U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Cormac McCarthy’s Existentialism


Spoiler alert!

This January, I’ve been invited to participate in one of the (UK) Intellectual History Group’s semi-annual seminars. As the event has been described to me, about 12-15 of us, mostly US intellectual historians, will gather in Cambridge to informally discuss one text over the course of two days. (Call my invitation one of the many perks of a Fulbright.) The text that has been tentatively selected for the January seminar is Cormac McCarthy’s critically acclaimed 1985 “anti-western,” Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.

In preparation for the seminar, and because I’m unfamiliar with McCarthy, I’ve decided to read a number of McCarthy’s better known novels, saving Blood Meridian for last. I began this week with The Road, McCarthy’s 2006 bleak post-apocalyptic novel for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. I started with The Road because I thought the film adaptation was very good, and because I appreciate the post-apocalyptic genre (zombie movies have long one of my indulgences). But nothing prepared me for The Road. It shook me to my core unlike anything I’ve read in a very long time.

There are several ways to think about and categorize The Road, a story about a father and son who try to stay alive by traveling southeast to the ocean ten years or so after some unnamed cataclysmic event burned most of the planet, wiping out most life and leaving the skies ashen grey. As with the post-apocalyptic genre generally, The Road is part science fiction: it allows for satirical commentary on the present by imagining an alternative, often dystopian future. Along these lines, George Monbiot calls The Road “the most important environmental book ever written” because it “considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans.”

But McCarthy is hardly didactic. His writing is subtle, as barren as the world he paints. Despite such spare prose, or perhaps because of it, McCarthy is a master at building suspense. My heart pumped so hard while reading a few passages that I felt like I was swimming Lake Michigan. In this way, we might also think about The Road as Gothic horror. In an insightful review, Michael Chabon anoints McCarthy “the rightful heir to the American Gothic tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, dark god of Providence, Rhode Island, where McCarthy was born.” This seems right. The Road is truly frightening. Novelist Benjamin Percy makes the case that it carries the scariest passage in any novel he’s ever read. Ever.

The most terrifying moment in any horror story is when a noise is heard—a noise behind a closet door; a noise heard in an attic, or the basement; a noise heard in a thicket of bushes; a noise heard deep in a cave—and a person pursues the sound. We always want to yell out: Don’t go there. It’s that moment of suspense, the second before the bogeyman is revealed, that is the most gripping. After the door opens, after we shine a flashlight on whatever awaits, the audience might laugh or scream but ultimately they feel relief. Because whatever is provided by the author or filmmaker is never as bad as what we imagine ourselves.

In this particular passage, as soon as the father spots a house on the hill, we know something terrible waits inside. It takes a long time for him to approach the house, to explore its many rooms, and finally descend into the basement.

(From The Road): “He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light.”

The whole time we’re yelling: Don’t go in there. But he does, of course.

“Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.”

And maybe this is the only time this has ever happened to me—but what is revealed is even more terrifying that what I could have imagined. Humans are harvesting each other in order to survive. These pale, chewed-up creatures emerge from the dark and rattle their chains and moan and reach for the father. We’re afraid of them, but we’re afraid more of what might await the father upstairs—the people responsible for this.

So The Road functions as smart if understated science fiction, and more sublimely, as horror. But the thing that stood out for me was its existentialism. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, a context beyond his control, the father chooses life. He chooses existence, transposed into the body of his son, born shortly after the apocalypse. The father chooses to have a project—to be one of the imagined “keepers of the fire,” one of the “good guys”—in the face of horror. If there is a God, if there is meaning, it was found in his son, or nowhere. The father committed his life, his post-apocalyptic existence, to keeping his son alive, at all costs, even and especially when death would have been the easier and preferable choice for them both.

Just as existentialist thought emerged from the horrific events of the twentieth century—think of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth—McCarthy’s protagonist is forced to reexamine all that he once knew to be true and good. Cataclysmic events compel epistemic crises.

He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the full despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.

Is there a more poetically sharp way of describing how earth-shattering times leave old truths in ruins?

31 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, I’m not sure about how it works at USIH, but this review contains “spoilers” — and it might be worth adding a warning as such up front for people who haven’t read “The Road.” Very good review, though!

