Musings on Cormac McCarthy

It should be no secret that McCarthy is one of my favorite authors – in my opinion, he ranks up there with the great writers of the last hundred years. He’s gained a lot of popularity in recent years because of No Country For Old Men and The Road – but I wouldn’t rate those as his best works by a long shot. But what exactly is it that is so powerful about his writing?

There’s a few things I typically identify: his writing style is pretty much one of a kind. It’s sparse – but it’s not minimalist. He says a lot – sometimes with five words, sometimes with paragraphs. His writing, especially in All the Pretty Horses, is simply quiet. It’s relaxed – it flows at the speed of life, not rushing to the next dialogue or action scene. The story just happens – there’s no stylization, nothing like that. It’s laid-back, relaxed and quiet – however, this doesn’t mean that the content is relaxed, quite the opposite. When reading his works (and I’m thinking here specifically of The Border Trilogy), I get a feeling of sublimity. The books read like how the landscapes they take place in feel – cold, sparse, brutal, but beautiful and even poetic.

The content of McCarthy’s writing, however, is what really impacts me the most. His novels deal with pure human depravity taken to its utmost extremes – for example, in Blood Meridian, Outer Dark and Child of God. There’s no flinching, no holding back – some of the characters and sequences in his earlier works are horrifying, savage and brutal. McCarthy, by using such stark violence, really deconstructs a lot of the mythology surrounding the American Wild West. Apart from the depraved themes often treated by McCarthy, there are some deep metaphysical ideas woven into his works – the nature of good and evil, God, love, war, ethics, anthropology, and a host of other subjects often crop up in his writing.  These themes appear in long dialogues or monologues that are reminiscent of Hemingway’s dialogues – short, sparse and to the point, with no extra fluff. In short, McCarthy’s writings sustain a level of moral and philosophical reflection that very few modern books are capable of sustaining.

I really couldn’t point to any one single thing that I think makes McCarthy’s works so powerful – it’s the interweaving of all these things, the violence, the philosophical ideas, the poetic prose, the dreamy narratives that make his writing so brilliant and unique.

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Reading Notes 7/19/2014

I’ve almost exhausted the Lovecraft volume I have.  I’m not really sure which Lovecraft story has proven to be my favourite, though. Possibly ‘The Colour Out of Space.’ His use of ‘blasphemous’, ”unspeakable’, ‘unnameable’, and ‘infinite’, do get a bit old though – especially since it’s already difficult to picture exactly what is supposed to be so mind-numbingly horrifying. I’m gearing up to read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’, now. Not just any old version, though – this is the unabridged and expanded version, coming in at roughly 1200 pages. I’ve started reading it (only about a dozen pages in so far) and I can already tell it’s going to take me a good minute to get through this one.

Earlier this week I started going through part of Torrance’s ‘Incarnation’, specifically the sections where he criticizes liberal theology (Bultmann primarily, but also Tillich, Schweitzer, Dodd, and others). As is par for the course, he’s incisive and occasionally devastating, though I do get the feeling that some of his criticisms are a bit overblown.

I started dipping back into Plantinga and Wolterstorff – ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’ and ‘Warranted Christian Belief’, from the former and ‘Divine Discourse’ from the latter. WCB is just outstanding – as far as analytic philosophy goes, this is probably some of the better writing out there. Clear, balanced and to the point. Wolterstorff, though he’s one of my favourite philosophers (the breadth of his thought is very impressive, ranging from music, architecture, ontology, metaphysics, politics, human rights, justice, art and more) is not one of my favourite writers. He has a very dense, very academic style – if you don’t pay attention to every single line, you’ll likely get lost. His criticisms of Ricouer are pretty interesting -Wolterstorff argues that there’s no ‘sense of the text’, against Ricouer.

Along those lines, I bought the Plantinga/Wolterstorff volume ‘Faith and Rationality’, yesterday, which is where a lot of Reformed epistemology got worked out. Alston (and others of note) contribute(s) as well, and I’m looking forward to getting into it.

Thoughts on Walter Bruggemann’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’

I started reading Bruggemann’s massive ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, and finally made it through the first 2 sections, which form a ‘lay of the land’ of Old Testament theology and scholarship. As a work of scholarship in its own right, it’s brilliant – well-researched, heavily footnoted, calm, carefully reasoned – in other words, a great academic book. I do, however, have a few cautious and open criticisms/questions, regarding the viewpoint and methodology Bruggemann holds to. I’ll confine my comments here to a few specific instances so as not to be distracted by meta-questions of history, postmodernism and literary theory.

The discussion of the inadequate-ness of thin, positivst/pseudo-objective historical methods is very good – there is a good amount of time spent dismantling the ‘assured results of higher criticism’, and establishing the fact that presupposition-less exegesis/history is impossible.

