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The Things of God and Man: The Paradox of Consciousness in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy

Two worlds touch here.[1]

He said that the boy should find that place where acts

of God and those of man are of a piece.[2]


Through the end of the 1960’s teams still played baseball on the ellipse behind the White House.  Almost every weekday evening one could find an Industrial League or American Legion game to watch.  It was in some ways a place of wonder because, if the observer cared to open herself, the ellipse made visible a variety of levels of reality.  There was the reality of the individual game.  For a center-fielder focused on the interaction of the pitcher and the batter, the reality that mattered was the pie-shaped boundaries of the playing field.  However, behind him was the reality of another game.  Beyond that reality was the reality of a tourist city and then of Washington, D.C. as a seat of power.  Yet the White House, the monuments, the museums, the capitol, and the Supreme Court building were not all of reality either.  Transcending them was a city in which average people went to work and school, raised their families, and interacted with friends, neighbors, and enemies.  In a very real way the order of that city depended on the order of each of those smaller realities.  However, the city’s order also depended on the attunement of those realities to each other and to any other realities that transcended them, even if they were unrecognized by denizens who were intent on their own little worlds.

Those nights watching ball on the ellipse allowed one a momentary glimpse of the paradox of consciousness.  Standing there it was impossible not to understand that human beings participate in some comprehensive reality that is composed of many layers.  Not every evening, but some evenings it was a place where the things of God and men were of a piece.  And that is the point of this remembrance and why the focus of this chapter is Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. The Border Trilogy requires its reader to open herself to the paradox of consciousness, to the mystery that is unseen but real and which comprehends all the other levels of reality in the human world.  From this paradox McCarthy draws the language that evokes his sense of the Real.  This understanding of reality then allows some of the characters a reflective distance that can result in the remembrance and witness that produce order.  Others, rejecting this paradox as “unreal,” choose egoism, isolation, and disorder.  The Border Trilogy produces moments of both the movement of the human soul out of itself to others and to a mysterious Beyond and moments of the irruption of the luminosity of Beyond into human reality.   It also produces moments of horror, spiritual sickness, and depravity.  From the perspective of the Border Trilogy, decision and choice about what is Real form the essence of the human condition.  Everything follows from that one choice, that one ground of a character’s being.

Initial reactions to the work of Cormac McCarthy usually characterized him as a nihilist, a Gnostic, a poststructuralist, or a post-modernist author. Since the beginning of the new millennium, however, critics and scholars increasingly have commented on the spiritual vision that pervades his novels.  The work of Arnold, Monk, and Peebles drew attention to the understandings of God and spirituality portrayed in the Border Trilogy.[3]  Peebles in particular grasped the recurring theme in his work that “. . . the material world can crumble around us . . . but the transcendent ‘real’ world is unchanging.”[4]  Such ideas opened a new area of scholarship on  McCarthy’s spirituality. Some of this research argues that McCarthy has created a post-secularist morality that looks to forming a “religious tradition after the death of providential religious theism,”[5] one that focuses on the “mysterious and unanswerable”[6] and recognizes the “holiness embodied in the quotidian.”[7]   Lilley sees McCarthy as a “postmodern transcendentalist,”[8] and Arnold considers him a mystic. Several scholars include elements of all those categories in their analysis.

This research, excellent as it is, seems to generate more heat than light.  Our argument is that McCarthy’s work, his conceptions of the Real and of transcendence, and the ethic that McCarthy’s understanding of the Real and transcendence requires most fully reveal themselves when approached from the perspective of Voegelin’s complexes of Language-Reality-Consciousness and Distance-Remembrance-Oblivion.  Post-secularist morality is an insufficient guide through McCarthy’s spiritual vision because it does not go far enough.  The post-secularist trope fails to help a reader understand the ground beneath this morality of personal responsibility and ethical intentions, which Cooper argues “may be the only effective measure of a man’s morality.”[9]  What is the source and ground of such an ethic? Further, they appear to consider transcendence in McCarthy to be a thing, rather than an experience.  It might not be a personal God, but they definitely see transcendence as a thing. We argue that Voegelin’s understanding of the paradox of consciousness provides the best entry into Cormac McCarthy’s dark and labyrinthine world.  For one can never understand how to make the things of God and man of one piece without accepting the paradox of consciousness and its role in the complex of Distance-Remembrance-Oblivion.

Certainly, recognition of the need for attunement of all levels of reality to some ground of being—some comprehensive reality that transcends the world of things—and the ability of language to evoke an understanding of that common and comprehensive reality–are the common threads that bind together Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.  Each of these stories revolves around the paradox of consciousness caused by human life in the metaxy.  In them, McCarthy calls for answerability and witness on the part of human beings who understand themselves as participants and co-creators of reality rather than lords of creation.  Yes, humans are beings with reason and will.  However, each work suggests that as important as each individual story is, all stories take place in the theater of transcendence.  Thus, “rightly heard, all tales are one.”[10]

It is that theater which is the ultimate reality to which human thought and action must be attuned and which human language and politics must seek to evoke. The mythic quests undertaken by Billy Parham and John Grady Cole in the trilogy illuminate the violence at the heart of the myth of modernity and its holy trinity of science, reason, and freedom.  Those quests, which always end in failure, demonstrate the disastrous consequences that can occur when modernity exercises authority over human life independently of metaleptic participation in the metaxy.  When human beings forget or refuse the paradox of consciousness, they cannot attain reflective distance because they have not the language that will allow them to participate in a story that is ultimately mysterious, but sometimes luminous.  The choice is ours whether to participate, but the choice carries consequences.  When understanding of Reality fails to engender reflective distance and remembrance, the result is self-assertion, isolation in the solitary ego and oblivion, resistance, and disorder.  Only reflective distance and remembrance allow human beings to participate in, and therefore act as true witnesses to Reality, to the one story; only such participation McCarthy seems to argue, produces order in both individuals and societies.

