Cormac McCarthy – challenging us in our comfort zones

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You can read the novels of Cormac McCarthy and treat them like a bad dream. Or you can read them like a “Stephen King nightmare thriller with no cheap thrills” – as Kenneth Lincoln says in his study of McCarthy’s work. You can also treat his stories as you might treat those grotesque surrealistic narratives which sometimes invade our sleep and with which we then might entertain each other around the water-cooler. With some of them you would not even dare do that – lest your friends might call in the men in white coats.

Alternatively, you can take them seriously and come to the worrying conclusion that they are not just stories, but something akin to prophesies. As the five decades rolled by over which McCarthy worked on these fables – for two of those decades in relative obscurity – they became more and more like a mirror revealing to us the horrors lying beneath the facade of modernity. They tell us in the grimmest possible terms about the terrible things we have done to each other – and continue to do – and the terrible consequences of our failure to be what we really are and were meant to be.

Cormac McCarthy, although brought up a Catholic by his Irish-American family, does not avow any particular religion. But he is profoundly religious. The terrible contortions of humanity which we encounter in so many of his characters point to the same devastating end as do some of the lethally deranged characters which we find in the oeuvre of that profoundly Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. Those aberrations have all got the same gaping hole in their heart – the ignorance or wilful rejection of objective truth and a transcendental Creator.

In this, the second decade of the third millennium of the Christian era, the centre no longer seems to be holding. An apocalyptic vision of mankind’s fate, and the place to which our folly has brought this world, runs through every one of McCarthy’s ten novels. But he does not preach. He portrays the victims of our folly and the interplay of the forces of evil with our foolishness – and then implicitly leaves us with the simple exhortation, “he that has ears to hear, let him hear.”

He is not the only prophet of our time. Other Tiresian witnesses  “have foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed; … have sat by Thebes below the wall and walked among the lowest of the dead.” Surveying the excesses of modernity over the last century they have pointed to the same end: Alasdair McIntyre spelled out the philosophical roots and practical consequences of our flight from virtue and reason into the quagmire of emotionalism where our private lives and public policies now wallow in disastrous self-indulgence;  Charles Taylor and Brad Gregory take the story through its sociological and historical ramifications, while Rod Dreher now looks in desperation towards a neo-monastic solution for it all.

McCarthy depicts a world which has come apart at the seams. He does not spell out the reasons why this has happened. He does not tell us how to redeem ourselves. But neither does he tell us that we are irredeemable – despite his going within a hair’s breath of this in some narratives, particularly in the earlier portrayals of our plumbing the depths of depravity. In the last  instalment of his ten-novel output, The Road, the hope which is the basis of mankind’s salvation is burning ever so fragilely on its final pages.

“SPE SALVI facti sumus”—in hope we were saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24). According to the Christian faith, “redemption”—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey. (Pope Benedict XVI, encyclical, Spe Salvi, 1)

I am not suggesting any kind of link of mutual influence to be found between the author of The Road and the author of Spe Salvi, but in both we do find a signpost to the same truth. Hope is a sine qua non for our survival as it is for our salvation. The road travelled by the man and the boy in McCarthy’s novel is symbolic of our own journey. The devastated landscape through which they travel is akin to the desert  brought about by the scourge of relativism of which Pope Benedict frequently spoke. The total breakdown of law and order which constantly threatens their lives is the consequence of the same scourge which has destroyed the foundation of all morality.

“The  man” in The Road lives out the last years, months and days of his life on this earth because, he says, God has entrusted him with the life of “the boy”, his son. Hope is fragile in the world of The Road, a sunless world of grey ash which has been devastated by some cataclysmic disaster – man-made, we assume. But it is still there in the boy’s heart. After they find a well-stocked larder in an underground shelter the boy says a prayer for those who left it behind: “Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff…and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.”

The man perseveres in the struggle to stay alive and protect the boy from the pursuing cannibals and other desperate human predators, the “bad guys” in the child’s language, for as long as he can. Dimly, he sees he has to, for the boy is humanity’s last hope. As he dies, that hope is still alive and with his last breath he tells the boy that goodness will find him, “It always has. It will again.” As the boy cries beside the body of his father, other fugitives, families, parents and children, find him.  They have been following them and now adopt the boy as their own. A woman tells him that God’s breath is his “yet though it pass from man to man through all time.”

All great novels probably constitute a kind of biography of their writers and tell us something of the story of their souls. The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, taken in sequence, tell a sad story of a young man’s struggle with the temptations of a degenerate age and his tragic surrender to vanity, ambition, infatuation and self-indulgence. McCarthy’s novels seem to tell a better story. It seems to be a story of a man’s struggle with the temptation to pessimism and despair about our flawed human condition and the state in which we have left the world. It might be too much to say that McCarthy has reached the point at which T.S. Eliot felt able to conclude The Waste Land with the three words “shantih, shantih, shantih”, the “peace which surpasseth human understanding”. But  the evolution of his soul as evidenced by the sequence of his novels suggests something like it.

