Literature Review

My thesis (working title “A Circle in the Text”) will examine the fiction of Flannery O’Connor through her relationship with the New Critics, with particular attention paid to how her writing can be read as both a blueprint and a critique of the New Critical formalist text. Since O’Connor’s development as a writer over the course of her career is an element in this, I will be looking at the complete range of O’Connor’s fiction, including Wise Blood (Faber and Faber, 1980), The Violent Bear It Away (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), and Complete Stories. (Faber & Faber, 2009), as well as various other collections of her writing such as The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), Mystery and Manners (Faber and Faber, 1972), A Prayer Journal (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013), and Kinney’s annotated bibliography of her library, Flannery O’Connor’s Library: Resources of Being (U of Georgia P, 2008).

While the New Critics are not themselves the subject of my study, I will still need to consider a broad cross section of their work as background. This will include John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism Inc”, Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy” (all in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), Cleanth Brooks’ The Well Wrought Urn (Dobson, 1960), and his later retrospective of the movement in The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton UP, 2012), the Southern Agrarian’s I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (LSU Press, 2006), and, perhaps most importantly, Brooks’ and Warren’s Understanding Fiction (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971). I will supplement these primary texts with critical perspectives on the movement such as de Man’s in Blindness and Insight (Routledge, 1983), Eagleton’s in Literary Theory: An Introduction (U of Minnesota P, 1996), Malvasi’s in The Unregenerate South: the Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), Mark Jancovich’s “The Southern New Critics” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism vol. 7, (Cambridge UP, 2000), and Leitch’s in American Literary Criticism Since the 1930s (Routledge, 2010).

The first task of my thesis will be to examine the extent to which O’Connor’s writing was shaped by interaction with the New Critics during her time at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and this subject has been most notably broached by Mark McGurl in The Program Era (Harvard UP, 2009), which was in turn subject to a rebuttal from Eileen Pollack in American Literary History, Vol. 19.2 (Summer, 2007). Related to this line of enquiry are texts like Andrew Levy’s The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (Cambridge UP, 1993), Kasia Boddy’s The American Short Story Since 1950 (Edinburgh UP, 2010) and Mann’s The Short Story Cycle (Greenwood, 1989), which I will use to further contextualise O’Connor’s work within the American short story tradition and its associated techniques.

My next step is to consider the ways in which O’Connor’s expression of her Catholicism through her writing, and especially the line of Thomist thought that her concepts of transcendence, mystery, and grace are derived from, might interact or interfere with the idea of text as a distinct ontological object that her formalist style points towards. Here, I’ll consider O’Connor’s reading of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (Sheed and Ward, 1930), as well as a few of the huge selection of critical texts on O’Connor’s Catholicism, such as Baumgaertner’s Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring (H. Shaw Publishers, 1988), Brinkmeyer’s The Art & Vision of Flannery O’Connor (Louisiana State UP, 1989), Browning’s Flannery O’Connor (Southern Illinois UP, 1974), Cofer’s The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor (Bloomsbury, 2014), Eggenschwiler’s The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor (Wayne State UP, 1972), Giannone’s Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love (Fordham UP, 1999), and Kessler’s Flannery O’Connor and the Language of Apocalypse (Princeton UP, 1986).

Having established this, I would like to then think about the ways this might open up O’Connor’s text to political, social, and historical readings. Framing this argument will be revisionist readings of the American and Southern literary canons such as those in Pease’s Revisionary Interventions into the Americanist Canon (Duke UP, 1994), Patricia Yaeger’s Dirt and Desire (U of Chicago P, 2000), Kreyling’s “Toward A New Southern Studies” (South Central Review 22, 2005) and Ford’s response (“Listening to the Ghosts: The New Southern Studies” South Central Review 22, 2005), and Ladd’s “Literary Studies: The Southern United States” (PMLA 120, 2005) and Smith’s response (“The State of United States Southern Literary Studies”, PMLA 121, 2006). While there have been many critiques of O’Connor’s construction of race, class, and gender, I would like to push for a more intersectional understanding of how these aspects of her work interact. To do so, I will attempt to bring some of the previous writing on these subjects together in new ways, as well as adding my own critical interpretation of O’Connor’s texts.

