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Barth and the “No Country”

Today’s post at the KBBC on Barth in dialogue with the Coen Brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men has been a real treat. It seems to me that this dialogue which has been helpfully rendered by Coutts serves, among other purposes, to show us the utter radicality of Barth’s understanding of salvation. The film mercilessly and starkly portrays the utter ferocity and ubiquity of evil in the world. There is, ultimately no country for old men, or for anyone. Barth, I think, would agree with this. The “no country” is indeed all that there is for the old man, for humanity as it is. The sheer banality and ferocity of evil in this world is, quite simply, something with which we cannot deal. There is no way to deal with it, to, as it were, “have dealings” with it in such a way is to make life come out even marginally ok. There simply is no country there that can be had, only a wasteland.

Thus hope, if there is to be hope can only be hope for a new world that in no way could have been inferred, unfolded, or derived from the old. If there is to be redemption it can only the redemption that is new creation in the most fundamental sense. As such it makes perfect sense that the Coen brothers would refrain from including anything “redemptive” in their account. For any such redemption would be but a falsifying of the radicality of the problem which is that we all inhabit the “no country” of death. Any redemption that might come to us, that might bring us into a new country, or as Psalm 66 has it “into a wide open place” can only come from beyond, from a resurrection beyond death, a resumption beyond rupture.

In a sense, as has been discussed in the comments of the original post, one might argue that Carla Jean could be construed as a Christ-figure, but I think we can only say this in the strict sense that her death, refuses to “deal” with the evil that is Chigurh but rather manifests a sort of independence over against the determination his power seeks to impose on her. In that she does somewhat image Christ’s death, or perhaps better, a martyr’s death.

What the Coen brothers so rightly withhold from us is any image of resurrection. If there is to be a resurrection, an irruption of new creation beyond the “no country” we have, it can only come from beyond the story that the movie (and the world) is. This seems to get at the profound truth that the resurrection cannot be inferred from anything immanent within the course of the story that is the world.

Another angle on the matter would be to suggest that the story told in No Country for Old Men articulates, in the most profound way possible, the reality of Holy Saturday. As Alan Lewis puts it, Holy Saturday, is not the day before the resurrection in the disciples’ original experience of the event, rather it is nothing, a void, “the day after the end.” That is precisely the reality of the world which No Country for Old Men so starkly presents. There is no assurance that a resurrection is coming, and no reason to think there should be. If there is to be a resurrection it can only be an absolute and utter miracle that explodes and dissolves the whole reality that is the “no country”.

Precisely by eliminating redemption from the film, the Coen brothers have demanded that we think redemption in the most radical and truthful way possible—if we can bear to do so, wagering on a word of hope that hangs in the air and defies us the moral and religious certainty we so deeply crave.

28 Comments

  1. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    A friend of mine who didn’t warm up to the film at first ended up liking the film and likened the film to the book of Judges. Everyone flails about attempting to do what they consider to be the right thing but the evil and death just continues to pile on. Judges intervene but themselves end up perpetuating the problems they seek to remedy.

    Random, I know, but a friend just showed me Mad Max and it struck me that Max’s character arc is mostly the same as the downward trajectory Harvey Dent takes in The Dark Knight, except that it’s more of a tragic arc because Gibson’s Max KNOWS he’s just a few steps away from becoming the Night Rider himself yet paradoxically presented as a more sympathetic journey (we’re supposed to root for Mad Max whereas Dent’s becoming Two-Face is obviously his choosing the wrong path).

    No Country was an amazing film. Coens+Jones would have equalled awesome in my book probably no matter what.

    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Nathan Smith wrote:

    I found the violent anti-climax to be an interesting way to end the film. The protagonist dying off-screen might be the ultimate testimony to the banality of violence.

    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Myles wrote:

    Where I see radical departure between Barth and the Coens, though, is that for Barth, resurrection is not ‘proved’ or ‘witnessed’ directly, but irrupts the world in precisely creaturely ways. The Coens deferral of resurrection seems to speak to the otherness of creation, but for Barth, while the resurrection is other, in that resurrection has no ‘historical’ correlate, it yet is, in that it happens in time and space, which all are familiar with (though, again, resurrection reconfigures even these devices).

