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The Frontiers of Cormac McCarthy

by Adam David Morton on December 15, 2015

Cormac McCarthy has been proclaimed as one of the greatest contemporary writers to herald from the United States and, also, as a writer that can be set historically alongside both John Williams (Butcher’s Crossing) and Oakley Hall (Warlock), in producing a pantheon of masterpieces addressing the borders, landscapes, and geographies of the American west. Such status could be conferred as much by Blood Meridian, marked by its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, as the novels that constitute The Border Trilogy including All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.

But for those interested in the political economy of space, literature has often received only passing commentary, as I have written elsewhere. Questions of literature and spatiality arise in David Harvey’s historical-geographical materialism but there are just a few references to the novel form within his spatial matrix. Yet the intersection of literature and daily life was held as highly significant for Henri Lefebvre in reflecting on the political economy of space. Persuasively, Lefebvre contends that it is through literature, among other forms, that the idea of everyday life and repetition in daily life enters our reflections. Conceptions of space and how the social relations of production shape society therefore maintain a spatial existence in and beyond literature. Moreover, it is Lefebvre that draws our attention to the unity of society and space and how the production of space is inclusive of the meaning, concepts and consciousness of space, which cannot be separated from the social relations of production of geographical space. Space is thusly regarded as co-implicated with time so that the frontiers of territory and geography maintain embeddedness in conditions of history and time. The result is a deeply spatio-temporal awareness of everyday life.

But how can the political production of space and the political economy of space be understood in and through literature? In what ways can the historical frontiers of geography be traced through literature and the novel form, linking to the endeavour of literary geographies? More specifically, what are the frontiers of Cormac McCarthy, in considering the geographies and landscapes shaping the historical and contemporary production of space across the U.S.-Mexico border region? By turning to the novels of The Border Trilogy, my aim here is to outline an approach to the frontiers of both space and history—to advance what can be called spatial history—in order to think through the politics of space, the reorganisation of space and the production of space. A spatial history perspective is important because although space passes as being innocent it has nevertheless been fashioned and molded, space is produced, from historical and natural elements in a political way. As Henri Lefebvre comments in The Production of Space, space should not be conceived as ‘a passive locus of social relations’. A focus on how time and space are linked in a form of spatial history enables an understanding of the borders and landscapes across all the novels of Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy. The benefit is therefore one of revealing how spatio-temporal conditions mediate the frontiers of Cormac McCarthy.

Geographies of Space and Time in All the Pretty Horses

MeusebachTo start off, the spatio-temporal dislocation of uneven development is strongly evident throughout All the Pretty Horses but is most manifest in the shadow of the Mexican Revolution that is cast over the central protagonist John Grady Cole and the additional roster of characters in the novel. As will be demonstrated shortly, the contradictory changes to the social relations of production wrought by the Mexican Revolution are central to the process of producing space itself within the novel. Before that, of course, is the dispossession and history of space surrounding Grady Cole’s family ranch that, built in 1872, was originally established on 2,300 acres of land in Texas appropriated as a result of the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty of 1847. The latter permitted settlement of over 3 million acres of land without reprisal from the native Indians that between 1821 and 1836 was itself part of Mexican Texas. The cadastral mapping of territory and the control of space continues up to the time of the novel’s present, which is across the years 1948 and 1949. Hence, along with wire fences strung from poles like bad sutures across the grasslands, the novel relays, ‘the black crosses of the old telegraph poles yoked across the constellations passing east to west’. The reader is therefore introduced here to an understanding of how history and its consequences have shaped space, to divide and modify the spatial terms of social relations.