    I had a very strong emotional reaction to the novel as well, perhaps related to the fact that when I read it my son was precisely the age of the child in the novel. To call the novel “unsparing” would be an all-time understatement.

  2. Andrew,

    You’re in for a treat; he is a captivating writer. For a good taste of his (often overlooked) early books, you might check out “Suttree” or “The Orchard Keeper.” In his “Cities on the Plain” trilogy, “All the Pretty Horses” is by far the best.

    Curious to hear how the seminar goes. I hope we will get another blog post with a recap!


  3. Andrew, you are, indeed, in for a treat. I envy you the voyage of discovery you’re about to embark on for the first time. I stumbled upon McCarthy in 1996 when I picked up “Pretty Horses” and have spent the years since in awe of his talent and insight as I’ve devoured one book after another. I agree with Cam Schribner, “All the Pretty Horses” and “Sutree” should be next on your list. Enjoy “…the world to come”.

  4. I am not a fan of post-apocalyptic dystopia stories (in fact I avoid them, with a few notable exceptions.) So I haven’t read The Road yet, but McCarthy is one of my favorites. All of his books are different from the others, and they aren’t all such sparse prose – The Border Trilogy books, for example, are rather difficult reading. But more than worth it.

  5. Blood Meridian is by far my favourite of his books, it’s stunning, but Sutree is engrossing and All the Pretty Horses is very lyrical. The Road is probably the one I like least.

  6. Andrew,

    Starting with McCarthy’s “The Road” is like starting with Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols”…as they both attain a distilled purity- pure McCarthy, pure Nietzsche- in a small, tightly wound, highly volatile, stick of dynamite…exquisitely dark and terrifyingly beautiful…I think McCarthy is at his existential genius best with “Suttree” and book two of the border trilogy, “The Crossing”…as I see it, “Suttree” is “Zarathustra”…and the terrible violence of “Blood Meridian” gives way to deep philosophical and earthly pondering in “The Crossing”…still, McCarthy is a philosopher of the future, as Nietzsche would have it- and his work is of this world, this earth, and no other.

  7. Check out the newly released Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy. Steven Frye, the editor, has a fine article on Blood Meridian and I have one called The Quest for God in The Road, which I think you will find interesting, as I tackle the vexing question of the existence of God in the novel–textually. Allen Josephs

    • The narrative arc of “carrying the fire” that McCarthy uses from NO COUNTRY through THE SUNSET LIMITED and THE ROAD suggests the quest you mention. Even as it is not explicitly referenced in SUNSET, the entire conversation centers upon the place of God in a seemingly meaningless universe lends itself to that biblically-rooted metaphor. If I may, I further discuss this arc in an article contained within an essay collection edited by Ron Primeau and entitled AMERICAN ROAD LITERATURE from Salem-Ebsco this past spring. Thanks for your insights.

      • yes, I agree, the cold and the dark are the same scenario at the end of No Country and throughout The Road.

  8. Great insight on a great novel, and possibly – maybe sadly – the first of many of this kind as we continue to gamble with the planet. Horror, at least to me, in the times we are in, is prospect of slipping into “the void” that we seem to be dancing around – that McCarthy has captured so well in many of his books. It always seems to be the choice of his characters, to keep on, or to willfully travel into oblivion.

  9. I always read The Road as Christian allegory — the father is OT, unforgiving and somewhat vengeful, while the son is NT, very forgiving and very much “like” Jesus. Of course, McCarthy is a very complex author, so I would never say that that is all the book is/is about, but that’s what struck me the most on my first read through it.

  10. Your analysis of THE ROAD left me slumped into my chair, remembering how I felt after I finished reading it for the first time. The existentialist notion of choosing to “carry the fire” is one of the most powerful means of affirmation we have after the advent of postmodernism. Thanks for your insights and honesty.

  11. There are a lot of existentialist themes in No Country and The Sunset Limited as well. You might check those out too. Your talk of the horrors of 20th century reminded me of a line from Sunset – “Western Civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys at Dachau but I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now.”

