The Brutality of Grace

Don’t miss Joseph Susanka’s excellent, insightful essay The Brutality of Grace, wherein he looks at the books (and films) on Cormac McCarthy:

Throughout much of her life, Flannery O’Connor struggled against what she perceived as dangerous and excessive sentimentality among her readers, defending her stories against accusations of violence, brutality, and “gothic grotesqueness.” For her, violence was an essential part of her message, for “to expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” Responding to her critics, O’Connor made an important point: “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.”

Nowadays, artists seem to struggle far less with depicting “the nature of the violences” than one might wish; for every modern-day sentimentalist, there is a corresponding misanthrope. But the inability to recognize the essential connection between these moments of grace and the violence that surrounds them is as persistent as ever.

One modern-day artist making that connection may be Cormac McCarthy, the reclusive author who is considered by many to be America’s greatest living writer. A closer examination of the three cinematic adaptations based on his books — All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road — reveals him to be as focused on the questions of nature, violence, and grace as O’Connor was, though he has been much less inclined to self-explanation than was she.

Interestingly, the three films made from his books thus far have been released chronologically. All the Pretty Horses was written in 1992 and released in 2000; No Country for Old Men in 2005 and 2007; and The Road in 2006 and 2009. The chronology is helpful, as McCarthy’s thinking on the problem of violence and grace grows progressively clearer with each work. As a result, All the Pretty Horses, adapted from the first volume of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, is the perfect starting point — both because it is the least likely to be considered a great film, and because it feels like the work of a man as yet unclear about how these moments actually fit together.

Give yourself a thought-provoking treat. Read the whole thing.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • DWiss

    Huh. I watched No Country For Old Men twice and never really got that. No surprise, because Flannery O’Connor goes over my head as well. I relly do like that phrase “intrusions of grace” though. It sometimes seems as though grace does intrude, but we’re so distracted thet we miss it. Just like I miss the point of McCarthy and O’Connor. I’m going to have to sit with that phrase awhile and see what comes of it.

  • Ellen

    I may have to listen to Cormac McCarthy. I’ve tried to read his books, but the absense of punctuation just grates on me.

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  • Sally Thomas

    I haven’t read McCarthy in a long time, but after a recent bout of rereading O’Connor, I may have to. I hadn’t thought about them in tandem before, until I saw your (and Susanka’s) title. Link “brutality” and “grace,” and waddya got? Uh, Flannery O’Connor, but also . . . Cormac McCarthy!

    Thanks for foregrounding this.

  • Manny

    Is Cormac mcCarthy Catholic? I couldn’t tell from his works if he is. I do agree he is our greatest living writer. As it turns out I’m currently reading what is considered his greatest work, Blood Meridian. My God, what a violent work, and though i haven’t finished it, I have to agree it ranks with the greatest of American novels. His prose is really poetry, especially in Blood Meridian. If you have the stomach to read it, do so, but it will be a hit to one’s sensibilities.

  • Lori

    Re-posting here what I posted at the FB link, because I want to see if anyone here agrees with me (or not) about God liking happy endings. Elizabeth, you’re a good Irishwoman with a love of the irony, whaddaya think? ;-)
    I like the parallels drawn between O’Connor and McCarthy – very insightful. All the Pretty Horses is one of my favorite movies, because I see it as the story of a young man seeking understanding as well as redemption (almost literally, in the person of the kindly judge played by Jason Robards), shouldering personal res…ponsibility for his deeds. But I haven’t seen (or read) either of the other two McCarthy stories, and they frankly scare me. I have a very hard time dealing with the brutalities of life.

    My comfort is in differing from O’Connor’s statement that “to expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” I am and will always be enormously sentimental, but I actually believe God is too. Who else but a true romantic would devise a salvation story in which the hero, back to the Cross, abandoned by all but a few lonely figures at its foot, dies in pain and agony, seemngly a failure at his entire enterprise of ushering in a new kingdom – only to rise three days later, setting in motion the greatest Godward movement known to man? Two thousand years later we’re still feeling the aftershocks of that quiet Sunday morning when Mary Magdalene ran to the Apostles with the story of the empty tomb. The key is not to “not expect too much,” as O’Connor says, but to expect everything – over eternity.

    God believes in happy endings just as much as I do. It’s just that they will seldom appear in a neat, tidy, Disneyfied manner. Instead they’ll be far more complex, far-reaching, and satisfying. I can’t wait to see the whole picture from His persective.

  • Joseph Susanka

    Thanks for picking this up, Elizabeth, and thanks for all the comments, everyone. I find this to be a particularly fascinating topic, and one that keeps popping up in the most unexpected places…

    @Ellen: I have to admit that the punctuation thing has always driven me a little crazy, as well. Luckily, it’s not a complete lack of punctuation — mostly just a complete lack of quotation marks. Which usually means that I have to read paragraphs twice, since I can’t always tell who — or when someone –is talking. (I wonder if that’s why McCarthy does it?)

    @Manny: McCarthy was born and raised Catholic, but there are a number of indications — particularly the …complexities of his marital situation — that suggest he may be a bit more Greene-like in his Catholicity than O’Connoresque. Still, I think the influences of his upbringing are pretty clear.

    @Lori: I think O’Connor would agree that “God believes in happy endings;” I don’t think it’s the belief happy endings that she would call sentimentality. Rather, it’s the notion that they’ll be on “this side of the divide” — what you refer to so fittingly as “neat, tidy, and Disneyfied.” I think O’Connor would have been just as excited (and confident) as you to “see the whole picture from His perspective” in all its “complex, far-reaching, and satisfying” glory. But she refuses to allow folks to think that’s going to happen in this life (in anything more than a cursory way).

    She wanted folks to look down the road a bit more, because it’s the “down the road” stuff that is so awesome (in the truest meaning of the word). And it was ignoring the end of the race (as well as ignoring the suffering and brutality that is an essential part of the race) that drove her crazy.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    If there isn’t going to be a happy ending, what’s the point?

    Just as an aside, “The Road” is very similar to an earlier book, written by Chelsea Quinn Yarboro, called “False Dawn.”

  • JJM

    “Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

    - Flannery O’ Connor