McCarthy’s Border Trilogy takes place in Mexico and the southwestern United States from the 1939 (The Crossing) to 1952 (Cities of the Plain).  Each book is set against the backdrop of a world-wide disorder, which Thucydides would have recognized as a kinesis.  It evokes the same spirit of futility and despair that gripped Polybius in The Histories when he realized that the real purpose of Roman expansion during the Punic Wars was nothing more than the expansion itself, or, more bluntly “Why not?”   By the end of the trilogy, the great Mexican revolutions have come and gone, the American conquest of the continent is complete, and the United States has just emerged victorious from the greatest war in history.  The country is on the eve of becoming a nuclear superpower.  But what does this mean in terms of order and consciousness?

John Grady Cole is the heart of All the Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain.  In All the Pretty Horses he and a friend, Lacey Rawlins, ride away from the divorce of John’s parents, the death of his grandfather, and the prospective sale by his mother of the grandfather’s ranch.  It is 1949 and John Grady is 16. They cross the Texas border to find adventure, romance, and meaning in Mexico.  John Grady, McCarthy says, is one of the “ardent-hearted.”  He possesses not only a seemingly magical ability to understand and train horses, but also great integrity and passion.  Yet trouble befalls them almost as soon as they leave home.

Jimmy Blevins, 13 and riding a stolen horse, joins them.  Blevins’ gun and horse are stolen and his first attempt to get them back leads to recovery of the horse, a chase, and Blevins’ separation from John Grady and Lacey. A second attempt by Blevins leads to the killing of a Mexican official and the boy’s ultimate capture.  In the meantime, John Grady  and Lacey get jobs at a Mexican ranch, the Hacienda de Nuestra Señora Purĩsima Concepcion owned by Don Héctor Rocha y Villareal, where he falls in love with the owner’s daughter.  Crossing this forbidden cultural border proves disastrous for both him and for his friend Rawlins.  They are arrested, accused of stealing horses, and sent to prison in Saltillo.  On the way they are reunited with Jimmy Blevins whom guards execute in the desert.  In Saltillo they are abused and a hired killer attacks John Grady, but is killed by him.

Mysteriously released, John Grady returns to the ranch where he finds that his lover’s godmother and great-aunt, Dueña Alfonsa, has paid for their freedom once Alejandra has promised never to see John Grady again.  Their conversation marks the old woman as an idealist turned realist: “In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments.  Those whom life does not cure death will.”[11]  For her, life is a continuous power struggle that no individual can change. Only the foolhardy try and any attempt leads only to disaster and death.   In one final meeting, Alejandra says she will honor her promise and leaves.  John Grady goes after the Captain who took his and Lacey’s horses and crosses back into Texas with them after having been chased and wounded by the corrupt Captain. There he meets a Judge and tells his story, telling the older man that he is nothing special.   He returns Lacey’s horse to him and, finding that his father has now died, “rides on.”

Billy Parham is the main character in The Crossing.  In1939 Billy also leaves home as a teenager and makes three quixotic journeys across the border: first to return a she-wolf to her home in the mountains; next, to pursue with his brother, Boyd, those who murdered his parents and stole their horses; and, finally, to find his brother who disappeared with a young Mexican girl encountered during their wanderings.  Like John Grady Cole, Billy and Boyd seem to meet violence, blood, and suffering more than meaning on these journeys.  The she-wolf is stolen by men who use her in fights.  To save her from the indignity of such a death Billy kills her.  He and Boyd find and take back their stolen horses and then are accused of stealing them. Boyd is shot, but recovers and decides to leave Billy and remain in Mexico with the girl.  Boyd becomes part of a revolutionary movement and is killed.

The most overtly metaphysical of the three books in the trilogy, The Crossing sees Billy encounter three important figures in understanding McCarthy’s sense of life in the middle: an ex-priest, a man who had his eyes sucked out for participating in the Mexican Revolution, and a gypsy.  Each has a story that stays with Billy and influences him even though he does not understand them. By listening to these stories Billy finds himself an unwitting participant in consciousness. He wants to be untouched, an outside observer of the facts, but, in reality, he stands as a witness who gives meaning and reality to the people he meets and the stories he is told.   Crossing the border with Boyd’s bones, Billy views in the distance the light from the Trinity Project.  He is home, but he is not Home. Riding into town he is a stranger to all who see him.  A stray dog approaches him.  Afraid of any connection after the deaths of the she-wolf, his parents, and Boyd, Billy shoos him away.

