Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

This, Too, Shall Pass: Distant Reading a Future in the Ruins of Cormac McCarthy's Postsouthern Novels

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

This, Too, Shall Pass: Distant Reading a Future in the Ruins of Cormac McCarthy's Postsouthern Novels

Article excerpt

Ambition is now directly proportional to the distance from the text: the more ambitious the project, the greater must the distance be.

-FRANCO MORETTI, DISTANT READING (2OI3)

Having been a contributing member of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) for over two decades, Cormac McCarthy is interested in theoretical science.1 Reading his work's references to planetary, geological, and anthropological eons, we might even call him a theoretical scientist in his own right, or at least a scientifically ambitious and experimental writer who pushes the limits of what we call "American" and "world" literature. If we accept that premise, as many do, then what hypotheses do his experiments test? What theorems might they prove?

One answer is the theorem of ambition and textuality alluded to in the epigraph. Although Franco Moretti is discussing reading from the standpoint of an academic scholar, he could just as easily be discussing why Cormac McCarthy's writing is so often thought of as "cold and distant."2 Because if literary ambition is directly proportional to the distance at which a textual subject is viewed, then we can say that McCarthy is as ambitious in the distance he approaches his literary subjects as the SFI's scientists are ambitious in the distance they approach scientific ones. That is to say, if distance is any indicator of ambition, then the goals of McCarthy's and SFI's projects are equally ambitious. Both parties share certain ambitions; otherwise, the SFI might not have asked McCarthy to write its Operating Principles in 2014, a request the author obliged with characteristic gravitas, a sense of humor, and a marked emphasis on the global future. Reading perhaps more like a manifesto than a set of operating principles, the document is demonstrably unconventional in style and tone for an institutional mission statement. The first and last lines' casual references to having "more fun than should be legal" and finding out that "an invited guest is insane" offer the best evidence of such tonal unconventionality. Yet upon reading McCarthy's more conventional repetition of the global "We" to the effect of demonstrating strength and solidarity of purpose, one begins to recognize that the SFI could not have chosen a more willing and able writer in residence, nor a more accomplished breaker of literary boundaries, to voice its sprawling, transdisciplinary vision of "hammering down the boundaries created by academic disciplines" ("Operating Principles-SFI").

As a statement evincing the creative vision of a theoretical scientific research organization that is "pushing creativity to its practical boundaries" and "always court[ing] a high risk of failure," the document is a testament to McCarthy's literary experimentalism. Its engagement with technical writing places him alongside academic scientists as a professional researcher in his own right, someone who cares just as emphatically about the organization's future and the young scholars whose work might deal with "sustainability or the environment of human welfare," as do the scientists who invited him to be a permanent fixture and Trustee of the Institute. Indeed, the writing suggests that McCarthy is an author who perceives a mutually inclusive relationship between science and creativity, practice and theory, limits and infinity, an author unworried about his legacy, who can laugh at himself, and who lives by the universal law that his fiction has proven true time and time again-that this, too, shall pass.

This penchant for connecting posterity to futurity, for taking the long view, and for zooming out to view what Blood Meridian calls the "optical democracy" of our planetary landscape is precisely why McCarthy's work demands distant reading. The distance from which the author writes his novels demands an equal effort at distance from those who read them. And perhaps like the statement McCarthy wrote for SFI, the ambition underpinning this distance is to welcome an audience who questions what might happen if disciplinary boundaries were to disappear, and we could concern ourselves as much with the subjects of our respective nations and places as with the future of our planet. …

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