Virgil Has Departed, Do Not Weep Yet

(I put together a little academic-ish essay in order to be systematic with my McCarthy habit. I tried to keep it under 2000 words, which means it’s not as thorough as it could be, but it should hold water.)

An Analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree As It Regards Dante’s Use of Allegory

by Seth Wieck

“I will sing of warfare and a man of war.
I tuned my verse to praise Anchises’ righteous son” (Virgil, emphasis mine). 

Please forgive Virgil’s tense change – from simple future to simple past – in the opening lines. The line break denotes 1300 years passing between two of the Mantuan’s songs of Aeneas. Of course, the first line was sung by the historical Virgil in The Aeneid, while Dante voiced the second through his allegorical Virgil. I won’t spend much space explaining that medieval method of exegesis; however, I’ll allow translator Dorothy Sayers to paint some background strokes to my main point: for Dante, “in the allegory, Virgil is the image of Human Wisdom — the best that man can become in his own strength without the especial grace of God…as the image of these things, [he] cannot himself enter Heaven or bring anyone else there” (Introduction. Divine Comedy 67). Bear in mind this lineage of Virgils as we turn our attention to Suttree. I’ll demonstrate, through character and setting, that Cormac McCarthy intentionally places his protagonist Cornelius Suttree in that lineage as a third Virgil, builds an elaborate allegory akin to Dante’s project, and finally McCarthy demolishes the notion of allegory as a legitimate mode of knowledge.

Geography is important for both Dante and McCarthy. For Dante, his geography of Hell is an intricate girder-work to abstract ideas like theology, mythology, and the known cosmos of his time — the nuances of which I’ll leave to the commentaries — but I’ll emphasize: his Hell is effective because the characters of his imagination suffer in real swamps, whirlwinds, winter wastes, and rivers. McCarthy, likewise, takes the topography of a real city, Knoxville, and lays an allegorical map over its contours.

Briefly, I’ll denote the importance of the literal Tennessee River to Suttree, and then explain an allegorical significance it bears to The Inferno’s Virgil. Knoxville is geographically the mouth of the Tennessee River before it cuts across the state and joins the Ohio River, and finally “flows in a sluggard ooze toward southern seas” (McCarthy 4). The character Suttree makes his sometime living as a fisherman on the Tennessee River. The novel opens with Suttree checking his fishing lines. Secondly, Suttree actually resides on the banks of the river in a houseboat, a residence that neither functions fully as a house nor a boat. Similarly in The Inferno, Virgil, Dante’s guide, resides in Limbo, neither fully Hell nor Heaven, on the banks of the River Acheron, the headwaters of all the rivers in Hell. He’s able to cross the river with impunity, fishing out anything he finds living there, in this case Dante himself. And finally, in a pun that reveals McCarthy’s wry sense of humor, we discover that Virgil hangs out with Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan: poets. And what would poets do for all eternity but “check their lines?”

Admittedly, The Divine Comedy has a broad sweep, so the analogy between rivers may seem tenuous at first; however, McCarthy makes further effort to draw the comparison. In one scene, Suttree rises during a foggy dawn. Suddenly another figure in a boat appears out of the gloom, “…already on the river when [Suttree] set forth, standing like some latterday Charon skulling through the fog. With a long pole he hooked condoms aboard and into a pail of soapy water” (107). In Dante, of course, Charon ferries the souls of the damned across the River Acheron into Limbo, crying out, “never you hope to look on Heaven” (Inferno, 3, 85). But even the structure of the description sets the two characters at odds, just as we find Virgil arguing with Charon for the living soul of Dante in Canto 3, so we find these two modern fishermen in competition for the contents of the river: Suttree, who “might even have been a fisher of men in another time” (McCarthy 14) retrieving live things from the detritus, and this “Charon” fishing condoms, a man’s abandonment of hope for future life.

I’ve briefly demonstrated the allegory that McCarthy has constructed between Knoxville and Hell, and between Suttree and Virgil, and this understanding is a valuable hermeneutic for the rest of the book. But to what ends is McCarthy employing the mode of allegory? As Sayers instructs, these allegories are made of “a thing really existing which, by its very nature, stands for and images forth a greater reality” (13). After McCarthy has gone to such lengths to construct an elaborate allegory, similar in scope to Dante, upon a city “really existing,” then it follows that his project is attempting the aim of allegory: to image forth a greater reality. However, McCarthy seems to have realized a modern agnosticism toward anything metaphysical. At one point, Suttree sits outside of a church, listening to the congregation, and “He was stayed in a peace that drained his mind, for even a false adumbration of the world of the spirit is better than none at all” (21). If a greater reality is only a false adumbration, then the aim of allegory falls flaccid. So, again, why does McCarthy employ the allegorical mode?

