Posts Tagged ‘Cormac McCarthy’

Here and there

March 10, 2017

A few interesting, art-related things I’ve seen in the past few weeks:

  • The Christian moral imagination of Cormac McCarthy.
  • Alex Ross writes, in one of his increasingly rare non-politically-inflected columns, about Bach’s religious music.
  • The wonders of digital signal processing recreate the acoustics of Hagia Sophia in a modern concert hall.
  • The cultured life is “an escape from the tyranny of the present”.
  • In a similar vein, Roger Scruton praises the virtue of irrelevance, with special attention to the art of music.
  • Finally, a group of mad animators have brought to life Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:


McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

January 16, 2017

cormac_mccarthy_nocountryforoldmenNo Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 2005)
309 p.

I’d seen the Coen brothers’ film, of course, and admired it, and was curious to get to know the source. Also, it had been several years since I last sat down with a Cormac McCarthy book — I won’t say that I missed him, exactly, but encountering his voice again — arid, compressed, and bereft of punctuation — was like slipping into a familiar, if thorn-lined, shirt. There’s nobody quite like him.

The set-up is superb: a man out hunting comes upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, with bodies and bullets everywhere and a bag of money for the taking. He takes it, and the action of the novel unfolds. It’s a violent and sometimes brutal affair, but it has its moments of humanity as well, especially in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (of whom we hear a good deal more here than in the film adaptation).

In movie circles, Anton Chigurh is sometimes named as one of the great screen villains of all time; it is a testament to Javier Bardem that he was able to bring McCarthy’s character to such chilling life. He’s chilling on the page too, but not, I think, to the same extent, and I found that I had always to call Bardem’s performance to mind to capture his full potential.

Chigurh is a character worth pondering. As usual with McCarthy we are given no insight into his private thoughts; we see his acts and we hear him speak, and that is all. Yet because he is such an unusual character — unusually cruel and inhumane — ascription of motives is more difficult than usual. As a result, Chigurh is perceived as something like a force of nature, or as fate, and he himself seems to agree with this perception, for more than once he speaks about how his actions just happen, or he determines his course of action based on the outcome of chance events — either way, he avoids personal responsibility. Yet, at the same time, he adheres to a certain moral code, or, if that adjective seems abused in this context, then to a code of conduct. Witness his rendezvous with Carla Jean, simply because he had made a promise. And, deeper down, there lurks the question of what motivates him in the first place. It is not lust for wealth, for he surrenders the money without hesitation. Nor does he seem to act from loyalty, for he turns on his employer when his employer turns on him. At best, he might act from a very personal sense of duty, bound by having given his word. But it is hard to be sure.

The book is more than just a thriller or an exhibition of violence. Threaded throughout are observations and reflections, sometimes hard-bitten and always terse, on law, human relationships, and the dissolution of society and virtue. It’s a sad and dark vision, and would be intolerable but for Sheriff Bell, who hasn’t entirely given up hope.

McCarthy: The Border Trilogy

October 28, 2011

The Border Trilogy
All The Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain
Cormac McCarthy
(Everyman’s Library, 1999) [1992; 1994; 1998]
302 p.; 426 p.; 292 p.

Set in the period spanning the 1930s to 1950s, the Border Trilogy — considered on the most superficial level, at least — shows us the cowboy’s life pushed to the brink of extinction by the modern world. Yet it would be wrong to say that the books are about the conflict between the old and new, for the new, considered in itself, is barely visible. McCarthy achieves a deft reversal of figure and ground: it is not the cattle trail that crosses the interstate, but the interstate that crosses the cattle trail. The world of these characters is dominated by the horse; motorized vehicles appear only as temporary interlopers. No, the precariousness of the horseman’s life is conveyed not so much through encroachments by industrial society as by the narrow, dangerous space into which these men are pushed in order to preserve their way of life.

All three stories take place along the borderland between Mexico and the United States. In all three, young American men cross the border to seek their fortunes on the Mexican side, where horse and rider still dominate the landscape. And in all three — this is Cormac McCarthy, after all — the results are harrowing. Here is no heroic tale of saloons and sharp-shooters, high-noon showdowns and corrals, riders and sunsets. When they cross the border to Mexico they enter a world where the law is weak or corrupt, and where violence is brutal and pervasive. It is a dark vision. In each story, a light — whether it is love, friendship, or the simple desire for adventure — is held up in the face of this darkness, and a battle ensues.

I cannot remember when last I read a book, much less a series of books, in which male friendship was so central. In All the Pretty Horses, it is the friendship of John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, two young Texans seeking work on a Mexican ranch. In The Crossing it is the fraternal bond between Billy and Boyd Parham, who seek revenge when their parents are killed by horse thieves. Cities of the Plain brings together, some years later, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, now friends. I remark on this because for some reason our modern culture seems particularly inept at portraying friendships between men. Boorishness we can manage, chummy frivolity we can manage, but genuine friendship, founded on trust and affection between rough and intelligent men, is rarer in our popular imagination than it ought to be. McCarthy’s achievement in these novels, in which the central friendships are wholly believable, is therefore all the more praiseworthy.

