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Cormac McCarthy as Pragmatist 

This essay was published in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 47.2 (Winter, 2006): 201-14.

  All is telling.  —The Crossing, 155     

Cormac McCarthy's readers are unanimous in recognizing him as a great stylist. There is, however, no similar agreement about his message or about what his novels illustrate. In 1995, Nell Sullivan reflected that "[s]ince Cormac McCarthy arrived on the literary scene almost thirty years ago, the critics have been at a loss about how to view his texts" (115). Edwin Arnold summed up the nascent view on McCarthy fifteen years ago saying, "Foremost among the readings found in Vereen M. Bell's The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy is the idea that McCarthy's books are essentially nihilistic, devoid of conventional plot, theme or moral reference" ("Naming" 45). Arnold then affirmed "that Cormac McCarthy is no nihilist, that his works have meaning and theme" ("Mosaic" 23). Like many other readers, Arnold suggested that "McCarthy is a writer of the sacred" ("Sacred" 215). I think many readers will agree that William Spencer is also close to the mark in saying, "The problem of evil is a pervasive theme in the novels of Cormac McCarthy, and it is perhaps the issue of human existence that he is most interested in confronting in his fiction" (69). There are, however, two very different ways to talk about the sacred and evil. One way has characters searching for objects, principles, metaphysical causes, and transcendental values. The other approach is more subjective and self-conscious, reflecting on the processes of personal experience, on language as social construction, and on the creation of contexts, such as narration and aesthetic performance.

McCarthy's early novels, up to and including Blood Meridian, brood on the metaphysics of evil and the possibility that tragedy and evil are remnants of a primitive life process, rubble left "like some imponderable archeological phenomenon" (Blood Meridian 48). The east Tennessee forest in The Orchard Keeper is suffused with "a primordial quality," making it feel like "some steamy carboniferous swamp where ancient saurians lurk in feigned sleep" (11) and "ancient fishes survived unchanged from mesozoic fens" (173). People are described as mere biological phenomena that come and go, "unencumbered as migratory birds, each succeeding family a replica of the one before," until in time they all sink "back into the anonymity from which they sprang" (12). At the end of Child of God, the killer, Lester Ballard, is dissected in hope of finding a physical cause of the evil that he casually perpetrated: "His entrails were hauled forth and delineated and the four young students who bent over him like those haruspices of old perhaps saw monsters worse to come in their configurations" (194).

Linda Townley Woodson has written several essays to identify the influence of Nietzsche's thought on McCarthy's fiction. That influence is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Judge's pronouncement in Blood Meridian: "Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak" (250). Nietzsche's work is both metaphysical (as illustrated by the judge's pronouncement on morality) and linguistic. McCarthy seems, in shifting the dramatic setting of his fiction from Appalachia to the desert Southwest, to have also begun shifting focus from metaphysics to epistemology, from looking for causes, such as Nietzsche's will to power, to becoming more concerned with epistemological process, such as "Nietzschean concepts about language" (Woodson, "Kristevan" 275). Woodson uses Nietzsche, Foucault, Kristeva, and other postmodern thinkers to explicate McCarthy's fiction, but she does not sufficiently make the pragmatist and postmodern point that language constructs meaning. Meaning and language are not two things but two sides of the same coin. Meaning is a property or attribute of language that has no specific form outside language. Woodson quotes Perez, the prison jefe in All the Pretty Horses, who echoes Foucault when he says, "We can make the truth here" (Woodson, "Kristevan" 272; "Time" 203), but she continues to talk about "how language transforms reality" as though we can discern reality outside language or beyond the windowpane of language and measure by how much language or rhetoric "transforms" or distorts it (Woodson, "Kristevan" 270). In another piece, she talks about "postmodern understandings of the power of language to distort truth and to create deception" (Woodson, "Time" 207). There are not two things here, truth and language. Richard Rorty makes the more accurate point when he says, "We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there" (Contingency 4-5). This recognition seems to invoke McCarthy's fiction, which is concerned with poignant and resonant personal experience in search of explanation. I think it is also plausible to see that in the Border trilogy McCarthy comes close to agreeing with Rorty that instead of metaphysical mystery, "There is just us, in the grip of no power save those of the words we happen to speak" (Essays 36). If mystery remains, it is more evident in process than in object, more bound up with the saying or with the art of narration than with quasiphysical or quasireligious structures.

