cormac mccarthy & w. b. yeats on artifice, nature and transcending our fallen world

 

“Sailing to Byzantium

 

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

—William Butler Yeats


 
 

Wells stood on the bridge with the wind off the river tousling his thin and sandy hair.  He turned and leaned against the fence and raised the small cheap camera he carried and took a picture of nothing in particular and lowered the camera again. He was standing where Moss had stood four nights ago. He studied the blood on the walk. Where it trailed off to nothing he stopped and stood with his arms folded and his chin in his hand. He didnt bother to take a picture. There was no one watching. He looked downriver at the slow green water. He walked a dozen steps and came back. He stepped into the roadway and crossed to the other side. A truck passed.  


Cormac McCarthy, No Country
for Old Men


 

 

 


Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and McCarthy’s

No Country for Old Men: Art and Artifice in the Novel

 

Steven Frye

 

McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men will certainly elicit much discussion, especially regarding the notable stylistic departure from his previous works. The new novel is lean, sparse, at times terse, arguably vivid and evocative in terms of language and scenes. Some readers may find merit and even innovation in this approach to narrative. Others may note a lack of the complexity, lyricism, and beauty we often associate with McCarthy’s prose. However, there is likely to be little disagreement that McCarthy’s latest novel is quite dissimilar to those that precede it. The reason for this departure may be simple. Perhaps McCarthy has run his artistic course, and No Country for Old Men (2005), sadly, represents the diminution of his artistic powers. Or it could be that the author’s motives are simply mercenary and careerist, insofar as we know that the novel was previously scheduled to be adapted into film. The first explanation seems implausible, since the shift in style is so studied, precise, and seemingly intentional, displaying still a strong sense of artistic control. The second motive partially explains, but only partially, since McCarthy’s storied willingness to remain reclusive and to leave promotion to others makes a complete sell-out seem unlikely. Historically, he has simply valued the integrity of his art too highly. I want to at least explore the possibility that his selection of the title is not incidental, that his use of the first line of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1983) bears in significant ways upon the meaning of the book. This poem contrasts the prosaic and sensual world of the here and now with the transcendent and timeless world of beauty in art, and the first line, “That is no country for old men,” refers to an artless world of impermanence and sensual pleasure. I want to posit, somewhat tentatively, that the title is at least one key to the stylistic departure that characterizes the novel and that perhaps, if the novel is read in the context of the title,we might  discover a motive behind its distinctiveness. The main narrative displays it seems (in contrast to the interior monologues of Sheriff Bell) a deliberate lack of artifice, or at least the appearance of such, and an intentional eschewing of the overtly lyrical and poetic qualities of the prose we associate with McCarthy. We might assume, then, given the themes and contrasts posited in “Sailing to Byzantium,” that McCarthy is toying with the idea that an overly aestheticized prose is a problematic way to characterize a commonplace, transient, death-strewn world. On the surface this might seem to be an argument against the aesthetic that defines his previous novels, but McCarthy is ever the experimentalist, testing new ideas and approaches to see how they work. His experiment with a less lyrical style may in fact be a deliberate attempt to bring this style into line with his world. Given the Yeats poem’s ultimate celebration of the fruits of artistic creation, we might also tease out some of the same contrasts in No Country for Old Men, which appear in the intimation of a realm outside the harsh country, and in a tonality of hope that is less present in his other works, especially in those preceding the Border Trilogy.

To explore these possibilities, we must first begin with the Yeats poem, in an attempt to clarify McCarthy’s motivation for borrowing the title from the first line. The poem begins,

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees—

Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unaging intellect. (lines 1–8)

 

The opening stanza is in a sense evocative of McCarthy in general, insofar

as it focuses and places a premium on the tactile, visual, and sensual, and

especially on the transitory nature of the physical world. The references to

youth, passion, animal life, the seasons, and finally twice to death, recall

many of the descriptions of nature found in McCarthy’s earlier novels, especially

the Comanche dream sequence in the first chapter of All the Pretty

Horses (1992, 5) and the concluding paragraph of the same novel. But

Yeats finishes the stanza on a specific and pointed thematic note, one that

is cautionary and even polemical. Lost in the world of sense, all ignore the

“monuments of unaging intellect,” the great works of art that transcend

time, decay, and death. Art becomes the one endeavor that mitigates

the physical processes that bring all to ruin, yet art is the very thing that

the world in its frenzy of the physical tends to ignore. The reference to

time and decay continues in the next stanza:

