Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Should McCarthy win the Nobel?

As of this morning, Cormac McCarthy is the betting favorite to win the Nobel Prize in literature. [Update: The final odds of his win, which he did not get, were three to one.]

The question is not whether he will take home the Prize, to be announced tomorrow, but whether he should. (I don’t think there is much of a chance of his winning. His reputation for violence, although it might accord with many Europeans’ image of American culture, would probably be enough to disqualify him.) Does he deserve the award?

According to its official website, the Nobel Prize in literature was originally intended, in Alfred Nobel’s bequest, to honor “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning].” It is not clear from the context of his will what Nobel meant by “idealistic tendency.” In the nineteenth century, idealism seems usually to have been counterposed to realism, especially when discussing the arts. Wagner, for example, held that realism was ruining art: “the slaves had revolted.” Idealism signified the restoration of an ideal order, the upholding of the higher ideals (not found commonly in reality) for which men should strive.

The first Nobel Prize in literature was awarded in 1901 to Sully Prudhomme, whose poetry “gives evidence of lofty idealism.” Eight years later the Swedish fiction writer Selma Lagerlöf was also recognized for her “lofty idealism.” So too Paul Heyse the next year, Romain Rolland in 1915, Karl Adolph Gjellerup in 1917, George Bernard Shaw in 1925, and Grazia Deledda in 1926. Although Europeans might have become suspicious of the term during Hitler’s war against humanity, it was revived when the Nobel Prizes resumed after a three-year moratorium in 1944. Gabriela Mistral, Hermann Hesse, and even Bertrand Russell were praised in the name of idealism.

Although the word has not been used in a citation since 1950, its spirit haunts the Prize. Albert Camus “illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times”; in Samuel Beckett, “the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”; Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s “ethical force”; Eugenio Montale “has interpreted human values under the sign of an outlook on life with no illusions”; Vicente Aleixandre “illuminates man’s condition in the cosmos”; Isaac Bashevis Singer “brings universal human conditions to life”; Jaroslav Seifert “provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man”; Camilo José Cela “forms a challenging vision of man’s vulnerability”; Octavio Paz’s “humanistic integrity”; Nadine Gordimer’s writing “has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity.”

While each on its own is little more than wind, the phrases taken together do begin to flap in an idealisk rigtning. The question that I have never been able to answer about Cormac McCarthy is whether he belongs to the same universe of thought as these phrases. In “his anguish [a man] may rage,” Holden says in Blood Meridian, “but rage at what?” The only ideals in McCarthy’s world seem to be geological shapes. “For the earth is a globe in the void and [in] truth there’s no up nor down to it,” Holden says.

But is this the final word about the human experience, according to McCarthy? Or is this where man hits bottom, from which he must rise again in a tentative but defiant expression of faith? Isn’t McCarthy’s absorption with language itself an idealistic profession, finding solace in a human creation against the void?

I confess that I have never been able to make up my mind about McCarthy, and perhaps the readers of A Commonplace Blog have some ideas. If he is merely the dazzling chronicler of man’s lack, he does not meet the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will. But if the bleakness of his narrative landscapes is not the human end but the point of its necessary renewal, well, then, Cormac McCarthy deserves a Nobel Prize just as much as Samuel Beckett did.


Meytal Radzinski said...

I've only read Blood Meridian so I can't really say much about McCarthy as a writer on the whole, but I would say, "No". Not because I don't like McCarthy's writing, but because I think that the idealism McCarthy presents isn't really... hmm. Can't explain it very well.

It's just that I compare McCarthy to other writers I've read who have won the Nobel. And though he's good, and even though it was one of the slowest reads I've ever had Blood Meridian ended brilliantly, I feel that McCarthy is worthy of accolades and awards... but not necessarily the Nobel. Especially if it's defined by that trickily phrased "idealistic tendency".

Unknown said...

I had the impression from "No Country for Old Men" and "The Road", that it's the loss of idealism that the author misses. The protagonist from "No Country for Old Men" seems to be lost in the new world where the violent are the ones who win and even children are easily corrupt by money. He seems to regret simple values and enjoyments of the pasts that are lost forever. In "The Road" it seems like the father and son are the only few left who try to hold on to their bond of love and resist greed. It's like the author is sending a message that we have to remember the basic values we once held as the most important before we forget them completely and there is a point of no return.

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks both of you! Two brilliant comments. I agree with you both, even though you contradict each other.

I’m still no closer to making up my mind, but I am beginning to wonder if the division and contradiction the two of you put on display—not confusion, mind you, but uncertainty—is not the ultimate case for McCarthy.

Kevin said...

A case for C. McCarthy and idealism can start with the role of story-telling itself, in organizing one’s metaphysical impulse (The Crossing), or the role of the blind and very often cruel pursuit of something unnamable, say, a vague and inarticulate ideal (most of his novels), or his bold engagement with ideas, typologies, and conventions of past great writers, such as Melville and Blake (Blood Meridian), or the role of an Old Testament conceit that is overlaid on a psychopath, the “Yahwehization” of Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), or the role of truth, beauty, and justice—mere surface phenomena, but not less desirable for that—in a world convulsing with violence (most of his novels), or the role of love in a world gone apocalyptic (The Road). Regards, Kevin

Anonymous said...

I've only read "The Road" so that is the only point I can respond on. The book, to me, was a stunning example of idealism. While the landscape and, in many instances, life was bleak and desperate the hope of love, the ideal of preserving it and the life of a loved one is something too often looked upon as superficial and easy amidst the contemporary landscape. It was about survival.

The very notion that it ended the way it did was a brilliant salute to hope itself when I could have sworn no opportunity within the book existed for such. Is there any ideal higher and more profound than clinging to hope when it is far saner to despair?

tolmsted said...

Despite being a huge McCarthy fan (and having read most of his books, though not all) I'd be surprised if he were ever to win the Nobel. I think he is too similar to William Faulkner in terms of style, themes and settings. Yes, he is a more saturated, darker, denser version - but his work is built on the same foundation. I think McCarthy winning the Nobel would be repetitive (and disappointing).

Anyway, the current trend - at least for the last few years - seems to be that the Nobel goes to more politically motivated authors. I doubt anyone would try to argue that McCarthy falls into that category.

Unknown said...

If I had only read The Road, I'd defintiely say that he deserves the prize for preserving the cause of idealsm. One of the most important parts of the book is how the boy needs to "carry the fire." He's carryinbg the torch of human exstence and preservering despite the stark or depressing world around him. That image is like the leaf on Beckett's tree during the second act of Waiting for Godot. Its a small token that there is hope in any situation. However, I have also read his plays The Stonemasons and The Sunset Limited. And I have to say, I have NEVER been quite as depressed by something as when I read the Sunset Limited. The idealism presented by Black is so shattered by the end of the play that the faith he spent his entire life building is instantly as crumpled as the position he ends up in: clutching the doorframe trying to understand why God would send someone like that to him. The Stonemason's isn't much more cheerful, but the piece is so meditative of the foundations of our soul, that it didn't strike me down QUITE as deeply. In a word, Cormac McCarthy is depressing. But there is a small strain of Idealism that you can trace through at least some of his works.