I do, however detect a certain inconsistency with Bruggemann’s insistence that we should not import claims and categories foreign to the text to help us understand text or the ‘behind the text.’ He resists, for examples, what he terms ‘essentialism’, which seems to be the idea that there is a kind of ‘essence’ behind the text or to the ideas which the texts talk about (in this case, God). He also argues against ontologies foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking – ‘Greek’ ontologies, as he terms them, that focus on abstract concepts of ‘being’ which are incompatible with Jewish modes of thought and discourse (as an aside, I don’t find the dichotomy between Greek/Hebrew thinking terribly helpful, and think that on closer examination, such an objection loses a lot of force).

‘A student of Old Testament theology must be alert to the problem of conventional thinking about ontology, thinking that is essentially alien to the Old Testament testimony.’ (p 118)

The inconsistency arises when Bruggemann seeks to impose modern categories of literary thinking onto Scripture – ranging from conceptions of drama and narrative to Bakhtin-esque ‘many voices’ theory. For example:

‘…the characters, the plot and the subplots must be recognizable in order to sustain the plot. This means that the characters must have consistency and constancy. It also requires however, that the characters must change, grow, or develop, in order that successive scenes are not simply a reiteration of the first scene.’ (p. 69)

For someone so opposed to importing foreign categories onto Scripture, Bruggemann seems to foist very modern categories of drama and narrative onto the text – categories that draw from an understanding of drama that is more at home with the modern novel than with ancient narrative. Such an imposition, while seeking to do justice to the dynamic, rhetorical, dramatic and ambiguous aspects of the text, seems to be rather inconsistent in light of Bruggemann’s opposition to imposing metaphysical and theological categories onto the text to help us understand it.

Bruggemann also places a fair amount of weight on the ‘polyphonic’ character of Scripture – that is, the many voices within the text:

‘The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon a narrative which at times is disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. The Bible is no easy read.’ (Mark Coleridge, ‘Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies’, quoted in ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, p. 89)

It is fairly obvious that the story of Scripture is made up of many smaller stories – any story is. However, the claims of disjointed-ness aren’t quite so clear cut – the Biblical text shows a remarkable unity (in spite of, or perhaps despite the ‘many voices’) in its narrative. That a narrative is composed of smaller stories is hardly grounds for disconnected-ness – if that were the case, no narrative could be said to have any unity (this is leaving aside the support that the extrabiblical and extratextual evidence offers to the idea of a unified narrative of Scripture. Perhaps a little more attention to facts and less attention to poorly-defined existentialist literary theory would serve a bit better here).

As I said, these are more open questions and criticisms rather than decisive refutations. Bruggemann’s insistence on the reality of the dynamics of the Old Testament text, as opposed to a more static positivistic conception is one with which I very much agree – simply click on the ‘philosophy of language’ category/tag to the right to see that my own ideas aren’t too terribly far from Bruggemann’s. At any rate, ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ is an outstanding book so far, and I very much look forward to being continually challenged by Bruggemann.

Happy Birthday, Tolkien

Today is the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien. I won’t waste a lot of words here – I’ll simply point you to his writing and mention that Tolkien’s imagination is the reason why I am the person I am today. So do yourself a favour, and go pick up ‘The Children of Hurin’, or ‘The Hobbit’. Take some time to meander through the story. Treat it like a good brandy, or cognac. The rewards are worth it.

God, Speech, and Revelation.

 

In the great monotheistic traditions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, scriptures have a special place of importance. This is because their scriptures are all believed to be, in one form or another, the written word of God, God’s communication and revelation to mankind in which His will is disclosed. I will be focusing on the notion of revelation, speech and communication in the Christian tradition.

Perhaps a broad question is the best way to begin: why is Scripture so important in the Christian tradition? From here, there’s a few other questions that can be asked: what does it mean to say that God has spoken? That God has disclosed His will in Scripture? How do we understand Scripture? How can we understand Scripture?  On a more theological level: how do we interpret Scripture? What role does Scripture play in the Christian life? How does Jesus impact how we read Scripture? How do we come to terms with the idea of God communicating through words, given how tricky language can be?

There are all these questions and many, many more that need to be asked. In the coming few posts I’ll attempt to round out a few tentative answers to these questions and any more that pop up.

In the Beginning

‘There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘ The Silmarillion’, p. 1)

Finite Euclidean Minds

“But what does it matter to us?” laughed Ivan. “We’ve time enough for our talk, for what brought us here. Why do you look so surprised? Answer: why have we met here? To talk of my love for Katerina Ivanovna, of the old man and Dmitri? of foreign travel? of the fatal position of Russia? of the Emperor Napoleon? Is that it?”

“No.”

“Then you know what for. It’s different for other people; but we in our green youth have to settle the eternal questions first of all. That’s what we care about. Young Russia is talking about nothing but the eternal questions now. just when the old folks are all taken up with practical questions. Why have you been looking at me in expectation for the last three months? To ask me, ‘What do you believe, or don’t you believe at all?’ That’s what your eyes have been meaning for these three months, haven’t they?”

