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to the selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.

I read these final comments similarly to those of Chigurh, insofar as fate is not something written for us in advance but rather is inscribed by our actions and hence cannot be escaped. We are free to choose our course but not then to deviate from it. This is why a “man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits” and why the reckoning is inescapable. Complaining, as we do, that the world does not bend itself to our will - and trying to avoid this reckoning - arises because we take life to be a riddle to be solved and thus either fail to notice or actively avoid the brute fact that there is no riddle; as the judge puts it: “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.”

These themes are also found in The Crossing, the second part of The Border Trilogy. A decision Billy Parham takes early in the story essentially decides his future; much later, he discusses this with an antagonist he meets after the results of his choice have played out. I claim this is the key passage:

He said that men believe death’s elections to be a thing inscrutable yet every act invites the act which follows and to the extent that men put one foot before the other they are accomplices in their own deaths as in all such facts of destiny. He said that moreover it could not be otherwise that men’s ends are dictated at their birth and that they will seek their deaths in the face of every obstacle. He said that both views were one view and that while men may meet with death in strange and obscure places which they might well have avoided it was more correct to say that no matter how hidden or crooked the path to their destruction yet they would seek it out.

This speaks of the confusion between our fate being determined and our being free to choose our way in the world, but they merge when we appreciate that these choices are what determine our fate, which is for that reason inescapable. Billy himself lays bare this conclusion in his response:

He said that whether a man’s life was writ in a book someplace or whether it took its form day by day was one and the same for it had but one reality and that was the living of it. He said that while it was true that men shape their own lives it was also true that they could have no shape other for what then would that shape be?

This looking at the problem from the end result - death or ruination - strikes me as consistent across McCarthy’s work. The position we find ourselves in might have been otherwise but we made choices and the consequences of them are no more avoidable than that there could be some other consequence not derived from these choices. The question, posed finally by Quijada, is how life could be any other way:

If people knew the story of their lives how many would then elect to live them? People speak about what is in store. But there is nothing in store. The day is made of what has come before. The world itself must be surprised at the shape of that which appears. Perhaps even God.

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One Response to Cormac McCarthy and free will

  1. Michael S. Pearl says:

    The key, in Chigurh’s view, 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 …

    Actually, “Chigurh’s view” is typical of a most egregious and all too common sort of repulsiveness.

    He presents himself as being necessarily without responsibility for the killing of Wells and Moss’s wife inasmuch as he would have it seen that he exercises no choice in the matters of the lives and deaths of these people. Chigurh’s “the justice of it” requires that there be no personal choice or judgment exercised when actions are undertaken by any instrument of justice, an instrument by which the world achieves its accounting. So long as Chigurh can maintain a detached, an impersonal demeanor, so long as he can make it appear that he is passing no personal judgment and is not exercising personal choice, he can also maintain that he is acting as an instrument of justice rather than with personal responsibility.

    In effect, Chigurh dehumanizes himself for the sake of justice — to make himself seem more like an avenging angel rather than a human, to make himself seem less human and more like duty-incarnate.

    However, this conception of himself and his conception of justice are not actually sufficient or satisfactory for Chigurh. This is why Chigurh insists on getting his potential victims to participate in the action by which Chigurh evades the personal responsibility which follows from the exercise of choice (the coin toss), and, once it has been determined that the person is now to die, this is why he further requires that the person who is to die admit to and accept the justice of being killed (Chigurh and the Stalinist ideal?).

    How marvelous this all turns out to be for Chigurh! Should he ever, in a moment of weakness, happen to doubt even for an instant that he is on a mission from God, well, at least his victims died at ease and without being angry at him. (So, maybe there would be no need to worry about any Kindly Ones! Heh.)

    Does Chigurh himself have choices? Perhaps, but he is almost performing a reductio of the other characters’ freedom …

    I think that the Chigurh character ends up being a reductio of the deontic basis for virtue and justice. Impersonalization undertaken for the sake of duty is hardly distinguishable from (and is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of self-) dehumanization; an attempt is made to suspend the personal exercise of choice and judgment in order to thereby eliminate responsibility supposedly in service to a good greater than one’s own self (or such is the common excuse).

    As discussed above, Chigurh exhibits just such a dehumanization of his self for the sake of justice. But, when he goes not only to meet but to kill Moss’s wife in service to a principle, to the principle of keeping a promise, we are left with a vision of justice as selfless duty so thoroughly impersonal that it should be apparent that there is something very very wrong with so purely deontic a sense of virtue and justice. This is a sense of justice for which value in personhood would be utterly superfluous, and this is precisely NOT what most people have in mind when they think of justice — at least as justice regards their own selves.

    And what is it that people most often associate with their own selves? Their choices.

    Chigurh is thus 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 … 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 … The point of the coin tosses is that if we agree to them then we are bound by the result: if we insist that we are free to choose then we are caught in the consequences, and although we scarcely notice this it is an inevitability we try to avoid when the chain of causes reaches its end.

    To the extent that people identify themselves with their choices, people tend to think of themselves as responsible for what they choose. People are also tend to be quite willing to accept responsibility for a favorable consequence which follows upon what they have chosen; they might feel that the favorable consequence indicates their wisdom in choosing as they did, or they might feel that the favorable consequence testifies to the rightness - the goodness or the justice - of what they have done.

    Responsibility is often not so readily accepted for untoward consequences, and the fact of the matter is that neither Moss’s wife nor the gas station owner is responsible for whether or not a killing follows close upon the coin toss.

    What the coin toss indicates is that none of us are radically free. That is to say that we all choose within contexts which are not entirely of our own making, and it is also to say that we do not always have control over the consequences of our choices. Contexts may not be entirely of our own making and, yet, we are free within those contexts to determine what contexts are to follow; we may not have control over all the consequences that follow from each of our choices, but our choices are necessary for that which follows, and oftentimes consequences do not follow close upon a choice.

    Moss’s wife finds herself face-to-face with Chigurh — in terms of her own choices — only because she some years earlier became emotionally involved with Llewelyn; we do not have any indication (so far as I can recall) that Llewelyn Moss’s own character was such that his wife should have expected anything like the trouble that came into her life because of her husband. In the case of the gas station owner, the choice which seems most closely tied to the Chigurh encounter would be the decision to work at such a place. The gas station owner is presumably well aware that he is - by virtue of his working in a service station - vulnerable to not just thieves but also lunatic murderers. Such an awareness does not, however, make him deserving of his encounter with Chigurh any more than missing work that day (maybe because of illness) would have made him deserving of not encountering Chigurh. It is arguable that Wells most deserves finding himself face-to-face with the likes of Chigurh, and that encounter with Chigurh follows closest upon others of Wells’s own choices.

    The point of all this would seem to be that justice does not become manifest in the world as a matter of what is deserved; furthermore and similarly, misfortune is not a good indicator of deserved consequences. What there is are choices, and we are what we choose.

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