“I’m Sorry It’s Not Blue”:
RIP Cormac McCarthy

His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.

— Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

The news was hardly unexpected, but it saddened all the same. Cormac McCarthy has passed away at the age of 89. His most recent two works, the entwined Stella Maris and The Passenger, sit unread atop the bookshelf in my bedroom and my eyes turn to them as I look up from my phone with remorse. The spines will be broken on them soon.

So much has been written on McCarthy, and I must confess to having read very little of it. I never recognise the writer I know in the many assessments of his works. I have my own ideas about them, and whether the scholarship agrees or not, I have no idea. Such an awareness of McCarthy scholarship is hardly warranted to appreciate his works, of course, but for someone like myself, who loves to read everything around an artist or writer I become fixated on, the solitude of McCarthy’s quadrant amongst my bookshelves is stark.

I think I own and have read (with the exception of the aforementioned two) all of his novels. I first read Blood Meridian and The Road in my mid-teens, sandwiched between excursions with Camus. The absurdism of McCarthy’s work shone through immediately in that context, but I always found something so intriguing in its presentation.

McCarthy’s noted brand of nihilism is not tinged so much with a sense of humour as it is with an overflowing appreciation for the speculative and the absurdity of the imagination in a world that can scarcely be comprehended. Renowned, in more recent years, for his love of science and new human knowledges, his Westerns (if we might lazily loop his books into that genre) so often feel like microcosms of our universe at large in this way. Space, that final frontier, appears folded back on the American plains, such that the chaotic storms of our universe are allowed to unfurl in the teacup of McCarthy’s weird wild West.

This distinguishes McCarthy from a lineage of writers he is otherwise seen as a natural bedfellow of. As far as I am aware — again, my knowledge of his critical reception is uncharacteristically sparse — McCarthy has often been framed as a grumpy and hypermasculine prose stylist of an ilk with Hemingway or the other alcoholic modernists, perhaps even being understood as a “reactionary modernist” like so many other classic American (male) authors. But the sparseness of his prose feels less like the aping of an old masculine tradition than it is innately cinematic, intrinsically postmodern, such that his “reactionary modernism” feels less conscious than it is a product of the American landscape in which McCarthy has grown old.

My McCarthy books are stacked on their side; atop them, my collection of Burroughs. The proximity of these two bodies of work was not intentional, but right now it feels so apt. McCarthy — much like Burroughs; perhaps even more so like Kubrick; provocatively, also like Baruch Spinoza — is what Mark Fisher might call a “cold rationalist”. His works are cold and impersonal — especially those, like The Road and Suttree, that veer close to the autobiographical and most personally affecting. Take this passage from one of Fisher’s odes to Kubrick, replacing the director with McCarthy himself:

It is precisely [McCarthy’s] coldness and slowness that are missed in a contemporary culture that is so obsessively ‘warm’ and ‘fast’; ingratiating, emotionally exploitative, relentlessly fidgety. [McCarthy] took us out of ourselves: not via the transports of ecstatic fervour, but through the icy contemplation of what drives and traps us, and the vision of a universe indifferent to our passions. To see the mechanical deathliness of the human world from the perspective of that indifferent universe: that is what [McCarthy] offered us. A vision of God (which is also an approximation of God’s vision).

[McCarthy] returns — why deny it? — to an essentially religious sensibility, although his religion is “atheistic” in the same sense Spinoza’s was. For Spinoza, God = immanence, matter in itself, the gloriously dispassionate, desolated cosmos. [McCarthy] evokes the desubjectified affects of awe and dread, rather than the compulsory, socially-endorsed, ‘warm’ emotions of empathy / sympathy, as homage to a universe whose indifference entails not pessimism, but freedom: freedom from the miserable prisonhouse of the human.

We find this kind of worldview everywhere in McCarthy’s works. Take this celebrated passage from Blood Meridian:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

But beyond this, one need only read No Country for Old Men to be struck by a more effusive Kubrickian and cinematic quality, and it is stunning just how alike to a film script the novel really is. It was based on a film script, of course, and so this might hardly be that surprising or insightful a comment, but I’ve rarely read a film script that is so evocative and so keenly attuned to the capacities of the human imagination than McCarthy’s effort. His Westerns are so cinematic, then, as to almost be psychedelic. They are, as it were, Acid Westerns, deploying a “psychedelic reason” borne of a cold apprehension of America’s own grappling with the inherent violence of its subjective indeterminacy.

