Friday, October 3, 2014

Eco-Monstrosity in Cormac McCarthy and R. A. Lafferty (my dissertation proposal - approved!)

For those who may not have picked up on it yet, I'm a 'mature student' (40 years old and just now getting round to obtaining a proper education).  I am, at last, in my final year of a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Glasgow.  The following is the rough starting point of what I'll be writing this year for my final dissertation in the English Literature half of the degree.  I was relieved when the department approved it and found a supervisor for me (haven't talked to him yet, so I have no idea if he has any familiarity at all with Lafferty). 

After prematurely claiming (over three years ago) that I was going to write a chapter on Lafferty as a Chestertonian theological storyteller for a book of Lafferty essays, it is gratifying to see that something along those lines is finally coming to fruition, even if only for degree work.  Better late than never.  (The editor of the proposed book of essays on Lafferty, our beloved Andrew Ferguson, has since been sidetracked by the noble and even more exciting task of writing Lafferty's biography - with which, I recently heard, he is nearly finished.) 

I was not then really up to writing an essay on Lafferty, as I fairly quickly discovered.  I'm still not, but at least I have some theoretical tools and preoccupations to throw at it now.  Below is the dissertation proposal essentially as given to my department.  Please don't be too distracted by technical jargon with which you may not be familiar.  I had a word-limit that precluded much elucidation of the terminologies.  I hope some reasonably clear conception of what I'm attempting will still come through. 

As it reaches completion (in April), the paper will become both clearer and different.  I'm not sure how it will change, but I know it will to one degree or another.  Unfortunately, it's only a 10,000 word paper and I'm covering two authors, so it's not going to be able to cover as much ground as I'd like.  But I think putting Lafferty in conversation with a recognised 'great writer' is worth it and will provide its own fascinating illuminations.  Please let me know your questions and criticisms of the proposal and suggestions for further theoretical materials and for other elements or works of Lafferty's fiction to consider as regards the topic.  (Please do tell me if you see any egregious errors based on any expert knowledge you have!)

Dissertation proposal:

The primary texts the dissertation will consider are Cormac McCarthy’s ‘anti-western’ novel Blood Meridian (1985) and R. A. Lafferty’s historical Choctaw novel Okla Hannali (1972) as well as Lafferty’s short stories ‘Narrow Valley’, ‘Smoe and the Implicit Clay’, and ‘Days of Grass, Days of Straw’[1].  The question the dissertation asks is:  can the iterations of eco-monstrosity[2]  exemplified in these two Southwestern American regional writers be grounded in and yet transmogrify theological readings of ‘nature’?  I.e. do these texts show ‘dark ecology’ and theological ecology to be mutually exclusive or do they open the way for some sort of harmony or hybridity?  I argue the latter.  Evocations of monstrosity in these texts make room for comic rather than tragic (or nihilistic) ecologies, undergirded by ‘dark’ or ‘weird’ theologies.

Lafferty is well known as a ‘funny’ writer, though his ‘tall tales’ are often grotesque and even gory.  It is also well known that Lafferty’s devout Roman Catholic beliefs infused all his work.  So it is no surprise that his ecology is ultimately theological and comic.  But it is not always appreciated that Lafferty’s fiction only achieves this ‘theo-comedy’ (to borrow a term from the theologian Thomas Oden) by way of much ambiguity and carnivalised horror.  McCarthy’s harrowing and hyper-violent novels, on the other hand, are often thought to be eloquent tracts for an unflinchingly bleak nihilism.  It is often argued that Blood Meridian in particular subverts theological readings of the world, but I will argue that it subverts only theologies that cannot embrace ‘dark’ ecology and thereby clears the way for more adequate theologies.

It is arguably rare that the disciplines of ecology, theology, and monster theory all three intersect in one study.  Certainly the proposed texts of this dissertation do not appear to have received this triangulated critical reading.  Both authors are, in any case, far from over-subscribed by academics and are thus ripe for more theoretical work.  McCarthy studies are now numerous but by no means enormous.  Lafferty studies are nearly non-existent[3] and as this obscure author is being slowly rediscovered[4], critical work is needed.  More generally, the worldwide growth in cultural awareness of both ecological and religious debates gives urgency to a cross-discipline study such as this.

