The principles of Anton Chigurh
We just finished reading McCarthy’s _No Country for Old Men_ in one of my classes. (Yes, believe it or not, I do use some other books from time to time that were not written by him…).
Something very troubling happens every time we read this book.
Inevitably, there are students—not a majority, certainly, but more than I’m comfortable with—who come away admiring Anton Chigurh. If you don’t know the book or the film, Chigurh (above, in the film based on the novel) is a psychopathic killer involved in the international drug trade who enjoys watching the faces of people he has shot in order to see the moment they die. In a scene early in the book (famously interpreted in the film with Javier Bardem doing Chigurh’s malevolence great justice), he gets irritated with a gas station attendant in a rural Texas town and forces him to call a coin flip that will decide whether or not Chigurh murders him.
It is abundantly clear in the novel that Chigurh is the very incarnation of soulless evil. McCarthy does not make this character at all an object of moral uncertainty for the reader.
Chigurh operates according to one principle: survive. And in the trade he’s in, a second principle follows from that one: kill everyone who comes into significant contact with you, whenever possible, in order to prevent them potentially gaining any advantage on you that might lead to your own imprisonment or death.
Many who have seen the film but not read the novel think Llewelyn Moss, the Vietnam vet who finds a satchel full of money at a corpse-littered drug deal gone bad and is relentlessly pursued by Chigurh and other bad guys, is McCarthy’s main character. But he’s not.
The main action in the novel concerns the moral difference between Chigurh and the emerging world he represents, on the one hand, and Sheriff Bell and the dying one he represents, on the other. McCarthy is clearly troubled by the same cultural development that concerns Bell—the move from a world in which simple morality bound us all together to one in which alienated chaos, demonic violence, and the war of all against all dominates.
I admit I am distressed by the students who admire Chigurh for his commitment to principle. Some of the same students who express that sentiment believe the Sheriff is unprincipled because of what is revealed about him late in the novel. Bell has a long conversation with his uncle in which he expresses his long-festering sense of living a lie because he was awarded a combat medal in WWII for single-handedly defending a position against German troops. He should not have lived to receive the medal, he believes, for he should have chosen to die with his fallen comrades there instead of escaping German fire under cover of darkness.
The students miss the point of this part of the novel. It is precisely in doubting his own moral purity, in comparing himself to the most rigorous of standards, that Bell proves his moral character. All the saints can be distinguished by their own doubts about their own sainthood.
Chigurh adheres to principle, but it is a principle wholly alien to morality and to human compassion. To follow rules rigorously cannot be a moral good if the rules followed are corrupt.
I asked students this week, after the claim about Chigurh’s principle came up yet again, to think about the Nazi guard in one of the death camps who follows camp policy rigorously, fastidiously, perfectly. Is he admirable for that commitment? He certainly is not admirable. He is a monster.
I said to them: how is Chigurh different from that guard in his adherence to principle?
I do hope they got the point. Pluralistic interpretations of literary works be damned: I have failed if a student comes before me not knowing that Chigurh is a monster and I cannot convince him of the fact.