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.

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.’

‘Earendil ‘

‘Earendil was a mariner
that tarried in Arvernien;
he built a boat of timber felled
in Nimbrethil to journey in;
her sails he wove of silver fair,
of silver were her lanterns made,
her prow was fashioned like a swan
and light upon her banners laid.

In panolpy of ancient kings,
in chained rings he armoured him;
his shining shield was scored with runes
to ward all wounds and harm from him;
his bow was made of dragon-horn,
his arrows shorn of ebony;
of silver was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony;
his sword of steel was valient,
of adamant his helmet tall,
an eagle-plume upon his crest,
upon his breast an emerald.

Beneath the Moon and under star
he wandered far from northern strands,
bewildered on enchanted ways
beyond the days of mortal lands.

From gnashing of the Narrow Ice
where shadow lies on frozen hills,
from nether heats and burning waste
he turned in haste, and roving still
on starless waters far astray
at last he came to Night of Naught,
and passed, and never sight he saw
of shining shore nor light he sought.

The winds of wrath came driving him,
and blindly in the foam he fled
from west to east and errandless,
unheralded he homeward sped.

There flying Elwing came to him,
and flame was in the darkness lit;
more bright than light of diamond
the fire on her carcanet.

The Silmaril she bound on him
and crowned him with the living light,
and dauntless then with burning brow
he turned his prow; and in the night
from otherworld beyond the Sea
there strong and free a storm arose,
a wind of power in Tarmenel;
by paths that seldom mortal goes
his boat it bore with biting breath
as might of death across the grey
and long forsaken seas distressed;
from east to west he passed away.

Thought Evernight he back was borne
on black and roaring waves that ran
o’er leagues unlit and foundered shores
that drowned before the Days began,
until he hears on strands of pearl
where end the world the music long,
where ever-foaming billows roll
the yellow gold and jewels wan.

He saw the Mountain silent rise
where twilight lies upon the knees
of Valinor, and Eldamar
beheld afar beyond the seas.

A wanderer escaped from night
to haven white he came at last,
to Elvenhome the green and fair
where keen the air, where pale as glass
beneath the Hill of Ilmarin
a-glimmer in a valley sheer
the lamplit towers of Tirion
are mirrored on the Shadowmere.

He tarried there from errantry,
and melodies they taught to him,
and sages old him marvels told,
and harps of gold they brought to him.

They clothed him then in elven-white,
and seven lights before him sent,
as through the Calacirian
to hidden land forlorn he went.

He came unto the timeless halls
where shining fall the countless years,
and endless reigns the Elder King
in Ilmarin on Mountain sheer;
and words unheard were spoken then
of folk and Men and Elven-kin,
beyond the world were visions showed
forbid to those that dwell therein.

A ship then new they built for him
of mithril and of elven glass
with shining prow; no shaven oar
nor sail she bore on silver mast:
the Silmaril as lantern light
and banner bright with living flame
to gleam thereon by Elbereth
herself was set, who thither came
and wings immortal made for him,
and laid on him undying doom,
to sail the shoreless skies and come
behind the Sun and light of Moon.

From Evergreen’s lofty hills
where softly silver fountains fall
his wings him bore, a wandering light,
beyond the mighty Mountain Wall.

From a World’s End there he turned away,
and yearned again to find afar
his home through shadows journeying,
and burning as an island star
on high above the mists he came,
a distant flame before the Sun,
a wonder ere the waking dawn
where grey the Norland waters run.

And over Middle-Earth he passed
and heard at last the weeping sore
of women and of elven-maids
in Elder Days, in years of yore.

But on him mighty doom was laid,
till Moon should fade, an orbed star
to pass, and tarry never more
on Hither Shores where Mortals are;
or ever still a herald on
an errand that should never rest
to bear his shining lamp afar,
to Flammifer of Westernesse. ‘

– J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’

 

‘Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion. For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies;even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

This ”joy” which I have selected as the mark of the true fairy-story (or romance), or as the seal upon it, merits more consideration. Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of
the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ pp. 144-145, 155-157)

Some Thoughts on ‘Outer Dark’

I’m drawing near to the end of ‘Outer Dark,’ which has proved to be the bleakest Cormac McCarthy book I’ve yet read. His books, as a rule, are sparse. The dialogue is fast and real – I don’t know if anyone has captured various dialects of the Appalachian region as well as McCarthy has in his novels. What’s interesting though is that I’d describe his books as sparse – when only the dialogue is deserves that description. Descriptions of the landscape run on with powerful language – not flowery, not overdone, but powerful and yet it still feels sparse, and so far this book seems to be where his gift for sparse-feeling narrative with rich, powerful use of language shines the brightest.

The terseness that makes up his work is a powerful tool. Events simply happen, and dialogue simply is spoken. There’s no embellishment of either of those in his works. The simplicity with which the horrifying events that create the framework of the narrative are conveyed add to their horror, because they simply happen, in an all-too-real fashion. This, I think, is what makes McCarthy’s depictions of human depravity so bleak. The portrayal of the depths to which people can sink is not shocking or played for any effect. It just is. No special effects, no dramatic pauses. Just simple human depravity.

What’s interesting is McCarthy’s use and description of landscapes. He devotes minimal space to dialogue, but the landscape of the narrative becomes a character in and of itself. It takes on a feel of someone standing in the background, which is different than most narratives. Here, the landscape is almost (almost) a participant. This use of landscape reaches its peak in ‘The Crossing,’ (book two of  ‘The Border Trilogy’).

It’s definitely a less mythological kind of story, at least in its feel, than say ‘The Border Trilogy,’ or ‘Suttree.’ This novel feels much more real, much more bare-bones, but with some of the dreamy aspects of the other mentioned works.