    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  4. ken oakes wrote:

    Certainly the early Barth preferred ‘secular’ histories, philosophies, and arts more than to quasi-religious ones (as a matter of purification), but i think that the overall logic of this post runs in a law-gospel direction rather than a gospel-law. There’s a sometimes quoted letter from an older Barth to a younger correspondent in which Barth discusses what he expects of a novelist (wish I could provide more reference than this) and the general gist is that Barth expected the novelist to show ‘humanity as it is,’ which I think resonances well with the Coen and their love of just a good story.

    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  5. Skip Newby wrote:

    Halden,
    the vastness of death in this world can at times seem overwhelming no doubt. But when speaking of the Resurrection, shouldn’t we keep in mind, the ‘then and now’ aspects of it? If we haven’t participated in Christ’s death, and resurrection to life (Gal.2:20 and others), then why live answering a call to be the ongoing narrative of the Incarnation? Or, am I missing your point?

    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Skip, I think for me (and what I’m seeing in Barth) is that our participation in the Resurrection “here and now” is always and only by faith. It is faith precisely in that it is not just “there” on the surface of history to be known and possessed. Rather it is, in a very real sense, invisible. I do believe that the reality of eternity-life does indeed irrupt into the world in Jesus’s Resurrection, overturning death and proclaiming the coming of a new world of liberation and love, but that’s exactly the point: I believe it, only by faith, a faith in that which is unseen. From a human point of view, as Paul would say.

    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  7. dan wrote:

    I don’t think I agree with Brad’s suggestion that the novel is more hopeful than the film. It’s been awhile since I read No Country but I’ve now read most of McCarthy’s writings and, if I recall correctly, it fits within the trajectory of his consistent portrayal of a world in which things like hope (or “right” and “wrong”) are nonsensical (a la Wittgenstein). What McCarthy offers us, in everything from Child of God, to Outer Dark, to Suttree, to Blood Meridian, to No Country for Old Men, is a world wherein violence is simply a part of the way things are. Violence is not good. Violence is not bad. It simply is. There is no moral compass to evaluate it and, therefore, there are no grounds upon which anything resembling “hope” can be construed.

    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 10:05 pm | Permalink
  8. Brad E. wrote:

    Hey Dan,

    I’d be interested to hear further from you on the book, because I’m open to being wrong. The one thing missing from the film is the regular sections in the book when Ed Tom speaks directly to the reader, establishing a kind of conversational “normal” world of familial ties, loyalties, justice, earthy morality, etc. It still reflects the overall ethos of the novel — and he’s constantly reflecting on awful realities — but it grounds and personalizes the story in a way the film, in its distance and impersonality, does not.

    Moreover, I think McCarthy’s works do, actually, become relatively more hopeful over time. Blood Meridian is brutal, but the Border Trilogy, while ending tragically, is populated by youthful, honest, hard-working, well-meaning, faithful teenage boys who want to do right and aren’t naturally inclined to violence. In terms of main characters, the father and son of The Road as no different, nor is Ed Tom (and even Llewelyn in his way). So in that sense — over against, say, The Kid in BM — there is a lighter and less nihilistic, all-consuming vision.

    Finally, I think McCarthy is so compelling precisely because he places his characters in a world where it seems like right and wrong really are nonsensical — but, at least in the latter novels, they just keep on doing right by their families and loved ones. Those kinds of stories are less about nihilism than about the endurance of hope in a world gone mad.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 4:44 am | Permalink
  9. dan wrote:

    Hey Brad,

    I don’t have my copy of No Country at hand but I would suggest that the personal reflections of Ed Tom may be a tool McCarthy employs to sort of trick his reader into thinking that there may, in fact, be grounds for hope (or morality) when, in fact, there are not. Here, the form diverts the reader from the content.

