Notes on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy

I recently finished The Crossing, the second book in the trilogy. I wrote some comments about it in the “What are you reading” thread, but I may not have mentioned two points. First, the novel is just as much philosophy as it is literature (leading to a mythic, quasi-religious literature). The philosophical ideas, dealing with McCarthy’s concept of the world, among other concepts, is quite opaque and weighty (at least for me). Second, of the contemporary writers I’ve encountered McCarthy’s prose may be the most innovative and original. He has very singular, unique approach, sometimes radical (e.g., eschewing semi-colons, while liberally, and some may say excessively, using “and” in a way that violates good writing norms). Both the prose and the philosophy warrant a space to ponder and analyze; and so, this thread.

McCarthy seems to have a very specific definition of the world; and here “world” refers primarily to something non-material. For example, when someone says, “That’s the way the world works,” this is the type of world McCarthy refers to. Perhaps we could say it is the combination of human systems, structures, ideas, and human nature…moving through time, that is connected and developed from the past (and moving into the future?). Essentially, this sense of the world are ideas based on the perception and knowledge of human beings–at least this is what McCarthy seems to suggest. And because they are essentially ideas, woven into some coherent whole, McCarthy thinks of the world as a story. In the book, one character compares it to a corrido–which is a Mexican (Spanish?) ballad or long tale, involving injustice and tragedy, or something to that effect. The world is a story or narrative, and every physical has meaning only from the story.

Somehow God is also connected to this, maybe as the ultimate storyteller. (I’ll have to check on this.)

One other thing for now: The telling of the story is a crucial thing. And the story (of the world?) most be told over and over again.

2 thoughts on “Notes on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy

  1. Before Billy returns to the U.S. for the first time, he goes to a town, Huisiachepic, and meets with a “caretaker” of a church in ruins. The caretaker tells Billy a story about himself, specifically the way and reason he is in Huisiachepic. Of the three McCarthy books I’ve read, The Crossing may contain the most specific descriptions of McCarthy’s philosophical conceptions of the world, God, and human existence. The caretaker’s words may are among the most explicit and didactic, and therefore important. In this post, I want to summarize the caretaker’s tale, as well as quote some of the passages and analyze them.

    Summary of the caretaker’s story

    The caretaker explains to Billy that he came to the current town because he wanted to retrace the specific steps of a man. He then tells the story of this man, which I will attempt to summarize here.

    The man was born in another town, Caborca. There, when he was a young boy, his parents died, after an attack by Americans.

    The boy is taken to Huisiachepic and grows up there. Eventually, he married and has a son. One day he leaves with his son to another town, for a business trip. First, he drops off his son with an uncle, and then goes to another town to pick up something of value (grain?). An earthquake destroys the uncle’s town, and the boy dies.

    The man is devastated and eventually leaves his wife and wanders around, ending up in some Mexican city, getting a job as government messenger and eventually retiring. During this time he has formulated thoughts about human existence and the way the world operates–and this involves a kind of superstructure create (and re-created) by God that is akin to fate.

    In his retirement he goes back to Caborca, where he was born. He makes his home in a rundown church, which has a high dome that could collapse at any moment. There, like Job, he paces every day railing against God. Eventually, a priest goes to see him, and they have debates about God. (The caretaker is vague about the actual specifics and words of what the man says, both to God and the priest.) The old man eventually becomes ill and dies, but before he does he has gains more insights–insights I don’t fully understand so I can’t really articulate them here. Hopefully, I’ll do so later.

  2. (Note: If any of you know where I can find a copy of The Crossing online–one that can allow me to cut and paste passages, please let me know. As of now, I have to re-type the passages that I’ll be commenting on.)

    As I mentioned in the previous post, the caretaker (of the church in Huisiachepic) explains to retrace the steps of a man. But before he says that, he tells Billy that he wants to understand the reason an earthquake destroyed the church. Specifically, he wants to understand God’s mind–with regard to allowing or causing this disaster–and he distinguishes this from the causes of the disaster, explaining that “causes only multiply themselves…lead(ing) to chaos.”

    When Billy asks what the caretaker ultimately finds. the caretaker responds:

    I am here because of a certain man. I came to retrace his steps. Perhaps to see if there was not some alternate course. what was here to be found was not a thing. Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to use they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what was to be found here. The corrido. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.

    Billy asks him what is the story. The man begins to tell him about the story of the man I summarized above. The caretaker says the man was born and eventually died in the town of Caborca, he also came to Huisiachepic.

    What does Caborca know of Huisiachepic? Huisiachepic of Caborca? They are different worlds, you must agree. Yet even so there is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flowers and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in tit is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the selfsame tale and contain all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted. We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall. And those seams that are hid from us are of course in the tale itself and the tale has no abode or place of being except in the telling only and there it lives and makes its home and therefore we can never been done with the telling. Of the telling there is no end. And whether in Caborca or in Huisiachepic or in whatever other place by whatever other name or by no name at all I say again all tales are one. Rightly heard all tales are one.

