In that interview, we’re back with my Writer buddy/mentor Noir Master Les Edgerton holding forth on a wide range of matters, and he got me thinking (He’s always getting me thinking.) about evil.
If you’re talking about Les these days, you’re talking Noir, and if you’re talking Noir, you’re talking evil. Actually, without evil, there’s no story of any kind anywhere, but in Noir, it has a special place. Part of the interview concerns Cormac McCarthy’s instant classic No Country for Old Men and the nature of its villain, Anton Chigurh. Les says that analyzing Chigurh or any criminal comes down to one element: control. There’s more to the discussion than that of course, and Les knows what he’s talking about when it comes to describing the root of criminal behavior, but when it comes to the concept of evil in literature and western society, I think there’s another perspective to consider.
Vast forests have been clear-cut–especially post-Freud–parsing the motives of nasty literary characters from Iago and Richard III to Anton Chiguire. But consider this: Maybe these people/characters are bad because they are bad.
In the Medieval morality play, which tradition informed Shakespeare’s writing and that of his audiences, the devil wore a mask or horns or carried a pitchfork, and you knew right away that he was going to do something bad. Why? Because he was the the devil, and devils do evil. So Iago didn’t need a psychological reason to mess with Othello or use Amelia to do it. He was just bent that way from the beginning. Go back to the Old Testament, to that conversation between God and Beelzebub. “Whence comest thou?” says God. “From going too and fro upon the earth and walking up and down in it,” answers the Devil. And they prepare a little drama to test Job’s faith. Why does the devil agree? Well, partly to best the Master, of course, but mostly because it’s his nature. If it wasn’t Job, he’d be doing somebody else. Like the serpent says to the lady in that song:
“You knew I was a snake before you let me in.”
And back to more modern times. Les talks about Faulkner as a Noir writer. I’ve thought of him for a long time as an extremely moral tale-teller, and my central example is the Snopes family. They keep turning up, and every time they do, they kill, exploit, ruin, or just plain trash whatever territory they occupy of people they relate to. If you want to do a symbolic analysis, you could tag them as emblematic of evil in Southern Society or in any society. But if you want to be moral, be pre-Freudian about it, you can look at them as original sin incarnate. Nothing complicated about it. Some people are just plain that way. Like maybe Jake Mayes in a couple of Les’s Novels–Just Like That, and The Bitch. They may want to go straight, but it’s just not in them. What’s in them is the other thing, and there’s nothing therapy or literary criticism or even the blood of the lamb can do about it. And to me, that’s who Anton Chigurh is. And it’s him in comparison with that splendid speech that closes No Country For Old Men that makes humanity possible even in the presence of Iago and Richard III and Beelzebub and Anton Chigure.
I had two dreams about him after he died. I dont remember the first one all that well but it was about meetin him in town somewheres and he give me some money and I think I lost it. But the second one 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 nothin. 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.