Ms Odradek was kind enough to reply to my last post on Cormac McCarthy’s drive towards the dark by linking to her mini-review of “Outer Dark”. Read her review here.
This response is somewhat of an exploration that her review implicated in me.
If Cormac McCarthy is writing tragedy for the purpose of catharsis, then perhaps he sees himself as Dante’s Virgil leading various infernal travelers through hell and possibly through purgatory. Catharsis is a purging, afterall.
A few examples from “Suttree” (it’s the most recent of his that I’ve read). Harrogate, a backwoods hick who meets Suttree in jail, eventually finds himself trapped in a cavern beneath Knoxville after he detonated a sewer main. In the cave, he loses all his light and is swallowed in a darkness (and poo) that is so complete that “he might have been as big as the whole universe or small as anything that was.” An outer darkness, as it were. Suttree, after searching for three days, descends into the caverns to retrieve Harrogate from the darkness.
In Dante, there are two circles of hell with excrement – the gluttons and deceivers. The gluttons are in the outer circles of hell and are only punished by being turned over to their sinful desires. The deceivers, however, are in the 8th circle, past the Styx, and are receiving active punishment for their intentional sins. Over the course of the novel, Harrogate progresses from just a lustful and gluttonous person to someone who plans his sins – he transgresses with intent. At this point, Suttree finds him in the glow of a red lantern with maps of the city – in the image of a demon cartographer – attempting to find a bank so he can blow it up from underneath. Suttree continually warns Harrogate, against this progress, that his actions will land him in prison or dead. Harrogate eventually winds up in the penitentiary, and Suttree ultimately fails as Virgil.
Further along the lines of McCarthy seeing himself as Virgil: In “The Road”, which opens with an allusion to the “Inferno”, the father acts as a type of Virgil walking his son through the various parts of the terrestrial hell, and finally when the father has gone as far as he can go, hands his son to another set of parents. I’m sure there’s much to be explored there.
It’s interesting though, that in “The Sunset Limited” – McCarthy’s most explicit and thorough exploration of the faith question (via Christianity) – Black, the religious character, momentarily retracts the doctrine of hell from his beliefs while he’s arguing with the atheist White. I’m not sure what to make of that. Black is the Virgil character in this story. There’s been some critical speculation that both characters are already dead, the apartment setting in some afterlife, and the White character has one more chance to change his ways before being whisked away to suffer the hell of suicides. The play ends with Black lamenting that he couldn’t change White’s mind. Black asks an invisible God why He didn’t give him the right words. This Virgil ultimately fails again.
Come to think of it, McCarthy’s Virgil bears a certain resemblance to the Old Testament prophets who, when called, are told by God that they will fail in their vocation. Isaiah: “Make the heart of the people dull, their ears heavy, and blind their eyes, lest they understand…and turn and be healed.” Ezekiel: “Surely, if I sent you to a people of foreign speech, they would listen to you” and “Behold, you are like one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it.”
I suppose that through this catharsis, McCarthy is trying to get us to desire the light. He’s attempting, and often succeeds, the anagogical; creating a desire in his readers – a leading up to – which I think was Dante’s ambition as well. That is McCarthy’s genius. If he’s Virgil, then he can only lead his readers so far – through Purgatory – before love must eventually take over and be the guide. Maybe “The Road” comes the closest to this love – a baton pass to another father-figure. And maybe, as Dante knew, it would be foolish to explicitly describe the Light, although he names it often – just lead the reader to the precipice and urge their desire for it.
The difference between McCarthy and Dante is that McCarthy seems content to stop in Purgatory. He’s fine residing in the Vestibule of hell, as if like the other virtuous pagans, the Christ-question were never presented. Dante for his part began to describe the effects of the Light. The OT prophets, despite the carnage they described, also had dramatic points of hope. If there’s light in McCarthy, it’s flotsam to cling to so as not to drown outright. Dante’s and the OT prophets’ light is actually something to stoke the imagination – a visionary imagination to build life upon.
I don’t want to take away from the extraordinary accomplishment of McCarthy’s project, and maybe I can’t legitimately question what he sees as his work. But I can say that I wish there were somebody with his scope and gift who also imagined the Light – a Beatrice to his Virgil. Does this point to a bigger change in history? Whereas the Greeks, or even the Romans via the original Virgil, saw life ultimately as tragedy because of death. But Dante the Christian, addressing the culture of Christendom, saw life at least for some as comedy because in his mind death no longer had any sting. And for Dante that comedy even reached back through history to redeem something of the tragic world that had come before.
And now it seems that in our post-Christian world, that moon affects the tide differently than it did in Dante’s time, and the flow has begun to pull the comedy out to the chaotic sea of the ancients, dimming Dante’s light.