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Bearing Witness to Silence
Remembering Cormac McCarthy
Where do we go when we die? he said.
I don’t know, the man said. Where are we now?
—Cormac McCarthy (1933-2023)
For Cormac McCarthy, meaning isn’t bone deep. It’s penumbral. Meaning is a shadow cast by the mass of an otherwise silent world. It’s a byproduct of the world’s mute turning. Here, redemption isn’t what happens when I finally talk the world into submission. It’s what happens when I learn to trust the world’s silence enough to finally stop talking.
McCarthy’s novels orbit, ad infinitum, the silence ringing in the heart of things. This heart-silence pushes us to practice indirection. Meaning, like happiness, can’t be directly pursued. You have to care for the world without demanding that it make you happy. And you have to attend to the world without demanding that it be meaningful.
Meaning and happiness both happen on the periphery. They happen in the corner of your eye. If you try to look straight at them, they dry up like a mirage. But if you can forget what you want and keep your eyes fixed on the world as it passes away, then meaning may follow you and joy may temper you.
If you can sit for an hour with a book like McCarthy’s The Crossing, you’ll start to feel this silence pooling inside you. You’ll find the noise in your head growing quiet and the world’s native hush growing louder.
Slow as I am, I had to finish three or four of McCarthy’s books before I saw how he created this effect. Though his novels are often punctuated by long, complex stretches of reported dialogue, the remainder is characterized by a silence that can stretch twenty pages at a time, pages that contain no dialogue and, more importantly, pages that offer no report of any character’s thoughts, emotions, motivations, or internal mental monologue. Instead, McCarthy unspools uninterrupted descriptions of the bare material world and the wordless movement of people through it, mixed with instances of his trademark, quasi-biblical, metaphysically-inflected brand of commentary-from-nowhere. The stunning effect is that you can spend an hour reading some of the best prose written in the past hundred years and come away with the distinct impression you’d sat all that time in the deepest silence.
This is what I love most about McCarthy’s novels. McCarthy writes this silence. And, in the process, he invites you to join him in bearing witness to it.
In Cities of the Plain, John Grady Cole is told what, as a potential witness, he should be listening for. The key, he’s told, is to take your cue from your horse.
You’ll see things in the desert at night that you cant understand. Your horse will see things. He’ll see things that will spook him of course but then he’ll see things that dont spook him but still you know he seen something.
What sort of things?
I dont know.
You mean like ghosts or somethin?
No. I dont know what. You just know he sees em. They’re out there.
Not just some class of varmint?
Not somethin that will booger him?
No. It’s more like somethin he knows about.
But you dont.
But you dont. Yes.
The old man smoked. He watched the moon. No further birds flew. After a while he said: I aint talkin about spooks. It’s more like just the way things are. If you only knew it.
The witness must listen for the thing his horse knows but he doesn’t. The key is what the witness hasn’t seen or pictured. This thing isn’t supernatural. It’s not the object of superstition. It’s not a ghost or a spook or a varmint. It’s not like that. “It’s more like just the way things are. If you only knew it.”
In Blood Meridian, Tobin, an ex-priest, argues for this same point in a conversation with the novel’s sometime protagonist, known simply as “the kid.” Tobin argues that the witness isn’t empowered by some special learning or intellectual prowess.
It may be the Lord’s way of showin how little store he sets by the learned. Whatever could it mean to one who knows all? He’s an uncommon love for the common man and godly wisdom resides in the least of things so that it may well be that the voice of the Almighty speaks most profoundly in such beings as lives in silence themselves.
He watched the kid.
For let it go how it will, he said. God speaks in the least of creatures.
The kid thought him to mean birds or things that crawl but the expriest, watching, his head slightly cocked, said: No man is give leave of that voice.
The kid spat into the fire and bent to his work.
I aint heard no voice, he said.
When it stops, Tobin said, you’ll know you’ve heard it all your life.
Is that right?
The kid turned the leather in his lap. The expriest watched him.
At night, said Tobin, when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep, who hears them grazing?
Dont nobody hear them if they’re asleep.
Aye. And if they cease their grazing who is it that wakes?
Aye, said the expriest. Every man.
The work of the witness depends on their ability to hear that sound, that rushing wind, that has been blowing through the world their entire lives.
