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  • A Chaotic and Dark VitalismA Case Study of Cormac McCarthy’s Psychopaths amid a Geology of Immorals
  • Sean Braune (bio)

Nature, red in tooth and claw

—Tennyson, “In Memoriam” lvi.15

Cormac McCarthy’s landscapes in No Country for Old Men (2005) and Blood Meridian (1985) are violent geographic spaces that consist of what Jane Bennett calls “vital materiality” (vii): spaces filled with various objects of all description in which any momentarily coherent subject can become dismembered as an object, the only trace of which, as a human being, is a scalp or a corpse. I argue that McCarthy’s psychopaths—limited to “case studies” of Judge Holden and Anton Chigurh—are embodiments of a frightening materiality and an immoral or amoral geology in which Darwinian evolution has resulted in the corrupt “pinnacle” of humanism found in the post-human personality of the psychopath.

I approach this essay through a multifaceted theoretical framework that involves chaos theory (as a mathematical model of chance), speculative realism and vitalism (as ways of approaching objects), and psychological case studies that explicitly deal with psychopathy in relation to evolution. This framework will permit entry points into McCarthy’s psychopaths found in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men.

Spooky Materialism

Jane Bennett writes that “by ‘vitality’ I mean the capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi [End Page 1] agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii). Chigurh gets to his victims the same way his coin arrives—by chance—and the meteorite picked up by Judge Holden (240) struck the earth in the same way that the judge affects everyone around him: as an object or vital materiality that permeates Nature, given “tooth and claw,” in order to survive more effectively in an environment of violence, bloodshed, and war.

Bennett’s more positive position on “vital materiality” contains a dark side: Graham Harman, one of the founders of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, argues for a darker and “weirder” vital materiality. Harman considers the following thought experiment in relation to a dark materialism:

Let’s say that a chunk of plutonium is abandoned in the desert, compressing the sand on which it sits, deflecting sunlight into distant space, with no living creature anywhere in the vicinity. . . . But while the sand and dead weeds now surrounding the plutonium fail to sound the depths of its lethal radioactive quality, any living creatures that were present would be killed in minutes. In short, there is an additional reality in this strange artificial material that is in no way exhausted by the unions and associations in which it currently happens to be entangled. This reality is unexpressed, and will always remain so. The usual easy way out of this predicament is the appeal to “potentiality” to explain the status of the radioactivity prior to the arrival of any animals. It will be said that the plutonium is not “actually” lethal, but potentially so given the right circumstances. What is weak about this approach . . . is that the theme of potential allows us a sneaky way to evade the difficult question of what the actuality of the lethal quality is. To speak of a quality in terms of its potential is already to speak of it from the outside, to objectify it rather than to clarify its ontological status. What is the actuality of the “lethal” here? Or in other words, just what is it that is “potentially” lethal in this case? Atoms? Or something far more strange?

(Towards 102–03)

Harman’s plutonium contains a “lethal quality” that is not dissimilar from the lethal quality of Chigurh and Judge Holden: the psychopath represents a lethal quality present in human nature that [End Page 2] is made manifest and embodied. Nick Land’s version of vitalism is even darker than Harman’s in that, for Land, Kantian noumena—understood here as the objects of nature—are always “fanged” (105–20). McCarthy’s conception of nature is closer to Land’s fanged noumena rather than Bennett’s vitalism in that nature itself is psychopathic and...


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