The main critical tools the dissertation employs consist of Timothy Morton’s dark ecology[5], Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology (‘weird realism’)[6], and Timothy Beal’s theology of monsters[7].  The foci of the reading will be the emphases the primary texts place on monstrous (usually grotesque or gigantic) evocations of flora, fauna, and landscape, and the place of humans therein that religious worldviews purport to provide.  With these tools I aim to show that the texts under consideration evince a theologically pertinent eco-monstrosity that serves to situate and orient readers within a dangerous but genuinely all-inclusive ontology.  The monsters here are not ‘off the map’ – the monsters are the map.  Further, the texts evince no easy disjunction between a so-called ‘post-human’ eco-centricity and the theo-comic ecology of, for example, Roman Catholic doctrine. Rather, the monstrous ecologies of the texts—in their strange grotesqueries and violences and in their characters’ lengthy theological declamations—tend to agitate for a ‘dark’ and ‘weird’ hybridisation of theological ecology and dark ecology:  a conceptual space in which humans are decentralised in certain respects (radically contextualised by the non-human environment) even as they bear the divine image.

[1] Possibly also drawing from the stories ‘Snuffles’, ‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’, and ‘All Pieces of a River Shore’.
[2] This can be considered a particular artistic iteration of eco-centric or post-human or post-equilibrium ecocritical theories.
[3] Andrew Ferguson’s master’s dissertation ‘Lafferty and His World’ is the only ‘official’ academic work I know of on Lafferty so far, but a handful of critical reviews and comments can also be dug up - e.g. brief but insightful critical comments on Lafferty’s writing can be found from the likes of Ursula Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, John Clute, and Neil Gaiman.  Ferguson in his paper utilises Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas on carnival and grotesque and Walter J. Ong’s ideas on orality to read Lafferty’s body of work:  Ferguson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, is currently writing the first biography of Lafferty.
[4] The Locus Science Fiction Foundation has recently acquired the rights to Lafferty’s works and through them Centipede Press have published the first of what is projected to be twelve volumes collecting the complete short stories by Lafferty:  The Man Who Made Models: The Collected Short Fiction Volume One (2013), Centipede Press, Lakewood.
[5] E.g. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (2007), Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
[6] E.g. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), Open Court Publishing, Peru; Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012), John Hunt Publishing, Alresford.
[7] Religion and Its Monsters (2002), Routledge, London.

The Dissertation Reading Stack!


wentintoadream said...

Change "‘nature’? I.e. do..." to "‘nature’, i.e., do...."

trawlerman said...

This all looks excellent, Daniel.

I love this proposal and eagerly await reading the finished dissertation.

Here's a minor nitpick...

It's clear that Morton's work grounds your explorations of 'dark ecology.' It's less clear on what you are basing your notions of 'theological ecology' or 'the theo-comic ecology of Roman Catholicism'. I don't know that this needs to be in the proposal (I am almost completely ignorant of this sort of dissertation proposal procedure), but I'm at least curious for my own sake. Besides your own reflections, what are the sources for this theological ecology? The photo reveals Bible and Ecology by Bauckham (an Anglican). Are there other specifically RC works (encyclicals or something from the Catechism?) that would detail a specifically RC 'theo-comic ecology'? or is it more of a broader Biblical 'theo-comic ecology' that has been intuited and expressed by these two novelists?

"do these texts show ‘dark ecology’ and theological ecology to be mutually exclusive or do they open the way for some sort of harmony or hybridity?"

"The main critical tools the dissertation employs consist of Timothy Morton’s dark ecology[5], Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology (‘weird realism’)"

"Further, the texts evince no easy disjunction between a so-called ‘post-human’ eco-centricity and the theo-comic ecology of, for example, Roman Catholic doctrine. Rather, the monstrous ecologies of the texts—in their strange grotesqueries and violences and in their characters’ lengthy theological declamations—tend to agitate for a ‘dark’ and ‘weird’ hybridisation of theological ecology and dark ecology:"

Kevin Cheek said...

