The Novelist as Playwright: Cormac McCarthy’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Sunset Ltd.

After years of relative anonymity, Cormac McCarthy emerged in the 1990s as one of the few unquestionably preeminent novelists writing in the English language, an American writing in a tradition that dates back to Melville. Critics most often cite Faulkner as the primary influence, although in his later more pared down minimalist works the influence of Hemingway is demonstrably apparent. Although he is too dogmatic, Harold Bloom puts the matter bluntly: “there are four living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise,” the four being Pynchon, Roth, DeLillo, and McCarthy.[1] That is egregiously unfair, as it omits many American novelists worthy of praise, not least Toni Morrison. But the point is taken: few would deny Cormac McCarthy his place in the pantheon of contemporary American novelists. 

Yet McCarthy is also a playwright. He has written two interesting plays, one of which I will argue in the following essay is a masterpiece worthy of serious attention. Yet when Vintage published The Sunset Limited in 2006 it was presented as “a novel in dramatic form,” which is patently absurd. Works of literature in dramatic form are just that, dramas, not novels. The so-called subtitle of The Sunset Limited has fooled some critics into taking it seriously; thus John Vanderheide refers to the opening stage directions as a “spare narrative prologue.”[2] So why would McCarthy—or Vintage—include the subtitle, “a novel in dramatic form”? The answer is obvious: to sell books. McCarthy is a famous novelist with many readers, and the subtitle is meant to encourage his readers to buy and read the play. Thus while published plays usually come with a record of the initial production immediately preceding the printed play itself, in the Vintage edition of The Sunset Limited the record of the initial production—at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2006, which later transferred to New York—is hidden away at the rear of the book.

Despite this preamble, it is not the intention of this essay to argue that The Sunset Limited is a play and not a novel; that would require no argument, as the Steppenwolf and other productions, including the HBO film, prove amply enough. I will argue instead that The Sunset Limited is an incredibly powerful work of dialectical drama that in semi-allegorical fashion dramatizes the clash of two irreconcilable worldviews encountered frequently in our pluralistic society, and that the author, while sympathetic to both worldviews, strongly favors one over the other. Reviewers frequently fail to observe which point of view McCarthy favors, which makes the writing of this essay necessary. The two characters are diametrically opposite in every conceivable way, and it is something of a miracle that they are even sitting together at the same kitchen table engaged in a discussion which is literally a matter of life and death. (White even remarks, “I don’t think you have any idea how strange it is for me to be here.”)[3] The elite academic White denies a transcendent dimension of any sort while Black is a theist, specifically a Christian, although he calls himself a “heretic.” White embraces the “closed world structure” that only became possible in the Western world with the Enlightenment. Black—and the importance of his minority status to the play’s meaning should never be underestimated—represents an almost antiquated worldview that is increasingly impotent in the face of a hegemonic modernity.[4]More disturbingly, the play suggests that this rationalistic Western worldview founded on Cartesian doubt is ultimately nihilistic and self-defeating, even suicidal. It would seem that after destroying every conceivable idol it then turns and destroys itself, like a cancer that devours its host. 