As I noted when I read The Road a few years ago, McCarthy’s prose strikes me with its close observation of actions and objects. There is a minuteness of detail about his descriptions of things that stands in contrast to, and perhaps in place of, the almost complete absence of psychological detail. We are shown characters doing things, and we hear them saying things, but we are almost never granted direct access to their thoughts. This is not as alienating as you might think. Here is an example, selected partly because it illustrates the point and partly because it consists of just one, fairly amazing, sentence:

They rode the high country for weeks and they grew thin and gaunted man and horse and the horse grazed on the sparse winter grass in the mountains and gnawed the lichens from the rock and the boy shot trout with his arrows where they stood above their shadows on the cold stone floors of the pools and ate them and ate green nopal and then on a windy day traversing a high saddle in the mountains a hawk passed before the sun and its shadow ran so quick in the grass before them that it caused the horse to shy and the boy looked up where the bird turned high above them and he took the bow from his shoulder and nocked and loosed an arrow and watched it rise with the wind rattling the fletching slotted into the cane and watched it turning and arcing and the hawk wheeling and then flaring suddenly with the arrow locked in its pale breast. (The Crossing, 129)

There is a lot of landscape description in these novels, and both land and weather are important to their atmosphere. I was surprised to find quite a lot of humour, albeit edgy and often bleak, in the books. (There was no humour in The Road.) There is a good deal of Spanish dialogue in all three books, which left me in the dark more than a few times. And, as the passage above indicates, McCarthy’s trademark negligence of grammatical niceties is well in evidence throughout. I am still not entirely convinced by this practice. It risks being an affectation, and if McCarthy were a literary noodler, rather than the steely-eyed craftsman that he is, I believe his style would be his undoing. As its best, his narrative voice achieves a kind of primitive power, and occasionally breaks through into the realm of poetry. Consider, for example, this passage, in which repetition and variation seem to suspend time, conveying something of the ecstatic and dizzying experience of the characters — the experience, in this case, being that of young love:

The nightdamp laid the dust going up the ciénaga road and they rode the horses side by side at a walk, sitting the animals bareback and riding with hackamores. Leading the horses by hand out through the gate into the road and mounting up and riding the horses side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west and some dogs barking over toward the shearing-sheds and the greyhounds answering back from their pens and him closing the gate and turning and holding his cupped hands for her to step into and lifting her onto the black horse’s naked back and then untying the stallion from the gate and stepping once onto the gateslat and mounting up all in one motion and turning the horse and them riding side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west like a moon of white linen hung from wires and some dogs barking. (All the Pretty Horses, 140)

The trilogy, though in a sense rather loosely connected, works well as a whole. Of the three volumes, I judge the last, Cities of the Plain, to be the weakest. The first two books are quest stories; the third lacks that satisfying shape, and, despite a strong finish, seems to me to lack direction. The first quarter of The Crossing could be carved off to stand on its own, and I am not entirely sure what role it serves in the trilogy as a whole, but I will say that it was one of my favourite sections. In each panel of the trilogy, but especially in the second, there is an element that reminded me, if you can believe it, of Homer: the quest is interrupted at intervals by strangers, encountered on the road, who deliver speeches and then move on.

The books are more or less full of violence and lawlessness, though not so much as to confuse the distinction between good and evil. The Mexico of McCarthy’s world is a land where justice can hardly be hoped for, where civilization itself has only a precarious hold. The viciousness of the Mexican criminal set is balanced, however, by the consistent generosity of the Mexican poor, who repeatedly take the Americans into their homes and under their wings. And at a deeper level, too, there are glimmers here and there of a more foundational goodness:

That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow as far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and rails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised. (All the Pretty Horses, 161-2)

The significance of such passages is ambiguous, however, for threaded through the trilogy, and growing more prominent as it proceeds, is a streak of fatalism, a sense that the good or evil that happens is inevitable, and that nothing can be done to help or hinder it — the destruction of the specifically moral dimension of life, in other words. Arguably, this is expressed implicitly in McCarthy’s avoidance, mentioned above, of psychological detail about his characters. The dream sequence above is an exception to the general rule, which might be called a behavioural approach to fiction: a veil is drawn over the inner life, including the moral life, and while we might infer intention or desire from action, we never experience them directly, and so could, if so inclined, doubt their reality. More explicitly, too, the role of fate is given expression on numerous occasions:

For me the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn, and so on. In my own life I saw these strings whose origins were endless enact the deaths of great men in violence and madness. Enact the ruin of a nation. (All the Pretty Horses, 231)

This view of life reaches an apotheosis in the Epilogue to Cities of the Plain, which is an extended dialogue on the ultimate sovereignty of fate, and serves as a rather dispiriting conclusion to the trilogy as a whole. In McCarthy’s next novel, No Country for Old Men, this fate found personification (arguably) in the character of Anton Chigurh. But that is a tale for another time.


