Some non-analysis of a piece of Cormac McCarthy

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. “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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
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12 thoughts on “Some non-analysis of a piece of Cormac McCarthy

  1. Glad to see McCarthy’s writing defended against confederated dunces.

    1. The passage isn’t “difficult”, but McCarthy can be. And why not? – does his sentences being often intricate and sometimes obscure necessarily make him unpleasurable and a waste of time, like these characteristics make, say, Shakespeare a waste of time?

    2. “[H]orses” is the object of the preposition “of” and, immediately afterwards, of the verb “hobbled” – unusual not to have a pronominal reference in parallel to its antecedent’s syntactic position. But, as you say, for a competent speaker of the language, what’s the big deal? is it a fast rule that’s broken, or just a custom that’s bent for the purpose of a reference-smoothed expression?

    3. I felt that the two cowboys are what’s “lodged”. That their puking is what alerts the landscape, as it were, (or the horses, or the narrator) to their emetic presence is, as you point out, nicely done.

    4. I took the horses as (somehow) having the cognition of the last three sentences of the extract – or, better, the perspective that’s communicated to us as cognitive. If it’s the narrator, or that region of “chaparral” – ok. The point-of-view didn’t jar me, either (but I’m not on a mission to pin [something] on [the author], either).

    5. I hadn’t thought of the reptilian aspect of gorgons. I see this analogy:

    the thing smirking deep : eyes of grace itself :: a gorgon : an autumn pool

    ‘Autumn pool’ – mellow (autumnal), waiting, perhaps covered with leaves, in the late morning/early dark. You look deeply into an uncovered part of its surface, and – what happens when you look at a gorgon – no matter how unexpectedly? That “grace itself” would have this penalty for gazing deeply into its “eyes” gives “grace” the character of hauteur – “smirking”.

    7. “Hobbling” is ‘tying an animal’s legs together so it can’t open them as it does when it runs’. You can get/make hobbles that connect the four legs of a horse to a central knot, or (simplest scenario) you can just tie one front leg to one back leg (usually crossing, i. e. right/left or left/right). The horse can skitter a bit in some direction if startled (without falling over and hurting itself), but actually to locomote, it has to make Morticia steps. – which latter domesticated horses won’t try to do; they’ll just stay put. If there’s no sturdy tree to tie a horse to, or you want it to graze comfortably without wandering far off, hobbling is a humane, useful way to control a horse. As you say: a relatively comfortable brake.

    (Prisoners are hobbled with leg-irons.)

    For me, McCarthy’s a great writer, albeit with a sometimes tiring voice that he over-indulges. Some fans of Dostoyevsky and Proust say the same of them; it’s not such a stupendous contradiction.

  2. Dammit, I’m such a lazy reader I misread McCarthy’s last sentence : – for some reason I was thinking the “thing” was smirking “at” the “eyes of grace”, but the “thing” is obviously within the “eyes of grace” looking out and smirking, like a gorgon within an autumn pool.

    Yes, I’d probably take “autumn” as a mood word: it conjures up, as you say, a mellow pool: lots of browns and yellow.

    I’m not sure about McCarthy, largely because I haven’t read any for fifteen years. I’ve read All The Pretty Horses and something else (I forget which, but I’ve definitely read two). My opinion at the time was that he was a sub-Faulknerian writer: that he borrowed a lot from Faulkner, particularly stylistically, but in borrowing he didn’t really understand what it was about Faulkner that made him such a good writer and in that way was incapable of emulating him. – Perhaps I should read some more though.

  3. As deadgod points out, obooki, ‘hobbling’ a horse is standard practice if you want to allow the animal to graze but not to wander too far. I’m surprised you’re unfamiliar with the term. British cavalry used the technique for centuries.

    You should read- or re-read McCarthy. ATPH is not the book to judge him by (although I think the Border Trilogy that it’s a part of is very good, especially the Crossing). Read Blood Meridian at the very least, also Outer Dark, Child Of God, The Orchard Keeper and Sutree. I agree with deadgod that the writing can be a bit over-mannered and the stylistic pillaging of the Old Testament can get a bit wearying but when all is said and done, he’s a great writer.

