Lens of Unrectified Night: God and Man in Outer Dark
In 1968, Cormac McCarthy published his second novel, Outer Dark, a work of scintillating darkness that established many of the stylistic choices he would crystallize in 1985's masterpiece Blood Meridian. In Outer Dark we find many of the first steps of what we can now call 'McCarthyesque' style; an indebtedness to the grand language of Melville and Faulkner, characters and settings steeped in allegory, antagonists as avatars of death and war, a small, but not total, streak of nihilism that damns everyone with the same unfeeling brush. But the most important McCarthyesque trope that is first brought to the fore in the black pages of Outer Dark is perhaps the most subtle: McCarthy imbues his grandiose prose with a hidden, serpentine Christianity, though not the faith that is preached from the pulpit every Sunday; his is the ancient, the mystical, the unknowable, the pre-Nicean Christianity that flutters, ghostlike, before and between the lines of the Holy Book, that the Greeks called γνῶσις or gnosis, knowledge. One of the central tenants to Gnostic belief is that the sphere in which we reside is Hell itself, and it is this thought that runs as a silver thread through Outer Dark, that the world is one abandoned by God, a dark, miserable land of the helpless, the miserable, and the already-damned.
McCarthy essentially gives away the game before the book is even opened; the title Outer Dark is a direct reference to Hell in the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus says that “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (English Standard Version, Matthew 8.11-12). Outer Dark takes this setting and makes the most of it, to the extent that even the land itself comes across as abandoned by the Creator, that “The world about which Cormac McCarthy writes is unforgivingly brutal and unrelentingly dangerous; it is also inflected by an ambivalent regard for the religious” (Potts 1). McCarthy describes the land as “low and swampy, sawgrass and tule, tufted hummocks among the scrub trees” (McCarthy 16) while the creeks that dot it are “choked with duckwort and watercress” (16) with “the swollen waters coming in a bloodcolored spume” (15). He describes the sun as “bleak and pallid” (10) in a “colorless sky” (11), and the miserable people who populate this land build their homes in “palpable miasma of rot” (109). The earth is overcome with a palpable darkness, with tendrils of night almost infecting the world itself, a world with no light, where days go “from dark to dark, delivered out of the clamorous rabble under a black sun and into a night more dolorous” (5). Unlike McCarthy's other novels, in which the setting is not only concretely defined but often important to the plot, Outer Dark exists in a setting purposefully ambiguous, great pains are taken to “[remove] virtually all the techniques that he used to ground and orient our reading experience in his debut novel” (Walsh 105). Though there is enough given in the text to make conjecture, even those tantalizing bits seem to exist to disorient readers more; “the modes of transportation (wagons and cable ferry) would seem to date the novel in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and the heavy dialect places the story somewhere in the rural south, but particulars of time and place remain conspicuously absent” (Owens-Murphy 161). Without much more than the most basic setting signifiers to help the reader, the novel takes on a lysergic, dreamlike quality which resists attempts by the reader of grounding themselves, allowing McCarthy to weave a story that is naturally Realist in text, while very allegorical and fantastic between the lines; Katie Owens-Murphy points out the “surreal quality of Outer Dark and its allusions to the Bible” (161) while Christopher Walsh notes that the forests, swamps, and “spectral wastes” of the novel all lend to the “feelings of claustrophobia, fear, dread, and isolation” (Walsh 102). Gnostic Christian belief states that “When we really start to observe the facts of our existence, we start to see that we already live in hell. Psychologically, we are in hell. Spiritually, we are in hell” (Gnostic Instructor) and we can see just from the setting of Outer Dark that McCarthy has written a world that is bleak, black, hallucinogenic, and in a word, Hellish.
