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View of the Tennessee River at Knoxville where Suttree's houseboat was docked. Thanks to Prof. Wesley G. Morgan for use of his photo See his related Knoxville photos here.
Redemption as Language in Cormac McCarthy's Suttree
This essay was published in Christianity and Literature, 53 (2004): 385–97.
“[…] Things known raw, unshaped by the constructions of a mind obsessed with form” (427).
While all of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction is recondite, most of his characters are primitives who, in high contrast to their maker, have only a rudimentary facility with language. Their ponderous and slack attention—located somewhere between animal sentience and full human engagement in culture—fascinates us because the enigmas of perception and consciousness seem to be more exposed, more primal, and less concealed or contaminated by language and manners. It is hard to imagine conversation with these characters who seem offered up for examination. McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), is peopled by “shabby backlanders trafficking in the wares of the earth” who conjure images of “witch covens” and congresses “of fiends and warlocks” (82, 31, 66). There are renegades from a medieval world, “vespertine figures, rotund and druidical,” and figures who suggest still earlier periods when “troglodytes gathered in some firelit cave” (120, 150). McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark (1968), offers a nightmare world so primitive that it seems to illustrate a prelinguistic state of frustration. Characters wander in “a nameless black ballet” where weeping and gnashing of teeth barely utter unanswered cries of supplication. The title seems to allude to Matthew’s Gospel, which suggests a loss of paradise: “But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12). At the beginning of the novel, characters stir to life, “still with no word among them […] squatting on their haunches, eating again wordlessly.” They depart “unannounced and mute” (4). A Christ-child figure lies maimed or diseased “gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night” in an inarticulate gesture that suggests a rejection of life (18). The Child of God (1973) completes what we might nominate as McCarthy’s trilogy of primitivism. The novel traces the degeneration of Lester “Ballard, a misplaced and loveless simian shape,” into a serial killer and “part-time ghoul” (20, 174). McCarthy’s first three novels offer studies of primitives, backlanders, and bogtrotters who talk to dogs more often than to people and who infrequently compose themselves for rare and anxious forays into the outposts of such civilization as can be found in an Appalachia country store or in a confrontation with the high sheriff of Sevier County. This leads Matthew Guinn to characterize the early novels as “bleak and naturalistic landscapes [...] occupied by characters with primitive drives and simian shapes, more homunculi than human being” (Guinn 108).
All three titles, as well as the plots, suggest religious themes centering around suffering and a hope for answers, if not redemption. A less ambitious assessment would suggest that perhaps there is only a hope of rendering primal emotions into speech so that we can begin to ask what these impelling and often violent feelings mean. William Spencer finds that the early novels are more about sin or “evil as a tendency within human beings, perhaps even as the essence of human beings” (Spencer 73). An emphasis on disobedience and destruction, however, presumes articulation of a moral order that is the object of dim-sighted and nearly instinctive groping in the early novels where we listen to characters who can only halting and partially express their inchoate thoughts and primitive feelings. Perhaps still motivated by primitive emotion, Judge Holden in Blood Meridian is highly articulate in attempting, Tim Parish says, “to propagate the philosophy of Nietzsche,” which he finds “the most coherent statement in McCarthy’s novels of any moral order” (Parish 35). The search for a moral order, or the lack of it in Nietzschean or Darwinian thought, collapses in the Border trilogy where self-conscious narration and aesthetically conscious role playing become a kind of pragmatic and postmodern answer to the enigmas about consciousness raised in the early novels. Robert Jarrett calls the style of the Border trilogy “a self-referential rewriting of the earlier novels” (Jarrett 314). This writing also seems to return to muse on the mystery of language itself; how it seems to arise in an unfocused urge and to promise something like redemption in a catharsis that leaves only clean images in the clear light of consciousness. In the context of so many religious images in Suttree, I suggest that Meister Eckhart, the greatest of the medieval mystics, offers insight into both the mysteries of Suttree and perhaps into McCarthy’s oevre. Eckhart claimed that “God and I are one in process.” That process is perception and language that makes “the core of God [...] also my core” (Eckhart 126).