    If I could compare this to Blood Meridian, I’ll refer you to Amy Hungerford’s recent Open Yale Lectures about that book (cf. http://biblioklept.org/2010/09/29/blood-meridian-the-open-yale-lectures/ ). What Hungerford demonstrates is that, in BM, McCarthy employs certain literary tricks in order to deceive the less cautious reader into thinking there is a basis for morality or moral discernment in that book (making the kid appear as if he is “good” when compared to the “evil” of the Judge, writing in a way that appeals to biblical literary styles, and so on). However, when you look at the actual content of what is going on, McCarthy takes away any possibility of making moral judgments within the world of that story.

    What I’m wondering is if the personal reflections of Ed Tom function in a similar way in No Country — perhaps a certain style of writing is employed to divert us from the (hopeless, amoral) content of the story (I would need to go back and reexamine the book to see if this hypothesis is sustainable).

    I also wonder the same about the other later works of McCarthy, like The Road. Although the tone of these novels is simpler — even gentler — I’m not convinced that the amorality of it all is any less pronounced. Sure, the man looks after the boy but this need not be interpreted as a “good” or “hopeful” action. If anything, perhaps McCarthy has slightly shifted his perspective from a focus upon meaningless violence to a focus on meaningless love. Either way, people just do what they do (eat others, try to protect their kids, whatever) but there is no reason for hope in any of it. Thus, it still seems to me that hope is an alien intrusion into the universe McCarthy has created (although I’m very open to being wrong about this).

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  10. Brad E. wrote:

    Dan,

    Thanks for your helpful response. I would love to talk to a McCarthy scholar about this, because I agree with everything you are saying — right up to All the Pretty Horses. With the five works of the Border Trilogy plus No Country and The Road, McCarthy seems — possibly in conjunction with his elevated status, stabilized family life, and birth of his son — to have “mellowed out.” In my view, this mellowing isn’t a rebuttal or forsaking of his former work: but it does seem like a new direction.

    From what I can tell, Ed Tom really is a “good man” in NCFOM; and in the midst of cannibalism, darkness, silence, and the cold of The Road, the love and loyalty of father and son is no illusion. Furthermore, unlike The Kid in BM (or the wild and crazy characters before that), John Grady and Billy are honorable men who fall in love, extend kindness to the stranger, do right by their neighbors, and care for their families. And, importantly, they are not prone to violence. In those books the violence “strikes like lightning” (as one of the back covers says) — that is, it is not internal to the characters’ nature, but an intrusion into their world.

    Now, the point may still be that they are archaic, or don’t belong to the world in which they find themselves, or live an illusory life in a godforsaken world of meaningless violence — but after five books of these sorts of characters, it’s hard to shake the feeling that for McCarty, even if the world is godless, violence, and awful, these men yet remain as “the sane,” those who were broken by the cosmos but nevertheless model the fact that we all ought to live in such a way that the universe defeats us.

    Anyway, further thoughts.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  11. mshedden wrote:

    Hey Halden,
    Doesn’t what you referring to run the risk of making the resurrection only a cosmic event? As you know I am not that far into Barth but I would imagine he says the consummation only comes in the future but the reconciliation is somehow real now. I would be interested in hearing you say more about this.
    Since this is also on the topic of Barth I was wondering what your thoughts are on the new book you are publishing at Wipf and Stock: Christian Ethics as Witness: Karl Barth and Postmodernity.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  12. dan wrote:

    Brad,

    Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the love and loyalty that we see in some characters is illusory. I’m just saying that I see no grounds, within McCarthy’s writings, to say that those characteristics (and the people who exhibit them) are any “better” than, say, the violence exhibited by characters like the Judge or Chigurh. Yes, some are loyal, some are not. Some are more protective and some are more predatory. Some are more attractive and some are less so. But there is nothing in all this that suggests to me that some are “good” and some are “bad.” Whatever moral or hope-directed judgments we make about these things, seems to be something we bring to the texts as readers, not something we find waiting for us there.

