All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
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 o 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?
We can shoot it.
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.