Archive for the ‘Nonnus’ Category

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.

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Notes on Jaroslav Pelikan’s Christianity and Classical Culture

The title and the structure of this book alone warrant a significant amount of sorting out to figure out what’s going on. The full title is Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. The book is structured in two parts: “Natural Theology as Apologetics” and “Natural Theology as Presupposition.” Each part has ten chapters, and each chapter parallels a chapter in the other part. So, for example, chapter six is titled “The Universe as Cosmos,” and chapter sixteen is titled “Cosmos as Contingent Creation.”

But back to the title. Pelikan sees the highest synthesis of Christianity and classical culture occurring, at least in the Christian East, in the thought of the Cappadocians. The book is an exploration of how Greek thought functioned in their theology. In other words, what was the nature of the relationship between philosophy (“natural theology” or simply “reason,”) and theology? As the subtitle indicates, Pelikan intuits a metamorphosis in the way “natural theology” functioned in the Cappadocians’ theology. The nature of that metamorphosis is hinted at in the structure of the book.

For Pelikan, the metamorphosis of natural theology took place in that it first functioned as an apologetic against the larger Greek-speaking—Pagan—cultural establishment, hence “Natural Theology as Apologetic.” But in the transition, under Constantine, from Christianity as an oppressed and persecuted religious group to the cultural and ideological milieu, natural theology metamorphosed into a presupposition for dogmatic or systematic theology. In other words, the faithful witness of Scripture confirms, completes, and transcends natural reason. Hence “Natural Theology as Presupposition.” The premises of natural theology are confirmed and enhanced by the conclusions encapsulated in the language of faith. Another way of thinking about it would be that the “Natural Theology as Apologetic” model is outward-looking in its emphasis, geared toward the establishment of a Christian theological patrimony in the wider culture, and uses reason (in other words, natural theology) toward that end, while “Natural Theology as Presupposition” is inward-looking, geared toward the life and thought of the church, and uses reason in the service of the higher truths of Christian doctrine.

So the structure seems quite ingenious, demonstrating, first, the two functions of Hellenistic thought among the Cappadocians and, second, Pelikan’s thesis that those two functions reflect a transition from one to the next. A simple example is that, by reason, one might be able to prove—against, say, an atheist—that there is a God (natural theology as apologetic), but reason alone cannot prove the Trinity, which must be divinely revealed and received in faith (natural theology as presupposition).

There’s plenty more to think about, but I haven’t actually finished the book yet.

Posts at Nonnus

There’s been some fun stuff going on at the Nonnus blog recently. Here’s my response to two earlier posts by Matt Smith, here and here, in a series exploring the nature of children and innocence. And here’s another post of mine reflecting on the metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy’s cosmos.

Post at Nonnus

A few thoughts of mine on an essay by Peter Brown.

Post at Nonnus

Blondel and the Determination of the Christian Supernatural

Blondel Preview

In a rash of hyperbole, Matt, who runs Nonnus, posted this picture to my first post on Blondel. Although I’ve never been called an “evangelical wunderkind” before, I have to admit that my ego gave a low, subliminal purr when I read it.

The Future Is Nonnus

I’ve gotten to know some fine fellows who run a website called nonnus.com. They have kindly invited me to contribute to their weblog (also now on the sidebar) at my whimsy. You can check out my first post, which is more of a prospectus for further posts, here. Be sure to read all their other posts, which are very good, while you’re there.