In terms of race, I will consider Crawford’s “An Africanist Impasse: Race, Return, and Revelation in the Short Fiction of Flannery O’Connor” (South Atlantic Review 68, 2003), Edmund’s “Through a Glass Darkly: Visions of Integrated Community in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Wise Blood’” (Contemporary Literature 37, 1996), Fowler’s “Aligning the Psychological with the Theological: Doubling and Race in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction” (Flannery O’Connor Review 13, 2015), Schroeder’s “Desegregation and the Silent Character in O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’” (Flannery O’Connor Review 10, 2012), Alice Walker’s essay on O’Connor in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (Women’s Press, 2001), and Williams’ “Black and White: A Study in Flannery O’Connor’s Characters” (Black American Literature Forum 10, 1976). In terms of class, the texts I’ll look at will include Martin’s “Flannery O’Connor and Fundamental Poverty” (The English Journal 60, 1971) and Tedford’s “Flannery O’Connor and the Social Classes” (The Southern Literary Journal 13.2, 1981). Finally, in terms of gender, I’ll examine several of the essays in Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives (University of Georgia Press, 1996), as well as Hoberek’s “Liberal Antiliberalism: Mailer, O’Connor, and The Gender Politics of Middle-Class Ressentiment” (Women’s Studies Quarterly 33, 2005), and Smith’s “Flannery O’Connor’s Empowered Women” (The Southern Literary Journal 26, 1994).

I will access the above materials through a combination of use of the UCC library, my own library, online databases such as JSTOR, and UCD and Trinity College libraries in Dublin, which I will access with my ALCID card. In terms of organisational software, I’ve been using Zotero as an effective way to manage my somewhat unwieldy bibliography. This is obviously quite a large range of texts, and I’m well aware that this approach runs the risk of my study becoming overwhelmed with secondary sources, rather than my own original reading of the primary texts. However, I’ve purposely attempted to keep the breadth of my study quite wide at this early stage of research, and, accordingly, the range of texts above will shrink as my study progresses and I hone in on specific aspects of the texts, and also as I begin to select certain paradigmatic or illuminating stories of O’Connor’s for discussion, while excluding others. As O’Connor herself put it, “I suppose you come to know yourself as much by what you throw away as what you keep and at times it is appalling” (195). As the range of texts narrows, I hope that the framework of the approach outlined above will remain flexible enough to accommodate my needs. In doing so, I aim to build meaningfully on the body of O’Connor scholarship that has come before me, while also developing my own critical skills.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters, ed. Sally Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988.

Textualities ’17 Conference Reflections

While it may have been a minor event in the grand scheme of things, for me at least, the 2017 Textualities conference on 10th March was an intense yet rewarding undertaking. Twenty-three speakers, all using the Petcha Kutcha presentation style meant eight hours of 2.5 words per second, with intermittent breaks for coffee, chitchat, and hyperventilating in alcoves of the North Wing corridor. The tenor of the conversations I had had with my peers in the days leading up to the conference was one approaching blind panic, but on the day everyone came together and pulled off their presentations with style and grace.

I presented on Flannery O’Connor and the New Critics, and was fairly happy with how it went. It’s an odd thing, having to put together a visual accompaniment to a presentation on literature and theory that doesn’t rely on text. Presenting on the New critics, this problem made me think of one of the academic schools they were reacting against, people like Arthur Quiller-Couch, who would simply stand in a lecture hall and evoke the great works of literature they were teaching, through a kind of performative reading. Yet how can we evoke a text without reference to it? I tried to find visuals that suggested the link between the transcendent and the material that’s so central to O’Connor’s work, and mix this with diagrams that might somehow evoke the systemisation of art at work in New Critical thought, thereby creating a sort of miniature model of my own approach to O’Connor. It didn’t hurt that O’Connor was a woman not without a certain air of mystery herself.

Somewhere between presenting my own research, liveblogging one panel and chairing another, livetweeting, having discussions with other MAs, PhD students, and lecturers about my research and theirs, I began to feel simultaneously tied to the reception and creation of something far beyond each of us as individuals. For just a moment we were no longer mere windstrewn motes of the academy, but, instead, an assemblage giving voice to a sonorous heteroglossia, with a clear view of the immanence driving ourselves into becoming.

