Monday, May 17, 2010

American exceptionalism

The general thrust of John Cant's analysis of the works of Cormac McCarthy is that he is attacking those myths that can be characterised as "American exceptionalism" and the kind of triumphalism that attends notions of manifest destiny. I think it's a pretty persuasive analysis. There is clearly a great deal of anti-mythologising in his works, in the ways that he inverts typical tropes - of the western in Blood Meridian, the thriller in No Country and so on - and this is certainly significant. However, while I accept this is part of his message, I was (and am) unconvinced that this is the main thrust of his writing. It seems clear to me that the religious philosophising that suffuses his books is so prevalent it must take precedence.

However, that is me reading McCarthy in the context of a British person, living in the United Kingdom. What I do not bring to my reading is the specifically American context, and I recognise that this is important. This was brought home to me today by an article in The Guardian about the religious right in the US. They have taken control of the Education Board in Texas and are in the process of re-writing the school curriculum to reflect their views of history. These views, of course, are largely compatible with the notion of American exceptionalism. The article notes:

The board is to vote on a sweeping purge of alleged liberal bias in Texas school textbooks in favour of what [Cynthia] Dunbar says really matters: a belief in America as a nation chosen by God as a beacon to the world, and free enterprise as the cornerstone of liberty and democracy.

Cynthia Dunbar is a lawyer, and a leading activist in the conservative movement. She makes this chilling observation:
"We are fighting for our children's education and our nation's future," Dunbar said. "In Texas we have certain statutory obligations to promote patriotism and to promote the free enterprise system. There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God. We had to go back and make some corrections."

Naturally, running alongside this agenda is the promulgation in schools of creationism. The article quotes Dunbar:

"The only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the founding fathers at the time of our government's inception comes from a biblical worldview," she wrote. "We as a nation were intended by God to be a light set on a hill to serve as a beacon of hope and Christian charity to a lost and dying world."

I think it is instructive to read McCarthy in the light of these reactionary developments. Whatever McCarthy's religious beliefs (and they depend on what day it is, according to his Oprah interview), his work is a clear renunciation of the sort of stunted claptrap being espoused by the religious right in Texas. John Cant's interpretation may be more accurate - and more important - than I realised.


Mark P said...

Great post. This topic is fascinating to me, and I would write more except that I am currently in the midst of the Arizona desert far from regular internet (twelve miles from the border, actually), and I'd rather not be thinking about 'Blood Meridian' at the moment.

I will only say that my thesis adviser from college was an American intellectual historian. He is a conservative evangelical Christian, but one of the primary thrusts of his study is to disassociate Christian and America and to confound nationalistic attempts to merge the two like the disturbing and vulgar example you give. God help (forgive?) us if Cynthia Dunbar gets to teach our kids history.

I would also say that McCarthy's whole writing suggests a renunciation of the noble savage and of Progress, and that his understanding of man very much aligns with the Catholic and Christian idea of sin (though it tends to ignore the Catholic and Christian ideas of grace and, even more, the Imago Dei).

Ken Hannahs said...

I'd like to read Cant's critique. Could you cite the source, please?

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Mark - watch out in that desert!!

McCarthy and Catholicism: I find that an interesting one. You're right about the lack of grace in his work. And overall, I don't find a huge strain of Catholicism at all. On the contrary, he seems consistently to be trying to talk himself out of it. He certainly sees evil in the world, but whether that equates to Catholic sin, original or otherwise, I'm not at all sure.

Ken, John Cant's ideas are in his book, Cormac McCarthy and the Myth of American Exceptionalism

You can get it from Amazon:

But it's not cheap, so you might want to try your local library. It's a good book, though.

Ken Hannahs said...

thanks for your help!

William said...

Cant's thesis seems to be true enough, but in being true still misses the most important work being writ through McCarthy's work. For yes, while Cormac inverts tropes and mythic types, he is actually creating new Myths- not however for the explicit purpose of reversing commercialized American fantasies- that happens to be a mere side effect. The depth (and importance) of McCarthy's mythologizing compared to the spaghetti western archetypes he happens to demolish, are like comparing the story of Job in the Bible to the Little Mermaid by Disney.

McCarthy is not interested in mining history for a "hit" as much as he is trying to make sense of deep, bottomlessly deep savageness in the human spirit- the kinds of stark experiences that no religion- no gnosticism, catholicism, etc has the power any longer to explain (and while McCarthy is thoroughly aware of all such systems, claims none of them).

So yes, I agree that the "purpose" of McCarhty's work, especially Blood Meridian, goes beyond an attack on American Exceptionalism and even Relgion into the primal realm of timeless Mythology, in the grand sense of that word, with an historical America only as a superficial setting.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi William, thanks for this.

Yes, I agree that McCarthy's material is human nature itself, and the propensity for evil in the world. John Cant calls him a "religious writer in a godless world". I'm not sure McCarthy would agree that the world is godless, but whatever God there may be, he is certainly not able to prevent the evil that surrounds us. I think that's one of McCarthy's main messages.

foxofbama said...


Couple notes from across the pond.
One, I am convinced to understand Texas and this school board mess, you must go all the way back to the Texas Regulars candidate Coke Stevenson and his defeat by LBJ in 1948. Sidney Blumenthat had great analysis in the New Republic magazine in early 90's, taking issue with Robert Caro's three volume work on LBJ.
The religious right headset I think it fair to say McCarthy abhors is gotten at in the writings of Hal Crowther on Jesse Helms; one of them you can turn up online, and the most recent in an unflinching indictment in current issue of the Oxford American Magazine, the one founded by John Grisham.
Crowther is big fan of Cormac, like me and you and most of your readers.
Great quote you have below on the Breath of God; and I am delighted you have read Bloom's The American Religion.
Would love to see what you make of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. I think there is a fair analogy of the world of Jesse Helms and the Texas Text Regulars and troglodytes to that Haneke revealed in small hamlet pre WWI.
Will drop by again soon.
Hope things otherwise are well.

Stephen Fox said...

And this passing reference to McCarthy may nuance this discussion; pretty interesting overview of the core of the question:

And, of course, James Wood's Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief is big part of the canon on this matter.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello again Stephen, and thanks very much for these obervations. Fascinating stuff.

I suspect you're right about needing to go back through history to understand what's going on. Thanks for your brief run-through here. I'll check some of the references you mention, especially the Haneke.

thanks again and best wishes