Friday, February 16, 2007

Overcoming the Monster

Is how Christopher Booker refers to the first of the The Seven Basic Plots seemingly common to all stories told in all cultures, across all periods of history.

It's a fascinating chapter. The monster in question can be literally so (Grendel, Jaws) or figuratively so (Bond baddies, The Nazis) and usually has three main characteristics, beyond being self-seeking by nature and utterly heartless.

- Predator: preys on communities, usually one community in particular.

- Holdfast: has a lair, usually underground, in which it likes to keep all its stuff, and quite often a beautiful female or substantial treasure that will require extraction.

- Avenger: when provoked it becomes especially demented.

However, the monster usually has a blind spot or some other crucial vulnerability which the hero is ultimately able to exploit, but not before experiencing a great deal of hazard. Across world literature the hero's struggle against the monster tends to follow a familiar five stage pattern:

1) The call - a period of anticipation, where the full extent of the threat that the monster poses may be underestimated.

2) The dream phase - a period of initial success (such as Bond's triumph over Goldfinger at cards at the Fontainbleu), when things seem to be going according to plan from the hero's perspective.

3) Confrontation - a period of frustration as the hero starts to get closer to the monster in its well-defended den. Whether the hero is James Bond or Perseus, he tends to enter this phase equipped with 'magic' weapons.

4) The nightmare phase - the final ordeal in which the hero will face failure and extinction: a spot so tight that release from it seems most unlikely.

5) The miraculous escape - sometimes, as in War of the Worlds, the hero can only watch as the monster's flaw is exposed with little input from himself. In High Noon however, Gary Cooper's miraculous escape is provided for by his quaker wife returning to take down one of the baddies from a window overlooking the enactment of his nightmare phase.

In general the hero and/or the community being terrorised is seen to begin the tale in a state of constriction. There follows a period of relative liberation (such as the arrival of the Magnificent Seven in the Mexican village), which culiminates in the final ordeal which proposes an altogether more terminal form of the restriction. There is ordinarily a sense that the death of the monster at the end of the story has lead to some sort of deeper liberation in the lives of the hero and the wider community.

Booker makes the point that although World War II is a recent historical event, the way we tell stories about it tends to conform to a pattern as old as literature itself.

Now all this is interesting in terms of how Cormac McCarthy handles his representation of evil (and particularly Judge Holden) in Blood Meridian. In constructing his alternative western mythology, he doesn't so much subvert the form as completely ignore it.

In places it reads like a non-fiction account of the activities of the Glanton Gang, albeit written in highly poeticised prose. Holden, himself an historical figure with known characteristics, has some of the physical abnormalities that human instances of the monster usually need to have in traditional narrative. McCarthy's judge also appears ageless and able to pop up all over the place. However, his heartlessness is perhaps less clear-cut than your average Gestapo agent, and he demonstrates an intellectual curiosity that we normally associate with a more humanist mentality (though this turns out to be an aspect of his control-freakishness).

Some have called McCarthy's presentation of evil gnostic. I'm not so sure about this. He certainly seems to believe that evil is inevitable, as I do myself, but that is not gnosticism per se. This quotation from one of his rare interviews is revealing:

"There is no such thing as life without bloodshed...I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."

So, we might have to add him to the list of intellectual figures that could well have been influenced by Schopenhauer − good is only conceivable within the context of existence within the world of phenomena. Beyond this existence, in the transcendental world of noumena, there is only the heartless Will, which for its very objectivity (and unlike Buddhism's Brahman) is more likely to be the source of evil consequences down here than good ones. Gnosticism on the other hand, posits two equally-weighted deities, one good, one evil, both in the transcendental plane, with the material world itself unquestionably the work of the nastier one.

It's also worth noting that McCarthy's mouthpieces of evil all seem to believe in a crude form of determinism.

Tommy Lee Jones owns the film rights to Blood Meridian, but one wonders how successful a Hollywood take on this could be. So much of its power is locked up in the language. Holden's dual nature as flesh-and-blood man and incarnation of a mythic malignancy would be hard to capture on screen. The way that 'The Kid' disappears from direct view within the gang during the mid-section of the story would also prove problematical I suspect.

Yet one senses that McCarthy's way of handling sudden acts of violence would appeal to certain directors. What makes them most shocking is the way they rarely appear to have any function within the plot. Under Holden's tutelage the scalp-hunters become agents of the most senseless, indiscriminate form of savagery.

In No Country for Old Men I was also struck by the way that the principle of evil, impersonated by Anton Chigurh, exists on its own narrative plane within the story. Few of the individuals that interact with Chigurh survive to tell the tale and crucially, Sheriff Bell and Chigurh never connect before the deluge of violence at the heart of this novel has finally abated.

I bought The Road last night and will report on it in due course.


scott said...

Interesting thoughts on McCarthy and his notions of evil. You had mentioned at one point that he seems to be a radical conservative; I find it interesting that his quote on the fallacy and ultimate folly of trying to improve the world could be turned against radical conservatives themselves (think the American Taliban and their recent misadventures with respect to democratizing certain Arab countries). While it could be argued that these misadventures are really thinly disguised grabs for resources, I think certain actors in this theater of the absurd really do think God is on their side and they are doing his work.

I'd love to get your take on Suttree...a very different McCarthy novel (at least in terms of setting) and written during his most creative phase, to my mind.

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