Early in the novel, Suttree meditates on his own still-born twin brother who is consigned to exist in the “limbo of the Christless righteous” (14). The image of this twin, now a neighbor to Dante’s allegorical Virgil, haunts Suttree throughout the novel, variously arriving as a reflection in a glass door, “His fetch come up from life’s other side… Suttree and Antisuttree, hand reaching to the hand” (28); a dream, “obsession with uniqueness troubled all his dreams. He saw his brother in swaddling, hands outheld, a scent of myrrh and lilies” (113); and in paranoia as Suttree wanders into the woods like a mid-life Dante, “Some doublegoer, some othersuttree eluded him in these woods and he feared that…were he to come to himself in this obscure wood he’d be neither mended nor made whole but rather set mindless to dodder drooling with his ghosty clone” (287). Suttree is haunted by an allegory of himself who might image a greater reality, just as Dante imagined an allegory of the historical Virgil. However, after Suttree nearly dies from typhoid fever, he awakens from a vision of an afterlife and tells a priest, “I learned that there is one Suttree and one Suttree only” (461). The allegorical Suttree has died.

Finally, the novel closes as Knoxville with which we’ve become familiar, and which Suttree used to provide existential meaning, is bulldozed for a modern expressway. “Gnostic workmen” demolish old buildings, leaving “a freestanding stairwell to nowhere” (464); the “concrete of the expressway gleamed…where the ramp curved out into empty air and hung truncate…among the vectors of nowhere” (471). All of these manmade constructions made of literal concrete ultimately point nowhere, and McCarthy, having constructed an elaborate allegory, then demolishes the notion of allegory as a legitimate mode of knowledge, as in: there may be worlds beyond our reckoning, but we can never know.

This agnostic allegory pointing nowhere is actually well represented in Virgil, Dante’s allegory for Human Wisdom, who, as Sayers informed us, could only guide to the border of Purgatory. When Virgil leaves Dante in Canto 30 of The Purgatory, Beatrice must comfort him, saying “Virgil has departed, do not weep yet.” This grief Dante feels for his “sweetest of fathers,” is the same sadness McCarthy’s modern readers experience as we’re left with a secular end-of-things. McCarthy’s project is effective because he leaves us on the shore of Purgatory, gazing across in the mist of unknowing. While Dante constructed an allegorical Virgil, McCarthy’s modern Virgil-in-Suttree stops, turns and "holds his lamp behind him, shedding light not for himself but to make others wise” (Purgatory, 22, 68-69).

*Here’s a proper citation of this essay:

Wieck, Seth. “Virgil Has Departed, Do Not Weep Yet.” Virgil Has Departed, Do Not Weep Yet. 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 27 Aug. 2015. <http://sethwieck.tumblr.com/post/127706531198/virgil-has-departed-do-not-weep-yet&gt;.

Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. Suttree. New York: Vintage International, Vintage, 1992. Print.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Introduction. Translation. Divine Comedy. By Dante Alighieri. London: Penguin, 2002. 67, 101, 120. Print.

Taylor Swift Trolls and the Lessons They Impart

Several years ago I posted an illustration by the artist Mark Summers that traced the artistic influence from Jonathan Swift to Taylor Swift (http://sethwieck.tumblr.com/post/868225008/from-vanity-fair-issue-600-august-2010-by-mark). I thought it was funny. It was early on. I didn’t quite understand tumblr. 

It is by far the most popular post in the history of this tumblr with 194 notes (which is paltry for most of you, I’m sure). It is still being reblogged 3.5 years later. I’d like to think that I post some things on here that are worth considering, but nothing as worthy as Taylor Swift. I guess there are people who just search for all things Taylor Swift and hoard the pixels of her likeness in their own little tumblrs.

I have also placed a disproportional amount of commentary about Cormac McCarthy which isn’t as popular as Taylor Swift-abilia, but in the end there’s no difference between a one-off joke about Swift and a hard-fought sentence about Blood Meridian. 