In all McCarthy’s novels the element of evil is palpably present. In some it is the only element, in the same way in which it is the only element in the hell-centred books of Milton’s Paradise Lost when we are in the company of Satan and his diabolical legions plotting their revenge on the Creator. In two of the novels Satan himself is incarnate: in “The Judge” in Blood Meridian and in Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

But the apparently unredeemable grimness of the early novels now has a counter-balance of goodness in the wings – without any loss of the power of the warning about what lies in store for mankind when truth is denied. Placed before us is the horror of a world laid waste when men and women, in wilful blindness or malice, exercise their choices in favour of things evil. McCarthy’s questions, stated or implied, are begging to be answered. Where do the “bad guys” come from? Where do the “good guys” come from? What drives the one, what drives the other? What he shows us is the lethal conflict in the heart of men and among men which follows from evil choices – untold suffering for the innocent and the guilty alike.

McCarthy’s fiction is much more than fiction. It is fiction which has a frightening truth at its heart  – the truth which tells us that by denying the essence of our humanity we are capable of destroying everything that mankind has achieved since the moment of his creation.

The words of Rod Dreher’s friend, a monk in the Benedictine Monastery of Norcia, imply the critical choice before mankind today when he says “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.” That’s not fiction. It’s time to identify with the boy of McCarthy’s fiction, “the one”.

Kenneth Lincoln describes the boy’s final acceptance of his destiny like this:

The boy speaks guileless truth and still brushes his teeth in the morning. He knows there are not many good people left, if any, and the odds are against them, so he comes to the point for his father. “I don’t know what we’re doing, he said.” And still they do what they’re doing, leaving a thief naked in the road to die, the boy sobbing to help him. His father says that the boy is not the one who must worry about everything, and the boy mumbles something. “He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.”

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Democracy and the threat of self-destruction


The corruption of a culture and the consequent corruption of a democracy which owes so much of its validity and integrity to the essence of a culture is a frightening prospect. It is a prospect facing not a few democracies in our time.
George Weigel hopes that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s comments in the aftermath of Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum were misquoted. The Cardinal said: “A democratic state has the duty to respect the will of the people, and it seems clear that, if the majority of the people want such homosexual unions, the state has a duty to recognize such rights.”
That comment, taken at face value, Weigel says in a First Things article last week, “would suggest that a distinguished theologian-bishop has seriously misunderstood the nature of democracy and the Church’s teaching about just political communities.” Weigel also, “delicately” he says, without being too delicate, wonders how much of his own country’s sad recent history the good Cardinal has forgotten.
“For the first word that came to mind” Weigel says, “on reading Kasper’s remark was ‘Weimar.’” He wonders if he means ‘democratic’ as in the… democratic election (which) put Hitler and his Nazi Party in power, or the democratically elected German parliament which passed the notorious Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act), which effectively granted Hitler dictatorial powers?
He quotes St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, which he describes as “the pinnacle of Catholic social teaching on the democratic experiment, which taught that “democracy” can never be reduced to mere “majority rule.”

“Majorities”, he reminds us, “can get the technicalities of public policy wrong. More gravely, majorities can also get the fundamentals of justice wrong: as many Germans did in the early 1930s, when the outcome of voting for the Nazi Party was clear to anyone who had read Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ or listened to his rants; as many French citizens did in the early twentieth century, when the representatives they democratically elected dismantled Catholic schools, exiled members of religious orders, and expropriated their property; and as too many Americans did during our long national struggle over racial segregation, legally imposed by democratically-elected legislatures.”

Weigel reminds us of the pope-saint’s insistence…that, of the three interlocking parts of the free and virtuous society—a democratic polity, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture—the cultural sector is the key to the rest. For it takes a certain kind of people, formed in the arts of self-governance by a robust moral culture and living certain virtues, to operate the machinery of democracy and the free economy in ways that promote decency, justice, and solidarity, not degradation, injustice, or new forms of authoritarian bullying.