In his fourth novel, Suttree (1979), McCarthy offers his most conventionally intellectual character, someone we could imagine talking to Jack Kerouac or drinking with characters like Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or with Danny in Tortilla Flat. Sut is college educated and although he lives on its fringes, Knoxville is a city, even if an “encampment of the damned” gathered together for “a little while to forestall the going there” to oblivion (3, 386). The city is less an objective entity than the product of Suttree’s experience, “constructed on no known paradigm [...] aberrant disordered and mad” (3). The city is a rickety storehouse where “wave on wave of the violent and the insane, their brains stoked with spoorless analogues of all that was” attempt to warehouse the visions of “old teutonic forebears with eyes incandesced by the visionary light of a massive rapacity.” Inside the closed gates, citizens reenact Biblical “dramas and parables [...] mindless and pale with a longing that nothing save dark’s total restitution could appease.” Underlying this gibbering order is “a world within the world” peopled by the “illshapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in everyland” (4). The god of the city is perhaps a weaver, perhaps “a carder of souls”; Athena grown senile, moving a “bloody shuttle.” The cloth on the loom of time is a shroud. At the dawn of the West Heraclitus agreed with Homer “that war is the common condition” and that “all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife” (Wheelwright 71). Even a waterdrop contains “delicate cellular warfare.” And “the dead would take the living with them if they could.” In fact they often do as the opening scene illustrates by describing efforts to fish a bridge jumper from the river (13, 9).
In his first three novels, McCarthy suggests that the world is impelled by a Hegelian nightmare, by an inchoate, preconscious, and stammering biological force. 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). People are described as flat and fleeting 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). The early novels brood on the possibility that tragedy and evil are remnants of a more primitive, vestigial, and violent life process, rubble left “like some imponderable archeological phenomenon” (48). The images of origin do not serve as precise gears in the assembled logic of Darwinian reconstruction. Instead, they are fractured, surreal, and poetic images, “things known raw” that resonate with possible significance and revelation that is never articulated (427). “Great scaly gars [...] fierce and primitive of aspect” with “long beaks full of teeth, ancient fishes survived unchanged from mesozoic fens” serve only as “the smelly marvel of small boys” (173). When we are unable to explain why things happen (why, for example, dinosaur fishes continue to swim in Tennessee), we feel anxiety, perhaps dimly recapitulating the itchy feeling of being studied by unseen predators. We suspect the familiar urban world curtains a more elemental and Freudian world that borders on sleep, dreams, and poetic language.
In Blood Meridian (1985), the novel after Sutree, McCarthy’s sunlit Southwest frontier world is mapped by Darwin as a place where men “fight with fists, with feet, with bottles or knives. All races, all breeds. Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes” (4). Violence seems to be another name for humans. Savage warriors ride out of the salt desert like burnt phantoms in a nightmare, “like the cries of souls broken through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below,” while a dull-witted teenage son of a school teacher waits to greet them “holding the big Walker revolver in both hands and letting off the shots slowly and with care as if he’d done it all before in a dream” (109). Bereft of all civilized forms, wandering in the middle of a blank gypsum lake, our riders do not find God or the devil, for “out of that whirlwind no voice spoke.” The pilgrim “may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what?” (111). The desert is empty. If God speaks, Holden says, His words are “stones and trees, the bones of things” (116). It is a stark and blank world without moral quality. “For the earth is a globe in the void and [in] truth there’s no up nor down to it” (130). Holden preaches the long view of Darwinian and geological history in which a few million deaths are mere sand. Speculating on Anasazi ruins and feigning surprise, Holden asks, “Do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons” (147).
If McCarthy sought to offer Darwin’s answer in Blood Meridian to the questions raised by his first three novels of what impels the world, that answer is subverted by the raconteur charm of Holden, the child murderer. Reminiscent of Rabelais’ Gargantua, Holden is “like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die” (335). Holden is the voice of life; he personifies the process of perception. He is the witness and mirror for life. Through him McCarthy finds a very different answer to what life may be about, a pragmatist answer that is developed in the Border trilogy. But before developing that outlook, McCarthy imagined the character of Suttree, a more tortured character than Holden; an essentially religious character who seems to resemble the artist himself in the search for meaning.
