- Cormac McCarthy’s Philosophy by Ty Hawkins
In the middle of his essay “What Is an Author?” Michel Foucault reviews the criteria critics traditionally have employed to authenticate the authority of a set of texts. As he observes, the figure of the author
serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in a series of texts: there must be—at a certain level of his thought or desire, of his consciousness or unconsciousness—a point where contradictions are resolved, where incompatible elements are at last tied together or organized around a fundamental or originating contradiction(Foucault Reader 111).
Given the breadth of his corpus and the many, often contradictory, ways in which his critics have understood him, Cormac McCarthy would seem to pose an unusual challenge for this kind of analysis.1 Undeterred, Ty Hawkins takes up the challenge in his new book Cormac McCarthy’s Philosophy—an audacious and often brilliant amplification of this form of literary scholarship and an important critical resource for understanding McCarthy’s oeuvre.
The monograph parts ways with what it calls “McCarthy and” criticism, which explores how the author’s novels, films, or plays intervene in or might be framed by philosophical debates of the present.2 Instead, the introductory chapter argues, McCarthy’s “fiction advances a systematic philosophy” that includes a singular, coherent ontology, cosmology, epistemology, and ethics. In the subsequent short but dense chapters, Hawkins distills McCarthy’s career into what he calls a “treatise” of this system: “a work whose fruitful focus on the essence of its subject earns its readership” (3).
Through this unusual framework, Hawkins casts himself as a translator rather than conventional critic, and the strengths and potential drawbacks of this approach are made clear in his second chapter, “Metaphysics.” Grounding McCarthy’s philosophy in the problems of what he calls “Truth and Justice,” Hawkins argues that the clearest expression of McCarthy’s ontology (and therefore his understanding of truth) is John Grady’s work as a master horseman in the Border Trilogy (13). When he interacts with horses, John Grady’s will and understanding of the world aligns with the world as it is (expressed through the horse’s will and being in the world). Through this process, John Grady [End Page 98] attains a kind of “ontological perfection”—what Hawkins will later call an “ardentheartedness”—that brings his “living being” into resonance with the Platonic “Being of Horseman” (30–31, 44).3 As Hawkins explains, this embodied ardentheartedness should not be understood as the attainment of universal truth. Indeed, when John Grady attempts to apply his truth about horses to the world of men, he frequently indulges in dangerous “nonsense” (53). Through discussions of John Grady’s failures and the failures of Billy Parham and Sheriff Bell to attain or maintain ardentheartedness in their respective narratives, the chapter argues that for all three men, there exists no stable referent by which some measure of the truth can be disentangled from subjective will. Because ethics (what Hawkins associates with justice) is dependent upon the same stable referent, the space for a universal Justice that transcends the particular is closed, leaving a set of “particular wills and moralities” in its place (52). As such, for Hawkins, the possible cosmology in McCarthy’s world is one that replaces the alignment of subjective truth and Truth with an alignment of subjective will and a mystical universal “Will”—a concept that Hawkins does not explicitly define but at times relates to Friedrich Schelling’s (and, implicitly, Georg Hegel’s) notion of the term.
Part of what makes this philosophical model so interesting and, at times, problematic, is how Hawkins’ observation about the ardenthearted’s compulsion to “will as if he knows, even as man cannot fully know” can be applied as much to Hawkins’s own project as it could be to McCarthy’s work. Because he writes as a translator of a stable referent (in this case, McCarthy-as-philosopher) rather than as interlocutor, Hawkins’ method of analysis—a search for first principles—is naturalized...