Cormac McCarthy: the Latecomer
Cormac McCarthy is a self-styled latecomer to American literature. He writes as if nothing in the literary world has happened since William Faulkner passed, or perhaps since Herman Melville completed Moby Dick. Like most if not all of the central characters in his novels, the authorial image McCarthy projects through his work is that of a solitary stranger in the post-modern world, uninterested in publicity, politics, awards or memoires; he positions himself as the last of the great modernists, a fashioner of myths and a believer in masterpieces. McCarthy resolutely allows his work to speak for itself, and based on the publically available evidence it’s no concern of his whether the public chooses to listen or not.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that McCarthy’s writing has invited charges of fraudulence. For many, there is something immediately suspect about a novelist in the early 21st century writing books that sound more like Moby Dick than like Thomas Pynchon or Don Delillo. However, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell points out, the suspicion of fraudulence is part of the phenomenon of modernism itself, because modernist practice in the arts begins with the acknowledgement that traditional media (e.g., the novel, painting, sculpture, etc.) are no longer capable of guaranteeing or securing (in advance, as it were) the aesthetic validity of particular works of art. In the pre-modernist era, a work that competently manifested the defining conventions of a realist novel would automatically be accepted as an instance of the realist novel considered as a medium. But when the medium of the realist novel can no longer be taken for granted – when this convention no longer has the capacity to compel aesthetic conviction (which means, to generate instances) – a particular work must take upon itself the responsibility of establishing its medium in and out of itself. This is why improvised jazz is a quintessential modernist artistic practice – the distinction between the composition and its performance (and a fortiori between genre and instance) is collapsed.
Several critics have alleged that McCarthy’s version of the Southwestern United States in his Western novels is not quite authentic, even false, as if McCarthy’s project in Blood Meridian or the in Border Trilogy was to compose a documentary description of life on the Texas-Mexico border. I recently read an article in the Guardian arguing that since the rock formations and fauna described in McCarthy’s Texas novels are not found in the particular locations depicted in the books, McCarthy’s entire project is undertaken in bad faith. Others have attacked his allegedly reactionary moral and political stance, based on little more than his commitment to pessimism and his evident distaste for modern urban life. All of this is to be expected, because a writer who creates novels with the texture and quasi-Biblical gravitas of the great imaginative narratives of the past, spurning all traces of irony and self-consciousness, invites the scorn of critics trained in post-modernist skepticism, and tends to divide readers into doubters and true believers. But in my view, this kind of provocation is not so much McCarthy’s choice as it is his fate; all modernist artists are late-comers, and their work is open to charges of fraudulence because it is part of their ambition to produce the genuine article at a time when we no longer know in advance how to distinguish the genuine from the spurious.
Most of the main characters in McCarthy’s novels at least since Suttree (1979) are late-comers – misfits, vagabonds and throwbacks who travel through life with the doomed sense of having arrived too late. The best examples are John Grady Cole and Billy Parham in the Border Trilogy, who travel back and forth between Texas and Mexico in a futile search for a way of life that by the 1930s has been all but completely obliterated by fences, industry, greed and war. The most extreme examples, less convincing in my view, are the anonymous man and his son in The Road, who struggle to maintain their humanity after the human engineers of a nuclear holocaust have apparently destroyed not only civilization but also nature and humanity itself.
But it is a mistake to infer that the late-comer theme in McCarthy’s work implies nostalgia for an earlier time when life was untainted by the scourges of modernity. There are no “noble savages” in these novels, and the Indians described in Blood Meridian are every bit as brutal, rapacious and blood-thirsty as the lawless gang of gringos who patrol the border badlands destroying villages in search of Indian scalps to sell for bounties offered by the Texas and Mexican governments. The structure of time implicit in the late-comer theme emerges in the recurrent descriptions of more or less ancient ruins encountered by the wanderers in McCarthy’s bleak landscapes. These are ruins in the broadest possible sense – petrified or half-buried traces of human or other life forms, and the traces assume an array of manifestations in the novels, including everything from ancient animal fossils encased in stone to pictographs on cave walls, to the destroyed villages and churches, to the ubiquitous presence of recently discarded garbage and trash that litters the Knoxville riverbanks in Suttree.
The theme of the latecomer is reflected in the narrator’s position vis-à-vis what is narrated. Characteristically, McCarthy’s prose is written in the third person, using the simple past tense in the declarative voice. Occupying the same present as the reader, narrator describes what happened. After Suttree (which deploys an interesting array of unannounced shifts in and out of the third and first persons, past and present tense, along with stream-of-consciousness techniques derived from James Joyce’s Ulysses), McCarthy devotes little or no time to describing his characters’ thoughts or feelings or motivations. He does not provide us with any sort of privileged access to his characters’ minds, and thus does not tell us what their actions mean. The significance of the action is to be derived almost exclusively from notoriously spare dialogue (McCarthy’s ear for local dialect is unparalleled) and from intricately detailed description — few writers can match McCarthy’s proficiency in describing the way things and landscapes look and feel and the bodily movements required to move human and animal characters through imagined space or to accomplish simple or complex actions in the world.
The universe in which McCarthy’s characters live and die is overwhelming a physical universe, and those characters are relentlessly embodied, which means: relentlessly subjected to the facts of having a body, of existing in time within a particular place with a particular history, isolated from other bodies, each his and her own, not different but separate; of experiencing passions as suffering; of being misunderstood; and of having the best laid plans go comically or tragically array. In McCarthy’s novels, the embodiedness of the human soul finds its strongest expression in the wounded or maimed body, when the bleeding limb or pierced organ asserts the body’s obduracy, its insistence as an object or thing like others in the physical world; it’s hard to forget McCarthy’s agonizing depictions of bodies slashed by knives, pummeled in barroom brawls, impaled by arrows and torn apart by gunshots. The wounded characters find themselves alone, isolated from others and experiencing the fragility of life under constant threat from malignant forces far beyond the mind’s ability to control. Paraphrasing Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, II.iv), we might say that the wounded human body is the best picture of the solitary human soul.
