Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain (The Border Trilogy, #3)Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cities of the Plain began life as a screenplay, and it shows. For most of its length, it is bare description and dialogue. While its scene-setting is often concisely vivid and its cowboy conversations laconically witty, it lacks either the lived-in quality of a successful realistic novel or sufficient stylization to justify such mimesis’s absence.

This third volume of the Border Trilogy is the opposite in every way (except for its epilogue) of the second volume. We could even understand them as McCarthy’s divergent responses to having had such a popular and critical success with the Border Trilogy’s first volume, All the Pretty Horses—a masterful novel that, unlike McCarthy’s more difficult prior books, persuasively combines mass appeal with literary seriousness. The 1992 Western gives us a hero’s journey and a tragic romance, complete with passionate love scenes and brutal combat sequences, while also probing the boundary between nature and culture and the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

If All the Pretty Horses is less despairing than its 1985 predecessor, the notoriously ultraviolent Blood Meridian, it nevertheless earns its sincere praise of heroism by confronting its hero with truly hopeless odds in an indifferent universe. (And I read Blood Meridian itself as a humanist and perhaps even Christian novel, dissenting from those critics who see its gnostic, war-worshipping villain, Judge Holden, as the author’s mouthpiece. Even if the world as McCarthy portrays it is evil, his novels still suggest that humans have a capacity, neglected as it is, to be good.)

But The Crossing, the 1994 sequel to All the Pretty Horses, reads almost like McCarthy’s apology for having written a popular novel. It is long, plotless, dense, and full of visionary if nihilistic disquisitions, a Western hallucination equal parts Beckett and Dostoevsky. It returns to the mode of Blood Meridian, but lacks even that novel’s liveliness of nihilation. The cinematic Cities of the Plain, on the other hand, is an apology for the apology: a briskly-written pop Western that rewrites All the Pretty Horses‘s tragic love story and gruesome knife fight sans any complicating thematic and ideological gestures.

The plot is as simple as it gets. It is 1952, and John Grady Cole (from All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (from The Crossing) are working together on a ranch near the border run by a kindly man named Mac whose beloved wife has just died. The young John Grady’s preternatural horsemanship continues to marvel all who know him (he tells a colleague, “A good horse has justice in his heart”), and, despite Mac’s grief, the lives of these vaqueros seem idyllic, all the more because of their bittersweet awareness that their territory will soon be requisitioned by the state and that the cowboy way will soon vanish forever.

The novel’s own particular catastrophe, standing in for the closure of the West at large, comes when John Grady Cole falls in love with a teenaged prostitute (or, really, captive) in a Juarez brothel over the border. Her name is Magdalena (get it?), and she has epilepsy, which makes her even more vulnerable to the attentions of the pimp Eduardo (we are briefly told of her horrifying background, which begins when she “had been sold at the age of thirteen to settle a gambling debt”). A blind pianist informs Cole that Magdalena is too good for this world—

My belief is that she is at best a visitor. At best. She does not belong here. Among us.

Yessir. I know she dont belong here.

No, said the blind man. I do not mean in this house. I mean here. Among us.

—but the boy hero, ever Quixotic, is undeterred and sets out to rescue her from the cruel Eduardo. It is possible to be too cynical about the adolescent male rescue fantasy at work here, especially when combined with the title’s Biblical judgment against corrupt carnality; but McCarthy’s critique of sex trafficking and his commendation of attentive love over transactional lust seem like worthy enough moral priorities for a novel, if not totally uncontestable. And the naïveté of John Grady’s plan is defeated most brutally by McCarthy’s tragic narrative design.

The problem, however, is that the characters are almost completely emblematic, to the point of stereotype. They might as well have labels as names—Kindly Old Rancher, Cruel Mexican Pimp—and Magdalena’s name is a label. I am not even sure this is good screenwriting, let alone good fiction writing, though perhaps actors would flesh out the thin characterization in performance.

This actor-enhancement is arguably what happens in McCarthy’s 2013 film (with director Ridley Scott), The Counselor, which I find a more satisfying narrative than Cities of the Plain. Penélope Cruz adds to a Magdalena-type abused innocent a winning charm, and Cameron Diaz’s blonde beast of a villain is far more interesting than the campy, oleaginous Eduardo—not least because McCarthy is, in The Counsellor, at least reversing a stereotype rather than upholding one when he shows the white norteamericana to be the predator battening on a good Latina. With presumably anti-racist intent, McCarthy here flips the old, bad tradition in the Anglo-American novel of contrasting a good woman who is fair and blonde with a bad woman who has dark hair, eyes, and even skin.

In my review of All the Pretty Horses, I criticized the critics who found its depiction of Mexico simplistic and dualistic, but Mexico really does appear in Cities of the Plain as a hell-heaven of endemic violence coupled with inexplicable goodness. Billy Parham recalls the hospitality he’d found in the country on his titular crossing:

You could see that the revolution hadnt done them no good. […] They didnt have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I was never turned away. Not a time.

But it is not only the brothel where Magdalena is imprisoned but also the Revolution itself that testifies to the land’s senseless brutality, as Mr. Johnson, Mac’s father-in-law, recalls:

There were thousands who went to war in the only suits they owned. Suits in which they’d been married and in which they would be buried. Standing on the streets in their coats and ties and hats behind the upturned carts and bales and firing their rifles like irate accountants. And the small artillery pieces on wheels that scooted backwards in the street at every round and had to be retrieved and the endless riding of horses to their deaths bearing flags or banners or the tentlike tapestries painted with portraits of the Virgin carried on poles into battle as if the mother of God herself were authoress of all that calamity and mayhem and madness.

McCarthy, a believer in incorrigible nature and individual (not collective) goodness, can be expected to distrust revolution on classically conservative Burkean grounds, but All the Pretty Horses showed a greater political acuity than the above. As for Eduardo, who claims to speak for Mexico as against the overweening north, the less said about his sleek and oily head and his silk shirt, the better. On the other hand, it is undeniably fascinating to read a trio of U.S. novels that represents the Mexican Revolution—a blank for most Americans—as the germinal event of the 20th century.

