A Bloody and Barbarous God

The Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy

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Petra Mundik
  • Albuquerque, NM: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , May
     2016.
     432 pages.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780826356703.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Petra Mundik’s A Bloody and Barbarous God: The Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy provides the most complete elucidation of Cormac McCarthy’s complex use of Gnostic ideas that we are likely to see. The book’s ambitious subtitle may advertise more than Mundik’s analysis actually delivers—any studied reader of McCarthy’s fiction will be able to identify varied strands of philosophy and theology that compete for a full hearing in any comprehensive account of McCarthy’s metaphysics, and not all of them are consonant with a Gnostic cosmology. However, Mundik has fully teased out one strand from the tapestry and revealed its profound significance for our understanding of how McCarthy thinks through fiction. In the introduction she claims that McCarthy’s writing should be viewed in the context of an “esoteric tradition” of reading in which “the literal meaning of the text conceals beneath its surface spiritual meanings available to the initiated reader” (6).  Mundik’s book will widen the numbers of the initiated. A Bloody and Barbarous Godis a masterful, nearly exhaustive, tour de force of scholarship, and takes its place on the short shelf of indispensable critical appraisals of Cormac McCarthy. 

Mundik usefully limits her study to the second half of McCarthy’s career, focusing on his Western novels, works that have forced a revision of early readings of McCarthy as a champion of nihilism. Situating herself firmly on the side of critics like Edwin Arnold, who early on recognized McCarthy’s primarily spiritual orientation, Mundik makes the best case thus far for reading him as a writer whose work evinces “mystical strains.” She argues that McCarthy aligns himself with Platonic, Gnostic, and other esoteric mystical traditions, both Western and Eastern, and therefore should be counted as an exponent of Aldous Huxley’s Philosophia Perennis, a universally shared concept of the mystical ground of being—an Absolute or Ultimate Reality intuitively grasped by the world’s various mystical traditions. 

Mundik’s argument derives much of its persuasive force from her scholarly fidelity to the words on the page. Her conclusions flow naturally from her detailed close readings of key scenes and of McCarthy’s use of figurative language. She reveals, for instance, how often McCarthy interpolates a Gnostic meaning into the narrative through the use of striking similes. In The Crossing, mountains look as if “new born out of the hand of some improvident god who’d perhaps not even puzzled out a use for them” (31). Mundik points out the close connection between McCarthy’s “improvident god” and the demiurge of Gnosticism, the false god whose botched creation takes the place of the Christian concept of the Fall in Gnostic explanations of evil. Mundik highlights the ubiquity of such figurative language in McCarthy’s novels, as well as more direct statements of Gnostic pessimism about the tragic world humanity inhabits. She details, with admirable thoroughness, the presence of all the major tenets of Gnosticism. It is all there in the novels: the demiurge, or false god, as well as the true God associated with the pneuma, fire as the element denoting humanity’s hidden spiritual capacities, and Gnostic soteriology, in some ways closer to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment than to Christianity’s salvation through grace. The preponderance of the evidence Mundik gathers together in rich detail leaves no doubt about the soundness of her conclusions. 

However, the sheer number of similes to which Mundik draws attention suggests both the seriousness of McCarthy’s investment in Gnostic ideas, as well as the mercurialas if quality of McCarthy’s speculative deployment of those ideas, and should remind us that McCarthy’s novels make room for metaphysical speculations that run contrary to the drift of Gnostic thought. For instance, Mundik argues that in Blood Meridian “McCarthy’s graphic portrayals of violence, set within surreal, nightmarish landscapes, convey a consistently anti-cosmic or world-rejecting attitude toward existence and creation” (7) She defines the acosmic position as one that insists that creation is flawed and hostile to humanity’s spiritual dimension, as opposed to a procosmic view of creation as inherently good. In the latter view, it is a fallen humanity rather than a fallen cosmos that accounts for the evil in the world. The final sentence of The Crossing, which contrasts the light of the “right and godmade sun” with the light of a nuclear test explosion, would seem to also contrast a procosmic appreciation for God’s good creative order (the “right and godmade sun”) with an evil that originates in the actions of a fallen humanity (nuclear weapons). Examples of both the Gnostic acosmic and Judeo-Christian procosmic views of the material world can be found in McCarthy’s fiction. 

At times Mundik’s insistence on reading the spiritual elements in McCarthy’s novels exclusively through the Gnostic lens leads to readings that feel forced. For instance, in her interpretation of the scene from Blood Meridian in which the kid encounters the long-dead “eldress in the rocks,” Mundik finds a Gnostic allegory of the inadequacy of normative religious belief: “The rejection of the iconography of the Virgin Mary and the sacrament of confession carry Gnostic overtones. The Gnostics believed that it was pointless to look to the church for salvation, for salvation could come only from within, that is, through the internal development of gnosis, as opposed to the external blessings of organized religion” (80). If we commit ourselves to a reading that takes Gnosticism to be the key that unlocks all doors in McCarthy’s fiction, we will certainly arrive at such an interpretation. But we might also read the scene as an affirmation of Catholic iconography, and, further, as an affirmation of confession and Christian charity. Here we see the kid’s “clemency for the heathen,” which Judge Holden levels at him as an indictment,  as the reason for his failure to fully embrace the murderous ethic of the Glanton gang. Though futile, the kid’s gentle mercy does not mark him out as enlightened, but as broken, repentant, and merciful. The scene owes as much to normative Christian belief and practice as it does to esoteric mysticism. 

Nevertheless, Mundik’s readings are rarely strained in this way, and are more often thoroughly persuasive. Gnostic readings of McCarthy must be qualified by an awareness of the wide range of philosophical and theological traditions that move in and out of his works, but it is doubtful that anyone will better Mundik’s thorough and thoroughly enjoyable investigation into the vital role that Gnosticism plays in McCarthy’s fiction. A Bloody and Barbarous God is an essential work for McCarthy scholars and enthusiasts, as well as for readers with a broad interest in the philosophy of religion, a field in which Mundik’s book very capably situates itself.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Crews is Assistant Professor of English at Regent University in Virginia Beach. He is the author of Books Are Made Out of Books: A Guide to Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Influences.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Petra Mundik is a research assistant at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. She has published articles, chapters, essays, and papers on Cormac McCarthy and is at work on a second book dealing with his early novels.

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