    (Although maybe the Border Trilogy will ruin my theory. I’m only just starting into it now after having finished all the stand-alone novels.)

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    I agree that the reconciliation brought about by the cross is a reality now, but it is only named, recieved, and proclaimed as such by faith. Outside of faith the world simply runs its course and there is no reason to think otherwise. Or, put differently, when Paul says we walk by faith and not sight, I think we need to take that seriously. The new creation, which is a reality breaking into and transfiguring the world now by the Spirit’s ever anew re-presentation of Christ’s resurrection is not something we can “see”, it is only something that we can confess and receive in faith.

    Re: the book you mention by David Haddorf, I actually worked on that project and I highly recommend it. I will be posting on it soon, actually.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  14. mshedden wrote:

    Thanks or responding. I guess it might depend on what type of reality faith is now. I think we agree that it is the promise of things hoped for but might need to further look at “being certain of what we do not see.”
    I’ll forward to your thoughts on the book as I have inner fight over if my wife will kill for buying it.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    I’d be curious to know how miracles, performed both by Christ and the apostles, and the physical reality of the resurrection itself, figure in to this description. There are ultimately contestable historical facts which may before us matters of “faith” (in the sense that any history is a matter of faith except to the eyewitness), but presumably being cured of one’s literal blindness or being raised from the dead would not require faith, at least not the kind you are describing.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    I don’t see why miracles do not require faith. It is by faith that we claim and witness to them as unique acts of God. For example in a miraculous healing all we can say as a matter of “fact”, whether we are eyewitnesses or not is that this person who was once sick is now well. We can name that healing as a miraculous intervention of God only by faith, that is, in light of God revealing himself as indeed active in that event.

    To be sure miracles may seems to be some sort of proof that make faith unnecessary, but I really don’t think this is so. The very act of naming something as a miracle is an act of faith, on my view.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  17. Tim McGee wrote:

    Perhaps you mean to say outside of faith the world simply “appears” to run its course. Even that I think needs to be qualified.

    If all creation has been caught up in the salvific life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and if the world has been truly altered, and if our lives are now bifurcated between the old and the new (what Barth calls our “twofold” lives, Paul the flesh and the spirit), and if the Spirit is at work in this world, then (1) we should expect that even those without faith catch glimpses of this world and (2) that it is possible for them to see redemption more clearly than we do.

    For instance, I think F. Fanon’s _Black Skin, White Masks_ elucidates the possibility and form of redemption far better than many Christian theologians; and Fanon of course opposed Christianity.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 4:14 am | Permalink
  18. Mark Bowald wrote:

    Carla Jean refuses to call the coin flip in the film. In the novel she does call it, almost immediately upon being asked to by Chigurh and being told that this was her “last chance.” (pg. 258) She calls heads and it comes up tails. Then ensues her challenges to his “logic” and pleading to change his mind. Most of this subsequent dialogue in the novel appears in the film. This is one of two key departure points for the Coen Bros. in this scene. The other is that the book describes Chigurh as shooting her and in the film we do not see or hear any shooting, the shot moves to an objective still perspective across the street. We see two children on bikes ride by, and Chigurh exiting the house, stopping to check the bottom of his boots. A seemingly innocent enough moment if one were a neighbour sitting on a porch. But we know what this means. Brilliant adaptation of the novel at this point.

    Much has been made about Carla Jean’s refusal in the film here and elsewhere in the blogosphere. Whatever interpretive weight one places on her refusal in the film suggests, in turn, that we need to see this as a point of departure between McCarthy and the Coens. (and be careful about how we employ our readings of the film back into McCarthy’s work)

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Good points, Mark, thanks.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    Yes, that is what I mean. Moreover I view faith precisely as the eschatological irruption of the Spirit which indeed can manifest itself anywhere in anyone (“the Spirit blows where it wills and we know not where it comes from or where it goes” as John’s gospel puts it).