Rorty does not offer his statement on language as a metaphysical belief or principle but as an inescapable epistemological recognition: We cannot simultaneously use language operationally to construct meaning and also assume that we can escape its operations to find something ineffable that transcends language. Foucault tells us that his methods do "not treat discourse [...] as a sign of something else" lying behind the words as an a priori form or object (Archaeology 138). In explaining the development of psychoanalytic theory he says, "The essential thing is that the enterprise did not proceed from observation" of empirical and objective data "to the construction of explanatory images; that on the contrary, the images" or metaphors provided the frame to make "possible a structure of perception" or a gestalt that organized perceptions "as the visible presence of the truth" (Madness 135). Robert Jarrett makes a similar point saying, "In McCarthy's postmodern fiction this shift away from direct experience of the world is enacted within the very form of the text itself," which is to say, language constructs meaning (319). Jarrett finds recursiveness and "self-referential rewriting of the earlier novels" and of McCarthy's entire corpus in Cities of the Plain (314), but after making us nearly dizzy in explaining the Mexican hitchhiker scene, about how "the dream narrative is further complicated by being mirrored as a dream within a dream," which is narrated within a novel, Jarrett finally quotes the Mexican's terse recognition that "things need a ground to stand on" (337). Someone must use language functionally to narrate the story. All the multiplicities, dimensions, and metaphors "do not come about of themselves, but are always the result of a construction" that creates the narrative ground from which the artistic pyrotechnics can be launched (Foucault, Archeology 25).

Steven Shaviro recognizes that in McCarthy's world "there is no transcendence, and [consequently] no possibility of standing out from Being" or of attaining a view from nowhere—a view outside of the conditions of time, embodied life, and recourse to language—which could claim to discover a transcendent truth in contrast to mere discourse or narrative (152). Shaviro's essay on Blood Meridian comes close to recognizing the neopragmatism evident in McCarthy's Border trilogy. As illustrated by Richard Rorty's work, neopragmatism is cognizant of postmodern theory. The hallmark of pragmatism is its sophisticated empiricism; sophisticated because it recognizes that empirical phenomenon is not truly objective, being first a perception and then a linguistic conception before it is offered as an empirical object (and word) in some context. Our understanding of reality is not found; it is socially constructed. Rorty says pragmatists do not believe that "the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called 'facts'" (Contingency 5). These are always someone's judgments, and our world is narrated in scores of different discourse community contexts. Pragmatism is skeptical about putative entities that escape the contexts of time, embodiment, and language. Shaviro further identifies McCarthy's pragmatism when he says that his prose does not offer "a perspective upon the world [...] but an immanent perspective that already is the world" (153; emphasis in original). The point is that no demonstrably organized world pattern exists prior to experience and organization of our experience in language. Even if there were, how would we know it except through language? "There is no hidden power called Being [...]. Nobody whispered in the ears of the early Greeks, the poets of the West. There is just us, in the grip of no power save those of the words we happen to speak" (Rorty, Essays 36). McCarthy's early fiction, through Blood Meridian, searches for a hidden order or cause, but the Border trilogy illustrates the pragmatic reason why such a cause is necessarily illusory—because it cannot demonstrably "pre-exist itself" (Foucault, Archeology 45). Every pattern (an association of perceptions) is manifest through narration, which offers a demonstrable moment of appearance and recognition. Whether or not the pattern was "out there" before being described is a matter of faith rather than knowledge.

