THR Web Features   /   June 22, 2023

Cormac McCarthy’s Poetics of Being

Depicting life in the border country between cosmic order and immanent futility.

Christopher Yates

( Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock.)

Having recently delivered The Passenger and Stella Maris, the last two of twelve novels in a fecund literary career that also yielded plays, short stories, and screenplays, Cormac McCarthy even more recently surprised the world when, at age 89, he took his leave of it. A distinctive American voice sometimes likened to William Faulkner and Herman Melville and praised by fellow writers as diverse as Saul Bellow and Stephen King, he also came in for his share of critical censure. James Wood in the New Yorker leveled a familiar charge against McCarthy’s penchant for inflamed rhetoric (at least in Blood Meridian), wanton violence, and half-measured theodicy. While such criticisms are not entirely unjustified, they tend to miss, or at least undervalue, the essential philosophical and poetic task that both justifies and depends on those distinctive formal features. Yes, there is the violence and bloodletting, the often idiosyncratic punctuation, the breathless or wooden sentences, the gothic and grotesque atmospherics. And certainly one might find fault with the dearth of female characters and the absence of resolving catharses. But if those become the settled points of reference by which we take the measure of McCarthy’s literary force, we risk losing sight of the desperately urgent search that animates each of his fugitive worlds. We lose sight of McCarthy’s persistent attempt to affirm something vital. 

What was that search? As a chance old stranger says near the end of Cities of the Plain (1998), “This story like all stories has its beginnings in a question.” McCarthy’s question is the same that moved pre-Socratic thinkers such as Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Anaximander—thinkers for whom philosophy was a poetic task undertaken in the service of turning the soul toward something durable and true, if such a thing is to be found. Intimidating, inconvenient, and sometimes anguished, the question is this: Is there an ordering principle to reality (and of what kind?) or are we fated to an anchorless passage through futility and loss? Is our being driven by a fundamentally nihilistic materialism or cosmic grace, or maybe some undecided contest between the two? Martin Heidegger held that the question “What is the meaning of Being?” is the very question we live. For McCarthy, it is a question that we neglect at our peril—and one best attended to through story. 

It is a difficult question, of course, because it forces us to peel back our humanist confidence and query the very nature of existence and how we can know it. This search is possibly why Aristotle wrote his Poetics, why Nietzsche penned The Birth of Tragedy, and why the Book of Job appears in the Bible. But it is certainly not an “abstract” consideration. McCarthy knew that the asking of it may matter more than the answering. He did not side with nihilism (despite appearances). Nor would he countenance any inclination to transcendent cosmic assurance that failed to struggle with abyssal darkness. What his works do in a singular way is expose us to the question, face us with the contest, and show how it is the kind of existential puzzle that can, if endured, help us live up to the madness and mysteries of life.  

A good point of entry into McCarthy’s work is his 2006 play, The Sunset Limited, in which two strangers meet on a New York City subway platform just as one of them attempts to take his own life. The action unfolds afterward, in the spartan Bronx apartment of the man who intervened to save the other. The two engage in a long discussion about whether the value of life is assured, or not, by the claims of religious faith. Motivated by a resolve to live up to the logic of his atheistic nihilism, the guest (a professor), wants to leave and get on with his suicide. The host, an ex-con, Christian, and caregiver to society’s castoffs, wants to help the professor find faith in life through faith in God. Categorically different, the two men bond through their tacit agreement that the topic matters, that reason matters, and that a person must draw ultimate conclusions only after close and honest consideration of the hard realities of human existence. Yet they are unable to arrive at a common answer. The host challenges the professor: “I think it’s what you do believe that is carryin you off, not what you don’t.” The professor doubles down: “The world is basically a forced labor camp from which the workers—perfectly innocent—are led forth by lottery, a few each day, to be executed.” McCarthy leaves it to the reader to imagine where these lives and their allegiances go from there. And he impresses on us the sense that the question debated in that apartment must—whatever shape it takes—be addressed. 

In earlier work, McCarthy had explored the weight of such urgent matters on a broader scale, in the border country expanse of well-known novels such as Blood Meridian (1985) and The Crossing (1994). In these exilic southwestern desert landscapes of a largely uncharted and ungoverned no-man’s-land, the question of existential coordinates comes cut from a rather rough bolt of cloth. It must because the integrity of the inquiry depends on its being risked in a place of raw exposure. If any case can be made for or against an axiomatic logos behind human affairs, McCarthy seems to say, it will have to start here. 

