Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) is one of the most innovative and influential writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Recipient of the MacArthur (“Genius”) Fellowship, the National Book Award (All the Pretty Horses), and the Pulitzer Prize (The Road), among many other distinctions, McCarthy has produced work that exhibits excellence of prose and yet simultaneously casts dark shadows on the shallow optimism of modern life.

From his Ulysses-like ponderings of urban life after World War II in Suttree, to the primal Appalachian communities of his early work in Outer Dark and Child of God, to the revisioning of the American West in Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities on the Plain), to the postapocalyptic landscapes of The Road, McCarthy continues to raise questions about the nature of humanity in a seemingly amoral universe observed dispassionately by an absentee God. With an early education in parochial schools and having served as an altar boy in his Catholic parish in Rhode Island, McCarthy shows in his writing the formative marks of the church, especially its liturgies and sacramental rituals, not unlike Martin Scorsese’s filmic visions. Although biblical allusion and direct quotation is sometimes evident in McCarthy’s work (see, e.g., in Outer Dark, the God-forsaken “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30; and in Cities on the Plain, the inhumane “cities of the plain,” Sodom and Gomorrah, in Genesis 19:25, 29; cf. 13:12), what haunts the landscapes of his protagonists more profoundly is the blinding absence of scripture, let alone any other authoritative magisterium or doctrinal tradition. To enter McCarthy’s literary world is to encounter fiction as the scripture par excellence where testimony and confession of his characters gives evidence that no sacred text will save us beyond the pages and text the reader is holding and bringing to imaginative life. Put another way by Broncano, while not directly citing biblical texts, he is

"composing a particular Pentateuch in which Blood Meridian functions as the Book of Genesis (and by extension the Old Testament), the Border Trilogy functions as the Gospels, and No Country for Old Men as the Book of Revelation … [and] The Road … is the post-apocalyptic sequel or epilogue [that] may also be the story of a new beginning, of renewal and hope that was never so explicit in McCarthy’s canon." (2013, p. 2)

In Genesis 3:24, God drives humanity’s progenitors out of Paradise and places cherubim and a flaming sword “east of Eden” to keep them from returning to the Tree of Life. McCarthy’s Border Trilogy picks up the story once the journey has moved so far east as to become West—or, to be more genre specific, Western. While the genre of the American Western can evoke cliché formulas as in the novels of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, or postmodern carnival parody, as in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, McCarthy’s novels evoke a deep lyricism and postethical epic grandeur comparable to the biblical epic itself. To enter the world of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy is to enter a world where categories such as salvation and damnation no longer apply, as they cheapen the signifier to which they attempt to point. Reading McCarthy is to profoundly disturb our moral compass to the point of fracture, casting the needle offering true north into the abyss. As Barcley Owens writes,

"At some deep level [in reading McCarthy] our moral equilibrium has been disturbed, and the author does not pause for comforting reflection to help gain balance. The text is pure anoesis, sensation without understanding, devoid of ethical or mythical comfort. McCarthy’s amoral vision of frontier violence is one of mankind run amok, subverting law at every bend in the trail and rendering all moral questions “void and without warrant.”" (2000, p. 7; emphasis added)

As pure anoesis—text that is pure sensation without understanding—McCarthy positions the reader in the repose of the characters. No sermonic interlude is offered as his characters are repeatedly beaten, starved, raped, maimed beyond recognition, and eventually cast aside with the same concern given to clearing dust from a cabinet top. What ultimately determines their identity is their “telos”—their end—as it relates to and is formed by “place.” In one of his earlier novels, Child of God, the protagonist Lester Ballard, a murderer who dismembered his victims and dried their skins in a cave on the margins of east Tennessee, is not ultimately brought to justice for his crimes, nor does he experience a salvific moment of redemption. Rather, he is processed merely as a body among bodies:

"His body was shipped to the state medical school at Memphis. There in a basement room he was preserved with formalin and wheeled forth to take his place with other deceased persons newly arrived. He was laid out on a slab and flayed, eviscerated, dissected. His head was sawed open and the brains removed. His muscles were stripped from his bones. His heart was taken out. His entrails were hauled forth and delineated and the four young students who bent over him like those haruscipes of old perhaps saw monsters worse to come in their configurations. At the end of three months when class was closed Ballard was scraped from the table into a plastic bag and taken with others of his kind to a cemetery outside the city and there interred. A minister from the school read a simple service." (McCarthy, 1973, p. 194)

