The reality of outer darkness in Dostoevsky and Cormac McCarthy

“No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoevsky”, E. M Forster wrote in his wise little book, Aspects of the Novel.” Forster’s viewpoint was not much appreciated by some of his fellow countrymen. But he made no apologies for it. Any claim to the contrary was for him simply a mark of provincialism.

Describing Dostoevsky, Forster said, “He has penetrated-more deeply, perhaps than any English writer – into the darkness and goodness of the human soul, but he has penetrated by a way we cannot follow. He has his own psychological method and marvellous it is. But it is not ours.”

But there may be another novelist in the English language who now comes close to Dostoevsky in his searing power to expose the darkness into which our kind can enter and destroy ourselves. This is the Irish-American Cormac McCarthy, described by many now as the greatest American novelist of the late twentieth century.

Dostoevsky’s work is looked on by many as prophetic and in no novel is he more so that in his late masterpiece, Demons (also published under the titles The Possessed and The Devils). He did not live to see the Russian Revolution nor the horrors which it and its ideology brought to the world. But in Demons he described its roots and had no doubt that if those roots bore their bitter fruit, a human catastrophe would be the outcome. He was right, but he also knew that those roots had one primal origin, a demonic one.

One hundred years after Dostoevsky published Demons, Cormac McCarthy published what many consider to be his masterpiece, Blood Meridian. It is as dark and forbidding as Demonsand like that book is also rooted in actual records of man’s inhumanity to man. Furthermore, there is no question but that it can be interpreted as a record of demonic possession. Read in conjunction with the body of McCarthy’s work, especially Outer DarkNo Country for Old Men and The Road, one cannot but see that McCarthy’s preoccupations – never explicitly stated, but always lurking in the dark shadows of his work – are very similar to Dostoyevsky’s. Even central characters in Blood Meridianmight be read as reinterpretations of those in Demons.

In Demons, the “possession” described affects not one man or a few families, but an entire provincial town and all levels of its society. However the two central and  tragically evil characters are Nicolai Stavrogin and Pyotr Verkhovensky. They embody much of the preternatural demonic character of McCarthy’s “Judge” Holden in Blood Meridian. The hapless victim of the calculated vindictive cruelty of Pyotr Verkhovensky, would-be but reluctant student revolutionary, Ivan Shatov, in some way is mirrored by the equally hapless “Kid” in McCarthy’s novel. 

For much of the journey which Blood Meridian takes us on we are accompanying a murderous gang of US renegades – in which “Judge” Holden is the second in command – on a mission to exterminate native Americans south of the Mexican border. The smell of evil is palpable. A newspaper account of the historical personage on which McCarthy based his character, the “Judge”, reads as follows:

His desires was [sic] blood and women, and terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name, in the Cherokee nation and Texas; and before we left Frontereras a little girl of ten years was found in the chaparral violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed him out as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand, but though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime.

In Demons, Nicolai Stavrogin, whose sensual brutality is mirrored in “Judge” Holden,has a similar catalogue of evil deeds on his record and in the end is driven to suicide with little other explanation for it than a demonic one. The cold and cruel ideology of Pyotr Verkhovensky is mirrored in the other side of Holden.

We hesitate, understandably, to preoccupy ourselves too much with the Evil One. Nevertheless, our Lenten season begins with an account of Christ’s encounter with Satan in the desert in the forty days he spent there before his public life began. Our failure to acknowledge the perpetual existence of the father of lies may be a dangerous habit of our age which considers the material world as the only real world.

One is reminded of the teaching of Joseph Ratzinger when he asked us to reflect on this:

Have not we also thought that spiritual realities are less real than the material? Is there not also a tendency to defer announcing the truth of God in order to do “more necessary” things first? In fact, however, we see that economic development without spiritual development is destroying man and the world. (Journey to Easter).

Denis Donoghue, probably the most learned literary critic Ireland has ever produced, when teaching Blood Meridian  to his students in the University of New York, recalled the words of another famous critic, Lionel Trilling, when he spoke of the “bitter line of hostility to civilisation” that runs through modern literature. Donoghue, however, does not bunch McCarthy’s work in that negative category, even though he appears to refuse to adjudicate any deed in his fiction (The Practice of Reading).