[Religion, tame and otherwise]
“And the priest? A man of broad principles. Of liberal sentiments. Even a generous man. Something of a philosopher. Yet one might say that his way through the world was so broad it scarcely made a path at all. He carried within himself a great reverence for the world, this priest. He heard the voice of the Deity in the murmur of the wind in the trees. Even the stones were sacred. He was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart.

There was not. Nor does God whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay His presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair. Trees and stones are no part of it. So. The priest in the very generosity of his spirit stood in mortal peril and knew it not. He believed in a boundless God without center or circumference. By this very formlessness he’d sought to make God manageable. This was his colindancia. In his grandness he had ceded all terrain. And in this colindancia God had no say at all.

To see God everywhere is to see Him nowhere. We go from day to day, one day much like the next, and then on a certain day all unannounced we come upon a man or we see this man who is perhaps already known to us and is a man like all men but who makes a certain gesture of himself that is like the piling of one’s goods upon an altar and in this gesture we recognize that which is buried in our hearts and is never truly lost to us nor ever can be and it is this moment, you see. This same moment. It is this which we long for and are afraid to seek and which alone can save us.” (The Crossing, 152-3)



Best of the Decade: Books

December 31, 2009

I had planned to crown this series of “Best of the Decade” posts by looking at books, but that plan has fizzled.  The trouble is that I’ve read very few books published this decade — so few, in fact, that the exercise hardly seems worthwhile.  I’ll give a short list, but mainly I’d like to use this post to solicit recommendations for good books published between 2000-2009.

My favourites, culled from a list of a couple of dozen eligible volumes, are these:

  • David Bentley Hart — The Beauty of the Infinite (2003): It took me about six months to work my way through this book, and I understood very little of it — I never grasped the meaning of analogia entis, and this proved a tragic fault — but it was still a great pleasure to read, if only for Hart’s brilliant rhetorical flourishes.  (Try this one.Millinerd agrees that it is a great book, and he says why.
  • David Heald — Architecture of Silence (2000): A book of black and white photographs of Cistercian monasteries.  It is a very beautiful and surprisingly instructive book that quietly conveys something of the spirit of Cistercian devotion.
  • Cormac McCarthy — The Road (2006): Quiet and austere on each page, but devastating in its cumulative effect, this was among the most memorable novels I read this decade. (Book Note)
  • Alex Ross — The Rest is Noise (2007): A fascinating overview of twentieth-century history told through its music.  (Book Note)
  • Tom Wolfe — I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004): An unpretentious and heart-breaking portrait of the moral decline and fall of a bright-eyed young woman on one of America’s elite college campuses.  (Book Note)

As I said above, I would like to hear about your favourite books of the decade.  Feel free to leave a comment.


If, for amusement’s sake, I relax the constraint I have been observing and admit for consideration anything I read this decade, regardless of when it was first published, I arrive at a different set of favourites.  Leaving aside those widely acknowledged as classics (The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Confessions, and so on), my list includes:

  • John Gerard, S.J. — Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609): A fascinating first-hand account of life in the Jesuit underground during the reign of Elizabeth I.  (Book Note)
  • Søren Kierkegaard — The Sickness Unto Death (1849): A rather personal choice, this book found me at the right time, and has had lasting good effects in my life.
  • C. S. Lewis — The Discarded Image (1964): This is perhaps the best book I know about the medieval period in Europe.  Lewis, with great sympathy and insight, describes the worldview of medieval men, helping us to see the world as they saw it.  (Book Note)
  • Thomas Mann — Doctor Faustus (1947): A seriously great story about music, ambition, and the decline of Western culture.  Too big to grasp in one reading, but I grasped enough to recognize its worth.
  • Herman Melville — Moby-Dick (1851): A glorious and heroic eruption of a book.  Reading it was probably the greatest purely literary pleasure I had this decade. (Book Note)
  • Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire (1962): By a wide margin the best murder mystery that I have read.  It is an amazing genre-busting tour de force by Nabokov, and a hilarious one too.
  • Josef Pieper — Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952): A book that brings together many of the central themes of Pieper’s work.  It is a tremendously insightful, wise, and thought-provoking book that ought to be far more widely read.
  • Kenneth Grahame — The Wind in the Willows (1908): Somehow I missed reading this when I was a child, but it is a book for adults too, and I took great delight in it.


Happy New Year!