Plus, Taylor Swift trolls sure are friendly.

Sunrise, Moonset//Sunset, Moonrise

They did not know that they were set forth in that company in the place of three men slain in the desert…The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning. 

– Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian. 1985. First Vintage International Edition, 1992. p. 86.

And then hand it off to Marilynne Robinson:

Every prayer seemed long to me at that age, and I was truly bone tired. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but after a while I had to look around a little. And this is something I remember very well. At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it. And then I said, “Look at the moon.” And he did. We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them. And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon. 

My father said, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.”

– Marilynne Robinson. Gilead. 2004. Picador. pp. 14-15.

A while back I bemoaned Cormac McCarthy seeming to choose darkness when light is available. He plays a kind of Dantean Virgil taking his readers to the mountain of dawn in Purgatory and then turning back, unable or unwilling to tread into Paradise. 

It’s his work. I’ll let him do what he wants. But I had longed for a Beatrice to his Virgil – someone with McCarthy’s scope and gifts to imagine the light.

These passages will serve as a baton.

Bernini’s sculpture of Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius fleeing Troy, on their way to eventually found Rome.

Anchises, the father of Aeneas, grabs the household gods while the city of Troy burns. Aeneas grabs his father, and has the boy Ascanius grab the fire. The boy carries the fire. The old man carries the gods. All their actions hope for some future civilization.

A while ago I mentioned that Cormac McCarthy sees himself as Dante’s Virgil, able only to take Dante through hell and purgatory before ending his journey at the threshold of heaven. However, the other evening my good friend, David Ritchie, was over for supper and we were discussing my recreational thesis and the resemblance McCarthy has to the actual Virgil.

David and another friend and myself visited Rome a few years ago where we toured the Galeria Borghese and saw Bernini’s sculpture. We were reminded of this scene portrayed by the actual Virgil in the Aeneid and also of the scene in McCarthy’s The Road where the father and son, fleeing a burning world in hopes of finding some civilization, come across an old man. The three eat canned peaches around a fire and discuss God.

Throughout the novel, the boy and the father promise to “carry the fire”, but this old man at the campfire says, “There is no God and we are his prophets.” This seems an intentional contradiction to Virgil’s scene. Once again, McCarthy won’t take any step further than Dante’s Virgil did, and it seems that it is his choice not to.

Further Out Into McCarthy’s Darkness (In Response to Ms Odradek)

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. 

Suttree wiped his plate with a piece of bread and sat back. He fell to studying the variety of moths pressed to the glass, resting his elbows on the sill and his chin on the back of his hand. Supplicants of light. Here one tinted easter pink along the edges of his white fur belly and wings. Eyes black, triangular, a robber’s mask. Furred and wizened face not unlike a monkey’s and wearing a windswept ermine shako. Suttree bent to see him better. What do you want?

Cormac McCarthy. Suttree. Vintage Edition, 1992. p. 89. Originally published in 1979.

We have been having a near-biblical plague of miller moths in Amarillo lately. I am reminded of this scene from Suttree as I read at night hearing the dusty smack of a billion flittering bodies against the window, about the lightbulb, watching the shower of motes spilling from all the collisions. The news keeps saying they’ll all be dead in two weeks.

Anyway, throughout the book Suttree is haunted by a twin. He was born a twin to a stillborn brother; an Antisuttree reaches towards him from another life in the reflection of a glass door; a lamp reflecting in water becomes a zygote dividing into two cells with disparate wills; an othersuttree precedes him in an bedlam journey through an obscure wood. Suttree muses that the stillborn twin was carted off to Purgatory while Suttree himself was condemned to a terrestrial hell – an impenetrable divide like a pane of glass between the two: one living in the eternal pre-dawn light of Limbo and the other confined to the darkness of black inferno.

The moth, clearly anthropomorphized, is another twin. Suttree’s question, as he leans close to look, he and the moth peering at each other through the glass, is rhetorical. What do you want? The moth wants the light. He’s a supplicant of light for crying out loud. Has anybody in all of history seen a moth that flees the light?