 

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress. (lines 9–12)

 

Yeats’s reference to the “aged man” and the “tattered coat upon a stick”

has an obvious analog in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, specifically

in Sheriff Bell and Uncle Ellis. McCarthy works deliberately to emphasize

their age and in Bell’s case his preoccupation with a fading life and its ultimate

meaning in a violent world. In thisstanza Yeats heightens the contrast

between a world of physicality devoid of art and the “monuments”

of “magnificence” that suggest permanence. The world of the sensual is

diminished by the reference to age that through repetition is elevated to

the level of motif and even symbol. A work of art is “unaging,” a monument

that lives through the millennia; thus the persona’s ultimate quest

to sail the seas to the “holy city of Byzantium.”

 

The poem continues as the persona undergoes transition from a characterization

of the world to a plaintive call to the mysterious forces that

embody the creation of art:

 

O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity. (lines 17–24)

 

Here Yeats quite deliberately associates art with transcendence, directly

in the image of “sages” in “God’s holy fire.” Byzantium is evoked as simultaneously

a realm of high art and permanence and the seat of the Eastern

Church. Yeats merges the early images of Christian mythology with

the act of artistic creation, and a rich complex of images is conflated into

an integrated system of dual meaning. Fire, here associated with God and

holiness, is simultaneously an image of purification and regeneration; it

will purify his heart and prepare it to be an instrument of creation. Soul as

the origin of art should be interpreted in a particular manner, since from

it he hopes that a grand work of art will return that will in a very literal

sense gather him “into the artifice of eternity.”

 

The persona’s desire for transcendence through artistic creation continues

in the last stanza:

 

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily formfrom any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enameling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come. (lines 25–32)

 

Here art and the artist are elevated beyond the physical, given an almost

religious significance. The idea of Byzantium as the holy city remains,

together with the artifice of the “Grecian goldsmiths,” and the sometimes

violent act of creation culminates in permanence. The last line is again

evocative of the final line in All the Pretty Horses. “Of what is past, or

passing, or to come” recalls “Past and paled into the darkening land, the

world to come” (Pretty Horses, 302), not only in the final phrasing but

in the overall sense of time passing, orchestrated through an evocative

beauty in language and a sense of the immaterial penetrating and informing

the physical world.

 

Yeats is preoccupied with the mysterious relationship between art

and nature, specifically with the role of representation, ritual, and

transcendence. No Country for Old Men deals with these same issues

through a circuitous path of indirection understandable only when

considering his other works and the obvious and, I would argue, deliberate

shift in style. In other works McCarthy displays overtly and

without reserve the artifice of language. For many of us that artistry,

his mastery of beauty in language, is the only compensating factor for

the bleak and uncompromising world he forces us to confront. In No

Country for Old Men he alters that style, but he also abandons the previous

worlds, many of which are characterized by utter degradation

and depravity. For all of the novel’s Quentin Tarantino–style violence

and bloodletting, a dominant strand of the novel is the interspersed

narrative of Bell, and although it involves a tortured reflection on circumstances

less than pleasant, it is infused with regular and constant

references to the human capacity for commitment and love, specifically

in marriage. In that context still, the world of the novel is precisely that

world of artless sensuality evoked in the first stanza of the Yeats poem.

One passage will serve to demonstrate:

 

Wells stood on the bridge with the wind off the river tousling his thin and sandy hair. He turned and leaned against the fence and raised the small cheap camera he carried and took a picture of nothing in particular and lowered the camera again. He was standing where Moss had stood four nights ago. He studied the blood on the walk. Where it trailed off to nothing he stopped and stood with his arms folded and his chin in his hand. He didn’t bother to take a picture. There was no one watching. He looked downriver at the slow green water. He walked a dozen steps and came back. He stepped into the roadway and crossed to the other side. A truck passed. (No Country,

166–67)

 

