McCarthy and Exemplary Communities

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  • 28 Dec 2012 at 12:26 am #2746


    (I’ve edited this post a little.)

    “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed [. . .] I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous” (Cormac McCarthy).

    It was these chilling lines that circled around my brain as I watched the NewTown tragedy unfold. Not so much the shootings themselves, which were preventable, but how certain media wove a story of a violated community. In my view newpaper and tv accounts seemed to want to frame the tragedy in before and now contexts: the before presented as idyllically uncomtaminated by the evil now. McCarthy’s historical understanding seems to run counter to such idealizations.

    When reading McCarthy it’s easy to treat his novels as parables on the shortcomings, outright lies, some would say, of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. Such treatments are no doubt true, but on a micro-level the critique is at its sharpest in the endless excoriations of community life. Is McCarthy oh-so-bleak rejection of community life nihilistic? Or is he bravely critiquing a dangerous American mythology: the myth of exemplary communites?

    Something else:
    Spivak in her preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology notes how Derrida found Levi Strauss, along with Hegel and Heidegger, guilty of theological thinking in his treatment of history:
    “He remarks that Levi-Strauss, like Heidegger, is afflicted with nostalgia: “one ……perceives in his work a sort of ethic of presence, an ethic of nostalgia for origins, an ethic of archaic and natural innocence, of a purity of presence and self-presence in speech – an ethic, nostalgia, and even remorse which he often presents as the ethnological project when he moves toward archaic societies – exemplary societies in his eyes”.

    Is McCarthy also attacking the ‘ethic of presence’ that haunts so much of the American mythos?
    The rebuttal of ‘the exemplary society’ is evident in both McCarthy’s obsession with orphans and his creation of restive, nomadic characters – they are either marginalized by their respective societies or live voluntarily on the periphery. Is the notion of an ideal community – by implication a place without bloodshed – as dangerous as McCarthy seems to think it is? More existentially, is McCarthy suggesting that a wilderness runs through all communities?

    As you can see, I can only present my ideas in a fragmented way. I hope this thread will induce people to respond in a more coherent way.

    28 Dec 2012 at 4:52 am #2749


    Lots of fascinating stuff here. This sense of community is central to the thesis I’m working on at the moment. I think I am coming at it from a slightly different angle, though, as I don’t necessarily think that all of McCarthy’s work is a “bleak rejection of community.” On the contrary, I think the Tennessee novels (even Child of God) are essentially about community, albeit in a non-starry-eyed way. No-one could call Suttree an idyllic reflection of community life, and yet I believe firmly this is a novel rooted in the sense of community.

    As McCarthy shifts westwards, however, that begins to change. There is no community in Blood Meridian. In the Trilogy the concept is romanticised and then shown to be a romantic illusion. By NFCOM community has been usurped by mindless violence and in TR it has been obliterated.

    I’m not sure that McCarthy is “attacking the ‘ethic of presence'” so much as lamenting its impossibility. The man himself seems not a million miles from the viewpoint of Sheriff Bell, and there is nothing the good sheriff would like more than to retreat to the halycon days of the fifties. Like Rousseau, he knows such a reverse isn’t possible, but it doesn’t stop him hankering after it.

    28 Dec 2012 at 8:41 am #2750

    Candy Minx

    What a great topic!


    I have many thoughts…some of which I posted in another thread…which I can’t seem to find at all right now…


    The thing is…community is an Emergent organization…and maybe a way of looking at community is with “process philosophy”.


    It’s not static and it isn’t one thing. Community organizes “itself” according to economic needs of the participants/members.


    The idea that a community could be exemplary is an interesting one…but what is the case is…a community will manifest and evolve however best suits survival, however the community can support and sustain life affirming actions. If it’s economically “best” for a few leaders to control…then so be it…if it’s economically beneficial for democracy to rule…then so be it…if its economically stronger for dictatorship or monarchy…these will manifest. It’s a living animal dependant upon adapting to environmental and economic resources.


    Being sentimental about community and desiring it to be “for the whole” is a fascinating contemporary option we are able to witness and discuss in ways perhaps not practiced in the past.

