WESTERN CONFERENCE ON CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE
I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the first panel I attended.
3 papers on Cormac McCarthy
(This was an excellent paper, very well presented. Unlike a lot of papers at Christian conferences, it had a theoretical framework, actually used the theoretical framework for serious analysis, and avoided the trap of mere plot summary. I hope Brandon publishes this piece, as it is a valuable lens through which to look at all of McCarthy's fiction. The conclusion was especially valuable and could be further expanded.)
No heroes: cannibals, murderers, and thieves as sympathetic protagonists. Make us explore the nature of ethics. McCarthy offers reasons for atrocious actions be “resorting to an alternate ethical system.” Non-religious, atheistic-based ethic system based on teleological ethics and a Darwinian notion of survival.
Contemporary Western ethics are based on binary systems. McCarthy challenges these binaries. There is no more good or bad, etc. We cannot judge the characters through our worldviews. We have to become part of the “grotesque collective” and accept teleological ethics.
Teleological ethics = driven towards the end result of actions. Personal survivalist ethos. Consequentialism & evolutionary ethics. Egoism runs through McCarthy's narratives: the characters can act selfishly in the interests of mere survival. Anscombe defines consequentialism. Ethical completely contingent on consequences of acts. Can include happenstance.
Survival is the sole motivator for an individual.
Outer Dark is a novel of incest. Seem to be full of regret, but continue to act. Motivated by a pleasure-principle. Pursuing happiness. Also 3 murderers, who kill to procure, then cannibalize. Grotesque, dehumananizing diction. These actions are “horrible in our contemporary ideology” – but produce food, and according to Darwinian standards, the deformed child should be selected out.
The Road has no form of society. Reshaped from our own world. Deconstructs life vs. death. Removed from our own world: fire, ash. Survival drives this world. Readers have to step back from ethics and consider necessity. Within the system, cannibalism is ethical. Good guys “keep trying.”
We're not meant to be comfortable with this: we're supposed to be more aware of ourselves & our culture. Reflect our primal natures, with our cultural restraints stripped away. Warning us what we could become.
Jeremy Leatham on The CrossingHero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, presents the concept of a “Monomyth.” McCarthy challenges the monomyth. Presents a hero in a region of supernatural wonder, with special powers, as a mediary. A hero make provisional meaning through temporary communities. Billy accessed a transcendental signified (wolves?): knowing depends on presence. Billy's adventures follow the monomyth almost precisely, passing through thresholds, then begin to subvert the monomyth. When he encounters death, he loses his power as mediary and his connection to the supernatural. Humanity deifies itself in a Promethean theft of godly power, and is alienated from both the natural world and the supernatural world. There is no resurrection for humanity, and there is a death of the godhead—or humanity's rejection of the godhead.
There's a final hopeful line that clarifies the novel's position on presence and meaning. There is a stable reference point. The sun rises once again, outside the anthropocentric system. Not just a postmodern novel, because the postmodern denies the transcendental signified, while The Crossing just denies humanity's ability to reference it. The role of the hero undergoes a death and rebirth, but Billy still constructs provisional meaning.
Ryan StarkHolden is a super-villian, a demonic figure.
An “enthymeme” is an incomplete argument, which is how Blood Meridian ends. It is the most Christian ending in all of American literature.
Tristram Shandy presents a Gnostic heresy that even the devil will be saved. Boehme, contra the Gnostics, says evil is not good and never will be. Blood Meridian is layered with allusions (like The Wasteland). McCarthy is then writing a Gnostic tragedy? McCarthy is making a Lutheran/Augustinian argument in Blood Meridian. This novel is a satire of conventional Westerns. After so much relentless violence, McCarthy presents a redemptive moment. This novel is, then, a theodicy. Theodicy through the eyes of the devil, looking from the inside at the problem of evil: the devil observes that he is doing evil, and no one is stopping him. Ends with a Nietzschean eternal return.
McCarthy is a “Lutheran mystic.” His whole body of work is a study of the nature and problem of evil, but without offering answers or counterweights. He is very cryptic, enabling us to see and thus question our broken postmodern world, but doing so in a postmodern way. We're not given good guys or bad guys; just guys. Is he writing commentary on absolute depravity? A critique of Pelagianism?
Does survivalism actual just create new binaries? Yes.
Doesn't consequentialism require that the agent know and/or be working towards a particular end? In this case, the reader knows the end result and judges based on that, but the characters are just acting as if on instinct.
Isn't he responding to historical situations? Yes. He presents civilizations that get destroyed. He is writing historical fiction.