There are moments throughout Cities of the Plain that recall its predecessors’ glories, not least when it comes to McCarthy’s reverence for the dramatic landscape with its

pictographs upon the rimland boulders that bore images of  hunter and shaman and meetingfires and desert sheep all picked into the rock a thousand years and more.

And there are affecting grace notes throughout, especially at the novel’s tragic conclusion. When Billy finds John Grady dead, we read a plangent, simple line worthy of Tolstoy:

The boy lay with his face turned away from the light. His eyes were open. Billy called to him. As if he could not have gone far.

I mentioned that Cities of the Plain does not resemble The Crossing until its epilogue. There, McCarthy recapitulates the narrative mode of the earlier novel. The novel jumps into the future: it is 2002 and Billy Parham, now 78, is drifting in and out of homelessness, when he meets another drifter who tells him an obscure story about a dream he had about a traveler’s dream. The drifter’s complex narration inspires Billy to protest, in a line that reflects the screenplay-mode of the rest of the book:

I think you got a habit of makin things a bit more complicated than what they need to be. Why not just tell the story?

But this narrator has philosophical ambitions. The point of his recursive tale seems to be twofold. First, the world is a fated and fatalistic place, and we cannot escape our destiny (the implication is that John Grady was always already fated to die for his idealism):

Each act in this world from which there can be no turning back has before it another, and it another yet. In a vast and endless net.

Second, the stories we tell about the world are also part of the world and help to weave the fabric of its fate. We are punished for our idealism, but it is also our strength, our glory, our justification:

These dreams reveal the world also, he said. We wake remembering the events of which they are composed while often the narrative is fugitive and difficult to recall. Yet it is the narrative that is the life of the dream while the events themselves are often interchangeable. The events of the waking world on the other hand are forced upon us and the narrative is the unguessed axis along which they must be strung. It falls to us to weigh and sort and order these events. It is we who assemble them into the story which is us. Each man is the bard of his own existence. This is how he is joined to the world. For escaping from the world’s dream of him this is at once his penalty and his reward.

This fatal metaphysic of narrative, which explains McCarthy’s suspicion of such modern writers as James and Proust, takes us back before the novel to the aesthetics of Greek tragedy. Yet there is a danger in treating the complexities of modern fiction as merely disposable in a climate where oversimplification is the hallmark of stultifying popular entertainment: you may strip away Jamesian or Proustian obliquity and find that you have created not a Sophoclean tragedy but a schlocky B-movie. For this dubious achievement, success is at once McCarthy’s penalty and his reward.


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Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

The Crossing (The Border Trilogy, #2)The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Crossing (1994) is the follow-up to All the Pretty Horses (1992) and the second part of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, three novels focused on young American men coming of age in the early-to-mid-20th century on the border with Mexico.

Unlike its popular precursor, The Crossing is a long, dour, and largely plotless novel. It tells the story of young Billy Parham’s three crossings into Mexico from New Mexico.

The first crossing comes when he is a teenager: he captures a she-wolf that has itself come up from Mexico and that has been marauding near his family’s property. Instead of killing the wolf, though, he captures it and tries to return it to its ancestral Mexican mountains. While Billy does form a tense communion with the pregnant wolf, she is eventually made the object of commerce and then of bloodsport when they reach Mexico.

In the course of this first adventure, which forms the novel’s first quarter and works as a standalone novella, Billy is disabused of his apparently romantic notions; he sacrifices his innocence as he is forced to sacrifice the wolf lest both continue to be degraded and abused by what the novel, in what we might by application call an Orientalist idiom, implies are the endemic corruptions of Mexican society, here explained in essentialist rather than political terms, though the latter predominated in the more realistic All the Pretty Horses.

In the novel’s second part, Billy wanders north and encounters the first of several of the odd tutors he meets on his journey. In perhaps The Crossing‘s most impressive passage, Billy hears out a hermit, a nihilist who was once a Mormon convert to Catholicism. This hermit has in fact, it is implied, taken the place (in a ruined church) of a prior nihilist hermit who lost most of his family to political and natural violence. The hermit’s lengthy sermon in the theology of meaninglessness is magnificent, obviously meant to serve as this novel’s “Grand Inquisitor” or “Whiteness of the Whale”:

What was here to be found was not a thing. 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 was to be found here. The corrido. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.

Yet The Crossing lacks Dostoevsky’s or Melville’s ideological architecture. Billy is not articulate enough, like Ishmael, to quarrel with any of his tutors, and all the articulate characters speak the same McCarthyite language of grand spiritual exhaustion, languid Ahabs without whales to hunt, or Ivans without even the passionate residue of faith that leads them to hand back their tickets.

What little plot there is comes in nearly a third of the way through the novel when Billy returns to his family farm and discovers his mother and father have been murdered by horse thieves. He rescues his younger brother, Boyd, from his foster family, and they cross to Mexico again to recover the horses.

This quest makes up the especially aimless middle of the novel; the taciturn brothers’ dialogue is a pale shadow of John Grady Cole’s with Lacey Rawlins in the prior book, and the trauma of their loss is evoked as little as was Billy’s motivation in going to Mexico with the wolf in the first place. Wolves, by the way, drop entirely out of the narrative after the first quarter, just as the parents’ murder, despite its melodrama, is little more than a McGuffin. So too is Boyd’s falling in love with a young Mexican girl, another inadequate echo of the much stronger plot of All the Pretty Horses.