  4. I didn’t do much horse-riding on the chapparal when I was growing up, so I don’t know these things.

    Another word I didn’t really know the meaning of till this week is “insouciant”. For years I’ve just been assuming the meaning of this word depending on context. If anything, I’d had in mind something coquettish. – But since I’m reading some French at the moment, I’ve learnt that “souci” means worry/concern, so “insouciant” having lack of worry / concern.

    I might read Cities of the Plain then, since I’ve got it – and then I might get hold of The Crossing – I’m always seeing it around. Or should I read The Road?

  5. Did you never come across (in your wide reading) the palace Frederick The Great of Prussia built for himself, Sans Souci (carefree)?

    Personally, I’d urge you to read Blood Meridian. They’re all good but I feel that BM is his magnum opus. I sent our friend ExitBarnadine a copy when he was in Berlin and he was as knocked out by it as I was when I first read it 20 years ago.

    It really is an extraordinary work–in turns apocalyptic, chilling, laconic, lyrical, tender and brutal. His descriptions of landscape are remarkable: so much so that I consider the landscape of the American South-West to be perhaps the main character in the book.

  6. whenever i see a gorgon in literature (well, that would be the end of that now wouldn’t it?)…anyways, when gorgons feature, i always think of reflections, so i took this to be, what, a zeugma? on the verb “smirking”, such that it would read “…like a gorgon [smirking] in an autumn pool.” i guess more or less as deadgod has read it?

    at the initial reading of McC’s passage, i could see it was one of those “purple prose” moments that many critics like to pick at. Though rereading it several times makes me like it more and more…

    and i always associate good writing with style (among other things). and style to me is simply the breaking of rules that lesser critics feel the need to harp on. the more a writer breaks a particular rule or plays with it, the more i’m a) comfortable with the transgression and b) aware of a style or manner that would set the writing apart from another writer.

  7. mish: No, I’m not much familiar with Frederick the Great either – one of those areas of history which I’ve not got around to yet (one of the many). – I shall track down Blood Meridian, as you suggest.

    elcal: I believe you can look at a gorgon with impunity if it’s reflected in literature. – Two phrases that annoy me, with their pejorativeness, are “purple prose” and “overwritten”. As deadgod hints, Shakespeare is the most overwritten nonsense in the world. In fact, I’d almost say, most good writing is “overwritten”; or, to put it another way, “overwriting” is a characteristic of good writing. Of course, if the writer is talentless, then it can be pretty dreadful.

    I’m currently reading another writer whom someone on GU complained of as being overwritten recently, and I’ll put about something about that too.

  8. “My opinion at the time was that he was a sub-Faulknerian writer: that he borrowed a lot from Faulkner, particularly stylistically, but in borrowing he didn’t really understand what it was about Faulkner that made him such a good writer and in that way was incapable of emulating him. ”

    I’d agree with this, Obooki; I’ve read a couple of his novles, but I’m not rushing out to get any more.

    BTW: I picked up a copy of Ford Madox Ford’s The March of Literature at the weekend; just wondering if you know it at all?

  9. Another writer (another Texan, although McCarthy doesn’t turn out to be Texan) whom I take to be influenced by Faulkner, but in a more appreciative way, is William Goyen (consider Wikipedia‘s long write-up). In general tone, his works make Faulkner seem a paragon of moral purity.

    No, I don’t the FMF work. Nobody knows – or has ever read – any works by FMF except The Good Soldier and Parade’s End; this is an axiom I have found always to hold true.

  10. It’s turning out to be a good read; he has a passage (circa 1938, ind) comparing the expected sales for a serious novel, at 40,000 US and 14,000 UK, with the number of tenured profs of Eng Lit, and deduces that each prof turns out ~1.8 cultured minds in their career. Given the growth in the academy and the fall in book sales since, that number must be approaching zero, I suspect.

  11. I suppose it depends if you’d count reading new “serious novels” as the sign of a “cultured mind”. – A quick investigation shows about 8500-9000 (currently slightly over 10,000) students are accepted to study English at universities in this country per year; but then, going by the Eng Lit students I met while there, I wouldn’t suppose all that many of them read books anyhow.

  12. Unsurprisingly, FMF’s very definition of a cultured mind is people who love Literature (in the sense of imaginative writing) as opposed to literature (meaning technical manuals or books about imaginative writing.

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