Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"The Light Is All around You, Cept You Dont See Nothin but Shadow:" Narratives of Religion and Race in the Stonemason and the Sunset Limited

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"The Light Is All around You, Cept You Dont See Nothin but Shadow:" Narratives of Religion and Race in the Stonemason and the Sunset Limited

Article excerpt

Cormac McCarthy makes copious references to God and Christianity throughout his novels and plays, and a key concern of McCarthy scholarship involves an exploration of the role and meaning of the sacred in the fictional worlds he creates. However, there is a remarkable and intriguing difference between how McCarthy represents the idea of God and religious faith in most of his novels as compared to his dramatic writing. In this essay, I focus on the significance of religion in The Stonemason (1994) and The Sunset Limited (2006). Specifically, my aim is to analyze how the verbal signs of religion, race, masculinity and American national identity intersect in the texts. I explore how the role of religion in the plays functions to tell a different story about the American self, one that radically diverges from the dominant cultural narrative by virtue of decentering white masculinity.

My initial focus here is on some of the main critical interpretations of what religion means in McCarthy's work, beginning with the philosophically skeptical view. Vereen Bell reads the Appalachian novels in particular as embodying a "prevailing gothic and nihilistic mood" (1), in which the traditional idea of meaning and doctrine is made "obsolete" (2). A related view put forward by John Rothfork, and one based in postmodernist theory, suggests that McCarthy's narratives posit God to be "simply another story we tell to each other, or to our children, for consolation" (209), while William Quirk links McCarthy's position on religion to the Absurdist world view that characterizes Samuel Beckett's prose and theater (32). If read in Absurdist terms, McCarthy's writing, while placing value on stoic persistence in the face of human suffering, refutes the idea that human life or cultural practices should be reverenced.

Another critical strand focuses on McCarthy's strategic uses of religion-that is, how religion functions as a mode through which to critique American history, politics, and society. Tim Parrish suggests that McCarthy's main interest lies in exploring the effect of American civil religion on society and the lives of individuals. Citing Harold Bloom, he notes the overwhelming presence of religion in American life, which serves to unite all Christian denominations into a single religious brand that reflects and reinforces the belief that every American is one with God (67). For Parrish, a key focus of McCarthy's literary production is demonstrating how the belief that God is on America's side is the nation's most dangerous and destructive myth. In this reading, McCarthy's writing neither supports nor refutes the existence of a transcendent being: what he shows are the "bloody consequences that result when characters are baptized into the peculiarly American faith" (74). Linda Townley Woodson discusses the representation of religion in the Border Trilogy in terms of the relation between the word and the real as conceived by Nietzsche (203-04). Hostile to normative systems of religion, Nietzsche perceives such moral law as an invention, and one that favors the political interests of the strong over the weak.1

Among the critical approaches considered here, the most affirmative is exemplified by Edwin T. Arnold. Arnold explores McCarthy's work in theological terms, and is concerned with how it represents the nature of God and humanity's relation to God. He describes McCarthy as a "mystical writer"-a spiritualist who venerates life in all its forms, who believes in a source of being and order deeper than that manifested physically and who acknowledges the inevitability of death not as absurdity or tragedy but as a meaningful transition from one plane of existence to another. Even McCarthy's darkest writings, he suggests, are endowed always with the possibility of grace and even redemption ("Parable," 46). My intention is not to argue for the correctness of one of these critical strands over the other. Given McCarthy's diverse corpus, his narratives' perspectives on the divine may be said to suggest, not always comfortably or coherently, both a belief in a metaphysical entity as generally conceived in Christian terms, and the revelation of the misuses of American civil religion that has characterized so much of the nation's political and social history. …

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