Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"Days of Begging, Days of Theft": The Philosophy of Work in Blood Meridian

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"Days of Begging, Days of Theft": The Philosophy of Work in Blood Meridian

Article excerpt

It is clear that the figure of manual work plays an important role throughout Cormac McCarthy's writing. A deep sense of attraction to the physical act of work can be traced across the various stages of his oeuvre. From his earliest novel The Orchard Keeper, to those redemptive passages of the Border Trilogy, where the young protagonists lose themselves in their accomplished participation in horse-breaking, cattle-ranching, and animal-tracking, to the aesthetic philosophy articulated in The Stonemason, there is a persistent appeal to the indivisible immediacy preserved in the paradigm of skilled artisanal labor.

Numerous critics have noted the importance of the associations of craft and craftsmanship in McCarthy's textual practice-not only at the level of represented content but also in terms of his texts' underlying formal construction.1 Indeed McCarthy's approach to work invites potential connections to a number of the established themes in his critical reception. The pursuit of a formal and ethical identification between an objective nature and human subjectivity implicates it within both the existential and the eco-critical approaches to his novels; likewise, the strong tone of nostalgia invested in the world of ranching and tracking recalls McCarthy's place within the traditions of American southwestern literature.

The critic who has perhaps gone furthest in establishing the significance of manual work in McCarthy is Jay Ellis. Central to Ellis's No Place for Home: Spatial Constraint and Character Flight in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy is the assertion that "one of the few things of insistent value in [McCarthy's] world is work. Manual labor is one of the very few human activities to receive a consistent respect in McCarthy's novels" (59). Ellis's analysis thus makes clear that, far from constituting a straightforward romanticization or supplementary component of his imagery, McCarthy's attachment to workmanship opens up a rich and complex problematic deserving of exploration in its own right-serving a pivotal function within McCarthy's overarching concern with the "tensions between freedom and security, lawless and space and confining place" (10).

Ellis also articulates the sense that the significance of McCarthy's thematization of work might originate in an underlying structure that is specifically philosophical in nature. The immediate reaction to the demand for a philosophical framework with which to approach McCarthy's references to workmanship might well lead one toward some form of Marxist hermeneutic; perhaps a psycho-Marxist reading rooted in the Hegelian opposition between the Master and the Slave. However, bearing in mind McCarthy's stated antipathy to Marxism2 (which I take as being a true expression of his work's sensibilities) I have found that the alternative construction of work developed within existential philosophy offers a far more fruitful interpretive route. Indeed this is what Ellis also implies through his references to workmanship as an expression of the existential priority of becoming over being-"the insistence of these characters on 'motion' rather than 'place'" (35)-and to Gaston Bachelard's spatial poetics. One aspect left largely unexplored even in Ellis's account, however, is the extent to which McCarthy's treatment of work echoes a rationale and sensibility that belongs specifically to Martin Heidegger, and thus how the grounding of McCarthy's treatment of work in an engagement with continental philosophy can potentially be traced to the sense of a sustained evocation of Heideggerian phenomenology.

The identification of a Heideggerian streak in McCarthy's writing has been made in a speculative manner before.3 The McCarthyian aesthetic governed by the famed perspectival parity between nature and the human-that levelling form of optical democracy which Georg Guillemin in The Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy terms "the existential equality of humans . . . and inanimate nature" (78)-contains distinct parallels in Heidegger's philosophical project of dismantling Cartesian logocentrism and its privileging of monadic human subjectivity over an inert object world. …

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