Following the path of reading novels (which we don’t necessarily intend to make a habit of) begun with #62, we have now recorded our discussion of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. We had as a guest one of Dylan’s teachers from undergrad, Eric Petrie, Professor at James Madison College at Michigan State University, who has been presenting a paper called “Promise Keeping After the Death of God” about this book. Listen to the episode.
We primarily discussed the philosophies as represented by the various characters, specifically the contrast between the WWII generation (Sheriff Bell, who provides interstitial first-person commentary throughout the book, though he’s hardly involved in the action at all) and the Viet Nam Vets (both the protagonist Moss, who was a sniper but now displays a respect for life even with regard to criminals and the villain Chigurh, who sees himself as an agent of destiny and does not tolerate his enemies to live). Is the book, as Bell’s commentary suggests, just a complaint against the lack of morality among the young generation, which, through their appetite for drugs, enables the novel’s violent conflicts? The Viet Nam vets, though, display self-created principles instead of traditional religious ones, and we drew points of comparison (some of which McCarthy was surely aware of) to Nietzsche, Kant and Sartre.
We also spent some time talking about the advantages and disadvantages of the novel format for doing philosophy. On the up side, you can be very particular about circumstances, so, for instance, moral dilemmas can be much more compelling then in the case of philosophy class thought experiments. On the down side, that very particularity makes it difficult to actually get philosophical generalizations out of the particular cases. In fact, a non-typical case can be presented (and may even reflect the facts of some real-world event) as an object lesson; it’s very easy for novels to be used as propaganda for some position already decided beforehand. Good philosophical novels, though, tend to take advantage of the ability to present philosophies through characters’ words and actions and allow us to explore ideas and ways of life through them. Much like in comedy and irony, in a novel, the author can present a position that he needn’t himself be committed to, or have made his mind up about, or even to have fully worked out. Novels primarily serve in philosophy to pose questions rather than to provide definitive answers to them.
Eric Petrie’s excellent paper has not yet been published, so we can’t release it publicly, but within a few weeks we plan to open a members-only section of this site that will allow folks that sign up to get it as well as some other free stuff. Keep an eye on this blog for details.
Note that the episode is full of plot spoilers. For maximum enjoyment, go see the movie before listening. If you do that, the book will still be enjoyable, but there are some plot turns that are perhaps not best given away by our analysis, and you may get a bit lost as we discuss several characters if you’ve had no exposure to the book or movie at all.