Conversations with Philosophical Mexicans: An Essay on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy in Which Theories of Creativity Are Suggested and I Tread upon the Borders of My Thought, Unfortunately

There are some novels you read with keen interest but also read wondering what is going to bring everything together in the end. It has been too long since I read Light in August to safely comment on it, but I remember the ending of that one was like stepping back and finally seeing that all these interesting colored pieces of glass made up a greater whole. It is a very compelling way to end a novel and probably very difficult unless you are Wm. Faulkner. A novel that tries it and fails leaves the reader feeling the book was an imposition.

The process of clarifying what you want to say is probably different in various types of writers. Some are known to plan almost everything out in great detail. I remember listening to an interview of an author whose work seemed to me rather tedious and predictable. When the author said he worked everything out in detail before writing and also mentioned that he wrote at a rate of four books a year, I realized why his work was tedious and predictable. The problem with organization is that you have to work very carefully to maintain spontaneity that is true to life.

If fiction is to have more than a surface, if it is to be more than just a story, then it has to get its depths from the mysteries of the world, and the mysteries of the world when examined by fiction all find their source in the mysterious well of the human soul. The human soul is not only a well, it is a sea: deep, subject to tides, and never entirely predictable, besides being full of wonders and as transformative of what falls into its power as Ariel makes it out to be.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Which is why, even though apparently many work by organization, it is not easy to do unless you are a genius and have seen all things (or perhaps clever; P.G.Woodehouse had to have planned out all his plots, or else he was a genius and going in reverse, which is possible). You have to be organized to a certain extent, but what that extent may be is what is interesting. So some writers proceed by exploration. They have an idea, or they have a scene, or they have an atmosphere and they develop it. Some discover what it was they wanted to say only when they revise the original story, or after many revisions if they are more dense. And some, it seems, have the trick of following along with their story for a long time till at last they find where they were going. At least, this is the impression one gets. It can work because the truth is part of an order that is the order of the world. This order will emerge in the work of art if the work of art seeks and finds the truth.

Meditations on a Tangent Not Entirely Disconnected from the Ideas This Introduction Was Developing

Of course, good revision is not apparent in a finished work, or is seldom noticeable, and there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears going on behind the scenes till the novel is published. Even an experienced writer has to labor, and I have read some saying it does not get easier but only harder and the end of it is to hope you can die before you run out of things to write about—not enviable and certainly not easy. But it seems to me that for the work to stand complete and compelling as a work of art, it has to have an organic integrity that comes from taking on of a life of its own. For this to happen, it seems to me there has to be a certain logic, a right coherency that the elements of the work find and toward which they call the writer, as it were, so that writing includes the struggle to find out what it is that is trying to be born.

If fiction were about interesting ideas then it is conceivable it could all be planned out, like the argument of some book by somebody I hope never to have to read, such as, say, Immanuel Kant. But ideas are too pointy, they are easier to manipulate and work with than the insights that fiction aspires to impart. If a book arguing a point or handling an idea aims at achieving a certain mutual understanding between the author and the reader, the work of fiction does too. The difference is that the work of fiction aims at an understanding that cannot be reduced to a proposition. The reason it cannot be reduced is that the understanding is an understanding about the irreducible mysteries of the world, or what have otherwise been called the reasons of the heart. Those reasons that reason cannot know are the reasons that make fiction deep and the communications of which are the business of fiction. It is the sort of understanding between author and reader that is in no small way composed of a deep sort of sympathy, especially since the author is not gazing at the reader, but showing something to the reader in the mirror of the human soul.*

I do not mean to say, by suggesting a mirror, that there is no real communication taking place. I mean the mirror in the sense George McDonald meant when he observed that every mirror is a magic mirror, which I take to mean it transforms the world it reflects, with emphasis on the transformation. I also mean to emphasize the Platonic theory of knowledge as anamnesis, which strikes me also as a form of sympathy, which, in turn, I connect with mirrors (as a symbol perhaps, but not only as a symbol, though I am not sure since now I am at one of the points I am trying to think through).