In such a world dominated by physicality, human action proceeds more or less blindly according to the logic of causality, and is comprehensible only after the fact, by way of its consequences, if at all. Alejandra’s great aunt Alfonsa explains this vision of human action in All the Pretty Horses (pp. 230-231):
If there is a pattern there it will not shape itself to anything these eyes can recognize. Because the question for me is always whether the shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact. Because otherwise we are nothing … My father had a great sense of the connectedness of things … He claimed that responsibility for a decision could never be abandoned to a blind 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 mint 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 that if it were fate that ruled our houses it could perhaps be flattered or reasoned with. But the coiner cannot.
To the extent that human action is opaque to itself and to others in the present, violent conflict invariably ensues, and history is imagined as process of never-ending destruction. In Blood Meridian, the Judge calls it “war”:
These things are known to all the world. The world is construed out of blood and nothing else but blood. Death is the condition of existence and life is but an emanation thereof. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood. Before man was, war waited for him. The idea that man can be understood is an illusion.
In the Judge’s vocabulary, the word “war” refers not only to human conflict, but in a more general sense to the passage of time, time which gives birth and deals death, clearing the ground for new creation. In this sense, time in McCarthy’s novels is not so much historical time as glacial or geological time, an arc the curve of which cannot be measured by any human means and certainly not by rational calculation.
Along the face of the stone bluffs were old pictographs of men and animals and suns and moons as well as other representations that seemed to have no referent in the world although they once may have. He said in the sun and looked out over the country to the east, the broad barranca of the Bavispe and the ensuing Carretas Plain that was once a seafloor and the small pieced fields and the new corn greening in the old lands of the Chichimeca where the priests had passed and soldiers passed and the missions fallen into mud and the ranges of mountains beyond the plain range on range in pales of blue where the terrain lay clawed open north and south, canyon and range, sierra and barranca, all of if waiting like a dream for the world to come to be, world to pass. (The Crossing, p. 135.)
McCarthy is surely concerned with the decay of Western civilization, but it is decay projected over a sense of pastness far greater in scope than the historical change that is initiated by human beings. The result is a picture of human activity that, however dramatic and heroic we might flatter ourselves to imagine, is at the end of the day almost entirely inconsequential. If there is order in the world, it is not an order constructed by or even comprehensible to human beings except as wonder and awe or in dreams when the dreamer seems to verge on or merge with the inhuman.
These themes are characteristically addressed near the end of All the Pretty Horses (p. 280) when John Grady Cole, his dream of pursuing a lost way of life in Mexico having been violently dashed on the shores of waste, betrayal and destruction, lays down to sleep in the desert:
In his sleep he could hear the horses stepping among the rocks and he could hear them drink from the shallow pools in the dark where the rocks lay smooth and rectilinear as the stones of ancient ruins and the water from their muzzles dripped and rang like water dripping in a well and in his sleep he dreamt of horses and the horses in his dream moved gravely among the tilted stones like horses come upon an antique site where some ordering of the world had failed and if anything had been written on the stones the weathers had taken it away again and the horses were wary and moved with great circumspection carrying in their blood as they did the recollection of this and other places where horses once had been and would be again. Finally what he saw in his dream was that the order in the horse’s heart was more durable for it was written in a place where no rain could erase it.
I believe that some professional critics and literary types object to the bleakness of McCarthy’s writing, specifically the absence in his books of any imagined alternative to or way out of our failed attempts to order the world. (For example, James Wood in his 2005 review of No Country for Old Men.) But a writer’s role is not to save the world from politicians who are elected to do just that. Nor is it to displace priests in offering up a fresh moral creed. McCarthy’s country, which is also my country, is a liberal democracy that tells itself puerile lies involving words like “freedom”, “prosperity” and “peace” while committing itself to perpetual warfare, having cleansed its official vocabulary of all direct references to violence. When words and actions are systematically deprived of their meanings and their consequences disowned, an entire culture risks losing its capacity to mean anything at all.
To this poison, McCarthy’s sometimes overwrought prose offers us a kind of antidote. What more can be expected from any individual person? A writer’s responsibility is to write and write well and honestly about the world in which he or she lives, and at least from my perspective, our world seems to be moving ever closer to the brutal chaos portrayed in McCarthy’s books, but lacking the means to acknowledge what is happening. In this sense, McCarthy may also be seen as a kind of grim prophet. Although our civilization likes to pretend that technological knowhow has made it exempt from the ravages of history, the arrogance of this pretension only assures the continuing vitality of the Judge’s creed of war. McCarthy seeks to create a kind of testament, a palimpsest or pictograph that may one day be discovered by another solitary late-comer, buried among the ruins and rubble that remain after we have destroyed this, our only habitat. What human solace can be found in McCarthy’s books should not be sought in any sort of polemic or moralizing message (the absence of which, I suspect, is at the heart of some critics’ resentment) but in the “order of the heart”, which is conveyed only in the exquisite texture and durable rhythm of his language, which is so constructed as to withstand the rain.
Carl E. Kandutsch holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University and currently operates the Kandutsch Law Office (www.kandutsch.com) in Plano, Texas.