Andrew Lanham reads McCarthy’s bleak oeuvre and, finally, finds hope
Physicists hypothesize something called a naked singularity, a black hole that spins so fast it breaks the laws of space and time and becomes visible, letting us peer into an impossible well of infinite density. Each of Cormac McCarthy’s novels throbs like a naked singularity in our midst, forcing us to witness the incomprehensible abyss to which human violence can descend — mass scalpings, pedophiliac cannibalism, eyeballs torn from skulls, a mesquite bush ornamented with mutilated infants. McCarthy’s nihilism elevates destruction to an ontological principle. His worlds rip his characters apart as ravenously as a wood chipper swallows trees.
And yet for the last twenty years, McCarthy has also tried to imagine a way out of the abyss. His writing has grown no less violent, but McCarthy has increasingly depicted characters who survive and move on after violence. His latest work, the screenplay for the Ridley Scott-directed film The Counselor, marks a crucial step in this evolution. The Counselor contains as much brutality as anything McCarthy has written (one character dies in a snuff film), but the screenplay adds another theme to the life-and-death struggle that permeates his writing: pregnancy, and the potential for regeneration it represents. This makes The Counselor McCarthy’s most nihilistic and his most hope-filled work yet.
McCarthy’s career began as a grim exploration of loss. In his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, John Wesley Rattner forfeits every friend or relative he’s had. As Rattner confronts his mother’s grave after years away from home, the narrator muses on the extinct natives of his Tennessee woods: “They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. […] No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.” Piling description on top of description, McCarthy insists that nothing human can endure, not even myth. It, too, dissolves into dust. Like Rattner’s vanished loved ones, entire cultures march ineluctably toward annihilation.
Outer Dark, McCarthy’s second novel, imbues the land itself with the inevitability of loss. We follow Rinthy as she searches for her missing child, and we watch the infant murdered and devoured by a trio of nameless, mysterious killers who haunt the woods. Rinthy arrives in the same clearing soon afterward, but she fails to recognize her child’s tiny ribcage left in the ashes of the fire. The novel concludes with a blind, itinerant preacher treading a road we know ends in a putrid swamp, a place the narrator calls “a landscape of the damned.” It’s tempting to understand the preacher and the trio both as mere metaphors — one for the ruinous consequences of blind faith and the other for the inscrutability of human cruelty. But if we’ve got the guts to face it, McCarthy’s depiction of violence cuts much more deeply — human brutality makes this world hell on earth.
If the world becomes hell, Judge Holden of Blood Meridian is its king. Perhaps the most terrifying character in all of literature, he rapes, pillages, and slaughters with impunity. He plays the fiddle, dances like a bacchanal, and swears he will never die — he’s probably right. “War is god,” the judge declares, and with this apotheosis, McCarthy defines ontology itself as violence. It’s not just that death is inevitable, or that the world is hell on earth, but reality is destructive in its very nature. To exist is to be ground relentlessly down to nothing. The historical basis of the massacres portrayed in Blood Meridian establishes this nihilism in the most concrete and harrowing way possible.
With the Border Trilogy in the 1990’s, McCarthy began looking for a way out. War remains holy, but McCarthy imagines characters who cobble their lives back together after catastrophe. At one point the Trilogy’s protagonist Billy encounters a heretical priest who lives like a hermit and alleges that God weaves the world: “In his hands it flowed out of nothing and in his hands it vanished into nothing once again. Endlessly. […] that tapestry that was the world in its making and in its unmaking.” McCarthy once more renders existence as a trek toward oblivion, depicting a reality that flows into nothingness at God’s command. But that very divine “unmaking” also marks a chance for “making,” fueling an endless cycle of creation. A blind man in the Trilogy says, “[I]n his blindness he had indeed lost himself and all memory of himself yet he had found in the deepest dark of that loss that there also was a ground and there one must begin again.” Refiguring the blind man walking toward hell in Outer Dark, McCarthy here envisions beginning life anew even if everything is lost. The Trilogy’s plot corroborates this optimism, as Billy and his friend John Grady repetitively seek out new lives when their old ones break apart.
