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Cormac McCarthy’s Unforgiving Parables of American Empire

He demonstrated how the frontier wasn’t an incubator of democratic equality but a place of unrelenting pain, cruelty, and suffering.

Between the publication of Moby-Dick and that of Blood Meridian a lot happened to account for the bleakness of McCarthy’s moral landscape. “Mai Lai burns again and again in the map of my mind,” the Bangladeshi poet Shamsur Rahman wrote in 1971, a lament for the Nixon-and-Kissinger-enabled genocide then taking place in his own homeland. McCarthy continued to build on Blood Meridian’s themes in his subsequent border trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plains. Then, three years after the US invasion of Iraq, McCarthy published The Road. We don’t know the cause of the novel’s apocalypse, whether it was out-of-control technology, fossil fuels, nuclear war, or consumer waste that left only a handful of desperate humans alive. McCarthy doesn’t say, and he doesn’t have to. It’s any and all of those things, expressed in the novel’s disdain for the items capitalism left strewn along the side of the road, “things abandoned long ago by pilgrims enroute to their several and collective deaths.”

McCarthy demonstrated how the frontier wasn’t an incubator of democratic equality but a place of unrelenting pain, cruelty, and suffering. He rubbed away the veneer of Manifest Destiny, revealing US nationalism and empire to be nothing but the right of conquest updated for the democratic age. Let’s admire the wonder of his writing, even though to my ear it often sounded strained, its artifice apparent, unlike the manic, ramshackle Melville, who really did seem to be handpicked by the gods of old—by Milton, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, and others—to speak for them. McCarthy, though, knew how to name what has been, or will soon be, lost. The last paragraph of The Road, set on an earth stripped of its biomass, is a stunning summation of being and nothingness, of things that once had existed written about as if they still did:

Once there were brook trouts in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

We should, though, resist McCarthy’s punishing gnostic nihilism, and a pessimism that can only result in moral idiocy, in circle dances that go nowhere, like the Glanton Gang, where existence is original sin and the racial terror inherent in empire building, and the land grubbing that comes with it, is but part of the sublime.