    Jared diamond asks if humans pondered their actions within community here…


    29 Dec 2012 at 2:19 am #2753



    Your dissertation sounds interesting; I would like to read it when it’s finished.  It sounds like that we might be covering similar ground in our research: however, I’m primarily looking at McCarthy’s use of pastoral – how his critique  of exemplary communities always comes with the attached caveat – escape as salvation is impossible. I also agree with you that Suttree celebrates a certain type of community, but we have to remember that our hero leaves at the end of the novel.

    To these ends, I found Jay Ellis’ ( Spatial Constraints and Character Flight in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy -28-29) employment of the gap in the fence in The Orchard Keeper as metaphor for McCarthy’s ambivalence towards the constraints of domesticity and the romance of flight very useful. John Wesley finds an exit from his community, but the gap marks the boundary of a cemetery – one that holds the grave of his recently deceased mother. In the Border Trilogy, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are only able to flee because (Cole’s)  grandfather and (Parham’s) parents’ have died. And we all know that murder and mayhem shall follow them henceforward. There is no inside or outside, I’m afraid.

    Candy: I found your comments on ‘process philosophy’ fascinating? Do you see this idea in McCarthy?


    29 Dec 2012 at 12:58 pm #2755


    Great stuff. I hope I get to read your finished work down the road, Rob and Jim. This “ethics of presence” is something I’ve never heard of but it sounds interesting. Would someone please define that term for my edification. I was wondering along these lines of community if the workhouse environment in Suttree would in some way paradoxically contain virtues of the exemplary community. Was also wondering if the other various subcultures (moonshiners, drug cartels, merchant culture) in McCarthy might get closer to exemplariness at some levels compared to the larger societal grouping. But that’s just throwing an essentially unexamined thought out there and comes from readings on Kant’s ideas of retributivist punishment and a connection I’m trying to find or make between that and Chigurh’s ideas on punishment.

    And the process philosophy Candy mentioned, as well as other comments thus far , had me thinking how the communes may have emerged (and organized themselves) out of nothing in The Road.

    13 Feb 2013 at 1:57 am #2966


    I’ve been rereading that very interesting, perhaps crucial, part in ‘Child of God’ that starts with a flood and then proceeds to a community’s discussion on the White Caps (160-168). John Cant says some interesting stuff,  in his ‘Cormac McCarthy and the End of American Exceptionalism’ book, about the community’s general reluctance to talk about such events. However, one old timer is prepared to tell it like it is: “They was a bunch of lowlife thieves and cowards and murderers. The only thing they ever done was to whip women and rob old people of their savins. Pensioners and widows. And murder people in their beds at night.” (165)

    Here is Cant’s understanding of the section:

    “His reference to the White Caps is not only an aspect of McCarthy’s assault on the myth of the pastoral, it is also an aspect of his desire to write into American discourse forgotten, ignored or suppressed aspects of American history. It seems clear that Appalachia was the site of an appreciable segment of this history, although not by any means the only one. Suppression could be regarded as a concomitant to mythicization; thus the representation of the suppressed becomes a necessary aspect of the anti-myth”.(92)

    Is forgetfulness, or the suppression of memory, fundamental to the promotion of an exemplary community?

    Any takers on this?

    13 Feb 2013 at 5:10 am #2967

    Greg S.

    This is a fascinating topic.  Without much reflection there seem to be at least three types of communities in McCarthia, but there is some overlap.  The first type would be, for instance, the churchgoers in Suttree.  I don’t think McCarthy takes much stock in these good people, and they offer no solace to his heroes.  One of my favorite passages from The Crossing describes Billy’s return to the US:  “In that outlandish figure they beheld what they envied most and what they most reviled.  If their hearts went out to him it was yet true that for very small cause they might also have killed him.” (p170)

    Then there is the community of renegades, outcasts, criminals.  McCarthy devotes a lot of attention to these communities.  Does that refute the idea of exemplary community?