Pragmatism can be characterized as a recurrent epistemological caution in response to claims of revelation or of a breakthrough to a perfect or total understanding of the truth that promises to supersede and nullify all previous or competing efforts. At the end of his play, The Stonemason, one of McCarthy's characters recognizes that "[n]othing is finally understood. Nothing is finally arrived at" (131). There is always another sentence, always something more to add in the effort to make sense of our experience. Whenever a claim is made that life is reducible to some principle, the pragmatist asks to see the evidence. The pragmatist never tires of asking, "How do you know?" This question does not imply skepticism but rather an interest in process, technique, and evidence; an interest in narration. The retort that "God said so" is today heard less frequently than the Enlightenment claim, "it is logically self-evident." In either case the pragmatist is satisfied when the focus shifts from metaphysical objects to linguistic process, because with this shift comes the recognition, as Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn taught us, that truth is always announced by an authority to a specific community whose members are versed in shared professional techniques that construct what the community accepts as truth. Pragmatists claim that we should never lose sight of three considerations when trumpets announce the truth: That experience is embodied, temporal, and contextual. Transcendental claims invariably mask or minimize the significance of these three conditions. Those devoted to transcendentals typically discount the value of personal knowledge or knowledge as performance—operational knowledge acquired in actual communities and in lowly popular culture—because that knowledge threatens to vitiate metaphysical principles and, worse yet, to dissolve principles in contingency, ambiguity, and practice. McCarthy's caution in regard to professing in abstract systems may be succinctly voiced by the sheriff who tells Suttree, after his son's funeral, "I've got two daughters [...] and I'd see them both in hell fore I'd send them up to that university" (158). The sheriff implies that Suttree has been nearly destroyed because he trusted university theory to interpret or guide life. Although McCarthy's early work exhibits more than a little sympathy with the theories of Darwin, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, we do not find didactic lectures on these topics. When we find lectures in the Border trilogy they are recognizable as those of pragmatism and postmodernism. The stonemason recognizes the linguistic boundaries of what we can know when he says, "The world was before man was and it will be again when he is gone." We cannot know that world, "for where man lives is in this world only" (103-4). This echoes Rorty's point that the world is "out there," but what we make of our temporal and embodied experience of that world is not "out there." It is linguistic; it is narrative.

McCarthy's eight novels were published over the span of thirty-three years, from The Orchard Keeper in 1965 to Cities of the Plain in 1998. Even without a dramatic change of thought, one would expect an evolution of ideas over thirty years of writing. The unity of theme among the novels is remarkable. Through eight novels McCarthy shifts from speculation on life as a metaphysical process with some inscrutable intention of its own to the recognition that this force or pattern is itself produced by linguistic and social processes. All the Pretty Horses begins with a suggestion that it and the following two novels are more akin to performances, rituals, or dances than to metaphysical investigations into nature that rely on Nietzsche's or Plato's explanations. (Dianne Luce suggests that McCarthy "clearly engages Platonic philosophy in many of his works from Outer Dark on" [Luce 174].) The novel opens with a nostalgic reverie that conjures "dreams of the past where the painted ponies and riders of that lost nation came down [...] armed for war which was their life," Indian warriors who "ride on in that darkness they'd become, rattling past with their stone-age tools of war in default of all substance" (5-6). The narrator stresses the purely aesthetic construction of the vision by suggesting that there is no secret or truth disclosed by art. A few pages later, sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole attends a play in San Antonio that stars his mother, who is selling the family ranch and rejecting its way of life in preference for the urban values associated with the theater. John cannot understand her choice and hopes "that there would be something in the story [of the play] itself to tell him about the way the world was or was becoming but there was not. There was nothing in it at all" (21). Too young to cope with the loss of his Texas ranch world, John Grady and his slightly older friend, Lacey Rawlins, ride horses into Mexico in 1949 hoping to discover there an earlier and truer world of cows and horses and ranching. At the border the boys pick up thirteen-year-old Jimmy Blevins mounted on a beautiful horse that is clearly stolen. Blevins provokes one kind of trouble, and John finds another kind in the person of Alejandra, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy rancher for whom John and Lacey work. James Lilley goes too far in suggesting that the boy searches more for the truth than for beauty, that "John Grady's quest is for ground, for a stable 'truth'" that is more than social construction, more than some arbitrary judgment that just happens to "come out of somebody's mouth." Lilley says that John is dedicated to a controlled and almost ceremonial use of language that he hopes is "grounded in a fixed, foundational truth." But it is easy to mistake one for the other; to suppose that an insight or recognition is a timeless or unmoving truth instead of an experience that gains its depth and meaning from its context or place in an aesthetic performance. Lilley thinks that John's hope is a callow belief bound up with "the illusion that his true love is grounded forever in reality" instead of being a linguistic, aesthetic, and temporal construction ("Puppets" 286 n. 13, emphasis in original). I suggest that, like the narrative voice of the novel, John's almost ceremonial use of language implies a greater recognition of aesthetics, context, and temporal performance than it does a simple hope for revelation or discovery of absolute truth.

