paved road to hell: carrying the fire of apocalypse through cormac mccarthy's no country

I think Cormac McCarthy’s writing is splendid, but I have a problem with Cormac McCarthy’s writing.

I recently watched the film No Country For Old Men, the new Coen brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s 2005 novel by the same name. Like McCarthy’s follow-up novel, The Road (2006 Pulitzer Prize winner), the story here is propelled along intertwining strands of nihilism, apocalypse, and resilience—keeping hope alive at the end of the world as the rule of law collapses, as humanity collapses into its worst impulses. In The Road, a father and young son wander a stark, desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape, where next to food and drinkable water, the most prized commodities are shoes with which to keep walking. You keep moving in search of food and water, and you keep moving with the goal of avoiding contact with others at all costs, because in this world, the fuzzy lines between good and bad have been clearly demarcated once and for all: There are those who have crossed over to an animal state in which they enslave, torture, and eat other humans; and then there are the “good” guys who “carry the fire.” McCarthy’s father and son are the latter, as defined in particular by their refusal of cannibalism. Throughout the novel, the son asks for reassurance from the father that they will not resort to eating other people, no matter how hungry they get, and the father assures him that they will not, because they are the good guys. They carry the fire. They are civilization; they maintain hope. They will not descend into the darkness that has engulfed the world. They will not give up (unlike the boy’s mother, who betrayed (her) Family by killing herself alone after failing to convince the father to join her in a mutual family suicide when their son was born amidst the unfolding apocalypse).

Where The Road opens after the collapse, in No Country, the world is just beginning its rapid descent into lawlessness and nihilism in another father/son story in which a lost son seeks reassurance from his father. Here, the year is 1980, and both father and son are/were small-town Texas lawmen. Here, the ambiguous reassurance comes to the son in a dream of the father (the father has long since passed away), but the message is the same: Somewhere out in the mythical darkness, the father is waiting for the son on his horse, carrying the fire in a horn.

In both cases, the father and son are white Americans. (The Road never explicitly states this, but it is clear from their language, their interactions, their mythologies.) In both cases, women do not figure in the patriarchal equation—other than, of course, as betrayers, or as secondary, supporting characters (as Tommy Lee Jones’ retired sheriff Ed Tom Bell narrates the dream he had of his father, his wife, Loretta, played by Tess Harper, functions as little more than a patient sounding board across the kitchen table).

Most importantly, though, in both cases, the encroaching darkness is tied not to nonhuman sources, nor even so much to abstractions like human ideologies (e.g., the results of, say, capitalism, or imperialism, or fascism, or even just plain old greed). Instead, for McCarthy, the darkness is the result of humans who have crossed over into the nihilism of feeding on other humans (figuratively and literally), of cold-blooded murder, and of a total disregard for any form of law and order, purely and simply because they are evil. They are not “keepers of the fire;” they embrace and welcome and sow the darkness of chaos and disorder. They are, put simply, those shadowy “evildoers” of George Bush’s with-us-or-with-the-terrorists rendering of the world, those murky forms that for some reason hold pure, inexplicable hatred for good ole Americans like Sheriff Bell and their law-abiding “freedom.”

So who are these monsters, then, that threaten civilization and freedom and the fire of hope?

In The Road, the monsters are for the most part shadowy, armed, violent figures that appear only briefly, though quite horrifically, in rags and ratty hair and gas masks (did someone say black bloc?).

In papa and junior George Bushes’ world, the monsters are hiding in caves in Afghanistan. No wait, in bunkers in Iraq. No, I mean Iran. No wait, they’re just over the border in Mexico…

Which brings us to the Texas borderlands of No Country, where we get a clearer picture of who these monsters are in the form of the (ambiguously non-white, non-American) psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Spanish actor Javier Bardem), and the heavily armed, Mexican narcotraficantes to whom he is tied. Of course, the narcotraficantes are also tied to the wealthy, white Texan businessmen with whom they deal. But it is clear that the real threat knocking on Sheriff Bell’s door, pushing him to retirement, confounding and perplexing him and sending him in search of comfort from the ghost of daddy and the good ole days when sheriffs sometimes didn’t even need to wear a gun (once those bothersome Indians had all been done away with, of course)—comes from those old, dependable, standby dark forces of lawlessness just south of the Rio “Grand” who spit on civilization’s neat, clean borders and binary divides of good guys and bad guys. For these “barbarian” hordes, borders and laws mean nothing. For these “barbarians,” it is a smooth glide down a slippery slope from illegal border hopping to drug trafficking to psychopathic killing to cannibalism.