Excellent and brilliant as is your usual. Congratulations on getting your proposal approved!

Is it safe to assume that you will spend some time on discussion of the subplot and resolution with Whiteman Falaya as representing a conflict with something that almost represents an elemental--a force of nature beyond the rational--and that this conflict is part of the near destruction of the Hannali family?

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Excellent questions, John (trawlerman). Thank you so much for engaging with it.

Briefly, yes, Bauckham's book is proving hugely useful in supplying a general biblical theology of eco-centricity. As to specifically RC - I finally decided I need to understand Aquinas more to understand Laff more and Gregorio Montejo (long-time commenter on this blog, Thomistic theologian) recommended Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas as a starting point. This little book has already paid off in spades. Basically, it looks like Thomism is going to do all the work I need as regards a rich RC theological ecology - and you can see Lafferty exemplifying it all the time, and taking it to new and unusual levels, as you'd expect!

Through these I should be able to show that Lafferty himself is implicitly and overtly agitating for 'dark theology' or 'weird theology' or 'grotesque theology' full of blood and juice and ludic violence (or carnival horror if you prefer). See 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw' as a shining example.

Does that help at all? Please ask follow-up questions if needed. Nail me down, I'm jumpy!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I hope to, Kevin. There's so much to cover, I don't know which things I'm gonna have space to zero in on. But the comparison of the murderous, seemingly superhuman, Judge Holden in McCarthy's Blood Meridian with Whiteman (the Judge is an albino by the way) in Okla is hard to resist.

There's also a great explicit 'monster' passage in Okla on the other end of the spectrum, that of 'holy monstrosity', when the 'monster' Hannali is visited by the 'skeleton' priest and receives the sacraments. I'll quote it here on the blog eventually.

wentintoadream said...

How useful have you found Lafferty's personal library sources?

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Sorry, Jim (wentintoadream), I meant to say something about your suggestion too! You're probably right about the grammar and clarity there.

I don't know much at all about Lafferty's personal library sources or how to access them. Do you?

wentintoadream said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wentintoadream said...

As a beginning, I'd refer to the Lafferty letter about The Fall of Rome I posted on Facebook; I'm sure the books he mentioned are fairly common.

Kevin Cheek said...

Forgive my ignorance; can you define eco-monstrosity? To me it evokes an idea of elements within the environment acting on us in monstrous ways, either physically, mentally, or metaphorically. Am I barking up the right tree?

The reason I brought up Whiteman Falaya is that I saw him as a representation of a not-benevolent force of nature. I guess I need to go back to some thought inspired in me by a talk in a college class some decades ago about the existentialist writers, and how much of their writing was underpinned by a belief in a benevolent universe. I didn't buy it. I have always assumed that the universe, or at least the natural world around us--especially the wilderness, the Sangre de Cristo mountains I grew up in--as existing without awareness of or care for our wellbeing. Thus "Nature red in tooth and claw" (quote from the back cover of a very old copy of the Leatherstocking Tales) can be nurturing and benevolent and can turn around and kill you in an instant--kind of Snuffles-esque).

I see Hannali Innominee's settlement of the land in the Indian Territories as a joint struggle with (in concert with--struggling together) and struggle against nature. So the benevolent descriptions of his corn and barges and the growth of his household, the description of the three boys running down a young elk, and of course the description of him as a monster reading Plutarch to me represent those elements of carving out a life in concert with the environment, and the conflict with Whiteman Falaya represents his struggle against it. That struggle can be a costly distraction--that cost him half his family, but it is also necessary. Man cannot live only as the "noble savage" utterly in tune with Nature without conflict, because nature doesn't live with itself that way. The elemental forces are there, and we must adapt to them, but not always peacefully. Don't know how to tie that in with theology, but perhaps it has something to do with living in the world after the Garden, after the Fall.

I also see his conflict with Whiteman Falaya as somehow in parallel with the Civil War and the white policy of using the Civil War to divide and decimate the Indians. Of course, the name is a dead giveaway. But either as force of nature or force of white policy, he was an implacable force beyond rationality.