Perhaps the first requirement of art is control. Rawlins tells thirteen-year-old Jimmy Blevins, "If you dont like to be laughed at dont fall on your ass" (54). The message is, be a man, cowboy up, control yourself. Jimmy's death is caused by his failure to control his impetuousness, by a failure to understand that language renders various views instead of disclosing a single, reliable truth. Like an adolescent parody of the Judge in Blood Meridian, Jimmy narrates a world. In a lightning storm, he strips naked lest the rivets in his jeans attract a fatal bolt, all the while talking about how he is "double bred for death by fire." He says his great uncle's belt had to be cut off his corpse, because lightning "welded the buckle shut." He says a cousin was rendered mute when lightning "melted the fillins in his teeth and soldered his jaw shut." Rawlins recognizes an "out and out lie or I never heard one," but he cannot stop Jimmy from indulging in such cowboy poetry that conjures an alternative world, or world order, offering an aesthetic substitute for the experienced world rather than a narrative about it (68).

Jimmy's horse runs away in a storm and is taken by a Mexican. When the boys find the horse corralled in a village, Jimmy is adamant about his property rights for the beautiful horse that he clearly stole in Texas. Jimmy is a child and tourist toddling in a violent world that he tries to comprehend by using what Daniel Cooper Alarcon calls "storybook" language. Actually, Alarcon says that "John's maturation depends on the recognition of the destructive potential of his illusory ideals and romantic tendencies" (147). In many ways, this requires a change in the use of language and in the expectation of what language does. For example, Rawlins recognizes that Blevins is a lightning rod who might as well "paint that horse red and go around blowin a horn" to announce his eagerness to be life's victim (89). John saved Blevins from being enslaved and sodomized by a gang of laborers, a danger that Blevins knew nothing about (76). In contrast, the older boys, who began their journey to manhood with dreams of Indians on painted ponies, "were careful of their demeanor that they not be thought to have opinions on what they heard for like most men skilled at their work they were scornful of any least suggestion of knowing anything not learned at first hand" (96). Knowledge does not come from theories or storybook tales, but only from experience. The stonemason might be paraphrasing Aristotle explaining the efficient cause when he says, "Knowledge is instilled in you through the work and not through any contemplation of the work" (65).

Perez, the prison jefe, offers another lesson on language: "Even in a place like this where we are concerned with fundamental things, the mind of the anglo is closed." The problem, illustrated by Blevins, is that the American "looks only where he wishes to see," relying on a familiar American cultural context to provide meaning. He projects an Anglo-American cultural order instead of perceiving a Mexican world. The old duena is just as adamant and unreflective about her Mexican views, saying, for example, that if her charge, Alejandra, "does not come to value what is true above what is useful it will make little difference whether she lives at all. And by true I do not mean what is righteous but merely what is so" (240). She implies that moral judgment is a kind of luxury and taste that can be indulged only after recognizing what is objectively true. She implies that both morality and pragmatic knowledge of what is useful are subjective and cultural, mere narrations, arguments, or habits in contrast to the recognition of a preexisting and stark world order that relies on a windowpane theory of language and on the expectation of a preexisting and lethal order. Apparently her view explains both a fatal immaturity and an ethnocentric flaw in Blevins. John himself barely survives a prison knife fight and is killed in a later knife fight, insisting that a whore is actually a Madonna. Mexican society is formal, polite, and highly mannered, because "underpinning all of it like the fiscal standard in commercial societies lay a bedrock of depravity and violence where in an egalitarian absolute every man was judged by a single standard and that was his readiness to kill" (182). This ultimate Mexican action clears away all the talk, all the suave American games of advertising, class, money, erudition, art, and juvenile posing. Before going to Mexico, John's American girlfriend asks him, "everything's talk isnt it?" John replies, "Not everything" (28). After he has killed an adversary in a prison knife fight, John tells his surrogate brother Rawlins, "you dont need to try and make it right. It is what it is" (215).

