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Self-begot, Self-rais’d

On Cormac McCarthy and the anxiety of influence.

William Giraldi is author of the novels Busy Monsters, Hold the Dark (a Netflix feature film), and About Face, the memoir The Hero's Body, and a collection of literary criticism, American Audacity.

In 2018, after Harold Bloom read a piece on Cormac McCarthy in my collection of critical essays, he emailed me a note that contained these lines: “I hope Cormac, whom I find personally benign, reads you on not being influenced by him. He might enjoy it.” That he might enjoy it was enough to let me know that Harold, usually made happy by my work, was not at all happy now. The phone call that followed was another lecture for me by a man I called Teacher and Mentor. This lecture consisted of the ways in which my own novel, called Hold the Dark—a book that couldn’t be reviewed without the name “Cormac McCarthy” rearing its divine head every other paragraph—assimilated Melville, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor by way of McCarthy.

You see, I had forgotten the by way of part in my essay. Harold didn’t like to see any forgetting of this sloppy sort. He also didn’t approve of my contention that my novel owed more to Heart of Darkness directly than to any book by McCarthy indirectly. “Dear,” he said, “just whom do you think you’re reading when you read McCarthy? Conrad is there next to Melville.” And when I blundered into saying that the female character in my novel was another Medea, I had to find a chair and listen to all the ways I was wrong about Euripides.

Harold and I didn’t disagree about much; Updike and Nabokov were our chief points of dispute. (”Let’s not quarrel, dear,” he’d say, by which he meant: You aren’t going to win this one.) But whereas Harold saw McCarthy’s outsized abilities and bewitching talents in his masterwork, Blood Meridian, as sharing “more profoundly in Melville’s debt to Shakespeare” than in McCarthy’s own debt to Faulkner, I saw the crucial influence to be Melville’s debt to Milton. I’ve argued elsewhere that Moby-Dick’s actual agon, insofar as Ahab is concerned, is not with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear, but with Milton’s Satan of Paradise Lost, the pure embodiment of poetical insurgence. If that’s accurate, then McCarthy’s anxiety of influence with Judge Holden in Blood Meridian is with Melville by way of Milton. Judge Holden, in his powers of poetical reasoning and in his penchant for theatrical grandstanding, calls up Milton’s Satan more than Iago. Holden yearns to vanquish the living in an attempt to live himself forever, an ageless albino vampire for whom the meridian of cosmos and earth must remain bloodied. By blood he dances; by blood he fiddles; by blood his own blood pulses always. Holden, like Satan, is “self-begot, self-rais’d / By [his] own quick’ning power.”

Harold dubbed Judge Holden “the most frightening figure in all of American literature . . . the Will Incarnate.” Although Harold never had Gnosticism far from mind when thinking of Will, by his use of “Will” here I take him to mean a grotesquerie of Schopenhauer’s Will, the blood-level urging that underpins and animates all among the living. (Whitman: “Urge and urge and urge,/Always the procreant urge of the world.”)

Judge Holden, as with Lester Ballard in Child of God and the slaughterous, enigmatic, and nameless trio in Outer Dark, is a postlapsarian aberration whose evil is Augustinian in that it derives from complete estrangement from God. These characters scratch and stalk through their worlds in a willfulness of doctrinal despair, the soul-killing sin of refusing to acknowledge the grace of God, or even His spiritual existence. God? What God? In Child of God, a deputy asks an old man: “You think people was meaner then than they are now?” And the old man answers: “No . . . I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one.” And on that day God first made one, He made him berserk. What else to expect from a deity Himself berserk?

Judge Holden and the berserkers in Outer Dark are hellbent on their own demonic apotheosis. But Lester Ballard is in some ways more terrifying than Judge Holden or the trio in Outer Dark. Holden is a demoniac theologian and raconteur, a malefic Übermensch with the sophistications of logic, and the trio in Outer Dark are male Eumenides dispensing judgment in the American night, whereas Ballard is a smear of sinister impotence. Holden adheres to a code of blood, and the male Eumenides of Outer Dark are avengers for the sins of men, whereas Ballard is blind diabolism, terrifying precisely because all logic has been lost to him.

