Academic journal article Text Matters

The Limits of Language as the Limits of the World: Cormac McCarthy’s and David Markson’s Post-Apocalyptic Novels

Academic journal article Text Matters

The Limits of Language as the Limits of the World: Cormac McCarthy’s and David Markson’s Post-Apocalyptic Novels

Article excerpt

How to comprehend in fact the discourse of the end or the discourse about the end? Can the extremity of the extreme ever be comprehended? And the opposition between "to be" or "not to be"?

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, 10

In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life" (80). The aim of the following study is to juxtapose two literary experiments in which language serves to create a very special form of existence, namely life in the post-apocalyptic world in which the dominant experience is that of fear, social upheaval, alienation, and loss. As acknowledged by one of the modern thinkers of the apocalypse, Jacques Derrida, the apocalyptic and its aftermath confront us with the unspeakable and unimaginable; hence the frequently cryptic, disruptive, ambiguous, and secretive idiom used to describe them. "By its very tone, the mixing of voices, genres and codes," Derrida observes, "apocalyptic discourse can also, in dislocating destinations, dismantle the dominant contract or concordant. It is a challenge to the established receivability of messages and to the policing of destinations" ("Apocalyptic Tone" 159-60). The post-apocalyptic messages in the novels under scrutiny here will likewise reveal a strong penchant for dislocation and broken circuits of semantic and "postal economy" (the code's simple trajectory from the sender to the receiver) (Derrida, Post Card 121). In the post-apocalyptic text, words and the imagination are pushed towards the extreme ends of history and humanity, as they oscillate between presence and absence, memory and forgetfulness, articulateness and silence, impotence and healing power, exteriority and interiority. For the purpose of this analysis, I have selected two texts in which the problem of discourse and memory at the end of history comes to the fore: David Markson's 1988 novel Wittgenstein's Mistress and Cormac McCarthy's 2006 Pulitzer-awarded novel The Road. Both share the "apocalyptic temper" which is connected to moments of "radical discontinuity" and change, and which has informed American mythology since early Puritan times (Dewey 10). The apocalyptic temper, as Dewey argues, "is an attempt by a culture that is genuinely puzzled and deeply disturbed to understand itself and its own time," revealing "[a] culture caught by a crisis that challenges the very undergirdings of its make-up" and yet "strive[s] to create a workable if radical method to respond to the intolerable evidence of its own history" (10-11). In Markson's and McCarthy's works, the cataclysmic imagination-marked by the crisis of representation (Markson) and the catastrophe of 9/11 (McCarthy)-is haunted by Derrida's questions about the impossibility of comprehending the discourse of the end and about the end. The cultural make-up from which those texts derive yields different ways of seeing and understanding the extremes of history and different defensive strategies, realized with particular poignancy in the novels' ghostly rhetoric, and rich but highly ambiguous and deconstructive metaphorization.

As befits the apocalyptic paradigm, the action of both novels takes place in the aftermath of a catastrophe. In the case of McCarthy, it is most probably a meteor crash, although the author himself does not provide the answer to this question, describing the event in two vague and characteristically minimalist sentences: "The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions" (52). In Markson's novel we are offered even less in that respect, nor can we ascertain if the catastrophe is real or imagined. The reader learns only that one morning the sole protagonist and narrator, Kate, awakes as the last person on earth and begins searching the globe for signs of human life. In the narrative's present, Kate has abandoned her desperate yet futile search for "anybody, anywhere at all" (Markson 17) and, using a found typewriter, has started writing a journal that becomes the narrative offered to the reader, as well as a message to the world. …

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