(Carrying the Fire on) No Road for Old Horses: Cormac McCarthy's Untold Biblical Stories

By Walsh, Richard | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

(Carrying the Fire on) No Road for Old Horses: Cormac McCarthy's Untold Biblical Stories


Walsh, Richard, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke ...

--McCarthy (1992, 111)

Introduction: Landscapes of Loss

In Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited, an atheist professor leaves the Bible alone unread among the world's great books because he disdains true believers' faith in a benevolent providence that works on behalf of the elect. For this professor and for McCarthy, such belief is virtually synonymous with the Bible. The belief is also, of course, integral to the US dream of exceptionalism.

McCarthy's Western novels are bereft of such overarching, hopeful meanings. Blood Meridian challenges the exceptionalism (and manifest destiny) typically prominent in US Westerns (see Jarrett 1997). (1) Consequently, The Border Trilogy and The Road are set in a post-Western world bereft of mythic foundation. As such, they have an aura of loss that resembles that of Thomas Cole's Expulsion from Eden, (2) except for the fact that McCarthy denies his characters the comfort of mythic origins and the solace of seeing their plight as a divine punishment. The sense of a better but irretrievably lost past remains, but these novels are journeys away from such mythic harbours. Now, there is only exile or the road. The resulting landscape of loss--the sense of being adrift in an indifferent, meaningless world in which humans matter no more than anything else--is more important than any characters are in McCarthy's tales. (3) His characters are simply varied responses to this landscape of loss. (4)

While this landscape differs from the faith in providence evident in many biblical texts, McCarthy's novels all have a biblical cast. (5) Explicit symbols in the novels point specifically to biblical precursors (e.g., the title of Cities of the Plain), and some passages are extended exegeses of biblical passages. (6) The novels are not, however, simple rehearsals of biblical stories. Instead, they create new biblical stories, which are slightly "off" biblically because of their landscapes of loss.

Critics have described McCarthy's worldview variously as nihilistic, religious, Gnostic, and so forth (see Jarrett 1997, 95-100). Using Fredric Jameson's notion of pastiche, Robert Jarrett argues that McCarthy's Western novels are postmodern. This essay argues somewhat similarly that McCarthy's Western fictions are dialogic (cf. Bakhtin's famous notion; see Bakhtin 1981). (7) They contain various voices and ideologies. McCarthy does not refute any of these perspectives philosophically, but some of them fare better than others when he sets them against his landscape of loss. Biblical and US faith in providence seem particularly incongruous against this backdrop.

This essay claims then that this style creates an implicit conversation with biblical and US faith in providence. (8) The essay does so by discussing the three of McCarthy's novels that have been turned into major motion pictures as new biblical stories: All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. (9) This foray includes the movies with the novels they revise because the movies have made McCarthy's stories even more popular than the successful The Border Trilogy has (All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain). Thus, the movies bring McCarthy's dialogue with biblical providence more fully into US popular culture, a place where affirmations of US exceptionalism--often framed biblically--are far more common than landscapes of loss are. (10) McCarthy's previously untold biblical stories are about those outside the Promised Land, the prey of wandering demons, and those who live after a quite secular apocalypse. They reprise the myth of the West(ern) in a later day, the more recent and diminished US past, and a nightmarish US future. Their landscapes are all that of (mythic) loss (of meaning).

As they are stories, these fictions create only an implicit conversation with faith in providence. If one imagines this conversation, however, one begins to sense that these stories also articulate other versions of the book of Job, which is one of the most sustained biblical reflections on providence and faith.

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