  12. One hundred years from now, Cormac McCarthy’s books will still be studied. But Blood Meridian was my least favorite. I would look forward to your review on that book. If “The Road” brought terror, Blood Meridian will bring horror. You read and it and think, “Well, it cannot get worse than that,” and it does.

  13. _The Road_ shook you? Just wait. That’s McCarthy-lite, which is still a better read than most other living fiction writers, but a pale shadow of the intensity of _Blood Meridian_.

  14. I could be mistaken, but I think Blood Meridian was one of the very few modern novels that pleased Harold Bloom.

    And he’s a man very difficult to please.

  15. Interesting that you should point out McCarthy’s existentialist perspective based on your reading of this book. I think you’ll find this to be a consistent thread that runs through all of his work. I’m anxious to hear more from you as your reading of McCarthy continues. Also, wish I could attend the UK conference as nothing would make me happier than listening in on an intelligent two-day discussion of my favorite book, Blood Meridian!

  16. I think you’ll find, as you dig deeper into the McCarthy canon, that The Road is his most hopeful book, uncharacteristically rosy. His earlier works, e.g. Outer Dark, are relentlessly bleak – they start dark and get darker and the protagonists rarely if ever achieve redemption. It’s best to read them in order, really, or at least in groups – the 4 southern novels, then BM, then the Border trilogy. The last two – NCFOM and The Road, are orphans. I found Child of God to be his funniest book, very reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor. Suttree was the most difficult but gave a new appreciation for watermelons. And my favorite of the Border trilogy was The Crossing for its circular, lyrical narrative.

  17. I think Suttree is McCarthy’s greatest novel, with Blood Meridian right next to it. The Crossing is the best of the Border Trilogy, which overall is not as good as his earlier novels. Outer Dark is magnificent and will scare the pants off you too. He’s the greatest living novelist in English and has been for quite a while.

  18. I’m shocked that you’d watch the movie of The Road before reading it. It’s only a couple hundred pages. It reads slowly simply because of the tragedy of the plot. McCartthy, clearly is not a happy man, even if he is still a hopeful one.
    Of some interest to you might be the so-called “Border Trilogy” which McCarthy says all have simhe Pretty Horses, then continuing with The Crossing and, finally Blood Meridian.
    I’m 2/3 the way through them now, and the first half of The Crossing is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read

  19. Each novel stands alone but as I’ve read many including those mentioned above in the main article and the comments, I’m struck by the clarity of overall vision. McCarthy stands in the position of the OT prophets and what he says is pay attention to the important things. Rather like Emerson’s famous quote: “Life invests itself with inevitable conditions, which the unwise seek to dodge, which one and another brags that he does not know, that they do not touch him; but the brag is on his lips, the conditions are in his soul. If he escapes them in one part they attack him in another more vital part. If he has escaped them in form and in the appearance, it is because he has resisted his life and fled from himself, and the retribution is so much death.”

  20. This comments thread has confirmed for me at least three things:

    1) McCarthy, unsurprisingly, has devoted followers (many of whom unexpectedly found their way to my post).

    2) As with any great writer, there is an ongoing debate about which of his/her works is the best, most important, etc…

    3) I should have read McCarthy long ago (although I found this suggestions amusing, since there’s only so much time to read, and doing a PhD in history and writing two historical monographs has sort of occupied me for the last 13 years).

    Shelly hinted that even Harold Bloom thinks McCarthy is a fine writer. Indeed, in this short essay, where Bloom complains about how Stephen King receiving the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” represents the dumbing down of American readers, Bloom includes “Cormac McCarthy, whose novel “Blood Meridian” is worthy of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” on a short list of great American writers that includes Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo.

  21. I found my way to McCarthy after a recommendation from Saul Bellow. Blood Meridian really is as good as Moby Dick – a book McCarthy reads at least once a year. All The Pretty Horses is also first class, as is the first third of The Crossing, a novel spoiled by too many rambling interjections by a few wizened old Mexicans. McCarthy’s central characters are always up against some impossibly violent, often mindless force – a psychopathic bounty hunter working for a Mexican drugs cartel, a Bible-quoting Judge, a dying planet blighted by marauding gangs of cannibals. His heroes live in societies or environments purged of reliable categories of good and evil – men battle against impossible odds and lose, leaving behind an ambiguous legacy of individual integrity that may be pointless but somehow moves us anyway. I wish McCarthy another twenty years of writing – the world he describes is a world ours is about to become.

