In a World of Speed and Power, Cormac McCarthy Wasn’t Afraid of Depth

The late novelist’s final books are ambitious portraits of the Western world and the human soul.

In the Middle Ages, there was a popular group of texts that made up the so-called contemptus mundi genre (which, loosely translated, could mean “how to develop a visceral disdain for the world”). One of the genre’s most famous works is Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. These rather “Platonic” works, in the sense of being in the vein of the philosopher Plato, were intended to coach Christians toward holiness, teaching them how to pry their fingers loose from the throat of life and begin longing for heavenly, immaterial realities.

This was done through contemplating things that now seem off-putting to us: how treacherous people in the world are, how you were born in woe and will die in suffering, and all of the icky things about the human body. The goal was to drag those things we try to forget (mainly the “Four Last Things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell) out from the hiding places of our consciousness, lest we forget how fleeting, disappointing, and volatile this world ultimately is.

Just a couple of years ago, I would have considered the contempus mundi genre dead, with the possible exception of a brief revival in T. S. Eliot’s late religious poetry. But the late novelist Cormac McCarthy resurrected the genre in his final books, The Passenger and Stella Maris, which were released as a pair late last year.

Although the two books are less violent than The Road or Blood Meridian, they partly compensate for that with their raw language, crude jokes, suicidal longings, and graphic descriptions of incestuous sexual desire. McCarthy was no plaster angel, even in his later years. But even though McCarthy’s novels do deal frankly with these strong and off-putting …

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