The Crossing gains more interest after Boyd is wounded in a skirmish with authorities that causes him to become a kind of folk hero. In the meantime, Billy encounters another grand speechifier: a blind man whose eyes were literally sucked out of his head by a sadist during the Mexican Revolution and who delivers sermons on the truth of blindness:

He said that the light of the world was in men’s eyes only for the world itself moved in eternal darkness and darkness was its true nature and true condition and that in this darkness it turned with perfect cohesion in all its parts but that there was naught there to see. He said that the world was sentient to its core and secret and black beyond men’s imagining and that its nature did not reside in what could be seen or not seen. He said that he could stare down the sun and what use was that?

The scenes where the workers on a cooperative farm care for Boyd, and especially wherein he is attended by a kind and expert physician, are the novel’s most affirmative moments. Throughout The Crossing, McCarthy supplements his high Faulknerian lyricism with precise and even jargon-heavy descriptions of labor; this is most noticeable in the early passages on wolf-hunting, but in the later scene of the gentle physician’s care for the wounded boy, McCarthy comes near to pronouncing a humanistic credo that honors honest labor in a fallen world:

He took up the bulb and gently washed the wound and swabbed it and took up the silver nitrate stick and gently touched it in the wound. He worked from the top of the wound downward. When he had removed the last hemostat and dropped it into the pan he sat for a moment with both hands over Boyd’s back as if exhorting him to heal.

Eventually, Boyd absconds with his lover and Billy returns to the U.S., where he is refused enlistment in the army during World War II due to a heart murmur. After working for a while in America, he returns to Mexico to find Boyd, which journey quickly turns into a quest for the boy’s remains as he was cut down in battle. In a mordant development, Boyd is remembered by ordinary Mexicans, somewhat erroneously, as a champion of the people.

Based on his public utterances, McCarthy is, politically, some kind of Burkean conservative, but he is plainly fascinated by Mexico as a country where revolutionary and populist hopes remained alive well into the 20th century; that he shows radical memory to be a faulty one, creating heroic episodes from chapters of accident, reads to me less as a bitter satire on the radical imagination than as the wistful lament of a disappointed idealist.

On the note of memories and stories, in the novel’s final quarter, Billy meets a party of gitanos carting a plane out of the mountains. While they pause to help him heal his father’s horse, wounded in yet another skirmish, their leader, like the hermit and the blind man before him, instructs Billy that efforts to impose meaning on the world are futile, that the world is its own meaning, that our stories are not an ideal pattern we impose on them but are simply the movements of our wandering over the face of the earth:

From a certain perspective one might even hazard to say that the great trouble with the world was that that which survived was held in hard evidence as to past events. A false authority clung to what persisted, as if those artifacts of the past which had endured had done so by some act of their own will. Yet the witness could not survive the witnessing. In the world that came to be that which prevailed could never speak for that which perished but could only parade its own arrogance. It pretended symbol and summation of the vanished world but was neither. He said that in any case the past was little more than a dream and its force in the world greatly exaggerated. For the world was made new each day and it was only men’s clinging to its vanished husks that could make of that world one husk more.

The novel stops more than ends, back in America. It ends, after a vision of a misshapen dog that at long last reprises, most bitterly, the wolf theme, when Billy finally, after hundreds of pages of suffering, weeps.

All the Pretty Horses is a perfect novel of its kind, structurally anyway, so it is perhaps unfair to compare The Crossing to it. Yet so much that is there in the first novel of the trilogy is missing from the second, including character motivation, thematic coherence, and historical grounding.

Despite the mentions of the Mexican Revolution and of World War II, The Crossing is a kind of neo-medieval romance set in a dream landscape. Such an aesthetic gesture can work, but cannot, to my mind, be effectively stretched over 426 pages. Why does Billy leave his family anyway? John Grady Cole set forth because his was no country for young men, because his grandfather was dead, his father was dying, his mother was about to sell the ranch, and the age of the cowboy had ended. But Billy has no such historical significance; he has only a family who loves him. His obscure romance with the wolf is never really motivated, and the fact that wolves as materia and as theme disappear from the novel early on only makes his initial motivation all the more inexplicable.

Billy is himself of partial Mexican descent on his mother’s side, so the novel is perhaps implying, with a somewhat conservative emphasis on what runs in the blood, that the intenser landscape of Mexico is where our hot-blooded hero really belongs, the landscape to which he is native, but, again, this is not developed (and is perhaps better not developed). The Parham family murder is a plot contrivance and an over-emphatic thesis statement on the cruel unknowability of the world.

McCarthy’s insistence in this book on the inadequacy of imposed meanings, of stories that are abstractions of events rather than events themselves, is obviously an anticipatory criticism of my own critique. In fact, McCarthy almost seems to be recoiling in disgust at having written such a well-made crowd-pleaser in All the Pretty Horses, as if he wants to rub in his new and enlarged readership’s face the truth that life is not a well-made novel. “Every representation was an idol. Every likeness a heresy,” the gitano, sounding like an avant-garde painter, tells Billy. All the Pretty Horses, though, from its first sentence forward, warns us not to confuse a thing and its image; it is possible to do this, to tell a great story and comment on its terrible limitations. You don’t have to punish readers by taking them on a half-random and half-illogical sojourn whose only resting places harbor garrulous preachers of oblivion.


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Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1)All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All the Pretty Horses is apparently to Cormac McCarthy’s corpus what The Crying of Lot 49 is to Thomas Pynchon’s or The Ghost Writer to Philip Roth’s: it is the appealing vestibule to an oeuvre of appalling heights and depths, a prolegomenon to any future metaphysics.

McCarthy’s bestselling 1992 novel is a romantic latter-day Western about a 16-year-old boy named John Grady Cole. It is 1949 in West Texas, and the Western dream is dying, not only because of all the oilmen buying up the land: Cole’s ranch, which has been in the family since the 1870s, is about to be sold due to the death of his maternal grandfather, the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, the mortal illness of his veteran father, and his urbane actress mother’s dissatisfaction with country living.

A preternaturally gifted horseman, Cole faces the prospect of a world that has no use for the only man he knows how to become. So, like a line of superfluous men in novels before him—I owe this application of that term from Russian fiction to a student—Cole lights out for the territory, riding to Mexico with his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, and a younger boy named Blevins they pick up along the way.