White is emblematic of the Closed World Structure (CWS) that Charles Taylor writes about in his book, A Secular Age. The “masters of disengagement,” as Taylor refers to them, proclaim an objective “view from nowhere,” but there is no such thing: “A powerful homogenizing a priori is at work here . . . perverse in its effect.” Perverse because “reality is being arraigned before the bar of Method; what doesn’t shape up is condemned to a shadow-zone of the unreal.”[5] The closed world structure is a social construct and ideology like any other worldview. And while proponents of this CWS, such as White in the play, take this as self-evidently based on “reason” and “science” it actually reflects, as Taylor writes, “a deep-seated moral distaste for the old religion that sees God as an agent in history.”[6] In other words most of the time it is a moral prejudice or reflex, the default position of academics like White, at least in Western Europe and the United States. McCarthy dramatizes this brilliantly by telling us that White carefully scrutinized the platform to make sure there was no one present before leaping to his death. He was very diligent because he especially did not want any children to witness his suicide. Yet out of nowhere Black appears and prevents the suicide attempt. It’s inexplicable, and Black even jokes that White seems to be suggesting that he is an angel (23). White should be dead but instead is sitting in Black’s small apartment discussing weighty matters, sharing a meal, and drinking coffee. In another time and place this strange encounter would have been described as a “correspondence” (in Jungian terms, synchronicity), and it would have given someone in White’s position a reason to pause and reflect on its possible meaning. In fact the play opens with Black suggesting there is a meaning implicit in their encounter and White responding, “It doesn’t mean anything. Everything that happens doesn’t mean something else” (3)—i.e., there is no correspondence.[7] The social imaginary that posits the world as closed—or as Taylor also puts it, posits an immanent frame—will not permit such reflection; there can be no meaning in the encounter, certainly not any kind of numinous meaning: “A powerful homogenizing a priori is at work here . . . perverse in its effect.”

Before proceeding further in our examination of the play’s deep layers of meaning it is necessary first to discuss, briefly, its form. The Sunset Limited is a dialectical drama of the sort invented by Plato in the fourth century BC. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries there have been a number of playwrights who essentially eschew the Aristotelian model, with its emphasis on plot, and instead employ the Platonic or dialectical model: Shaw, Brecht, Weiss, Stoppard, and Guirgis come immediately to mind, but there are others. In an interesting book on this topic Martin Puchner writes, “dramatists and directors [have] failed to recognize Plato as a radical theater reformer, the prescient inventor of a form of drama that is closer to modern drama as we know it than to anything known in the classical world.”[8]  In The Sunset Limited there is very little action and the play consists chiefly of dialogue between White and Black as they sit in the kitchen of Black’s dilapidated apartment immediately after he has prevented White’s attempted suicide in a New York subway. White is an atheist, more specifically a nihilist; Black is an ex-con, a convicted murderer whose life was transformed when, after a prison fight that nearly left him dead, he heard a voice say that but “for the Grace of God you would not be here” (49). It is this lack of action that has prompted some critics, who should know better, into saying things like, “Brilliant, but hardly a play.”[9]

Dialectical drama alternates points of view, with each speaker attempting to convince the other that he or she possesses the truth. This is the essence of a pluralistic society, where different worldviews compete for predominance. In The Sunset Limited Black importantly refers to himself as a questioner, not “a doubter.” When White asks him what the difference is he replies, “the questioner wants the truth. The doubter wants to be told there aint no such thing” (67). While Black quests after the absolute, White believes he has already found it: nothingness. Sounding much like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he says: “Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility” (136). In dialectic questions are asked and truth is sought for. Black wants to understand White, particularly his nihilism, not in a disinterested way but because he wishes to save him. White has no real interest in asking questions; he has found the answer to every question in self-annihilation. Plato calls dialectic a “science,” explaining that “when there is some contradiction always present . . . then thought begins to be aroused within us.” [10] Both Black and White are committed to their particular worldviews, so the dialectic is chiefly for the benefit of the audience; it is we who are constantly aware of the contradiction present and have our thinking aroused.