Within this warped and blasted landscape, the citizens who inhabit Outer Dark's pages make up a parade of stunted, grotesque, tortured souls that only reenforce the fact that this land has been forgotten by a higher power. The people of the surreal, nameless land of the novel are miserable, poverty-stricken, and mindlessly dogmatic, a bizarre, stunted breed that is “only semi-literate and half-animal” (Geddes), a concept best shown in Culla and Rinthy's child, seen through the eyes of Culla as “gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor” (McCarthy 18). The main combat to this bestial primitivism is a turn to an orthodox Southern Christianity that borders on zealotry at times; a shopkeeper states that “We still Christians here” (26), and this echoes the ceaseless preoccupation with twin absolutes of the Bible and death throughout the story, bringing up comparisons to the smallfolk of Europe during the Black Death, where the church controlled everything and people's lives were painful and twisted and short. The citizens of Outer Dark seem to be only nominally human much of the time, “a series of physically grotesque characters replete with all nature of deformities and disfigurements” (Walsh 104); the tinker is described as “a small gnomic creature wreathed in a morass of grizzled hair” (McCarthy 6) whose body is permanently “bowed in the posture of his drayage” (188) from decades of hauling his cart through the land. Those that are whole of body are still twisted of mind: married couples are uniformly miserable and abusive toward one another, while the men who populate the novel are “meanhearted and sorry” (107), whiskey-sodden, pornography-obsessed, Bible-thumping cretins who exist to keep their women under their thumb. In one of the rare instances that Rinthy is alone with men and no fellow females there to counterbalance them, the prose turns sinister and sexual:
“It was only a few minutes before they entered, stepping soft as thieves and whispering harshly to one another. She watched them with squint eyes, the man all but invisible standing not an arm’s length from where she lay and going suddenly stark white against the darkness as he shed his overalls and posed in his underwear before mounting awkwardly bedward like a wounded ghost. When they were all turned in they lay in the hot silence and listened to one another breathing. She turned carefully on the rattling pallet. She listened for a bird or for a cricket. Something she might know in all that dark.” (65)
As a result of this abuse and misfortune, many of the most malformed grotesques throughout the novel are women, twisted from their position as givers and nurturers of life to something hideous, misshapen and asexual, a “stooped and hooded anthropoid” (108) is described as curiously sexless, and even the women who birth children see them die as infants in enormous numbers; one woman that Rinthy meets notes of her children that “we raised five. All dead” (104). This ties in with Rinthy and her own troubled motherhood; the land of Outer Dark is too cruel for children, and the unfortunates who do survive are shaped by the environment into something damaged and helpless. Walsh says that “The gothic strangeness and grotesque characters in the novel tend to dominate our reading, and they certainly thwart any attempt to impose a realistic analysis upon it” (105) and it is this lack of realistic analysis that allows the allegory to flourish underneath, showing that this is truly a mystical, haunted narrative beneath what would otherwise be a Faulkner-aping (if not gorgeously written) work of Southern Gothic prose. Instead, the world of Outer Dark is a seething Gnostic Hell, and its inhabitants are cursed, bent and twisted by a world where God has departed and left its inhabitants to their own primitive devices.
Standing alone within the squalor that makes up civilization in Outer Dark are our protagonists, the incestuous brother and sister duo of Rinthy and Culla Holme. Rinthy and Culla are “are outcasts who don’t quite understand the extent of their estrangement from the dominant social order” (Turner), sinners helpless within the machinations of an absentee God who are crushed and ground down by the Hellish world they find themselves in. At the beginning of the novel, the Holme siblings have committed a grievous sin by creating a child, and the whole of Outer Dark is their separate hunts for salvation in a world that goes from apathetic to downright hostile to their plight. Rinthy's character begins and ends in a “stoic and melancholic attempt to find her child” (Walsh 112) after her brother abandons it and it is picked up by a tinker. Rinthy is treated delicately by the doomed masses that inhabit McCarthy's pages; though she is in danger throughout, she relies on the sympathy of the people, especially the same broken, battered women that inhabit the land with her, and unlike her brother she is never stalked by the demonic Triumvirate that leave a trail of mayhem behind Culla wherever he goes. And yet, Rinthy is still damned like her brother is; she never finds her child (or never realizes she does, at least) and presumably wanders the Earth searching for that which will never be found. Rinthy fits the model of the Gnostic psychic, a spirit which longs to escape the material world and yet cannot escape being bogged down by it. She has cast off the trappings of material possession so loathed by Gnostics, hunting only for the fruit of her body with the rags on her back, and yet the sin of the flesh which created the life she is hunting for is too great to ignore. When at last she finds the tinker who had taken her child in, he sums up the whole of the novel in a single phrase, “I've seen the meanness of humans till I don't know why God ain't put out the sun and gone away” (McCarthy 192) and yet still she leaves empty handed, to search fruitlessly while the tinker is condemned like the rest.
