Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cormac McCarthy, "All the Pretty Horses"

(Vintage, 1993)

There's a metaphysic, an entire universe at the bottom of McCarthy's fiction; the hard part for me has been to dig it up, and the following is simply a musing on that topic.

McCarthy seems, for the most part, to deliver a chaotic, almost high-modernist metaphysic of chance and naked force (see in particular No Country for Old Men or Blood Meridian). But the more I read him, the more I'm convinced that this can't be the whole picture. All the Pretty Horses, the first book in his acclaimed Border Trilogy, is rife with symbols and discursions betokening the aforementioned universe of constant, chaotic change. Something else emerges however: as long as I'm bandying about "isms", I might call it a negative Romanticism or something close to that.

The book is a Western set in the early 1950s near the Texas-Mexico border. The main protagonist finds himself homeless at the age of sixteen, and enlists a friend to travel with him by horseback to Mexico in search of work and adventure. A third youngster, a stranger, joins them on the road, and this eventually sets off a series of violent events which escape the protagonists' control. In the meantime, however, they find work with a rich landowner/rancher. The main protagonist falls in love with the rancher's daughter, becomes her lover, and attempts to overcome the massive obstacles put in their way.

For me, the following passage sums up the entire novel: "He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he'd first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he'd presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and he felt a loneliness he'd not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world's heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world's pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower".

Nature is not an infinitely creative source of abundance as in Romanticism, but rather an insatiably vampiric entity dragging down beauty, or allowing it to appear only briefly, and at an exhorbitant cost. One thinks here of the bleakness of The Road, but on further reflection the fragility of beauty and goodness in an otherwise indifferent or malevolent world is a constant theme throughout McCarthy's fiction. Humanity itself is ephemeral; it is in any case bought at what may seem too high a price, as the main protagonists of both The Road and All the Pretty Horses learn firsthand. In general the Western is, perhaps, one of the best genres through which to lay all this bare. Of McCarthy's Westerns, however, I would suggest that the interested reader start with All the Pretty Horses lest the novelization of this metaphysic offered by what is arguably his best work, Blood Meridian, prove altogether too terrifying or unpalatable.

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