“Perhaps so,” smiled Alyosha. “You are not laughing at me, now, Ivan?

“Me laughing! I don’t want to wound my little brother who has been watching me with such expectation for three months. Alyosha, look straight at me! Of course, I am just such a little boy as you are, only not a novice. And what have Russian boys been doing up till now, some of them, I mean? In this stinking tavern, for instance, here, they meet and sit down in a corner. They’ve never met in their lives before and, when they go out of the tavern, they won’t meet again for forty years. And what do they talk about in that momentary halt in the tavern? Of the eternal questions, of the existence of God and immortality. And those who do not believe in God talk of socialism or anarchism, of the transformation of all humanity on a new pattern, so that it all comes to the same, they’re the same questions turned inside out. And masses, masses of the most original Russian boys do nothing but talk of the eternal questions! Isn’t it so?”

“Yes, for real Russians the questions of God’s existence and of immortality, or, as you say, the same questions turned inside out, come first and foremost, of course, and so they should,” said Alyosha, still watching his brother with the same gentle and inquiring smile. “Well, Alyosha, it’s sometimes very unwise to be a Russian at all, but anything stupider than the way Russian boys spend their time one can hardly imagine. But there’s one Russian boy called Alyosha I am awfully fond of.”

“How nicely you put that in!” Alyosha laughed suddenly.

“Well, tell me where to begin, give your orders. The existence of God, eh?”

“Begin where you like. You declared yesterday at father’s that there was no God.” Alyosha looked searchingly at his brother.

“I said that yesterday at dinner on purpose to tease you and I saw your eyes glow. But now I’ve no objection to discussing with you, and I say so very seriously. I want to be friends with you, Alyosha, for I have no friends and want to try it. Well, only fancy, perhaps I too accept God,” laughed Ivan; “that’s a surprise for you, isn’t it?”

“Yes of course, if you are not joking now.”

“Joking? I was told at the elder’s yesterday that I was joking. You know, dear boy, there was an old sinner in the eighteenth century who declared that, if there were no God, he would have to be invented. S’il n’existait pas Dieu, il faudrait l’inventer. And man has actually invented God. And what’s strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise and so great a credit it does to man. As for me, I’ve long resolved not to think whether man created God or God man. And I won’t go through all the axioms laid down by Russian boys on that subject, all derived from European hypotheses; for what’s a hypothesis there is an axiom with the Russian boy, and not only with the boys but with their teachers too, for our Russian professors are often just the same boys themselves. And so I omit all the hypotheses. For what are we aiming at now? I am trying to explain as quickly as possible my essential nature, that is what manner of man I am, what I believe in, and for what I hope, that’s it, isn’t it? And therefore I tell you that I accept God simply. But you must note this: if God exists and if He really did create the world, then, as we all know, He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space. Yet there have been and still are geometricians and philosophers, and even some of the most distinguished, who doubt whether the whole universe, or to speak more widely, the whole of being, was only created in Euclid’s geometry; they even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I have come to the conclusion that, since I can’t understand even that, I can’t expect to understand about God. I acknowledge humbly that I have no faculty for settling such questions, I have a Euclidian earthly mind, and how could I solve problems that are not of this world? And I advise you never to think about it either, my dear Alyosha, especially about God, whether He exists or not. All such questions are utterly inappropriate for a mind created with an idea of only three dimensions. And so I accept God and am glad to, and what’s more, I accept His wisdom, His purpose which are utterly beyond our ken; I believe in the underlying order and the meaning of life; I believe in the eternal harmony in which they say we shall one day be blended. I believe in the Word to Which the universe is striving, and Which Itself was ‘with God,’ and Which Itself is God and so on, and so on, to infinity. There are all sorts of phrases for it. I seem to be on the right path, don’t I’? Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and, although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept. Let me make it plain. I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidian mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men- but though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it. Even if parallel lines do meet and I see it myself, I shall see it and say that they’ve met, but still I won’t accept it. That’s what’s at the root of me, Alyosha; that’s my creed. I am in earnest in what I say. I began our talk as stupidly as I could on purpose, but I’ve led up to my confession, for that’s all you want. You didn’t want to hear about God, but only to know what the brother you love lives by. And so I’ve told you.”

Ivan concluded his long tirade with marked and unexpected feeling.

“And why did you begin ‘as stupidly as you could’?” asked Alyosha, looking dreamily at him.

“To begin with, for the sake of being Russian. Russian conversations on such subjects are always carried on inconceivably stupidly. And secondly, the stupider one is, the closer one is to reality. The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straight forward. I’ve led the conversation to my despair, and the more stupidly I have presented it, the better for me.”

“You will explain why you don’t accept the world?” said Alyosha.

“To be sure I will, it’s not a secret, that’s what I’ve been leading up to. Dear little brother, I don’t want to corrupt you or to turn you from your stronghold, perhaps I want to be healed by you.” Ivan smiled suddenly quite like a little gentle child. Alyosha had never seen such a smile on his face before.’