Margaret Pless

Margaret is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and holds her Master's in English from The University of Mississippi. She currently lives and works in Birmingham, Alabama.

Cormac McCarthy at Christmas

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

–W.B. Yeats

I have at times found myself at a loss to explain to another person why I love McCarthy’s writing. It is not the kind of stuff you want to tell your Mom to read. Murder, cannibalism, necrophilia, incest—the list goes on. Not so much the beachy read that my friend was asking for when I sent her off with The Road. Sorry.

At a pivotal moment in McCarthy’s The Crossing, a teenage cowboy Billy Parham holds the dead wolf that he longed to set free, he experiences something I will not try to paraphrase:

He took up her stiff head to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war…which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it…

The wolf, like McCarthy’s larger universe, is at once terrible and of great beauty, and so are the novels themselves. John Grady Cole gets at this tension in All the Pretty Horses: “He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity.”

The perennial coupling of terror and beauty is nowhere more evident than in McCarthy’s description of landscapes:

The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun white hot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning.

Such a world is mesmerizing but not approachable. To read these landscapes in McCarthy is to encounter a storm. Like a storm, the novel’s terrible beauty wrecks me, or at least estranges me from normal habits of thought. When I close the book, I am haunted by the sense that such beauty and horror are not confined to its pages but reside also in our world. In us.

Alain de Botton writes, “It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value.” I do not pretend to grasp the philosophical meaning of how violence and beauty relate. Nor do I mean to imply that they depend upon one another. All I know is that day in and day out I spend my life hungry for beauty and frustrated by violence. And I don’t really understand either all that well.

As I am in the middle of writing this, I’ve heard the news from Newtown, Connecticut. I have no answers to the questions such an event begs. But it’s at times like this that I am especially grateful for art that acknowledges the darkness instead of airbrushing it. McCarthy’s terrifyingly beautiful sentences leave us no less surprised or disgusted by evil, but in fact more finely tuned to desire its final disposal, once and for all.

In The Road, a father and son run a terse dialogue on survival: “Are we going to die?” the boy asks. “We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?” “Is the dark going to catch us?”  The father cannot answer strong enough to offer repose: “I don’t know.”

“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?”  What a poignant question for a nation in mourning. Are we?

Perhaps McCarthy is at his best when he unearths these kinds of questions in us. He pitches us into a world whose chaos does not submit to human understanding or even his own authorial control. The boy’s questions go unanswered all the way to the end. There are no reasons, no philosophical or forensic theories that can sate our desire for an answer to the horror of Newtown. We find ourselves grasping at the same impenetrable mystery that McCarthy describes at the end of The Road:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow…On their backs were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

I cannot help but note that as we have moved through Advent towards the day when Christ entered the world, we cannot be fully conscious of his beauty and goodness until we are fully conscious of the ugliness and evil he came to consume. The danger of the carnival of nostalgia that this season has come to represent does not lie, as some have suggested, in the nostalgia itself, but in disaffirming the darkness of our stories. Sentimentality, nostalgia and inspiring stories only leave us to deal with the latest version of the darkness. The real Christmas story has the same theme of terror and beauty running all the way through it. Terror in the slaughtering of innocent children by Herod, the birth of a king in a feeding trough and the encroaching day that he will himself die a horrific death. Beauty in that his birth will mean the final disposal of such darkness, once and for all. The rhetoric of peace will submit to the human rhetoric of violence, and at this violent and mysterious intersection the cross will bring hope and a future.

“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain,” says McCarthy. Nostalgia cannot help our pain. Neither can a bootstrap hope. What we need is an intervention, something very real to enter into our world and our lives. The art of McCarthy can help constitute a moment to ask the questions necessary for finding ourselves in need of such an intervention, supplanting our nostalgia with inquiry and our happiness with real joy.

In a rare moment of stillness in The Road, the unnamed father and son discover a flare pistol. The father collects it for self-defense, but his son asks if they can go ahead and fire it:

I’d like to see it.

You mean shoot it?

Yes.

We can shoot it.

For real?

Sure.

In the dark?

Yes. In the dark.

It would be like a celebration.

Like a celebration. Yes.

 

Like a flare in the night sky, God has become man. And this is indeed cause for celebration.

 

 

This piece was first published in 2012.

“Anna Karenina” and the Enchantment of the Ordinary

 “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard 

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I was on a family vacation the first time I read this strange syllogism that famously begins Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Seventeen years old, laying out on the deck of a cruise ship, I witnessed Anna’s life unravel. Had you asked me to sum up its eight hundred and seventeen pages then, I would have told you that it’s a book about Anna, an unhappy woman and thus, according to Tolstoy’s opening line, a unique woman. A woman worth reading about. And there is this other character named Konstantin Levin, less unhappy and more boring. I breezed through Levin’s life, desperate to know Anna’s fate. Of those two protagonists, Levin and Anna, she was my protagonist. She was my friend. Perhaps the greatest testament I can give to Tolstoy’s genius is that he can make a teenager girl sailing around the Caribbean empathize with a suicidal Russian woman. He’s that good.

