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Cormac McCarthy and The Paradox of Opposition
“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so… righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.” -Father Lehi
“… and after all, who knows whether proof of the devil is also a proof of God?”-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
IN HIS RECENT NOVEL The Passenger (2022), Cormac McCarthy interlaces the disparate narrative of protagonist Bobby Western with the “hallucinations” or visions of Western’s younger sister Alicia. The scenes depicting the hallucinations mainly constitute a dialogue between her and the apparition of “the Thalidomide Kid,” a figure both grotesque and profane, with flippers for hands (reflecting the effects of the Thalidomide scandal in the 1950’s). At one point in these dialogues, Alicia and the Kid discuss the nature of individuality and ontology, or of being. Alicia says “There’s no kind. Which leads us to the paradox that where there’s no kind there can’t be one” (192). She continues: “You can’t have anything till another thing shows up. That’s the problem. If there’s just one thing you can’t say where it is or what it is. You can’t say how big it is or how small or what color it is or how much it weighs. You can’t say if it is. Nothing is anything unless there’s another thing” (192).
Here, Alicia speaks with elegant simplicity of the paradox of opposition: that opposition must exist in all things, otherwise things cannot be. According to this paradox, you must have darkness if you are to have light; blue cannot be without yellow, nor red without green. This idea reaches all the way back to the beginning verses of Genesis: for Adam wasn’t Adam until God created Eve (another motif recurrent in The Passenger). Adam couldn’t be without Eve, neither Eve without Adam. The paradox resurfaces in the main narrative as Western outlines the concept through more mathematical terms: “a location without reference to some other location cant be expressed. Some of the difficulty with quantum mechanics has to reside in the problem of coming to terms with the simple fact that there is no such thing as information in and of itself independent of the apparatus necessary to its perception. There were no starry skies prior to the first sentient and ocular being to behold them” (149). In other words, one cannot define any location without a relative point of reference: opposition brings about being.
Of everything that is in the oeuvre of Cormac McCarthy, the singular recurrent motif is the nature and reality of evil. Real, unfettered malevolence and violence form the bones and veins of McCarthy’s work. His most famous novel Blood Meridian (1985) details the violence of the Texas-Mexico border in the mid eighteenth-century and its bloodied and ruthless market for Indian scalps; in his earlier Outer Dark (1968) a woman is impregnated by her brother (again, Adam and Eve), who then leaves the baby to die in a ravine; his more recent The Road (2006) tells the story of a father and son traversing a grey post-apocalyptic road in a grey hopeless world filled with danger, terror, and cannibalistic horror. In a word, violence and blood and evil play much of the melody throughout McCarthy’s work.
In his No Country for Old Men (2005), McCarthy writes of evil personified in the infamous Anton Chigurh, a ruthless maniacal serial killer who breeds fear into all, including the highest leaders of the most powerful drug cartels. Throughout the novel, Chigurh psychopathically kills *spoiler alert* nearly every character of the story. He is so dangerous that one of the more powerful drug cartels hires a hitman—Wells—to take him out. When Wells gets the job, the leader of the cartel asks:
“How well do you know Chigurh.
Well enough. [Said Wells.]
That’s not an answer.
What do you want to know?
The man tapped his knuckles on the desk. He looked up. I’d just like to know your opinion of him. In general. The invincible Mr Chigurh.
Why do you say that?
Somewhere in the world is the most invincible man. Just as somewhere is the most vulnerable
That’s a belief you have?
No. It’s called statistics” (140-141).
This exchange between Wells and his new employer lays out the mathematical certainty of the existence of evil. Statistically speaking, says the drug trafficker, someone like Chigurh is real, and exists—it is a probabilistic fact.
This statistical proof of evil, personified in Chigurh, compounds near the end of the novel when he (Chigurh) shows up in a woman’s home after promising her husband he would take her life. Once she realizes his intentions she says:
“you don’t have to… You don’t. You don’t.” Chigurh then shakes his head and replies, “I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most don’t believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of.” (259-260).
In the words of Chigurh, a coin toss may prove necessary for the mathematics, allowing for randomness in the equation. But besides that, all that remains is the statistical certainty of evil, evidenced in her subsequent death.
The darkness in McCarthy’s novels is heavy and thick but cannot exist of its own accord: let us not forget the paradox of opposition manifested in The Passenger. Yes, Cormac McCarthy’s work stands as a deep abyss of everything evil, dark, and mundane in this world—but that darkness cannot exist without its opposite. Like Adam and Eve, without light there is no darkness; without light, there is no literary Cormac McCarthy. In this sense, the only thing more constant than evil in McCarthy’s novels is, via negativa, the presence of God and light and virtue.
Like the paradox of opposition, Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This law holds true for all things, especially McCarthy’s work: for every instance of darkness and hell there exists (even if perceptually absent) an equal and opposite measure of light and heaven. If Chigurh proves the embodiment of the mathematical certainty of evil, he cannot do so without the mathematical certainty of good, and of God. Evil cannot exist without the good, otherwise it would not be. At the beginning of Blood Meridian, a Mennonite preacher-prophet says “the wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell ain’t half full. Hear me. Ye carry war of the madman’s making onto a foreign land. Ye’ll wake more than the dogs” (43). Thus, in McCarthy’s work, it seems both the wrath and the light of God shines in the silence of the sleeping night, just beyond the dark taking center stage. And it is up to us to find a way to break the veil.
While the darkness of McCarthy’s work is immensely heavy, it is likewise, in some mysterious sense, necessary. Joseph Smith taught, “Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation [and I would add here that the most important soul to lead is your own], must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity” (137). Cormac McCarthy’s work teaches that there is no amount of goodness in your soul if you’ve never had to face the darkness; you will never love the light of the sun without knowing the cold bitter of the winter dark.
This is the utility of the literary: to see the darkest abyss without having to touch it. This opposition, found in the work of McCarthy and others, provides that opposition in simulation, contributing, paradoxically, to the reality of life. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky writes, “[the] terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but also mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart” (108). That battlefield comes to the forefront whenever the reader—you and I—confront the mysterious beauty of McCarthy’s texts. This paradoxical opposition is the beauty of his work entering the hearts of an increasing number of readers across the world. Whether McCarthy would explicitly state it or not, the darkness of his novels exists together with the light and radiance of God in the silence; you and I, as readers, must find it in the sleeping of a million years.
Scott Raines is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Kansas.