Cormac McCarthy, the Nature of Literature, the Natural Law, Morality, and a Host of Other Sundries

I was excited recently to find this article by Christopher Badeaux on Cormac McCarthy at a promising (new?) website called The City, which is run by some folks at Houston Baptist University and looks like a sort of evangelical riff on First Things. I’ve read a few other pieces and liked them alright, but I was pretty disappointed with the Cormac McCarthy article. I got as far as the extended quotation below (which is near the beginning) before I realized what I was in for. (I would have commented on the article’s site itself, but that function appears to be unavailable right now.) The quotation:

It is not a profound insight to say that disorder lies at the core of every modern novel: Things falling apart drive action. The truth of most literature since well before the Romantic era, however, is that disorder is made right at the end of almost every book. The villain is defeated, the damsel is rescued, the world is saved, and, in literature from the 1960s on, socially appropriate noises are made and coffee is had. Even with that, novels are a window into a safer world, one in which everything more or less turns out right in the end—where the awful consequences of life are put on hold in favor of the pleasant ones.

Put differently, only the Russians want to be depressed at the end of a good book.

This is actually slightly maddening, because a novel is a self-contained utopia in which disorder has no extrinsic effects, carries no ripples of destruction and disintegration, and in fact, suggests to the reader that an original sin is always entirely containable and repairable. One never feels the connection between the people who inhabit the bubble of the novel. They live lives as strutting, separate parts of some beautiful machine that runs precisely and predictably outside of the suspension of disbelief.

Where to begin with this comedy of errors? First, we have a thesis: “disorder lies at the core of every modern novel.” (Fair enough.) Then Badeaux takes us back to “most literature since well before the Romantic era,” where “disorder is made right at the end of almost every book.” (I think the Greeks might have had something to say about this. Possibly also Shakespeare.) But in the very next sentence, we’ve somehow been magically transported back to “literature from the 1960s on,” where at the end of every novel “socially appropriate noises are made and coffee is had.” (What this means or is referring to I have no idea.)

I mean, seriously. What world is this describing? Not the one I live in. If by “most literature since well before the Romantic era” he means “the complete works of Jan Karon,” I suppose it begins to make sense, but I may be making a bit of an interpretive leap there. There were also those “Russians,” the inevitable exception that proves the rule, who just “want to be depressed at the end of a good book,” which seems just a tad glib. (Incidentally, “the Russians”—by which I’m guessing he means, primarily, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—would more characteristically be described as modern than anything else, which should support his thesis rather than provide an exception.)

Directly following the extended passage quoted above, Badeaux launches into the following: “In the real world, sin is a pebble in a pond: It touches so much more than the sinner and, when there is one, the victim. It disorders lives and relationships in ways foreseeable and incredible.” Change “victim” to “victims” and “foreseeable” into “unforeseeable” and you practically have a thematic summary of Macbeth. But according to Badeaux’s account of the history of literature, Macbeth—produced before the Romantic era—is one of those works where “The villain is defeated, the damsel is rescued,” and “the world is saved.” I must’ve missed that Act.

In opposition to the happy, cheery world of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Badeaux posits as their antithesis Cormac McCarthy’s two books No Country for Old Men and The Road. I just can’t make things add up.

But why my disproportionate reaction? Well, I share two things in common with Badeaux: I am a fan of Cormac McCarthy, and I am a committed, relatively conservative Christian. So I feel like I have a vested interest in the outcome of Badeuax’s exploration.

The general thrust of the article is to read Cormac McCarthy (or at least No Country and The Road) as a particularly compelling illustration of natural law, especially original sin, which is fine enough. The article should be evaluated on whether or not it succeeds in its aims. But Badeaux’s understanding of the history of literature is so phenomenally and weirdly wrong (either that or I’m misreading it somehow, and I would be happy to be told so if that were the case), that it gives me serious pause about anything else that he will say after it.