While Rinthy's damaged innocence is ultimately undone in a world in which nobody is innocent, it is Culla who is a model denizen of this land, a being so twisted and so utterly lacking awareness of his wrongdoings that he will be punished in this blasted world forever. Throughout the novel, Culla is harassed and treated with suspicion, hatred, and contempt, with the implication that the sin he has committed, that of trying to hide and even destroy the product of his incest, is too great to be washed clean. Culla's denial of his wrongdoing permeates every moment of his story; when Rinthy, falsely believing that their child died, asks if Culla gave it a name, Culla replies that “you don’t name things dead” (31), a sentiment that is mockingly thrown back at him by the leader of the Triumvirate hunting him toward the end of the book, “That'n ain't got a name...he wanted me to give him one but I wouldn't do it.” (174). Culla's abandoning his child is an “apt metaphor for the way man is thrown into the godless world, without direction” (Geddes), and like the God of Outer Dark, it is a father abandoning his son to the evil of the world. McCarthy again alludes to the Bible when Culla comes across an insane herd of swine that reverses the story in the Book of Matthew in which Jesus casts out porcine demons. Biblical imagery abounds in the scene, as Culla first hears “a faint murmurous droning portending multitudes, locusts, the advent of primitive armies” (213), and the stampede begins when they are in sight of the lone sinner. In McCarthy's narrative, the swine seem to be driven mad by Culla's simple presence, they stampede and kill their handlers before flinging themselves off a cliff, inverting Matthew and bringing the remaining men to a state of holy terror where they attempt to hang Culla. In Gnostic terms, Culla is a hylic, a basal form of man made up of cowardice and lust, who are doomed to be sucked in to the filth of the world, unable to escape; the last scene in the novel has Culla find the road he's been following for most of the story ends in a weltering, endless swamp.
While Outer Dark, like many allegorical works, contains few that we can colloquially refer to as 'main characters', from the standpoint of a Gnostic reading, nobody represents the concept of an abandoned, Earthly Hell as effortlessly as the ghastly Triumvirate that stalks the Holme siblings, Culla in particular. The Trio are indicative of every villain that McCarthy has given us since, the nameless leader in particular “prefigures many of McCarthy’s later antagonists, like the Judge of Blood Meridian or Chigurh in No Country for Old Men” (Turner). The Trio appears in six interim chapters between the twin travels of the siblings, always a step behind Culla, until at last they meet their quarry in a pair of tense, allegorical dialogues that allow the leader to soliloquize on the nature of sin and redemption, the latter of which he makes clear that Culla is incapable of. In Gnostic terms, the Triune are representative of the archon, servants of the absentee God, whether angels or demons, who oversee the Hell on Earth. Which the Triune are is unnecessary to discern, whether they are murderous demons or brutal, avenging angels, they leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake, giving the citizens of the various towns that Culla reaches a reason to mistrust him. They seem to be avatars of the warped and blackened land themselves, supernatural in the most pure use of the term, beings beyond human understanding; when Culla in their second and final meeting asks the leader “what are you?” he responds “ah...we've heard that before” (McCarthy 234). Rinthy never interacts with the Triumvirate, but she too pays for her brother's mortal transgressions: at the end of the novel they find and hang the tinker and burn the siblings' child to carbonized bone, a macabre tableaux that Rinthy comes across without knowing who the blackened ribcage in the firepit once belonged to. As a final cruelty, the Trio leave both Holme siblings alive and searching in a world that is ruined, made by a God who no longer cares, and policed by pure, sinister judgment.
Cormac McCarthy's works have the ability to transcend the mundane, to give us a fantastic realism that is aware of the darkness that lurks in the human condition. While all of his works ply in allegory and Biblical allusion, Outer Dark is perhaps the purest example of such. From the eloquent, Old Testament language to the gory brutality of its contents, Outer Dark exists like a work of Biblical apocrypha that never was, a moralistic tale that takes place in a world where moralism has already broken down, and it is in the dark, mystical beliefs of Gnostic Christianity, not the unrelenting nihilism that has been argued, that the work is framed. While Outer Dark perhaps lacks the philosophical musings or the bloody immediacy of McCarthy's later works, it makes up for it with a stunning language and a languid, dreamlike psuedo-reality. The Holme siblings' tale is horrific and will stick in the mind long after the book is closed, as a tortured, haunting vision of Hell in which Hell is simply the absence of God.