Monday, November 30, 2009

The Waste Land and Suttree

And another echo of Suttree:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)

This, I think, is an interesting one, because Eliot's modernist warning seems to have echoes of the malevolence that is hidden behind the humour and warmth of Suttree.


Anonymous said...

Hey Tom,
I have always seen the prologue to Suttree as being a sort of announcement to McCarthy's readers about his view of the West's broad pnuemapathology, and not just a device of tone and setting for Suttree: "A curtain is rising on the western world. A fine rain of soot, dead beetles, anonymous small bones. The audience sits webbed in dust. … Ruder forms survive." More specifically to your point, the prologue has a devil/death figure, a faceless and nameless "thing" wandering the city dark, a “carder of souls”. –While I pulled definite attributes from the text for simplicity, all of these are posed as questions (“…can you guess his shape?” “…what’s the counter of his face?”), providing the same unsettling malevolence as is found in the “Wasteland”. The narrator admonishes us: “Dear friend he is not to be dwelt upon for it is by just suchwise that he’s invited in.”
In addition to the prologue, there are interspersed throughout the text of Suttree dream sequences and dark meanderings by the narrator that have a similarity to this extra presence you point out in Eliot's “Wasteland”. For example, when Suttree is passed out in the drunk tank:
"By the side of a dark dream road he'd seen a hawk nailed to a barn door. But what loomed was a flayed man with his brisket tacked open like a cooling beef and his skull peeled, blue and bulbous and palely luminescent...". "Beyond the flayed man dimly adumbrate another figure paled, for his surgeons move about the world even as you and I." (P. 86 – Vintage soft cover)
The combined images of the (let’s say) crucified hawk and man hanging disemboweled at the hands of knowledgeable participants lend themselves to larger interpretations about the implied author’s view of the world, however, for these limited purposes we might venture a simple assertion. The narrator’s direct speech to the reader in both the prologue and the quoted passage show that these sections are special. The content therein transcends the conventions of the novel to speak directly to the audience with the hopes that the ‘webs of dust’ might be shaken off. (-Wake up!) In this regard, I think the Wasteland has much relevance, as both works have that ‘warning’ you mention, implicit in their visions of Western spiritual degradation.

Thanks for your time,

Tom Conoboy said...

Carlos, great stuff, thanks.

I'm coming to the conclusion that Suttree is McCarthy's best work, because it's neither hopeful nor pessimistic. Blood Meridian, for all its merits, offers simply no prospect of anything other than despair, while The Road's vision of hope feels bolted on and unconvincing. But in Suttree, Sut has strengths and weaknesses, confronts his demons, provides a realistic link between everyday reality and the alternative view of the world, be it pneumopathological or a gnostic, immanentised world.

Great detail on the prologue, thanks, and the voices throughout. I agree, they are a warning to us all.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tom,

I hope you're well. I re-read Suttree after our discussion. It was fun and definitely worth it, as I read it years ago and have grown and learned a lot since then. I was able to catch a lot of what I missed the first time. Actually, I think there a paper in it (-probably already written, but I've not yet read commentary on Suttree). Re the above mentioned devil or death figure in the prologue: by now you've probably seen that it comes into play in the final page. The hound and huntsman anology is selected (from among the many pseudonyms in the prologue including "carder of souls") to denote how the human soul is chased by this eater of souls where ever one goes.

In the end, Suttree is getting out, to where-ever, away from the death and moral wreckage that forms the scenic background and foreground of McAnally Flats, despite the moments of pure humanity to be found there. The last sentence in the novel: "Fly them" can, in perfectly McCarthy-esque dual tonality and grammatical dexterity, refer to either the 'hounds' chasing souls (-as in, take ur leave, beat ahead of them at your heels), and also can refer to the souls (-as in, lift them away from the moral turpitude that slows and makes fodder for the hellhounds nipping at your heels).

While I certainly have come to see the Gnostic thread in McCarthy through a better lens with the help of your insights and that of other participants, my recent studies confirm in my mind that McCarthy's take on the Gnostic impulse is of something everpresent, powerful, but to be avoided. I think this is on view in Suttree, however obliquely (as it's not a major theme in Sutree in my opinion), when in the last pages in the razing of McAnally Flats to make way for the super-highway, the workmen are denominated as "Gnostic". This phrasing is associated with the image of the structurally incomplete "highway to nowhere"; the future of progress through gnosis as a false modality. In its turn, then, this insight may be juxtaposed with what the narrator says about the other McAnally that would remain for another 1000 years. In other words, the moral wreckage is of another time scale entirely from the 'progress' of steel and concrete, and it will persist even as the new structures rise and then fade into oblivion.

In a like regard, I think the last 20 pages of the novel (in various passages) reflect that the Prologue can, indeed, be viewed as an announcement of Western pneumapathology, played-out among the slumping facades of the mid-century Flats.