It’s an effect that is common to all his novels, which are well-known for their shunning of grammatical convention. But for all their missing punctuation, at his best McCarthy dismantles the scaffolding of written language in such a way that makes it all the more alive. (In a way very different to Burroughs, of course, but nonetheless producing a similar eviscerating of the word-virus in his attending to colloquialisms and dialects.)

But McCarthy’s novels are self-reflective on this point, too. For all his consideration of America’s humiliated sense of reason, this overcoming of pessimism is hardly absolute. In fact, the great challenge of so many of his novels is how his characters respond to situations in which pessimism might be the most natural response.

One of my favourite scenes from his books, in this regard, is the anticlimax of The Road, when the father and son finally reach their destination on the coast. Having walked the road for so long, having been used and abused by the near-future Wild West of a post-apocalyptic America, it is as if the only frontier now worth searching for is the sea, with its firm but energetic horizon and sublime sense of impossibility. Following the closing and necrotising of the great frontier inland, the sea returns as a significant signifier of a freedom that America has hubristically contained within.

At first, it may seem like an odd choice of destination, since the American dream was so fixated on taming its inland wilderness, but lest we forget that the recuperation of that dream, in something like Star Trek, turns back to seafaring terminology. It is as if McCarthy desires a return to a Melvillian frontier, but knows that such a return is impossible now. Within the context of the novel itself, it is as if the father knows that, since the land of the free is so forsaken, a life at (or at least by the) sea is the only place to think the future.

I’m reminded of David Farrell Krell’s comments on the sea in Melville’s Moby Dick, as something to be conquered; a landscape as evocatively elusive as the white whale that dwells in its depths. But it is an impossible task, since Ahab can hardly mark his achievement on an environment that leaves no traces of man’s conquests. Krell writes:

The sea’s magnanimity consists in the fact that it “will permit no records,” so that when all collapses the sea rolls on “as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Every name and every deed, including the deed of a meditation on the sea, is therefore “writ in water” and remains “but a draught of a draught.” And yet. If there be “a metaphysical professor” in the vicinity, he or she will ineluctably lead you to water, and water will eventually guide you to the sea and all of its ungraspable phantoms. Even if the journey is arduous, “either in a physical or metaphysical point of view,” what Melville’s Ishmael calls “the universal lump” descends on all alike, so that “all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.”

But there is no awestruck contentedness in McCarthy’s novel; no return to and acquiescence with the sea’s magnanimity. The sea is not sublime. Its undulating chaos only mirrors that of the land at his characters’ backs, albeit in a manner somehow more barren. It is a shock to the father; a disappointment to the son. It is as if the father hopes to show the son the wonders still left in this world, but the expected ideal only leads to dissatisfaction, which is all the more painful after their violent and miserable journey.

The scene unfolds as follows:

They ate more sparingly. They’d almost nothing left. The boy stood in the road holding the map. They listened but they could hear nothing. Still he could see open country to the east and the air was different. Then they came upon it from a turn in the road and they stopped and stood with the salt wind blowing in their hair where they’d lowered the hoods of their coats to listen. Out there was the gray beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it. Like the desolation of some alien sea breaking on the shores of a world unheard of. Out on the tidal flats lay a tanker half careened. Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy.

At this juncture, it appears that all desire for escape is dissolved by the ashen waves; the sweet sugar cubes of hope dashed along the shoreline. There is nothing left to do, it seems, but return to the road, to the West, and imagine it anew.

Many believed, before the publication of his last two books in 2022, that The Road might be McCarthy’s final novel. And yet, the journey it takes seems like the distillation of McCarthy’s own. He began his career with a return to the Old West, considering a New West and what it might still further become.

Readers of my first book Egress will know that this is a sentiment that has long fascinated me, as someone with a perhaps surprising love of the Western genre. In truth, the chapter from that book on the American West, though nestled into narrative of the book in a manner I hope is convincing, was nonetheless written for another project entirely, which I hope to someday return to — a book called The Rotten Western, which updates an argument popularised in film studies by Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his short study of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

Rosenbaum is famous for expanding on Pauline Kael’s term “acid western”, of which Jodorowsky’s 1970 film El Topo is the most obvious example. But Rosenbaum notes how Jarmusch’s psychedelic Western does something different to the genre. Though it is no less psychedelic and dream-like, we are no longer within the radical consciousness of Seventies America; the film feels more like a deathbed hallucination of American life at the end of history. It hardly seems surprising to me that, following this, so many “post-Westerns” have turned this speculative landscape at the heart of American life into a more explicitly posthumous expanse, in being post-apocalyptic and so often zombified.

