Cormac McCarthy on history and the past

I just finished working as the survey director for an archaeology field school this summer that was run jointly through the University of Arizona and Archaeology Southwest. You can check out my post about that here. You can also check out the blog posts that our students and faculty wrote here. The gist of the summer for me, outside of that I was once again reminded that someone needs to do an ethnography of an archaeological field school, was that incredible ideas can come from the most mundane interactions. On some level that’s really what archaeology and anthropology are about anyways: looking at everyday objects and understanding just how many incredible ideas are wrapped up within those little pieces of material culture. Regardless, one of the students was reading Cormac McCarthy‘s “The Road“, which is one of the more disturbing, distressful, beautiful, and all around engaging novels I’ve read. It reminded me that at one point, I was collecting tidbits of-well, I’d like to call them McCarthyisms, but I suppose that word is forever soiled-what we’ll call Cormac-isms that relate to the past and history. None of them specifically mention archaeology, but it’s hard not to insert my particular way of studying the past into them. Anyways, here they are. I think it’s pretty amazing just how much of anthropological theory, theoretical fights, and paradigm shifts are actually captured within Cormac’s words. I actually have a lot more to say on the current state of archaeology and our failure to effectively understand our disciplinary past that relate to a lot of these changes, but I’ll leave it at this and let Cormac take over from here.

“When I was in school I studied biology. I learned that in making their experiments scientists will take some group–bacteria, mice, people–and subject that group to certain conditions. They compare the results with a second group which has not been disturbed. This second group is called the control group. It is the control group which enables the scientist gauge the effect of his experiment. To judge the significance of what has occurred. In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was.” – All the Pretty Horses

You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday don’t count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of. Nothin else.” – No Country for Old Men

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.” – Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

“When one has nothing left make ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.” – The Road

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” – All The Pretty Horses

“The rain falls upon the just
And also on the unjust fellas
But mostly it falls upon the just
Cause the unjust have the just’s umbrellas” – The Stonemason

“He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the words and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.” – The Road

“There is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these are also the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised.” – The Crossing



EDITED 7/16/2014: I just found this out yesterday. It turns out that James F. Brooks wrote a beautiful article in 2000 examining how history, and the idea of history, are infused into McCarthy’s stories. If you can, I really suggest reading it. You can link to it here.

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