Donoghue writes, and taught his students, that while Blood Meridian appears to give privilege to primal, nonethical energies, and seems to endorse Nietzsche’s claim that art rather than ethics constitutes the essential metaphysical activity of man, McCarthy is not in fact endorsing that philosophy. Nietzsche, he points out, is “Judge” Holden’s philosopher, not McCarthy’s.

Donoghue admits that the experience of reading Blood Meridian is likely to be, for most of us, peculiarly intense and yet wayward. The book demands that we imagine forces in the world and in ourselves which we might  think we have outgrown. He concludes, “We have not outgrown them, the book challenges us to admit. These forces are primordial and unregenerate, they have not been assimilated to the consensus of modern culture or to the forms of dissent which that consensus recognizes and to some extent accepts. They are outside the law.”

That is, I think, outside the law as our world knows law. Human law is a flawed edifice. The truth is that those forces are more real than we want to admit. At the end of the novel the “Judge”, before crushing the Kid to death in his monstrous embrace – although that death is not explicitly stated – has this conversation with his victim with this Nietzschean rebuke:

You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgment on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgments of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise.

Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me… For it was required of no man to give more than he possessed nor was any man’s share compared to another’s.

Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not.

This, Donoghue says, “is the gist of the judge’s complaint against the Kid: he should have voided in himself every scruple, every impulse of kinship with the defeated, He should have retained no will but the common will, so far as that was embodied in the work of war and killing.”

Those words might well have been spoken by Pyotr Verkhovensky to Ivan Shatov in Demons prior to Shatov’s murder. Verkhovensky’s hatred of Shatov was personal but he hid it under the fiction that Shatov would denounce his revolutionary cell. The members of that cell, however, were not fooled, Dostoevsky’s narrator tells us; they knew that  Pyotr Stepanovich was playing with them like pawns. They felt they had suddenly been caught like flies in the web of a huge spider; they were angry but quaking with fear. But that did not make them back away from their evil plan. Shatov’s fate was sealed.

With a resonance of Judas’ betrayal of Christ, Verkhovensky warns his accomplices, “Only just let anyone try slipping away now! None of you has the right to abandon the cause! You can go and kiss him if you like, but you have no right to betray the common cause. Only swine…act like that!” An allusion to the Gerasene demoniac whose demons ended up in the herd of swine.

It is at the scene of Shatov’s murder, after the deed is done, that the demon possessing one of the accomplices manifests himself openly, and in a way which is echoed in the murder of the Kid in Blood Meridian.

Lyamshin hid behind Virginsky, only peeping out warily from behind him every now and then, and hiding again at once. But when the stones were tied on and Pyotr Stepanovich stood up, Virginsky suddenly started quivering all over, clasped his hands, and cried fully at the top of his voice: “This is not it, this is not it! No, this is not it at all!”

He might have added something more to his so belated exclamation, but Lyamshin did not let him finish: suddenly, and with all his might, he clasped him and squeezed him from behind and let out some sort of incredible shriek. There are strong moments of fear, for instance, when a man will suddenly cry out in a voice not his own, but such as one could not even have supposed him to have before then, and the effect is sometimes even quite frightful. Lyamshin cried not with a human but with some sort of animal voice. 

Squeezing Virginsky from behind harder and harder with his arms, in a convulsive fit, he went on shrieking without stop or pause, his eyes goggling at them all, and his mouth opened exceedingly wide, while his feet rapidly stamped the ground as if beating out a drum roll on it. Virginsky got so scared that he cried out like a madman himself and tried to tear free of Lyamshin’s grip in some sort of frenzy, so viciously that one even could not have expected it of Virginsky, scratching and punching him as well he was able to reach behind him with his arms. 

Erkel finally helped him to tear Lyamshin off. But when, in fear, Virginsky sprang about ten steps away, Lyamshin, seeing Pyotr Stepanovich, suddenly screamed again and rushed at him. Stumbling over the corpse, he fell across it onto Pyotr Stepanovich and now clenched him so tightly in his embrace, pressing his head against his chest, that for the first moment Pyotr Stepanovich, Tolkachenko, and Liputin were almost unable to do anything. 

