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I've been skimming around in Pascal for Bishop purposes, but suspect he's even more relevant to Cormac McCarthy than to her, who's anyway covertly refuting him (Dickinson also seems to have used some of his Thoughts for target practice). Pascal builds up to the Wager by making the case that we're estranged from both the physical and mental/spiritual worlds by our very hybridity, hence seek to keep ourselves busy to forget this essential homelessness. We're a specific mind shackled to a specific chunk of flesh, so can only know the local part of the physical world (which isn't much), and are restrained from knowledge of the spiritual world because the physical stands in front of it. He thus praises both dance and gambling as highly rational forms of useless distraction - the first, one assumes, for being a repeated sequence of movements that exactly absorb one's attention while doing them, thus expertly killing some set amount of time. But he concentrates especially on gambling, since without something at stake such games retain little interest, but with it they can be played all day and all night in a state of absorbed excitement. With gambling the body's appeased because something's happening, the mind because there's a rational goal, an improved rest state, being pursued. If you lose at least you were doing something (body appeased), if you win then you have what you want (mind appeased); but of course you will then want more (mind restless again) and will thus be sitting there (body restless again). You can keep playing to try to win more, of course, but if you play indefinitely you will eventually lose all your money, along with whatever else that makes you lose that would stop future playing. The ideal wager thus takes your entire lifetime to complete, and even if you don't win (God has not elected you, say, or proves not to exist) your body (via works) and mind (via faith) have stayed entirely occupied, which is the best one can expect in this world where we don't fit in.

The famous "they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber" passage that's responded to equivocally in Bishop's "Questions of Travel" (as well as by Thoreau and by Kafka), along with some others contextualizing it, is accepted as just by McCarthy, I think:

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

Hence it comes that men so much love noise and stir; hence it comes that the prison is so horrible a punishment; hence it comes that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible. And it is, in fact, the greatest source of happiness in the condition of kings that men try incessantly to divert them and to procure for them all kinds of pleasures.

And thus, when we take the exception against them, that what they seek with such fervour cannot satisfy them, if they replied--as they should do if they considered the matter thoroughly--that they sought in it only a violent and impetuous occupation which turned their thoughts from self, and that they therefore chose an attractive object to charm and ardently attract them, they would leave their opponents without a reply. But they do not make this reply, because they do not know themselves. They do not know that it is the chase, and not the quarry, which they seek.

They have a secret instinct which impels them to seek amusement and occupation abroad, and which arises from the sense of their constant unhappiness. They have another secret instinct, a remnant of the greatness of our original nature, which teaches them that happiness in reality consists only in rest and not in stir. And of these two contrary instincts they form within themselves a confused idea, which hides itself from their view in the depths of their soul, inciting them to aim at rest through excitement, and always to fancy that the satisfaction which they have not will come to them, if, by surmounting whatever difficulties confront them, they can thereby open the door to rest.

Thus passes away all man's life. Men seek rest in a struggle against difficulties; and when they have conquered these, rest becomes insufferable. For we think either of the misfortunes we have or of those which threaten us. And even if we should see ourselves sufficiently sheltered on all sides, weariness of its own accord would not fail to arise from the depths of the heart wherein it has its natural roots and to fill the mind with its poison.

McCarthy sometimes accepts a version of Thoreau's retort to this ("You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns."), where absorbing oneself within the very world of things that absorbs us removes the poison of too much leisure without replacing it with frantic or useless activity. In Thoreau this is the re-naturalization of thought, but McCarthy worries that you can't do this voluntarily but only under threat of death, which at one time was quite readily provided by how easy it was to starve, freeze, drown, be murdered, be eaten by animals if you didn't work hard to prevent all these. Nature was both the threat and the solution; your worries would scarcely resemble those of Pascal's bored, hare-hunting, card-playing king. He likely gets this from Heart of Darkness, where, crazy as it sounds, leisure is the problem. The page or so detailing Marlow's wrestling match with the Congo is the true answer to Kurtz: navigate the world's terrors and there's no time for horror - and nothing to turn you against those navigating them at your side. The pointlessness of life is occluded by the acute need to survive.

But it's hard to stay struggling forever (though nice work if you can keep it, is the argument of Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes). McCarthy's cowboys yearn for adventure because they're no longer quite starving thus no longer quite needed. Cole quests into Mexico to recapture the subsistence cowboying of the recent past. Billy seeks justice, which is the sort of demand you only make on the world when you have slightly too much time on your hands. Neither quest succeeds, because our skillset's designed to treat the chronic disease of life-in-want, not to cure it and not to reinfect ourselves with it. Try to do either and we'll screw it up, as well as attracting the attention of a certain predatory class of persons no country is free of, who know those out of place are easy prey.