And it turns out I was right to give pause. Badeaux’s interest seems not to be in literature per se but in either co-opting or rejecting it based on its adherence to or deviation from a Christian understanding of natural law. Consequently, he seems somewhat dismissive—or even ignorant—of Cormac McCarthy’s work that doesn’t fit his thesis of McCarthy as quasi-Christian auteur of original sin. (At one point he says, “for contrast [to No Country and The Road], I worked my way through Blood Meridian,” but there are no references to any of McCarthy’s seven other novels.) As an example, Badeaux reads the psychotic killer Anton Chigurh in No Country as the manifestation of Llewelyn Moss’s moral failings, which is interesting, but Moss seems less a catalyst of evil than an inadvertantly complicit protagonist on whom is wrought the furies of the novel’s bizzarely fatalistic antagonist, Chigurh, who more or less represents a concentrated manifestation of the universe’s ontology of violence. To understand Moss’s actions as catalyzing moral retribution seems not to read McCarthy as displaying the natural law but to read an explicitly Christian morality into McCarthy’s own aims for the book. These are two very different things, and the latter is a stretch at best and inconceivable at worst. And since there’s no retribution for evil in Blood Meridian, despite its being much more philosophically complex than No Country, Badeaux dismisses it as “simple.”

Two things have happened here. Art has become, first, evaluated based on its adherence to a particular morality and, second, merely a vehicle for a worldview. I don’t think art doesn’t contain those things, but to reduce art to a worldview or a morality—either in its creation or in its evaluation— destroys it.


3 comments so far

  1. Jesse on

    Well put. And like the Badeuax example, one of the precise reasons that I like McCarthy’s novels so much is that they perform a kind of hygienic function: when you ask other people what the “meaning” of any of his novels is, their interpretations only elicit and foreground their own hermeneutic or philosophical biases (myself included). Always a good litmus test. But I suppose that’s true of any great author, so the problem of interpretation becomes contextualized within a certain historical context; in this case, some extrinsic form of postmodernity.

  2. jeffreimer on


    Thanks for the comment. I crossposted this essay at another blog I occasionally contribute to, where a friend and I went on a bit of a psychoanalytic tear in the combox, which I think also reinforces your point, i.e., McCarthy’s novels have a kind of interpretive plasticity that lend them to a multiplicity of readings.

  3. Jesse on

    Great discussion! But since I can’t post there, guess I’ll lend a bit here:

    What Badeux missed is that you have to be a bit more nuanced about interpreting the role of “natural law” (as a historical agency) and the “ontology of violence” in McCarthy’s novels. Badeux’s interpretative expectation is largely that of the modern bildungsroman based on a teleological notion of Hegel’s idea of progress as a symmetrical, historically-ideal process of thesis/antithesis/synthesis. (Which is also one of the primary interpretive expectations I was referring to in my prior comment.)

    The reason McCarthy’s novels are so effective is that they problematize these sorts of (selfish?) notions of progress, pitting them against one another as the primary agents in his “ontology of violence.” This places far more emphasis on Bell’s wary, semi-eschatological monologues than on the filmographically-aesthetic emphasis placed on Chigurh and Moss’ relationship.

    Cross-comparing McCarthy’s characters is over my pay-grade, but his recurrent use of coin imagery is what consistently presses his views about progressive, modern teleology or “telos.” In No Country I think McCarthy achieved its highest level of refinement when Carla Jean refuses to call Chigurh’s coin toss, and tells him that the coin “don’t have no say.” Chigurh’s subsequent car accident probably plays in there as well. While a minimalist novel (even very good critics suppressed its intricacies as merely a “stripped down thriller”), No Country is stuffed with commentary on themes of chance, teleology, modernity, and nihilism.

    But this guy says it far more eloquently than I:

    (A rare and excellent trans-novel evaluation of McCarthy’s philosophical view written prior to No Country; although it doesn’t contain anything on No Country, it certainly anticipates it.)

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