When the poet says that God has put eternity in the heart of man he must mean, in a sense, that God has put a mystery in the heart of man. A mystery is something beyond comprehension, and whatever eternity is, it is a concept I doubt any human being has quite wrapped his head around. I think time is how we know eternity for it is suggested in the endless supply of the present moment we experience. It is also suggested in our inability to imagine any existence other than in a continual stream of present moments—eternity must be absolute. (What sort of paralysis stops permanently in a past moment? I cannot imagine that paralysis. And we can speculate about future moments, but if you stop and wonder exactly what it would mean to move forward in time all you can imagine—at least all that the glories of Science Fiction has suggested to us—is to switch your present moment [and it feels remarkably the same only there is more past to it and, as Douglas Adam’s pointed out, has problems with the tenses of verbs], not to attain a conscious future, not to be before yourself. Part of the problem with time travel, it seems to me, is that we keep using words that imply space—motion, travel, forward, backward. We do not appear to have a vocabulary of time. Language is all made of metaphors, and richer when metaphorical, but it does seem to me highly suspicious that time is obviously borrowing from space and space is not borrowing language from time.)

Something has been put into the heart of man that is too vast to be searched out and for which we yearn. In other words, the whole universe can fit inside the soul of man (see what I mean about vocabulary? it is impossible to avoid mixing the categories of space and time—and even Einstein was confused, you know). And, in fact, the whole universe is inside the soul of man, since man is made in the image and likeness of God who made all the universe, as Moses records. All the depths are in the soul of man; the soul of man can be said to be an undiscovered country. When the writer writes his work, he makes a sort of mirror into which the reader looks and discovers something new in the depths of his soul that is true about the world. This sympathetic insight is what the writer aims to achieve.

A Resumption of the Introduction to the Meditations Originally Meditated

Cormac McCarthy sometimes gives the impression of piling episode upon episode, scene upon scene, fraught situation upon carefully built-up fraught situation for the sake of the episodes, the scenes, and the fraught situations. These are very interesting in and of themselves, but it would be a strange creature (a writer probably, and a bad one at that) who would enjoy reading such things without eventually discerning a coherency delivering said series from being mere aggregations. There is a coherency that emerges at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy—though as I went through, and with great enjoyment, the coherency of the whole appeared dubious.

I should add that I have only read through the border trilogy once, that I ought to read through it again before committing myself to publishing anything about it even in this medium some find so conveniently retractable, but that I am afraid I may not have anything to say if I read it again (nothing to do with the work, everything to do with how it is with me). I do intent to collect the hardcover volumes (have The Crossing already, but this border trilogy is proving hard to find) and read through them in ink and paper.

At Last, the Meditations Originally Meditated

The border trilogy consists of a story about the remarkable John Grady Cole, a story about the unfortunate Billy Parham, and then a last story in which they appear together. In the first story John Grady Cole wanders south of the border and returns. In the second story Billy Parham wanders south of the border twice and returns. In the third story the border is crossed routinely until in the end the south of the border comes north at last. As you can perhaps deduce, the border is more than a line on the map.

John Grady Cole is one of the most fascinating characters in fiction that I know, at least right now. Billy Parham is perhaps not fascinating, but he is very interesting and he seems to be the perfect kind of character to involve in lengthy conversations with philosophical Mexicans. John Grady Cole, being more taciturn, does not lend himself, although there are plenty of philosophical Mexicans spoiling for lengthy conversations with him too. (And it helps if you can read Spanish, but you do not have to know Spanish to understand the border trilogy.)

The meeting of different nationalities usually comes with a zone of weirdness to each. This is due to meeting something unfamiliar. I do not think the zone of weirdness really exists for McCarthy for he appears to know both Americans and Mexicans well enough. If he did not know Americans he could not write American novels. And if he did not know Mexicans he could not write about them so well in his novels. I have lived in Mexico and know something of Mexican ways and ways of speaking; all of McCarthy’s types are true types and the Spanish he puts in their mouth is the genuine Spanish of Mexicans. So the zone of weirdness is probably erased for McCarthy, but he knows what it is (it is not hard to remember or to re-encounter). Though the zone of weirdness is not something McCarthy would have to deal with were he to travel in Mexico, yet he exploits it in these novels and this is how he shows us that the border is more than a line on the map—and more than just a zone of weirdness. The border is the border of mystery itself.

The zone of weirdness is what makes Billy Parham the kind of character to involve in lengthy conversations with philosophical Mexicans. That a certain type of Mexican should find another type of American the proper subject for a philosophical harangue is not exceptional. In the case of Billy Parham and the philosophical Mexican, both types are garrulous. But Billy brings a self-consciousness that corresponds to that of the Mexicans. This self-consciousness makes them both seem taciturn which in turn encourages confidence (John Grady Cole not only is taciturn, but he has none of Billy Parham’s self-consciousness which also helps to earn the Mexican’s trust: they find John Grady Cole too alien, Billy Parham is for the Mexicans a fascinating mix of similarity and strangeness and this is the zone of weirdness. The only Mexicans who harangue John Grady Cole are the ones who feel they have a definite advantage over him—i.e. are about to kill him or can get him killed). Billy and the Mexicans first exchange remarks, then discover some sort of sympathetic mysticism in each other, and so the Mexican is compelled to talk aloud and Billy Parham is compelled to encourage it and listen.