Pound said of the vorticist, “you may think of man as that toward which perception moves. You may think of him as the toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions. Or you may think of him as directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely observing and reflecting” (97), and, in that moment, I found myself in a room full of just such magicians.

The panel I chaired was the last of the evening, and I pitied my presenters their torturous wait. One panellist suggested that Petcha Kutcha might somehow be an offshoot of the peculiar kind of ritualised public ridicule so ubiquitous in Japanese gameshows. I could see her point. The cold mathematical logistics of the thing hack away at the perhaps and maybes of your nascent thoughts until all ephemerality is shorn. What’s left is a lustrous core, nude and shimmering in the fading evening light.

Works Cited:

Pound, Erza. “Vortex. Pound.” Modernism: An Anthology ed. Lawrence Rainey. pp.97-99. Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

Presentation Image Sources:

Towards an Academic Imperative

I’ve been finding it hard to write lately. Writing has never come easy to me – the things I have to say which are worth saying come slowly, and with difficulty, if at all. I’ve spent the last few weeks researching a piece on anthropocentric narratives in nature documentaries, but given the chaos unfolding in the wider world at the moment, I’ve had a hard time pushing myself to finish it. As I watch the systematic destruction of the values I hold dear from afar, a deep hush descends, blanketing all. How can I justify holding forth on literature when fascism, white-supremacism, and mob rule are in ascendancy? And yet I know as well as anyone, silence is complicity. So I must act, act now and not later. I’ve always thought I believed deeply in the power of literature, and yet, submerged in the maelstrom of the now, I can feel those foundations start to quiver. Make no mistake, we are already at war, and if we in academia (and especially those of us in the humanities) do not now learn to use the critical tools at our disposal to defend ourselves and those around us, our side is already forfeit.

Academic writing at the end of 2016. Credit: KC Green

Just before Christmas I ran into someone from the English department in Waterstones buying John Williams’ Stoner as a gift for a relative, and I wondered if this was not some secret expression, a subtle cry for help from the humanities as a whole. Like William’s ordinary academic, we must struggle to live with dignity, compelled to sacrifice ourselves to the commercial machinery of the academy, which cares for us not a jot. I think of Stoner’s Archer Sloane, broken by the war and his failure to save the young men in his care from throwing their lives away. Looking at that harrowed face, preserved in the tomb of a department office, I see the reflection of our own.

At the same time, I was researching a piece on Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Reading Benjamin and Adorno, looking at the ways they tried (with some failure, some success) to take a stand against the rise of fascism in Germany using critical theory and cultural analysis, unveiled the shortcomings of my own. I spent weeks abject, unable to work because I could not justify the existence of that work, even to myself. I fell into despair, and worse, self-pity. Today it is not enough just to work, or even to work well. We must now justify ourselves, and the worth of our work, not only to ourselves, and our academic communities, but to the world at large. Though I mean this in an ethical and political sense, in the end I fear the justification must also be a financial one.

The thing that helped me to reconcile my desire to work with the imperative to resist (aside from reading what others have said before me) was an invitation to present at a thesis-in-three conference held by the Undergraduate Awards. I was to present a paper which I had written last year on McCarthy’s The Road, but to an interdisciplinary audience, with just three minutes to speak, and a single slide. While I had been happy with my work as a piece of literary criticism, these new parameters forced me to think seriously about what in it was of real material value in this moment of history. What could I take from it to show to the world and, without hesitation, say “Here. Here is something worth even a short amount of your time”? I do not know if I succeeded, but what I decided on was this:

In a historical moment such as ours, when our systems of language, of knowing, of belief, and of truth have been shattered into countless fragments, it may seem natural to desire a return to the grand old narratives that once cohered our society, and our culture. And yet this return is a purely destructive one, a move towards unbecoming.

Given this, I’d like to look at Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, not simply as a parable of our time, but as illustrative of a potential praxis, which might move us towards reconciliation.

The novel presents a post-apocalyptic landscape, where all systems of community, of law, ecology, and epistemology have failed. Language is fading from existence, as the names of things and their meanings are forgotten. All that is left is a man and his son, who must struggle against this world, and find order.

The road itself presents a type of language, a system for understanding one’s relationship to their landscape, via the medium of travel. For the characters, the road becomes a schema for progress, for perpetual motion towards an increasingly nebulous goal. It also provides linear rendering of spatial dimensions, the only semblance of order that they can aspire to impose on their oppressive landscape. Yet this too seems to be slipping away, as the roads crumble, and so too does their map, broken into tattered fragments.

