The Frail Agony of Grace: Story, Act, and Sacrament in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy
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CitationPotts, Matthew Lawrence. 2013. The Frail Agony of Grace: Story, Act, and Sacrament in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
AbstractAlthough scholars have widely acknowledged the prevalence of religious reference in the work of Cormac McCarthy, no studies have yet paid any adequate attention to the most pervasive religious trope in all his works: the image of sacrament, and in particular, of eucharist. I contend that a thorough and appropriately informed study of sacrament in the work of Cormac McCarthy can uniquely illuminate his whole body of writing and I undertake that study in this dissertation. Two things are obvious in the work of Cormac McCarthy: that these novels attempt to establish some sort of moral system in light of metaphysical collapse, and that they are often adorned with sacramental imagery. My argument is that these two facts can and do intelligibly speak to one another, and that a particular theological understanding of sacrament demonstrates how. By reading McCarthy alongside postmodern accounts of action, identity, subjectivity, and narration, I show how he exploits Christian theology in order to locate the value of human acts and relations in a sacramentally immanent way. This is not to claim McCarthy for theology, but it is to assert that McCarthy generates an account of what goodness might look like in a death-ridden world through reference to the theological tradition of sacrament. I begin by addressing the scope and source of McCarthy’s violence. In Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men I read McCarthy as following Nietzsche in scorning an ascetic ideal that locates the value of life beyond life. The ideas of reason and fate in Nietzsche as they develop in Adorno and Arendt is then studied in these same novels. Arendtian ideas of action deeply influence my reading of Suttree next, and this lead into a study of storytelling in the three novels of the border trilogy which is again deeply indebted to Arendtian notions of narration. Last, I look to contemporary theology and The Road for examples of sacrament that can cohere these various themes under a single sign and establish the grounds for a postmodern morality.
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