Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

Outer Dark is Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, set in his native southern America and published in 1968, and it is certainly a product of its time and place. Reading this compendium of southern gothicry, it is as though William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor never died: the gargoyles are back in their blackened landscapes, gurning their way through a fractured, tortured existence, while God is in his isolated splendour watching the fall and fall and fall of man. If that sounds unduly dismissive, let me say that this may be McCarthy’s finest work; and it is certainly the one which is most important in terms of finding a way into the opaque world of this most peculiar author.

The basic plot is, as usual with McCarthy, pretty sparse. It opens with the incestuous birth of a child to brother and sister, Culla and Rinthy Holme. Culla is embarrassed by the birth, won’t allow anyone else to be present for it, and once the child is born he takes it into the woods and abandons it, telling his sister only that it was poorly and died. The child is subsequently found and taken by a tinker and Rinthy, not believing her brother’ story, sets out in search of it. Culla then sets of in search of her. Their respective quests are chronicled through the novel. In the case of Rinthy, in each meeting she finds hospitality and friendship. Culla, on the other hand, finds animosity and suspicion, is taken advantage of, is accused of crimes he has not committed, is robbed, and generally he struggles to exist.

Perhaps in pursuit, perhaps simply traversing this god-forsaken country for themselves, three strange, unexplained men or creatures weave in and out of the story, coming ever closer to the couple and their benighted child, until ultimately – this being Cormac McCarthy – there is a bloody and brutal (and largely unexplained) conclusion.

Dan Geddes calls Outer Dark a world ‘devoid of God’,[1] but this is a fundamental misinterpretation of McCarthy’s position, one that is consistently, if understandably made of his oeuvre. God is indeed largely absent in this novel, but that is by no means the same as saying the novel is devoid of his presence: on the contrary, God is a brooding, troubled, troublesome presence throughout this novel precisely because of his continued and high-profile absence. Even when he does feature, for example when a storekeeper refuses to serve Holme because, ‘We still christians here. You’ll have to come back a weekday,’ it serves only to amplify the godlessness of the main characters: immediately following this reverse, Holme is seen, ‘sat on a stone by the side of the road and with a dead stick [he] drew outlandish symbols in the dust.’ Meanwhile, a kindly woman asks Holme’s sister, Rinthy, ‘I don’t believe you been saved have ye?’ What we have, then, is a world of darkness, where morality is compromised and God is unkown and unknowable. The scene is set in the opening paragraphs, brooding and dark:

She shook him awake into the quiet darkness... She shook him awake from dark to dark, delivered out of the clamorous rabble under a black sun...

Once established, throughout this novel the darkness never ceases. We have ‘sunless’ woods, dark roads and cottages, blackness, death. Rinthy is described, ‘poised between the maw of the dead and loveless house and the outer dark like a frail thief.’ Outer Dark itself, of course, is a biblical reference, from Matthew 25:30 (‘And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’). This, then, is a very metaphysical darkness. Near the end, the tinker tells Rinthy: ‘Hard people makes hard times. I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.’ And this darkness is taken to its logical extreme with several references to blindness, that standard Southern Gothic trope for godlessness and lack of grace. In what could almost be a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, one character says:

In a world darksome as this’n I believe a blind man ort to be better sighted than most. I believe it’s got a good deal to recommend it. The grace of God don’t rest easy on a man. It can blind him easy as not.

Thus, although God is absent from the pages of this novel, it can be seen that his spirit most certainly is not. In later years, we are told, Holme ‘used to meet a blind man, ragged and serene, who spoke him a good day out of his constant dark.’ This blind man, the personification of a ‘prophet’ seen by Holme in a dream at the beginning of the book (and clearly, also, an early version of Ely in The Road), debates his blindness. ‘What needs a man to see his way when he’s sent there anyhow?’ he asks Holme. Hazel Motes, in his quiet room, could only have nodded blindly in agreement.

Christopher Metress elaborates on this element, describing it as a ‘nothingness’ at the novel’s centre. This he likens to a via negativa, a way of coming to know God through contemplating nothingness, through an examination of unknowing, through thinking of what God is not, rather than what he is.[2] Thus, God is shrouded in darkness. This is very different from Geddes’s view that Outer Dark is ‘devoid of God.’ In this theory, God certainly exists, but man cannot comprehend his mystery. For some characters in the novel, this is sufficient. An old man to whom Holme goes for shelter, for example, someone who ‘wouldn’t turn Satan away’, suggests, ‘Even a snake ain’t all bad. They’s put here fore some purpose. I believe they’s a purpose to everything.’