This class is that of his wagerers, best represented by the Blood Meridian company. McCarthy identifies a second solution to the trouble Pascal's gamblers run into: you don't need to wager your lifetime when you can wager your life. Keep doing the latter over and over and you'll never be bored - it's a currency you by definition can't run out of, since you disappear along with it. What game exists that lets you put your life at stake? War, if you can accept the lives and pain of others as winnings - which, since confronting one's absurd status here is intolerable, one has an incentive to do.

The kid comes to have trouble with this (leading him into many tormenting revelations of how it is wrong for us to be here), but can't think of an alternative (I think the mummified priestess represents the now-lost alternative, tribes working in concert to survive, who were murdered by tribes that had survived too well, then become tormented by objectless thinking, then accepted the wager). The judge is more of a bookie or referee - he approves of the contests, holds onto the stakes, decides the winners.

The judge gets to reclaim the kid because he kills the teenager who demands a one-to-one contest, I think we're to understand. As the judge says, even children know that if winning doesn't matter the game does not - letting the teenager dominate him makes life seem empty, because the kid has accepted the wager and its terms. My belief that "I am better than you," the basis of the civilization of "the West," falls apart if I don't kill you when you assert it. The secular election of not being dead yet despite direct matches of one's strength (or cunning, or reflexes, or popularity, or wealth) against another's only feels real if one could have been destroyed, and the reality of that risk - short of one's own death, which proves nothing to the one dead - can only be proved if that other can be destroyed too. And since Pascal's election (since Catholic work and luck may also elect - the luck of being able to work, the hard work of siezing lucky openings) is forever uncertain the secular version wins.

Kindness and love are presumably defeated (or nonstarters) because when fighting for those one doesn't win back the same currency one stakes, which is the only self-evidently real one. The hypothetical hero would need to not value their own life highly against another life, and people just aren't like that, though McCarthy argues that we non-predators need to think someone out there might be to avoid instant despair ... while we look for that ranch where starvation's kept barely at bay. Maybe the point of The Crossing's end is that in old age we'll find that anyway, or its equivalent. The nurturing feminine will be relevant then, like it was in childhood, but in the middle such priestesses cannot be found.

I'm not getting into the problems with this, just how McCarthy's overall plan seems to me to track and then swerve from Pascal's, and how this is often reflected in his characters, their language, their environment - which, as in many literary fictions, tend to be concealed meta-commentary on the story wherever they don't advance it. Characters see the same symbols we do, they're just mostly baffled by them and move on. As do we, of course, mostly. If they didn't they'd figure out their own story and end it; if we didn't we'd have little reason to stick around to the end. Maybe the reader has to not know what's at stake for herself, since that leaves open the possibility that it's Everything, the only stakes sufficient against ennui. But that's to submit to this logic, this model of life. Not even McCarthy quite does that - like the kid, he's just never quite able to say why he hasn't.

Date: 2017-01-06 03:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Love this. McCarthy seems to agree with you in what he says about what real literature is and why he doesn't like certain writers. Why he disses Proust and Henry James. Life and death hanging in the balance of a story's stakes seem to be the only ones he cares about.

Date: 2017-01-12 03:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Was thinking of that interview too. For those of us who don't reject them it suggests James and Proust know how to answer the judge where the kid, and McCarthy, do not.

Date: 2017-01-11 11:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The coin toss in Not Country. I don't recall if you've seen this:

Not what you're talking about so amazingly well here, but not that many degrees of separation distant.

(And here's a bit of my thinking about, use of Ainslie's thinking about, gambling: )

Date: 2017-01-12 03:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Jeez. No, that's pretty much the exact same thing. Could I even have not read these? They certainly bring together a lot else that you've said.

Though I suspect if I'd read your summary and literary reapplication of Ainslie's argument I'd remember, since it pretty exactly, and painfully, describes why reading caught me and why nothing else ever could. ADHD = forced, constant hyperbolic discounting. Those of its sufferers who can sit still long enough to read often only read (or watch, where watching's made enough like reading). And not really for escape, unlike the anxious, but because it's the realest thing available when the local present's been drained of future. Writing packs a specific-seeming future into the present.

I hope these thoughts of yours made, or make, a splash somewhere, as they deserve to.


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