At first—in the second of the novel’s four divisions—they find in Mexico a promising terra nullius wherein to act out their obviously movie- and pulp-derived cowboy dreams. But then they are, due to Cole’s horses-taming prowess, recruited to work at La Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción (Estate of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception), a large ranch in Coahuila owned by a man named Rocha. While taming the wild horses they drive down from the Mexican mountains, Cole finds time to fall in love with the rancher’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra. Warned away from the girl by her regal great aunt, la dueña Alfonsa, Cole again pursues his romantic dream—this time an erotic one.

When the lovers are discovered, Alejandra’s father allows Cole and Rawlins to be arrested for a scrape they had earlier gotten into with Blevins. The novel’s third part is a scarifying account of their time in the prison at Saltillo, replete with tense interrogations, brutal beatings, remorseless shootings, and—climactically—the most intense knife-fight I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

Eventually, Rawlins and Cole are bailed out by Alfonsa, and, in the novel’s concluding section, Cole returns to the hacienda to ask for Alejandra. He finds instead la dueña, and she delivers to him an extraordinary long speech, Dostoevskean in its political and spiritual amplitude: she narrates her youthful disillusionment by the murder of her lover by the people, though he was a leader in the Mexican Revolution, an event that taught her to distrust all vague yearnings and any optimism for Mexico or mankind.

Her speech should disabuse Cole forever of his romantic dreams about the land to which he has ridden in quest of a simpler life, but he still rides out in search of Alejandra and then for revenge on the men who’d imprisoned him before returning to the United States in time for the funeral of his surrogate mother, la abuela, a Mexican worker at his family’s ranch who had raised him in the absence of his father (at war) and his mother (on stage). The novel concludes with another escape on horseback—this time that of a man, not a boy, initiated into the sorrows of the world.

While my outline suggests something of the novel’s appeal—its suspense and adventure, its erotic raptures and fight-scene thrills, as well as its archetypal structure as a Western, a Bildungsroman, and a picaresque—McCarthy still introduces some of the same complications that trouble so difficult and repellent a work as Blood Meridian. Consider the opening paragraph:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

Like many great opening paragraphs, it contains the book in miniature. As a novel about a boy trying to live up to an ego-ideal handed down to him not only by his rancher forefathers but also by dime novels and popular films, All the Pretty Horses persistently probes the distinction between a thing and its image, whether flame or cowboy. Most of the precise description is external, miming the emotional reticence of the protagonist and evoking the artform most responsible for the Western myth (cinema), but the paragraph ends with a disarming and moving stammer of free indirect discourse that dramatizes Cole’s painful encounter with destructive realities. Finally, the leaning lilies in the “waisted” glass introduce us to McCarthy’s rather Gothic pantheism, the sense his novels give that everything is alive, and thus deadly or killable, an original metaphysic that challenges the human-centered heroism of both Western and Bildungsroman.

Despite the complications, the novel does expect us to take Cole’s heroism seriously, and for three reasons. First is his almost superheroic way with horses, on which the whole plot hinges; second is the epic quality of McCarthy’s descriptions of his action, sincerely raising the novel into legend:

They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

Third is Cole’s morality, a basically Christian commitment to doing right no matter the circumstance, as here in a dialogue with Rawlins about whether or not they should rescue Blevins:

What if it was you?

It aint me.

What if it was?


I wouldnt leave you and you wouldnt leave me. That aint no argument.

You realize the fix he’s in?

Yeah. I realize it. It’s the one he’s put hisself in.

Note how Rawlins makes pragmatic and even Darwinian claims—he argues that you shouldn’t help people to whom you have no personal commitment, and that moreover you shouldn’t help people who have gotten themselves into trouble through their own inadequacy—while Cole simply hews to the Golden Rule: love others as yourself.

Nevertheless, Cole’s epic and Christian heroism will be tested in the novel by the trials of love and death he encounters in Mexico; Gail Moore Morrison argues in an influential essay, “All the Pretty Horses: John Grady Cole’s Expulsion from Paradise” (found in Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, revised edition, eds. Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, 1999):

For this novel is fundamentally a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story in the great tradition of Hawthorne, Twain, Melville, and James, that archetypal American genre in which a youthful protagonist turns his back on civilization and heads out—into the forest, down the river, across the sea, or, as in John Grady’s case, through desert and mountain on horseback—into the wilderness where innocence experiences the evil of the universe and risks defeat by it. This invitation tale is also imbued with the uniquely American variation on the theme of the fall from innocence into experience so aptly explored by James in particular, but also by Hawthorne and Twain, in which the American naif with his straightforward, unsophisticated notions of right and wrong, his code of honor and his simplistic conception of good and evil, is challenged by the moral relativism of an older, more complex civilization to deepen that vision.

This archetypal arrangement irritates some critics, not unreasonably. They see the novel’s clear lineaments of morality and typology of place as merely replicating stereotypes. For example, Daniel Cooper Alarcón claims in his essay “All the Pretty Mexicos: Cormac McCarthy’s Mexican Representations” (found in Cormac McCarthy: New Directions, ed. James D. Lilley, 2002), that the novel simply presents us with an old tradition wherein Mexico is a land of violent contrasts, a hell-heaven or Infernal Paradise:

A preliminary assessment of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses in terms of action, characterization, and structure easily allows that novel to be located within the Infernal Paradise tradition. As in the works of his predecessors, McCarthy’s Mexico functions as a symbolic backdrop, juxtaposing the paradise of the hacienda with the hell of the prison at Saltillo. The Mexican characters, although fleshed out most more than in most novels of the tradition, are also fairly standard. […] Thus, a cursory reading of this popular and highly acclaimed novel offers little evidence that would allow us to position it outside of the Infernal Paradise tradition.