We do not know the causes for Suttree’s life on the fringes. He has a college degree but abandoned his wife and baby to brood in a houseboat on the river and hangout with a cast of life’s losers. He has two abortive romances, one with a dream girl and another with a prostitute. We learn bits of Suttree’s past from his Uncle John (15-20), Aunt Martha (119-36), and Great Aunt Alice (430-34), but there is no explanation for the bleeding wound of Suttree’s experience. Sut flees Knoxville after driving a stolen police car into the river in an act expressing outrage against authority and uncompassionate force (442). Unlike McCarthy’s earlier characters, Suttree seems to have a choice about the social contexts in which he might invest his life. Suttree’s father advises his rebellious son that life can be found “in the law courts, in business, in government.” Street life, he opines, is “nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and the impotent” who are easily spotted as social outcasts (14). Nonetheless, Suttree chooses this “fellowship of the doomed where life pulsed obscenely fecund” because of its primacy (23). “Among vendors and beggars and wild street preachers,” Suttree discovers “a vigor unknown to the sane” who are more articulate, mannered, and cautious. As a Romantic, Suttree hopes to discover something ultimate and authentic, to hear “some stray scrap of news from beyond the pale” (66). But the atmosphere in the novel quickly grows as dark as the medieval and apocalyptic images on the opening pages promised. The text is not Romantic, but biblical. Suttree may be “like some biblical relict in a world no one would have,” but there is scant good news from beyond the pale of the social hierarchy and its conventional chatter. Suttree’s experience in the “apocalyptic waste” is comparable to that of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (81). Suttree is also a man who has nowhere to lay his head, who counsels to “leave the dead to bury their own” (Luke 9: 58, 60), and who takes no thought for his own life, imitating the ravens who neither sow nor reap (Luke 12: 22, 24). Suttree is a barefoot Jesus (“Jesus never had no shoes,” 123) who drinks with the poor, the sick, and the outcast, and who sweats blood in some Knoxville Gethsemane, praying “please take away this cup of horror” (Luke 22: 42). D. S. Butterworth finds the novel to be about “the reconstitution of marginal figures as subjects of concern and sympathy,” which suggests Christian redemption, but he also says, “McCarthy does not achieve a rehumanization of his fugitives, nor does this rehumanization seem to be his ultimate goal” (Butterworth 95). Instead of finding Suttree a Christ figure, Butterworth thinks “the human subject” is treated as a “geological object.” By this he means that individual perceptions undergo a kind of schizophrenic magnification to exert an exotic fascination caused by the loss of normal social contexts and associations (Butterworth 99). The question is how or why this occurs. Butterworth’s explanation of how “McCarthy presents the image of the body as a signifier devoid of content” (Butterworth 100) is not entirely at odds with Charles Taylor’s suggestion that feelings seem overwhelmingly powerful and to entirely possess us or have us in their grip when the background or context that gives them meaning is unconsciously operative and cannot therefore reveal what the emotion means. By “expressing our feelings in language we can come to have transformed feelings”; transformed because language places them in a context to become part of a story (Taylor 97). They become episodes or events in my life that are further contextualized by social and community boundaries. When social background and context are lost, perceptual images loom large because they lead nowhere lacking obvious or conventional associations and meaning.
If Suttree is a Christ figure, it is Christ crucified. And if God heals, it seems to be with a knife: “beyond the flayed man dimly adumbrate another figure paled, his surgeons move about the world even as you and I” (86). Looking through a family photo album, a “picturebook of the afflicted,” Suttree wonders “what deity in the realms of dementia, what rabid god decocted out of the smoking lobes of hydrophobia could have devised a keeping place for souls so poor as is this flesh” (130)? Certainly not the omnipotent and transcendent potter of Genesis. Among the several clergy in the novel, the most familiar is a housebound cripple in a wheelchair who calls Harrogate the “spawn of Cerberus, the devil’s close kin” and wishes “all on to a worse hell yet” (105, 146). William Prather believes these characters and experiences indicate that “the universe depicted in Suttree is existential” and absurd (Prather 104). He thinks that “Like Camus, Suttree clearly rejects the recourse of religion” (Prather 106). But Prather has only conventional notions of religion, evident for example, when he says that “religion is presented in the novel in two distinct forms: one a primitive brand of Protestantism and the other, orthodox Roman Catholicism” (Prather 105). Kierkegaard’s atheist and his musings on the would-be child killer, Abraham, suggest that religion may not be so easily elucidated or dispelled.