Holme, however, cannot see, and chooses not to. ‘I ain’t never much studied it,’ he replies. Thus, throughout the novel, in his rejection of attempts to understand he becomes increasingly embroiled in events that seem to gather around him in ever more chaotic and dangerous ways. He works – works hard – but never sees any reward. He is blamed when things go wrong – most catastrophically when the pigs being droved take fright and stampede over a cliff (another reference to the gospel of Matthew). Indeed, as he traverses the Appalachian countryside Holme is stalked by death, leaving behind him a trail of destruction. This is the unknown, unknowing God at work, and yet Culla is completely oblivious of it. So too is his sister, blithely passing through in her search for her child, incognisant of the goodness that attends her. We know not what we do, McCarthy is telling us.

As a message, this could almost be palatable. The concept of an omniscient but detached deity is commonly understood and, indeed, typical atheistic questions about ‘how a god could allow evil things to happen’ are every bit as facile as the unthinking veneration they purport to criticise. But McCarthy’s god is not as detached as it appears, and nor are McCarthy’s humans as free of will as might be supposed. Leo Daugherty has written persuasively about the gnostic tendencies of McCarthy’s writing, particularly in Blood Meridian.[3] Outer Dark, too, shows traces of gnosticism, with its seeming contention that there is evil abroad, an evil that, inescapably, surrounds everything that happens to this brother and sister and the tinker and the child. In so doing, McCarthy descends into mysticism, with the three strange travellers who track their way through the book, wreaking some form of vengeance on everyone with whom they come into contact. They are described in typically elliptical fashion, so one is never quite sure who or what they are. Indeed, at one stage McCarthy even describes them as ‘parodic’, suggesting he is perhaps playing with his readers in much the way that his most famous character, Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, might. Elsewhere, they attract more mythic description: ‘Like revenants that reoccur in lands laid waste with fever: spectral, palpable as stone.’ So there they are, warriors across time, wanderers through destruction, the messengers, perhaps, of the gods. Rich and inventive mythologising, some might argue; cheap pyrotechnics, others might counter.

But, in the end, these three figures are meaningless. They seem to inhabit the novel specifically to invest it with some immutable strangeness, to suggest that this novel – which is, at heart, a simple story of incest and love – is somehow speaking of greater things, telling deeper truths. It is easy to become seduced by McCarthy’s extraordinary prose, and to accept the mystery of these beings. But, in the end, they are mere, unthinking automatons. They fulfil precisely the same function as Chugurh in No Country For Old Men or the Glanton gang in Blood Meridian, or the cannibals of The Road: they represent the innate evil of humanity and the world – that, after all, being in gnostic terms the outcome of our Fall – the inability of man to achieve redemption, the impossibility of knowing God.

But again, like Flannery O’Connor before him, what McCarthy does is simply to create cartoons and caricatures. There is no emotional depth here. People die. There is suffering, pain. None of these characters exist, other than as vehicles for a message. For all the brilliance of McCarthy’s words, for all the metaphysical truth he wishes to impart, because of the shallowness of his approach, ultimately he says nothing of any consequence.

[References removed to deter plagiarism. If you wish to know a specific reference, email me and let me know.]


Court said...

New reader here - I'll be looking round at your archives in a moment.

I just wanted to say thank you for such a fine, in-depth review of Outer Dark . I, also, consider it McCarthy's finest work after Blood Meridian .

A quibble: I don't think the 3 characters laying waste to the darklands are meaningless. I try not to read too much symbology into McCarthy (futile, perhaps, or mistaken), so I take them simply to be avatars of the uneducated country folk turned loose from any moral or traditional bearings.

I read McCarthy with an eye not only to Faulkner's influence on him, but also Hemingway's. Which is to say, I think he aspires to a sort of "gothic minimalism"; so that he is constantly leaving out useful information in the pursuit of a certain aesthetic or emotional effect. There are likely any number of reasons why the 3 (and why there are 3) men are stalking the countryside; McCarthy just leaves it out, because he doesn't deem it important for us to know.

Thanks again for the excellent review.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks for commenting.

Yes, I think that’s an extremely valid point. There is undoubtedly a strong Hemingway influence on McCarthy’s writing, which I think I’ve mentioned before on here.

