Cormac and Oprah, Revisited

Cormac and Oprah, Revisited

Five years ago this June, Cormac McCarthy appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Given McCarthy’s legendary reticence (he had done only one major interview in the past, with the New York Times in 1992) and exalted literary stature (he has won every major American book award; Harold Bloom has called Blood Meridian the preeminent novel by a living American), this was one of the greatest “gets” in the history of television. It was also one of the strangest. Staged at the Santa Fe Institute for advanced scientific research—where McCarthy apparently goes to relax—it evoked a collision between opposing subatomic particles: a smashing together, by sheer force of will, of mass media and solitary art.

To be fair, that distinction is never absolute, and both Winfrey and McCarthy had blurred it before. Winfrey, through her Book Club, had sung the praises of Tolstoy and Faulkner; McCarthy’s weaker novels read like particularly violent potboilers. Even so, reclusive authors of his caliber are hardly ever coaxed out of hiding, let alone thrust into a limelight so intense. It was like seeing Emily Dickinson resurrected at the Super Bowl halftime show.

Unlike some observers at the time, I didn’t think Winfrey was out of her depth. She is both a consummate professional and a formidable interviewer; with better preparation from her consultants, she could have been exactly the right person to interview McCarthy. And notwithstanding his home court advantage, there was certainly a sense in which he was hard pressed from the outset. After what happened to Jonathan Franzen, someone—his publisher? his family? his own best judgment?—must have told McCarthy that this was an interview request he couldn’t refuse. With his slouched posture and tidy haircut, he looked like a boy dragged to church by the ear.

Yet the actual interview was for the most part a wasted opportunity. McCarthy was courteous but effortlessly deflective. Winfrey kept things upbeat and “accessible”; what she should, and could, have been was accessible like a fox. That would have meant asking critics to supply questions that have nagged McCarthy readers for decades, then using her own brand of genius to translate them into cunning bluntness. It didn’t happen that way. Winfrey seemed more interested in satisfying her personal curiosity—asking repeatedly, for example, whether he really never cared about money?

Here are five questions I wish she’d asked instead.

What makes you laugh?

My own reading history of McCarthy is as follows. I read Blood Meridian and was bowled over by it: it’s just about as good as Bloom says it is. Then I read All the Pretty Horses and was impressed by some passages, but irked by the unrelieved solemnity and the sentimentality toward women and horses. Finally I tried to read The Road and put it down after ten pages. McCarthy’s blood-soaked world has devolved into self-parody; you want to tell him, “It’s only the apocalypse—lighten up.”

His work contains grim ironies (think of a cowboy's drawled retort before he shoots you) but very little comedy as such. Why is this? If he's led an extraordinarily lucky life, as he says in the interview, why's he so sore in the saddle about fate and human nature? Does our impending doom ever strike him as funny? What's his favorite joke?

Every critic points out your similarities to Melville and Faulkner. Who are your hidden influences?

“The ugly fact is that books are made out of other books,” McCarthy once admitted. Bloom has noted that McCarthy, in particular, “tends to carry his influences on the surface.” True, but not necessarily all of them. Read Nightwood (1936), Djuna Barnes's Modernist classic, and you'll notice some striking parallels with McCarthy’s fiction. Her Dr. O’Connor speaks in baroque prophetic monologues much like those of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. An “ex-priest” appears in a minor role in both books. Even her prose can be, at times, a dead ringer for McCarthy’s:

Suddenly she took the Catholic vow. She came into the church silently. The prayers of the suppliants had not ceased nor had anyone been broken of their meditation. Then, as if some inscrutable wish for salvation, something yet more monstrously unfulfilled than they had suffered, had thrown a shadow, they regarded her, to see her going softly forward and down, a tall girl with the body of a boy.

Granted, Barnes and McCarthy share some influences, but this is uncanny. Could the quintessential “man’s man’s writer” (as Oprah put it) have gone to school on one of the pioneers of lesbian literature?

Do you feel that your lack of female characters is a limitation in your work?