A Paragraph of Digression on Some Corresponding Literature Leading Back to Our Theme

If you are interested in reading more about the zone of weirdness, then go to Hemingway who exploited it regularly, though perhaps not to as great effect as McCarthy has in the border trilogy. Hemingway’s foreigners always inhabit a zone of weirdness and it is part of the irony informing the theme of The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was also interested in the violence, disorder and resulting mysticism of Spanish and Spanish-speaking culture, and especially the regulated violence, the ritual of the bullfight with all its superstitions and capacity for drawing out of the heart powerful destructive desires. If you are interested or better, fascinated with the mysticism of anarchic places where violence is used to impose order, then The Power and the Glory by Grahame Greene will be interesting, or look to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for whom everything familiar is stuck in a zone of weirdness.

There is something mysterious and more alive than the southwestern USA in the Mexico of McCarthy’s novels. It is something he achieves by art, but not therefore something that is not true to real life. Mexico in the novels becomes a place of insight in which the pilgrim protagonists cannot dwell, cannot prosper but where they can and do learn some of the most important things about life. In Mexico life is more stark because it is more unregulated and people live with a greater superstition than is possible for them in the more orderly lands north of the border. Mexico is mysterious because there mystery holds sway in the living imagination. The presence of real power, the authority of violence imposed without the ordering of law is what makes Mexico a realm of mystery. Both John Grady Cole and Billy Parham come face to face with it as they come of age in the first two novels. But it is not till the last novel that McCarthy brings everything together climactically as he holds up the mirror to his American readers.

I run the risk of giving the impression that the first two novels are incoherent on their own. They are coherent, especially the first. But in the second something has escaped, perhaps because he knew he was writing at trilogy by then, which may not have been apparent from the beginning—I speculate at this point. The second novel in some way needs the third more than the first, and the third brings all three together. That is why I began where I did: talking about novels that make sense only with the help of a sort of epilogue.

And one of the things that goes wrong in the second novel, The Crossing, is that McCarthy fails to put what he is saying into the poetry of his narrative. He is able to do this elsewhere very well, to use an action to communicate what he needs, but at one point he either doubts his ability to do it or wants to be more pointed than he should, which is to say: he does not trust his reader, and this is a failure. How does he fail? He subjects Billy Parham to a long conversation with a philosophical Mexican. It is very boring. I think it is boring because it is an attempt to tell the reader what the reader who is enjoying the story would rather see dramatized in the narration, made alive in action rather than relegated to the lips of a character. It fails because it defrauds the thing McCarthy is trying to communicate.

If you write a story that is the occasion for an argument you want to put in somebody’s mouth you should be careful the argument does not overwhelm the action of the story. Now a conversation can be an action, but when the substance of the speaking of one character carries an argument so that all the rest is decoration, you have failed to tell a story. Plato did it all the time (well, ok, it was more than a decorated argument since the surroundings of the dialogues are important to the meaning of the dialogue, but they elucidate an argument discernible without them), but we do not pick up Plato thinking here is a work of fiction. That is not the joy of Plato. Plato wrote ingeniously interesting philosophy and he certainly seems to have done it better than Immanuel Kant is reputed to have done, but Plato did not write any novels. And if you write a good story but in the midst thereof have a philosophical Mexican saying things longer than is interesting and with no discernible action but a lot of argument, you are going to make your reader suspicious.

But in the third novel, Cities of the Plain, McCarthy does better than in the second when the philosophical Mexican begins to speak to Billy Parham. The philosophical Mexican intersperses his philosophical conjecture as commentary on a mythic dream whose purpose appears to be to wrestle with the notion of human consciousness. The objections to the failure in The Crossing are even suggested by Billy Parham himself, in his interlocutions which are more frequent in the third novel than in the second. Still, McCarthy’s excuse for doing it, for putting within his work of art the thing the art is mean to suggest, is perilous. The depths of a mirror are not achieved by giving it thicker glass. The depths of a mirror are achieved by holding it in such a way that it reflects to the looker a deep place previously unnoticed. The ingenious mirrors of fiction are able both to focus the gaze and to keep from distorting the thing gazed at, which is a feat and why they are so valuable.