Blood Meridian, for example, shows the tragic effects of answering the essential question without asking it on its proper terms. It follows a character called simply the Kid on a journey southward through the Texas border-country into Mexico and his fateful conscription into lawless bands of Apache-hunting mercenaries. While the Kid is just on the cusp of his own formation, another character, Judge Holden, is altogether decided in his view of the world and himself. Erudite and prankish (and often buck naked), he discourses on natural history, architecture, and moral law, often collecting specimens of desert flora, making notations in his ledger, and then slaughtering peaceful travelers that cross the path of his band. “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge,” he proclaims, “exists without my consent.” Repugnant though he is, the Judge is one logical consequence of human hubris. When he avers that “that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world,” he restates one of the coarser abiding premises of our “modern progress” narrative.

McCarthy is provoking us more than we may realize. To have presumed absolute security in our answers regarding the order of things is, at least in this extreme case, to avail ourselves of cruelty first of all by disenchanting the world. One evening the Judge presents his company with a petrified bone and reflects on the “temporal immensities” of paleontology, then flings the bone aside and proclaims: “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.” The mind’s ability to conquer uncertainty is, for him, of a kind with his hands’ ability to conquer others. By the end of the story, indications are that the Judge indeed prevails. 

But McCarthy has, all the while, planted seeds of resistance in the landscape itself, something more naturally proximate to the core order of things. He writes, for example: “In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth a claim to precedence.” McCarthy is observing not a flattening effect, but a field of participants in a larger drama. Phenomena is the key word. It suggests a story underway—a meaning being constituted—as opposed to a stock of objects. And when McCarthy writes of how the band of mercenaries “moved like migrants under a drifting star and their track across the land reflected in its faint arcature the movements of the earth itself,” he is foregrounding merely human machinations against the background of a more cosmic point of reference, from which vantage the Judge and his marauding horsemen “appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order.” 

That is not to say McCarthy aligns himself with an answer in opposition to the Judge. It is to say, rather, that he is recovering the question and reinstating the search on broader phenomenal terms. Reckoning with the Judge is the price of admission into—and indeed a motivating force for—seeking our existential coordinates in a more vigilant and watchful way. 

What this might entail is the concern of the entire Border Trilogy, especially The Crossing. Here again the crucial character is a young man, Billy Parham. He traverses the same border country region in the service of natural fidelities—first in search of a lost wolf’s native home, then of lost horses, then a lost younger brother. He thus lives in a state of constant displacement, a broadening place of exposure, estrangement, and strife. Nothing comes easily, not even maps. And though Billy is not consciously seeking out existential coordinates, he—in his ardent fidelity—becomes the locus through which alternatives to the Judge’s decadence take shape. 

Billy is uniquely alert to the meaning that issues from landscapes and stories—those phenomenal and poetic paths of understanding. In one scene he contemplates “the deep cyanic sky taut and vaulted over the whole of Mexico where the antique world clung to the stones and to the spores of living things and dwelt in the blood of men.” Elsewhere, while bedding down for the night beneath the stars, he “studied those worlds sprawled in their pale ignitions upon the nameless night and he tried to speak to God about his brother and after a while he slept.” When he looks at the ear of his wolf, he perceives not an object but “the veined and velvet grotto into which the audible world poured.” 

In addition to his perceptual concentration, Billy breaks the spell of Blood Meridian’s Judge by showing a readiness for stories (brought to him by strangers)—not tales contrived to justify man’s dominion, but mythical histories meant to reenchant the world. The subject of these stories is the essential question itself. When he meets a Hermit living in the ruins of an adobe church the man says of the world that “every least thing” is necessary and “nothing can be dispensed with,” and yet “the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted….” This is not a lament, for it underscores the primacy of narrative: “Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes… The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place.” The search for logos, McCarthy is suggesting, is vested in mythos

Attuned to the transcendent and the immanent alike, Billy avails himself not of calculation and power but of watchfulness and wonder. Perhaps the reason why McCarthy poetized his prose in such passages is precisely because he was trying to raise language to a place commensurate with how meaning happens—how it happens in the discrete details of visual and auditory phenomena, which may well bear witness to how it happens in the larger plane of cosmic joinery. Billy doesn’t find final answers to “the meaning of Being,” but he does find the aesthetic terms on which it might be expressed. The making of such history is the task of stories—of logic by aesthetic means.

Displaced, then, as we are from final answers to the essential question and living in the border country between cosmic order and immanent futility, any faith in meaning would have to operate on the basis of a faith in narrative—in the poetics of being more than the pretensions of certainty. Maybe truth shows itself to us in textured profiles, in manifold realtime revelations that do not appear with directing signage attached but bear logos in nascent form. Maybe the point of the search is to undergo a kenosis—a certain emptying—of our explanatory schemes and to grow more watchful, more confessional, and more faithful to—I wish there were a better word—mystery. I think this is what McCarthy pursued and sought to affirm. And he did so in the details, blood-soaked or starlit as they are.