    Finally, there is a vague community of “spirit”, for lack of a better word, that partially inhabits the other communities, particularly the first one, and that crops up wherever the “fires of men” appear (as opposed to the cold forger, who is exiled.  BM p. 310).  Classic examples for me are the Mexican ranch community in ATPH, particularly the fiesta scene, the numerous peasants who take Billy in and break bread with him in TC, the family and community where Billy spends his last days in COTP, Mr. Johnson’s ranch in COTP, the commune at the end of The Road.  These kinds of communities are capable of offering comfort to our heroes, but they may overlap with the churchgoer communities, or, as in Suttree, with the renegade community.  McCarthy’s heroes often are border crossers among the communities.  Some of those communities, nevertheless, really do appear exemplary, if fleeting.  But, as in the commune at the end of The Road, an “exemplary McCarthy community” would need to live without illusions about the dangers around and within it.

    I look forward to reading more on this topic.

    13 Feb 2013 at 10:56 am #2968



    The quote from The Crossing is well-chosen – almost, ahem, exemplary.

    Your final point about the community – with its echoes of Brook Farm – that the boy is delivered up int0 in The Road reminds me of the fact that McCarthy doesn’t do happy endings. People always talk about Faulkner as a major influence. This might be true in terms of style. But I think Hawthorne is much more of an influence in terms of philosophy.  The rejection of utopian societies, socialist, puritan, or otherwise, is very much behind the thinking of The Blithedale Romance and The Scarlet Letter. This, I believe, is mirrored in McCarthy.

    13 Feb 2013 at 11:57 am #2969

    Richard L.

    I’m sure y’all have seen Georg Gillemin’s book, THE PASTORAL VISION OF CORMAC MCCARTHY.
    Re: Robmcinroy:  “There is no community in Blood Meridian. . .”
    Well, the scalphunters themselves are a community, although a nomadic community like the Comanches.  The Delawares in the party have their own community but temporarily also belong to the community of the scalping party.
    In ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, there are several communities:  The hombres of the country, the community of the bunkhouse, then the prison itself, and several others.
    From Merriam-Webster (
    Definition of COMMUNITY
    : a unified body of individuals: as
    a: state, commonwealth
    b: the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly: the area itself <the problems of a large community>
    c: an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location
    d: a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society <a community of retired persons>
    e: a group linked by a common policy
    f: a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests <the international community>
    g: a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society <the academic community>
    : society at large
    a: joint ownership or participation <community of goods>
    b: common character : likeness <community of interests>
    c: social activity : fellowship
    d: a social state or condition

    14 Feb 2013 at 1:45 pm #2971


    Thanks for that, Richard. I think I’ll have to revise my terminology, because while the dictionary definitions you provide are certainly germane to the group of scalphunters, I cannot at all relate those men to the idea of community that I’m referring to.

    I’m not talking some starry-eyed liberal “everyone here like one another, we’re all in it together” stuff. But I am talking about some underlying bond, social and emotional and perhaps spiritual. That is completely lacking in the scalphunters. Somebody (Toadvine?) almost intervenes before one of the judge’s outrages (but doesn’t); the kid shows compassion a couple of times (though the outcome is not positive, especially for Shelby, who is left defenceless awaiting the arrival of Elias’s men). Other than those, it’s difficult to see any sense of community between them. They co-exist. That’s all.

    There is a constant theme in McCarthy of people showing the main characters kindness. We see it most notably with Rinthy, of course. And in the Trilogy the Mexican peasants are almost unfailingly kind to Billy and John Grady. The kid is shown kindness, too, in BM. The Dieguenos indians, for example, and I recall there’s a scene in the desert near the end when some men give the kid and his horse sustenance before they ride out in the morning. Mostly, that kindness goes unremarked and unthanked.

    There seems to me, in the western novels, a deliberate flattening of these symbols of community. It differs from Suttree, say, where the band of drunken derelicts take the role of community. There is a sense of community here, albeit fractured and stunted. They do look out for one another, to an extent. They’re certainly not a traditional community, nor one that “decent folks” might consider worthy of attention, but a community they are, in a way the scalphunters never are.

    By the time of the western novels, humanity has become a much weakened force. The judge’s incessant anti-enlightenment Nietzchifications suggest that hubris has been our downfall. In our search for an immanent heaven-on-earth we have lost touch with something of our spiritual selves. We are no longer a true community.

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