A nameless ragman recurrently offers the best advice about life, which is vaguely Buddhist or Heideggerian or at least non-theist, and characterized by a recognition of how time vitiates everything we hope to possess or embrace. Even before the photo-album scene (126-30), Suttree is a “young apostate” who “had already begun to sicken at the slow seeping of life.” He hears the “sand in the glass. Lives running out like something foul, nightsoil from a cesspipe, a measured dripping in the dark” (136). Out of the “blind moil in the earth’s nap” each individual is “cast up in an eyeblink between becoming and done.” Faces stagger “into gaga by the sheer velocity of time [...] coughed up out of the vortex” (129). And no redeemer hand pulls them from the current of time to the shore of eternity. When the shoeless suicide is pulled from the water, his “watch was still running”; life continues to flow (10). At a river baptism someone tells Suttree, “it aint salvation just to get in the water” (123). Indeed, we jumped from the outer darkness into its swift movement with our first gasp of breath. And before we breathed air, we breathed amoebic fluid. We are swept in the river of time. Who will pluck us out to salvation? And how will we know? The ragman confesses, “I always figured they was a God,” but confides, “I just never did like him” (147). The Sunday school God could, if he so desired, stop the current, or—like language transforming perception—console us that losses to the passing of time do not matter because some essence is rescued in a miraculous process like the one Keats described in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Because He declines, or even if He merely delays salvation, God is clearly unfeeling and immoral; a policeman. The ragman wants no photograph of such a God, “a thing against which time would not prevail” (136). “The red flame that raged in his head” impels the ragman to bargain with Suttree in order not to leave even a scrap for God’s photo album. He asks that, if Sut finds him dead, to “thow some coaloil on me and set me alight” (146). Whether it is flame, water, or time, “nothing ever stops moving,” not God Himself, which is why “He is not a thing,” nor a concept offered by the systems of Hegel or Nietzsche, nor a person offering consolation (461). What flickers into being and passes is not some dead spall or molecule, nor any objective stuff; nor is it a Platonic form or number. It is perception. The athlete lives in the act of reading Keats’ poem. Suttree belongs to the congregation of Appalachian Calvinism, which stands dumbfounded waiting for a redemption or Rapture beyond explanation and understanding, and beyond familiar experience. Whitman’s Romantic and Asian answer, that life is perception, seems to not feel the torture of life. Like Melville’s Ahab, Suttree demands some more familiar and tangible form to answer for the tears. Holden, in the next novel, Blood Meridian, will accept that God is dead and consequently life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But paradoxically, isn’t this also the cry of faith and the very moment (kairos) that Kierkegaard finds authentic when we abandon the idols to cry, “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?”
When Suttree and Jones, an old black bartender and river man, discuss life, the narrator comments that “they were moving as if to shape the dark to some purpose” (204). As in many such passages, it is crucial to notice the “as if” simile. Our narrative and personal need is to “shape the dark to some purpose” so that our story has a moral. Is there also an objective process that shapes our lives or the universe itself to some purpose? Do we still believe in the Atonement or do such shapes rise with the smoke from barroom talk? The best anyone can do is to pull up a stool and join the conversation. For all his study of Camus, Prather does not recognize this as an act of faith that turns away from “christian witchcraft” and suicidal despair (304). He sees Suttree determined “to refuse the alternative of religion” but does not see this as a way in which Kierkegaard’s atheist continues a dialogue with God (107). At his son’s grave, Suttree wonders “what could a child know of the darkness of God’s plan? Or how flesh is so frail it is hardly more than a dream” (154). Later he confronts the ragman: “you told me once you believed in God.” The ragman confesses that he would like to see the architect of the infinite for a minute to ask, “what did you have me in that crapgame down there for anyway?” Suttree asks the ragman for God’s likely answer. The ragman says, “I dont believe there is a answer” (258). There is no answer because, in order to have answers about a system, Hegel told us it must be complete and the author or systems administrator must be outside the process. Rather than an objective Darwinian or Hegelian process of nature, language is the subjective process that we can never escape. Language transforms our perceptions into photographs in an album or into figures on the Grecian urn. And the crisis of faith is the thought, expressed by Richard Rorty, that there is “no hidden power called Being,” that “Nobody whispered in the ears of the early Greeks,” that “there is just us, in the grip of no power save those of the words we happen to speak" (Papers 2: 36). Eckhart moves this recognition back to muse, not on the Platonic forms