But waking to this silence, witnessing it, isn’t easy to do. Something must happen. Something unexpected that stops us and forces us to see that our horse sees something we don’t. “Some halt-stitch,” McCarthy says, “in the working of things” that leads us to consider “those heavens in whose forms men see commensurate destinies cognate to their own” and to recognize that those heavens “now seemed to pulse with a reckless energy. As if in their turning things had come uncottered, uncalendered,” such that “there might even be some timefault in the record.” This is the door to that greater silence: a halt-stitch in our lives, a timefault in the heavens, a faltering of order and meaning that shows a redemptive emptiness at the root of things.
There is, McCarthy tells us, a particular gesture that opens this door. The gesture cannot be performed, only witnessed. The Crossing’s own ex-priest, holed up in a ruin of a church in a ruin of a town high in the mountains, tells Billy Parham about it:
We go from day to day, one day much like the next, and then on a certain day all unannounced we come upon a man or we see this man who is perhaps already known to us and is a man like all men but who makes a certain gesture of himself that is like the piling of one’s goods upon an altar and in this gesture we recognize that which is buried in our hearts and is never truly lost to us nor ever can be. . . It is this for which we long and are afraid to seek and which alone can save us.
The door opens when you see, unannounced, a man make a certain gesture. This gesture is “like the piling of one’s goods upon an altar.” We recognize in this gesture what has been buried, all along, in our hearts, though we’ve been afraid to seek it or perform it: the loss of everything we claim as our own. This gesture is, the ex-priest says, a “casual gesture” that accomplishes a “subtle movement of divestiture.” Despite its subtlety, the gesture nonetheless wreaks
all unknown upon some ancillary soul a havoc such that the soul is forever changed, forever wrenched about in the road it was intended upon and set instead upon a road heretofore unknown to it. This new man will hardly know the hour of his turning nor the source of it. He will himself have done nothing that such great good befall him. Yet he will have the very thing, you see. Unsought for and undeserved. He will have in his possession that elusive freedom which men seek with such unending desperation.
In this divestiture, a freedom attends the witness. It comes suddenly, unannounced, unsought for, undeserved. It shows, McCarthy warns us, that “this life of yours is not a picture of the world. It is the world itself and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship. Nothing else can contain it. Nothing else be by it contained.”
This gesture of divestiture requires the witness to adopt a silence that is blind, that no longer claims to be able to picture the world. Then, in this blindness, something other than your picture of the world can reveal itself and you find that even “this life of yours is not a picture of the world” but “the world itself.”
Starving, Billy Parham is fed by a blind man who lost his eyes to war. The blind, he explains to Billy, have this advantage over those with eyes. Those with eyes still think that they can picture the world. And, more, they still think that such picturing is possible because “eyes may select what they wish to see.” It is different for the blind. “For the blind the world appears of its own will. He said that for the blind everything was abruptly at hand, that nothing ever announced its approach. Origins and destinations became but rumors. To move is to abut against the world. Sit quietly and it vanishes.” Absent sight, distance and selection vanish. What’s left is the pressure of the world we hadn’t noticed abutting against us.
The ex-priest of The Crossing shows Billy this same thing. He lives alone in the ruin of a church filled with cats. But it turns out that, before being a priest, he was a Mormon. “I am a Mormon,” the ex-priest says of himself by way of introduction.
Or I was. I was a Mormon born.
[Billy] wasn’t sure what a Mormon was. He looked at the room. He looked at the cats.
They came here many years ago. Eighteen and ninety-six. From Utah. They came because of the statehood. In Utah. I was a Mormon. Then I converted to the church. Then I became I dont know what. Then I became me.
This is the sequence through which the gesture moves. The man was born a Mormon. It’s just what he was. Then he named himself a Catholic and became a priest for a time. Then, one day, unannounced, he had wrought upon him that subtle act of divestiture and he abandoned control of meaning. He became, in effect, blind. And so he sat down on the ground. And he was silent. And, sitting, he found the ground of the world. And then, he says, “I became me.” And so he began again.
“I was a Mormon. Then I converted to the church. Then I became I dont know what. Then I became me.”
Such is the life of the witness.
Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Original Grace, The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace, and An Early Resurrection.
This remembrance was adapted with permission from an essay originally published in Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology, “Silence, Witness, and Absolute Rock: Reading Cormac McCarthy,” published by Greg Kofford Books in 2016.