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Ruins and Memory: Cormac McCarthy's Archaeological Imagination

Posted by Maria O'Connell

Cormac McCarthy is a writer whose novels are haunted by ruins, whether the remains of an old inn in his first novel, or the recent ruins of a destroyed world in his last. His characters find petroglyphs, mummies, and ruined villages strewn along their path. He never gives any kind of exact detail about their histories or how they came to be in the place where they are found. Instead, the things stand for themselves, open to the reader’s observation and interpretation. McCarthy’s archaeological imagination lies in that ability to let the things that are left behind by humans, and other forms of life, to be things with a life of their own and, even more, to be things that resist the imagination and the attempt to translate them into something meaningful for the present. Instead, he is willing to allow for the “diverse lives of things” (Witmore 2009, 516). There are many, many instances, but for the current meditation, I will focus on Blood Meridian and The Road.

CormacMcCarthy_BloodMeridian.jpg The-road.jpg

These two novels are more particularly concerned with ruins than his others, because they each take place at the end of something. For Blood Meridian, the end is the end of the Mexican War and the destruction of humans and things in its aftermath, when the US-Mexican border was redefined. The role of Judge Holden, a monstrously scientific and rational man, who keeps a journal of his discoveries, allows the reader to see a point of view that considers the discoveries to be his and his alone and to seek to control their communications through archival methods that both destroy what is in place (leaving nothing for future studies) and also limits the access that others have to the knowledge gathered and the development of meaning. In The Road, the world is at its end and the main characters, a father and son, must deal with ruins from both the recent and the more distant past, without referents or archives to tell them how to respond, or what these things mean. There is an intriguing difference between them, because the man is caught up in mourning what used to be his life, and the boy has no referents for what any of these things mean. Without the lived experience of these things, they are simply legends and stories that his father tells and have no link to his present existence, nor does his father have any way to give them meaning without the archives and histories that he himself so took for granted. These two novels both encapsulate the tensions inherent in archaeological practice and echoes Christopher Witmore’s questions about open pasts; “What qualities of the material past, what properties of things, and what aspects of our engagements with them, are actually articulated” (2009, 516)? The answer for Judge Holden is not the same as the answer for the father.

Archaeological imagination, as usually conceived, is intimately linked with archaeological practices and approaches. However, as Michael Shanks points out, archaeological imagination and sensibility concern “Questions of tradition and legacy, of heritage, of roots, memories and remains, of entropy and loss, the material transformation of decay and ruin, connections between the past, its contemporary reception, and its future prospect, the place of the past in a modern society, ethical and indeed political issues regarding respect for the past and conservation of its remains, agency and the shape of history, but also judgment of responsibility in assessing what to do with what is left of the past” (2012a, 24) and so they are not confined to the discipline of archaeology, but are matters of concern for society and individuals. The past, and what it means, as well as what to preserve from the past and pass on to the future are the forms which shape identity for human societies, whether as small as a family or as large as a civilization. For archaeologists, themselves, there is a constant translation between the ruins that they observe and experience and the narrative composed as they catalog, photograph, document, and archive the objects that comprise their work. Their work with the material world of objects “involves a concurrent process of transformation and transportation” (Witmore 2009, 515). As Michael Shanks points out the imaginative work of this enterprise is “working on remains to translate, to turn them into something sensible - inventory, account, narrative, explanation, whatever” (2012b). However, the archaeological imagination, as Shanks conceives it, goes beyond that narrative. Archaeology is not a history but a discovery of the material objects of the past, as they are. They cannot be fully translated because understanding objects, like understanding language, is highly contingent upon time, space, and shared context. The archaeological ruins that populate McCarthy’s texts are much like the archaeological ruins that occupy our own spaces, things “shorn of referent” (McCarthy 2007 [2006], 88) that can never be put back in their original context, and yet, in themselves, they evoke the ‘diverse lives of things.’

Although all of his novels have things scattered throughout, these two are the ones most concerned with history and with ruins. Blood Meridian’s setting is at the Mexican/American borderlands shortly after the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican war and acquired vast new tracts of land for the United States. The characters wander over abandoned villages, old rock formations with ancient petroglyphs, and territories once full of Native Americans, but now emptied by war and buffalo extinction. Judge Holden, who is the “suzerain of the earth” (1992, 198) and nothing can exist without his permission and his archival interpretation. The judge, a monstrous representation of ‘civilized’ man, is educated, multilingual and cultured. He is a scientist, constantly collecting samples and adding them to his archive of the country through which they travel. His concern is with the organizing aspect of the archaeological enterprise, as he examines remains in order to catalog and order them. He notes that “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent” (1992, 198) and his purpose is to be the dominant source of information about the place through which he travels. As he finds things, like a “footpiece from a suit of armor hammered out in a shop in Toledo three centuries before” (1992, 140). He sketches such things into his book and then destroys the artifact, leaving only his archive and thus his interpretation. His examinations depend upon his own skilled archaeological eye, which is capable of looking at hundreds of petroglyphs and to go “among them with assurance, tracing out the very ones which he required” (1992, 173) for his interpretation of the historical narrative. When he is done he scrapes those designs away “leaving no trace of it only a raw place on the stone where it had been” (1992, 173). His work of translation and transformation is profoundly controlled by his already preconceived ideas of history and his place in the world.

