- True and Living Prophet of Destruction: Cormac McCarthy and Modernity by Nicholas Monk
Nicholas Monk's 2016 monograph explores Cormac McCarthy's engagement with the forces of modernity as they press onward toward an apocalyptic end. He traces the progression of modernity from McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), through to his post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006). These novels, argues Monk, suggest an optimistic reading of modernity as a location of change "that seek[s] to inspire a greater understanding of the world through a more profound and thoughtful material and spiritual understanding of the land itself, its animals, and our relationship to both" (xvi). Given the intense speed of modernity as we barrel through these first decades of the 21st century, criticism that sheds light on the potential inevitability of the post-apocalyptic landscape in The Road is now more exigent than ever.
Chapters 1 and 2 frontload the theoretical framework that informs Monk's discussion of modernity as preface and reference for the analysis in the following chapters. These opening chapters of the book ground Monk's analysis in the Hegelian insistence that "the individual must transform the natural world and its human occupants from an original position of indifference" (7). Hegel's dialectic and the world of the Frankfurt school shape Monk's attention to the subjectivity of the characters he examines in the later chapters. This framework describes how McCarthy's body of work develops resistance to modernity's transformative power as he moves his characters along a trajectory of development that culminates in the disintegration of the structures of that modernity. Monk draws on this theory throughout the book, so these two chapters are important for understanding modernity as discussed in the later chapters. In the introduction, Monk offers a caveat for readers of McCarthy saying that these first two chapters are not integral to understanding the analysis conducted in the rest of the book. However, in many places in subsequent chapters Monk's theoretical frame informs the close readings he works through. To understand the main argument of the book, it is necessary to read the first two chapters carefully.
The chapter "Modernity and the West" (Chapter 3) focuses on McCarthy's border trilogy and Blood Meridian as exemplars of the author's expansive view of modernity across the landscape. Monk contrasts Judge Holden as an emblem of European Enlightenment sensibilities with the wanderers, John Grady and Billy Parham and others, who flee from modernity that "is hard on their heels and will consume their lives" (51). The contrasts serve to illustrate what Monk views as McCarthy's argument for the impossibility of disengaging with the forward motion of modernity and presents alternate approaches to the historical [End Page 138] dialectic. For Monk, "time, and human perception of time," facilitates the movement of the dialectic, pressing in on the characters in these novels as they move toward a catastrophic end (57). Both the border trilogy and Blood Meridian insightfully disrupt the dialectic of history, whose objective is perfection, and instead maintains the western expanse that empties some of that motion of its power and leaves the characters "never quite able to seize the means to reconstruct the wreckage" (60). Chapter 4 follows the logic of chapter 3 but reorients the analysis of modernity from the west to the south. The geographic distinctions between the two chapters juxtapose the pastoral and urban as places contaminated by modernity. "Modernity and the South" charts the trajectory of this juxtaposition through McCarthy's southern novels as a commentary on "the entry of the herald of modernity" (76). Monk's emphasis on topography works through the chapter as a form of temporal and geographical movement from ancient to modern, from west to south, with none exhibiting a utopian ideal. In Chapter 5, Monk argues that the violence spread across these topographies defines humanity at multiple levels, both fast and slow. His analysis of the characters, Chigurh and Judge Holden, illustrates these contrasting levels. This geographical and...