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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's desk

On death.


The Assumption 2023 issue of The Lamp is not dedicated to Cormac McCarthy, but it may as well be. As I look through our features, I find more than ten thousand words devoted to the American novelist who once proclaimed that he was the first writer to take cowboys “seriously” in modern American fiction. McCarthy was an eccentric, to be sure, and he delighted in the arcane, the brutal, and, at times, the ornate.

And yet, behind all of it, McCarthy often hinted that there was something more to his world than death and thoughts of death. Robert Wyllie calls him a “wannabe believer,” whose pessimism “seems duty-bound, as if the consolations of faith would prevent his witness to the victims of the stupid, vicious, utterly unremarked post-apocalyptic barbarisms, after humanity screws up the destruction of the world.” Joseph Bottum diagnoses his outlook as half-Augustinianism, which is to say that McCarthy understood the world as a place where “there’s justice, perhaps, but no mercy, and affliction does not signal redemption.” This unsettled approach, and the infrequent “glimmer of light” in some of McCarthy’s novels, Paul Mariani explains, is in large part what keeps readers coming back.

McCarthy also had a wonderfully idiosyncratic sense of humor. “The McCarthy I like is the fox rather than the hedgehog: the magpie collector of words and literary styles,” writes Sam Sacks. And he had little compunction about revealing influences in his work: although often compared to Faulkner, he admitted freely that he drew from everyone from Milton to Melville to Conrad. “No one questions whether or not Faulkner had decisive effects on McCarthy’s storytelling sensibility or on the particular pitch of his syntax,” writes William Giraldi, “but the books from which Faulkner made his own books were also on McCarthy’s shelf.”

This issue also has many fine essays which have nothing to do with Cormac McCarthy (though, as often happens, many have something to do with death). There’s Thomas Pink on whether the motu proprio Traditionis custodes is lawfulPeter Brown on how he learned to “listen” to Saint Augustine when writing his biography; and Matthew Walther on a new parlor game based on Vatican II. And in Appreciations, Aaron James surveys the life and legacy of Orlando di Lasso, one of the most sought-after composers during the high Renaissance. After a long and successful career, Lasso fell into “true melancholy” and, according to his wife, would speak “only of death.” In his sacred music, however, he transformed that pain into a sweet suffering, contemplating the fact that “whatever his own suffering may have been, the suffering of Christ at least was not finally in vain.”

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