Sunday, April 4, 2010

A System Not Scaled to Ourselves

***SPOILER ALERT*** Don't read this post if you don't want to know crucial plot points of The Road, The Border Trilogy, or Beloved.

Looking back through this 2006 NY Times
piece about the best works of fiction of the past 25 years, I came across this paragraph in Madison Smartt Bell's review of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. It's dead-on, I think, and also suggestive of why McCarthy may be even more closely akin to Melville than to Faulkner:

What order there may be in the world is not, Mr. McCarthy suggests, of our devising and is very likely beyond our comprehension. His project is unlike that of any other writer: to make artifacts composed of human language but detached from a human reference point. That sense of evil that seems to suffuse his novels is illusory; it comes from our discomfort in the presence of a system that is not scaled to ourselves, within which our civilizations may be as ephemeral as flowers. The deity that presides over Mr. McCarthy's world has not modeled itself on humanity; its voice most resembles the one that addressed Job out of the whirlwind.

John Grady Cole, in the Border Trilogy (of which All the Pretty Horses is the first volume), is a tragic hero because he dies rather than accept that he lives in a world that is not scaled to himself, a world in which his notions of justice and rightness do not apply.

Andrew Delbanco, writing about Billy Budd in his biography of Melville, sets some context for understanding Melville:

He was writing at just the time when, in William James's phrase, the last vestiges of "tender-minded" faith in "the great universe of God" were fading away, and the metaphor of the rainbow amounts to Melville's corollary of James's remark that "we carve out groups of stars in the heavens, and call them constellations, and the stars patiently suffer us to do so,—though, if they knew what we were doing, some of them might feel much surprised at the partners we had given them." The stars know nothing. All knowing is the work of man. And so, for Melville... our fate as human beings is to live by norms that have no basis in divine truth, but that have functional truth for the conduct of life.

In McCarthy's late novel The Road, a father journeys with his son through a dying world, facing massive and incontrovertible evidence of his civilization's ephemerality, to use Madison Smartt Bell's phrase.

The man seems to be the last one in the world who still lives by the norms that Delbanco refers to—duty, honor, hope, decency, love. As for the rest of humanity, they’re either cannibals or cannibal food. Still, he questions himself constantly and wants to give up and die. He asks himself, "Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.”

Yet later, he thinks otherwise: “I think maybe they are watching, he said. They are watching for a thing that even death cannot undo.” For him, that thing is his love for his son. He endures, though, and teaches his son to do so as well, telling him "We're carrying the fire."

The man dies in the end of the novel, yet his son survives, lending a faint glimmer of hope to this incredibly bleak story. That glimmer reminds me of a powerful scene I just read in Toni Morrison's Beloved (chosen as the best work by this same NY Times piece), in which the slave Sixo, captured in the midst of running to freedom, set ablaze by his master and soon to be shot and killed, begins to laugh and sing out, "Seven-o!"—a reference to his as-yet-unborn child in the womb of his lover, who has eluded capture.

The slaves in Beloved, of course, also find themselves in a system that is not scaled to their humanity, one as horrifying, in its own way, as the apocalyptic world McCarthy imagines.

In response, Baby Suggs, holy, an old woman bought out of a lifetime of slavery and unimaginable grief, preaches to her Negro community a gospel reminiscent of the Melvillean one Delbanco describes:

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

No comments: