by Sam Buntz
“It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.” – Jakob Boehme
The above quote is the epigraph to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (provided by the Lutheran cobbler-mystic Jakob Boehme) and it precisely describes the setting of that novel, as well as the terrain of many of his other works. McCarthy’s vision of the universe frequently appears to be of a moral abyss: since the spark of goodness has (almost) completely disappeared from the world of Blood Meridian, there is consequently no sorrow in that world, because there is nothing left to hope for or cling to – it is a universe so thoroughly fallen that a group of men cannibalizing a newborn is simply business-as-usual (though this example is from The Road), once a few normally sustaining social fictions and niceties have been wiped away by disaster or distance from civilization. In Blood Meridian, McCarthy doesn’t really bother to depict a counter-force – the “life of the darkness” eats up the whole book, and only one character refuses to join the dance of death (and only fairly late in the book, after having been part of a gang of murderous scalp-hunters for the main stretch of the narrative.) Aside from this character’s courageous stand—made against Evil, but not exactly for Good—the only redemptive element in the universe is the poetic exuberance with which McCarthy depicts it. But that would not be true of two later works, which, though they do not have quite the same intense baroque phantasmagoria in their prose, are true classics: The Road and No Country for Old Men. The redemptive element is much more evident in these novels.
Admittedly, Blood Meridian is McCarthy’s Moby Dick – his deepest excavation into the black rock of reality. But it lacks a human relationship comparable to that subsisting between the father and son in The Road or a protagonist with the basic, human goodness of Llewellyn Moss in No Country (who brings a drink of water to a dying drug-runner, putting his own life on the line). But certain features remain stable – we are still in the same cosmos, and the insane, brilliant, almost supernaturally evil Judge of Blood Meridian (the figure who leads the mad scalping party – apparently based on a historical figure, disturbingly enough) is still presiding over it, so to speak. He has been working to extend his reign, and in No Country, the principal villain, Anton Chigurh, is clearly one of the Judge’s henchmen or even one of his children. The Judge has only something of a spiritual presence in The Road, where Evil is not granted a personality with an intensity comparable to the Judge’s, but dwells instead among the feral bands of murderous marauders (“creedless shells of men”). Yet the religion of these villains is the same as that of the Judge: “War is God” as he thunders at one point. It is the energy released by slaughter and mayhem that provides the sole impetus to their kind of “life.” The ceaselessly quotable Judge asserts that “the freedom of birds is an insult to me” – he will not stop his rage for conquest, his mad dance of death, until all creatures are part of it, until no residual amount of spirit has been left outside of the death struggle. In No Country, McCarthy explicitly identifies Chigurh with Mammon – the god of materialism and greed (which, I suppose, makes enough sense, since Chigurh works for the drug trade.) Yet, like The Judge, Chigurh worships a strangely ordered chaos – there is a method to his madness, and he has, of a sort, principles (though incredibly perverse). When he violates his own rules and suffers a penalty, McCarthy means to indicate that he too is but a pawn in someone’s sick game. The trout in the stream in the hauntingly weird final paragraph of The Road represent a beauty that has been locked away, hidden in winding labyrinths, down in the cellar of space and time: “On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” The Judge is the architect who has made this maze, who has foiled beauty’s attempt to wind its way home.
As other literary critics have observed, the religious framework that makes McCarthy’s work make the most sense is Christian Gnosticism: the ruler of the Gnostic cosmos is, like The Judge, a cruel deity of war and justice, while the true God, the God of Love, is a stranger from another realm. The abyss is our location and its king is a blood-crazed war god. But the figures standing in opposition to the king’s order are those who are “carrying the fire” – the spark of goodness, which has found itself lost in a world of death. In The Road, McCarthy imagines the father and son as “pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some gigantic beast” – the belly of the beast is also reformulated as “that cold corridor…measured solely from the first by the light they carried with them.” The fiery spark they’re keeping ablaze– which is the same as the fire the sheriff’s father is carrying in a hunting horn, when he sees him in a dream, in No Country – is simply the quintessence of what it means to be alive, truly alive, and not wandering through that doom-eager vision which Coleridge called “the Nightmare Death-in-Life.” It is actually having a soul, or being aware that you have one — or, more accurately, that you are one. Yet trapped in this world of nightmare, where the wicked denizens are (as in Boehme’s quote) incapable even of sorrow, virtue seems like a throwaway—goodness flashes out at random against a (seemingly) invincible darkness: “bits of light…appeared random on the night grid.” Yet (and if you haven’t read The Road, this might prove a spoiler) distinctly unlike in Blood Meridian, goodness does endure for the father and son. McCarthy confirms that higher forces are on its side, as it is guided to safe harbor, and he ends by affirming that the origin of the very breath of human beings is, in fact, divine: “She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” For the Gnostics, the “pneuma” or breath, was the deep self of a person — the part capable of salvation.
McCarthy is, in my opinion, probably one of the most intelligent people now writing—or living: I’m embarrassed for Stockholm that he hasn’t won the Nobel Prize yet. The greatness of his accomplishment becomes more starkly obvious when one considers the battles he must have fought between his ears and behind his eyes in order to write the kind of stories he writes, centered in the kind of cosmos he centers them in. The books detail in their passages through physical violence what McCarthy’s own quest has been, mentally – to preserve the fire in the midst of “waste and void, waste and void, and darkness on the face of the deep.” This is certainly more than just the creation of morbidly violent fantasy worlds: disturbing as it is, Blood Meridian, maybe the most violent novel of all time, was grounded in intense historical research, and what we know of human history suggests that the boundaries separating societies from a rapid descent into this kind of anarchy is pretty thin. McCarthy is unique among great American writers of the present day in that he is a sort of Southern conservative (according to one interview) and an anti-Utopian: he has the “Vision of Evil” which T.S. Eliot praised and criticized the New England Transcendentalists for lacking.
This vision is always a necessary and valuable asset, though one can be a great writer (like Thoreau or Whitman or Emerson) without explicitly entertaining it. When one realizes how much is wasted in this world (in terms of spirit, intellect, etc.) and develops a passing appreciation of the void, of Boehme’s darkness, one learns to cherish the fire and toss the occasional stick to it, whenever and wherever one happens to encounter it. The great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, wrote something of which I think McCarthy would approve: “The inferno of the living is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” McCarthy teaches much the same lesson: the fire is life itself – yet you can hold it in the palm of your hand. He also counsels us to help it endure, to give it space.