Both of these readings fail to account for the novel’s actual nuances though. It is the archetypal critic who sees the hacienda, where Cole makes love to Alejandra, as a paradise, and it is the political critic who accepts that interpretation but faults it as a racist trope. When we turn back to the actual novel, though, we find that ironies abound: this ranch consecrated to the purity of the Immaculate Conception is a locus of sex, whether among humans or horses. Moreover, it is a place less of lovemaking than of breeding: both Rocha and Cole are trying to breed a better horse, even as Alfonsa wants to keep the family bloodlines pure by preventing Cole from marrying Alejandra. The paradisal rhetoric itself is a bit too purple to be sincere, even granting the need for some Romeo and Juliet lyricism at that point in the narrative:

She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in a darkened wood. That burned cold. Like the moon that burned cold. Her black hair floating on the water about her, falling and floating on the water. She put her other arm about his shoulder and looked toward the moon in the west do not speak to her do not call and then she turned her face up to him. Sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh, sweeter for the betrayal. Nesting cranes that stood singlefooted among the cane on the south shore had pulled their slender beaks from their wingpits to watch. Me quieres? she said. Yes, he said. He said her name. God yes, he said.

John Grady Cole’s own position as horsebreaker—his first job on the ranch—is represented as a positively dystopic one from the perspective of the horses themselves, who regard him as a colonizing god:

By midmorning eight of the horses stood tied and the other eight were wilder than deer, scattering along the fence and bunching and running in a rising sea of dust as the day warmed, coming to reckon slowly with the remorselessness of this rendering of their fluid and collective selves into that condition of separate and helpless paralysis which seemed to be among them like a creeping plague. The entire complement of vaqueros had come from the bunkhouse to watch and by noon all sixteen of the mestenos were standing about in the potrero sidehobbled to their own hackamores and faced about in every direction and all communion among them broken. They looked like animals trussed up by children for fun and they stood waiting for they knew not what with the voice of the breaker still running in their brains like the voice of some god come to inhabit them.

His own speech to one prize horse casts him as precisely the master of sex and lineage and women that Rocha, who has him expelled, will prove to be:

He’d ride sometimes clear to the upper end of the laguna before the horse would even stop trembling and he spoke constantly to it in Spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law. Soy comandante de las yeguas, he would say, yo y yo solo. Sin la caridad de estas manos no tengas nada. Ni comida ni agua ni hijos. Soy yo que traigo las yeguas de las montanas, las yeguas jovenes, las yeguas salvajes y ardientes.

In the Spanish dialogue, Cole as lawgiver proclaims himself commander of the mares, and threatens the horse that if he does not obey, Cole will not give him food, water, or children. He treats the horses the way Alejandra’s father and great aunt will treat him. Nature and culture—which are not distinct in McCarthy—are alike places of violence, oppression, and exploitation. We are not far from Blood Meridian here, nor are we in this remarkable if incidental passage wherein nature as demented gardener (indicated by the word “espaliered”) crucifies birds on cacti:

Bye and bye they passed a stand of roadside cholla against which small birds had been driven by the storm and there impaled. Gray nameless birds espaliered in attitudes of stillborn flight or hanging loosely in their feathers. Some of them were still alive and they twisted on their spines as the horses passed and raised their heads and cried out but the horsemen rode on.

Criticism is always schematic, whether it derives from archetypal thinkers or political ones; we need such schemata to help us think about life and literature, but novels, which thrive both on a recreation of intractable realities and on an irony that shows all perspectives to be partial and relative, are rarely as reducible to such criticism as they seem on the “cursory reading” Alarcón proposes yet never gets beyond.

Rocha expresses to Cole his skepticism toward rational political solutions, in contrast to the revolutionary generation that preceded his own (this conversation happens over pool, as an earlier conversation between Cole and Alfonsa happened over chess, each game a sublimated war):

People of my generation are more cautious. I think we dont believe that people can be improved in their character by reason. That seems a very french idea.

He chalked, he moved. He bent and shot and then stood surveying the new lay of the table.

Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.

He looked at John Grady and smiled and looked at the table.

That of course is the Spanish idea. You see. The idea of Quixote.

Obviating any neat distinction between a Latin and an Anglo-American culture, McCarthy gives us the cowboy as Quixote—who is more in tune with the “Spanish idea” than the knight-errant, the “gentle knight,” John Grady Cole? A concern with racial or national difference should not prevent the observation of identities and affinities on other grounds: McCarthy is not only enough of a postmodern novelist to be always aware that nature and culture are interpenetrated, but he is also a Catholic novelist—sometimes a despairing one, sometimes a believing, it seems to me—thus sympathetic to “Spanish ideas” that might look excessively pessimistic or decadent to the Protestant eye (and even at that, Melville and Twain were themselves consciously writing in a Cervantine tradition).

In the same volume where Alarcón’s essay appears, Timothy P. Caron writes an article recounting his use of All the Pretty Horses in a multicultural literature class and comes to a conclusion that emphasizes the novel’s brooding but hopeful cosmopolitanism of spirit, signaled not least by its frequent recourse to untranslated Spanish dialogue:

How much of that map [carried by Cole into Mexico], and ours, has to be filled in with historical and cultural knowledge? Isn’t that what the dueña is trying to tell Cole as she explains to him why she will never allow Alejandra to marry him by telling him about the Mexican Revolution? Last, what limits and chauvinisms would an “American” novel with so much Spanish in it force us to confront and, we hope, move beyond?

Alfonsa tells Cole what she learned in the Revolution, with its assassination of her idealistic lover: all beautiful ideals will ultimately be defeated.

In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.

The last sentence can be read as an injunction, a road out of despair: the world lies waiting for those who take action despite their disillusionment, a sane Quixote. Is this Cole by the novel’s end? His ending would seem to be despair:

He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

Yet he is still on horseback, still on the road, when we leave him. The next two parts of a trilogy, and the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre, is waiting. All the Pretty Horses, in the meantime, is a compromising novel about compromise, in contrast to its extremist predecessor, Blood Meridian; yet it is, in its mastery of description and incident and its tortured equanimity of attitude, equally worth reading.


