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Michael Whealen is a Toronto writer who teaches in the Faculty of Arts at York University

Michael Whealen

I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy.
Deuteronomy 32:42

Even the ironists of the Enlightenment (Voltaire) had confidently predicted the lasting abolition of judicial torture in Europe. They had ruled inconceivable a general return to censorship, to the burning of books, let alone of heretics or dissenters.
George Steiner, Grammars of Creation


In a previous incarnation as a liberal studies community college professor, one of the most enjoyable courses I ever taught was an English elective designed for law enforcement students called “Heroes and Villains.” Along with the standard fare for this kind of course (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Maltese Falcon, The Collector, In Cold Blood, The Executioner’s Song, and so on), one of the novels I assigned was American Psycho, by the New York brat pack bad boy auteur Brett Easton Ellis, which had just then been published by Random House. His third novel, its release generated a storm of controversy. And why not? American Psycho was published at the apogee of the Age of Reagan: “Greed is good,” as Gordon Gecko, the aptly-named predatory corporate raider played by Michael Douglas intones in Oliver Stone’s fine contemporaneous film Wall Street (1987). Ellis’ novel introduces us to the twenty-something Wall Street arbitrageur Patrick Bateman, whose distasteful extra-occupational (?) hobbies include the raping of young women, the torture of the homeless, and the murder of children -- “viciousness for fun,” in other words. Long story short, some of my students -- all males, no less! -- complained en masse to my boss about having to read such nasty stuff, and I was called on to the carpet and censured by this college administrator for assigning the novel.

Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I now see that my governor was right, albeit, perhaps for the wrong reasons. I knew that the genre to which this book belonged was traditionally violent, and often sexist. And stylistically, measured against Ellis’ other works (like Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction), American Psycho arguably falls far short of the mark. It is, I now think, a flawed novel, jejune and meretricious. But that does not mean that I should not have incorporated it into the curriculum. And it most certainly does not mean that I should have been implicitly censured for drawing attention to the prevalence of sexism, murder and mayhem in both this genre in particular, and modern western culture in general. The whole experience left me gun-shy, even if to this day I still doubt that it is possible to teach about American culture without talking about misogyny, boys with guns, and, especially, the prevalence of violence as a maladaptive but perennially popular problem-solving strategy.

Segue forward some fifteen years in my career as a writer and educator. I now teach a course to undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts at a large Canadian university. The course is called “New Challenges in Academic Writing.” One of the things we discuss in it is some of the negative things that can happen to learning when postsecondary administrators adopt a corporate model, and begin to see themselves and their educational institutions as “service providers” who, often in “partnerships” with the corporate sector, deliver “products” to “consumers.” Interestingly, usually the students themselves, without prompting, volunteer that such a model may have some very deleterious consequences for freedom of expression. Professors can lose their traditional autonomy over control of the curriculum, and may (for many reasons) grow wary of offending their “customers” with objectionable or controversial material. Like American Psycho, perhaps? Or The Red Badge of Courage? Or The Scarlet Letter? Or The Bell Jar? Or Last Exit to Brooklyn? Or The Fire Next Time? Or Beloved? You see where this is going.

Indeed, many of the same objections that my former colleague-turned-administrator expressed about Ellis could equally be leveled against the novels of contemporary US Southwestern regional novelist Cormac McCarthy. The literati (Joyce Oates, for instance) have repeatedly slammed him, as an otherwise highly laudatory review of his nine-volume oeuvre in the February, 2006 issue of Harper’s (“Blood and Time”) points out. Part of the reason is that McCarthy isn’t your typical academic player: Although he is highly literate, and a very meticulous researcher into Western and American frontier history, he is not aligned with an academic institution, he does not teach, he rarely grants interviews, he doesn’t do book tours, he refuses to reply to his critics (or, presumably, most of his fans), and he doesn’t speculate publicly on the meanings of his novels.

© Roberto Romei RotondoBut the man can write. Lord, can he write, in that grand American grotesque/gothic tradition of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Charles Bukowski. This is the first page of what will probably come to be known as his signature novel, Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West (1985), a work that takes place mainly on the Tex-Mex border in the course of the middle years of the nineteenth century. The novel begins with the recall of a son’s life, in a shanty in Appalachia in the 1840s:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a last few wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.

Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man. (BM, 3)

These are words that we so need to hear right now, at a time in world history that may still yet prove to be the apogee of the frequently fatal exercise of the American Empire’s seemingly insatiable addiction to bloodshed and the exercise of naked power: “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence.”

So, we have what purports to be a Bildungsroman about a 14 year-old American boy known only (like the archetypal American Adam), as “the kid.” What, exactly, does one say about writing of this power, magnitude, scope, and force? It shakes you: It engenders panic, shortness of breath, fear. Where does one start? A literary critic might begin by noting the canonical references. But they pile up so quickly, so densely (“See the child” is Pope’s “Behold the child,” which starts An Essay on Man; “the child the father of the man” -- Hopkins; Faulknerian narrative techniques and characters, Dickinson’s obsession with death), that one is stupefied, overwhelmed -- much as one is by the thick richness of American popular culture itself, its syncretism and vibrancy. A stylist might gesture towards the naturalistic laconicity of the dialogue: “Night of your birth. . . . The Leonids they were called.” Note, too, the artisanal care devoted to language: It’s not “his folks” (an easy, familiar register of address), but the terser, more archaic “his folk,” gesturing, perhaps, in the direction of a much older American English vernacular, rooted in the Germanic volk, those immigrants who actually managed to make it through the Cumberland Gap and establish cities like Philadelphia. Hell, one could construct a creative writing seminar around these three paragraphs alone. But, what would one call it? Writing the End, perhaps?