that language creates (or finds), nor on the linguistic operation of language and social construction, but to muse on the mysterious capacity we have for language that understands “what it means for a word to stand for something” (Taylor 81). This is not negligible; in fact it seems to be magic or divine as Charles Taylor attests, saying “Whether a creature is in the linguistic dimension in this sense isn't a matter of what correlations [objectively] hold between the signals it emits, its behavior, and the surroundings—the kind of things the proponents of chimp language focus on. It is a question of subjective understanding of what rightness consists in for it, qua what word is right” (84). This capacity for judgment, for using language, seems divine, autochthonous, or self-caused. But unlike Eckhart, Taylor is a pragmatist (although he is also a Catholic) who attributes this seemingly divine ability to judge “what word is right,” to express an experience or idea, to unconscious and semi-conscious experiences of context and background. This knowledge is easily overlooked in narration or in the process of projecting a background “as though it were built into each particular sign, as though we could start right off coining our first word & have this understanding of linguistic rightness already incorporated in it” (89).
If there is an architect, potter, or author transcendentally outside the process, He cannot experience what we do inside the system—the pain and abandonment. Isn’t this the very nub of the idea of the incarnation—that God suffers? No matter how profound, disembodied talk would not be truly equivalent to what we experientially know about suffering into wisdom. In his play, Stonemason (1994), McCarthy has his character echo Aeschylus and Aristotle to say, “this knowledge is instilled in you through the work and not through any contemplation of the work” (65). The most poignant cry in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels is: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mat. 27: 46; Mark 15: 34). Like physics and cosmology, theology must always miss the point of subjectivity because it, like all systems, deals in objective conceptions without recognizing the subjective and linguistic operations that are at work to articulate the system. It cannot grasp the living language that emotionally speaks and prays those conceptions. This is why Suttree confesses that as a child “he’d been taught a sort of christian witchcraft” that he now finds pedantic and lifeless (304). When he finds a priest prowling his abandoned high school, Suttree characterizes him as “a catatonic shaman who spoke no word at all.” The black robed figure mutely watches “like a paper priest in a pulpit or a prophet sealed in glass” (305). As magicians, hierophants, theologians, and other costumed actors, they mumble scripted lines but have no words of consolation. Near the end of the novel, Sut finds the ragman dying under a bridge, his scant possessions already picked over by other scavengers, “the ragged chattel of lives abandoned like his own.” Sut hopes to tease the old man to a last flicker of life, suggesting, “you forgot about the gasoline I guess” (421). The old man is beyond answering. But Suttree still asks the ragpicker if he had asked God “about the crapgame” but knows that the answer is that “there’s no one to ask is there?” (422). The nagging mystery remains unanswered. Is this because we are “in the grip of no power save those of the words we happen to speak" or because the divine is manifest in process, in perception, and in language? Is this an animal function or a divine function?
The recognition that conventional and orthodox Christian theology renders the divine as a transcendental and unresponsive statue is not the same as an expression of belief in Camus’ atheistic and absurd view, or belief in the random operations of Darwinian evolution, or belief in Nietzsche’s will-to-power. Centuries before Walt Whitman, Meister Eckhart, the greatest of the medieval mystics, claimed that “God and I are one in process” (182.) That process is perception that makes “the core of God [...] also my core” (126). This is a Hindu recognition that the divine cannot be an object in anyone’s mind. God is “not as he is conceived by anyone to be—nor yet as something yet to be achieved—but more as an ‘is-ness’” (204). In part this talk is clumsy because it employs language to talk about its own function of rendering sense and meaning. Eckhart says that “in the essence of the soul” there are no words but a “central silence [...] where no creature may enter, nor any idea, and there the soul neither thinks nor acts, nor entertains any idea,” including the idea of God (96). McCarthy’s narrator comes close to expressing Whitman and Eckhart’s epistemology when he recognizes “the old lie that beholder and beheld are ever more than one” (281). Edwin Arnold, recognizing that “one of the epigraphs to Blood Meridian is taken from Jacob Boehme,” renders this point metaphysical by saying that Boehme emphasized the notion of God as being or atman so that “All human beings are fundamentally only one man” (Arnold, Lilley 222-3). He explains that “Boehme described the Deity’s mystical essence as the ‘Ungrund” (the ‘unground’), implying both nothingness and all, that which in being everything is equally an incomprehensible ‘No thing’” (Arnold, Lilley 224).