Kevin Cheek said...

And how does "Snuffles" figure in to "eco-monstrosity" and the theology of monsters?

Andrew said...

Congrats Daniel! Looking forward to seeing the work as it progresses, let me know if at any point you need a pair of eyes on a draft or section.

I wonder if "Encased in Ancient Rind" or "Entire and Perfect Chrysolite" or "In Outraged Stone" or even "And Name My Name" might also speak usefully to the project—while also realizing the limits you're faced with. Maybe an expanded version down the line?

Otherwise I'll largely stay clear of this because I'm really interested in seeing where Lafferty leads others to.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Kevin, yeah, I'd say you're evocations of 'eco-monstrosity' are barking up the right tree. I'm still trying to come up with pithy ways to say what it is and what you've said is as good as anything at the moment.

I like your thoughts on how Okla Hannali works. I'd say the way it all ties into (or better, is grounded in and flows from) theology is yes, the Fall, but also a better reading of the Creation narratives. And from that better reading, a better doctrine of creation - one that places humanity more deeply embedded in the non-human environment and that recognises that even 'unfallen' and redeemed ecologies are monstrous in certain respects. (I think Aquinas's creational theology will help greatly here. I'll be posting quotes from him and from Chesterton on him here.)

So Hannali's 'struggle', as you aptly put it, with the environment reflects not only fallen, but also edenic or new creation conditions. Something like that.

'Snuffles' strikes me as a fairly overt instance of theology-of-monsters at play (last word chosen intentionally - it is a highly 'ludic' story as Andrew's paper points out). Snuffles is nothing less than a divine creator figure - probably just a demi-god or some such, but we're still in theological territory there. And Snuffles is definitely a monster. And the whole story describes the ecology of the planet and exhibits a mythological view of ecology in general, with a Bear Spirit presiding over creation (a fauna-divinity). (It reminds me some of aspects of the Lakota 'power vision' of Black Elk in the book Black Elk Speaks.)

It's also an instance of the land itself eating up the inhabitants that don't know how to relate to it (as happens more comically and metaphorically in 'Narrow Valley') - because, it seems to me, Snuffles is the land's spirit or soul, and so when he eats the explorers, they are eaten by the land, the planet, the ecology (more literally, by a specimen or instantiation of the planet's fauna).

Does any of that help? Hit me back as many times as you need to and I'll try to be more perspicuous if I can.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

typo: your, not you're in first sentence of previous comment...

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks, Andrew! I'll definitely send a draft your way, probably before my very last supervision, so I can discuss any comments you make with my supervisor as well.

I have thought of those stories and quite a few more, as well as aspects of various novels. Once you get into ecology in general and object-oriented ontology and the like, Lafferty's body of work just goes fractal on you with relevant material! (Stories like 'Animal Fair' and 'And Read the Flesh Between the Lines' become downright suspicious in their relevance, ha! Was Lafferty peering into future academia?)

So yeah, I dearly want to expand the work down the line - I mean, if I could get others switched on to this and similar approaches to his work, I'd gladly share out the work load. It's enormous. But even more modestly and moderately, there's much more even just I could do in expanding the reading that begins here.

Steve said...

Congratulations on the proposal acceptance! Use of the word "transmogrify" without irony is immediate grounds for acceptance, I believe.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha ha, thanks, Steve!

Alex Estelle said...


I wonder if you could perhaps let me read your dissertation. You see, I am in the midst of something similar myself (at Stockholm University), trying to use OOO and something perhaps akin to 'dark theology' (in want of a better term) to make sense of the landscapes in Blood Meridian, although my work is (presumably) of a more narratological or formalist persuasion. Hopefully your work could be helpful to me (and possibly it could ruin everything) but if not I would at least know that I have exhausted this/that source. So, waddaya say?

You could shoot me an email at alexestelleAThotmailDOTcom.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Definitely, Alex! Or rather, on one condition: I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours. ;)

Actually, I'm going to post it publicly (on my page) some time in the next month or so, once it has been marked and I'm able to make a few changes based on feedback.