Pyotr Stepanovich yelled, swore, beat him on the head with his fists. Finally, having somehow torn himself free, he snatched out the revolver and pointed it straight into the open mouth of the still screaming Lyamshin, whom Tolkachenko, Erkel, and Liputin had already seized firmly by the arms; but Lyamshin went on shrieking even in spite of the revolver. Finally, Erkel somehow bunched up his foulard and stuffed it deftly into his mouth, and thus the shouting ceased. “This is very strange,” Pyotr Stepanovich said, studying the madman in alarmed astonishment.

He was visibly struck.

“I had quite a different idea of him,” he added pensively.

He simply did not recognise, blinded by his own demonic-nurtured atheism,  the nature of the monster which had confronted him. That was his first direct encounter with the Devil that evening. The next – I’ll spare you the detail – was with Kirillov, the atheist who wanted to be God and  whom Verkhovensky was complicit in seducing to commit suicide. The account of his death and the diabolical manifestations which accompanied it has been described as  “the most harrowing scene in all fiction”.

McCarthy’s fiction, as Donoghue says, makes no explicit adjudication on the evil deeds his characters perpetrate. That he leaves to us But in the character of the Kid we have an image of innocence lurking in the shadows and which the “Judge” realises he has failed to corrupt. Dostoevsky is much more explicit about redemption. One of the wonderful passages of the book is the deathbed conversion of Pyotr Verkhovensky’s father, Stepan Trofimovich.

Richard Pevear, one of Dostoevsky’s recent translators, comments in his introduction to Demons:

Here, in what many consider the darkest of his novels, Dostoevsky inscribes the fundamental freedom of Judeo-Christian revelation: the freedom to turn from evil, the freedom to repent. His vision is not Manichaean; he does not see evil as co-eternal with good. Evil cannot be the essence of any living person. The “possessed” can at any moment be rid of their demons, which are wicked but also false. The devil is a liar and the father of lies. And the lie here is the same as in the beginning: “you will be like God”.

One can only hope that the fracturing character of our own civilisation, penetrated as it has been again by a new Marxism, which we are rather naively branding with the silly label of “Wokeism”, is not the unfolding of a prophecy of the dehumanisation of our society as Dostoevsky’s was for Russian society at the turn into the twentieth century.

This article first appeared in the April, 2023, issue of the review, Position Papers.

Interpreting ‘A Quiet Place’ – closer than you might think

We might wonder sometimes if that most woke of the woke, Hollywood, knows what it is doing. Could it really have backed a film which is an allegory for the mayhem and destruction which the intolerant enemies of human discourse have unleashed on our civilization? This is probably a pointless question, because in Tinseltown, the love of money trumps everything.

In March 2017, Paramount hired John Krasinski to rewrite the script and direct A Quiet Place, his first directorial venture for a major studio. A Quiet Place and its sequel are two parts of a science-fiction horror franchise – A Quiet Place III, to be directed by Jeff Nichols, will be with us in 2023. But this is a horror tale with a difference. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it tells us much more about ourselves and our condition than we might like to admit.  A Quiet Place can be read as a tale about something very unpleasant, a tale about very disturbing aliens which are currently are invading our world.

When we read, or saw the film version, of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 it probably worried us to some extent. But did we ever think we would be facing its like this side of the Iron Curtain, then still a painful reality? If not, we should have. In today’s London Daily Telegraph  (September 13) we read this headline: “Now woke activists are burning books – and it’s become a frightening gamble to write one”. 

A Quiet Place is a truly frightening film about silence, not about the golden gift we know and which we associate with peace and serenity, but about the repressive and maddening silence forced on those who speak their mind, by those who hate them, because they say things that are found disagreeable by some. Threatened with violent extinction, they are forced to live in a condition of terrified silence. 