Here Oprah had him on the ropes, but never swung hard enough: 

O: Is there a reason why women are not a big part of the plot?

C: Women are tough. They’re tough. I don’t pretend to understand women. I think men don’t know much about women; they find them very mysterious.

O: Still, you do?

C: Yeah, although—

O: Three wives later, they’re still mysterious?

C: Yeah, they’re still mysterious.

I share her skepticism. As Lindsay Beyerstein has written: “Men’s jokes about the supposed ‘mysteriousness’ of women are usually thinly veiled swipes at women's capacity for rational thought, self-expression, or honesty.” For a novelist, tasked with depicting human character, they’re a particular cop-out—akin to a painter’s saying that female anatomy has always baffled him.

At best you can argue that McCarthy knows his weaknesses and would rather avoid female characters than botch them. But their scarcity in his work is finally a blemish on his work. Even Blood Meridian is hard to take as representative of the human condition when half of humanity is practically absent from it.

What happens to the Kid in the outhouse at the end of Blood Meridian?

He’d never have given a straight answer to this, of course; better to leave the Kid’s unspeakable fate unspoken. Still, it would have been fun to see the subject broached on daytime TV.

What do you think of America, really?

Coming from Oprah, this would have been a genuinely interesting question—one that could have fully teased out the contrasts between host and guest.

To start with the obvious: McCarthy is a white man and Winfrey a black woman in a society that has historically privileged the former demographic while reserving some of its worst treatment for the latter. Both McCarthy and Winfrey have been poor, but where her childhood poverty was famously desperate, his writerly privation seems more to have been a lifestyle choice. (When he admits to having turned down lecture opportunities during his leanest years, her disbelief is telling.)

And yet where Winfrey is the ultimate product and priestess of American optimism, McCarthy is its ultimate hanging judge. They may well have advanced, respectively, the most and least inspirational visions of our country in its history. As I read it, McCarthy's America is a place of relentless and pathological violence, a perpetual Wild West that eviscerates all our myths about ourselves. It's the America of scalp hunting and serial killing and wars, wars, wars. Winfrey’s America is a tough, sometimes cruel place, but one that permits us—through ordinary courage and faith—to achieve extraordinary triumphs. It's the America of, well, Oprah.

Then of course there’s the matter of fame. Winfrey is the epitome of our cultural hunger for applause, acceptance, love. She sells out stadiums, names TV channels after herself, publishes magazines featuring her face on the cover. McCarthy, for his part, is every inch the alienated artist. He doesn't "interact" with fans. He holds the harshest possible mirror up to our natures. His reclusiveness may have swelled his legend, but his shyness in front of the cameras is genuine. “I don’t think it's good for your head,” he says of self-promotion, and here too Winfrey seems skeptical.

Still, there’s some tantalizing overlap between them. Winfrey, raised in rural Mississippi and inner-city Milwaukee, has always emphasized the bedrock of suffering on which her inspirational empire is founded. Indeed that experience shapes her tastes as a reader: her literary hero, Toni Morrison, descends from the same Southern Gothic tradition as McCarthy. McCarthy, meanwhile, has softened somewhat since Blood Meridian. The traditional romanticism of All the Pretty Horses was surprising, and I’m told The Road turns into a fairly heartwarming father-son portrait. Maybe it was McCarthy’s true self emerging when he explained what readers should “get out of” The Road:

Life is pretty damn good, even when it looks bad, and we should appreciate it more. We should be grateful. I don't know who to be grateful to, but you should be thankful for what you have.

Or maybe this was only the recitation of a catechism, a great nihilist’s brief concession to the cult of Oprah.

In retrospect their collision seems inevitable: the superstar and the hermit, Oprah and the man she introduced to us as “Cormac.” The experiment produced tension but no explosions, and no fusion either. It was deeply fascinating, deeply disappointing, and never to be repeated.

Postscript: While we've probably seen the last of McCarthy on TV, he has given occasional post-Oprah print interviews, including with Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal. In the Journal interview he touches on the subject of women in his fiction: "[The book I'm working on] is largely about a young woman...I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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