Wednesday, May 27, 2009

McCarthy's western migration towards a blood meridian (1)

It is tempting to see Cormac McCarthy’s mid-career migration westward as an embrace of the Western tradition and his four Western novels – Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy of All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain – as a modern, literary expression of common American myths relating to the nature of quest, to manifest destiny, to the pioneering spirit that moulded America. Certainly, many of McCarthy’s more mainstream readers – those who were seduced by the relative optimism of All The Pretty Horses – have developed a kind of starry-eyed adoration of the author and remain largely oblivious of the deep undercurrents in his work. It is, however, immediately evident that McCarthy’s Western novels, although different in tone from his earlier Southern novels, still inhabit the same uneasy metaphysical territory and whatever myths are being aired in them, they do not relate simply to the common affairs of men or the vices and failings of the inhabitants of the ‘cities of the plain’. As ever, McCarthy’s vision is broader and his target remains supernatural. But what message he is seeking to convey is typically opaque.

In some respects, McCarthy’s relocation is unsurprising. Throughout his career he has focused on outsiders, outlaws – from Sylder in The Orchard Keeper and Lester Ballard in Child of God onwards – and so it seems entirely natural that he should migrate to the wild west, that untamed landscape peopled in myth and legend by the greatest outlaws of them all. In the Border Trilogy, McCarthy’s outlaws are classic standard bearers for the traditional western, outsiders with steely resolution, with a sense of mission, even destiny, and hard, uncompromising men, unafraid of combat but possessed, deep down, of a sense of decency. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are classic, white-hatted western heroes. Their tribulations as they cross and re-cross the wilderness of America can be viewed as archetypal rites of passage. John Grady finds love, for example, but knows it must defer to his sense of mission: this is a man’s world and, as John Wayne would say, ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.’ Similarly, Billy Parham is driven, first by a sense of animistic honour to return the wolf to its natural habitat, and then by a humanist urge to return the body of his brother to their family home. The novels are, in many ways, entirely typical of the genre.

But even here, one senses that McCarthy is using the genre for his own ends. The Border Trilogy may appear straightforward, but it does not require detailed analysis before indications to the contrary appear. McCarthy is not interested in lionising these outlaws, or in perpetuating the myths of their untamed spirit. These are not heroes. Mr Johnson, in Cities of the Plain, makes it clear:

They kept comin west and about the time they got here was about the time Sam Colt invented the sixshooter and it was the first time these people could afford a gun you could carry around in your belt. That’s all there ever was to it. It had nothin to do with the country at all. The west. They’d of been the same it dont matter where they might of wound up.

The line, ‘nothin to do with country,’ echoes John Grady Cole’s lament at the end of All The Pretty Horses, ‘I dont know what happens to country.’ All he is seeking, a sense of belonging, a sense of order, some reason for the chaos of living, is unattainable. A similar, but more prosaic, sentiment is suggested by Toadvine in Blood Meridian, when he complains, "You wouldnt think that a man would run plumb out of country out here, would ye?" Even in these vast expanses, McCarthy is telling us, man cannot escape the inevitable. Back in his native Tennessee, McCarthy’s first outlaw, Marion Sylder in The Orchard Keeper, warned us that ‘they aint no more heroes’, but it is with his western novels that McCarthy explores this claim most fully. All there are are men and the world, and the world is not about to accommodate any man, no matter how possessed he is of courage or determination.

What McCarthy is doing with these western novels, then, is turning the standard mythology on its head. He is using the conventions of the form, but simultaneously subverting them. As Sara L. Spurgeon notes, ‘[h]is voice and the frontier heroes he creates are both a continuance of the tradition of Western writing and a dark and complex counterpoint to it.’ Bent Sørensen concurs, suggesting that with Blood Meridian McCarthy is ‘demythologizing and remythologizing the American West,’ while John Cant observes that, ‘[i]n classic deconstructionist mode, McCarthy writes in mythic form in order to deconstruct American mythology.’ The question that we must address, then, is why? When one considers the extraordinary savagery of Blood Meridian, the hell of nihilistic despair which attends it, one is left to question exactly what drove Cormac McCarthy to create it. Simply ‘subverting the myth of the American west’ is insufficient as an answer. There must be more to Blood Meridian than that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your responses to my McCarthy posts, and pardon me for over-doing it in some respects. (I have never been good at blogging for that reason; I am a terrible editor of my own writing.) I just happened across this other thread and find it thoughtful and engaging. By happenstance, I think that my existing posts address these questions rather directly. So, rather than reiterate these, I'll just add that I think your questions might be pregnant with their own answers.

McCarthy's opacity of message is probably due to the fact that he a questioner in a time of socio-spiritual disorder (-hence my bombastic statement about his being a prophet). I think that he is himself struggling with where meaning can be found if the old sources of order no longer do the trick, and so in reimagining the American mythos (with reference to the Western canon at large) he is not quite up to the task of providing direct answers-- other than that we should all be asking more questions (and not just shopping). Better put, providing such answers misses the whole point.

That said, and as we agree, The Road is rather lame because he does give us trite answers... and I hope he doesn't continue down that path. I agree that Suttree is probably his finest work. Let's hope the new novel has its own Sut (or even two).

As an aside, I am reading Absalom! Absalom! and can’t help but feeling there might be a paper in it somewhere with reference to Suttree. Aside from the obvious Faulknerian stylistic connections, the Sutpen name, and crumbling family dynasty idea, I think there’s something in there even if it more thematic than intertextual (-like Suttree as the anti-Sutpen). Anyway I throw it out there since you’re in Southern Literature.

By the way, I love short stories (O’Connor, Vonnegut, Borges are some favorites)— can you direct me to an online link of any of yours?

Thanks in either case,
-Carlos