Not to worry, though—papa and junior Minuteman are there, carrying the fire. They stand courageous against the darkness, holding down the fort.


But all of this is not (entirely) my problem with Cormac McCarthy’s writing.

This is just a surface reading of some surface problems that I have with his writing and storylines. I could go deeper into McCarthy’s reification of racist logic, for example. I could go deeper into his retreat into, and defense of, patriarchy.

But I think my real problem goes back to my reading of McCarthy’s 1985 masterpiece, Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness in The West, about eight years ago.

Blood Meridian is a Faulknerian pomo deconstructive Western slasher epic that exposes Manifest Destiny and the “taming” of the “Wild West” as the gothic, bloody horror story that it was—one in which bands of roving whites slaughter Native Americans across the Southwest on an extermination bounty hunt for scalps. As in The Road and No Country (and another McCarthy gothic-horror-monster story, Child of God), Blood Meridian lays bare the human soul at its worst, as a gruesome, ruthless, evil monster (here, made manifest most clearly in another psychopathic killer, Judge Holden).

More to the point, though, as in his other novels, the language that McCarthy uses to describe this murder and mayhem in Blood Meridian is mesmerizing and dazzling, a highly stylized, beautifully tangled prose of idiosyncratic grammar and peculiar, archaic vocabulary. Reading this prose, I found myself enthralled by its beauty. And as with every other Cormac McCarthy novel I’ve read, I took extensive vocabulary notes, closely analyzed the grammatical structuring, and carefully studied the precision of McCarthy’s adjectives and how they looped thickly and elegantly around, and through, his metaphors. I fell into these pages the same way I’d once fallen into the prose-poetry of William Faulkner, and Don DeLillo, when I was younger.

But it is exactly this beauty, and my falling into it, that gets to the heart of my problem with Cormac McCarthy’s writing.

When I first read Blood Meridian, I found in its nonstop gore and violence an effective description of the ruthless imperialism and attendant genocide involved in the formation of the United States and its program of Manifest Destiny. I closed the book feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Setting aside the form for a moment, much of the content of the novel, on one level, appeared to convey an unforgiving demythologization of the Western genre and a stark, clear picture of the real history of U.S. white supremacy in action.

And it is—Blood Meridian does indeed function to deconstruct popular notions of the “good” (white) lawmen moving in to tame the wild, “bad” (nonwhite) West, and pave the way for (white, Euro) “civilization.” The novel shows very clearly and graphically—relentlessly, on page after page—the horrifying violence and chaos, and the sheer blood and gore, involved in genocide and imperialist expansion. According to this reading, I even saw the book as a kind of decolonial text. And again, on some levels, it does function in a decolonial mode, for the same reasons.

But it is also a highly stylized text, one in which page after page of murder and chaos is rendered in an aesthetic of rich, dense, Melvillian/Faulknerian prose. As noted above, the language is absolutely stunning in its beauty and precision, spellbinding, hypnotic.

And this is my problem.

In the Coen brothers’ stylized cinematic adaptation of No Country For Old Men, the initial, gory onscreen murders slowly dwindle to offscreen, implied and suggested murders as the movie progresses—a critique of our corporate/military/media masters’ growing sophistication at distancing the beneficiaries of cold-blooded war and murder (i.e., us) from the actual war and murder, at shielding those beneficiaries from any of the blood involved in the imposition and maintenance of dominance. Simliarly, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, with its deconstructive historical revisionism, would also appear to foreground the apparatuses that function to mask and distance the beneficiaries of imperial “civilization” from its real foundations of murder and chaos, in order to dismantle those apparatuses.

But ultimately, in both cases, the level of stylization serves more to aestheticize empire, rather than unmask it. The aesthetics of these works serve empire, rather than confront, subvert, or attack it.

This is language as empire, writing as a part of the imperialist project, a masquerade of content over form.

