- “Some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor”On Violent Contagion and Apocalyptic Logic in Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark
René Girard, Mimetic Theory, mimesis, Cormac McCarthy, Outer Dark, Scapegoat, apocalypse / apocalyptic, Gadarene Swine, eclipse, (failure of) Christianity, Oedipus
Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.—Cormac McCarthy, The Road1
In recent years, few novelists have gone to chart the abyss of human violence and unflinchingly returned its gaze to shape our vision of apocalypse as has the Irish American author Cormac McCarthy. Writing in thorough obscurity for almost 25 years, he is today considered not only one of America’s greatest living writers but also the heir apparent to the grand literary tradition associated with Melville and Faulkner. Born a decade after René Girard, McCarthy is also a writer whose novels—which develop in style from an early baroque to a later more terse, yet no less [End Page 185] poetic mode, and which are often seemingly opaque yet richly suggestive in meaning—strongly resonate with many insights of mimetic theory, through which they may in turn be read. In this, he appears to be very much a writer like Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky (whose The Brothers Karamazov is among his own favorites), that is, the type of novelistic writer intensely aware of the trappings of mimetic rivalry and contagious violence Girard characterizes in Deceit, Desire and the Novel.
Even so, while Girard is a thinker who is sometimes invoked in the discussion of violence in McCarthy, very rarely do these considerations take the shape of serious “mimetically conscious” analysis of a body of work abounding with rivalrous doubles and problematic father-son relationships.2 Furthermore, rarely do these ventures expand their scope beyond Violence and the Sacred. That is to say, both the Christian and apocalyptic dimensions of McCarthy’s oeuvre do remain unexplored from the perspective of mimetic theory. Providing a rudimentary sketch of this dimension, it can be stated that McCarthy’s early Appalachian novels The Orchard Keeper (1965) and Child of God (1972) are concerned with the collapse of traditional communities both from the external pressures of capitalist modernity and internal discord. They provide exemplary studies in mimetic rivalry, the hidden founding murder, the scapegoat mechanism, and its mythic transformations. His historical western Blood Meridian (1985) about the exploits of scalp hunters in the Mexican American borderlands expands the scope of McCarthy’s vision to the level of national myth. In particular, it deals with and subverts the myth of the frontier, which Richard Slotkin has characterized as one of “regeneration through violence.”3 However, if Blood Meridian, which has its devilish antagonist declare that “War is god,”4 and which Harold Bloom called “the authentic American apocalyptic novel,”5 articulates anything, it is the very inertness of violence in the wake of a Clausewitzian “escalation to extremes,” rendered at once exhilarating and utterly horrifying in McCarthy’s prose. In this light, the wholly undifferentiated, postapocalyptic ash world of McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Road (2006) cannot but appear as the logical culmination of these forces. There is, then, an inherent apocalyptic logic at work in McCarthy’s novels that, while technically prefiguring many realizations of mimetic theory, can reasonably be called “Girardian.”
My basic premise is thus quite simple: if, amazed at the “ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be,” we set out to investigate the root causes of the world’s destruction—which in The Road are never disclosed—we need look no further than the revelation articulated, step-by-step, in McCarthy’s work. In this respect, I hold his second novel Outer Dark (1968) [End Page 186] to be crucial, for in it, we find not only a full realization of the innocence of the scapegoat but also of the apocalyptic consequences this knowledge entails. To give a brief summary of its plot, let me quote from the dust jacket text of the 1993 Vintage edition:
A woman bears...