But what is it? Is it an instinctive animal act that defies explanation? Is it an act of self-defense that is self-evident and universal? Or is it a primal act that in Romantic theory reveals innate character? John's advice is wrong. Nothing is what it is without context and culture. Things are what they are only because we describe and explain them. The duena offers better insight when she says we are "determined that not even chaos be outside of our own making" (241). Foolishly "we weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was." Life follows only one temporal path. The duena continues saying, "it is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us" (239). Knowing cannot save us because what we name and know is socially constructed. It is not an intellectual and reflective process of matching a word to a Platonic form. Perhaps thinking of the Enlightenment, the patron says, "we dont believe that people can be improved in their character by reason. That seems a very french idea" (146).

In The Crossing, sixteen-year-old Billy Parham is tutored by an old wolf trapper who tells him that the wolf "knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there" (45). The old Mexican acknowledges that "men wish to be serious but they do not understand how to be so," because "between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world," and it is this stark amoral "world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them" (46). Again we are reminded of Rorty's admonition that the world is "out there." Truth and ethics are not empirical entities. They are cultural judgments about importance, narratives spoken about life and the world we experience. Trying to save the dying wolf, Billy reaches out "to hold what cannot be held" or even said, something "at once terrible and of a great beauty," something that "we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world," but still cannot be said because life is dynamic and not identifiable in a shape, or as an object of consciousness, or as a theory (127).

In his pilgrimage to discover reality, Billy comes on a caretaker of a church abandoned after an earthquake. There he finds a one-time Mormon who sought "evidence for the hand of God in the world" but who now preaches Rorty's views. He explains that he found that this world, "which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale" (149). He explains that "things separate from their stories have no meaning (142)." The ex-Mormon implies that God tells the tale of the universe, "seated solely in the light of his own presence. Weaving the world" (149). But this can only be a metaphor of faith that we tell each other because "the world itself can have no temporal view of things" as a whole or as a static pattern (148). Life is a temporal process. "The light of the world was in men's eyes only for the world itself moved in eternal darkness and darkness was its true nature and true condition and in this darkness [...] there was naught there to see" (283). There can be no pre-existing pattern to see in such darkness. There can be no meaning without a person to manifest it in a narrative grounded in some specific culture. Like speaking, seeing involves intentionality, gestalt construction, and cultural relationships. The light that illumines or explains the world is in "men's eyes" or in their words "only." Explanations are necessarily fictional or social constructions—what we tell each other—rather than revelations. "The order which the righteous seek is never righteousness itself but is only order" invented by men. "This man of which we speak will seek to impose order and lineage upon things which rightly have none." Consequently, "the picture of the world is all the world men know" (293). Such knowledge is, at best, a tracing "of where the real has been" when it is not simply a projection of our hopes and needs (294). As Rorty suggested, reality or "the world has no name." We invent names and maps so that "we do not lose our way," but the maps are of our making, to meet our needs. They are not photocopies of a preexisting pattern. "And it is because these names and these coordinates are [of] our own naming that they cannot save us" (387).

