- Embodying ViolenceThe Case of Cormac McCarthy
These are the remarks of Brian Evenson, who gave the keynote address at the recent conference “Fifty Years of Cormac McCarthy.” The conference was held at the University of Memphis in October 2015 and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper.
It’s a pleasure for me to be here, speaking to you about Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite writers. I was privileged enough to come, while still a graduate student, to the first Cormac McCarthy conference at Bellarmine College more than twenty years ago (and indeed have been to several McCarthy conferences since). I felt at the time I was watching the start of something genuinely significant. I’m pleased to be back here today to see the fruits of that beginning, to see how developed the scholarship on McCarthy now is, and to celebrate fifty years of Cormac McCarthy. It has been a joy to hear the papers delivered so far, and to be thrown again deeply into the world of McCarthy, a world which, despite its darkness, is so beautifully rendered as to seem to me always a genuine pleasure to read.
I am going to talk about McCarthy’s fiction and in particular the palpability of that fiction, the way that it seems almost tangible in a fashion that the fiction of very few writers do. I am going to speak, among other things, about embodied and disembodied violence in McCarthy’s work, how McCarthy, even when he is ultimately on the way to a potentially redemptive or hopeful moment, passes—sometimes quite literally, even graphically—through bodies. Since I’m a writer, I’m going to try, too, to discuss McCarthy’s style in relation to the embodied, palpable quality of his work. This is all a way, ultimately, of trying to determine why it is that McCarthy’s work has such staying power, and why we still gather to talk about him a half-century after he first began to publish.
I’m going to start, no doubt to the surprise of most of you—particularly those of you who know I’m a former Mormon—with a quotation from early Mormon Church leader Brigham Young. “And inasmuch as the Lord Almighty [End Page 135] has designed us to know all that is in the earth, both the good and the evil, and to learn not only what is in heaven, but what is in hell, you need not expect ever to get through learning. Though I mean to learn all that is in heaven, earth, and hell” (Young 94).
One of the reasons that I quote this is because it sounds a little bit like something Judge Holden might say. But the larger reason is the expansiveness of the idea, the idea that everything is worthy of attention, whether it be in heaven, earth, or hell. For me, that broad curiosity, that embrace of heaven and earth and hell and all points between, is what characterizes McCarthy’s work—though his embrace of heaven strikes me as the most tenuous of the three. He is curious about everything, interested in even the most hellish landscapes. He is intrigued by the down and out and the suffering of those existing along the edges of society, intrigued too by those that flutter on the edge of social structures and sometimes stumble off. He offers us worlds that have the flexibility to contain, at least for a while, both Chigurh, who seems a denizen from a deterministic hell, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who we might describe, borrowing from another McCarthy novel, as a “child of God much like yourself perhaps” (4). McCarthy, like Dostoevsky, allows the ideas and philosophies of different modes of inhabiting the world to play themselves out dramatically in the form of fully drawn characters with coherent ideologies.
The Crossing has an ex-Mormon character in it—actually an ex-Mormon turned Catholic, turned heretic—and now that I’ve quoted from Brigham Young, I feel I should take a page from McCarthy and be expansive enough to offer that view too. Says...