However, his conscience won’t let him rest.  He searches for the stray, but cannot find it and he sits in the road and cries.  He has become the huérfano (orphan) an old Mexican warned him he might become.  Billy, too, rides on, seemingly unwilling to “cease his wanderings and make for himself some place in the world because to wander in this way would become for him a passion and by the passion he would become estranged from men and so ultimately from himself.”[12]  Still, the old Mexican was correct in telling Billy that he contained “a largeness of spirit which men could see and that men would wish to know him and that the world would need him even as he needed the world for they were one.”[13]  Billy becomes a wanderer with a strong ethical core built from interaction with consciousness.  His understanding of the order of nature and the world make him practical rather than either a cynic or a realist.  Billy is a contemporary Everyman, wandering the earth witnessing and puzzling over the meaning of the stories he hears.

John and Billy’s lives come together in Cities of the Plain.  Billy is 27 and John Grady 19.  They work together on Mac McGovern’s ranch.  However, the government has bought the ranch in order to expand the nuclear testing grounds. Together, they make a final crossing to free the prostitute John Grady loves from Eduardo, her pimp, a crossing that will end in John’s death and reinforce Billy’s sense of the futility of life.

For Voegelin and McCarthy consciousness is not the same as interiority; consciousness is located not in us, but in the comprehending reality.  Many McCarthy scholars equate consciousness and interiority. That is a start, but McCarthy’s understanding of consciousness is much more expansive. The Border Trilogy’s understanding of consciousness is like that of Voegelin.  Reality in both McCarthy and Voegelin is not an object of consciousness “but something in which consciousness occurs as an event of participation between partners in the community of being.”[14]  Both It-Reality and Thing-Reality must participate in consciousness.  Not only must intention and will be present, but also “the formative It-Reality in all things,” the comprehending reality must be felt.[15]  Consciousness occurs in the border experience of It and Thing Reality. For Voegelin and for McCarthy, human beings feel that border experience but often ignore it. Human beings feel, and then ignore, the blue flowers of longing.

There is something Voegelinian that is played out in every one of Billy’s and John Grady’s quests: “an It-story that tells itself through the events of the participatory quests for truth, and with its reality, the implications of the paradoxic symbolism.”[16] Each of their quests results in crossing borders and the concomitant experience of multiple realities at the same time.  They understand themselves as living in some middle they do not usually understand.  They live in-between cultures, nations, races (Billy’s maternal grandmother was a “full-blooded” Mexican), beauty and the ugliness of human depravity, life and death, justice and the will to power, love and loss, the beginning and the beyond.  They are not knowers; they are puzzlers.  They ask questions about the existence of God, about the nature of the Real, about justice that they cannot answer.  Yet, they always answer the call to witness.  They resist “a received symbolism” that seems to them “insufficient to express truly the reality of his responsive experience.”[17]  They stand witness to what Voegelin describes as the luminosity of consciousness that is located somewhere in-between, at the borders of all the middles in which they exist.

John Grady Cole cannot agree with the realist worldview of Dueña Alfonsa, the great-aunt and godmother of his lover, or of Eduardo, the pimp who owns the epileptic prostitute he seeks to save.  Yet he is not an idealist. John Grady merely responds, often without understanding, to the pull of the luminous but mysterious Beyond.  Billy crosses borders and responds to luminosity through friendship. He tries to return the pregnant she-wolf to Mexico, so it will not be trapped and killed.  He crosses again with his brother Boyd in order to pursue the horse thieves who murdered their parents.  Billy crosses yet again to attempt to find his brother Boyd who remained in Mexico.  He finds Boyd has died and that he and his brother have become the stuff of corridos, ballads (that anger and mystify him). Billy’s searches for Boyd’s grave and returns his body home.  And, from friendship, he crosses with John Grady Cole first in search of a good time in Ciudad Juarez’s bars and brothels and later to support John Grady’s disastrous attempt to free the prostitute Magdalena.  They puzzle over the existence of a provident God, but they always respond to the call of Beyond expressed as justice.

Like Ivan in The Grand Inquisitor, they find it impossible to believe in a provident God.  Yet the order of nature they see around them and the mysterious pull they feel from some luminous Beyond, prevents them from total atheism.  They do not have the Russian Monk’s  counterargument to Ivan that God cries, but they persevere motivated by something inside them. As one of the characters in the film Magnolia put it:

“We may let go of the past; but the past rarely, if ever, lets go of us.  We have to choose to change—to break the pattern.  And we need each other to do that. We have to be nicer to one another.  And we can because each of us has a lot of love to give if only we knew how to do it.  It is never a mistake to confuse children with angels.  Yes, life is a cesspool.  But there is also justice, love, miracle, forgiveness and grace.”[18]

Their pasts never leave them. John Grady’s mother’s sale of the ranch he loves after his grandfather’s death, his failed love affair with Alejandra, his guilt over killing the man who was hired to kill him in prison help shape his future actions. The deaths of the she-wolf he sought to save, Boyd, and his parents, won’t let Billy go. Billy and John Grady often are confused by the “paradoxic symbolism” in the stories they are told by peasants, blind revolutionaries and maestros, ex-priests, and gypsies while on their quests. Yet they continue to believe in friendship, community, justice, and love.  And they do experience moments of grace. They remain men of order.