Subsequently, the journey to Mexico by Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins takes them to the State of Coahuila. Specifically, after separating from Jimmy Blevins, they reach the Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción. La Purisíma is a ranch of 11,000 hectares that is one of the few to have retained the full complement of six square leagues of land allotted by the colonising legislation of 1824 and now owned by Don Héctor Rocha y Villareal, father to Alejandra who is at the centre of the romantic tryst with John Grady. Property ownership, land, and territory in the form of the hacienda estate is a crucial backdrop to the novel alongside the role that the spatial-temporal uneven development of the Mexican Revolution plays in shaping the narrative. My general point here is that a conception and construction of dominant space in the hacienda system still rules in the novel over the class struggles of the Mexican Revolution and the conditions of land reform that flowed from the history of state formation in Mexico. Also, Mexico’s northern frontier and its transformation into the border is treated in such a way as to capture how the uneven development of the Mexican North produced, in the States of Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora, the contradictions of both large-scale revolutionary activity and the accommodation of the hacendados. McCarthy therefore captures the manner in which the state binds itself to space, providing spatial support not only to the class conditions of the social relations of production on the hacienda but within the repressive projection of power elsewhere in the novel, which are all significant regulatory features of the politics of the novel.

The focus on the uneven spatio-temporal development of the Mexican Revolution in All the Pretty Horses then becomes central to the relational conditions of space and time in the novel. The narrative is not simply one about the retelling of the “failed” outcome of the Mexican Revolution, particularly in its attempts at land reform. Nor is this depiction of Mexico a representation of the country as a romantic storybook landscape or paradise. Reading All the Pretty Horses therefore demands a focus on the spatiality of pasts and an appreciation of the geography of histories flowing through its territories, places, and contexts or, in short, a spatial history perspective.

The warp of the world and the weft of the three spatial histories in The Crossing

AnimasThe interspersed linear and cyclical crossings of geography and territory, river beds and plains, the Animas Peaks and Peloncillo Mountains that constitute the second volume of The BorderTrilogy in The Crossing extend the focus on the politics of space and time. A spatial history analysis implies a focus on the production of geographies inclusive of the meaning, concepts, and consciousness of space (relative space) that are inseparable from physical production (absolute space) across history. The wandering of the wolf across the Guadalupes and the broad Animas Valley, with the mountains of Mexico in the distance, then crossing and re-crossing the Bavispe River through the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico, validates a spatial history view of geographical space as a relational product in time.

For Lefebvre, linear rhythms (consisting of journeys to and fro) and cyclical rhythms (movements of longer intervals) come together. ‘The linear is the daily grind, the routine, therefore the perpetual, made up of chance and encounters’, as he states in Rythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. For McCarthy, repetitive and different rhythms come together cutting across a temporalised space in the movements of the wolf traversing the international boundary lines of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In tracking the wolf, then, both Billy Parham and his father come to contemplate geography (space) and history (time) as socially produced in unity with nature. In The Crossing, nature is not essentialised as external, objectified, and universal outside of its relation to the social world. Hence, on the Animas Peaks, there is the description in The Crossing of, ‘the snow on the north slopes so pale. Like spaces left for messages’. Awakening one morning, Billy acknowledges how ‘the sun was low in the west and the shape of the light from the window lay suspended across the room wall to wall. As if something electric had been cored out of that space’.

It is within the place of the ruined La Purísima Concepción de Nuestra Señora de Caborca with its broken transept floating ‘in the pure desert air’ that the relationship between space and time, the world and history, mostly comes to the fore in the second novel. The dialogue between Billy and an old man revolves around the power of narration (history) and geographical boundaries (space) that are co-implicated to deliver a set of spatial histories. As Lefebvre questions in Rhythmanalysis, ‘In historical time, what is the role of history in the forms of memory, recollections, narratives?’. As the old man relays in The Crossing, ‘the world seems to us made of stone and flower and blood but it is the tale, history and story [historia in Spanish can be translated alternately], that has no fixity in abode or place separate from the place and space of telling’. Capturing both the spatial (geographical) and the temporal (historical), the co-relational rhythms of the cycles of abstract space (nature) and of the linear rhythms of relative space (social) the old man says:

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 favour certain enterprises over others. The passing of armies and the passing of sands in the desert are one.

The warp of the world in forming history and time is therefore weaved together by the weft of geography and space. Towards the end of The Crossing, Billy Parham once again repeats his crossing of the white obelisks marking the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, moving across the Bootheel Region of New Mexico and the Animas Valley, with the peaks of the mountains in the distance, up to Silver City. This is where the reader is journeyed to Cities of the Plain in which John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are now acquainted as vaqueros working in New Mexico to ride through the changing landscape of the southwest overlooking El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.