This is a simple science-fiction story of a family trying to survive in a world which has been invaded by monsters which destroy any human being whom they hear. Hearing them speak, or make any noise, they are targeted and killed. As Nikki Baughan, described in her Sight and Sound review of A Quiet Place, the cinematic success of Krasinski’s film lies in its operating at a deep emotional level This apocalyptic tale is told entirely through the prism of a single family, one struggling to cope not only with actual monsters, but also with insidious personal demons of grief, blame and guilt. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” insists the father to his son, echoing the stock reassurances of parents everywhere. “Yes there is!” comes the terrified youngster’s incredulous, entirely accurate response.

Allegories are stories which include a representation or the expression of truth using symbolic, fictional characters. They tell a story which looks like one thing on the surface but also ask us – if we are able to see – to look at something which is much more than a story lying under that surface. They invite us to interpret the story and find in it truth about ourselves and our condition.

As the renowned Irish literary critic, the late Denis Donoghue wrote in The Practice of Reading, interpretation begins when someone decides to pay attention to a text. When a text – in this case a film – seems to be saying something it invites us to look under the surface. Interpretation begins when we have acknowledged that invitation and set about fulfilling it. We are, as it were, enriching our experience of that work. Donoghue explains the process:

“We try to understand the text as if its character were hidden and must be brought to light. We move along the interpretive process when we try to make our preliminary understanding of the text explicit to ourselves, thereby turning the occasion into an experience. If we offer to make the experience—or something like it—available to other readers, we have in mind to put the text into the public domain.” 

He adds that “It is fairly generally accepted that the interpreter of a text can’t appeal for authority to the author’s intention—at least beyond a certain point—not only because we rarely know what that intention was but also because the author may not have realized his intention in the text; the text may in the event have exceeded the intention or diverged from it.” 

We bring each text – which is a gift to us from its creator – into our own world and bring our own world to it. Our relationship with it is now part of its meaning and we offer our interpretation of it to others, in the hope that it may help them connect with the deeper meaning that we have found in it, rightly or wrongly. That dialogue is part of the joy of artistic experience, our relationship with works of art. 

This, of course, is the joy which the monsters in A Quiet Place want to extinguish, representing all those in our culture who want to silence those with whom they disagree. The grotesque murderous creations which populate this allegory, provided by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic company, are not just some silly inventions designed to make you jump out of your seat. They do that, but they are much more. They are representations of something truly alien and destructive in our midst..

Will they succeed in extinguishing all dialogue, free expression and dissent? We await the third part of A Quiet Place and hope that the allegory will continue its narrative arc and show a path to victory over all those who would condemn mankind to silence and fear of speaking about what we think, see and feel. The first part of Krasinski’s film ends on a note which Baughan interprets as “a realisation that survival may not, in fact, come from avoiding the assault, but in finding the courage to rail loudly against it.” The sad evidence in our daily news is that this courage is in short supply in our creative community today. 

The delusions of twenty-first century man


…or this?
There is no harm in being afraid of the Devil – except in one sense. The sense in which people are afraid to be heard talking about him, lest they be thought of as some kind of medieval freak.

Cardinal Robert Sarah engaged in debate recently with Fr. James Martin S.J. on the issue of the latter’s alleged soft-peddling of Catholic teaching on sexual morality. In an article in America about the differences between the two men, it is noted, not approvingly, that Cardinal Sarah is on record saying that homosexuality and radical Islam are two major threats to the family and are “demonic”. The cardinal’s position on the first issue – as is that of any Catholic in tune with their Church’s teaching – is as he puts it in his Wall Street Journal op-ed article with which Martin takes issue.

In that article the cardinal said that while experiencing attraction to people of the same sex is not in itself sinful, same-sex relations are “gravely sinful and harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them”.

“People who identify as members of the LGBT community are owed this truth in charity, especially from clergy who speak on behalf of the church about this complex and difficult topic,” Cardinal Sarah added.

He went on to praise the example Catholics who experience same-sex attraction but live according to Church teaching, citing Daniel Mattson and his book “Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace.”

“These men and women testify to the power of grace, the nobility and resilience of the human heart, and the truth of the church’s teaching on homosexuality,” the cardinal said.

