"Words" and Names in McCarthy

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  • 29 Jan 2015 at 3:50 am #6343


    Hi everyone,

    Here’s a smattering of passages I’ve been contemplating a lot, with a bit of commentary interspersed:

    More and more language seemed to me to be an aberration by which we had come to lose the world. Everything that is named is set at one remove from itself. Nomenclature is the very soul of secondhandness…. When I began to think that way I began to see the true extent of our alienation. What if there existed a dialogue among the lifeforms of this earth from which we had excluded ourselves so totally that we no longer even believed it to exist? Could it be that dialogue which we still sense in dreams? Or in those rare moments of peace when the world seems in some sense to be revealed to us and to be proper and right? I knew that dreams were prelingual…. Language is a way of containing the world. A thing named becomes that named thing. It is under surveillance. We were put into a garden and we turned it into a detention center.
    -Whales and Men

    McEvoy: I was huntin my father.
    Gregg: Your father.
    M: He was the gardener.
    G: I know who he was.
    M: No you dont.
    G: What do you mean I dont?
    M: You might know his name is all.
    -The Gardener’s Son

    I wonder if God has names for people. He never give em none. People done that. I wonder if people are not all the same to him. Just souls up there and no names. Or if he cares what all they done.
    -The Gardener’s Son

    [McCarthy] said that the religious experience is always described through the symbols of a particular culture and thus is somewhat misrepresented by them. He indicated that even the religious person is often uncomfortable with such experiences and accounts of them, and that those who have not had a religious experience cannot comprehend it through second-hand accounts, even good ones like James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. He went on to say that he thinks the mystical experience is a direct apprehension of reality, unmediated by symbol, and he ended with the thought that our inability to see spiritual truth is the greater mystery.
    -Garry Wallace, “Meeting McCarthy”

    [T]he one thing that characterized all evil everywhere was the refusal to acknowledge it. The eagerness to call it something else.
    -Whales and Men

    [E]ven though there was no longer any question as to what it was [the judge] that approached yet none would name it.
    -Blood Meridian

    Well, the man said, turning to Holme. You’ve set there and dried and warmed and et but you’ve not said your name. A feller didn’t know he’d think you wanted it kept for a secret.
    I don’t care to tell it, Holme said. Folks don’t commonly ast, where I come from.
    We ain’t in them places, the man said.
    Holme, Holme said.
    Holme, the man repeated. The word seemed to feel bad in his mouth. He jerked his head vaguely toward the one with the rifle. That’n ain’t got a name, he said. He wanted me to give him one but I wouldn’t do it. He don’t need nary. You ever see a man with no name afore?
    No, the man said. Not likely.
    Holme looked at the one with the rifle.
    Everthing don’t need a name, does it? the man said.
    I don’t know. I don’t reckon.
    I guess you’d like to know mine, wouldn’t ye?
    I don’t care, Holme said.
    I said I guess you’d like to know mine wouldn’t ye?
    Yes, Holme said.
    The man’s teeth appeared and went away again as if he had smiled. Yes, he said. I expect they’s lots would like to know that.
    -Outer Dark

    I wouldn’t name him because if you cain’t name somethin you cain’t claim it. You cain’t talk about it even. You cain’t say what it is.
    -Outer Dark

    What’s his [Culla and Rinthy’s baby’s] name? the man said.
    I don’t know[, Culla said].
    He ain’t got nary’n.
    No. I don’t reckon. I don’t know.
    They say people in hell ain’t got names. But they had to be called somethin to get sent there. Didn’t they.
    That tinker might of named him.
    It wasn’t his to name. Besides names dies with the namers. A dead man’s dog ain’t got a name.
    -Outer Dark

    Reading all these passages one after another, I’m struck by the sense that, for McCarthy, “words” (presumably metonymic for “symbols” or “representations of things”) do a poor job of modeling reality. Moreover, our reliance on them cuts us off from “true” reality (whatever that is to McCarthy). One major instance of this is the refusal of people to identify evil as such. But it’s not merely *refusing* to call it “evil” that’s the problem: It’s the “eagerness to call it something else.” Thus people mislead themselves and others through language.

    I’m sure this ties into the judge with his ledger, making sketches of objects and destroying the originals. I had always thought the judge was doing this either a) to keep all knowledge to himself or b) to manipulate the historical record, to “control the past”, as it were. Now I’m starting to believe there’s something deeper, more philosophical going on: The judge destroys “things” and leaves only representations of them. Perhaps he is that which cuts us off from “true” reality? Or he at least has a hand in doing so?