    Some random thoughts:

    • There are at least two type of worlds–one physical and the other more conceptual; the second world is essentially a story told about the events in the physical world. The physical world has no meaning without this second world.
    • Question: Who creates this second world or narrative? My sense is that God (or some supreme being) creates–and tells–this Story. The passages above don’t clearly point to this, but I’m also drawing on other passages in the novel. At the same time, if there is only one story, then that suggests either that some being created this story or the story is some fundamental structure in the universe that always existed. (I guess one could say that the story just occurred by some random chance, relying on forces in the universe, but that seems odd and unlikely–more odd and unlikely than a supreme being creating the story.)
    • The idea that the world is ultimately a story or tale is interesting.
    • The “seams” seem to refer to the demarcation between the essential and inessential components of the story. And since we can’t see the seams, we can never know what is essential. Therefore, we can’t dismiss or disdain any component of the story.
    • The story only exists when it is being told. The implication is that the story ceases to exist if it’s not being told. The caretaker asserts this, and it’s possible that this ultimate story does only exist when it is told. However, it’s not clear to me that the story couldn’t exist even when it’s not being told. The creation story in Genesis exists even when it’s not being told. Why does the ultimate story only exist in its telling? The answer isn’t clear to me.

    More on the theory of the world (story)

    The caretaker starts telling the story about the tragic man. When he gets to the part about the man becoming a kind of government messenger, he mentions the man’s lack of political views and explains the reason:

    He (the tragic man) had no faith in the power of men to act wisely in their own behalf. It was his view rather that every act soon eluded the grasp of its propagator to be swept away in a clamorous tide of unforeseen consequence. He believed that in the world was another agenda, another order, and with this power lay whatever brief he may have held.

    Translation: The plans and the reasoning and wisdom behind them are largely futile or at least secondary. There are larger forces, deriving from an invisible super-structure, that ultimately dictate events–something akin to Fate or God’s plan. (I was unclear what “brief” meant. I thought of legal brief, but that didn’t seem appropriate. American Heritage dictionary’s definition–“a set of instructions, given to explain a task or assignment”–seemed to fit a bit better? The phrase “with this power lay whatever brief” seems odd and confusing to me.)

    The caretaker then elaborates further, possibly injecting his own views:

    Don’t misunderstand me…The events of the world can have no separate life from the world. And yet the world itself can have no temporal view of things. It can have no cause to favor certain enterprises over others. the passing of armies and the passing of sands in the desert are one. There is no favoring, you see. How could there be? At whose behest?


    • The “above” seems to refer to this grand story. So events that occur are dependent on this story (world).
    • The story (world) also doesn’t “see” and “make value judgments (It’s odd to suggest a story could do this.)in time. Here, I’m referring to the line–“And yet the world itself can have no temporal view of things” and the few lines afterward. But this suggests the story is eternal, not within time. On the other hand, if it constantly must be retold, then that suggests it’s not eternal…unless story’s blueprint is eternal, but it must be told to give it walls, pillars, doors, etc., as it were.
    • “How could it be? At who’s behest?” Why not God’s behest. The caretaker seems to treat the story/world as something independent of God.

    The caretaker continues,

    This man (tragic man) did not cease to believe in God. Nor did he come to have some modern view of God. There was God and there was the world. He knew that the world would forget him but that God could not. And yet that was the very thing he wished for.

    and later adds

    Men do not turn from God so easily you see. No so easily. Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from. To imagine otherwise is to imagine the unspeakable. It was never that this man ceased to believe in God. No. It was rather that he came to believe terrible things about Him.


    • The world is a story told (and retold) by God, but it is a separate entity in a sense. We can speak of the ways of the world (versus the ways of God). The judgment of the world, what the world values, what the world loves, hates, etc. These positions are not necessarily equivalent with God’s positions. Indeed, in a biblical sense, the world is in opposition to God. But I’m not sure this sense of the world is the same or overlaps with the caretaker’s.
    • But the caretaker also suggests the world doesn’t make value judgments–at least in terms of certain activity that occur in the world. Ants walking on a rock are not more or less important than an a ruler deciding to launch a war….At least from a human’s perspective we can’t know if and when these distinctions exist….The story just is?

    Thoughts on the “one story”

    Given the caretaker’s story about the tragic man, I would say the one story is the Story of Job. More specifically, the struggle and consternation to understand the evil and injustice in the world, especially when God exists. Is this really the one story? That every story is really this story? I have some doubts about this….Certainly, it’s a very important story, but the story that all other stories are about?…

    …Actually, I’m leaving out something important: at the end of the Story, the man stops his railing against God, at least partly because he gains some insight or understanding (similar, although not quite the same, as Job). Hopefully, Ill post those insights, including the insights from the priest in the Story, in the next section.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *