Pynchon & McCarthy on Catastrophe

I recently finished Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, and for some reason I found it resonating in weird ways with Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road. They are, of course, very different novels; and, indeed, were written by very different authors. But I was struck by how each, in their own ways, own up to a world facing catastrophe.

For Thomas Pynchon, the catastrophe (most notably, WWI) has yet to happen, but it looms throughout his novel. Indeed, the full weight of what is to come manages even to pierce the time-continuum and forcibly project emissaries of a futuristic world upended by humanity’s self-made destruction. His is a meditation on technological and economic aspirations that instrumentalize individuals, their labor, and most fundamentally, the very core of existence, time.

For Cormac McCarthy, the catastrophe has already taken place. A piercing white light in the distance, a self-made disaster once again, is all that is disclosed about it. The effect, however, is clear—the body itself has become instrumentalized as food for the cannibalistic gangs of survivors.

While both Pynchon and McCarthy offer insightful critiques of the self-destructive tendencies of contemporary culture, they do so most powerfully in their evaluation of human sociality & love. What I found most interesting, though, and given my disposition this is hardly surprising, is that neither are concerned to demonstrate some semblance of hope. Like the great theoretician of catastrophe before them, Theodor Adorno, they do not suggest that relationships, be they familial or otherwise, might save us, either from what comes or what has already come. In many respects, they treat sociality & love like Adorno might aesthetics (music, in particular): as an immanent power trangressive to existing regimes of instrumentalization. This, we should note, despite its fragility, contingency, and transience — they are, to my reading, both very careful not to idealize love. By all accounts, such love is useless (e.g., in The Road, the father’s walking to the coast with his son only extends their being together, not the the hope for their ultimate survival) and/or capricious (e.g., in Against the Day, most noteworthy relationships are at first glance nothing but gratuitous, random sex; not to mention either short-lived or misdirected), but ultimately highlights a level of intimacy that goes against traditional expectations and norms. It is, in effect, out-of-place and/or inconvenient; when it is not doomed to failure, it survives only in misery.

For all of this, and perhaps cause of all this, Pynchon & McCarthy present love as not fully appropriated for profit and instrumentalized debasement. On the contrary, its vagabond, moribund, untenable status are marks of its survival, and of its status as a remnant of what is possible before and after the catastrophe. In this it manages to transcend those all-encompassing powers whose authority extends even to their own self-willed destruction — that of a world so intent on surviving a certain way that it is willing to kill itself trying, through the ultimately suicidal violence of it means of production (& consumption) and the waging of its wars. In short, Pynchon and McCarthy can be said to intimate a kind of alternative ontology of survival, resistance, and existence: one that cuts across classical individualism and humanism, and brings us closer to the sense of a subjectivity that is a sociality, of a being-with others.

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6 Responses to “Pynchon & McCarthy on Catastrophe”

  1. Alex Says:

    Great post! Makes me want to read some Adorno!

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    And not Pynchon or McCarthy?! Shame!

    Though … I am considering a weekly homage post on Minima Moralia. Of course, as Adam will attest, I’ve been talking about this for close to a year.

  3. Nate Kerr Says:

    I haven’t read either of these books, and am more familiar with Pynchon than McCarthy, but your post raises a question for me: Is survival really the best we can do?

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Nate, that’s a particularly valid question.

    In my view, survival for either authors is not simply a matter of extending one’s biological life. But, rather, goes deeper to the human experience. In a sense, most biological life, they would seem to contend, is consumed only with the literal and figurative dealing of death. Neither seem to think there is a way around this. Nevertheless, they each seem to offer some hint of a life amidst the death. In the case of McCarthy, for example, the father & son are really the only ones shown to be truly living, despite their status as (apparently) doomed, not the cannibalistic hordes in The Road (who, btw, are really similar to classical zombies), i.e., the strong who are willing to do whatever it takes to extend their biological life. In the end, even the extension of the boy’s life is about the survival of a way of living, that of a love that resists the way the world has become after the catastrophe, not the fact that he happens to wake up to see another day.

  5. Louis Minnaar Says:

    I was alone on Christmas day and so I read ‘The Road’. Perhaps that is why I found the novel to be suggesting a messianic ethics. The survival of the human race is dependent upon the ethical superiority of some or even a individual(s). I can imagine the next civilization in the world of ‘The Road’ to be following the teachings of the boy, who became a wise man.

  6. Friday Afternoon Confessional: A-Changing « The Weblog Says:

    [...] one of the most important and interesting characters in the book. I confess that I agree with Brad that the wild depraved sex in Against the Day serves an important narrative [...]


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