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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No Country For Old Men


I’m reading Hugh Kenner’s wonderful book on Chesterton, Paradox in Chesterton, published in 1947 by Sheed & Ward. The introduction is written by Kenner’s mentor, Marshall McLuhan, before he became the pop-culture prophet of “the medium is the message.” McLuhan’s introduction is a marvelous précis of our modern cultural predicament. As I’m guessing Kenner’s book is out of print, I’ll quote liberally, not to say profusely:

When the Church Fathers adapted the neo-Platonic and Stoic concept of the Logos to Christian Revelation, they committed the Church to many centuries of symbolism and allegory. The result was that for a very long time the outer world was seen as a network of analogies which richly exemplified and sustained the psychological and moral structure of man’s inner world. Both inner and outer worlds were mirrors in which to contemplate the Divine Wisdom…

McLuhan then goes on to describe the impact of this synthesis upon human beings and society:

Society, national and international, grew up once more. And it was an organic and closely-knit society in which the individual enjoyed a very high degree of psychological if not physical security, because of the universal acceptance of the moral and social implications of the Divine order mirrored simultaneously in physical nature, human nature, and political organization.

He then observes how such order serves as the theme of Ulysses’ speech from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this center
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom in all line of order.

….O! When degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhood in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogeniture and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree way, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!...
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up itself.  (Act I, Scene 3)

These lines of Shakespeare’s resonated especially with me today as I was making a study of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country For Old Men. The country portrayed in that film is one in which “degree” has been “shak’d,” and the heart of the film, in my mind, is the way in which that “shaking” enters the heart of one of the few decent characters in the story, Sherriff Bell (played magnificently by Tommy Lee Jones). He is at a point in his life in which he should be enjoying, as Shakespeare’s Ulysses puts it, the “prerogatives of age.” But as he chases a peculiarly ruthless and violent criminal, he begins to sense that the “high designs” of his world have come undone. The string of degree is out of tune. And he harks what discord follows. An old man, he finds himself confronted by the thought that “everything includes itself in power,” a power that, like “an universal wolf,” eats up everything (though the movie does not show us how it last eats up itself).

How did Sherriff Bell’s world—our world—come so undone? McLuhan continues his analysis by writing that from the time of Descartes

men would seek intellectually only for the kind of order they could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes a human and psychological order. Ethics and politics were abandoned as much as metaphysics….

Since the time of Descartes the strategy has been followed consistently. A high degree of abstract mechanical order has been achieved. Great discoveries of a potentially benign sort have been made. And human moral, psychological, and political chaos has steadily developed, with it concurrent crop of fear and anger and hate. The rational efforts of men have been wholly diverted from the ordering of appetite and emotion, so that any effort to introduce or to discover order in man’s psychological life has been left entirely to the artist.

And so McLuhan proceeds with a incisive comparison between the medieval and modern conceptions of the artist:

Whereas the medieval artist was a relatively anonymous person whose function was not to discover order but to represent an already achieved psychological unity, the modern artist is regarded as a pioneer….

As the contemporary artist attempts to chart the psychological chaos created in the heart of man by a mechanistic society his activity is scanned with the utmost concern. A Blake, a Wordsworth, a Baudelaire, a Rimbaud, a Picasso, or a Rouault is regarded as a major source of hope and discovery. The disproportionate burden placed on the artist is the measure of the failure of the philosophy.

I haven’t even touched on what McLuhan has to say about how all this relates to Thomism in the 20th century, or what he—much less Kenner—have to say about Chesterton. There is much in what he has to say, in what Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers have to say, that repays attention.

1 comment:

  1. While this book will probably not become the classic that something like Blood Meridian has, it is certainly a good read, especially for those of us seeking to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Highly recommended.

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