Reactions to any judgement by Sarah that  “the father of lies” is responsible for the state we are in and the threat we face will broadly fit into two types. Someone who believes that the Devil is an existing creature, going about like a raging lion seeking whom he may devour – as St. Peter described him – will sit down and think seriously about the implications of the statement. Is it some fictive narrative or is it a fact – as Sarah maintains it is? If a fact, what are its implications? If not, how should they argue their case against it?

Someone for whom “demonic” is just one more term of abuse, with its origins in superstition, the response will be different. For that person this is an outrageous label, the only effect of which is to make other people distrust, fear and probably hate what it has been pinned on. If those in this position have no interest in trying to understand what someone like Sarah believes to be the actual conditions of the real world, then they can only respond to him by abusing him in turn – or just ignoring him as a deluded freak.

We have here a radical cultural and religious divide of the most fundamental and dangerous kind.

Denis Donoghue, Ireland’s greatest gift to the world of literary criticism, touches what may be the root of this chasm in one of his books. It is in a passing observation in the context of a wider theme but it speaks to our current discontents.

Interpretations of Milton’s Paradise Lost still divide literary critics. But one of them in particular seems to put us on a track which has a great deal to do with our fear – or lack of it – of the Devil. This is the one which reads Satan as the hero of the poem. For Donoghue this is a false reading but one, nonetheless, which has seeped into our literary culture with perverse consequences. Beguiled by this false reading, a reading in which Satan is just another metaphor for our conflicted tragic selves, they deny the existence of the real spirit which others know to be the ultimate source of all human misery.

The corrupting consequence of this false reading is that, paraphrasing Donoghue, we read the world under the sign of Satan-as-tragic-hero in Paradise Lost. In doing so we miss, in a sense, the woods for the trees – the woods being Devil himself, the trees just being his beguiling works and pomps. Donoghue comments on the misreading as follows:

Some critics find the thrill of Satan’s eloquence exemplified again in Byron’s Cain. The particular moment of satanism that is found irresistible comes in Book V of Paradise Lost when Satan, who has evidently been reading Stevens, rounds upon Abdiel, who has been insisting that Christ was God’s agent in the Creation. As always, Satan is a spoiled brat:

That we were formed then say’st thou? and the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native heav’n, ethereal sons
Our puissance is our own.

Satan’s claim to have begotten himself is nonsense. Adam deals with it adequately and silently when he tells of his own birth and addresses the sun:

Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?

Not of myself; by some great Maker then,

In goodness and in power preeminent.”


But Blake, Hazlitt, and a formidable rout of critics have sent themselves into an altitudo of eloquence under the sway of Satan’s vanity. Harold Bloom is the most susceptible of these critics, and in Ruin the Sacred Truths and The Western Canon he quotes Satan’s boast as if it should be taken seriously. Bloom and his associates in this line of interpretation are the bad angels of criticism, exhibiting their own forms of angelism, the desire to transcend the human scale of experience in a rage for essence. They want to be rid of the world of fact, the opaque burdens of history and society, and to fly upon wings of their own devising. As critics, they thrive on weightlessness.


“Our puissance is our own.” Now what does all that remind you of? Man as the measure of all things. Man, who can be the architect of his own nature and essence. Man, made in the image of himself and capable of moulding that image in whatever way he wants. Man the Satanic Angel.

The error of these critics – apart from their misinterpretation of Milton’s own Faith – is also the great error of our age. The denial of the reality that is the Devil leaves us all at sea with the problem of evil. It also drains the concept of sin of all its meaning, giving it a meaning which makes nonsense of our sense of injustice and of the need for salvation – for we know neither that which we need to be saved from nor that which we are saved for. Without this knowledge we have not a hope in Hell of understanding what the problem is with Islamic fundamentalism, with the abuse of our sexual nature – nor any basis on which to build the foundations for a moral life. Without this we flounder in a sea  of relativism and our feeble efforts to be just more often than not end up perpetuating injustice. The delusions of Satan in Paradise Lost – in the passage quoted – are the delusions of “liberated” 21st century man.