Thus, their stories meet Voegelin’s criteria for a true story: (1) their quests provide insights into the “order of reality,” at least to the reader; and (2) McCarthy’s language conveys the lived experience of life in the “metaxy of divine-human movements and countermovements.”[19]  Billy is the Everyman critics find him to be, just not in the way they expect.  And McCarthy, as scholars of his work maintain, is the critic of modernity, especially in scenes that focus on freedom and control.  The myth of modernity rests upon the belief that human beings can order the physical and personal environment according to will (intent) and that progress is the result of the imposition of human will on the world and on social relations.  Freedom, thus, is the ability to impose one’s will.  Reason is the ability to calculate the means to achieve some intended end.  Much of the literature on McCarthy’s novels stresses the view that his main characters believe that freedom is the ability to create one’s own narrative through the control of language, people, and events.

However, McCarthy’s western novels always undermine the modern views of reason, science and freedom. The message is not, as some critics have suggested, the realist view that human beings must recognize  and accommodate themselves to the facts of human depravity and the world’s unyielding hardness and lack of mercy.  There is a reason the realist characters in the Border Trilogy are unappealing and inhuman.  Their speeches and actions demonstrate the violence and destruction that arise from the unmediated reliance on the modern trinity.  And we argue that McCarthy’s point is not that Billy and Boyd Parham or John Grady Cole suffers in the world because of a failure to realize the mistakenness of any idealism. For the only way to accomplish that goal is either by (1) shrinking the self so that the reality they confront is very small or (2) making larger realms of reality fit their own terms, an endeavor for which one can never have too much power.  These characters never commit either of those fallacies.  They are endlessly disappointed, but never cynical.  They find that neither life nor the world always bends to human will and intention and recoil from the examples of freedom as will to power they meet along the way.

Billy Parham and John Grady Cole are far from being intellectual in their choices and actions.  However, at some gut level, they understand that human beings are bound up with each other and with all aspects of life (especially the natural world).  Some mysterious beyond or God, man, world and society form one inter-connected experience.  Their initial choices–John Grady’s to leave for Mexico in hope of continuing a cowboy lifestyle that he associates, somewhat romantically, with the order of nature and the mystery of the old Comanche trail, and Billy’s somewhat quixotic attempt to capture a pregnant she-wolf and return her across the mountains to Mexico–mark them for the rest of their lives as participants in some mystery of being they glimpse.

McCarthy’s western novels strongly suggest that human beings need to re-imagine their understanding of freedom.  Freedom is not the ability to control people, the physical world, events, etc. in order to produce some end in accordance with a human will.  Freedom is human choice that takes place within the constraints of necessity, the web of life that stretches from a Beginning human beings cannot know to an End they cannot predict. And where is this web-of-life conducted? In the middle, always in a middle touched by both human choice and some Beyond which is not a thing even though it becomes luminous from time to time in everyday things and relationships.

When Billy looks into the eyes of the she-wolf he sees that luminosity, which is grace (for “nothing is real save God’s grace.”)[20]  Consciousness becomes luminous in the kindness of peasants, the wisdom of the Judge to whom John Grady confesses his experiences in Mexico, the ex-priest’s ramblings about God, the gypsy’s warning about the fleetingness of life and fame as he tells the story of the father who searches for the remnants of the plane crash in which his son died, the Mexican Stranger’s dream of mortality and immortality, and the warnings of the two blind men.  In effect, for McCarthy, as for Plato, freedom is the ability to choose to do the Good.   Without such an understanding of freedom, a person is cut off from reality and becomes an orphan.  In McCarthy’s novels being an orphan is the ultimate alienation from self and others.  Billy is warned about that alienation in The Crossing and almost succumbs after John Grady’s death.  “He rode on.”  Billy becomes the Wanderer.  Yet he does not become a realist.

Implicit in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain is an argument that contemporary political philosophies are destructive of the very human flourishing they purport to engender.  McCarthy sets his stories in the west, but he is not mourning the passing of a lifestyle; his tragedies mourn the rejection of the human condition. In his works the reader sees a movement going on in the soul that parallels the structure of history as an intermediate reality. As does St. Augustine, McCarthy reminds us here that human constructions are not all that is real. He suggests that human creations and relationships are limited, ephemeral, and rooted in humanity’s fallen condition.

The argument that McCarthy’s Border Trilogy mourns the modern rejection of the human condition hinges on a view of consciousness.  Cormac McCarthy’s vision of consciousness is quite different from that of most contemporary political theorists, whether liberal or postmodern. McCarthy holds out neither personal autonomy nor self-creation as the goal.  His response to life’s contingency, mystery, and pain is not self-protection, rage, or despair.  Life is not meaningless in McCarthy’s works; life is ordered by death as it is in Plato’s “Myth of Er” from Republic and the “Judgment of the Dead” from Gorgias.