Yet, the Border Trilogy ends with John Grady dead and Billy homeless in his old age. We can only persist for so long before we die. Surprisingly, it’s in The Road that McCarthy imagines humanity enduring beyond death. The novel occurs in a post-apocalyptic wasteland as a man and his son walk south seeking warmth for the winter, fighting off cannibals along the way. At the end the man dies, but a friendly family miraculously rescues the boy and tells him, “[T]he breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” Individuals and entire civilizations perish even more violently in The Road than in the rest of McCarthy’s work. Cities lie wasted and desolate, and gangs of murderers rove the land in gasmasks under a poisoned sky. But the cycle of generations now preserves meaning beyond death, passing on the torch from father to son to son. The “breath of God” here augurs life, not war.
At its conclusion, however, The Road also declares the world can “not be made right again.” The apocalypse that precedes the novel’s events epitomizes McCarthy’s nihilism — the utter destruction of all that we know. The idea that the boy might regenerate humanity in the face of such annihilation heroically envisions the new beginnings described by the blind man in the Border Trilogy. But The Road’s world is irredeemably broken. The savage remnants of humanity, scattered across a blighted landscape, cannot escape the consequences of the apocalypse they wrought. As a result, the boy represents the most limited possibilities for the future. Pessimism overpowers hope.
This is the philosophical milieu in which The Counselor arrives. Like McCarthy’s other works, the screenplay emphasizes loss and depicts destruction. The Counselor steadily strips its characters bare of everything they possess and then violently revokes their lives. The eponymous Counselor, coolly played by Michael Fassbender, begins the film engaged to Laura (Penélope Cruz) and anticipates a new life. He works a drug deal with Reiner and Westray (Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt) and expects serious cash. When the deal goes inexplicably bad, though, everything falls apart. Westray and Reiner end up dead, and the Counselor, searching the streets of Juarez for a kidnapped Laura, receives a snuff film recording her death. Only Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina, played in a chillingly upbeat fashion by Cameron Diaz, survives — with twenty million dollars freshly lining her pockets. Her hands are covered in blood from ordering Westray’s decapitation, and she prophesies, “The slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.”
Malkina is also pregnant. She refuses to divulge the father’s identity (it isn’t Reiner), and admits only that he’s deceased. “The virtues of a dead father,” she tells a male escort, “are limited only by the mother’s imagination.” Fifty years into McCarthy’s career, the screenplay for The Counselor finally embraces the future and the possibility of renewal. McCarthy replaces the cannibalized infant of Outer Dark and the boy’s post-apocalyptic existence in The Road with the practically limitless possibilities open to Malkina’s unborn child. Not only can we endure catastrophe, Malkina implies; we can utterly reimagine ourselves and our very world.
Of course Malkina also foresees unimaginable slaughter, and her child’s boundless potential arises from the blood she’s already spilled. Like Judge Holden, war is the god Malkina worships. The most hopeful moment in McCarthy’s entire oeuvre thus simultaneously embodies the implacable destruction his writing depicts. By fusing hope and doom in this way, The Counselor represents McCarthy’s most nihilistic work yet — we discover the imaginative possibilities of new lives and new worlds as we plunge into the abyss. We can hope for more than a universe that grinds relentlessly toward nothingness only because the universe truly does grind toward nothingness.
McCarthy’s lifetime encompasses the conventional and nuclear holocausts of World War II, the Cold War threat of apocalypse, the rage of Vietnam, and the pervasive aura of violence in the modern War on Terror. These events torment the plots he writes. McCarthy questions whether we can survive, and, if we do, how meaning might break through in a world where only violence is enduringly divine. The faith in new beginnings he sketches out from the Border Trilogy onwards remains fundamentally ambiguous and fragile, a delicate tissue haunted by the inevitability of destruction — a tenuous, self-skeptical faith to oppose the dogmatisms of nation and sect. In an era over-pregnant with political and technological opportunities and existential risks, McCarthy demands that we attend to that thinnest of lines between life and death, between possibility and annihilation. One imagines he doesn’t have much hope that we’ll listen.