Cormac McCarthy’s Gnosticism

Cormac McCarthy’s Gnosticism July 21, 2017

A TLS review of two books of the Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy notes the hints of holiness in his novels:

Often in his work . . . there are residual glimmers of the numinous. McCarthy, who was raised a Roman Catholic, is often read as an unconventional religious writer, or Christian existentialist, even if his is a decidedly negative theology. ‘The Priest’s Tale,’ a mock-scholastic section of The Crossing . . . dedicated to saying what God is not. The Road can be read as a via negativa, until we reach the end of the book, which suggests a more positively Christian consolation. In much of McCarthy’s work, God, though often invoked, has receded to such a distance from earthly violence and suffering that his existence seems moot. In Outer Dark, a tinker observes: ‘I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.’ With God so far removed, the sublunary world often seems more like the demesne of some cruel demiurge . . . Gnosticism interests McCarthy (as it does other important post-war writers like Burroughs and Pynchon), not least as a rich vein of metaphor.

Todd Edmonson’s comparative study of McCarthy and Wendell Berry, Priest, Prophet, Pilgrim reaches a similar conclusion. He acknowledges that it’s not easy to assess McCarthy’s religious beliefs, given McCarthy’s famous reticence about himself and his beliefs. The man won’t even give Oprah a straight answer. When she asked about the “God thing,” McCarthy answered, “Well, it depends on what day you ask me. Who or what to pray . . . doesn’t really matter. You can be quite dumb about the whole business and still ask for help” (quoted p. 104). Not what you’d call revealing.

Edmondson wisely focuses on the works, and concludes that, whatever McCarthy believes, “the perspectives of some of his most prominent characters are very clearly shaped by gnostic and dualistic understandings of the flesh, of community, and of the created world. His characters do not seek reconciliation or integration with the realities from which they are estranged—the flesh, human community, and the natural world. Rather, they either flee from these things or else attempt to subdue and control them, to bend them to their purposes” (230). It’s the sort of Gnosticism that fuels violent narratives.

Edmondson doesn’t take depiction for advocacy. Though McCarthy’s characters are “anti-priests, anti-prophets, and anti-pilgrims,” the novels ultimately demonstrate “the dangerous and destructive consequences of embracing such ways of life and thus might serve to warn readers against a quest to transcend their humanity” (230). Perhaps McCarthy’s novels are cautionary tales about modern gnosticism.

Gnosticism and Manichean, yes. But Edmondson’s reading may be too sanguine. They seem less parables of anti-dualism, than grim warnings that an evil is abroad that goodness is incapable of stopping.

Whatever the religious borrowings, McCarthy puts his sources to good literary use. Few writers are capable of the lush phantasmagoria of the battle scenes in Blood Meridian. Virtually no one is capable of switching gears from that to the stark unpunctuated minimalism of No Country for Old Men and The Road. He is the poet of our terrors and, no doubt, his own.

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