In McCarthy’s writing the world is full of grace. However, only rootedness in the metaxy allows us to understand that.  Our choice in such a life is whether to respond to or resist grace:

“The priest saw that there is no man who is elect because there is no man who is not.  To God every man is a heretic.  The heretic’s first act is to name his brother.  So that he may step free of him.  Every word we speak is a vanity.  Every breath taken that does not bless is an affront. . . In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God.  For nothing is real save his grace.”[21]

Consciousness is that luminous moment when we are aware of both Thing-reality (intention and our experience of being a subject in a world of objects) and It-reality (our experience as predicates, a part of some drama of being).  Consciousness occurs at those moments when we catch of glimpse of the joint participation of god and humanity in the world.  They are the moments of grace.  We pull those glimpses of luminosity into our lives through remembering and acting on them in our personal and political lives.  These moments of consciousness are the source of any true order, an order that has both personal and political consequences.  These luminous moments both allow us to participate in the story despite its mystery and contingency and are our reward for participation.

This is the understanding of consciousness as a paradoxical interaction of human beings and transcendence that illuminates All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.  Reality as a thing intended confronts the mystery and contingency of life.  In the Border Trilogy, the “seeing” (who often are physically blind), understand that most people see dream worlds rather than reality. “Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals that man has made go to and fro.  Yet this world men do not see.  They see the acts of their own hands or that which they name and call out to one another, but the world is invisible to them.”[22] They cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees.

During their journeys, Billy and John meet strange messengers that cease to be strange when the reader finally realizes that they are doing the work of philosophers, prophets, and teachers everywhere.  They are speaking the paradoxical word of transcendence that is tremendously thick and hugely theophanic and at the same time very human, small, silent and clear.  These messengers, who see clearly the reality invisible to most, call Billy and John Grady  to consciousness.  “In the end what the priest came to believe was that the truth may often be carried about by those who themselves remain unaware of it.”[23] Everywhere they go, they are asked to participate in some mystery.  They have their own goals and plans, but they cannot escape the call to participate in transcendence.   At every turn they find evidence of these words:  “Our plans are predicated on a future unknown to us.  The world takes its form hourly by a weighing of things at hand and while we may seek to puzzle out that form we have no way to do so.  We have only God’s law, and the wisdom to follow it if we will.”[24] They always answer the call.

In the works of both Cormac McCarthy and Eric Voegelin, the world always is the same and always tells the same story.  In both, humans are challenged to understand the fact that reality “is no longer an object of consciousness but the something in which consciousness occurs as an event of participation between partners in the community of being.”[25] Or, as the old man tells Billy in The Crossing, if he wants to catch the wolf he must find that place “where the acts of God and man…cannot be distinguished.”[26] For both, consciousness is participation in an all-encompassing reality that consists of the primordial community of transcendence and man, world and society.

All three stories within the Border Trilogy occur in some middle place where moments of luminosity are remembered and either acted upon or ignored.  As the protagonists proceed, they often appear mute and confused among the many deformed states of consciousness they encounter.  They seem like helpless toys in a world of dogma, atomic testing, and war.  But John Grady and Billy are not helpless at all.  They encounter help everywhere.  That help consistently takes the form of a call to them to be awake and aware and to participate with others in the story of order and disorder going on around them.  They are constantly called to consciousness—to stand for order against disorder.

What these stories teach us is that the field of history is the soul of man.  We know our “selves” as part of a story.  We create ourselves, as individuals and collectivities, through participation in the story and the sacred is the ground where the story takes place. Every society has the responsibility, Voegelin argues, of reinventing itself—of redefining its order in terms of its experiences of the human and the divine.  That is a story.  If we forget the story, we forget who we are.

The quest for order is evident in any number of stories and conversations (John’s tale to the judge, the blind men’s stories in The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, the almost surreal encounter of Billy with the blind veteran of the Mexican Revolution, John and Eduardo’s knife fight, the stories told Billy by the old trapper, the hermit at the church, the gypsy, the kind women).  Their social field does extend “historically from a distant past, through the present, into the future.”[27] There is, for example, John Grady Cole’s evening ride where he would always choose the old Comanche road.   For:

“When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent… and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across the mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.[28]

Where and how do we find order?  We find order through our ability to understand there is only one story and that our story is part of it. “Our lives are but an instant.”[29] “Ultimately every man’s path is every other’s.  There are no separate journeys for there are no separate men to make them.  All men are one and there is no other tale to tell.”[30] We must make those lives and stories what we can.  In order to do that we must stand witness for each other.

Stories founded on the paradox of consciousness show us whether the storyteller is awake and aware or asleep and blind.  In these books the folks who live closest to nature, closest to necessity, closest to death seem to be the most awake and aware.  They see best the interplay of the transcendent and man in life and the impossibility of pulling apart the threads of the story to analyze whose part is whose:

“For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale.  And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them.  So everything is necessary.  Every least thing.  This is the hard lesson.  Nothing can be dispensed with.  Nothing despised.  Because the seams are hid from us, you see.  The joinery.  The way in which the world is made.  We have no way to know what could be taken away.  What omitted.  We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall.   And those seams that are hid from us are of course in the tale itself and the tale has no abode or place of being except in the telling only and there it lives and makes its home and therefore we can never be done with the telling.[31]

The point of looking into ourselves is, through our imaginative abilities, to pull us out of ourselves.  If we pull ourselves out of ourselves, we get a little reflective distance and are better able to remember and stay awake.  If we resist the pull of the metaxy, then we cannot get out of ourselves.  In extreme resistance, we fall into oblivion or gnosticism and completely lose the thread of the tale.