And so my problem with Cormac McCarthy’s writing is also what I have always liked most about it: I have been so dazzled by his use of the English language, that I failed to see the often reductive binary thinking operating underneath, to the point that I took his imperialistic use of language for an attack on empire, rather than as a contribution to it, and rather than as a reification of Western, Judeo-Christian logic. Reading Blood Meridian, as well as Child of God, I saw McCarthy’s rendering of monsters as part of the anti-imperialist project because, one, I was so focused on the form and the nature of the prose; and two, the monsters here were white, which I found to be a more historically accurate picture of the conquest of the Americas and the ongoing militarism and dominance of U.S. imperialism.

It was not until I read The Road, and then later saw No Country—with their white American father/son carriers of the fire against the dark forces of evil—that I realized that underneath the linguistic dazzle, and the surface invocation of the evils of white supremacy, McCarthy is ultimately not so much identifying, unmasking, and deconstructing the imperialist, racist, sexist sources of the problem. Instead, he is engaging—like most North American writers—in helping Western, binary logic along its linear progression toward the inevitability of a (self-fulfilling, apocalyptic) Finishline endpoint.

Which wouldn’t be such a problem—from a cyclical understanding of time, after all, McCarthy’s encroaching darkness is simply the world changing, power shifting, geography shifting, another empire falling, people on the move, like always. Those of us who operate (or are learning to operate) outside of linear time, can clearly see this, and can avoid the traps of such logic as we work together already to regenerate and build community, and to create a new world among the ashes of the old, even while they keep trying to freeze time and maintain their moment of dominance as the world changes around them. Those of us outside of their linear time, their self-fulfilling prophecies, their nihilistic endpoint reasoning, can see who the real barbarians have been all along.

But for McCarthy, and for all of those resolutely, blindly trudging along their thin, one-dimensional line from Start to Finish, flattening everyone/thing else along the way, scrabbling among the cold ash heaps of the memory of their power, this is not just the world changing—it is The End of the World. There is no other way that they can imagine it—Armageddon, Apocalypse, Total Collapse into Evil.

Because they cannot—or will not—imagine a world that they do not dominate. They refuse to see themselves as anything but that singular, individual subjectivity of Great Civilization, standing courageously and defiantly against a barbaric sea of chaos and ignorant objects. They refuse to see how it is exactly this logic and epistemology that has created all the darkness, the blindness, the confusion, in the first place.

And so their willful lack of imagination leads them to once again imagine no world at the inadequately mapped edges of their psychogeography’s sputtering timeline. Howling darkness. Here Lie Monsters. Chaos, Pure Evil, End of History, Collapse—

And themselves, of course, not as the creators and disseminators of that nihilism that has finally begun to blow back on them, but as the carriers of the fire of past and future civilization. As The Road and No Country For Old Men chillingly make clear, these thousand points of Civilized-lite will be there hanging on, clinging to their illogic, keeping the fire until the very end, come hell or high water—even if it means taking the rest of us down with them.

And I have a big problem with that.


b-boy/b-girl battle @ the vera project

B-Boy/B-Girl Battle
Saturday, 15 December, 2007
Seattle, Washington
The VERA Project

For Quicktime video, click here
[QT mov; 320x240; 4:25; 15.6 mb]



[waiting for flight 73 to Seattle]

He has insomnia, which is a sign of.

Every instinct is interrupted by another signal. Freedom is a ratio of signal to noise.

The words must point beyond themselves or they are.

Here, we are in competition with the billboard ads, and the graffiti artists who deface them.


Initiates nervous habit of shaking foot. Palms are sweaty. “But why don’t you just talk to me and tell me?” Looks out window. “Just say it, whatever it is.”

Fantasy: The process of transformation occurs in one of those 80s movie montage sequences of trying on various outfits and hair styles before the big date/event, helped out by the best friend who is really the True Love waiting in the wings, while some shitty rock song plays over everything. Then, as the song fades out and the characters’ voices and background, ambient sounds creep back in, we find that I have transformed from alienated neurotic to enlightened Buddha in about four and a half minutes.

Math, science, hoax
The Artist and the Mathematician

"They did a real number on you and now you’re going to have to unlearn all that math if you ever hope to amount to anything."