The structure of the novel itself mirrors this process, the sequence of events becoming only loosely connected at points, while at other times McCarthy inserts elliptical paragraph breaks right into the middle of tense moments of action fragmenting the unity, not only of time and space, but the page itself.

To escape this death of language and landscape, the child must reject the narratives put forward by his father, his “old stories of courage and justice”, in favour of something as yet undreamt of, true only to him, and his world without teleology.

He must also reject systems of commodification, both the old system of capitalistic commercialisation, and its apocalyptic counterpart – cannibalism. For McCarthy, something fundamental is shared by these systems of unchecked consumptive greed, and the child instead chooses to live by an ethical code that encourages equality, breaking the egocentric and anthropocentric boundaries of the old world.

The world that has died in the novel is that of American mythology – of exceptionalism, of the frontier, of survivalism, and of capitalism. These myths are auto-cannibalistic in nature – to propagate, they must feed upon themselves. Paradoxically, for this mythological cycle to continue, it must be destroyed and rebuilt in the shape of the now, and this is the key realisation for our moment in time.

The image conjured by the phrase “make America great again” is not one of birth into a new era, but rather one of regression, of the child being dragged screaming back into the womb, towards its undoing. As McCarthy suggests, the beginning and ending of things are closely linked; “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made”. So instead, I’d like to suggest that the imperative should be to first make a greatness that is American, to break those grand old narratives down, and find ways in which they might help, rather than hinder, create, rather than destroy.

Academic writing at the start of 2017. Credit: KC Green

So what now? Does this really solve anything? Perhaps I overestimate the value of what we do, but if that’s to be my undoing, I’ll go out with a smile. That said, a critical approach is of no value whatsoever without a counterpart of material praxis. The call to academic action is returned by the call to political and social action on local, national, and international levels. Debate, volunteer, protest, donate, boost the voices of those silenced – these types of action are as vital in the sociopolitical sphere as they are in the academic one. Together, just maybe, we’ll endure.

Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Picador, 2007.
Williams, John. Stoner. Vintage, 2012.

Plain Killing: Scenes of Slaughter in the Work of Goya and McCarthy

In one of the earliest reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Tom Nolan called the novel “a theological purgative, an allegory on the nature of evil as timeless as Goya’s hallucinations on war, monomaniacal in its conceptions and executions” (2). Dana Philips notes that this kind of comparison (to Goya as well as other artists) was a common tactic in early accounts of Blood Meridian, one which sought to evoke the grand scope and shockingly violent imagery of McCarthy’s text through fine art (434). However, while this type of evocation certainly enriches the mental imagery involved in our reading of the novel, by only looking at aesthetic similarities between the works we fail to explore what affinity there might be between both the subject matter rendered by the artists and the techniques involved in doing so. Accordingly, what I would like to do here is provide a comparative analysis of McCarthy’s novel and Goya’s art, particularly his Disasters of War series of prints.

Goya’s Disasters series gives an unflinching account of the brutality involved in Spain’s 1808-14 Peninsular War with Napoleon, as well as the suffering of the pueblo through the famine and breakdown of society which followed the war. While Goya begins the series as a critique of the actions of the Napoleonic army against Spanish troops and civilians, as the prints progress the distinctions between acts of violence committed by either side begins to fade – the uniforms worn by soldiers become indeterminate, and civilians themselves become perpetrators of violence. As such, while the prints begin as an account of a specific time and place, by the time they are complete they have become a much broader catalogue of human suffering, a despairing indictment of man’s inhumanity. As Gwyn A. Williams claims, “the basic message of the series is clear and remains unchanged from the earlier sequence to the final series: the brutal lunacy of war, the murderous inversion of values, the meaninglessness” (148), “we set off on a desperate pilgrimage through killings, rapes, famine and atrocity which becomes increasingly purposeless. In the end, we can’t tell one side from the other, they grow into frightful beasts and monsters” (7).