As one who becomes fully institutionalized away from the land, Ballard is dissected rather than identified—he is removed from a place and therefore is left without a memory to sustain him. Like the nonattended funeral of Paul McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby, no human being can provide sufficient evidence of a life, nor are humans equipped to provide a legacy. In the case of McCarthy’s protagonists, only the liminality of the land can bear witness to life through drawing life into its ultimate death.

South as True West.

Key to understanding McCarthy’s poetic topography as pure anoesis—the land as text that is pure sensation without understanding—is to see the radicalized nature of orientation in regard to what continues the “true West.” For McCarthy, the land tells the truth in ways that the compass will not. In order to discover the West that has been lost to industrialized and militarized America, the protagonists in the Border Trilogy go south in order to go true West. As we first encounter John Grady Cole, the protagonist of All the Pretty Horses, he is standing as a penitent monk before the land that surrounds him:

"Dark and cold and no wind and a thin gray reef beginning along the eastern rim of the world. He walked out on the prairie and stood holding his hat like some supplicant to the darkness over them all and he stood for a long time. As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shutter watching it till it was gone." (McCarthy, 1993, pp. 3–4)

The true land as holy writ becomes a violated kerygma by humanity’s profane graffiti in the forms of “endless fenceline” and the all-too-Victorian scourge of the locomotive that comes “boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance.” These attempts to bind the land to borders and manage its kairos (eternal timelessness) through humanity’s chronos (efficient time), manifested in the age of the locomotive, propel the true reader of the topography as true anoesis—John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham in The Crossing—to follow as peregrine (pilgrims) the still, small voice of the land itself. It is in the apophasis of the borderlands of the South that the frontier is to be found, the liminal lands where cultural, economic, and political essentialisms are undone. As noted by Barcley Owens,

"unlike the West, which Anglo-Americans assumed from early on extended from “sea to shining sea,” Old Mexico has always been viewed as a badlands, an empty space, a rough place of bandits and criminals and the evil, foreign Other … the western frontier is gone, declared closed, moved north to Alaska or overseas to Asia. American law and government hold sway over all United States soil. To find frontier adventures, McCarthy’s cowboys have only one choice." (2000, p. 65)

Yet, when one undertakes the task of walking through the woods, or in McCarthy’s case the borderlands, these paths are evident. There is a way through, although it is not defined or mapped. As Martin Heidegger saw that only by walking amid the woods would a woodpath be made evident, so it is that McCarthy sees the way of authentic being arise only after being on the way through and with topography as pure anoesis—true land as true writing.

It is in the journey to and through these liminal borderlands that John Grady Cole and Billy Parham experience a profound dislocation from both time and place and become deeply undone. As text, the subjects are deconstructed amid the contextual topography that surrounds and engulfs their characters as true anoesis, which is the grand narrative that holds sway over their lives and ultimate demise. McCarthy’s borderlands are land as true anoesis in that it is free to portray and analyze the struggle of figuring the nexus of the subject and sacred as a disfiguring and figuring at once.

This entry into such a topographical poetics by McCarthy’s characters is ultimately a coincidentia oppositorum. Thomas Altizer asserts that such a space evokes the following:

"a full coming together of total opposites, the opposites of total ending and total beginning, and the totally old world or aeon and a totally new aeon or world … a coincidentia oppositorum is at the very center of the Christian epic, as is a calling forth and voyage into an apocalyptic totality, and [the Christian] epic totality is an apocalyptic totality if only because it embodies such a radical and total transformation. Here, this transformation is deepest in envisioning the depths of the Godhead itself, depths that are apocalyptic depths, and hence depths unveiling a new Godhead only by bringing an old Godhead to an end." (1997, p. xiv)