    Interestingly, very similar ideas pop up in Faulkner. I would totally imagine these are related, but I’m at a bit of a loss to explain how:

    [W]hen I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride. I knew that it had been, not that they [her students, whom she enjoyed beating] had dirty noses, but that we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching, and that only through the blows of the switch could my blood and their blood flow as one stream[…]
    [Anse] had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to.
    -As I Lay Dying

    His name’s Benjy now, Caddy said.
    How come it is, Dilsey said. He aint wore out the name he was born with yet, is he.
    Benjamin came out of the bible, Caddy said. It’s a better name for him than Maury was.
    How come it is, Dilsey said.
    Mother says it is, Caddy said.
    Huh, Dilsey said. Name aint going to help him. Hurt him, neither. Folks dont have no luck, changing names. My name been Dilsey since fore I could remember and it be Dilsey when they’s long forgot me.
    How will they know it’s Dilsey, when it’s long forgot, Dilsey, Caddy said.
    It’ll be in the Book, honey, Dilsey said. Writ out.
    Can you read it, Caddy said.
    Wont have to, Dilsey said. They’ll read it for me. All I got to do is say Ise here.

    -The Sound and the Fury

    Also, there’s how Benjy doesn’t speak at all. He neither uses nor understands language. He never speaks word one to his family, all he does is moan. And he never seems to understand anything anyone tells him, either. Caddy and Dilsey speak to him as if he does understand, but I don’t imagine he does (he can’t even follow simple directions, like where to sit or how to eat). But I’m sure he apprehends the “true” reality that lies behind the words: Caddy and Dilsey are the only people that love him. (Interestingly, the sole exception (that I can remember) of Benjy understanding language is how he cries anytime someone mentions Caddy. Talk about how words are just “a shape to fill a lack”.) And he is extremely perceptive, he has the most objective account of the family’s story. (Accordingly, I’m not sure that the “words” that constitute his narrative on the page are really his own words so much as Faulkner’s attempt to approximate Benjy’s intuitive thoughts. If it turns out that those are Benjy’s actual thoughts, then most of what I’m saying in this paragraph is nonsense. But I can’t imagine Benjy having even that limited a grasp on language to form a syntactically correct sentence.) And he seems quite “in tune” with the world, say, for instance, the way he “smells” death. (Again, I don’t know that I think he “smells” it, per se; I think that’s just the family’s “word” for how they think Benjy senses or intuits things.)

    And then there’s Darl’s philosophizing, which is largely “sublingual”. I mean, Christ, that “sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was” passage is just ludicrous. But it seems this is Darl’s way of thinking about the world, trying to understand the world, even though he doesn’t have words for the ideas he’s thinking about.

    Finally: I’ve totally been on a Pynchon kick lately. I hated him for the longest time, but I kept going back to him because I had the sense that the problem in the relationship was me and not him. And man am I loving him now. And it’s largely because I’ve come to see so much in common with him and McCarthy thematically:

    “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in that file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for, but—” a hand emerged from the veil of shower-steam to indicate his suspended head—”in here. That’s what I’m for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium[…]
    “You could fall in love with me, you can talk to my shrink, you can hide a tape recorder in my bedroom, see what I talk about from wherever I am when I sleep. You want to do that? You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why the assassins came on, why the black costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Wharfinger [the playwright] supplied words and a yarn. I gave them life.”
    -The Crying of Lot 49

    The saint whose water can light lamps, the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of God, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from. The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost.
    -The Crying of Lot 49

    Now, for anyone who’s read through this whole thing: Do you make anything of it? My main goal is of course to try and understand what in God’s name McCarthy is talking about. But it’s so odd to see such similar ideas coming up in Faulkner and Pynchon. Obviously Faulkner’s the oldest. Are McCarthy and Pynchon just ripping off his philosophy? (That is in no way intended pejoratively.) Are they all, perhaps independently, alluding to some school of philosophy that I’m totally unaware of? I know philosophy of language was a big 20th-century thing, what with Russell-Frege and the Vienna circle and then Wittgenstein’s late period and Kripke et al. And I’ve at times tried to view the judge through a logical positivist lens, but I never made all that much of it. Is there something else I don’t know about? I’m extremely puzzled, but very intrigued by these seeming connections.


    29 Jan 2015 at 1:07 pm #6348


    I’ve always thought this was one of McCarthy’s obsessions. There was a lot about names in The Crossing too. No idea exactly where he’s coming from though. Sometimes he talks like a Platonist, sometimes a Nominalist. One of the interviews mentions that he knows something of Wittgenstein. All rather over my head, unfortunately.

    I’ve been reading your recent posts, efscerbo, and just piped up to say that your thoughts are extremely interesting. I shall be rereading McCarthy shortly, and will be keeping your ideas in mind. Thanks.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 12 months ago by  catlord.
    29 Jan 2015 at 3:15 pm #6351


    Hi catlord,

    Yeah, the fact that he knows Wittgenstein is extremely interesting to me. (Also, Pynchon’s V. has a bunch to do with Wittgenstein. He even mentions him by name in there. Another possible thematic link between him and McCarthy.) And that quote I posted on the Blood Meridian Tidbits thread last night, about McCarthy having “over-read Plato”, is pretty fascinating, assuming it’s true.

