Cormac McCarthy – challenging us in our comfort zones


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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Strange Fruit

“History may be servitude, History may be freedom,” the poet T.S. Eliot observed in Four Quartets. When it is the former it can also be lethal, as Britain and Ireland were reminded last week. The virus of Irish Nationalism produced another shocker with the revelation that a parish priest in Northern Ireland was the prime suspect in one of the worst atrocities in the three decades of mayhem and murder known as “The Troubles”. Bad history must bear a large part of the blame for this particular manifestation of evil, as it must for much of Ulster’s tragic tale over those 30 years.

The Chesney case, like recent scandals of clerical abuse, appals because of the shocking incongruity of a man committed to the beatitudes of the Christian gospel allegedly taking command of a para-military cell and committing mass murder in the pursuit of a political goal.

It was 1972, the bloodiest year in the recent history of Northern Ireland, the year of Bloody Sunday and the year in which 496 people died in political violence. An undeclared civil war was raging. On the morning of July 31 the local IRA unit detonated two car-bombs in the village of Claudy in County Derry. Nine people were killed, including three children. More than 30 were injured. In the weeks following, it emerged that one of the suspects was a priest in a small neighbouring parish, Father James Chesney.

He was never charged. He was never even questioned. His superiors, with the collusion of the civil authorities, eventually moved him out of the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom into the Republic of Ireland. He died of cancer in 1980. Officially he is only the number one suspect but few people now have any doubts about his crimes.

The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman released a report last week sketching the case against Fr Chesney. Together with records of police intelligence, including interviews with Cardinal William Conway, it contains the text of an anonymous letter sent by a “Father Liam” to the police in Northern Ireland in 2002. The writer claimed that he had met Fr Chesney at a house in Donegal in late 1972. In a long conversation Chesney broke down and confessed his role in the bombings. “He said that he was horrified at the injustices done to the Catholic people… He became a member of the IRA and was soon in charge of a small number of volunteers,” the letter revealed. He had been ordered ordered to place bombs in Claudy to relieve pressure on the IRA brigade in Derry city”.

According to the letter, Chesney had wanted to give warnings of the bombs so the streets could be cleared but when they stopped at nearby Dungiven, the IRA men could not find a telephone box in working order.

“This horrible affair has been hanging over me like a black cloud,” Fr Chesney allegedly said. “I must talk to someone in authority before I die… I must meet my maker with a clear conscience. The souls of the deceased are crying out not for vengeance but for justice.” The police now think that errors and inconsistencies suggest that the letter was not written by a priest. But it may represent Fr Chesney’s state of mind.

Why didn’t the authorities act? Probably because they feared a bloodbath. What might have followed the arrest of a Catholic priest for the murder of nine innocent Catholics and Protestants did not bear thinking about.

The Claudy atrocity was the culminating one in a month in which nearly 100 people lost their lives. Just 10 days earlier, more than 20 bombs exploded in Belfast over a period of 75 minutes, killing nine people and injuring a further 130. Ulster was a powder keg. The arrest of a Catholic priest might have set a light to the fuse. For Catholics it would have been the last straw in victimisation; for Protestants the confirmation of everything they believed about the Catholic Church.

But commenting last week, Mark Durkan, former leader of the moderate nationalist party, the SDLP, while accepting the concerns people might have had, still holds that it was a grave error of judgement. The oldest of axioms should have been given priority: “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall,” he said.

The real story behind this murkiest of murky affairs will probably never be known. Rumours are even spreading that the real reason for the non-arrest of Chesney is that he was an undercover agent for the security forces. But the mystery — if it is a mystery rather than just another example of Realpolitik at work – of the decisions taken by the agents of justice is only one part of story. The other is the mystery of how a man trained to live by and serve the gospel of Christ could end up in the place in which Chesney eventually found himself – allegedly a perpetrator of mass murder.

Perhaps there is no mystery. One of the patriotic icons of Irish history was the 1798 rebel priest Fr John Murphy. We can be sure that Fr James Chesney regarded himself as another Fr Murphy. To compare the two might enrage nationalists who revere one as a martyr while despising the the other as a terrorist. But this is the problem with bad history. The truth is that Chesney and Murphy responded to oppression in a similar way.

Fr Murphy led a rebellion against the forces of the Crown in the failed rebellion of 1798. He triumphed for a short period but was eventually captured, tried and barbarically executed. His story is retold in graphic detail in a ballad which is a virtual second Irish national anthem, Boolavogue.

Back in 1998 a long historical article about him appeared in An Phoblacht, the weekly newspaper of Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA’s political arm. It tells the story of a priest, somewhat at odds with his pro-government bishop, but initially obedient in “getting people in his parish to hand in whatever weapons they held in a hope that such a gesture would relieve the terror being inflicted on the people of County Wexford by the crown forces.”

“But the Yeomanry continued their reign of terror. That radicalised Father Murphy to the point where he aligned himself with the highly organised United Irish structure in Wexford, particularly in the Ferns district.” A contemporary, Edward Hay, writing in 1803, says that seeing what was happening he advised the people “that they had better die courageously in the field, than to be butchered in their houses”.

Fr Murphy and others then organised and procured arms for a growing army. In the first major engagement with the opposing militia he routed them and nearly wiped them out: 105 out of 110 were killed while only six of the rebels died. The town of Enniscorthy was the next target. An Phoblacht recounts how “The attack, led by Edward Roche and Father Murphy, saw the town taken with high casualties on both sides; several hundred United Irishmen and around 100 of the North Cork Militia garrison lost their lives.”

Fr Murphy’s eventual capture and execution made him a hero. Militant nationalists used his story to inspire Irish armed resistance for 200 years. To give you an idea, An Phoblacht described him as a patriot cut down by the tyranny of the British and the servility of the Catholic hierarchy: “While men like Father Murphy… played an important role in the rising and in many subsequent attempts by republicans to wrest Ireland’s independence from Britain, the true history shows that far from being with the people in their fight, the Catholic Church has been guilty at the very least of obstructing them and usually being in active collaboration with the imperial forces in Ireland.” No doubt that was Fr Chesney’s view as well when he packed explosives into three cars which would explode on the streets of Claudy.

An Phoblacht’s account of the Murphy story rationalises the option for armed resistance and violence. It is dangerous but ultimately can be countered with the incontrovertible truth that violence only perpetuates violence and diminishes humanity in appalling ways. But the mythological and emotional account of the career of John Murphy and the entire rebellion of 1798 is much more dangerous. This is the version of the story lodged in the consciousness of the Irish race “wherever green is worn”, presenting Fr. John Murphy in the image of a pious martyr for faith and fatherland. It is much more difficult to deal with.

The hero worship of half-truths is one of the most lethal potions available to mankind. The priest-terrorist of Claudy is another sad example of the slavery induced by bad history. The mythology of Irish Nationalism must bear a large share of the responsibility for 30 years of suffering endured by the people of Britain and Ireland.

(This post was first published online in which carries links to other material including the ballad, Boolavogue.)