God may be weaving this world. If so, that is his story, a story that Hegel suggested we cannot know from our experience. What we know is that at night things pass "in the dark that had of themselves no articulation yet had a destination for that," or so we assume (172). We know that "the shape of the road is the road" that we temporally follow. "There is not some other road that wears that shape but only the one" (230). This is to say that there is no preexisting and established road of life that Basho or John Bunyan's pilgrim must follow. Whatever we know rises only from our experience and the cultural interpretation of that experience given in some specific language. At the end of The Crossing, a Gypsy, whose profession might be said to be the road, tells Billy, "[T]here is no [objective] repository for our images" or concepts or words (411). There is no guardian angel at our shoulder who writes the record of our life to be presented at the Last Judgment. Meaning is only manifest in language, in narrative. There is no universal or Hegelian narrative. The images we perceive and the associations we make among them reside only in a specific culture. "Life is a memory, then is nothing" (145). The Gypsy echoes Buddha when he says, "It was only men's clinging to its vanished husks" that causes pain and disappointment because they want to stop temporality that vitiates the meaningfulness or the significance of some perception or judgment. From the Buddhist view, the problem is that we invert and distort the process of life by insisting that the words and concepts are "out there" in Platonic essence before there is anyone to speak them or know them. "We seek some witness but the world will not provide one" because the world is not invested with culture. Nor is it self-disclosing or self-interpreting. What the world means is narrated from "the history that each man makes alone out of what is left to him [by culture]. Bits of wreckage. Some bones. The words of the dead. How make a world of this? How live in that world once made?" (411). Such a world is ambiguous at best. In the days of easy religious belief we could live in such a morally ambiguous and tragic world because we had faith that God was weaving the grand narrative. Now postmodernism has made God into simply another story we tell to each other, or to our children, for consolation.

"Every representation was an idol." In idols and images people "had thought to find some small immortality but oblivion cannot be appeased." This is not, however, necessarily tragic because "what the dead have quit is itself no world but is also only the picture of the world in men's hearts" (413). More words. Like Whitman or Emerson, the Gypsy says "that the world cannot be quit for it is eternal in whatever form" it takes. This is so because the world is not stuff, but time. "We think that we are the victims of time" but this is because we imagine ourselves in a photograph, as a static entity exempt from time. "In reality the road of the world is not fixed in any place. We ourselves are our own day's journey and therefore we are time as well" (414). And if we are a temporal performance, what is there to lose? What can death take if life is a crossing from one night to another, from one country to another? The story is lost, but it was never a possession or an objective record. It was simply a performance that was not about truth but beauty.

The Crossing is the most positive of McCarthy's novels, often seeming to endorse tenets of American transcendentalism. Echoing Hinduism or Meister Eckhart in the mystical Christian tradition, Whitman wrote, "Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am" ("Song of Myself" 4.10) McCarthy's character seems also to recognize "that which speaks in us one to another and is beyond our words or beyond the lifting or the turning of a hand to say that this is the way my heart is, or this" (146). What is beyond our words we literally cannot know. We may have feelings and emotions and hopes but we understand gestures only because we share a cultural understanding of what they mean as performance. However much McCarthy may follow Emerson or Whitman or Jacob Boehme (Arnold, "McCarthy" 216), the discussion here does not turn to Hindu theology and the concept of Atman/Brahman (see Rothfork). The ineffable is better rendered as a poignant moment in time than as an absent or enigmatic image. The point here is not to talk about a thing but about an experience, a social, linguistic, and cultural moment. We do not know God, we pray to God. And when he answers, the preacher says, "his voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out [...] to stay his presence" because they feel that this is a special moment (kairos) (Crossing 152). Being time—as Whitman, Emerson, Eckhart, and Hinduism suggest—this moment cannot stay. God and life are better thought of as processes or verbs rather than as pattern or image. The idol we invoke is a name, a face in the mirror, another oedipal cry not to be subsumed by time, "swallowed up at last by the very void to which we wished to stand opposed" (153). "It is this which we long for and are afraid to seek and which alone can save us," by erasing our separate ego and longing, by providing "something to contain us" as narrative context and meaning (153). The postmodern crisis comes in the recognition that these narratives are not prophecy but kerygma, statements of faith that are social and cultural constructions. With this recognition comes another, the suspicion that "[t]here is just us, in the grip of no power save those of the words we happen to speak." The many professions of faith in The Crossing are not Billy's. They are reported to him by the hermit in the abandoned church (138-58), by an old blind man (281-94), and by a Gypsy (402-14). They are narratives.