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Cormac McCarthy, The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Road, like many other novels in the broad speculative tradition from ancient utopias to modern science fiction, designs a whole fictional world around the expression of a single thesis. Cormac McCarthy hints at this thesis when his nameless protagonist, sick with fever during his journey with his young son across a post-apocalyptic United States, remembers browsing in a ruined library:

Years later he’d stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.

Which is to say that, deny it as we like, all of our effort and creativity in this world implies an orientation toward some transcendent place or mind outside this world; that human consciousness suggests a superhuman correlate; that, adapting Nietzsche, to believe in grammar is to believe in God. Following from this premise of a link between human and divine creativity, McCarthy inquires what will become of humanity if all of its efforts come to grief, if the divine security is thereby invalidated? On this question, The Road runs both ways: how can the last survivors of the doomed human race retain faith either in itself or in God?

The world shrinking down about a raw core of plausible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.

The “raw core of plausible entities” is McCarthy’s ash-strewn setting, denuded of human social reality with human achievement standing only as scavenged ruins dotting the “scabland.” The “sacred idiom,” however, is preserved in the Biblical or Shakespearean or Melvillean poeticism with which the novel’s otherwise bare and functionally descriptive prose, with its repetitive and staccato dialogue between father and son, is bejeweled. It is preserved too in the father’s desperate faith, inculcated in the son, that they are “carrying the fire.” No theology is elaborated from this phrase, but the implication is that there is some minimal worth in the mere preservation or prolongation of human life, in any human striving whatever. The father tells the son, “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.”

The novel is not especially didactic when it comes to humanity’s doom since the cause of its apocalypse is unspecified. We are treated only to the father’s flashback of waking to a “sudden shear of light” announcing the end of his family’s seemingly comfortable bourgeois existence. As our viewpoint is largely restricted to father and son, this is effective, since it is possible they may not even know—if the calamity took out mass communication along with everything else, then most people may well not have any means of knowing whether nuclear war or astroid strike or what has befallen them. The relative powerlessness of ordinary people is emphasized here, the better to display what heroism they, or we, may actually display.

Moreover, humanity’s hubris is not mocked and derided by the novel, as it might be were McCarthy trying to warn us about nuclear war or environmental catastrophe; through the father’s Crusoe-like know-how, human ingenuity is praised, as it is when the man and boy encountered well-made artifacts, like a brass sextant or ships still standing in the water. The point of The Road is not quite to chastise us for one or another failure—greed, ambition, ignorance, etc.—that brings about the end of the world; rather it is to inquire about what purpose our activities have at all, however mixed and marred by violence or oppression they are.

This is why, thematically, father and son struggle not only to survive but, morally speaking, to thrive. There are other survivors in their world too, but these have fallen to thievery and cannibalism. In a vast house—which the narrative significantly hints was once a Southern plantation (“Chattel slaves had once trod those boards bearing food and drink on silver trays”)—father and son discover an underground chamber full of desperate men and women being raised for food, while in a campground they encounter a baby roasting on a spit. (The horrorist excess here, the verging on juvenile dead-baby-joke bad taste, seems part of McCarthy’s idiom as well as of his Southern Gothic tradition, and it is what saves his otherwise somber and nihilistic vision from a killing humorlessness.)

The man assures the boy that they would never eat anyone or steal from anyone; they are “the good guys.” Father and son often debate the moral parameters of this goodness—don’t even good guys sometimes have to do bad things, like shoot people or take unclaimed property or leave the helpless to fend for themselves, to preserve their good lives? The father claims that they do, while the boy often insists, sometimes only through the silent protest of tears, on a deontological ethic: goodness must be absolute or it is not goodness. Hence the novel’s frequent intimations, sometimes a bit silly, it must be said, that the boy is a messianic or Christ figure:

You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.

The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said.

He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.

Thankfully, the novel does not literalize this suggestion, which leaves the possibility that it is the father’s necessary illusion, the faith that keeps him going, or that it is McCarthy’s way of saying that all good people who worry over morality are “the one,” or perhaps that all children are.

Dedicated to the author’s then-young son, McCarthy is essentially testing not only faith in God but also the Romantic view of sacred childhood, stranding a pure Wordsworthian boy, trailing clouds of glory, in a haunted Coleridgean universe of death. Speaking of Romanticism, which venerated poetry as well as childhood, McCarthy’s profusion of rich imagery in description of this universe, as if to meet the aesthetic challenge of generating beauty and plenty out of ugliness and nothingness, is the authorial correlative of the heroes’ struggle to endure nothingness with honor:

In the evening the murky shape of another coastal city, the cluster of tall buildings vaguely askew. He thought the iron armatures had softened in the heat and then reset again to leave the buildings standing out of true. The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake.

One more piece of the novel’s thematic puzzle must be addressed, however, even if it will be less acceptable to many contemporary readers. The Road is a man’s book, a father/son duet, a boy’s coming of age, but it runs between two visions of the feminine. The first is the boy’s mother, self-slain before the novel’s opening but present in flashback arguing for suicide in a hopeless world. “I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot,” she tells the man, alluding to death. The man recalls her disposition:

Always so deliberate, hardly surprised by the most outlandish events. A creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end.

It is not that she is wrong when this reasonable woman argues so reasonably for death. She is actually right, as she tells the man: “You have no argument because there is none.” But readers of the Gospels or of Dostoevsky will see the problem here, as would the woman’s child: whatever humanity is worth comes from its divine superiority to argument, to mere reason, its accession to the divinity of love. Undeveloped, her impressive ferocity owing much to Faulkner’s Addie Bundren but without the latter’s sublimity of willful evil, this bad mother is the old image of woman as the enemy of transcendence, her infidelity, her sexually appetitive dalliance with death, hinting in this Bible-haunted novel at Eve’s transgression.

