Monday, April 18, 2011

Children and Indians in McCarthy and James Fenimore Cooper

The fate of children in the novels of Cormac McCarthy is not generally advantageous. They seldom survive. In Outer Dark, the offspring of Rinthy and Culla is killed by Harmon and the Triune. Suttree’s son dies. Blood Meridian is awash with the blood of slaughtered children. In The Road one is eaten. The common thread is the lack of sentimentality with which McCarthy describes their fates. He doesn’t labour to describe the brutality or the unique horror of such a crime. He doesn’t attempt to explain the impact on the other characters. All of this increases the power of the passages. By not describing, he forces the reader to picture the scene.

It is interesting to compare McCarthy’s technique with James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. Consider this scene:

The savages now fell back, and seemed content to let their enemies advance without further molestation. But, as the female crowd approached them, the gaudy colors of a shawl attracted the eyes of a wild and untutored Huron. He advanced to seize it without the least hesitation. The woman, more in terror than through love of the ornament, wrapped her child in the coveted article, and folded both more closely to her bosom. Cora was in the act of speaking, with an intent to advise the woman to abandon the trifle, when the savage relinquished his hold of the shawl, and tore the screaming infant from her arms. Abandoning everything to the greedy grasp of those around her, the mother darted, with distraction in her mien, to reclaim her child. The Indian smiled grimly, and extended one hand, in sign of a willingness to exchange, while, with the other, he flourished the babe over his head, holding it by the feet as if to enhance the value of the ransom.

"Here -- here -- there -- all -- any -- everything"! exclaimed the breathless woman, tearing the lighter articles of dress from her person with ill-directed and trembling fingers; "take all, but give me my babe"!

The savage spurned the worthless rags, and perceiving that the shawl had already become a prize to another, his bantering but sullen smile changing to a gleam of ferocity, he dashed the head of the infant against a rock, and cast its quivering remains to her very feet. For an instant the mother stood, like a statue of despair, looking wildly down at the unseemly object, which had so lately nestled in her bosom and smiled in her face; and then she raised her eyes and countenance toward heaven, as if calling on God to curse the perpetrator of the foul deed. She was spared the sin of such a prayer for, maddened at his disappointment, and excited at the sight of blood, the Huron mercifully drove his tomahawk into her own brain. The mother sank under the blow, and fell, grasping at her child, in death, with the same engrossing love that had caused her to cherish it when living.

Horrible, to be sure, but for me the drama of the scene is diluted by the excursion into analysis of the woman’s sensibilities. The invocation of God as witness removes the immediacy of the moment, and the love that the woman feels for her child, as strong in death as it was in life, would be more powerfully felt if it was left unsaid. What is happening is that Cooper is lifting the reader out of the immediate narrative by an omniscience which is unnecessary and intrusive. The true horror is felt when the reader feels as though he is there observing. Something of that connection is lost when the woman’s thoughts, which the reader-observer cannot know, are brought into the narrative.

There then follows a massacre, as the Indians go on the rampage. Again, it is instructive to compare McCarthy and Cooper. This is the attack on the camp in Last of the Mohicans:

At that dangerous moment, Magua placed his hands to his mouth, and raised the fatal and appalling whoop. The scattered Indians started at the well-known cry, as coursers bound at the signal to quit the goal; and directly there arose such a yell along the plain, and through the arches of the wood, as seldom burst from human lips before. They who heard it listened with a curdling horror at the heart, little inferior to that dread which may be expected to attend the blasts of the final summons.

More than two thousand raving savages broke from the forest at the signal, and threw themselves across the fatal plain with instinctive alacrity. We shall not dwell on the revolting horrors that succeeded. Death was everywhere, and in his most terrific and disgusting aspects. Resistance only served to inflame the murderers, who inflicted their furious blows long after their victims were beyond the power of their resentment. The flow of blood might be likened to the outbreaking of a torrent; and as the natives became heated and maddened by the sight, many among them even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exultingly, hellishly, of the crimson tide.

And this is Blood Meridian:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones, and some among the company had begun to saw back on their mounts and some to mill in confusion when up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers bearing shields bedight with bits of broken mirrorglass that cast a thousand unpieced suns against the eyes of their enemies. A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of unifrom still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat work backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Oh my god, said the sergeant.

The tendency to judge is strong in the Cooper. Magua’s whoop is “appalling”, the yells of the Indians are like nothing human, they are “raving savages” who “hellishly” drink the blood of their vanquished. There is no doubt here where the poles of right and wrong reside. And again, as with the appeal to God in the previous scene, there is a precise correlation with Christian judgement, with the horrific sounds bearing comparison with the Last Trump at Armageddon. The same can be seen in the McCarthy, but to a lesser extent. Again, the Indians’ yells are barbarous. But, while Cooper is at pains to describe their godlessness, McCarthy’s Indians are instead grotesques. The scene is “death hilarious” and the Indians are even compared to clowns: this juxtaposition of terror and childish entertainment is particularly chilling. Where Cooper described the Indians’ screams invoking terror “little inferior” to the Last Judgement, McCarthy goes even further, describing the sight of the Indians as “more horrible” than the Christian hell. But in this description, McCarthy is not being judgemental in the way that Cooper is. In Last of the Mohicans, we are being directed by Cooper to view the scene in a particular way. There is nothing of this proselytising in Blood Meridian. The action is described as it happens and the only response we are invited to share is the sergeant’s helpless “Oh my god.”

There is nothing the reader can do but agree.


courtmerrigan said...

Interesting analysis. Thanks for posting.

That passage from BM is one of McCarthy's finest, imo.

I'm guessing your familiar with Mark Twain's essay "Feinmore Cooper's Literary Sins;" but this is precisely the sort of passage to which Twain was referring when listing out Cooper's various deficiencies as a writer.

I was not able to wade through Last of the Mohicans myself.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Court, thanks for commenting.

Actually, no I haven't come across the Mark Twain essay, but I shall seek it out now.

I'm struggling to get through it, I have to say. Tension? Cooper can ruin tension with a carefully crafted two page interlude about nothing at all.

courtmerrigan said...

Here it is:

In addition to wickedly sardonic, it's also chockfull of good advice.

Tom Conoboy said...

Ha ha! That is excellent. He doesn't hold back, does he? I recall he had the same low impression of Jane Austen's work.

thanks for the link, that was great fun.