Summer reading

1. One of the themes in the novels of Cormac McCarthy deals with how the main characters are often at the mercy of larger forces that shape their lives. They think they are in control of their environments and that their choices will lead to certain outcomes. But their fates are tied instead to the actions of others (usually more powerful characters) or to larger historical forces that they are powerless to resist. It is almost as if they have no real free will and must accept their fates, just like Agent Smith says in ‘The Matrix': “You hear that Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

In one of the final scenes in the book of ‘No Country for Old Men’, the mysterious villain Anton Chirguh confronts the wife of the (anti-hero) Llewelyn Moss, Carla Jean, and before he shoots her explains the inevitability of their meeting.

I had no say in the matter. Every moment of 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. 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.

Mad ravings of a psychopathic killer? Yes! But McCarthy seems to be making a larger point that choices get made and these determine directions and outcomes, but these become lines and these lines intersect with others in ways that we cannot know. These ideas are echoed by the narrator of the book, Sheriff Bell, who seems to be struggling against the inexorable march of history. “You can say you like it or you don’t like it but it don’t change nothin’. I’ve told my deputies more than once that you fix what you can fix and you let the rest go.”

The idea of choice and freewill comes up again when Moss talks about starting over, which, in his view, is impossible. “You think when you wake up in the mornin’ yesterday don’t count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there?”

2. We live under the illusion that we have free will and that everything involves a choice that we can make. We are masters of our fates due to the choices that we can make. Without straying too far into a philosophical discussion, we likely have much less free will than we think; many of our choices we make without thinking about it, based on our inbuilt reactions to stimuli, historical experience, and the nature of who we are (including social conditioning). Luck and probability play a huge role. And even if we have choices, we might – as McCarthy suggests – have imperfect information about where those choices will lead.

David Millar was a fan of Cormac McCarthy, as he recounts in ‘Racing Through the Dark’, and one wonders whether he himself ever thought that he was in some way prisoner to the inevitability of doping. Critics of his, and of those like Michael Barry and David Zabriskie and others, always say that they had a choice whether to dope or not to dope. They could have walked away.

But could they? If we replayed the crucial moment over again when they all decided to take EPO the outcome would probably not be any different. Maybe, given the forces that were shaping and directing their careers, there was no choice – only the illusion of choice. This is not necessarily to defend them, although it is a kind of defence, but simply to argue that what we as external observers see as choices might just be paths that cannot be changed. There are larger forces at play that drive individuals along these paths. (The idea that Bruyneel is a psychopathic figure like Chirguh is certainly an intriguing one.)

3. Perhaps your author is reaching somewhat here to draw some parallels. But one of the attractions of McCarthy’s novels is that there are no heroes. They are more like anti-heroes who are doing their best, perhaps trying to adhere to a heroic code, in the face of the greater adversities arrayed against them. They inevitably fail, but show us something deeper in the trying and the failing than in a heroic success. “Then he just stood there paying the brim of his hat slowly through his fingers. The posture of a man perhaps who has just buried something. I don’t know a damn thing, he said.”

Or perhaps it is just the writing; the mix of the lyrical and the philosophical. A search for meaning amidst the summer reading.

He stood there looking out across the desert. So quiet. Low hum of wind in the wires. High bloodweeds along the road. Wire grass and sacahuista. Beyond in the stone arroyos the tracks of dragons. The raw rock mountains shadowed in the late sun and to the east the shimmering abscissa of the desert plains under a sky where rain curtains hung dark as soot along the quadrant. The god lives in silence who has scoured the following land with salt and ash. He walked back to the cruiser and got in and pulled away.

Call it! Should Bruyneel have given his riders a coin toss to dope or not to dope?

Call it! Should Bruyneel have given his riders a coin toss to dope or not to dope?

One thought on “Summer reading

  1. I like your blog a lot, articles like this are why. Very interesting study and comparison, well thought out. People who have a black and white worldview will have trouble with this, but I find the world to be much more complex, without simple answers.

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