Cities of the Plain is perhaps a swan song; at least it self-consciously ties-up threads from the earlier two novels. The setting is 1952, and John Grady Cole is about to be dispossessed again, this time by the military, who want the ranch to create the White Sands Missile Range. Billy, twenty-eight, and John, nineteen, are hands on the ranch. John repeats Billy's folly of falling in love with a Mexican. Magdelan is a frail, epileptic teenager enslaved in a Juarez whorehouse. She is murdered trying to escape, and John is killed in a knife fight with her pimp. Billy fails to save John just as he failed to save his brother Boyd. The novel then jumps ahead to 2002 to deliver a final sermon. The characters in Cities of the Plain often parody the cowboy life, in part because the book confirms the pragmatism discovered and expressed in Blood Meridian and The Crossing. After sheepishly agreeing that "a horse knows what's in your heart" and that the only life worth living is that of the cowboy (Cities 84, 95, 217), McCarthy's cowboys rehearse the familiar tenets of pragmatic philosophy. Once again the professor is Mexican. Eduardo, a Juarez whoremaster, repeats Perez's prison lecture to Billy: "[Men have in their minds a picture of how the world will be. How they will be in that world. The world may be many different ways for them but there is one world that will never be and that is the world they dream of" (Cities 134). In the knife fight that kills John, Eduardo repeats the lecture on what Perez called the Anglo way of looking at things: "Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contains nothing save what stands before one" (253). This is confirmed by the self-conscious artistry of living the cowboy life in pointy-toed boots and pearl button shirts and the horse-opera knight errantry of dying to avenge the honor of the teenage whore. But the world of Mexican machismo, Catholic vigil lights, and sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead is hardly the stark world that Eduardo suggests.

The final lecture comes in the year 2002 when Billy is a seventy-eight-year-old homeless wreck who feels that "in everything that he'd ever thought about the world and about his life in it he'd been wrong" (266). Huddled beneath a freeway bridge in Arizona, Billy nearly reenacts the scene in Suttree when Sut asks the dying ragman, also huddled under a bridge, for his final judgment about the bridge that is life. Sut remembers his childhood with teddy bears, a reminder of Lester Ballard, the killer in Child of God who had a kind of stuffed animal surrogate family. Sut recalls that "Gypsies used to come to the door" when he was a child and he upbraids the ragman for wearing his shoes and seeming eager to go with death (Suttree 421). The ragman was mute, but death speaks to Billy who a week earlier had visited "a shoe repair place" in vain (Cities 265).

The Mexican hitchhiker correctly guesses that Billy had half imagined him to be death (267). The Mexican also suggests Dante's Virgil when Billy tells him that "in the middle of my life [...] I drew the path of it upon a map and I studied it a long time" (268). The Inferno begins: "In the middle of the journey of our life / I came to my senses in a dark forest / for I had lost the straight path" (Alighieri 1352). The path reminds us of talk of the road in The Crossing that opposes Robert Frost's metaphor of various roads as life choices: "The shape of the road is the road. There is not some other road [...] but only the one" (230). Initially the Mexican seems less inclined than Billy to accept the epistemological limits of pragmatism. Billy suggests that life is a matter of perception, saying, "I think you just see whatever's in front of you." The Mexican responds, saying, "Yes. I dont think that" (269). Two things need to be added to Billy's view that reality is a matter of perception. First, language makes memories something more than animal stimulus-response behavior. The Mexican asks, "What is your life? Can you see it? It vanishes at its own appearance. Moment by moment. When you look at the world is there a point in time when the seen becomes the remembered?" He tells Billy that this operation "is missing [as an object] from our map and from the picture that it makes. And yet it is all we have" (273). The memories assembled in language constitute the narrative of our identity. First we have embodied, temporal, and culturally defined experience: "At the core of our life is the history of which it is composed and in that core are no idioms but only the act of knowing" (281). The "act of knowing" is linguistic. Language preserves some perceptions and experiences, storing them in memory. "Whatever he may be or of whatever made he cannot exist without a history. And the ground of that history is not different from yours or mine for it is the predicate life of men that assures us of our own reality and that of all about us" (274). "The predicate life" is language. The Mexican might almost be paraphrasing Rorty's point that "Nobody whispered in the ears of the early Greeks [...]. There is just us, in the grip of no power save those of the words we happen to speak" when he says, "It is not the case that there are small men in your head holding a conversation" (280). Instead, "It falls to us to weigh and sort and order these events. It is we who assemble them into the story which is us. Each man is the bard of his own existence" (Cities 283). This confirms both the illustration of the Judge in Blood Meridian and his pragmatist recognition that "the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there" (245). To save this from Romantic and existential inflation, we must remember that every individual is a product of a specific language and culture.