-____________ transmitted through the apparatus of a hoax.
-Hoax as apparatus for transmission of key __________ and ___________.
-Official and unofficial channels.
-This entire system, way of life, way of knowing, as a massive, elaborate hoax.
-COINTELPRO; Psy Ops: Manufacture hoaxes.
-Blind as a verb.
-A life balancing on the fine line between fraud and hoax.
-Who will I pretend to be? Who will I impersonate?

-"You create a persona and you impersonate it, as if the persona were some other, real person who already existed. You are just a kind of shadow of that individual. You do not perform a persona—you perform an impersonation of a persona that you create. Then you multiply this—create multiple personas, and impersonate them all."

What is the distinction here? What is the ontological shift involved? What is gained from this space/gap/distance?

-The moment when you shift from fraud to hoax.

-Don’t theorize about it—do it. This is part of the problem with __________________ (and ______________)—the work is brilliant, but it is too self-conscious and winking, too much pomo hoax. A hoax must be convincing, must not reveal itself through its own devices.

Composed of a ticking. After Gage Cesar Chávez dips down and then it’s a long climb to the 710, I hear my breath in my ears, my heart in my ears as I pedal, another part of me is on the sidewalk watching me bike past only the sidewalk is at Story and King, Tropicana Shopping Center, my mom standing in line at the old WIC office there. Another moment, the opposite corner: My dad selling drugs in the Tropicana parking lot.

And I remember a girl named Amérika, really, I’m not being literary. That was really her name, and it was spelled with a K, and everybody just called her Erika. She had long, black hair and she always wore these boots left over from the early 80s. Her boyfriend was a jerk, and she lived here by Story and King, those one apartments, you know, behind what’s now Rancho Mi Pueblo Market. We went to high school together around the corner at Overfelt. She wore his ring on a chain around her neck, but I didn’t care I took her to McDonald’s for lunch anyway but that was as far as it went anyway. She left to Santa Cruz; I went to L.A.

This space is an invocation of the ghosts that live inside me. A ghost filled with ghosts.

I have been here half my life now, but it is the wrong half, maybe.


Is it true that every act of writing is imperialist?

You cannot escape this function.

That which is said, sung, whispered, shouted. That which is forgotten. That which is transferred when skin meets skin.

The knowledge that we will destroy each other.

The awareness that we are too damaged, beyond repair, unequipped to address our desires in a way that doesn’t leave us broken.

There will always be this gap between what I say and what I say. Your voice breaks over insecurities and something rattles in your lungs. You invoke scenarios to provoke a response, but it’s only survival, clinging to something, there is comfort in this destruction. At least it’s familiar. At least you’re not alone.

I was thinking that maybe we could reach some kind of.

I could understand if.

No, I don’t understand. I just feel that.

He was not following a direct line but the ones who believed in it were found at the edges and underneath, on 9th Street 9 p.m., and it was empty and quiet, there were smells, exhaust, factories, somewhere approaching Alameda and then a yard full of dogs barking, german shepherds pushing up against a chain link fence their voices echoing on the street no one else around, no cars, no trucks at this moment. He was passing on his bicycle at night dressed all in black and the dogs noted his presence and started to bark and he was thinking that he would come back another night and record this sound, dogs all around with the echoing on either side. He was not experiencing. There was no experiencing, only mediation.

We were friends once. We participated in the simultaneous construction, cataloguing, and desecration of an extensive archive. Do you remember those days? Me neither.

There were interruptions. There was someone on the roof shouting out, holding a broken bottle to his own brother’s chest. They were in our veins.

He used archaic language to seduce her. All language is seduction. All seduction is archaic. We want to drown our tongues in one another, archaically.

My tongue carries traces of all the words it has erased and all the seduction it has defaced.

“How do you say ‘What the fuck’?” she says. “Say it. You can always tell somebody who grew up in the barrio by how they say that. Guys, anyway.”

What the fuck?
The fuck?
Fuck the what?