If Holden is more murderous, a walking calamity in search of ruin and woe, at least he speaks, and through speech as accomplished as his is the possibility of comprehension, if only a comprehension of our own destruction. (Holden himself, remember, is beyond destruction; when he again meets “the kid” at the end of the novel, twenty-eight years after their maniacal scalping raids, he has not aged a day.) The male Eumenides are nameless just as “Yahweh” unhelpfully means “I am” or “I will be,” and there is some comprehension to be grasped for there—all of Judeo-Christian belief is a veritable grasping after the unknowable (and Harold would wince at that hyphenated term, so separate were they to him). But with Ballard there is no possibility of grasping at all, and so no hope of comprehension. You must take his depravity for what it is: inexplicable, utterly unable to be reduced to psycho-spiritual assessment. McCarthy knows his pedigree; there is no psychology in Homer and Virgil; there are only the gut-born deeds of gods and men and their repercussions. After orgies of slaughter, men sit down to their wine and their meat and wake at dawn to do it all again.

Blood Meridian is a horrifying vision from John of Patmos, an apocalypse whose Manicheanism has lost its good, its light, its love, and nosedived into a fearsome, darksome red of their opposites. Judge Holden is one horseman made of four: War, Death, Conquest, Famine (or, alternately, in Ezekiel: Sword, Famine, Beast, and Plague). The story’s butchery is unequaled except in Homer—recall Achilles at the River Scamander, the undulating water supplanted by the bodies and blood of the Trojans he massacred. I once described Blood Meridian as “an unholy and antinomian masterwork engined by all those otherworldly sentences,” and I’ll stick by that. In 1992, a profiler of McCarthy for the New York Times labeled McCarthy’s work “morbid realism,” which misses the point somewhat on purpose. It is, rather, the realistic morbidity of myth.

So many of McCarthy’s people are dispossessed almost by choice and disembodied from what passes for civilization. Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, referred to in the novel as “a psychopathic killer” and “a goddamn psychopath,” is more fittingly a sociopath denuded of conscience, an untethered persona of perfect malaise, and does not even pretend that the world contains or has ever contained a moral order (Judge Holden declares: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak”). Lester Ballard in Child of God is a deadened demiurge who communes with the wholly dead just as the rest of us commune with the partial living. Our civilization is such that living is not living, but earning, getting, having, and McCarthy’s fiction has no nexus to what you and I know to be society. His fiction proclaims society more than irrelevant; his fiction proclaims it nonexistent. In The Road—whose style might be described as Revelation written by Hemingway—society has been made literally nonexistent, replaced by disconnected, unseen isolatoes with no way home. What home? The apocalypse has vanquished all sense of it.

Here are extraordinary lines by McCarthy in the New York Times profile of 1992:

There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is really a dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.

McCarthy means that every utopian effort ends at Auschwitz, in Mao’s Great Famine, in Stalin’s Dekulakization. But by the above lines you see why McCarthy’s work has too often been mistakenly tagged nihilistic. The tag is depthless, just as it’s always been depthless to tag Nietzsche nihilistic (and Nietzsche is more present in McCarthy than has been noticed). Neither Suttree nor The Border Trilogy—a real contender for the laurel of Great American Novel—moves or concludes in the nihilistic night. Brotherhood, loyalty, community, enchantment, Emersonian self-reliance, the possibility of deliverance: these are some of what we encounter in those novels.

McCarthy must have grown exhausted by the incessant Faulkner comparisons, especially with his first several books, and most especially with Suttree (which stands alone among McCarthy’s works for its humor and relative mildness). Orville Prescott, reviewing The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy’s first novel, in the New York Times, titled that piece “Still Another Disciple of William Faulkner.” It pays to remember what Walker Percy said of writers who attempt to co-opt Mississippi’s Shakespeare: “There is nothing more feckless than imitating an eccentric.” And McCarthy, I hope it goes without saying, was constitutionally incapable of fecklessness. He told the author of the Times profile that “books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written,” and that of course includes Faulkner’s novels. (And you see Harold’s liking for McCarthy’s method and aesthetic, which tap deeply into the anxiety of influence.) No one questions whether or not Faulkner had decisive effects on McCarthy’s storytelling sensibility or on the particular pitch of his syntax, but I want to point out that the books from which Faulkner made his own books were also on McCarthy’s shelf. Harold wouldn’t approve of this, but the anxiety of influence is a complex tapestry that resists unweaving. When McCarthy assimilated Faulkner he was also hard at work assimilating what Faulkner had assimilated: not only Homer and Virgil, but the Bible and Shakespeare, Dante and Milton and Melville especially.

Harold will never read McCarthy’s final two novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris—Harold died in 2019, aged eighty-nine, the same age as McCarthy at his death on June 13 of this year—but I think I know what he’d say about them: “If there is a pragmatic tradition of the American sublime, then Cormac McCarthy’s fictions are its culmination.” Not a bad epitaph, and all the more so because it’s true.

This essay appears as part of a symposium on Cormac McCarthy in the Assumption 2023 issue of The Lamp.