    I need to reread The Crossing. My thinking has changed on McCarthy so incredibly much since I last read that. (I used to be squarely in the nihilist/Nietzschean camp.) I’m sure it will be a completely different book for me next time around.

    And thanks for the vote of confidence. “McCarthy studies” is my borderline-unhealthily-obsessive avocation. I’m glad to know there are people out there who share that interest and think some of the things I say are interesting. Thanks again.


    • This reply was modified 2 years, 12 months ago by  efscerbo.
    29 Jan 2015 at 5:49 pm #6353


    Another great post, Ed! I hope I can add something of substance here sometime soon. I also hope you can get away to give a paper at the Memphis conference this fall.

    29 Jan 2015 at 8:08 pm #6356


    Another reference in thinking through this issue is Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lies” essay. There, Nietzsche argues that words, and by extension, concepts are things that humans use, un- or sub-consciously to stand in for the primordial experience of the world. For Nietzsche, however and against (perhaps) McCarthy, the idea of a thing-in-itself (independent of our experience), is a metaphysical illusion that stands in our way of acknowledging the fundamentally unknowable (or perhaps non-existent) so-called real world. For Nietzsche, what is of utmost importance is understanding why it is that humans feel the drive to think of the world in terms of linguistic metaphors in the first place. That is to say, that it is perhaps the case that our very idea of a world outside of human experience is disingenuous, and committed to an old world, metaphysical understanding of our human, all too human connection to things. This thread is particularly interesting to me because Nietzsche characterized his project at that point in his career as anti- or inverse-Platonism. The question that arises for me is whether McCarthy is committed to a dated metaphysical ideology, or if he in some way is able, or working, to transcend it. Either way, thanks for compiling these quotes

    29 Jan 2015 at 8:22 pm #6357


    Also, going off that last thought. Does McCarthy actually think there is a “real” world, or is he gesturing toward the existential predicament we find ourselves in, which contains a drive to expression in linguistic form that perhaps we must and cannot transcend. I’m thinking particularly of the quotes you guestured toward in Outer Dark, where Culla’s guilt is tired up in his inability to name It (the “chap”).

    30 Jan 2015 at 7:31 pm #6364


    Hey Peter,

    Thanks a lot. And yeah, I’m looking forward to hearing from you on some of the stuff I’ve been talking about whenever you have time. But I dunno about the conference. That’s not really my world. I don’t know the first thing about those things, or how these papers work.

    And puremultiple,

    Obviously I can’t speak for him, but I’ve become pretty damn convinced that McCarthy believes in a “real” world. But I suspect that for him, “real” isn’t so much “noumenal” as it is a world of forms or something like that. (I mean, the judge quotes Heraclitus once or twice. And I’d bet the judge’s metaphysics are pretty antipodal to McCarthy’s.) That’s at least what I hear in that Wallace quote above. And as I mentioned above, I’m coming to think that has a lot to do with the judge and his ledger.

    11 Feb 2015 at 12:33 pm #6490


    Couple more interesting ones:

    God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen. Dieu was the French for God and that was God’s name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying. But though there were different names for God in all the different languages in the world and God understood what all the people who prayed said in their different languages still God remained always the same God and God’s real name was God.
    -A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

    The memory of his childhood suddenly grew dim. He tried to call forth some of its vivid moments but could not. He recalled only names[…]
    -A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

    [A]nd then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words, and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew with the words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us. But he said he did know and I said “Are you going to tell pa are you going to kill him?” without the words I said it and he said “Why?” without the words.
    -As I Lay Dying

    Sometimes I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh, and I would think: Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquify and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar. I would think: The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a _________ and I couldn’t think Anse, couldn’t remember Anse. It was not that I could think of myself as no longer unvirgin, because I was three now. And when I would think Cash and Darl that way until their names would die and solidify into a shape and then fade away, I would say, All right. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what they call them.
    -As I Lay Dying

    There are several more such examples in Addie’s chapter, and a few more in the following chapter, Whitfield’s.

    I should add, and I’m a bit surprised I’ve never come across this in the literature, but there’s some very interesting resonance between the above speech of Addie and Romeo and Juliet 2.2. Bear in mind her “Why are you Anse”:

    J: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
    Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
    Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
    And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

    R: Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

    J: ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
    Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
    What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
    Nor arm nor face nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O be some other name!
    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other word would smell as sweet;
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
    And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
    Take all myself.

    13 Feb 2015 at 8:26 am #6552


    I should add, especially since that thread on McCarthy and Robinson is so hot right now, that Lila is just full of all kinds of meditations on words and names.. Not gonna bother copying them out here, but they’re there, for anyone interested.

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