And you’re right, it’s more than a stylistic thing. It’s easy to dismiss Hemingway’s pared down writing as purely stylistic, but it’s more than that. Hills like white elephants, for example, says everything by saying nothing. I’m not sure these three people in Outer Dark are quite in that category, but it’s wrong to dismiss them quite as rapidly as I did, and I’ll reflect on that a bit more.

Thanks again for the observation. Very helpful.

Brad Green said...

A new reader here as well. I've subscribed to your RSS feed.

A wonderful review, however I'll disagree with your conclusion that McCarthy ultimately says nothing meaningful in this book. Meaning doesn't always have to have the luster of full emotional expression. Often meaning is just as potent and rich when it's slimmed down enough to slide into the tender crannies in which we spend our lives. Most of the world, I'd wager, doesn't live in so rich an emotional spectrum as most characters in high literature.

I wouldn't disagree that he employs characters as devices (namely, the three men in Outer Dark), but I really wonder if that book would be better if those men were exposed as human? Would it say more if we understood them, comprehended their motivations and pursuit?

Sometimes it's dangerous to humanize evil.

What if McCarthy were to write as a humanist? If he rendered evil in fully human terms? His work might lose some starkness, but adopt a different sort of entropic umbra. I don't think it'd be as good. It's the powerlessness inherent in his situations that lets the text rise above the language and perhaps endure. Without that he just becomes a dirty writer, a sort of brutalist with a rocking vocabulary.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Brad, and thanks for commenting. It's great to see some debate starting up.

Meaning doesn't always have to have the luster of full emotional expression. Often meaning is just as potent and rich when it's slimmed down enough to slide into the tender crannies in which we spend our lives. Most of the world, I'd wager, doesn't live in so rich an emotional spectrum as most characters in high literature.
Mmm, granted. But most of us don't live our lives like the characters here, either. If we have to look for a final message coming from this novel, what is it? I'm somewhat at a loss, to be honest, which may be my failing, of course. By establishing these nameless, unknown men/creatures, he is saying there is something unknowable in existence, beyond our understanding and control. Fair enough, I have no problem with that. Call it a God or just science, there is clearly something at play in our universe that is beyond man's understanding.

But here, with the unalloyed violence, the unalterable nature of the brutality as perpetrated by these figures, the only message one could take is that existence is inherently evil. That's not something I would subscribe to. I'm not sure if it's something McCarthy would subscribe to either - I don't want to put words in his mouth - but it is a fairly reasonable conclusion to reach on the basis of Outer Dark.

I wouldn't disagree that he employs characters as devices (namely, the three men in Outer Dark), but I really wonder if that book would be better if those men were exposed as human? Would it say more if we understood them, comprehended their motivations and pursuit?
Partly the same answer as above, I guess. I don't mind something not being spelled out by the author, but I still have to believe the author believes it means something. I'm not convinced he does. However, both you and Court in the previous comment are clearly suggesting you see a point to these characters, so I'm happy to go back and think again.

Sometimes it's dangerous to humanize evil.
Well, that's a fasinating point. Is evil anything other than a human construct, do you think?

What if McCarthy were to write as a humanist? If he rendered evil in fully human terms? His work might lose some starkness, but adopt a different sort of entropic umbra. I don't think it'd be as good.
Yes, I can see that. Blood Meridian, in particular, would suffer here. That novel really only works because judge Holden is outside of all human emotion and understanding.

Nonetheless, this is still where I have difficulty with McCarthy. He is establishing this 'other', this thing outside human experience and understanding, whether or not it's religion, and whether or not it's gnostic or a product of antinomianism or arising for some other reason, and he is expecting the reader to simply accept that it is there and immutable. I don't particularly accept that in real life, and so I don't in his fiction.

As I said, thanks to both for the great debate. I think there's a lot to understand in McCarthy, and discussing it is the best way.



Brad Green said...

the only message one could take is that existence is inherently evil.

Or that man is. I don't believe he intends this to be our conclusion, because he does interject hope and compassion into his works, but it's rare and often fleeting. What's pervasive is the evil that swells into absence left by a departed? unknowable? god.

Is evil anything other than a human construct, do you think?

Well, my Daddy always used to tell me not to pick up that hissing, sparking electrical line snaking across the parking lot. But here goes.

I believe that one can consider evil of certain sorts as something other than a human construct, yes. It's not that I believe in the Devil. I think that as our senses funnel the immensity of the universe into a form which our brains can manage, our deeper, unconscious mind (think Jung, or Viktor Frankl or any number of Eastern philosophies) not only funnels, but also manifests reality that we apprehend and reality that exceeds our capacities because that unconscious mind is infinite as well. Evil can come from this realm. Even though ultimately it is human-generated (if you employ the term very loosely), it is generated outside the abilities of our consciousness to apprehend, thus we're relatively able to say that evil can lie outside us in that it is beyond our faculties to see otherwise.

