Trauma and Storytelling in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and the Road

By Collado-Rodriguez, Francisco | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Trauma and Storytelling in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and the Road


Collado-Rodriguez, Francisco, Papers on Language & Literature


VIOLENCE AND THE FORTHCOMING APOCALYPSE

Scholars have paid increasing attention to McCarthy's extensive use of allegory, myth, and existentialism in his fiction. From the early recognition of his pastoral vision, to Cant's analysis of his conceited approach to the dangers of the gnosis or Lincoln's understanding of his novels as canticles of visionary hyperrealism, McCarthy is now understood as a writer of universal themes. This essay links some notions frequently analyzed by trauma studies to McCarthy's use of storytelling as an ambiguous response to the hard conditions experienced by his protagonists in No Country for Old Men and The Road. The mistrust of storytelling, the ethic ambivalence existing between passive melancholic protagonists and active violent ones, and the understanding of life as a traumatic experience tie the two books in a sole literary project that warns readers about the human capacity to generate violence while also questioning the role of storytelling to soothe traumatic pain.

The beginning of the twenty-first century brought about collective anxieties that pointed again to the old fears about a nuclear disaster, a central motif that clearly connects the two novels. In this sense, I understand No Country for Old Men as the novel in which McCarthy directly points to widespread human violence as the main reason for the present sociopolitical situation and The Road as the book that describes the effects of what might eventually happen if things remain unchanged. The traumatic portrayal of the main characters in both novels, Sheriff Bell and the man, and the writer's characteristic use of conventional narrative genres are basic devices in his literary presentation of a reality where passivity and human will are explored as antithetic means to cope with the current situation.

NARRATIVE, MELANCHOLIA, AND THE HERO'S CHOICE

In McCarthy's fiction there are a few issues that offer an indication that the perspective provided by trauma studies may provide a better understanding of his views and of the roles that storytelling and trauma play in his works. The reiterative importance attributed to memories, the anxious condition of his protagonists, or the insistent intertextual links the author establishes with biblical sources and with writers like T. S. Eliot clearly point to a description of life in traumatized terms.

In a period significantly characterized by the posttraumatic collective sense that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks and by ecological fears concerning global warming, McCarthy has written two novels framed in different narrative genres using very distinct styles. A comparative analysis, however, also reveals important coincidences between the two books. Both novels retake the process of historical revisionism especially noticeable since the publication of Blood Meridian in 1985. They also warn readers about the necessity of questioning the power of storytelling, and above all they offer an understanding of the individual self and our civilization as structurally traumatized, with the implication that some moral issues should be reconsidered if the human species is to survive. Although violence has always been a reiterative theme in McCarthy's fiction, in the two novels under scrutiny the topic is openly connected to collective devastating results. Unremitting violence is the destructive force that results in the tragic end of civilization, as predicted in No Country for Old Men, but, paradoxically, violence also becomes the necessary tool to survive in the post-apocalyptic context of The Road. The issue offers also a clear link with trauma theory. This particular framework diagnoses violence as the main concondition for the manifestation of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as reported in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3rd ed.), published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. An individual or collective psychical trauma is motivated by one or several violent events or experiences so overwhelming that the victim(s) cannot assimilate them on a conscious level. …

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