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 7:20 am | Permalink
  21. Brad E. wrote:

    Agreed — this is helpful. I had forgotten about Carla Jean calling it in the book.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  22. @Mark…

    “You don’t have to do this,” Pussy says when Tony asks for a gun so he can kill the guy himself. “I wanna do this,” Tony replies.


    “Christ figures?”

    When Judas embraces Jesus in the garden Jesus whispers to him, “you don’t have to do this.” When Jesus stands next to Pilate before the crowd he pleads with Pilate, “you don’t have to do this.” When the crowd chooses to free Barabbas instead of Jesus, Jesus calls to them, “you don’t have to do this!” When the soldiers began nailing his hands to the cross Jesus entreats of them, “you don’t have to do this.” As the sky darkens and the light and life drain from his body Jesus cries to his Father, “you don’t have to do this.”

    Cameron Dabaghi, the 21-year-old who took his life by leaping from the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building on Tuesday, left a suicide note in Connecticut. In it, he apologized…, and said he’d be jumping off the George Washington Bridge or the Empire State Building—but he left no explanation….Moments before a security guard tried to talk him down from the 10-foot safety barrier he had climbed; according to the Post, the guard said, “You don’t have to do this!”

    But is it by chance . . . that the meaning of meaning (in the general sense of meaning . . . ) is infinite implication? the unchecked referral of signifier to signifier? If its force is a certain pure and infinite equivocalness, which gives signified meaning no respite, no rest, but engages it within its own economy to go on signifying and to differ/defer? . . . That which is written is never identical to itself. (“Identical to Itself,” Derrida, 1967).
    obliged.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink
  23. Mark Bowald wrote:

    Hi Daniel. I’ve read a lot of Derrida but have never heard of that piece. Where exactly is it published?

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  24. Skip Newby wrote:

    Gottcha, I agree.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  25. Hi Mark, Well…I just made that quote up and was hoping no one would notice (you gotta admit though, it sounds like something JD would write!). Still, whoever said it, it’s usefulness in my comment is not compromised in any way, and JD would agree I think (“The opposition between the true and the untrue is entirely comprehended, inscribed, within this structure of generalized writing. The true and the untrue are both species of repetition.” Dissemination 166). obliged

    Monday, October 18, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  26. Mark Bowald wrote:

    Hi Daniel, Thank you for clearing up that reference. Yes, I agree that what you wrote is faithful to what Derrida wrote. And yes, I agree that Derrida’s lines of thought are largely in agreement with your point. I also agree with your implicit gesture that all those things have weight and significance. All that is left is to recognize the irony. Sincerest best wishes.

    Monday, October 18, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  27. dan wrote:

    Okay, I realize this comment is coming way too late and nobody is probably going to read it. However, I was thinking about this “coin toss” discussion in relation to Chigurh and I came upon the following (anticipatory??) remarks in All the Pretty Horses:

    My father had a great sense of the connectedness of things. I’m not sure I share it. He claimed that the responsibility for a decision could never be abandoned to a blind moral agency but could only be relegated to human decisions more and more remote from their consequences. The example he gave was of a tossed coin that was at one time a slug in a mind and of the coiner who took that slug from the tray and placed it in the die in one of two ways and from whose act all else followed, cara y cruz. No matter through whatever turnings nor how many of them. Till our turn comes at last and our turn passes.

    I think if it were fate that ruled our houses it could perhaps be flattered or reasoned with. But the coiner cannot.

    Sometimes I think we are all like that myopic coiner at his press, taking the blind slugs one by one from the tray, all of us bent at our work, determined that not even chaos be outside of our own making (230-31, 241).

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  28. dan wrote:

    Okay, okay, I’m totally flogging a dead horse, but I came across this passage from The Crossing which furthers my reading of McCarthy:

    He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there. Finally he said that if men drink the blood of God yet they do not understand the seriousness of what they do. He said that men wish to be serious but they do not understand how to be so. Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals God has made go to and fro yet this world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them (45-46).

    Something also worth considering given the nature of Halden’s original post.

    Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

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