We always tend to ascribe some human knowable reason to an action. We do it to gods all the time. We really need a reason for the three men in Outer Dark to behave the way that they do, yet McCarthy doesn't ever provide that for us. This reduces the humanity of the characters, makes them appear as if they are serving only as vehicles for a violence that McCarthy wants perpetrated within the book, but really those three men are still very human, still very much characters, but they are operating outside our conscious. We simply can't understand them.

As readers we want to call them constructs, dismiss them as a writerly failing. McCarthy may be brave enough to cripple his work in the service of larger truth.

That's one way to read his work.

Tom Conoboy said...

Facinating reply. Yes, I can certainly see the interpretation you suggest, and it seems highly plausible. And I think you're right to point out that humans have a tendency to want to understand everything, and as a result try to 'humanise' any problem - that is, to ascribe some human reasons to it. So I can certainly see an argument that the three men are representative of what lies outside our understanding.

Nonetheless, the rationalist in me kicks against it. It's creating an 'other' with which to instil fear. Many years ago, when I was a child back home in Scotland, every year at potato harvest time the town would be invaded by Traveller Folk for the tattie picking. They would take up a whole area of wasteland in the centre of town. I was scared of them, and my mother used to say to me 'behave or the tinks will get you' and 'the tinks steal bad boys away' and stuff like that. Tink was the pejorative term for the Travellers.

In later years, of course, I realised that the Travellers were very decent folk with a strong sense of family. Moreover, I learned, much later, that my mother was very friendly with them. When she was a child her best friend was a Traveller and she was forbidden from playing with her, but she repeatedly did, for which she was often found out because she caught lice from her, which her father washed out with paraffin. Still, my mother played with her friend.

There is a point to this reminiscence... My mother liked the Travellers, knew them to be good, but she turned them into something frightening for me, made them representatives of some dark force. She turned something she knew to be good into something to be feared.

It always strikes me that this is what the more Calvinist Protestant or fundamental Catholic observers tend to do with religion. They presumably believe in the goodness of their God, but surround him with darkness and evil and impenetrable, unknowable, inexplicable danger. I don't really understand why they would do that. Flannery O'Connor's God, for example, is someone I would never wish to meet, and I cannot see anything in him which would command reverence.

Of course it could be argued that in such cases the evil being warned against isn't in the realm of the God (ie I am humanising the problem again). But that comes back to the notion that the evil resides purely in humanity. This brings us back to the argument of gnosticism. As you point out:

I don't believe he intends this [man is inherently evil] to be our conclusion, because he does interject hope and compassion into his works, but it's rare and often fleeting.

But he creates these avatars of evil. They're like the Boogie Men of gnosticism, and it becomes difficult to see anything other than a gnostic reading of the work.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review. I appreciate the gnostic references, as this is the 4th McCarthy I've read, so far it seems the most like Blood Meridian.

About the three strangers, they almost seem to be a manifestation of some great counter balance to Culla. When someone shows the slightest bit of kindness or even receptiveness toward him, they quickly die afterwards. Clark, the first squire, the snake hermit, all murdered by the three after talking to Culla, and the Tinker also, though the association is a bit more vague, and I believe may have been more vehicular to evoke that ending.

About god, it is strange to say, and god here may be a greater term that a man in the sky, perhaps god in terms of the 'Gaia Construct' where the world is god, but about god, I believe a god is completely present here. I am scientifically inclined as they come, so this is not a Mormon at your doorstep type of post, but the sin of Culla and Rinthy's union is constantly punished. The baby is struck by lightning in the woods at the beginning, it does not say that exactly, but its burns are healed by 6 months old, it is missing an eye, which may have been a work of the 3, but it is a scarred thing by the end of the book, and that coupled with Culla's deadly touch, those previously mentioned, and the drover on the cliffs, the rider and ferryman, it seems as if punishment to Culla's compounded sins is that he is death personified in his world, and he has become the blind man he meets at the end, wandering sightless in terms of motives, never having any idea whatsoever where he is going, coming to the swamp and having to turn around on the final page of the book, showing he will never change. Great book, just bought the Crossing, hoping for continued splendor.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks for this. Interesting stuff.

