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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."
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.
Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.
These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.
The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.
This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.
The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.
"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.
"This just hasn't been possible before."
Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.
New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.
"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."
"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."
Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.
Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.
"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."
Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.
- NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
- To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
- The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.
This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.
Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work