Fathers and Sons/Harnessmaker Parable

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  • 30 Mar 2015 at 4:09 am #6797


    Hi all,

    Just thought I’d make a couple observations and pose a few questions: One of the big, recurring motifs throughout McCarthy’s body of work is relationships between fathers and sons. In fact, if memory serves, the only McCarthy works that *don’t* involve an important if not central father-son dynamic are The Sunset Limited and The Counselor. (Child of God has Lester discover his father’s hanging body, which presumably scars him for life, and even No Country has Sheriff Bell repeatedly meditating on the “good ole days”, wondering how the old-timers went about their lives, culminating in his dreams about his father at the end. And to be fair, even in The Counselor, the screenplay ends with Malkina, now pregnant (presumably by Westray), saying to Escort, “The best kind of father is a dead father.”)

    Now, I am specifically thinking about the judge’s harnessmaker parable. If you recall, it begins with the following passage:

    “What kind of indians has these here been, Judge?
    The judge looked up.
    Dead ones I’d say, what about you, Judge?
    Not so dead, said the judge.
    They was passable masons, I’d say that. These niggers hereabouts now aint no kind.
    Not so dead, said the judge. Then he told them another story and it was this story.”

    The judge tells his story, gets to the end, is met with protest, and then attaches his “rider”: The tale of the murdered traveler’s son, who by virtue of never knowing his father “is in a bad way” and “is broken before a frozen god and […] will never find his way.” The judge continues:

    “What is true of one man […] is true of many. The people who once lived here are called the Anasazi. The old ones. […] The old ones are gone like phantoms and the savages wander these canyons to the sound of an ancient laughter.”

    Thus, for a long time it has seemed to me that a main purpose of the harnessmaker story is to explain the relationship between the Anasazi and the modern-day Indians in terms of that between the dead traveler and his son. (Now, depending on how far you want to push the analogy: If the traveler is the Anasazi and his son is the present-day Indians, then the harnessmaker, who kills the traveler, may be whatever “drought or disease or […] wandering bands of marauders” routed the Anasazi. And then the harnessmaker’s son would be…? Not sure. This feels thin to me. It seems like the relationship between the traveler and his son is the primary point and everything with the harnessmaker is incidental. Would be very interested if someone else has something to add, though.)

    So with that preamble, here are a few questions/wonderings if anyone has any ideas:

    1) What’s the deal with fathers and sons in McCarthy? Is it psychological? Is it religious (“father” being code for “God”)? Perhaps, philosophically, it’s about the progress of history: The judge seems to go out of his way to connect relationships between fathers and sons to those between successive civilizations. (Granted, I’m assuming here that McCarthy’s use of this motif is monolithic, that the various uses of fathers and sons across his books are at least related if not the same each time. While I realize this may not in fact be true, it seems far too common in his work to be random.)

    2) What the judge’s relationship to all this? I can’t shake the feeling that, centrally located in the novel as it is and being the judge’s longest speech in the book, the harnessmaker parable is fundamental to any reasonable thematic understanding of the book as a whole. Yet aside from what I wrote above, much of this passage remains opaque to me. Why would McCarthy bother giving the judge this story? What does it tell us about his character? His philosophy? Does the judge believe that when a man (or a civilization) is divorced from his origins, his growth is fundamentally stunted? That he can never evolve, never rise above a given station in life? This is a line of questioning that makes me see a fair bit of religion in the motif: Perhaps the judge’s job is to keep people from “waking up” to knowledge of their cosmic origins so that they can never find their way to God (or something like that). Perhaps this ties in with the judge destroying the artifacts he comes across, that being one more way of keeping man ignorant of what has gone before him.

    3) How do mothers play a role in this setup? Granted, women are few and far between in McCarthyland. But I’m thinking in particular of the fact that the kid’s mother died giving birth to him and that his father never even tells him her name. Can that just be an arbitrary fact, that in such a hypermasculine world, where just about everyone is a killer and is evil, the kid grows up with no mother?

