With reference to the article in the previous post, there’s a whole chunk which deals with a “difficult” passage from our good friend Cormac, as I quote at length:
The case in point is a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses, in which two young ranch hands have had too much to drink and stop their horses in order to vomit. Here’s what McCarthy wrote:
By dark the storm had slacked and the rain had almost ceased. They pulled the wet saddles off the horses and hobbled them and walked of[f?] in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.
This is the famous drubbing Myers gives it in A Reader’s Manifesto:
It is a rare passage in a rare book that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retchings for the call of a wild animal. But “wild animals” isn’t epic enough; McCarthy must blow smoke about “some rude provisional species,” as if your average quadruped had table manners and a pension plan. Then he switches from the horses’ perspective to the narrator’s, though just what “something imperfect and malformed” refers to is unclear. The last half-sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the “thing smirking in the eyes of grace” the same thing that is “lodged in the heart of being”? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why autumn pool? I doubt even McCarthy can explain any of this; he just likes the way it sounds.
And here’s Moore, defending the choices of a ‘difficult’ author he admits he’s read nothing of except this one book:
…it’s obvious what he’s doing here. All the Pretty Horses has its comic moments, and when it comes to describing a hangover, every writer feels at liberty to have some fun with it. They will reach for the most ludicrous simile they can find …
The paragraph starts with some sequential alliteration (storm/slacked/ceased), and narratively winks at the reader with the clownish adverb “spraddlelegged,” hinting at the fun to come. The boys’ vomiting is enough to attract the attention of the horses, but the point of view doesn’t change there (I don’t know why Myers thinks it does; and witness his feeble attempt to get a laugh out of it). McCarthy, not the horses, comically compares the sound of their retching to the calls of some prehistoric species to underscore how wretched the boys feel.
… now, the money shot … yes, Mr. Myers, the “thing smirking in the eyes of grace” is the same thing that is “lodged in the heart of being.” It’s an extended metaphor – “retchings” become the “calls of some rude provisional species” that lodge themselves in and thus profane the “heart of being,” just as a “rude provisional species” like a gorgon would profane with its presence an autumn pool. The “imperfect” gorgon is the perfect literary equivalent to a stomach-emptying, chaparral-echoing retch.
Moore claims not to know what “McCarthy specialists” make of the passage in question (he needn’t have advertised his amateur status in all things McCarthy if he thinks the notoriously prickly author would enjoy having one of his similes called “ludicrous”), but he certainly does a good job approximating the kind of slop they’d come up with. Not only does his simile leg itself into a metaphor in mid-spraddle, but his pronouncements do nothing to shore up the enormous weaknesses of the original passage. If anything, Myers is being too gentle – he refrains from pointing out that McCarthy inexplicably has his characters hobbling their wet saddles. And he doesn’t think the point of view changes – his ‘feeble’ joke derives from the fact that in the passage as McCarthy ineptly wrote it, we are inside the horses’ perceptions in the fourth sentence – it’s the most natural thing in the world to assume those perceptions carry over to the fifth sentence, and it’s a very common, very pedestrian lazy-author mistake not to guard your sentence-constructions against just that kind of misstep. McCarthy’s books are absolutely jammed with semi-written passages just like that one, and Myers is right: they yank your head right up off the page.
Here, in Obooki’s opinion, are three dreadful pieces of analysis, one after another, each criticising the other for its misunderstanding; – so I thought, well, let’s make it a fourth:
- Firstly, I’d agree with Moore that I don’t find anything in this passage at all difficult. I can read it through and understand it perfectly easily. I am not in the least troubled by any of it.
- If you take “them” with “saddles” (as in “they hobbled their saddles”), I’d be inclined to conclude your knowledge of the English language was entirely theoretical; that you’ve probably never conducted a conversation in English in your life. (It’s funny, only last night I was thinking of writing a marvellous article on referencing words and their function within stream-of-consciousness – before, obviously, I laughed and thought better of it and did something more constructive like piss about on the internet for a few hours).
- “some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being,” – it is “rude” and “provisional” presumably because it doesn’t work properly; it’s digestion doesn’t work, it is vomiting. I quite like the description.
- Point of view: a) I have no problem with it. I’d suggest, if you have a problem with the points of view in this passage / whether there are any changes to it/them, then again you probably aren’t very proficient in the English language / have difficulty communicating with other members of the species generally, because I don’t think you can use language on a daily basis without at times accepting an indeterminable point of view to sentences to the extent that you don’t even notice it. b) Of the two: “The boys’ vomiting is enough to attract the attention of the horses, but the point of view doesn’t change there” and “and he doesn’t think the point of view changes – his ‘feeble’ joke derives from the fact that in the passage as McCarthy ineptly wrote it, we are inside the horses’ perceptions in the fourth sentence – it’s the most natural thing in the world to assume those perceptions carry over to the fifth sentence, and it’s a very common, very pedestrian lazy-author mistake not to guard your sentence-constructions against just that kind of misstep”, I think the former is correct, there is no change of perception (only a close-reading critic, particularly if he disliked the author and were looking for something to pin on him, would imagine one): do we, in “The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before,” go inside the horses’ heads; – isn’t it more reasonable to assume that the second sentence is merely an assumption on the part of some narrator based upon the action in the first.
- I had no idea reading it about: “A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool”, but the funny thing is, I just read it and passed on, without feeling any need to analyse it or write essays on it. – The gorgon is obviously a malformed horror, as per the last few sentences. – It’s “smirking … in the eyes of grace” because it’s ashamed of itself, seemingly in an arrogant way, thankful of the allowance of grace to let it be though perhaps expecting all the while at some time to be destroyed – or some such nonsense. – And why’s it in an “autumn pool”? – I don’t know, I daresay it’s hiding there so that it won’t be seen; – it being autumn, of course, the water in the pool is likely to be cold, and therefore it must be desperate to hide in it. This probably has something to do with the gorgon’s being part reptilian so it’d be likely to be plunged into some sort of water source / we have the idea, don’t we, that a lot of reptile are creatures held over from a more antiquated age.
- You can see why I used to do so well at English comprehension passage at school. I can go on with bollocks like that for pages at a time if necessary, one thought happily tripping over another.
- As a further observation, just as an example of how ordinary people read, I also don’t know what is meant in this passage by our ranch-hands “hobbling” their horses. My conception of a horse being “hobbled”, would be that it had broken its leg and might as well be put down. As I read the passage, I find I can’t apply this interpretation of the word “hobbled”, so my mind inserts another interpretation – that they do something to their horses roughly the equivalent of putting on the handbrake in order to leave them (I still have no idea what they actually do) – and having interpreted it this way, after the merest moment of thought, I merrily continue on my way. (I do this a lot more when I’m reading French).