John Grady Cole, a man peculiar mostly because he is un-self-conscious, while being a particular and well-developed character still manages to take on an allegorical significance. He is Everyman, in a way. He is admirable because of his persistence, and his persistence fascinates because it is the persistence of a heart that desires what it desires absolutely. The gaze of John Grady Cole’s heart is a gaze so focused on the object that it is completely unaware of the perceiving subject. John Grady Cole is un-self-conscious. Billy Parham is anything but un-self-conscious. I do not mean he is self-conscious in the sense that he is timid, for he is not timid. But he is aware of how he appears; he becomes aware of the gaze of the other and it is always with him as it is with the Mexicans, and this is the basis for the sympathy that exists between them. And in this lies the superiority of John Grady Cole: he is unaware of the gaze of the other but he is always himself gazing on that which is other with an undiminished intensity that makes his character relentless.

This makes John Grady Cole something of a mythic hero—something more than modern, for what is more modern than the sense of being trapped by one’s own consciousness—and it is he that must meet with the most absolute instance of evil, for only he has the power of an undistracted gaze with which to look on the awful face, and listen to its terrible speech, and who has the power to overcome and to shut the mouth of evil. And only after that can McCarthy step back from all the episodes, and scenes and fraught, symbolic situations and show us the greater whole: that is when Billy Parham is strangely accosted north of the border by another philosophical Mexican.

Mortality comes with the intimations of immortality just as surely as time suggests eternity to us. And McCarthy is concerned with nothing, he has said, that is not concerned with life and death. The border trilogy is concerned with the significance of immortality, and is fascinated by violence, order, and mortality. In the end order wins because it is able to focus its violence by the power of an undistracted gaze. But the distraction of self-consciousness still remains at the end of the trilogy, and has entered the world of order ominously. What McCarthy does is pose the problem of modern man: how to live with historical consciousness, which is a form of self-consciousness, which eludes without confronting a growing chaos and violence. It is a predicament of paralysis. It is a predicament ominously unresolved which may suggest to the reader there is only despair to follow.

Despair, however, is not the end of all things. For just as time suggests eternity, and mortality suggests immortality, so the opposite of despair suggests despair’s antithesis: hope. How? Mysteriously, the way that through all the border trilogy the worst always suggests the better. And in a trilogy in which the mystery is shown to spread, that seems to me a complex ending, and a good one.

*I suspect this is not limited to fiction, but is true of all true art; but I am not prepared or qualified to make statements about other arts—and whether I am qualified or prepared to make them about fiction is perhaps too much of an assumption. Besides, you have my previous statements in which I made some assertions about the mysteries of the world, and wells, and all that; it is a hedging of my bets that conveniently curtails my scope.

6 thoughts on “Conversations with Philosophical Mexicans: An Essay on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy in Which Theories of Creativity Are Suggested and I Tread upon the Borders of My Thought, Unfortunately

  1. You gave me so much to think about here that I wanted to say so. From the lips of an unforgiveable dabbler – may you someday have the readers you deserve.

  2. Don’t take it too seriously. I gave myself a lot to think about here and probably a lot to qualify and perhaps eventually not a little to discard.

    I am glad you read it. One always anticipates, with stuff this long, it will be generally overlooked. Still, on always hopes somebody will read it even though most of the profit had is just in wrestling with and clarifying one’s thought by putting it into words and making it take a shape that makes sense.

  3. Never fear that I’m reading you as a sort of authority. I think I do understand what you are doing.

    Neverthless, there’s a carefulness and originality in what you do that makes me decline to retract my good wishes.

  4. Interesting thoughts, Joel….
    Just a side note to your following comment:
    “I run the risk of giving the impression that the first two novels are incoherent on their own. They are coherent, especially the first. But in the second something has escaped, perhaps because he knew he was writing at trilogy by then, which may not have been apparent from the beginning—I speculate at this point. The second novel in some way needs the third more than the first, and the third brings all three together. That is why I began where I did: talking about novels that make sense only with the help of a sort of epilogue.”

    It may be of interest to you that “Cities of the Plain” pre-existed the other two novels as a screenplay. Not sure on the backstory of the screenplay…if it was “shopped” or “shelved” or what. My speculation is that McCarthy realized that he had written a couple of interesting characters and was inspired to give each his own story.

  5. It is of interest. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I look back on this essay and can’t help feeling it could use a thorough revision–especially the punctuation.

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