Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Redemption as Language in Cormac McCarthy's Suttree

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Redemption as Language in Cormac McCarthy's Suttree

Article excerpt

While all of Cormac McCarthy's fiction is recondite, most of his characters are primitives who, in high contrast to their maker, have only a rudimentary facility with language. Their ponderous and slack attention, located somewhere between animal sentience and flail human engagement in culture, fascinates us because the enigmas of perception and consciousness seem to be more exposed, more primal, and less concealed or contaminated by language and manners. It is hard to imagine conversation with these characters who seem offered up for examination. McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), is peopled by "shabby backlanders trafficking in the wares of the earth" who conjure up images of "witch covens" and congresses of "fiends and warlocks" (82, 31, 66). There are renegades from a medieval world--"vespertine figures, rotund and druidical"--and figures who suggest still earlier periods when "troglodytes gathered in some firelit cave" (120, 150). McCarthy's second novel, Outer Dark (1968), depicts a nightmare world so primitive that it seems to illustrate a prelinguistic state of frustration. Characters wander amid "a nameless black ballet" wherein they barely utter unanswered cries of supplication. The title seems to allude to Matthew's Gospel, which suggests a loss of paradise: "But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (8:12). At the beginning of the novel, characters stir to life, "still with no word among them [...,] squatting on their haunches, eating again wordlessly." They depart "unannounced and mute" (4). A Christ-child figure lies maimed or diseased, "gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night" in an inarticulate gesture that suggests a rejection of life (18). Child of God (1973) completes what we might describe as McCarthy's trilogy of primitivism. The novel traces the degeneration of Lester Ballard, "a misplaced and loveless simian shape," into a serial killer and "part-time ghoul" (20, 174). McCarthy's first three novels offer studies of primitives, backlanders, and bogtrotters who talk to dogs more often than to people and who infrequently compose themselves for rare and anxious forays into the outposts of such civilization as can be found in an Appalachian country store or in a confrontation with the sheriff of Sevier County. This pattern leads Matthew Guinn to characterize the early novels as "bleak and naturalistic landscapes [...] occupied by characters with primitive drives and simian shapes, more homunculi than human being" (108).

All three titles, as well as the plots, suggest religious themes centering around suffering and a hope for answers, if not redemption. A less ambitious assessment would suggest that perhaps there is only a hope of rendering primal emotions into speech so that we can begin to ask what these often violent feelings mean. William C. Spencer finds that the early novels are more about sin or "evil as a tendency within human beings, perhaps even as the essence of human beings" (73). An emphasis on disobedience and destruction, however, presumes articulation of a moral order that is the object of dim-sighted and nearly instinctive groping where we listen to characters who only haltingly express their inchoate thoughts. Perhaps still motivated by primitive emotion, Judge Holden in Blood Meridian (1985) is highly articulate in attempting, Tim Parrish says, to "propagate the philosophy of Nietzsche," which he finds "the most coherent statement in McCarthy's novels of any moral order" (35). The search for a moral order, or the lack of it in Nietzschean or Darwinian thought, collapses in the Border Trilogy, where self-conscious narration and aesthetically conscious role-playing become a kind of pragmatic and postmodern answer to the enigmas about consciousness raised in the early novels. Robert L. Jarrett calls the style of the Border Trilogy "a self-referential rewriting of the earlier novels" (314). …

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