The book will consider The Walking Dead and video game series like Fallout and The Last of Us as some of the most explicit examples of this turn, but McCarthy’s works are nonetheless integral here. Indeed, against their couching in a kind of “reactionary modernism”, his novels are often far more imaginative and speculative than they are given credit for.

Neil Campbell is perhaps my favourite writer on this. In his Deleuze-infused writings on the American West, he notes how “No Country for Old Men, both novel and film, has been interpreted in various ways; for example, it has been called conservatively Reaganite, portraying ‘the ineffectual residuum of a lost Western white male hegemony,’ and ‘an allegory of salvation, or even, perhaps a moral allegory of post-September 11, Neocon America.'” But his own interpretation fixates on Tommy Lee Jones’ character (in the film), Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, whom he calls “a pensive ‘sounding board’ struggling to understand the world around him, a world undergoing dramatic change as it shifts from a mythic Old to a troubling New West, and beyond that even to a tentative and projected post-West.”

The relationship between the book and the film becomes particularly interesting here for Campbell. He suggests that “the film of the novel is akin to Benjamin’s notion of translation as an ‘afterlife … a transformation and a renewal of something living,’ whereby the original is changed so that its ‘translation’ is ‘pursuing its own course’ in a new and different language.”

This makes the film, for Campbell, “a reflective text, always framing the violent events of the present, such as drug trafficking, border politics, and corporate globalism in relation to the afterlife of the western past, or at least versions of that past recited, remembered, and imagined by its various characters.” No Country for Old Men thus becomes a film that is not so much reactionary — though it echoes a view of American postmodernity closely associated with an arch-conservative like Clint Eastwood — as it is an utter undoing of the Western genre in a more positive sense. It is a film, in Campbell’s words, that “emphasized how a genre might ‘outdo itself to become itself,’ to find a cinematic space in which Deleuze’s ‘image from all the clichés’ might come into view to interrupt the given and accepted ‘distribution of the sensible.'”

This reference to Deleuze — I assume from his Logic of Sense — fits well with Sheriff Bell’s odd American stoicism. As Campbell continues, Bell’s “imagined western past of order and hierarchy is undone by ‘something outside one’s control,’ a sense of grief for the loss of this coded West seen now in the inexplicable signs and wonders impinging upon him from all sides.” This leads to the film’s central concern with “this tense, fuzzy borderland” — not simply that between Texas and Mexico, but that which lies “between old and new, lies and truth, ‘I’ and ‘we’, and the inability to distinguish them clearly.” It is a striking reading, transforming the Reaganite reception of McCarthy’s works into something more positively Butlerian.

This is the McCarthy I love, beyond all restrictions of his writing to America’s most reactionary codifications of its own history. In this sense, his immersion in his own culture may well be driven by a desire to call it into question, but not in the sense that things were so much better in the old days. This is what is so fascinating about the Western as a genre. It is so archetypically American to romanticise the abjectly worst and unsettled parts of one’s own history; it is even more archetypical to transform that abhorrent instability into something so paradoxically static in its codification. But McCarthy’s novels do not fall neatly into this same trap. Though many readers presumably miss the gambit, it is still present. McCarthy may not provide much in terms of a positive vision of a post-West, but he violently asserts its arrival.

To quote Campbell once more, all of McCarthy’s novels cut across the strata of the West’s codifications in this way. But the more we immerse ourselves in his world, the more we find that the tight strata of Old West and New start “buckling like the desert rocks, each folding into the other in a complex intertwining of history and myth.” McCarthy’s post-Western America thus becomes a prefiguration of its post-truth present. (Many have of course drawn parallels between Donald Trump and Blood Meridian‘s Judge Holden.) His death is all the more significant for this reason, but like the father who leads us to the ocean and back into the wilderness, though he may be sorry that the colours of any imaginable future seem muted, we continue onwards like McCarthy’s son. McCarthy himself, the stoic father, led the way and travelled the road; what is built along its edges now is up to us.

In response to McCarthy’s apparent pessimism, we might too reply, “That’s okay.” But such a response is less passive than it is comforting to a man who seemed ill at ease with a country he felt outside of. No country for an old man like McCarthy, but the task of building one anew was never his in the first place. The task is ours.

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