Friday, December 12, 2008

The duality of human existence

Can there be life without bloodshed? Can sense be found in a world where violence and serenity co-exist?

Cormac McCarthy explores these questions in his classic coming-of-age novel All the Pretty Horses and his answers seem to be no and yes, respsectively.

It tells the story of sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole, who rides across the Texan border into Mexico with two companions, searching for purpose.

John Grady encounters a world that is at once beautiful and desolate, promising and threatening, serene and violent, and by the time he returns – less than a year later – he's irrevocably changed.

Although his new life in Mexico seems to offer an idyllic existence, there’s a pervading sense of underlying danger. But, like John Grady, I hoped the threat wasn’t real, and – like John Grady – when it the violence arrived, I realised had always been inevitable.

Perhaps one of the interesting insights into this novel is the idea that John Grady is ultimately heroic not because he stands by idealistic beliefs, but because he learns to put them aside when necessary to survive or seek justice.

He learns to accept life is both serene and violent – with little warning of which he will face each day – and while he loses his innocence, he does so without becoming disillusioned.

Through his experiences, he doesn’t simply grow up; he begins to understand the world in all its pain and glory and feels no less connection to it. John Grady gains a self possession that many philosophers and social commentators believe can only be grasped after great sacrifice.

Critics have debated whether this is a story without hope, but I tend to agree with those who feel McCarthy is more ambiguous than nihilistic. How can there be no hope when John Grady himself has learned who he is, is wiser for it, and still retains a gentleness in his soul?

All the Pretty Horses was my first foray into the world of the reclusive McCarthy, and I was immediately drawn into the story by his rhythmic prose and evocative sense of place.

The frequent conversations in Spanish were appropriate in the narrative, but a tad frustrating for a reader who doesn’t speak the language. Although, I could generally guess at the meaning through context, and when I couldn’t, the language barrier served as a reminder of how far John Grady and his buddies were from home.

All the Pretty Horses was an excellent read on a number of levels, not least of which was the question about the nature of the duality of human existence – serenity and violence – and whether you have to be able to accept that both exist before you can attempt to understand and accept the world.


Daniel said...

You blog waaaayyyy too much.

BooksPlease said...

Great review. I've not read any McCarthy, although I have The Road waiting to be read. He does seem rather a "dark author".

Margaret (BooksPlease)

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

Nice work Westie. I'm so glad you've finally got to McCarthy, he's one of my favourites - just like you've talked about... dark, foreboding and disturbingly, quietly peaceful. The Road has these qualities and a whole lot more. Read it soon Booksplease, I think you'll enjoy the experience.
thanks for your comments on my posts too Westie.

Linda Jacobs said...

Sounds pretty deep but I'm wondering if it might be something my higher level students could read and understand. It seems like it could lead to some interesting discussions.'ve got me thinking. I'll be going to the library tomorrow and will look for it. Thanks!

Gustav said...

I have not read the book but certainly share the view that serenity can coexist within a violent world.

In the novel "All Quiet in the Western Front" which is about World War I, the main character describes the beauty of the land and flowers around him and the awe of the clouds interacting with the sky just as explosions are occurring around him.

Perhaps we appreciate serenity more when it is rare, it becomes almost sacred.

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I agree All Quiet on the Western Front is an astonishingly good book. Like you, Gustav I was completely taken with the contrasts, ye know, the dangerous course our own nature can take us if we give ourselves up to it.
McCarthy's work has the same power, the same contrasts and the quality in the writing.

There's loads for a class to talk about in it too Linda. If nothing else the author's ability to create images with so few words.

Charley said...

Wonderful review. I hope you continue to enjoy McCarthy's writing. And I agree that McCarthy is more ambiguous than nihilistic.