112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Problem with Morality: Nietzsche, Yeats, McCarthy, and the Primal Nature

Stephan Almendinger, California State University, Northridge

This paper examines confrontations of morality and human nature in Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman, the rough beast of W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” and the alabaster creature in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Each author concludes that subservience to morality and fear of consequence fail to overcome primal, evil natures; to do so, humanity must face its natures with honesty and endure with ardent responsibility.


When Friedrich Nietzsche taught us the superman, he described man as a rope fastened between animal and superman, a rope suspended over an abyss. The journey across is dangerous forward, backward, wayfaring, and still. The arrival of W. B. Yeats’s “rough beast” in “The Second Coming” arrives on a widening gyre, a divergence of poles, amid darkness and nightmare. As that rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem, Cormac McCarthy’s creature of alabaster bones and sightless eyes of The Road who lopes into the darkness of a deep cave that toll with the passing hours and days and years without cease. Each of these three creatures spawn from moral exigence: the superman is man’s escape from his animal nature, the rough beast is the image of a failing center, and the loping alabaster creature is a portent of the world to be inherited. All three recognize a deadly, primal nature in man that must be overcome. Morality facilitates each idea by either mastering or abolishing shame. The superman holds himself to his own morality, as criminal and lawgiver; the rough beast is summoned in an inevitable loss of innocence and ensuing blood-dimmed tide; the alabaster creature, whose brain is estranged from its heart, lopes blindly in a dark, primeval world. These creatures hold human nature on trial, with Western and Christian morality as key witness. In each of these instances, their authors attempt to confront the use of morality—as well as amorality—to scrutinize human nature.

            The three authors’ writings span several centuries combined, but each contends with similar concerns on human nature, and the ability of Western morality to discipline it. I connect the three authors directly: Nietzsche’s idealism of the superman, Yeats’ inevitable and eternal cycles of antitheses, and McCarthy’s hellish world of emaciated morality. The conclusion appears to be that subservience to morality and sin—living in fear of consequence—is not enough for humanity to persevere. This paper anticipates the presence of both theistic and atheistic Existentialism by examining the nature of faith in the three authors and their respective works. This paper also demonstrates how each of the authors’ ideas necessitates ardent responsibility and passionate desire as a means of overcoming dark human natures. I explore the symbolic relationships among the superman, rough beast, and alabaster creature, compare their respective authors, and posit that these ideas not only question the effect of morality in Western and Christian traditions, but also establish a necessity to confront those moral traditions in order to overcome the primal human. The primal human refers to “base” acts and “sinful” urges—murder, rape, shaming. Ultimately, this paper investigates how the three authors unveil uncomfortable truths of human nature and human capability, confronting these truths with unwavering, passionate honesty.