Judge Holden, a character in a story about the mid-nineteenth century, and an American in a time of American Manifest Destiny and expansionism exhibits a great confidence in Western science and history. He is absolutely certain of both his ability and his right to control the translation and transformation of material things into the archive. He, in fact, values the archive and the things he places within it more than the objects themselves and certainly more than the objects in situ. He anticipates the archaeological imagination of Heinrich Schliemann, who resisted photography of his excavation of Troy because “time spent cleaning and photographing structures of the five settlements successive to the second burnt city” (Witmore 2009, 512) was time wasted on things that had no relevance to Schliemann’s interest in the site’s epic history. The judge, like the ‘discoverer of Troy’ is more interested in the narrative presented than in the things themselves (Olivier 2011).

The Road is set in an uncertain area of the United States after an apocalypse. There is nothing left except ruins, “a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion” (McCarthy 2007 [2006], 88). Those things are part of a world “shorn of its referents and so of its reality” (Ibid. 89). The things left behind that Michael Shanks mentions are also shorn of referents, speaking only for themselves and in conjunction with the place where they are found and any information that can be drawn from them. However, they are also a form of Derridean envois that resists translation; “[y]ou might consider them . . . as the remainders of a recently destroyed correspondence. Destroyed by fire or that which figuratively takes its place, more certain of leaving nothing out of the reach of what I like to call the tongue of fire” (Derrida 1987, 3). The world in this case has literally been destroyed by fire and only ruins remain to be translated, along with the grief and fear that they produce. They “cannot be made right again” (McCarthy 2007 [2006], 307) because the only tool of mediation, that of narrative, has either been destroyed (in its written form) or is blocked by the father’s grief and the lack of shared referents between him and the boy.

Translation and mediation are always vexed processes because As Gayatri Spivak says in the journal parallax, “[i]n every possible sense translation is necessary but impossible” (2000, 13). The “tongue of fire” destroying the original postcard is translation itself. This is true within archaeology as well as language translation. The Road is full of things living their diverse lives even as the human beings slowly die away. The few humans that remain translate artifacts through their own expectations and hopes, just as Schliemann did. The father, in particular, has depended upon historical and philosophical narratives that are now challenged and damaged by the reality of things. He remembers that “years ago he’d stood in the charred ruins of a library where upturned books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row” (McCarthy 2007[2006], 187). He realizes that “the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation (McCarthy 2007[2006], 187) of a future that is now destroyed. When the volumes in the library, an assurance of past knowledge secured for the future, are left to rot, “It is not just that the past (in the present) is threatened; senses of personal and community identity are threatened, when the continuity of the past is the source of such identity (Shanks 2012a, 36). The father’s security is shaken as he realizes that the books are lies, not because of their content, but because of their presence. As Witmore writes, the problem “is one of memory or, more precisely, memory practices” (2009, 514). The problem also confronts the father as he tries to mediate the movement between material things and the narratives about them. His own choice of narrative reveals the problem when he tells his son that they carry the fire, a Promethean reference weighted with humanist values that are vexed by the very real and destructive role of fire around them.

In addition, the father finds his ability to communicate about the things around them limited by his own memories, as well as by the sheer abundance of ruins. The ruins haunt the father with memories that persist even as the life that gave rise to them fades away. As Elin Andreassen, Hein B. Bjerk, and Bjørnar Olsen have written, “ruins…have their own historical mission: they rescue a forgotten past, not as a heritage…but as a kind of involuntary memory” (2010, 152). They “stubbornly carries the means to trigger the involuntary memories of its untimely past” (Ibid.). The father has memories of his wife, his childhood, fishing, and his son’s birth. All of those memories cause him great pain that he cannot share with the boy. The lack of a shared past is particularly poignant when the father shares what would be a normal rite in most children’s lives, visiting the father’s childhood home. The father talks of his childhood, of “me and my sisters, doing our homework” (McCarthy 2007[2006], 26), but the house is just another dangerous place to the child. The father tells his son which room was his, but cannot express “the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be” (McCarthy 2007[2006], 27), especially since his son’s worst imaginings are already a part of his life, not just in his imagination.

When the father and son find a good place to hide for a few days, a bunker left behind by people who planned for a different sort of disaster, the difference in their experiences becomes much starker. In this happy place where the father knows how to cook things and how to make use of all the supplies, “he understood that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed” (McCarthy 2007[2006], 153). His memories and history have no reference that his son would understand, and he finds that “each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins…What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not” (McCarthy 2007[2006], 131). All the objects around him, in their diverse lives and existence elude and resist mediation and translation, just as archaeological objects retain within themselves memories that cannot be shared.


Andreassen, Elin, Hein B. Bjerk, and Bjørnar Olsen. 2010: Persistent Memories. Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Academic Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987: The Post Card. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

McCarthy, Cormac. 1992: Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. First Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage Books.

McCarthy, Cormac. 2007[2006]: The Road. New York: Vintage-Random.

Olivier, Laurent. 2011: The Dark Abyss of Time: archaeology and memory. Lanham, Md: AltaMira Press.

Shanks, Michael. 2012a. The Archaeological Imagination. Walnut Creek, Calif: Left Coast Press.

Shanks, Michael. 2012b: “The Archaeological Imagination.” Stanford University. Oct. 16, 2012. Web. Oct. 29, 2012.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2000: Translation as Culture. parallax 6, 13-24.

Witmore, Christopher. 2009: Prologomena to Open Pasts: On Archaeological Memory Practices. Archaeologies: A Journal of the World Archaeological Congress. 5(3) 511-545..