As Altizer maintains, at the center of the Christian epic—that is, the center of writing that brings to mind the heart of God—one must acknowledge that this figuring necessitates a move into language that is the ultimate coincidentia oppositorum that is a disturbing center point to all concerns. This acknowledgment is one of, as Altizer argues, “eschatological proclamation and parabolic enactment” that will “reverse every given form of God and the world.” To enter this parabolic enactment through the medium of literature as topography is to take on and ultimately

"reverse every image of Jesus we have known if we are to be open to his contemporary and apocalyptic presence. Just such a reversal has continually occurred in the Christian imagination, a reversal not only of given images of Jesus, but also, and even thereby, a reversal of all given Christian images of God." (Altizer, 1997, p. xxv)

This journey into the borderlands as coincidentia oppositorum strips the protagonists of the channel markers by which subjectivity had been navigated. Returning to their imminent Edenic state, barely surviving on the manna of tortillas, John Grady and Billy become removed from themselves—a kenotic emptying akin to the subjective outpouring of Christ in Philippians 2:6—and written into the land itself as a branch derives life from a living vine. As young men who dream dreams, they begin to live not only between physical and cultural borders but between planes of metaphysical reality. Akin to the desert pilgrims, they become swept into mystical visions whereby the land both transcendent and imminent strain together and join:

"That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised." (McCarthy, 1993, pp. 162–163)

As with Stephen Dedalus’s striding into the sea amid a vocation of liminal ecstasy between land and sea in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, McCarthy’s protagonists become further written into the context of their vocation as they are freed to be not for themselves but for the radical Other in a repose of alterity that resembles what the ethicist Emmanuel Levinas has termed “responsibility” as the ground of subjectivity.

In The Crossing, set in barren borderlands of Texas and Mexico, a young boy Billy Parham comes upon the ruins of a village in the middle of the Mexican desert. All the homes have been burned out long ago, and in the middle of the village stand the ruins of a once-impressive Catholic church. Nothing remains of the structure except for its large dome “which hangs in the sky like an apparition” (McCarthy, 1994, p. 149) twisting and turning upon three huge columns that are all that remain of the nave. In the shadow of this haunting sight sits a solitary old man cooking upon a campfire. The boy comes to the man’s fire and shares a cup of coffee amid the creaking of the ever-moving dome above them. The man tells the boy that he is the custodian of this church that is before him, ruined though it may be. There is a story, he says, about this place, as there is a story about all places:

"Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what is to be found here … the tale. And like all [places] it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell." (McCarthy, 1994, pp. 142, 143)

The dome of the church hung against the sky from the time of his parent’s death, twisting in the sun upon its uncertain three columns.

No mason could devise such a structure. For years the people of Caborca waited for it to fall. It was like a thing unfinished in their lives. Events of doubtful outcome were made subject to its standing. It was said of certain old and venerable men that when they died the dome would fall and they died and their children died and the dome floated on in the pure air until at last it came to bear such import in the minds of the people of that town that they scarce would speak of it at all.

"This was what he came to. Perhaps he did not even consider the question as to how he had been brought to this place. Yet it was the very thing he sought. Beneath that perilous roof he threw down his pallet and made his fire and there he made ready to receive that which eluded him. By whatever name. There in the ruins of that church out of whose dust and rubble he had been raised up seventy years before and sent forth to live his life. Such as it was. Such as it had become. Such as it would be." (McCarthy, 1994, p. 150)

In many respects Cormac McCarthy’s writing is such a “perilous roof”—a precarious canopy under which the reader is both sheltered from the certainty of the Divine yet also constantly aware with the haunting nature of impending doom that such mortality writ large draws forth the cry for a savior even from the most devout atheist.

Job and the Totality of “the Wager” in Blood Meridian.

While McCarthy does not explicitly cite biblical passages, he does echo the typology of many canonical mythic tropes found in scripture. In Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s epic reflection on the question of theodicy and the powerlessness of human beings in a seemingly amoral universe, the character of the Judge muses that in the end all of life is merely a game of chance:

"Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all." (McCarthy, 1992, p. 49)

For the Judge all games are merely facsimiles and shadows of warfare in one form or another, and ultimately “war is god” (1992, p. 249) in that only in war do we truly understand our mortality. The starkness of the Judge’s assessment mirrors the famous wager that transpires between Satan and God in the beginning of the book of Job. Here Satan makes a wager with God that Job will turn from faith in God if God were to cease provision and protection. God accepts this wager, and Satan proceeds to, like the Judge, swallow up game, player, and all.