Weigel says nothing more about Ireland in this article but it may be added that the biggest shock for the nearly 40% percent of the Irish electorate which voted against the change in their Constitution was not the change in itself but the realisation that the culture of the country had changed so radically. Added to that was the shock that it was the two younger generations in the country which had brought about the change on the basis of an almost entirely emotional platform. Reasoned arguments from the “no change” side were ignored and constantly responded to with emotions ranging from sentimentalism, through arrogance down as far as naked hatred. All this was bolstered by a thoroughly deceitful abuse of the concept of equality – equating the sexual relationship of opposite sexes with that between two people of the same sex.
That the faith-and-reason based culture of a country had been so thoroughly dismantled and replaced with a barely rational and thoroughly sentimental alternative, careless of consequences, was for many a very disturbing experience. How did it happen?
The recalling by Weigel of the French experience of the dismantling of Catholic schools in the early part of the last century deepens the sense of foreboding of those concerned about the erosion of foundations of Irish culture. Most Irish schools are still nominally Catholic and Christian. But that nominal status seems destined to be short-lived and they will soon be entirely secular if the forces of the State and the now apparently secularist majority in the country have anything to do with it. The corrosive and self-inflicted secularisation of Irish education which has been going on for at least three generations now is a large part of the reason for what Irish people wakened up to on May 23 last.
By secularisation we do not mean the removal of institutions from ecclesiastical control. We mean the “disembedding” of all faith-based values from the ethos of educational institutions. We are talking about the process which has been traced so thoroughly by Charles Taylor (A Secular Age), Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation) and others in the past few years.
How did this secularisation of education in Ireland come about – apart, that is, from what it owes to the global process Taylor and Gregory have studied? There are never simple cut and dried reasons for these things but a huge contributor was the failure of the baby-boom generation to resist the sexual revolution and the drift toward hedonism which began (roughly) in the 1960s. The generation which they begat didn’t simply not resist this. They swallowed it hook-line-and-sinker. After that no one now even knows what Pope John Paul was talking about when he reminded Ireland’s young people in 1979 that “something else is needed” in their lives instead of drugs, sex and rock’n’roll. Many of them don’t think of much else now – other than money, celebrity and spectator sports. How else do you explain the extraordinary flight from stable marriage to divorce and cohabitation, the disregard for the stable family with a mother and father which the referendum result revealed – not to mention the country’s ranking for binge-drinking and suicide among the under 40s.
Hand in hand with this social decay went the capture by political ideologues of state agencies and services – education, health, justice and social services – and the media of social communication, vital to the cultural life of a country. These were the secularised new graduates from the Irish universities which themselves had come under the influence of American academic politically correct ideology.
These state agencies and the media combined to promote social policies in their own image and likeness which a not-too-bright-or-courageous elected parliament duly went along with. That ninety percent-plus of these representatives supported the same-sex marriage referendum proposal which was rejected by nearly forty percent of those who elected them is – or should be – deeply worrying for any lover of democracy.
Unlike the French, Ireland’s Catholic schools did not even have to wait for the state to dismantle them. In the post-sixties flight from faith they went into self-destruct mode all on their own. On the wave of muddled-to-bad teaching of Christian doctrine – moral included – which can be traced back to the 1970’s, generation after generation were left clueless about the foundations of their faith. The Catholic Church leaders of the era must take responsibility for this and indeed it can only be seen as another side of the coin which produced the careless dealing with those clergy, wolves in shepherd’s clothing, who in those decades perpetrated sexual abuse on those in their care. These same wolves were not only slaves to their own vicious and illicit passions but also victims of the woolly moral thinking which resulted from the ambivalence of some of their theology teachers about the clear moral teaching in Humanae Vitae.
We are all victims now and the barbarians at our gates in the form of ISIS may be far less threatening to the survival of our civilization than those in our midst.
Jonah Goldberg in his book The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas talks about the dangerous adulation of youth which infects our age and which betrays not only young people themselves but also jeopardises our civilization. In an interview about the book he said:

We have a popular culture that exalts young people simply because they’re young and I have a deep and abiding contempt for youth politics, certainly as it’s practiced on the Left… The assumption that we have to cater to young people because they’re young, and they’re the future and all that kind of stuff, is just a naked form of power worship. It assumes that since they’re going to run everything one day, we might as well cave into them now. This completely turns the idea of civilization on its head. Hannah Arendt once said that in “Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children.’”

The champions of same-sex marriage rode to victory in the Irish referendum thanks to tyrannical clichés. They had no arguments. All they had were meaningless slogans about a meaningless equality, based on the ludicrous Humpty Dumpty principle that we can make things mean what we say they mean. They did so by mobilising the under-forty voters and feeding them a great deal of romantic nonsense. It worked. The liberal Left now knows how it works and they are setting out to apply the same strategy to introduce abortion-on-demand to the country.
The way back from this trough of desolation will be long and arduous. It is not just an Irish problem. It is a problem for the remnant of Western civilization and it can only be countered at the level of education. The culture we had is now corrupted and only that remnant can revitalise it: by their families, by their devising adequate strategies for communal education, by Christians and all those of good will, whether Christian or not, with their commitment to the universal truths rooted in our very nature. The barbarians who descended on the Roman world destroyed the old civilization. They in turn, however, eventually withered away and their children’s children ceased to be barbarians because they grew into the light of the truth which had been slowly but surely growing inside that old Roman world. It can, and will, happen again. Believe.

We CAN know the truth

Charles Taylor explained it in his own way in A Secular Society. That was a difficult but rewarding read. Alasdair MacIntyre worried us all about it in his very sobering After Virtue. Then Brad Gregory took up the theme compellingly in The Unintended Reformation. But if you want to go for a very short and succinct treatment of what happened to our Christian Civilization over the past 500 years try Fr. Brian McKevitt’s version of the story in a short homily he delivered last month. Not only did he tell us how we got here but he very helpfully suggested to us what we might do to get ourselves back on track before we all eat ourselves alive.

Fr. Brian is an Irish Dominican priest who edits a monthly paper which some feel is one of the few things which is keeping Irish Catholics informed about the state of their religion in the world today. The paper plays all the tricks of the tabloids without being a tabloid and is read, standard systems of estimating these things would calculate, by at least a million people every month. Others feel that if there is one single organ keeping some semblance of Catholic orthodox belief in the country alive and kicking today it is Fr. McKevitt’s Alive!

If you like it please spread it around.