- Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament: Literature, Theology, and the Moral of Stories by Matthew L. Potts
An old scalp hunter hesitates before gunning down his teenage adversary. A surveyor marks out a perimeter fence across plains strewn with the carcasses of slaughtered bison, his slow progress tracked by roaming bone pickers. A defeated sheriff, his county in bloody chaos, dreams that his father rides on ahead, through the mountains and into the night, establishing an encampment in wait for his son. A fisherman shares his catch with the goatman and a boy hands a dipper of water down to construction workers in a riverside ditch. A young family takes in a timeworn cowboy: he shares his stories, his skills; they grant hospitality. Somewhere in a world of pure terror, of inescapable violence, a man washes the coagulating brains of a hostile stranger from his son's hair. Elsewhere in that world, perhaps long ago, brook trout in a stream suggest a life made impossibly precious by its own finitude.
By reading episodes such as these—taken from the middle and late fiction of Cormac McCarthy—Matthew L. Potts establishes his thesis for the primacy of sacrament in an exemplary body of literature. Potts's book, Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament, explores the titular author's presentation of sacramental and eucharistic imagery across multiple novels. It argues that McCarthy's writing adventures a "cruciform logic toward the development of a distinct moral vision, a sacrificial ethics" (2), a morality bound up in a wholly theological worldview. For Potts, McCarthy's prose testifies to an unspoken belief that "there is a holiness embodied in the quotidian; that there is a sacredness in, with, and under the profane" (13). Demonstration of this belief is no small task given the apparent ruthlessness of the subject matter, but the argument here has been developed persuasively and for that reason is all the more transformative.
It might seem, at first glance, willfully counterintuitive to scour McCarthy's resolutely horrific fiction for signs of grace. Yet this is precisely what makes McCarthy such a rewarding case study for a literature of sacrament. "Just as the cross does not compromise the holiness of Christ for Christian theology," we are dutifully reminded, "nor the stale wafer impede the presence of his body to the church, McCarthy can—through deploying these eucharistic images—at once articulate in his fiction a cruelty absolutely without compromise while yielding no ground for the enduring worth of goodness" (14). The holy, the sacred, and the simply good thus appear from within climates [End Page 195] of unremitting horror, doing so consistently in two guises: narratively, in fleeting acts of tenderness, forgiveness, and generosity; and stylistically, in moments when the prose form, the words and sentences with which these books are written, ramifies a sense of incalculable mystery. What these manifestations of the sacred enkindle, we are told, is a literary aesthetic consonant with Theodor Adorno's sense of philosophical vocation: a literature with the capacity to "contemplate despair from the perspective of redemption" (79). According to Potts, these books preserve quotidian and corporeal instances of human warmth over and against their darkness implacable. There is more going on with McCarthy than scalping, cannibalism, and catamites.
The first chapter, "Knowledge," begins with an excursion through McCarthy's Southwest, surveying instances when the Christian Church has failed to protect its community against the forces of historical contradiction, and whose febrile members have been subject to death and desecration by the indigenous population and the frontiersmen alike. Potts reads this narrative tendency of routing the parish as exemplary of the American Western, a genre that finds its historical predicate in heathen reprisals on the embodiments of the European Enlightenment. There is, he argues, a transatlantic inversion at work in this, whereby "the European Gothic mutates and bastardizes itself in the American Western, a genre wherein the enemies (once enemies by virtue of class, now monsters by virtue of race) of enlightened reason are battled and ultimately bested...