Whether we talk about Boehme’s “divine essence” or Eckhart’s apperception, answers do not lie like stones or fossils in a prelinguistic universe. Even the God of Genesis had to speak the world into being. The annoying paradox is that the subjective use of language to make sense cannot be rendered as an object of consciousness or a word. Like every person, Sut is more in need of love than metaphysical answers, more in need of a God who cares than a God revised to fix logical errors in a grandiose cosmological system or of a God who waits for us to abandon the illusions that make us who we are. This is why the novel ends after Sut divests “himself of the little cloaked godlet and his other amulets” to take “for talisman the simple human heart” (468). It may seem that life moves “as if to shape the dark to some purpose,” but purpose is a human need and the product of language, not an objective principle or force that undergirds and causes cultural forms. Near the end of the novel Sut sees how the analysis of life—which insists that emotional complexities can be dismantled into objective chemicals or genes or forces—ends an idiot. Reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, the idiot has “eyes that fed the most rudimentary brain” and consequently the idiot seems “possessed of news in the universe denied right forms.” Because he drools rather than speaks, the idiot, “gibbering and howling in a hoarse frog’s voice,” seems to have “word perhaps of things known raw, unshaped by the constructions of a mind obsessed with form” (427); the primal stuff without interpretation. This is something akin to what we imagine animals perceive. In any case it must remain silent or unconscious, wordless and unknown. The mind does not self-generate form. Language, and nothing else, weaves connections among the threads of our temporal experience to render pattern and shape, to socially construct what we know. Moreover, language is not spoken in a vacuum like God speaks in Genesis. It is spoken in families, churches, schools, and other clearly definable social contexts built by the needs of the human heart. The ragman troll under the bridge is silent. The priest is a statue. The stars wheel in silence. The problem is that they are exiles having no one to talk with, no one to love or to love them. Language is more expressive of our need than it is discursive. In fact, as Suttree illustrates, there is nothing to discursively discover. Even if there were, such a God or set of Greek principles cannot redeem our subjective experience and emotion.
Near the end of the long novel, Sut, the son of Grace, visits his Great Aunt Alice in an insane asylum (432). She expresses the despair we all feel, confessing, “sometimes I dont know what people’s lives are for” (433). Eckhart was more confrontational, accusing his listeners, “you do not know why you live” (180). Alice recalls a moment of serendipitous happiness when as a young girl she discovered the pet horse that hard times had forced her family to sell. In making a judgment on that experience, she images herself as someone else, as an objective entity: “I reckon everybody thought I was crazy [...] huggin a old horse and just a bawlin to beat the band” (434). Then she upbraids a fellow inmate for apparently indulging in similar nostalgia and search for meaning: “Look at this old crazy thing, she said. She dont even know what all she’s bawlin about” (434). Bits and pieces of emotion and need that fail to meld into a mosaic or into any continuity or coherent story make the passage of time slow and mocking. We wonder what such poignant feelings mean and think they must mean something. We are the “sad children of the fates whose home is the world, all gathered here a little while to forestall the going there,” yet we feel there is nothing to do here that would save us (386). “Here” and “there,” conjured in a monologue, transforms temporal experience into dreams or spatial fairy tales. It is better to talk and to listen to each other.