I will say, in reference to my earlier postings about McCarthy and Gnosticism, that I think a somewhat valid distinction may be made- if you'll pardon the hubris- between MaCarthy's discursive view of the Gnostic impulse, versus his implied view. In other words, when he's 'talking to us' (at least in the novels I am presently studying), he's NOT a believer in Gnosticism. But when he is riding the creative djinn to where it leads, he often falls into lovely, imaginatively precise Gnostic speculation built into this or that passage. The hubris in such a statement is obvious for (as I believe you once said, Tom-), we prefer to assume that a master or even a good author has chosen his words precisely to achive the desired meaning and affect. I agree, but as a poet, I also believe fundamentally in the creative force of the word, and the lyrisicm in authors such as McCarthy does sometimes take precedence over a perfect explication of discursive meaning. And so it should be- I'll take that ride, and pick-up a philosophy tomb when I am in such a mood.

Thanks for your time,

Tom Conoboy said...

Good to hear from you again, and that's an excellent post. I think you nail it in that last para. I've just finished re-reading Suttree as well, and although the 'gnostic' presence of the hunter is there as strongly as it is in (the earlier) Outer Dark and (the later) Blood Meridian, the way it is presented feels different. And I think you're right that he is not - here anyway - a believer in the gnostic impulse.

And yet... This is clearly something that McCarthy feels so strongly about, as it is threaded through his work from start to finish. It is an obsession. In my view it compromises his art. Suttree is interesting because, for me, the gnosticism is less laboured than in the other work, as though his innate pessimism has somehow been mitigated. That said, I do think the ending is pretty pessimistic.

Anyway, thanks again. Lots of food for thought here.


Carlos said...

Hi Tom,

Regarding the hunter as Gnostic symbolism: do you mean it emerges from McCarthy's texts in such a way? -Or, that one of the Gnostic traditions has such a symbol? -Or, do you mean the four horsemen of John's apocolypse (-or another textual connection from a book not 'accepted' into the bible)?

I mean this question in all earnestness, and am not trying to sucker you into a huge debate (-at the root, I think we have different notions of what comprises Gnosis, reflecting the widespread debate on the same topic.)

Instead, I just want to understand your view of McCarthy's Gnostic thread. Is the hunter-hunted image an implied Gnostic symbolism in your view? If so, how so? Or, is there a textual connection?

(By the way, I am guessing you saw the Pythagorean Gnostic reference on P. 457-58... but it's buried in a fever sequence, so has less discursive value, I think.)

In either case, thanks for your time.

Carlos said...

Ps. I came across your thread "Towards modern gnosticism - transcendence and immanence" published in July of last year, and I think it helps explain to some extent our diverging views on the Voegelin/McCarthy relation. Thanks, I hope you're well.

Tom Conoboy said...

I meant in McCarthy's texts. It would be interesting to find some literal examples of hunters in gnostic texts, but I haven't so far.

Carlos said...

So do you mean that the soul as being constantly hunted, hounded by malevolent forces, speaks to a fallen world- the Gnostic idea of creation as an evil veil for the divine spark?

If so, I can see the logic of that interpretation, but I can't say that I'd follow it. At least not in Suttree. To me the evil in Suttree is already present in the heart of man: "...lo the thing's inside and can you guess his shape? Where he’s kept or what’s the counter of his face?" (p.4-5), or else is part of the world (like a devil figure) but doesn't necessarily comprise the entire veil of reality: "Dear friend he is not to be dwelt upon for it is just suchwise that he's invited in." (Id.)

In either case, I think our shared notion that McCarthy is wrestling with the Gnostic impulse and as you said, hasn't decided exactly how he feels about it-- that goes a long way toward explaining why either interpretation may have validity.

Please excuse me if I have put words in your mouth.


Tom Conoboy said...

I don't agree with McCarthy that evil has to be present in the heart of man. In the heart of a man yes, but man in general I don't accept. I guess that's my central difference with him.

So, when he writes: "...lo the thing's inside and can you guess his shape? Where he’s kept or what’s the counter of his face?"

That is classic gnostic symbolism, this 'shape'. Hans Jonas talks of pseudomorphosis, a geological phenomenon when something disintegrates and a new substance forms in the hollow that has been left, and so takes on some of its appearance. Jonas used the idea to describe the shift from the hellenic era into the modern world, something which resulted in some of the gnostic impulses entering our minds.

It seems to me that McCarthy is doing something similar. In the shape where once resided the human soul, something new has taken root, part soul, part alienated sense of helplessness, perhaps even evil. And so, as we are discussing on the Blood Meridian thread, we have a soul in limbo, without prospect of redemption, but also - in McCarthy's view but not mine - fatally infected with gnostic alienation.

Carlos said...

Right on- there's the meat I knew was there. Looking at McCarthy's whole body of work, that last paragraph makes a lot of sense to me. I say this even as a lover of his writings, and someone who is studying his explorations of how new saving tale(s) might be forged. Thanks for this, Tom.

It remains so interesting to me how he wrestles with the Gnostic impulse, sometimes explicitly striking out against it with discursive clarity, while the arc of his work embodies it in certain fundamental ways.

Perhaps this phenomenon is akin to the psychological idea of projection: that we often push outward at that inner part of us that bothers us the most.

(My old profs are probably rolling in their retirement chairs, as such psycho-babble applied to a work of art would probably damage their ears... .) Still.