Yes, there is a darkness about Outer Dark which is in keeping with Blood Meridian.

The three strangers: that's an interesting notion. You're certainly right about Culla's ability to bring disaster on anyone who shows him kindness. This, of course, is in contrast to Rinthy, who is shown kindness throughout and those who grant it don't come to any grief.

God as Gaia: again, that's an interesting idea, and there is some merit to it. Certainly, McCarthy consistently refers to the ancients and to the oldness of the earth and so on. Guillemin looks at this in his work, the Pastoral Vision of CMc.

At to whether God is present or not, well if he is he certainly is a gnostic god, because he doesn't make his presence felt. He is pretty impotent.

it seems as if punishment to Culla's compounded sins is that he is death personified in his world, and he has become the blind man he meets at the end,
Again, that's a fascinating interpretation. Certainly worth thinking about.

Great stuff, thanks a lot for this.

Kim said...

I am half way through reading this book (having already read it a couple of years back) and the blog and comments has certainly deepened my understanding.
One thing that stands out very vividly for me, and which hasn't been mentioned so much, is anger. It comes across as though originating in some sort of deep frustration. There is certainly a vengeful feel to the writing. Does this arise from the author, or from his view of god? I don't know.
People have mentioned the idea of god as being impotent and fairly removed from the story. I subscribed to this idea when I first read outer dark. I don't think it even occurred to me that god played any part.
Reading outer dark a second time I now see the entire cast of the story (rather than god) as being morally impotent, almost primitive in their way of thinking. The way in which they unleash violence and misery on themselves is almost banal. The anger I talked about before is somehow separate to this and belongs to something else. I think in this way perhaps the author manages to say more about god indirectly and through lack of explanation, and if this was his intention then it is a humble way of approaching the subject.
All of this being the case, outer dark is an incredible parody of the world in which we live, at least as I see it.

Tom Conoboy said...

Kim, I'm not sure about anger. I'm not sure there's that much anger in Outer Dark. Lots of violence, sure, but is there anger?

The lack of God or godness in the story: God is certainly not present in the novel, but godness, or goodness is. It's not very powerful but it's there, and it mostly follows Rinthy. Culla is pursued by trouble wherever he goes, but Rinthy finds nothing but goodness and good intentions. Much good it does her, of course, so there certainly does seem to be something here about the difficulty of goodness sustaining itself in human society.

thanks for your very interesting comments.

Luther Blissett said...

Excellent review.

I'm working my way through 'The Road' a second time and I'm slightly shocked how many features of the 'Outer Dark' re-appear in it. Everything from the opening dream, the blind man, the roasted baby, wandering the wasteland, the themes of darkness, naming, and the mood of existential/gnostic doom, ect....

The major difference is that McCarthy was a 70-year old with a young son when he wrote The Road and so his cynicism must necessarily be trumped by sentimental hope. When McCarthy was only 35 back in '68 he could still end the book with a dead baby.

I agree with the "cheap pyrotechnics" summary, it sounds harsh but it is my impression too. McCarthy's books are an intoxicating mix of lean muscular prose and archaic words, pulp violence sprinkled with tid-bits of mysticism (tarot cards, religious terminology, ect...) but underneath the depths are not as deep as they appear.

The parts in The Road with the dead wife (aka McCarthy's recently divorced wife) and Ely are clunky and self-serving. And I find too much American fiction obsessed not just with the "mystery" of human evil but in preserving that supposed mystery. I like a good theodicy as much as the next guy but there is some bad faith in the way it this is often done. I have noted that real-life serial killers seem to have the same investment in keeping their violence "mysterious" and "unexplainable" and therefore quasi-mystical rather than pathetic and guilt-inducing.

The final moral of The Road is "be thankful for what you have" and "there might be a God" according to McCarthy himself when he was talking to Oprah. I would add "don't kill your kid, kill strangers to protect your kid", "distrust women", "fishing creates good boyhood memories" and "it is good to be lucky." All together these are pretty thin insights from a harrowing trip to the final days of planetary extinction. And pretty thin for a man who spent his lifetime exploring the darkside of Americana.

On the topic of luck, I recently discovered that McCarthy was originally named Charles but changed his name to Cormac to match the medieval Irish king who was given the famously lucky Blarney Stone. I suspect this is why the Boy finds a new cowboy father at the end of The Road (rather than a pack of cannibals), he has inherited his father's luck.

A quasi-religious faith in personal luck is fine for millionaires - and practically mandatory for American millionaires - but the rest of us need something less primitive.