There is no redemption in Suttree because the immediacy of life cannot be substituted by an object. The Gospels do not provide answers to the questions of Greek philosophy. They ask for faith that our experience is meaningful or about something and not simply an operation of language; or that in the operation of language we Romantically experience divine creativity even though we may not know the whole story or the grand narrative. And Eckhart says that even faith is still too self-indulgent. “The disinterested man, pure in heart, has no prayer,” being content, like Whitman, with perception or being (88). Presumably Sut loved his wife, son, and others, but such emotional experience is not enough for him. Like Plato and Melville’s Ahab, Sut must know and be able to explain the cause and mechanism that produces the experience. Thomas Young, Jr. observes that “in his two most intimate human relationships in the novel—his love affairs with the child-woman Wanda and the prostitute Joyce—Suttree’s self-absorption undermines his efforts at outwardness” (Young 114). “Outwardness” implies a stable and accepted social form or context that serves as an answer or container for life. “Outwardness” implies conversation and dialogue. The Wanda episode lasts a few weeks and is clearly an adolescent dream. Sut’s relationship with Joyce, characterized by parody and boisterousness, illustrates the defensive attitude typical of a bright high school boy on a first date. With women Sut exhibits none of the compassion that flows among the outcast disciples: Ab Jones, City Rat Harrogate, Michael (the Indian-angel who floats on a driftwood raft in the river), and the nameless ragman. This may be a boy’s club of latent homesexuality, but they minister to each other simply by talking, by listening, by caring.
Outer Dark illustrated the male problem. Rinthy has a child who becomes the focal point of all her longing. In contrast, men have only “the vacant look of solitaries who go [...] seeking a thing they could not name” (409). In any case, the beloved object is always a mirage. The child Rinthy hunts is dead. Projected context and pattern can entice further movement in the struggle to find and possess an image, to understand, but a projection can never be grasped. Sut laments that “everything I touch turns to shit,” but in a novel fraught with biological metaphors we can only chuckle and agree that this is exactly what happens to the most delicious tastes (rasa). Suffering in the grip of this paradox of trying to turn the subjective into the objective, are we mocked as rape victims of “a pederastic deity” (460)? Like its successor, Blood Meridian, the novel often speculates on this possibility. But this is a howl of pain, a complaint, not a description much less a Euripidean or satanic belief. Another river man offers a view much like the ragman’s, saying he had one regret. “I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it [...]. Of that vanity I recant” (404). For “the color of this life is water,” and water is like time; it carries everything to the ocean where it dissolves (415).
Suttree opens with a suicide. Through its nearly five hundred pages, we wonder when Suttree will commit suicide. Suttree’s wisdom is as old as Homer’s: life is pain. If pain suffers into wisdom, as Aeschylus promised, that wisdom is incommunicable. One of the final images in the novel is not of man redeemed by Christ but man crucified like Christ: “he lay in his chrysalis of gloom [spun by language] and made no sound, share by share sharing his pain with those who lay in their blood by the highwayside or in the floors of glass strewn taverns or manacled in jail.” Will the worm resurrect as butterfly? That prayer to save one’s single ego identity, based on a kind of photo album of pain, should no longer make sense, if we understand our condition as Eckhart explained it. Suttree says, “I know all souls are one and all souls lonely” (459). All souls are one, not because they objectively share in some quasi-physical Boehme “unground,” but because we speak and listen and care in Heidegger’s sense of the word. From childhood to senility, we speak our need to each other and perhaps to an incarnate God. The significance is not in what we say, but as Eckhart suggested, that we speak and pray and curse. This is incarnation, the mystery of the subjective transubstantiating into the objective.
Delirious in a typhoid fever, Suttree dreams of the Last Judgment: “Mr Suttree it is our understanding” that you squandered your “years in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smell-smocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” In his defense, and without even asking to see a dictionary, Suttree says, “I was drunk” (457). As any Sufi or mystic, he might, alternatively, have said, I was alive and savored the taste of such Whitman-like language. Like the other great American river novel, Huckleberry Finn, Suttree ends with the hero lighting out for the Territory ahead of the rest, flying the hounds of death who will have him as their meat soon enough. It is true that “little girls in flowered frocks” trip “through stiles of sunlight and their destination” is “darkness as is each soul’s” (270). But the twin of that vision is provided by the waterboy whose arm offers life, covered in “pale gold hair that lay along the sunburned arms [...] like new wheat” and whose innocent eyes are “dark and deep [...] blue eyes with no bottoms like the sea.” Reminiscent of St. Augustine’s dream of a boy who sought to pour out the sea one dipper at a time, we cannot fathom how language works to speak our life one word at a time. Like Suttree, who hitchhiked without overtly lifting a hand, we are offered a free ride (471).
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