- Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament: Literature, Theology, and the Moral of Stories by Matthew L. Potts
In Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament, Matthew Potts confronts the collapse of stable metaphysics in McCarthy’s novels. This seemingly nihilistic worldview, Potts argues, operates in intimate conversation with the sacramental imagery that he identifies as “the most pervasive religious trope in all McCarthy’s work” (1). Potts offers a valuable contribution to McCarthy studies as well as scholarship in Christian theology, noting that scholarship on the novels, for all its attention to McCarthy’s treatment of religious themes, pays too little attention to this trope—a relative neglect that “impoverishes interpretation” while “also withhold[ing] from Christian theology a potentially useful reminder of the sacrament’s significance for the theological tradition” (1). Indeed, by the end of the book he is persuasive when he suggests that “the most interesting upshot of this study, perhaps, will not be in how theology helps us to read McCarthy, but in how McCarthy might embolden those of us compelled to write theology” (187).
While acknowledging the wealth of important scholarship devoted to McCarthy’s treatment of religious themes, Potts notes that much of this critical conversation tends toward reductive labels such as “nihilistic,” “Gnostic,” and “Christian.” McCarthy, Potts argues, does not write Christian novels, but he does invoke Christian sacrament in ways that highlight its insistence upon the value of human life in the here and now. In McCarthy, that is, sacrament is revealed to express the intrinsic value of human action, rather than in reaching outward toward stable “systems of metaphysical meaning” (4). Such signs—often manifesting as humble acts of hospitality, bread-breaking, love, storytelling, and sacrifice between characters, or as narratively constructed “note[s] of mystery” that “resist totalization in thought” (70)—provide crucial narrative hedges against the unremitting visions of cruelty, violence, and death that impel McCarthy’s canon. [End Page 233]
One of the most notable achievements of this text is its engagement with an impressive roster of postmodern theorists, including Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Adriana Cavaerero, Karl Barth, and Judith Butler, while also conducting careful, insightful readings of McCarthy and his critics (with primary focus on the novels spanning from Suttree through The Road). Indeed, this book has much to offer anyone seeking to heighten their understanding of postmodern theory. At times readers may find jarring Potts’ method of using subheadings and switching from sustained periods of close reading to lengthy considerations of relevant postmodern theorists to scholarly discourses in theology and then back to McCarthy. However, the complexity of the problems with which this text wrestles seems to me to necessitate such careful, step-by-step navigation. Potts himself addresses this issue of method when, nearing the end of a two-chapter discussion of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men in light of works by Adorno and Arendt, he writes “[o]ne might reasonably ask what any of this has to do with the theological notion of sacrament or of eucharist.” He immediately goes on to contend:
If the sacramental is to retain some meaning in the bleak world McCarthy here and elsewhere conjures, it will not be in the instrumental fashion so roundly criticized by these texts. Reason is a better, if bitter, instrument, a more effective tool for suzerainty, though one administered in fatedness and violence. Rather, the eucharist and other sacraments—if they are to hold some significance in McCarthy’s work at all—must involve themselves somehow in the risk and mystery of an uncertain ethics, they must do so with promise and forgiveness, they must stand vulnerable to chance and other monstrosities while yet remaining open to a future for which they may (or may not) prove the possible beginning.(78–79)
This representative and moving passage is animated precisely by Potts’s method of carefully summarizing and interpreting fundamental texts in the fields of postmodern theory and Christian theology, and applying their ideas in ways that illuminate McCarthy’s literary treatment...