The second point recognizes the intractable quality of perception. At one point in Blood Meridian, the kid and Sproule see the mirage of a lake while afoot in the desert mountains. The next morning it is gone, prompting Sproule to ask, "What happened to the lake?" He tells the kid, "We both saw it." The kid responds, "People see what they want to see," and Sproule replies, "Then how come I aint seein it now? I sure as hell want to" (Blood Meridian 63). Our Mexican Virgil tells Billy that "the events of the waking world [...] are forced upon us," which implies that God is also telling a story that is the world (283). It is not only objective events that are intractably stark, dreams are also uncontrollable. The Mexican agrees that for human beings reality is disclosed in perception. "That is the stuff he is made. What stuff other?" He then answers his question. "In a dream we dont know what's coming. We are surprised." Then he asks another question, "So where is it coming from?" (285).

The linguistic dimension and the intractable quality of perception—which emphasizes that we do not simply have perceptions but that perceptions are of something that we believe is in itself more than and different from perception—these two points oblige the Mexican to guess that "every man is more than he supposes" (271). To be meaningful or even to exist, objects require a context; "things need a ground to stand upon. As every soul requires a body" (272). "Two worlds touch here. You think men have power to call forth what they will? Evoke a world, awake or sleeping?" Not so. "You call forth the world which God has formed and that world only" in perception. "Its shape" may be "forced in the void" but that shape is not Platonic (285). It is not fathomed nor touched by reason. We are talking about a world of stark perception, not a reasoned theory or meaningful pattern and context; "A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void" (The Crossing 73-74).

Pragmatists believe that there is a world beyond our linguistic making, beyond our knowing. They agree that "[t]he log of the world is composed of its entries, but it cannot be divided back into them" while also cheating to drag along the pattern of the whole to interpret the original individual perceptions to give them a meaning that they initially lacked (Cities 286). Life is not invested with Platonic forms. "This life of yours is not a picture of the world. It is the world itself" (287).

Pragmatists are unwilling to allow caveats or epistemological exceptions that claim to know the fundamental pattern of the world by miracle or intuition. "The story of the world, which is all the world we know, does not exist outside of the instruments of its execution" (287). Pragmatists believe that those instruments include embodied experience, like walking or riding a horse or tasting coffee or falling in love. A word or concept cannot substitute for those experiences, because they require temporal and embodied dimensions. Our life is more evident in verbs than in nouns. Finally, the story of our world requires culture and language. We know the truths of science, law, medicine, and religion; we do not know Truth in general. Each of these communities provides a context without which truth cannot be spoken. Pragmatists believe that we possess, not the world, but an idea of the world—a heady recognition for a novelist. "Of such dreams and of the rituals of them there can also be no end. The thing that is sought is altogether other. However it may be construed within men's dreams or by their acts it will never make a fit" (287). Should we despair that we can never know Moby Dick or the world as it is apart from our perceptions and narratives of it? Our windblown Mexican says we should be grateful that life exceeds our efforts to know it: "They seek to meet a need which they can never satisfy, and for that we must be grateful" (287). At the end of his long life, and perhaps speaking for Suttree and the many narrative voices in McCarthy's novels, Billy says, "If he had any revelation it was this: that he was repository to this knowing which he came to solely by his abandonment of every former view" (282).


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