    4) How does this play with The Road? I’m a big believer that the father is the bad guy in The Road. The father keeps the son from being able to reach out and make connections with other people. Case in point: When the son sees the other boy across the street (and keep in mind what I’ve said elsewhere on this site about doubles/reflections and goodness in McCarthy, e.g., Lester at the end of CoG and the idiot and the kid in BM), he calls out to him and goes across to meet him, and the father freaks out:

    “[H]is father came sprinting across the road and seized him by the arm.
    What are you doing? he hissed. What are you doing? […] There’s no one to see. Do you want to die? Is that what you want?”

    Between the hissing and preventing the kid from reaching out to his double/reflection, as well as insisting that the very desire to reach out to his double/reflection is a desire for death, there’s very little doubt in my mind that the father is actually the antagonist in the story. He’s surely not as bad as “the bad guys”, as he and his son call them. But his worldview must be seriously damaging to his son (and presumably society at large). And lo! the father dies at the end, and immediately the son makes contact with good people who take him in.

    So how does this play with the judge’s worldview? It seems that for the judge, to not know your father is to be unable to improve yourself, and conversely. And in The Road, the boy does know his father, but that “improving” is only able to take place once the father dies.


    02 Apr 2015 at 11:06 pm #6842


    “Perhaps the judge’s job is to keep people from ‘waking up.’


    Love the post, particularly this bit about the judge destroying the artifacts, keeping things hidden, etc. For various reasons, the past couple of days I’ve had this thought cross my mind off and on: Is the judge trying to kill God, and is he capable of it? So your meditation on a similar line of thinking really resonates. Maybe he’s trying to root out God from his hiding places. Perhaps it’s on my mind because it’s almost Good Friday and I’ve been thinking and reading about deicide and giving up the ghost and all that. Great stuff by you as usual.

    04 Apr 2015 at 4:46 pm #6876


    Hiya Peter,

    Thanks, and good to hear from you again.

    The stuff on the artifacts, I dunno, I’m stumped on that. I only half-believe it, I’m more just trying to see how it connects to other ideas and also to start a conversation on here.

    Is the judge trying to kill God? I dunno. First, I should say, I definitely believe that McCarthy intends some notion of God in BM, if only because of the “godfire” scene and the burning tree scene (which, as I’ve said elsewhere on the forum, seems to take place on Christmas morning). And I definitely think that McCarthy’s notion of God in his books is linked to his fire symbolism: Hence the godfire, the burning tree, the “horn of fire” at the end of No Country, the “carrying the fire” of The Road, etc.* With this in mind, I think it’s very telling who stares at the fire in BM and who does not and who has the fire reflected back in his eyes and who does not. And the judge is frequently described as being apart from the fire, alone in the outer dark, and having eyes like “empty slots”.

    This is all to say: I’m not sure that the judge is even aware of McCarthy’s God. If he is, perhaps he’s trying to kill him. I think it’s more that he’s trying to keep people from “waking up” to him. (Would that be a form of killing him? To erase him from the minds of the people of the world?) I definitely think that’s a good chunk of, if not entirely, what the judge is about. So I imagine the artifacts must play in there somehow. But I’m a bit lost on exactly what bearing destroying them would have on the spiritual awakenings of people. Which is why, given that the judge himself connects the progress of time and successive civilizations to a story about fathers and sons, I’m wondering if the artifacts are supposed to be a record of origins, say.

    I dunno. I feel like these associations resonate nicely in my head, but it feels a bit washy once I write it down. Still hoping some other people will toss their hats in the ring here.

    * Although, and I’ve wondered about this on here before, I’m quite puzzled why fire is also sometimes destructive in McCarthy, as it frequently is in CoG, or when the kid and Toadvine burn down the hotel. Or how about during the Tarot scene when the judge “like a great ponderous djinn stepped through the fire and the flames delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element.” There’s something not right there. The blacksmith scene in CoG keeps coming to mind, about how fire is good up until it’s bad. I’m not quite sure how these all fit together.

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