New Criticals

Thus: architecture may challenge the viewer, but will never discomfit the viewer. The grotesque lives elsewhere now, in a different city altogether, in literary rather than plastic arts. The grotesque can often be found in literature as the macabre, the ecstatic description of gore and death. Both O’Connor and McCarthy tread that ground in their novels, populated with ne’er-do-wells and wanderers searching in the American South for something they can’t put words to, which they often fail to find. Hazel Motes in O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Cornelius Suttree in McCarthy’s Suttree are two such unmade men, willfully failing to participate in the ruse of society and embracing a primal foolishness. These are men against: against something they both do not and refuse to understand.

Motes in Wise Blood rails against Christ, and wishes to be a prophet against God, the paradox of an atheist charismatic lost on him. The eponymous Suttree rebels against privilege, becoming a drunk subsistence fisherman for the purity of rebellion. Because an awful history burdens the South, so it must burden these characters, too, in the form of accepting poverty, the profoundest form of violence.  The search becomes a quest for any kind of meaning, and both learn through violence, Suttree through the deaths of his comrades in privation, Motes through acceptance of suffering, ridicule, blindness, and death.

What ties these characters to the demonic carvings on cathedrals is the awe the viewer feels in the presence of such strangeness. Here we encounter suffering as plain fact, even without the catharsis of tragedy; no succor comforts these men, who walk among the living like specters of warning, souls without rest and lives collapsed in violence. Motes and Suttree strive with the world,  wrestling against even the necessities of survival, without fully comprehending the reason for their struggle. Tracing any kind of motivation becomes a fool's errand, as each character defies the readerly tendency to identification and sympathy.

Neither McCarthy nor O'Connor shy from horrific depiction; both write their characters in difficult lives, witness and party to appalling acts. Because in this particular kind of novel, the animal does not merely linger in the corners of the cerebral, it displaces it; simple biological impulse and action—instinct—manifests itself in the places where civilization will not go, where men and women suffer at the hands of the civilized. These are writers whose subject is the person who my convenient straw man passes by without seeing, he who will not give change to them because they will squander it. Because some things are better not to think about.