McCarthy’s novel could be said to trace a very close trajectory. Set roughly half a century after Goya’s paintings, Blood Meridian explores the fallout of the Mexican War of 1848-9 along the Mexico-Texas border. Like the Disasters series’ movement from a specific account of war to wider allegory, McCarthy engages with his subject matter on a mythical level, as the rogue scalp hunters of the novel find themselves engaged in indiscriminate slaughter of both Apache and Mexican civilians, recalling Williams’ description of Goya’s Disasters as “a record of the pitiless inhumanity and more, the purposelessness of war, when all causes and creeds in the end sink into a morass of murder” (5). Of particular interest in a comparative sense is that, as these lines of conflict in Goya and McCarthy’s work become less distinguished, both begin to focus on violence done to the human form, and this transition is signalled by scenes featuring the stripping of uniform from soldiers.

Plate 16, “They make use of them”

Goya’s plate 16, “They make use of them”, shows a group of slain soldiers being stripped nude by what could be either their enemies or compatriots, and this stripping away of political difference, an exposure of the workings of war on the undifferentiated individual, becomes a motif in Blood Meridian. In the section titled “A Burial”, Glanton’s gang disguise their murder of Mexican soldiers: “the bodies of the dead were stripped and their uniforms and weapons burned along with the saddles and other gear and the Americans dug a pit in the road and buried them in a common grave, the naked bodies with their wounds like the victims of surgical experimentation lying in the pit gasping sightlessly at the desert sky as the dirt was pushed over them” (194). The ”Attacked by Comanches” scene further draws this association between stripping of uniform and dismemberment of the human form, as the victorious Indians set about “stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals…” (56). Again, in the “Slain Argonauts” section, this neutering of stripped corpses occurs – pilgrims are found “nameless among the stones with their terrible wounds, the viscera spilled from their sides and the naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts. Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out of their grinning mouths” (161). Goya parallels McCarthy’s methodology in plate 33, “What more can be done?”, depicting soldiers hacking at the genitals of a stripped corpse with a sabre, and this shared process of neutering the dead might be read as a further deindividualization of the victims of this violence: just as the stripping of uniform eliminates distinctions between sides in the conflict, and the lines between civilian and soldier, the removal of sex organs calls into question the boundaries of violence between sexes, prefiguring the extensive accounts of soldiers’ sexual violence against women in both Disasters and Blood Meridian (see plates 9, 10, 11, 13 & 19).

Plate 33, “What more can be done?”
Plate 39, “Great feat! With dead men!”

Goya’s parade of war’s violence against the human body finds its most emphatic expression in what are probably the two best known prints of the Disasters – plate 37, “This is worse”, and plate 39, “Great feat! With dead men!”. Both show the dismembered bodies of men mounted on broken trees, and this juxtaposition of brutal manmade violence against placid nature would seem to accentuate the bestial nature of the acts shown, while also eliminating any lingering idea that such violence could be said to fall within the natural order of things. As Elke Linda Buchholz glosses the second plate:

“hideously mauled, the corpses of three men have been left on the barren plain. Were these Frenchmen or Spaniards? Goya leaves the question open. He reaches back to the traditional image of the martyrdom of Christian saints, but there is no hope of redemption in the afterlife. The suffering of these men is meaningless” (69).

What is particularly interesting about “This is worse” is that the skewered body of the man appears to be based on a much earlier sketch by Goya of the ancient Greek Belvedere Torso. Taking this into account, the classical beauty of the marble figure and the natural loss of its limbs over the course of centuries provide an implicit critique of the crude violence committed in the here and now of Goya’s prints. Once again, here we find the techniques of Goya and McCarthy in step with one another. Like Goya, McCarthy grounds his depiction of war in Hellenistic and biblical allusion – the “Attacked by Comanches” scene clearly echoes the rhythmic brutality of battle in The Iliad, and preachers, crucifixions, bibles and baptisms all make appearances elsewhere in the novel.

Goya’s sketch of The Belvedere Torso

McCarthy also creates tableaus of the dead mounted on trees, which undoubtedly bear a resemblance to Goya’s prints. At one point the group come upon “a bush that was hung with dead babies. They stopped side by side, reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them, had holes punched in their under-jaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of a mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky. Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being” (60-61), and much later they find “lost scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung grey and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes. Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down on their chests” (239). Like Goya, McCarthy mounts these corpses for public display as if they were works of classical sculpture, grotesque monuments to the cruelty of the fallen world that surrounds them.