Would seriously love to read yours when it's done though. I doubt what I've done so far will step on the toes of your work as I mostly had to rely on Timothy Morton rather than Graham Harman, due to space constraints. And furthermore, I didn't really get properly into the overt theological material as I had planned, again due to space, and it had to remain essentially implicit.

I've accepted an offer from the university to develop it into a doctoral thesis, so I hope to be able to get into all that and more in the future (pending funding!).

Alex Estelle said...

I think that's a condition that I can live with! I get a sense that what we've done won't overlap too much, but I'd hate to reinvent the wheel and so forth.

Don't really know exactely how the whole thing will be going, but I'm thinking of the desert/landscape as something akin to a hyperobject (although it isn't per se), the differences in the descriptions of the landscape between the gang and the filibusters (not just what is described but how, the different roles of the sun, the different uses of similes, mirages and hallucinations as perhaps (narrative) forms of withdrawal and so forth) being some sort of indicator as to how, if at all, the different groups (or units, perhaps) have accepted their 'objecthood' and/or assimilation into the (logic of) the desert. I don't know. Something like that.

I also want to get the different descriptions of the vultures in there somehow, as their constant connection with both desert, death and religion fascinates me, especially in connection to the religious imagery (the scapulars and such) that surrounds the gang (and perhaps this is where the 'theology' would come in - the desert as God, and the gang, the vultures, and the deadly creatures surrounding the burning tree as Gods messengers, as members of the same order).

And then there is a lot more concerning borders (they are described both quite casually (for the gang) and as quite important (for the filibusters) and the differences in descriptions of America and Mexico. And then I have a thousand other ideas that I'll never be able to fit in there, or perhaps anywhere.

But anyway, let me know when I can read the essay, and if you have any immediate feedback or critique about what I've been up to so far, I'd love to know!

And good luck with funding and all!


Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I totally began to notice Blood Meridian's desert as hyperobject, yes! But I need to understand all that better.

I did briefly look at the sun and landscape and their similes and so on, especially from chapter 4, claiming it elicited a deathscape, bonescape, and bloodscape.

Your ideas of approach sound fascinating. I wish I had thought of comparing the filibusters' travels vs. the gang's. Must pay attention to that in future. The borders stuff is crucial too, though I didn't get into that. I also like your interest in vultures and theology. I wanted to look at bats in a somewhat similar fashion but only got in a brief discussion about one of the bat scenes (the most famous one 'Attacked by a vampire').

I think the biggest problem with writing about this novel is that any given element (bats, borders, vultures, solar imagery, cosmic imagery, horses, fire, etc.) could make up a whole dissertation on its own, especially as each focal point tends to be emblematic of wider themes. Such are the woes of analysing a great work of art I guess!

Good to hear from you again.

Alex Estelle said...

I'm not too informed about how a hyperobject forms or what constitutes it (I mean, I know what Morton says, but what does that mean in regards to the desert?), but I sort of can see how the desert is and isn't. Trying to get at that is what I'll try to be doing next.

The thing with the sun, which starts of in chapter four is that it sort of sets the standard, but that the narrative or the descriptions of it in relations to the characters change when the kid joins the gang. It's still violent and calamitous, but it is often described as something akin to an ally to or object of desire for the gang ("half fond and infatuate"), something not threatening to them (that is, until the gang is destroyed and even the judge is burnt by its rays). The sun affects the filibusters much more, and the descriptions of it and the landscape is much more... Well, much MORE.

At least I think I can see that in the novel. You never know.

I think I'm sort of seeing the narrative as some sort of alien phenomenology in itself (as Bogost was sot of my intro to OOO).

I should have chosen an easier book. ;)

Keep me updated and I'll keep you updated.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Will do! Blood Meridian is indeed one vast 'alien phenomenology'. I love it. I'm just glad studying it deepens its allure and beauty and profundity for me, rather than sapping it of its magic - for me anyway.

(I like what your saying about the sun later in the book - I think I said the opposite in an aside, that it was in some ways ever more malevolent - as I took its hunger for them that way- but you may be right.)

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)