The Road ends, though, or nearly ends, with a vision of a good mother, with maternal plentitude in union with the divine. After the boy’s father finally succumbs to death, the boy is rescued by a mysterious man who apparently, in the space between paragraphs, brings him to a mysterious woman:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

The father had likewise told the boy that the fire was in him all the time: God or the world-spirit or the oversoul is not up high or out there or beyond; it is within the human being, which means that the end of the world invalidates nothing if even one of us survives to bear the flame of moral consciousness, of love.

Perhaps fearful that this ending was too saccharine, McCarthy supplements it with another:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

If the first ending promises salvation for humanity, the second shows the durability of inhuman forces and the fundamental and irreparable wrongness of the creation. At first I thought these dueling conclusions were irreconcilable, an open ending, a concluding mystery, a standoff between Emerson and Lovecraft, if I may metonymize. But then I remembered the critical commonplace of McCarthy’s gnosticism: this world, from its primordial seas to its post-apocalyptic wastelands, belongs to the mystery of iniquity, is the worm-ridden (“vermiculate”) work of some blundering “anarch hand,” per Melville. The only thing in this world that is divine is us, or, more specifically, that within us that rises above the merely reasonable—which can do nothing but perceive and manipulate the already-given, by definition evil in this evil world—to preserve the irrational goodness and beauty of the true Lord. Even, we might say, the beauty of the artistic language lavished on the scabland and the gray seas that break over it, on the alien flesh in the depths, feminine or piscine, through which all good boys bear the fires of God.


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Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Blood MeridianBlood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel and putative masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985), describes a murderous spree undertaken in Mexico in 1849 by John Joel Glanton and his crew of irregulars; they are contracted by Mexican governors to hunt for Apaches—they will be paid by the scalp—but they end up murdering and raping their way across the majestically described desert landscape, killing Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos in an indiscriminate and chaotic binge of violence (which tends to coincide with their many alcoholic binges).

Given that these characters have no real goal, their narrative is shapeless, a concatenation of gruesome incident without development. If the novel could be said to have a political point or historical thesis, it perhaps lies in this formal mockery of progress—progress being the ideology that justified the conquest of the west. This a novel without interiority; there are no characters we could take for real people. Its two main figures are the kid, a nameless runaway who joins Glanton’s party and whose wandering through life gives the novel its overall structure; and Judge Holden, a huge, hairless, bald, albino, scholarly “mutant” who is the Glanton expedition’s most learned and articulate member, a voice for the novel’s seeming theology of nihilism and war-worship:

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

It has taken me years and years to read this now-classic novel all the way through. I was not so much repelled by the violence—“I aint that sensitive,” as one of McCarthy’s riders might say, albeit without the quotation marks—as unsure of how to receive the language of the narrative.

McCarthy’s apparent stylistic conceit is that the narrative voice represents the mind of nineteenth-century America, with all its verbal command of Biblical, Classical, and modern learning; it is like Hawthorne or Melville shorn of their manifest humanism, along with the Faulknerian element of the recklessly careering long sentence and Hemingwayesque precision of dialogue and description. (Also, despite its willful stylistic archaism, this novel’s long vistas and spectacle set-pieces could only have been written after cinema, even if we also believe, as I have heard some argue, that cinema was long implicit in western perception, in the eye of Apollo, as it were.)

For a long time, my defense against this novel was to dislike it. I am still not really convinced of its profundity; as “philosophy” Blood Meridian is—particularly in the judge’s speeches—a beautifully eloquent digest of pessimism and skepticism. The judge does Heraclitus, he does Nietzsche, he does Freud: it is wonderful, but it is not original, not a revelation. Judge Holden maintains that war is our only means of self-definition, self-assertion, and self-construction. It is, in a way, a novel of its time, perhaps even more so than Beloved, the black-Catholic-sentimental-gnosticism of which (“Yonder they do not love your flesh”) is more optimistically and progressively engaged in the American literary tradition, whereas Blood Meridian appears at first to pair quite well, maybe too well, with ’80s cynicism and postmodern theory.

But I have grown to love Blood Meridian. Part of learning to love it required learning to treat it more like a modernist poem or avant-garde text—my reference points were The Waste Land and Naked Lunch—than like even the canonical radical novels it echoes, by Melville or Joyce or Faulkner, all of whom write out of some humanism, however residual, and preserve some sentimental interest. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, should be treated as an experience, an onslaught of language, a vision, a symbolic structure—but not as a narrative inviting sympathy or identification.

A riddling late modernist text full of enigmas and ambiguities and difficulties, Blood Meridian is perhaps better studied than read—or better read while sitting up, pencil in hand, wi-fi connection enabled, so that you can learn what an archimandrite is, what saguaro looks like, what “Sie müssen schlafen aber Ich muss tanzen” means. I intend this as a compliment; I expect I will read it again.

To celebrate my newfound enjoyment of this novel, I will spend the rest of this review on three mysteries the text presents; my solutions will be somewhat heterodox, or, rather, startlingly orthodox. To anticipate, I will argue that it is much less skeptical and nihilistic than it appears, while I remain as skeptical and nihilistic as ever.

1. “What’s He a Judge Of?”

The kid asks this question early in the novel, to the ex-priest Tobin, who does not reply. Near the end, he gets his answer in the form of a delirious dream he has after an operation to remove an arrow from his leg following his survival of the wreck of Glanton’s expedition. At first the judge appears to him with his Shakespearean fool—an “idiot” Glanton’s men had picked up along the way—but then the fool vanishes and a metalworker appears:

The fool was no longer there, but another man and this other man he could never see in his entirety but he seemed an artisan and a worker in metal. The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a coldforger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile from men’s fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.