Plate 37, “This is worse”

Setting aside the Disasters for a moment, we might also consider how the metaphysical themes of Goya’s Black Paintings (among others) overlap with those of Blood Meridian. Fight with Cudgels features two men battering each other with sticks, seemingly unaware or unconcerned that they are both sinking in quicksand. This imagery of two men’s thirst for blood blinding them to their immanent doom is strongly echoed in the kid’s first encounter with Toadvine in McCarthy’s novel:

“He went off the boards into the mud and the man lunged after him with the jagged bottleneck and tried to stick it in his eye. The kid was fending with his hands and they were slick with blood. He kept trying to reach into his boot for his knife. Kill your ass, the man said. They slogged about in the dark of the lot, coming out of their boots. The kid had his knife now and they circled crabwise and when the man lurched at him he cut the man’s shirt open. The man threw down the bottleneck and unsheathed an immense bowieknife from behind his neck. His hat had come off and his black and ropy locks swung about his head and he had codified his threats to the one word kill like a crazed chant. That’ns cut, said one of several men standing along the walkway watching. Kill kill slobbered the man wading forward. But someone else was coming down the lot, great steady sucking sounds like a cow. He was carrying a huge shellalegh. He reached the kid first and when he swung with the club the kid went face down in the mud. He’d have died if someone hadn’t turned him over” (7).

Fight with Cudgels

As they dance their courtship crabwise in the sucking mud, each unspools his fate to an entwining, much like Goya’s cowherds frozen for eternity in their near-embrace. Elsewhere in McCarthy’s novel, after he is seen “naked atop the walls, immense and pale in the revelations of lightning, striding the perimeter up there and declaiming in the old epic mode” (105), it is implied that Judge Holden murders a boy, who is found “lying face down naked in one of the cubicles” (106). The associated image, of the Judge “picking his teeth with a thorn as if he had just eaten” (106) naturally recalls Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son – the gargantuan and bestial man ripping apart the pale flesh of the child perfectly evoking the grotesque Judge’s appetite for the death and suffering of the innocent.

Saturn Devouring His Son

Since we have once again fallen into the trap of evocation, rather than interpretation, we might as well conclude by adding the work of a third artist to our comparison. John Gast’s American Progress is perhaps the ultimate idealisation of 19th century America’s faith in manifest destiny. Here, as Colombia leads the way across the plains, American expansionism is given divine writ, and the settlers moving westward bring with them the illuminating light of progress to the darkened savages on the frontier. However, this passage from McCarthy’s novel would seem to shed a different light on such a scene:

American Progress

“in the long light of the evening he saw from that high rimland the collision of armies remote and silent upon the plain below. The dark little horses circled and the landscape shifted in the paling light and the mountains beyond brooded in darkening silhouette. The distant horsemen rode and parried and a faint drift of smoke passed over them and they moved on up the deepening shade of the valley floor leaving behind them the shapes of mortal men who had lost their lives in this place. He watched all this pass below him mute and ordered and senseless until the warring horsemen were gone in the sudden rush of dark that fell over the desert” (225).

Rather than Gast’s idyllic Americana, what McCarthy’s passage evokes much more strongly is Goya’s The Colossus – a grim scene of war and chaos, as the people below on the plain are abandoned by the ancient giant. In concert, these three scenes reveal McCarthy’s depiction of America as a godless land consecrated in blood, and the rhetoric of progress espoused by the Judge as nothing more than the seductive call of base and brutal instinct. Gwyn A.  Williams said of Goya’s Disasters “it could be anywhere. It could be My Lai” (1) – perhaps it could be America too.

P02969 001
The Colossus

Works Cited

Gast, John. American Progress, 1872.

Goya, Francisco. The Colossus, 1808-1812.

Goya, Francisco. The Disasters of War, 1810-1820.

Goya, Francisco. Fight with Cudgels, 1820-1823.

Goya, Francisco. Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West, Picador, 2010.

Nolan, Tom. Review of Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy. Los Angeles Times Book Review, 9 June 1985, pp. 2.

Philips, Dana. “History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian“. American Literature, vol. 68, No. 2 , 1996, pp. 433-460.

William, Gwyn A. Goya and the Impossible Revolution, Harmondsworth Penguin, 1984.