Under the neon loneliness of Cities of the Plain

nightConveyed through the alien world of commerce, neon lights, bleakness, and darkness across the bordertowns of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Cities of the Plain once again projects elements of spatial history.      ‘Far out on the plain below the lights of the cities lay shimmering in their grids with the dark serpentine of the river dividing them’, states McCarthy in the third novel of the trilogy.   As Lefebvre relays in his writings on modernity, ‘fixed and artificial, electric lighting makes the city and its monuments, roads and streets stand out sharply against the natural environment: countryside, sky, space’.

What Cities of the Plain expresses is the encroachment of state-political power managing space, dominating territory, appropriating space (such as the threat posed by the military and nuclear testing site of Alamogordo to the MacGovern ranch near), where the subsequent actions of the ranchers can be regarded as an attempt to withdraw from the state in order to occupy alternative spaces. Understanding the elements of space (the world) and time (history) in Cities of the Plain linking the rural to the urban is therefore a crucial final component to considering the frontiers—the role of borders and landscapes—in the trilogy. As Lefebvre states in Everyday Life in the Modern World, ‘the city, written on mapped space and graduated time’ is essential to understanding the intersection of politics and space.

Here the reader is exposed to urbanism, the consumption of cheap whiskey in the neon lights, bleakness, and shady darkness of the two bordertowns of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and specifically the Kentucky Club on Avenida Juárez in Ciudad Juárez, the neon hotel signs, the skeins of light in street scenes, the carlights that break otherwise darkened spaces, and the sex workers of La Venada that all come to represent a somewhat more alien world of commerce. The rhythms of the natural environment meet here the rhythms of everyday human life, combining movements across abstract and relative space and the rural and the urban: eastbound trains bawling across the landscape watched by desert foxes; the renovation of the rural cabin outside the grids of state-political power to rescue Magdalena; and spaces of anti-imperialist invective in the street knife-fight with Eduardo and its fatal outcome.

In the epilogue to Cities of the Plain the trilogy ends on a sort of coda by returning to a set of musings that Billy Parham, now 78 years old and living in the Gardner Hotel in El Paso, undertakes on the mapping of history with a counterpart or alter ego. A sense of frustration is conveyed about maps as insufficient grids for navigating both space and time. The conclusion of the trilogy is that our journey in life and through the world is itself unmappable. Billy is taken in by a family just outside Portales, New Mexico—standing at the final portal or main door of his life—and dialogues with his hosts. His hands, it is noted, reveal his world (space) and history (time). These gnarled and rope scarred hands have been speckled by years of sun; the ropey veins on the arms bind them to his heart; and there, sure enough, in his hands is contained a map to read his passage through space (the world) and time (history). The elements of the temporal (history) and the lived (spatial) come together here in the very tissue of everyday life. The result is a blending of spatial history, the geographical and the historical, held within the very palms of the hands of human existence as a patterning of both warp and weft.

The uttermost rebate of space

To conclude, a spatial history perspective drawn from Henri Lefebvre, can offer fresh insight into the human actions, movements, and processes embedded in the politics of space that constitute the literary geographies of Cormac McCarthy’s novels in The Border Trilogy. This approach may also be useful to further elucidate the frontiers of spatial history in McCarthy’s wider corpus, starting with Blood Meridian, set during the American-Indian wars of the 1840s and the backdrop of the Animas Peaks, described in that novel as the uttermost rebate of space. The focus of such an endeavour would be to show how the convulsions in Blood Meridian and its economy of violence are provoked by the displacement of settlement and colonisation across space, in the destruction of antecedent spaces, in order to map and settle new state spaces. This is the secret history of the ‘blood and fire’ of primitive accumulation shaping the geography of space in the same frontier as The Border Trilogy. It could then move to the ‘drug wars’ manuscripts set more recently (No Country for Old Men and The Counselor), revisiting places such as El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, to show how they reveal an alternative geometry of power of borderland transnational and sub-national dimensions of space, control and conflict in order to bring a geographical appreciation of spatial history to bear on the frontiers of Cormac McCarthy.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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