McCarthy most eloquently summarizes all this in the Epilogue to Cities of the Plain.  As is Plato’s Myth of Er, the epilogue is a carefully constructed work on the art of measuring life from the perspective of death.  And if the measure of life is death, the measuring line is immortality. The story of Er is a symbol of man, existing in time and experiencing himself as participating in the timeless.

The Epilogue is immediately preceded by the death of John Grady Cole. Billy holds the precious bloody sacrifice in his arms and calls out to God: “Look at this . . . Do you see?  Do you see?”  The chapter ends with a group of children crossing the road: “And all continued onto their appointed places which some believe were chosen long ago even in the beginning of the world.”[32] For Billy, John’s death seems to demonstrate the futility of participation and the importance of resistance.  Nothing ever has changed or ever will change.

In both The Crossing and Cities of the Plain Billy wants to stand outside the drama of being and not get too involved.  Involvement hurts.  He wants to think people’s lives are made easier, less dangerous, less complicated by resistance to the call.  But he is too awake, too in-tune with reality, and too honest to be fooled.  Billy wants to forget.  But an owl that flies spread eagle into a pickup truck window is his reminder that he always will remember and that no matter how much he wants to resist, in the end, he always acts. He always stands witness.  But he is never comfortable there either, and so he never seems to find a place in the world.  Billy can never fully commit himself to the middle.  But he is ardent-hearted enough to love the men who can and do.  He does honor their path and listen to their tales.[33]  He never realizes it, but he carries order within him and shares it freely with those whose hearts he recognizes whether human or beast.

The drama of being will not let Billy just go.  It haunts him and so after John’s death he “he rode on.  Days of the world.  Years of the world.  Till he was old.”[34]  It is consciousness as madness in the sense of the Aeschylean nosos, a loss of personal and social order through loss of contact with reality.  The atomic testing reminds us that prudence as wisdom is reduced to the garbage heap of the maxim “if something can be done, it shall”.  Where in this madhouse is there room for a rational discussion of immortality that presupposes the very contact with reality that has been lost?  Perhaps, somewhere in the middle of Arizona, underneath the overpass of the interstate, where cranes fly north from Mexico.  There Billy meets his messenger, his Er, in the person of “The Mexican Stranger.”  The stranger will reinforce a lesson from the old trapper Billy sought out in The Crossing: “the wolf is a being of great order and it knows what men do not; that there is no order in the world save that which death put there.”[35]

The stranger seems to just materialize—without history, without genealogy, without beginning or end. They begin a conversation about death as they share some crackers under the rumbling traffic.  “In the middle of my life,” the stranger said, “I drew the path of it upon a map and I studied it a long time.  I tried to see the pattern that it made upon the earth because I thought that if I could see the pattern and identify the form of it then I would know better how to continue.  I would know what my path must be.  I would see into the future of my life.”[36]

From this intense meditation of remembrance, the Stranger only concludes “I doubt that our journey can be lost to us.  For good or bad.”  “But,” he adds, “it is difficult to stand outside of one’s desires and see things of their own volition.” Billy retorts, “I think you just see whatever’s in front of you.” The Mexican replies, “Yes.  I don’t think that.”[37] Now we know where Billy has been throughout The Trilogy.  He has been firmly in Thing-Reality with its subject-object dichotomy.  He acts ardently when he has to out of friendship in spite of the spiritual wasteland through which he has been riding.  And now, at seventy-eight, he still cannot see in the sense of the “deep-seeing” of Heraclitus and Aeschylus.

The stranger continues by telling Billy a dream, a dream that made him know it was the middle of his life and draw the map.  The dream is the descent into the deepest reaches of the psyche where it is in contact with the cosmos.  In the dream a traveler is making his way through the mountains.  He comes to a certain demonic place, like the spirited and numinous location at the end of the Story of Er, where pilgrims take their rest.  The place was high in the mountains or the In-Between.  And at the place was a table of rock that had been used to slaughter victims to appease the gods.   In the end, the old man observes “I’m guessing every man is more than he supposes.”[38] Each of us is more than a subject, more than an object.  Life, the stranger says, is participation in some dream or drama from outside the rims and edges of the world that is also a place in a dream or drama.

But during the night the dream man is having a dream.  What kind of reality can a dream within a dream possess?  Not much, thinks Billy, who considers it Superstition: “Well.  I guess it’s when you believe in things that don’t exist.  It’s just like the map you drew.  On it you saw a picture of a face.  A picture ain’t a thing.  It’s just a picture.”[39] The stranger points out that the map is more than a picture.  It is our effort through remembrance to constitute the full reality of consciousness.  But consciousness is shrouded in the very mystery it seeks to comprehend. “When you look at the world is there a point in time when the seen becomes the remembered?  How are they separate? It is that which we have no way to show.  It is that which is missing from our map and from the picture that it makes. And yet it is all we have.”[40]  The best we ever will be able to muster is anamnesis—memory of truths within us but long forgotten.