"In the 1980s the hatred trickled down. Power consolidated and reconfigured in preparation for the next phase of domination. Contrary to popular perception, the 1960s and Vietnam were actually massive successes for the right, for conservatives, for the new world order of fascist rule. In retrospect, we can see this now. This was the moment that provided the murderers with the opportunity they needed to update their schemata while the 60s generation was busy finding ways to sell themselves and us out while lulled by their 'victory'. In the gap, Power redesigned its blue prints, tested out new digitalized theories. Experiment gave way to social policy, military intervention, free trade, media domination. I remember the first broadcast of MTV. I did not really see it, but I have a clear memory of seeing it. This is what I mean, this is how they took control. I can picture vividly the first moment of broadcast, the astronaut on the moon, the MTV flag, the first video. Probably I saw this moment in re-broadcast, years later, but even then it was somehow familiar—I remembered it as an original moment that I had experienced. I would have been about nine years old. I remember my dad was in prison.

I remember my dad was in prison and I remember siding with the Soviet Union in the big hockey match between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. I don’t remember who won. I don’t remember when the Berlin Wall fell—by then, the 80s had won.

I was thinking about the 1980s and I was thinking that my life has been a succession of unoriginal moments, each experience already mediated and replicated long before it occurs. The mediation precedes the event and afterward/before I wander in the exponential haze of a digital amnesia. I rely on others to reconstruct for me what I’ve said, what I’ve done, seen. Is it live, or is it memory? Do you remember anymore what you see? Is it dark and grainy, black and white footage, a high-angle shot? Video game screens? Reality TV?

Generation X-d out eyes. Digitized. Flattened affect. Two-dimensional lives. Each moment no more/less than the next/last. Trickling down in bits and pieces through sieves that filter flesh from fluid, experience from mediation. Disassembled binary code, flat panel screens, a sea of numbers re-programmed at will.

The moment when the real take began. Trickle down gutting. Digitize the real. Is it live or is it? Empty the psychiatric wards, consolidate media control. Flood the streets with nihilism and despair and insanity, crack communities wide open, tear down the walls to absolute ruthlessness and total control. Eliminate the barriers. We are witnesses to this moment as it continues to unfold as our childhoods unfold into adulthood into somnambulism into death. We are participants. We are complicit. Open up a gaping vacuum—Lights. Camera. Action. We all rush in. We all fold.


juan felipe herrera; buddy collette; save the peaks

Three events that I want to share from last week:

1. Juan Felipe Herrera at South Pasadena Library
Author Juan Felipe Herrera gave a beautiful talk in which he communicated a complex, radical analysis of Chican@ identity, borderspace, and immigrant experience, on multiple registers that simultaneously addressed young children, adolescents, and adults. Using sharp wit, linguistic humor, and a cheeky, rasquache-style performativity, Herrera had the audience of all ages and ethnicities rolling with laughter and connecting on some difficult issues. Afterward, Sesshu Foster introduced me to Herrera, and he graciously gave me a signed copy of his fantastic new book, 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border, published by City Lights Press. The book is thick, and it collects tons of his writings over the past 35 years or so. As Sesshu noted, though, this is only a tiny sampling of the voluminous work that the prolific Herrera has published during this period. According to Herrera, another collection is forthcoming soon. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring any recording devices to this, so no audio or photographs. Read the book, and if you have the opportunity, go see Herrera read his work.

2. Buddy Collette at the Southern California Library
Legendary jazz musician and composer Buddy Collette shared stories about his work with Charles Mingus and others, segregated musician unions, and integration of the L.A. Symphony, at this talk on Saturday. Afterward, a small jazz combo of Collette’s friends played a few standards with the precision, wit, and grace of true pros.

An audio recording of Collette’s talk can be heard by clicking here. [mp3; 19:21; 17.7 mb]

3. Save the Peaks panel discussion at Self-Help Graphics
Saturday night at Self-Help Graphics, a distinguished panel of Native American activists and organizers spoke about the efforts by developers to expand recreational skiing facilities on the sacred San Francisco peaks in Arizona, and their current 9th District Court appeal in Pasadena (happening today) to overturn a previous ruling in favor of the Save the Peaks Coalition. The panel, made up almost entirely of women who ranged all ages from adolescents to elders, eloquently and forcefully addressed issues of neocolonial globalization, global warming and pollution, sustainability and consumption, and local organizing efforts toward sovereignty and global transnational solidarity, among many other topics.

An audio recording of the panel discussion and Q&A session can be heard by clicking here. [mp3; 01:28’29; 81 mb]