  22. I have very much enjoyed skimming through the comments on this post, seeing so many first-time commenters to the blog. Heck, I’m just glad to see commenters, period. The blog went through a summer lull, but it looks like we are roaring back to life.

    But I have skimmed cautiously. As someone who avoids “spoilers” whenever possible — even when reading history — I haven’t read the post itself, because I haven’t read The Road. Nor have I seen the movie.

    In that connection, I noticed a couple of the comments express mild consternation that Andrew hasn’t read this book already, or that he did the unthinkable and watched the movie first, when the book is really not that long. Andrew has even added in a “should” — he should have read McCarthy sooner.

    The “should” in these comments is interesting to me in light of my current reading, Joan Shelley Rubin’s The Making of Middlebrow Culture. The comments reminded me of her discussion of the educative role of literary criticism, the emergence of multiple reviews whose aim was both to shape the development of American letters while at the same time shaping the taste of a rapidly expanding reading public.

    That some books “should” be read, rather than others, and that a particular kind of person “should” be expected to have read them — these are ideas I will be spending *lots* of time with over the next few years.

    So my question, for all these “shoulds,” is some variant of: “Why? Says who?”

    And there is another question rattling around in my head now about the extent to which this blog might function as an “arbiter of taste” in the field of U.S. intellectual history. It had not occurred to me that this is what we are doing, never mind that this is something we are doing on purpose. I would be more comfortable saying that our writing here, taken collectively, is an indicator of taste, of epistemic style(s). But I’m not sure why I’d prefer the latter formulation to the former.

    • Because an indicator points, while an arbiter judges (like you, I prefer the former action).

      Speaking of action, I find it interesting that you designated the blog itself as the actor (the arbiter/indicator); it might be interesting to consider that it is the collective intelligence of the community that is acting through the medium of the blog.

      For my part, I very much appreciated Andrew’s attribution of The Road to science fiction. At the same time, most of the commenters did not elaborate on that indication. Which holds more weight as an arbiter or indicator, then – the original blog post author or the community of commenters?

    • “I noticed a couple of the comments express mild consternation that Andrew hasn’t read this book already, or that he did the unthinkable and watched the movie first, when the book is really not that long.”

      This is an interesting phenomenon you’re describing. I’m always fascinated how discussions involving movies, literature, and music can take up hours of time and elicit (seemingly) instantaneous responses by individuals from diverse backgrounds (especially through cyberspace). There does seem to be less reticence to use the “should” and “ought” imperative (contrasted with, say, ethical or religious discussions) when throwing in one’s “two cents” about culture.

      Is this because there’s an assumption that any advice given will be taken “with a grain of salt” or because the simple recognition/discussion of a book as culturally or academically “significant” is not necessarily going into ethical or normative territory (because it’s a “pop culture” or “entertainment” artifact)?

      Maybe it goes back to the whole “cultural literacy” debates (or “academic literacy”)? As for me, I kept hearing about The Road from students, yet—as Andrew Hartman was explaining—I simply didn’t have time to read the book. As one of the fields I’m studying is cultural history, I decided: “Why not curl up on a Friday night with a 2-hour movie which will then allow me to begin the process of understanding the significance of McCormack’s book?”

  23. I didn’t enjoy “The Road” when I read it a number of years ago. As a high schooler, I was enthralled by “All the Pretty Horses” and loved McCarthy’s style (his word use I found particularly mesmerizing). As a college student I had trouble relating to “The Road”. I found – and indeed still find – the father/son relationship overly sentimental and some of the villains to be Mad Max-ian in their sadism.

    That being said, I love “Blood Meridian”. One of my favorite books and one that – in its nihilism – avoids some of the narrative pitfalls that detracted from my reading of “The Road”. I read it almost every year and each time I read it I find new details to enjoy. Also, the Judge is probably my favorite fictional character. In short, be excited that, as much as you loved “The Road”, his best work lies before you!

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