In some sense, this passage retains elements of McCarthy’s signature

style, especially in the preoccupation with visual imagery and objective

reality and perception, as well as in the overt rejection of subordinate

clauses for strings of independent conjunctions linked with the conjunction

“and.” In another sense, however, he moves away from his previous

style as he avoids the sometimes risky rhetorical flourishes that have been

so central to his artistry. What characterizes other passages more typical

of McCarthy is both their symbolic and iconographic content and their

evocative power. When he succeeds, as he so often does, he succeeds

beautifully, and our attention is drawn to the artistry of language, its arrangement

and lexical complexity. These passages involve descriptions

of the world certainly, but they are also interpretive and artistically rendered

and demand attention as creations in and of themselves. The above

passage from No Country for Old Men is almost Hemingwayesque in its

simplicity and vivid focus on physical objects in the context of the living

world. The “wind off the river tousling his thin and sandy hair” and the

simple statement “A truck passed” are terse, laconic, tight, and effortless,

suggesting the classical aesthetic dictum ars et celera artum, which

translates as “the art is to conceal the art.” In the past, this has never been

McCarthy’s practice, insofar as his art in very deliberate ways reveals itself

as art, and in doing so calls attention to a created world fashioned by

a dark artificer that we never come fully to know. In No Country for Old

Men the attempt is to root the reader in a world of sense and raw beauty

that is void of artifice and system, a cold world of violence and disorder

that Bell must struggle somehow to understand. In short, we are required

to reside for a time in the artless world of Yeats’s “no country for old

men.” However, in the novel writ large a structural contrast seems to

emerge in the narrative of the primary plot from which the above passage

is drawn, dominated by Chigurh, and in the interior world of Bell’s consciousness,

which appears in italics. The latter is the artless realm “that is

no country for old men.” The former echoes McCarthy’s earlier aesthetic

as well as the ideal realm of art and artifice orchestrated by Yeats. Bell’s

interspersed reflections are quite striking when considered in the context

of McCarthy’s previous works. In one sense, it is here that McCarthy is at

his most Faulknerian. For all of the comparisons that some have made between

McCarthy and Faulkner, in previous works McCarthy has almost

universally avoided entering the interior consciousness of character. His

narrators preside over the events as disembodied and oblique observers,

mystical interpreters of a violent and mysterious world. In the Bell

sections, McCarthy enters the mind of a character as he has rarely done

before, following his intimate thoughts and his pointed concerns, fears,

and insecurities. The contrast that emerges is one of style and theme, as

Bell’s contemplations in prose, especially at the conclusion, are infused

not only with a more self-conscious artistry, but with an overt tonality of

hope that is either absent or appears only obliquely in previous works.

This hope emerges from Bell’s reliance on and reverence for the redemptive

power of human relationships and from his vague acknowledgement

of mystical transcendence. Degradation is vividly and artlessly rendered

in Chigurh’s world of violence and death. Hope appears in Bell’s interior

reflections, which culminate in a dreamlike reverie infused with imagery

similar to that found in Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”

 

Bell’s hopeful vision is bornof pain and internal conflict, as he struggles

with the reality of his own weakness and his need for love and unity in

marriage. His first reference to his wife evokes this issue of marriage and

love as sanctuary, as a place where one finds repose in an insular domestic

space removed from a world of violence. He says succinctly, “My

wife wont read the papers no more. She’s probably right. She generally is” (No

Country, 40). Then in a later passage he deepens his contemplation of the

redemptive power of their relationship. Referring to his wife Loretta, he

says, “She’s a better person than me, which I will admit to anybody that cares

to listen. Not that that’s sayin a whole lot. She’s a better person than anybody I

know. Period. . . . I don’t recall that I ever give the Lord all that much cause to

smile on me. But he did” (91). And later: “Then she come around behind my

chair and put her arms around my neck and bit me on the ear. She’s a very young

woman in a lot of ways. If I didn’t have her I don’t know what I would have. Well,

yes I do. You wouldn’t need a box to put it in, neither” (305).

 

It may not appear so on the surface, especially considering McCarthy’s

earlier work, but these passages and other of Bell’s interior monologues

are self-consciously artistic, in a studied and specifically American sense.