Yet that might be enough.  The epilogue continues with the Stranger’s tale.  Now the dream traveler finds himself at the intersection of the paradox of determination and free will, thing-reality and It-reality:

“You may say that he has no substance and therefore no history, but my view is that whatever he may be or whatever made he cannot exist without a history.  And the ground of that history is not different from yours and mine for it is the predicate life of men that assures us of our own reality and that of all about us . . . For us, the whole of the traveler’s life converges at this place and this hour, whatever we may know of that life or out of whatever stuff it may be made.[41]

“This place and this hour” is the tension between our choices and our binding to Necessity. The Stranger’s story reminds us that it is only a paradox and that paradoxical juxtaposition is the tang and smart of reality, which stands ever ready to be penultimately pulverized and hypostatized by our incomprehension or unwillingness to participate in its flux.  This is what keeps Billy “movin’ on” or perhaps the “movin’ on” is the assertion of the paradox and the unconscious effort to escape the imaginative oblivion that has robbed him of “deep seeing.”

The story continues as the man on the mountain composed himself for sleep.  There was a storm in the mountains and the lightning cracked and the wind moaned.  In the flare of the lightning the traveler saw a procession of a troupe of men descending down through the rocky arroyos singing some kind of chant or prayer.  In a long passage the procession is described in language that evokes the lines of The Republic where the dead are assembled in a great plain, with dreadful and beautiful sounds of sirens singing their single note, all together sounding the harmony of the cosmos.  The traveler finds himself in the position of a sacrificial victim, is beheaded, and does not die.  Here we approach the experience of immortalizing that has a historical index going at least back to the ancient Egyptians and who knows how far into the paleolithicum and beyond.

Then Billy’s unbelief breaks through:

You sure you ain’t makin’

all this up.

. . . .

The stranger responds:

The problem is that your question is the very question upon which the story hangs.

. . . .

Bear with me, the man said.  The story like all stories has its beginning in a question.  And those stories with the greatest resonance have a way of turning upon the teller and erasing him and his motives from all memory.  So the question of who is telling the story is very consiguiente [consequent, consequential, ensuing].[42]

The stranger has told us how myth is both an expression of the experience of participating in immortalizing and part of a story told by an unseen other, who seems bent on obliterating us as subjects in order to involve us in some mysterious but definitely hard-felt process of transfiguration.  That is why we always stand poised on the edge of myth, ready to be drawn into its depth, which flows out of eternity into time, into consciousness, into the story.

The dream traveler finally saw that every man was always and eternally in the middle of his journey, whatever his years or whatever distance he had come.  He thought he saw in the world’s silence a great conspiracy and he knew that he must be a part of that conspiracy and that he had already moved beyond his captors and their plans.  This is the moment of consciousness—of conspiracy or “breathing together” between God and man.

At the end of the dream, the traveler explained, he walked out in the dawn and there was an encampment on the plains below which was deserted, with only a few artifacts and the bones of a prophet lying about.  In a parallel to the story of Er the traveler asked the dream traveler what had happened. “. . . he looked at me and he said:  I have been here before.  So have you.  Everything here is for the taking.  Touch nothing.  Then I awoke.”[43]

And then, like Er, the stranger, has a message to tell, a saving tale from a demonic place.  After this long meditation on an intra-cosmic experience of immortality, the reader is taken quite off guard by its power:

“Every man’s death is a standing in for every other.  And since death comes to all there is no way to abate the fear of it except to love the man who stands for us.  We are not waiting for his history to be written.  He passed here long ago.  The man who is all men and who stands in the dock for us until our own time comes, and we must stand for him.  Do you love him, that man? Will you honor the path he has taken?  Will you listen to his tale?”[44]

Up until now the Epilogue has been mythic in the sense of God writing the story with whatever bits of material ranged through the unconscious of the writer.  Now, suddenly, the myth becomes the fact of the Gospel, as written in the hearts and actions of actual humans, lived out where two worlds meet. But Billy just keeps moving until a family in New Mexico takes him in.

The Trilogy ends with a simple and beautiful mystic insight of God like a woman yet not a woman, full of love and grace.  Billy is about ready to go to bed.  Betty comes in and asks him if he wants a glass of water.

No ma’m.  I’m all right.

She patted his hand.

Gnarled, rope scarred, speckled from the sun and years of it.

The ropy veins that bound them to his heart.  There

was map enough for men to read.  There God’s plenty

of signs and wonders to make a landscape.  To make

a world.  She rose to go.

“Betty,” he said.


“I’m not what you think I am.  I ain’t

nothin’.  I don’t know why you put

up with me.”

“Well, Mr. Parham, I know who you

are.  And I do know why.  You

go to sleep now.  I’ll see you in

the morning.”

“Yes, ma’m.”[45]

Confession, acceptance, and grace.  The ultimate measure of our consciousness and movement back to transcendence.  Two pages later the Trilogy ends at exactly the place it has been all the time—in the middle, in that place where the works of God and of men are “of a piece”—at the place of grace and consciousness.

