Trying the stuff of creation: biblicism, tragedy, and romance in the southern fiction of Cormac McCarthy

Thornhill, Christopher John (2017) Trying the stuff of creation: biblicism, tragedy, and romance in the southern fiction of Cormac McCarthy. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This essay presents an analysis of the religious and philosophical ideas present in the early fiction of the contemporary American writer, Cormac McCarthy. It is intended as an intervention into the controversial debate within McCarthy scholarship concerning how the perceptibly ‘religious’ nature of the author’s fictions may be described according to recognised and coherent confessions or perspectives. I argue that McCarthy’s fictions cannot be shown to conform to any particular theological or metaphysical system without significant remainder on account of their being essentially heterogeneous in their construction; and that their religious ‘significance’ lies not in their communication of a positive message, but in the presentation of what is at stake in the contrary interpretations that they uphold.

I argue that the essential heterogeneity of McCarthy’s fiction is a development of the author’s reception of the complex aesthetic of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and the posture of serious and searching scepticism which that touchstone of American literature presents. The peculiar aesthetic of Moby-Dick alloys the Hellenic and Hebraic imagination, creating a synthesis of the concrete images of mythical and biblical literature, and of the narrative patterns that are native to tragedy and to romance. The effect of this complex is a literary mode that performs a suspension or opposition between a shapeless, circular, mythical world, and the created and teleological worldview declared by the biblical religions. I demonstrate how McCarthy takes up and imaginatively revises this complex of ideas in three novels (Outer Dark, Child of God, and Blood Meridian) in terms of their relation to the motifs and tropes of tragedy and romance, with a particular concern for their relation to the literature of katabasis, or spiritual and metaphysical ‘descent’.

The three novels I have selected demonstrate a consistent and developing approach to McCarthy’s examination of various accounts of the material and physical nature of the world. My analysis sets out how the author’s aesthetic and narrative strategy describes an opposition between a view that is attributable to a broadly defined atheistic naturalism on the one hand, and notions of a teleologically orientated creation that is concordant with the transcendent God of the biblical religions on the other. In providing this description, I interpret how McCarthy uses this Melvillean pattern to test the viability of such oppositions, and in doing so, argue that the author’s distinctive vision should be understood as an apophatic mode that is appropriate to a faith ‘beyond the forms of faith’.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Milbank, Alison
Bielik-Robson, Agata
Keywords: Cormac McCarthy, Southern Gothic Theology, Herman Melville, Exodus, Blood Meridian, Outer Dark, Child of God, Jewish Thought, Benjamin Rosenzweig, Rowan Williams
Subjects: P Language and literature > PS American literature
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of Humanities
Item ID: 41314
Depositing User: Thornhill, Christopher
Date Deposited: 30 Aug 2017 09:39
Last Modified: 15 Oct 2017 23:07

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