It’s funny how you the reader shape the books you read; how as you change, your reading of the book changes too. This spring I gave Anna a second go. Now a quarter way through the journey that is my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that Anna Karenina isn’t about Anna Karenina at all. I think it is a book about Konstantin Levin. (Next time I read it, I will probably think the main character is Laska the dog. Seriously though, has to be one of literature’s great dogs). When I read Anna this time, her plot lured me like a siren song, only to find Tolstoy saying that the passionate, violent, tragic weight of Anna’s story does not testify to the entirety of the human experience. For Tolstoy, what is important in history and in an individual life is what goes unnoticed. In the seemingly insignificant moments of our lives, we live. Critic Gary Saul Morson says it another way, speaking of Anna: “If we live only for critical moments and regard ordinary ones as mere intervals, we are sure to live badly.” (35). Perhaps his comment applies as well to reading as to living. To read for the big moments is to read badly. I’m learning to read Anna Karenina for Levin.

Levin is one of the most likable characters you’ll ever meet. Stubborn and self-conscious, sheepish around women but hopelessly in love with Kitty Oblonsky. A man with mistakes in his past and lofty dreams of book writing and family in his sights for the future. We watch Levin get uncomfortable at nice parties, argue with his brothers, mow grass, pet his dog. When Levin returns home, reeling from the sting of Kitty’s rejection, he goes to his study. With his dreams dashed and the hope sucked out of him, Levin suddenly feels like all of his familiar possessions—books, ashtray, sofa—are whispering mockeries: “You’ll be the same as you were: with doubts, an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures, and an eternal expectation of happiness that has eluded you and is not possible for you.” But another voice inside Levin insists that no, his dreams must not die, “it was possible to do anything with oneself.” In turmoil between the two voices, Levin does something so normal: he grabs two dumbbells out of the corner of his study and begins to lift them. How ordinary it is: taking out some dissatisfaction with yourself in desperate exercise. Trying to do something, anything, to bridge the gap between who you are and who you want to be.

Life does have extraordinary moments, and Levin experiences them: birth, love, marriage, and death. When Levin reflects on the eerie similarity between his feelings about his brother’s death and his feelings at the birth of his first child, he thinks: “But that grief and this joy were equally outside all ordinary circumstances of life, were like holes in this ordinary life, through which something higher showed” (713). Such grief and joy come in life’s extraordinary moments, but they are not the norm. From such holes, Levin returns to the cohesive fabric of his existence. Levin, a totally hopeless romantic, finds that married life is not the breakfast in bed dream he thought it would be. “At every step it was not what he had imagined,” yet we read, “At every step he found disenchantment with his old dream and a new unexpected enchantment” (479). Levin, like Tolstoy, becomes enamored with seeing life’s ordinariness over its extraordinariness. That normal marriage, within his normal life, arrests him with its happiness.

In the novel’s final lines we see Levin’s sublimation of the extraordinary into the ordinary, his sense that his largest belief infiltrates even his smallest activities, his missteps, the things he does that he wishes he didn’t do:

“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it.”

Wendell Berry writes in Jayber Crow: “The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I have thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have only been on the edge of it.” Story has the power to show us that we are much less important than we realize, as well as more important than we ever dreamed. Tolstoy’s novel acts like a microscope and a panorama; its pages elevate the most realistic, relatable details of our thoughts and emotions, while also placing such personal turmoil in a grander scheme. At least on this read, I see Anna Karenina in its panorama, its ability to subjugate an individual’s story into a broader one, as life itself does.

The book is about Anna, of course. I know that. Her experiences, albeit heartbreaking, are real. We bear witness to her journey towards death, a death born of the “eternal error” every single one of us makes in “imagining that happiness is the realization of desires” (465). Poor Anna, what begins as a manipulative “weapon,” the threat of self-destruction whispered to her lover, becomes a weapon outside her capacity to control. With nothing larger than herself to bear her up, the book of her life must end.

The thought of death many times threatens to consume Levin, too. But the real gift of Levin’s faith in the end is his sense of a “master,” an author larger than himself that offers to gracefully submerge his story and thus make sense of it all—the sweat, regret, fights, tears, the holes in the fabric but the fabric too. Thankfully, the book is not about Anna. Elusive happiness, faithfulness, and clarity can come to us, but only within this ironic way of reading: your story is not about you either, thank God. You are on the edge of something much larger.