And this is the frustrating thing for me when I read McCarthy: he is known for turning his imagination towards the darkness and not flinching, but each time there’s a hint of light – pre-dawn gray – in Suttree he shrinks away. I know he’s out to imagine the tragic, but each time it feels like a moth becoming aware and turning to leave the light. If he’s the twin confined to hell, then surely he has chosen it. If he’s writing the tragic simply as a warning, which the book ends with (Fly them), then ought there be some light – otherwise all warnings are to flee the dark for otherdark.

I don’t want callow optimism. I want light.

Beauty & Justice

He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

–  Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses. Knopf, 1992.

***

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurels they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, – but the rest is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love –
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. I am not resigned.

–        Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Dirge without Music”. HarperCollins, 1958.

McCarthy’s “vision of a single flower” is a comic moment in the great tragedian’s world, as if the frailest example of beauty on a battlefield might account for the blood shed by nations. The sentence, a flower in itself, is the character’s yearning to justify the violence wrought by nature and man.

Millay on the other hand, doesn’t buy that there is enough beauty in the world to justify the loss of the beauty inherent in a person, especially those tender, kind, intelligent, witty, and brave souls who go quietly and gently into that good night.

Both McCarthy and Millay long for justice. And both figure beauty into the balance.

What type of beauty, were it found or cultivated, would make a person whole after a loss of this magnitude? Millay doesn’t think there is such a beauty, but she almost refuses to acknowledge the deficit, too. McCarthy’s corpus would probably suggest, “What does it matter? The impersonal world will go on long after we’re no longer able to behold and mark beauty. Enjoy beauty before you become indiscriminate dust.”

***

                   “I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.”

–        Ecclesiastes 3:10-11. King James Version, 1611.

The writer of Ecclesiastes sees something else: that beauty in itself is a kind of tragedy because of its time limit. In our beholding of beauty we already recognize its end, which creates a longing for eternity where beauty will not pass away. Maybe even a beauty where all our loss is restored to us, even if that loss, as McCarthy would say, came at our own hand.

                  How exacting is it then that God, in the form of a man who marked beauty – tender, kind, intelligent, witty, and brave Christ who went quietly and gently – died violently by the hands of men in the ultimate act of injustice, and He did so with the intent that our loss would be restored? How exacting and beautiful?

What work is God about from beginning to end?

Chauvet Cave, France. Horses. Circa 31,000 ago

Lascaux Cave Paintings in France. Circa 31,000 years ago.

In a few minutes the door opened and a young mozo stood there and he and the rider spoke and the man nodded toward the outside and the mozo looked toward the outer door and at the other rider and at the boy and then withdrew and shut the door. They waited. – Cormac McCarthy. The Crossing.

I pulled this sentence from McCarthy’s The Crossing for a couple of reasons.

  1. The content of the sentence isn’t profound, as in it will never be found in quotebooks, but it’s interesting to see how a master handles minutae. Three people meet and stand there looking at each other. It’s not profound. It’s not critical to the plot. But it is critical to the making of the world, both for the reader and the author. All of McCarthy’s books reshape the desires of the heart like a magnet in metal shavings, and they do it by sparking the imagination. It’s important for the author because he has to love what he is creating. It’s important for the reader because his love has to be ignited and moved. Essentially, he is creating a world in which both the author and the reader can inhabit and cultivate and move about the spectrum of human experience. And experience is nothing but minutae. Sometimes one experience becomes profound, such as the birth of a child, but it is still only one experience in the millions we have each day. McCarthy handles insignificant events, such as the quoted one, with the same language as he does the disappearance and death of a brother later in the book.
  2. Secondly, in one sentence McCarthy uses the conjunction and nine times without using a single comma. In effect, the rhythm makes the reader wait. You can feel the tension of the plot even in the grammar. It’s common knowledge that the King James version of the Bible has been a major influence on McCarthy, both stylistically and thematically, but one can easily see the influence in a sentence like this. Take a look at the book of Genesis: The creation account of Chapter 1 has 35 sentences; all but two begin with the word “and”. Also, there are over 100 occurrences of the word “and” in those 35 sentences. Interestingly, the narrators of the Bible handle significant events, like birth, death, battle, the creation of the world, with the same language as any of the insignificant events, like the market rate of real estate. I think the effect that it has is raising all of the events to a higher level of significance; like a quiet man whose words are wise, and who holds weight in conversation. He has no need to shout, but men rather stop their own chatter to listen.