Yet, some of my colleagues -- at least the very few who admit to knowing about McCarthy -- dismiss his writing as, variously, popular (when did this become a literary liability?), adolescent, sexist, and parochial, while noting that they didn’t finish reading his novels. Usually, on further inquiry, this latter comment is explicated as an admission that they could not bear to finish his writing. Are they perhaps overwhelmed by the relentless death, rot, violence, and carnage; all those tropes that American popular culture has historically been at such great pains to gloss over, erase, romanticize, and ignore in the names of things like American exceptionalism, and Manifest Destiny? McCarthy rides these dark horses in close to the rail.

An excursus: Let me speak frankly about America today. These are very bad times indeed for the Republic, even for those who are accustomed to take texts like Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence, Fart Proudly, Notes on the State of Virginia, Democracy in America, Huck Finn, Moby Dick, Look Homeward, Angel, The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman and so forth seriously, while still adding mental scare quotes around every second word. (There is a sense in which all good American writing is comedy -- or at least, parody -- and I suspect that most American authors know this to be the case: Good for them, if they do.) We are stuck here on this godforsaken stage (Isaiah Berlin called Earth the “insane asylum of the universe”), and forced into these outrageous roles by what are always, by definition, simultaneously the fortuity of our birth, and the inevitability of our death. This is, I think, the bare ontology of the world that McCarthy’s characters -- that we -- all inhabit, and must negotiate. Dreams are dead. The landscape is littered with bones; the earth, drenched with blood. And there is also more than a hint in McCarthy’s oeuvre that Americans tend to take the brunt of the blame for this reality because they just happened by historical accident to find themselves in the vanguard of the avant-garde when this disenchantment first appeared in full flower, and it became possible to write and read about it in secular texts. This comes out, perhaps problematically, in his carefully researched descriptions of the savagery of some Aboriginal war parties in the American Southwest:

. . .ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos, and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell on the dead and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows. And now the horses of the dead came pounding out of the smoke and dust and circled with flapping leather and wild manes and eyes whited with fear like the eyes of the blind. . . . (BM, 54)

Although it is tempting to read this passage as “payback,” or behavior learned from the Europeans (the referenced “whites” are indeed from a scalping party), McCarthy is far from idealizing the indigenous peoples as noble savages. In case there should be any doubt about this, one of the book’s frontispiece quotes cites the following archaeological observations from The Yuma Daily Sun: “Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.” The violence is not only Pre-Columbian, it is autochthonous. And the freedom to address it seems to be shrinking daily.

This is eerie: I was introduced to McCarthy by that review in Harper’s. But, like a crack addict, reading the culture as an amateur flaneur, or trendspotter, I’d always assumed that someone like him was out there, waiting for me, inviting me to dance on the razor-fine edge between life and death, sanity and madness, acuity and hallucination, historical fiction, and facticity. America. To cite a hoary, but apposite, old adage, if McCarthy didn’t exist, we would probably have invented him -- in our dreams, and especially, in our nightmares. He writes what we have been, and what we may be becoming.

Let me elide his Border Trilogy novels, and move to his latest, No Country for Old Men (2005). The novel reads like a Tarantino film, but as a parody of the (already hyperparodic) pulp thriller genre (think of Pulp Fiction shot in black and white, with an even more discontinuous narrative). It is a mediation of a mediation of a mediation. Yet money, in McCarthy’s novels, is never a metaphor; it is exactly what it is. And usually, it is so in copious quantities of American Gold Double Eagle $20 coins. Basically, a Texas cowboy stumbles on a heroin deal gone really bad in the desert. The drugs are gone, most everyone is shot dead, but a suitcase with over two million dollars in cash has been left behind. Said cowboy takes the cash (there is, of course, a transponder in the suitcase) and, from there, most anyone could extrapolate the denouement: A perfectly understandable choice has been made, and the piper will be paid. Nothing personal; it’s business as usual, and after a series of bloodbaths, the cash is restored (minus the finder’s fees, and expenses) to its issuant investor in a tastefully appointed corporate boardroom in Dallas. It’s a simple plot, it carries with it a moral vision that’s entirely consonant with the status quo, and it extrapolates seamlessly from the mayhem and carnage of Blood Meridian in the 1840s. It says: This is what we have made; this is the home we inhabit. There is no other.

I wonder. The experience of reading Cormac McCarthy is shocking; very much like finding a severed human finger in your Happy Meal.TM But his is, I think, a voice that needs to be heard, now more than ever, unfettered by any gatekeepers -- howsoever well-meaning -- who might seek to strong-arm professors and “protect” the people by suggesting that these constituencies ought perhaps to be shielded from the more unpleasant aspects of our modern world.


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