Woe to the bloody city- Nahum 3:1
When, in “The Sunset Limited,” God sends the character Black, like Jonah to Ninevah, to be his brother’s keeper in New York City, Cormac McCarthy is invoking traditions both biblical and American. The development-- and therefore loss-- of the frontier was a common theme in Western literature even before historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” formalized its position. Turner posited that the presence of a frontier has contributed more to the formation of the American character than any other factor. With its closing, something basic is lost, and we have been trying ever since to recover it.
The landscape of Western literature is strewn with heroes who, by making the frontier safe for civilization, lose their own place in it. Shane epitomizes the frontiersman riding into the sunset, but only a short time later the cold fact of the Pacific ocean eliminates that option. “Where from here?” ask the Pacific Northwesterners in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Sailor Song tries to answer “Alaska,” but that answer is unsatisfactory. “Space” says Star Trek, but space remains un-colonized and the few feeble attempts at exploration are characterized by massive government projects-- a far cry from the rugged individuals striking out on their own who opened up the American frontier. The father in Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s The Track of the Cat thinks that because his sons haven’t gone off to carve their own ranches from the wilderness, they lack character. But the harsh truth is, there are no unclaimed box canyons left for them. The protagonist only achieves even the possibility of adulthood when his brothers are killed, leaving him sole heir. Men who once rode into the sunset like Shane, instead, like Tom Doniphon in “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance,” end up street alcoholics in the emerging cities.
But if an objection to cities is a prevalent theme in Western American literature, it positively dominates the Bible. The Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah’s flood, all stories about god destroying cities that have become too overbuilt and prosperous. In the story of Cain and Abel, god prefers the sacrifice of the nomadic herdsman to that of the sedentary farmer. Goliath is a giant in armor; this implies farms, mines, smelters and forges. Surely he is the product of a city. David kills him with a sling, the weapon of a shepherd.
If you ever took a course in Bible as literature, you were likely told that the dominant theme is the cyclical nature of the covenant between God and Israel. The covenant gets broken, the covenant gets renewed. Yet even this pattern reflects God’s aversion to cities. Over and over, a prophet is sent to a city. Amos, the oldest book in the Bible, typifies the warnings:
Your wife shall be a harlot in the city, and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line.
Note that having all the land measured, divided, owned, is considered a curse. And when, after each destruction has run its course, and the cities laid waste, God at last relents and allows the covenant to be renewed, the language of that renewal almost inevitably shows him to be a God of nomads. Consider Hosea 10:9 “I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents as in the days of the appointed feast.” Or Isaiah 32:16 “Then justice will dwell in the wilderness.”
Of recent years the theme of the closing of the American frontier has sometimes risen to biblical proportions, not just the valleys choked with cabbages and people, but the entire earth laid desolate. McCarthy’s The Road takes place in a landscape devoid of life, save for a few humans eating each other because there is nothing else left to eat. Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, a novel normally classified as science fiction, but with strong Western themes, is set in the wilderness of Utah between two nuclear wars. It ends with a priest standing in the doorway of a spaceship, beating the dust from his sandals before leaving the Earth forever. This invocation of Acts suggests the entire earth has become one city that has rejected the word of God.
By biblical standards, the Earth has indeed become one city, its farms and mines and oilfields all feeding the beast. Capitalism, the idolization of greed, has proven very successful at developing resources. However, another term for “developing” is “using up.” We don’t have to look up very far from our own struggles of acquisition to see the way we are using up our planet: we’re not just running out of oil, but out of trees, land, air and water. There is little wilderness left in which to prepare the way of the Lord. Whether you read the Bible as historical fact or allegorical truth, or reject it completely, few of us can now believe that our current society will last much longer. Unlike biblical prophets, Black doesn’t have to convince White that his path leads to destruction. White is fully persuaded of that. Instead, Black’s task is to show that there could yet be some other outcome.
This also seems to be the task McCarthy has set for himself. “The Sunset Limited” appears to tell, in black and white, McCarthy’s frustration that it is easier to communicate the collapse of civilization (White’s worldview), than how to avert it (Black’s worldview). And he’s right. Apparently Mr. McCarthy has been writing messages of Christian hope right along. But which of us comes away from Blood Meridian comforted by the knowledge that God watches over us, or from The Road hopeful that the boy’s spirit will break the endless iterations of mindless growth and inevitable collapse. It’s a hard message to hear, but we’d better start listening.