Mark Twain and the local color tradition come immediately to mind, not

just in the use of dialect but in the artful and witty turn of phrase, the folk

wisdom, and the pointed impact of the language of reflection. They are

also Faulknerian in the manner in which McCarthy carefully articulates a

singular consciousness, linking language, dialect, and personality in the

form of an extended interior monologue. One might imagine that in the

film version, sections would appear in the form of voice-over narrative,

and would necessarily be so thinly employed that they would lose their

affective power. But what is notable is that amid this artistic rendering of

consciousness, essentially within the framework of art, we begin to see

articulated a hopeful vision. Bell does not shrink from the brutal realities

of the world but in the midst of it he considers himself lucky, and

that fortune he attributes to a love that is undeserved and a commitment

that is foundational. He is unequivocal in his humble assessment of his

own value as an independent being, but he finds value in himself and in

his experience because another human being has done so. He attributes

his own sense of self to the devotion of his wife, who he freely admits is

better and implicitly stronger than himself. He finds hope also in a vague

apprehension of religious comfort, if not certitude. This realization occurs

in an intimate conversation with his uncle, after he has revealed his great

secret. Through Bell, McCarthy yet again takes up the God question:

 

Bell watched him. The old man stubbed out his cigarette in the lid. Bell tried to think about his life. Then he tried not to. You aint turned infidel have you Uncle Ellis?

 

No. No. Nothin like that.

 

Do you think God knows what’s happenin?

 

I expect he does.

 

You think he can stop it?

 

No. I don’t. (No Country, 269)

 

In Melville’s Quarrel with God, Lawrence Thompson (1966) explores the

spiritual and theological tensions and conflicts that inform the work of

Herman Melville, especially from Mardi through Billy Budd. These conflicts

revolve around the issue of evil or the problem of pain. Throughout

his work, McCarthy can be seen as a writer engaged in that same quarrel,

as he grapples with configurations of evil that transcend time, place,

and materiality. At times in McCarthy’s hands, this conflict seems like

open warfare. But amid the violence of No Country for Old Men, it seems

from the previous passage that McCarthy makes peace with God, not by

embracing any particular orthodoxy or system per se, but by considering

seriously and sympathetically a philosophical position that distinguishes

God from the created world, thus limiting his capacity to orchestrate the

details of its operation. As the novel unfolds and we move again into

interior monologue, artistically rendered, separate from the prosaic and

artless world of violence and bloodletting, we witness a progression that

echoes obliquely a kind of telos, one that again connotes hope, possibility,

and transcendence, taking place in a dream-vision of his father:

 

It was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up. (No Country, 309)

 

The image of his long-dead father carrying a beacon concludes the

novel on a note of illumination in darkness. Again, hope is evoked in

the notion of human and even familial connection and in accepting the

limitations of rationality by embracing an epistemology that permits the

answers to the essential questions to reveal themselves only vaguely in

the evocative images, motifs, symbols, and archetypes that are the substance

of art. In Bell’s final dream, we see him returning to Yeats’s image

of eternal fire. However, this is not the fire of destruction but purification,

creation, and light. At Bell’s fire, his father will, in Yeats’s words, “gather

him into the artifice of eternity.” In this sense, in No Country for Old Men

McCarthy juxtaposes two worlds: the external and objective world of

sense, of artless violence, disorder, and bloodshed, where passion vents

itself in pain; and the interior world of Bell’s consciousness, which is a

realm infused with the same, but one that seeks and finds a stability and

permanence in human love, spiritual transcendence, and a mild and mitigated

acceptance. To convey the latter world McCarthy again resorts to

an overt artifice, to image, to symbol, and to the language of indirection.

The novel by no means reflects the stylistic and structural complexity of

the previous works. But I speculate at least that neither does it represent

a diminution of his artistic powers or a lamentable artistic compromise.

The title clarifies his purpose. It is perhaps yet another experiment in

language and the novel form, one that explores the particular role of art

in portraying with integrity the complex realities of human beings living

and struggling in the world.

 

 

REFERENCES

 

McCarthy, Cormac. 1992. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Random House.

 

—————————. 2005. No Country for Old Men. New York: Vintage.

 

Thompson, Lawrence R. 1966. Melville’s Quarrel with God.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Yeats, William Butler. 1983. “Sailing to Byzantium.” In

The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finnerman,

193–94. New York: Collier Books.

 

 

—from Lynnea Chapman King, Rick Wallach, Jim Welsh (eds.), No Country For Old Men: From Novel To Film, 2009

 


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