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.

Like most good poets, great or minor, Dante wrote better than he had meant to do.

Allen Tate. “The Symbolic Imagination.” Essays of Four Decades. p. 440. Third Edition, ISI Books.

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.

…meaning and truth in Dante’s world reside in the afterlife, where figurae are fulfilled and totalities formed. Mortal existence is, by contrast, incomplete, illusory, secondary. But I think the opposite can be said, with equal accuracy: it’s the afterlife that is a tissue of illusions. Dante’s afterworld may be highly structured, but he invented that structure himself, synthesizing classical mythology, Christian theology, and medieval demonology. Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes, is not a universal afterworld – it’s Dante’s afterworld, based in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life – all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?
Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t…But if this world is all there is, then it’s in history itself that the riddle finds its solution. The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus IN THIS WORLD. Then Dante’s head is a figura for Mallegni’s plaster cast, and his poetry a figura for wine, and Ugolino eating Ruggieri’s skull is a figura of forensic scientists extracting Ugolino’s bone marrow.

– from “A Divine Comedy: Among the Danteans of Florence” by Elif Batuman. pg. 55-65. Harper’s, Sept 2011. – Special thanks to Tragos for pointing me to the article.

Batuman’s argument that the comedy (things ending well and whole) of the Divine Comedy is to be found in the continuous present moment of history is something I see popping up all over the place these days. I think it is an attempt at hope newly emerging from the postmodern despair, the “breeding of lilacs out of the dead land.” Science and philosophy are expressing a new(ish) hopeful eschatology; folk-level art is expressing it (I think Josh Ritter’s present moment eschatology is similar to Batuman’s). In my mind, it is simultaneously exciting and terrible: the hope sounds eerily similar to the modernist hope that culminated in the first World War; hope is better than despair, but what sort of havoc could we wreak with our new technologies that WW1 and WW2 could not?

My solution isn’t to instead revert back to the postmodern despair, but rather to have an honest reading of the eschatology that all of these things are singularly reacting against; the Christian eschatology. The orthodox eschatology of Christianity, despite the zeitgeist in America today, was not one where “meaning and truth reside in the afterlife” but rather that the hope of a redeemed life makes meaning now. The continuous present moment is informed with hope because of a promise where THIS WORLD is redeemed – not trashed or sucked up into a golden city in the sky – but remade, here; albeit, a whole here. Jesus Christ died on the cross, and when He stepped out of the tomb, He still bore the scars of his execution, but the scars were in a new and whole flesh. 

So, I agree very much, and disagree very much at the same time with Batuman’s thesis. The end of the article though, is gorgeous prose.