“Of this is the judge judge”—but what is “this”? A form of forging currency without fire—according to this website, cold forging is generally done at room temperature to pliant metals, by hammering them into shape using a die, just as this passage describes. The forger’s “exile from men’s fires” has a twofold implication: 1. the forger is outcast from all human society; 2. as a matter of method, he is cut off from humanity’s traditional engagement with nature, going deeper and deeper into autonomous artifice—shaping metal with other implements of shaped metal. This passage returns us to a speech delivered in the novel’s second chapter by a hermit:

A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.

The judge, then, is immortal, but what he implies has not yet come to pass, as of the middle nineteenth century: the complete deracination of humans from nature, our enclosure within a world of false values produced without contact with or reference to nature. The judge implies the self-running evil machine; he is the devil at the elbow of God who made man with this capacity. Of this—the turn to a wholly technological society, a wholly enculturated and automatic world—is the judge judge. Violence was not his ultimate meaning, and in fact violence might, in McCarthy’s view, be a relief from such infinite falsity, such machine-living, which is probably why he describes violence with such evident relish.

Moreover, if we interpret the novel’s conclusion to mean that the judge has raped the kid before murdering him (he “gathered [the kid] in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him”), the judge stands revealed not only as a debaser of currencies but a performer of unnatural acts; the nimble-footed and epicene judge stands, in terms of a natural law philosophy, for an enemy of human production and reproduction.

McCarthy perhaps here shows himself a good Catholic, after all, a follower of Dante, who put the sodomites and the usurers into the same circle of Hell. (Hence the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion, on the one hand, and capitalism on the other—a coherent position that endlessly bewilders American commentators on right and left.) On this view, the novel appears more traditionally conservative or reactionary than skeptical or nihilistic—more Pat Buchanan, less postmodernism. Also gravely homophobic, it should go without saying.

2. The Kid as Hero

The kid is born to a schoolteacher—an “Irish Schoolteacher,” in an early draft, hence implicitly Catholic. The novel’s opening command—“See the child”—has an air of the epiphany about it. McCarthy quotes Wordsworth: “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.” Here is the rather saccharine Wordsworth poem McCarthy invokes:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Obviously McCarthy’s allusion is irreverent: this is a novel without “natural piety,” in that it shows nature to be indifferent and human nature flawed and rapacious. Wordsworth’s trust that “nature never did betray the heart that loved her” has little meaning in Blood Meridian’s cosmos. But for all that, the child is the father to the man he will become in the sense that all history already lives in him; if childhood is not a Wordsworthian idealization in McCarthy, it is nevertheless a place of potential, the potential for good as well as evil. We might say the same for nature, which does not ultimately bow before the judge.

By the end of the novel, the kid, still illiterate, has become a kind of priest, carrying a Bible he cannot read and wearing a parodic scapular of human ears that he scavenged from a fellow member of Glanton’s expedition. The judge’s near-obsession with the kid suggests that he construes some threat in the kid, some challenge, some force (the same that he perceives in nature when he says that the freedom of the birds offends him) that must be routed for the judge to succeed in his quest to master everything in the universe.

As for the kid’s father, he is gone by the second page, but the father-function of the learned Irishman will be performed in the novel by the ex-priest Tobin, who counsels the kid to kill the judge. The kid’s refusal to kill the judge is his inarticulate but active riposte to the judge’s values, as when Christ kisses the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky (who is one of McCarthy’s favorite writers, according to this New York Times profile).

3. The Epilogue

Here is Blood Meridian’s strange epilogue, italics in original:

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

In an interview contained in the book Adventures in Reading Cormac McCarthy by Peter Josyph, Harold Bloom interprets the epilogue thusly:

And yet, unless I misread, in that strange, italicized epilogue, there is that man who is traversing the plain, and he’s holding a two-handed instrument. I didn’t say so in How to Read—I was writing, I hoped, for very common readers indeed and I didn’t want to overburden them with associations and allusions—but McCarthy, who is profoundly allusive and very erudite, undoubtedly has in mind that great moment in Milton’s Lycidas when you are told that the corrupt clergy and the whole corruption of England will be cleansed by “that two-handed engine at the door” (105). That two-handed engine, that implement, is being wielded by a figure striking fire that is imprisoned in the stone, which is clearly a Promethean motif. The Judge is off in the meridian sunset. That figure is at dawn. Clearly there is an opposition. There is, I think, a hint—a hint, but a real one—I don’t know how otherwise to interpret it—that a new kind of Prometheus or Promethean figure is rising up at the dawn and will perhaps move west and perhaps challenge the Judge, although we do not actually know that. That would be the only thing that might keep the Judge from being immortal.

Now I agree with Bloom that “implement with two handles” in Blood Meridian probably refers to “two-handed engine” in Milton’s Lycidas—Milton’s “two-handed engine” is “perhaps the most famous crux in English literature,” as Josyph quotes an editor observing, and McCarthy is sufficiently allusive that this can be simply presumed an allusion. The context in Milton’s poem is a prophecy delivered by St. Peter that the lupine corruptions of the clergy will soon be challenged:

Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake;
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
“How well could I have spar’d for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck’ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more”.

That this passage about bloody predation is of some tonal and imagistic relevance to Blood Meridian should be obvious. But whatever Milton means by “two-handed engine,” he is clear about who wields it: not Prometheus but Christ or God. This would accord well with my Catholic interpretation of the judge as master of unnatural acts and techno-artifice, the judge whose new fool and servant is a coldforger. In the epilogue, we have the coldforger’s opposite number, as much as the judge’s, a figure who is not exiled from fire but master of it, a figure who can summon the real value God has placed in nature to challenge the false value of the cold coiner. Not so cynical, not so Foucauldian, after all.

What is this novel? Nihilistic and skeptical, it appears at first. Gnostic, say some critics. Promethean, says Bloom. Let us entertain my fancy that is in fact deeply Christian—if this were obvious (and it is admittedly not), would the novel enjoy its current eminence? If I am right, McCarthy is lucky he has such an extraordinary way with words—so extraordinary that he is able to pass his true currency (according to his own valuation) for false in the marketplace.

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