The (End of the) Road as Apocalyptic Resurrection.

One of McCarthy’s most overtly biblical novels in regard to genre is his apocalyptic tale The Road. Set in a nondescript dystopian future, the plot follows a man and his son as they journey across the scorched landscape in search of the ocean. Akin to the wilderness settings that frame the narrative in his Western novels, the barren impotent land provides a stark canvas upon which to frame the question not only of what humans will do for survival but ultimately what lengths they will go to for the sake of love. It is intimated that the land has been cleansed in that the destruction of civilization was brought about through fire that is “biblical in scope” (Wielenberg, 2010, p. 2). The landscape is also filled with unholy tribes of aimless wandering humans who have given themselves over to their base nature without a moral code to guide them: murder, cannibalism, and rape all merely with the sole purpose of survival.

This is a world without a code of honor, let alone a god to provide guidance. The father recounts early in the novel his conversation with his wife who chooses suicide over facing the peril that awaited them in this world burned clean of civilization: “Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant” (McCarthy, 2006, p. 56). Yet the father sees that the purpose in life is the security and provision for the next generation, and for his son he musters hope, albeit without sufficient evidence that his courage and selflessness will result in anything. There are echoes here of the Shema (Deut 6) and Moses’s call for Israel to turn their attention away from the hopelessness of the wilderness and look to the needs of the young, who will be the true legacy long after the Promised Land is claimed and lost. In the midst of the wandering, moreover, the man and his son encounter a man who may or may not be named Ely, close to the biblical prophet Elijah (1 Kgs 17–21; 2 Kgs 1–2). Yet they meet him in a world now devoid of God, as he states, twisting the Shahada of Islam: “There is no God and we are his prophets” (McCarthy, 2006, p. 170). As noted by Wielenberg, this simultaneous denouncing of God’s existence and elevation of surviving humans to the vocation of prophet is a deep call to faith:

"Great suffering appears to constitute evidence against the existence of a loving God, but it also has the capacity to produce or strengthen belief in such a God. It is when we suffer that we most need belief in a loving God to keep ourselves going. The more reason we have to doubt God’s reality, the more we need to believe. The world of The Road is described as “barren, silent, godless” (p. 4) and the man recognizes that “some part of him always wished it to be over” (p. 154). It is precisely because of this that he needs to believe that he is on a divine mission." (2010, p. 3)

[See also MODERN LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

  • Altizer, Thomas J. J. The Contemporary Jesus. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
  • Broncano, Manuel. Religion in Cormac McCarthy’s Fiction: Apocryphal Borderlands. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Cant, John. Cormac McCarthy and the Myth of American Exceptionalism. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Egan, Jennifer. “Men at Work: The Literary Masculinity of Cormac McCarthy.” Slate, October 10, 2006: www.Slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/book_blitz/2006/10/men_at_work.html.
  • Holloway, David. The Late Modernism of Cormac McCarthy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2002.
  • McCarthy, Cormac. Child of God. New York: Vintage, 1973.
  • McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York: Vintage, 1992.
  • McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage, 1993.
  • McCarthy, Cormac. The Crossing. London: Picador, 1994.
  • McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006.
  • Owens, Barcley. Cormac McCarthy’s Western Novels. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000.
  • Snyder, Phillip A. “Hospitality in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” Cormac McCarthy Journal 6 (2008): 69–86.
  • Vanderheide, John. “Sighting Leviathan: Ritualism, Daemonism and the Book of Job in Cormac McCarthy’s Latest Works.” Cormac McCarthy Journal 6 (2008): 107–120.
  • Vieth, Ronja. “A Frontier Myth Turns Gothic: Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West.” Cormac McCarthy Journal 8 (2010): 47–62.
  • Wielenberg, Erik J. “God, Morality, and Meaning in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” Cormac McCarthy Journal 8 (2010): 1–16.

Jeffrey F. Keuss