Thus, consciousness and politics are inseparable in the Trilogy because consciousness shapes our ability to discern order from disorder in the world.  This is not to say that Cormac McCarthy is a political philosopher.  The language of the philosopher will be the language of philosophy.  The language of the artist will be whatever symbols and forms he uses to articulate his experience.  And both philosopher and artist (myth maker) will have help form the divine muse, as Homer makes clear in the first line of Iliad:  “Rage-sing muse of the rage of . . . Achilles.” The Border Trilogy is an artist’s meditative exercise on existence and consciousness as an in-between reality.  Rather than dogmatized  one pole or the other of consciousness as “the reality,” the characters in the Trilogy are portrayed as existing in a tension between life and death, being and becoming.

The Trilogy can be an evocation of political order because it is mythopoesis.  Myth suggests that what is peculiarly human is the ability to speak to one another, in full consciousness of mortality, about participation in the story engendered by the mystery and the question.  Politics, as a human concern, is the process of people living together in their attempt to participate in that mystery and question. “The events of the waking world …are forced upon us and the narrative is the unguessed axis along which they must be strung.  It falls to us to weigh and sort and order these events.  It is we who assemble them into the story which is us.”[46] We cannot live in the middle without living with each other.  We make not only personal stories, but also communal ones.

Each of our stories must bear witness: “What the priest saw at last was that the lesson of a life can never be its own.  Only the witness has power to take its measure.  It is lived for the other only.”[47] John Grady and Boyd knew that and lived it.  Billy didn’t seem conscious of that, but lived it anyway.  They can be guides.  What would a political order look like that allowed itself to participate in the paradox of consciousness?  What semblance would it bear to the feverish movement of war, revolution, and ceaseless diversion of the past three centuries?  Aristotle may have put the whole thing best when he noted that as he got older, the truth of the myth became more and more enjoyable and edifying.

McCarthy has helped us to move from the obliteration of consciousness that is part of the modern kinesis to a place where we again can raise the question of our mysterious participation in a reality that brings forth the turkey and deer, the flowers and birds, the jagged rims of the world, and ultimately humanity and human consciousness.  He has reminded us once more that the man who walked here before once said “Before Abraham was born, I AM” and that this man’s divine substance is alive in the life of the wolf, the Apache and Comanche, the Mexican peasants and American cowboys, and whatever human types the future brings forth.

The Border trilogy demonstrates for us how the personal truly is the political.  Both the personal and political rely upon and are tied together through the paradox of consciousness – through awareness of life as an adventure in decision that takes place within the theatre of transcendence, through understanding that wisdom may sometimes be the gift of the alien and the outsider.  How does Cormac McCarthy represent life?  Look into the eyes of the she-wolf.  Listen to the tale of the Mexican stranger.



[1] Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 280; hereafter abbreviated COTP.

[2] Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 46-47; hereafter bbreviated as TC.

 [3] See these essays in Wade Hall and Rick Wallach, ed., Sacred Violence, Vol. 2: Cormac McCarthy’s Western Novels (University of Texas El Paso: Texas Western Press, 2002).

[4] Stacey Peebles, “What Happens to Country: The World to Come in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy,” in Hall and Wallach, ed. Sacred Violence, Vol. 2: Cormac McCarthy’s Western Novels (University of Texas El Paso: Texas Western Press, 2002), 34.

[5] Robert Metcalf, “Religion and the ‘Religious’:  Cormac McCarthy and John Dewey.”  The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 31.1 (2017): 145. Accessed November 11, 2017.

[6] Steven Frye, Understanding Cormac McCarthy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 147.

[7] Matthew L. Potts, “There is No God and We are His Prophets: Cormac McCarthy and Christian Faith,”  Christianity and Literature, 63.4 (Summer 2014), 495.

[8] James D. Lilley, Cormac McCarthy (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 338.

[9] Lydia R. Cooper, No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011), 78.

[10] McCarthy, TC, 143.

[11] Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 238, hereafter abbreviated ATPH.

[12] McCarthy, TC, 134.

[13] Id.

[14] Eric Voegelin, In Search of Order (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 15; hereafter abbreviated OH V.

[15] Voegelin, OH V, 30.

[16] Voegelin, OH V, 29.

[17] Voegelin, OH V, 39.

[18] Paul Thomas Anderson. Magnolia. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. New Line Cinema, 1999.

[19] Voegelin, OH V, 26.

[20] McCarthy, TC, 158.

[21] McCarthy, TC, 158.

[22] Ibid., 46.

[23] Ibid.,

[24] McCarthy, COTP, 195.

[25] Voegelin, OH V, 15.

[26] McCarthy, TC, 46-47.

[27]Voegelin, OH V, 14.

[28] McCarthy, ATPH, 5.

[29] McCarthy, COTP, 289.

[30] McCarthy, TC, 156.

[31]Ibid., 143.

[32] McCarthy, COTP, 261-62.

[33] Ibid., 289.

[34] Ibid., 264.

[35] McCarthy, TC, 46.

[36] McCarthy, COTP, 268.

[37] Ibid., 269.

[38] Ibid., 271.

[39] Ibid., 273.

[40] Ibid., 274.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 277.

[43] Ibid., 278.

[44] Ibid., 288.

[45] Ibid., 291-92.

[46] Ibid., 283.

[47] McCarthy, TC, 158.

Margaret Hrezo and Nick Pappas

Margaret Hrezo is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Radford University in Virginia; Nick Pappas is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Captain, USMC, Retired.

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