In dialectical drama the author controls the end result of the contest, of course, and usually sides with one character’s way of thinking in preference to another’s. Plato’s dialogues lose their dramatic power when Socrates has no worthy interlocutors, but there is no question but that Socrates speaks for Plato. (In Plato’s early dialogues, such as theApology and the Credo, it is likely that Plato is transmitting Socrates’s own words and ideas, but by the middle of his career he is bending Socrates to suit his own ends.) In the Republic Thrasymachus is as formidable an opponent as we get, but he leaves the drama early; Socrates completely dominates. In dialectical drama the author’s point of view always wins in the end, but in a great play— such as Man and SupermanTravestiesMarat/SadeFreud’s Last Session, or The Last Days of Judas Iscariot—it is not always clear who wins, or if it is clear the battle is at least close to evenly matched. I was amazed to read the critical literature on The Sunset Limited, because some critics thought Black was the clear winner and others that White took the prize. I can only assume such decisions are formed in many cases when a bias for one particular worldview is held in preference to another, despite every effort to demonstrate scholarly objectivity. This is a testimony to the greatness of McCarthy’s play and its open-ended conclusion, but I believe an honest and careful scrutiny of the text reveals a clear winner. Likewise knowledge of McCarthy’s others works, not least The Road—which was published the same year as The Sunset Limited—gives weight to what seems obvious to me: McCarthy is critiquing a peculiar form of modern alienation and holding it up against a rare but precious form of empathy and commitment. As Black says, “you must love your brother or die” (121). White is profoundly alienated from himself, from other people, and from God, and as Black suggests will happen to those who do not love: he leaves at the end of the play to destroy himself.

The Sunset Limited is a multi-layered drama with various themes woven intricately into its complex fabric, but it is essentially about human alienation, the alienation of the modern subject. As John Vanderheide has written, the play has many characteristics of the medieval allegory, not least the names of the characters, which serve far more than just race markers. The characters’ epistemologies, even their ontologies, are radically incommensurate, with White signaling by his whiteness a will to power untethered from any sort of transcendence. White is a sympathetic character in many ways, but he is also emblematic of a powerful force that is charging straight into an abyss of nihilistic destruction. As Luc Ferry puts it: “Like the sorcerer’s apprentice who unleashes forces which soon escape his control, Descartes and the Enlightenment philosophers unleashed a critical spirit which, once in motion could not be stopped, somewhat like an acid that continues to eat into the materials with which it comes in contact, even after water has been thrown over it.”[11] In this play, Black is the water, but it has no effect; the corrosive is too strong and too far advanced. Writing of McCarthy’s earlier play, The Stonemason, Mary Brewer says, “blackness becomes associated with genuine spiritual values through the characters of Ben and Papaw, thereby prompting a reversal of the white/black binary.”[12]The same is true here. Black says to White, “The light is all around you, cept you don’t see nothing but shadow. And the shadow is you” (118). And White says, “I’m a professor of darkness. The night in day’s clothing” (140).  If traditionally the color white signifies light, goodness, truth, and beauty, in Sunset that is reversed. It signals power, certainly, but that power is moving directly toward a head-on collision with a super-charged locomotive, that emblematic symbol of modernity. In this play spiritual power is located in the character Black.

Throughout the dialectical exchange Black clearly evinces a quick mind and is a formidable dialectical debater. For instance, he gets White to estimate that he has read over four-thousand books in his life, yet he has never read the Bible, which he also gets White to admit is probably a better book than War and Peace or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (14-21). White has little interest in debate and longs for the moment he can leave and resume the business of ending his life. Only at the end of the play does his passion for self-destruction find articulate release, and it is this deluge of deeply felt words that has convinced some critics that his is the point of view we should side with. In “‘A Howling Void’: Beckett’s Influence on Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited” Lydia Cooper argues that because White “manages what none of Beckett’s seminal characters do—an effective departure—White’s anti-theology seems to win the day over Black’s agonizingly agnostic faith.”[13] I want to spend the next few minutes demonstrating not only why this is not the case, but I want also to demonstrate why Cooper’s comparison to Beckett itself is misguided. As already articulated at some length, the play is structured as a dialectical drama in the manner of a Platonic dialogue; the characters are extremely articulate, speak in mostly complete sentences, and engage in discussion where one thought induces a counter thought, as indeed the play must be structured if it is to be a successful specimen of the genre. It is simply not the case that the characters “alone on a stage discuss the meaninglessness of language.”[14]Indeed, any articulate discussion on the meaninglessness of language would be self-defeating, as it would demonstrate by its very articulation that language possesses meaning. At the end of the play Black cries out to God in his agony, “I don’t understand it. If you wanted me to help him how come you didn’t give me the words? You give em to him.” Even so, he says, “That’s all right. That’s all right. If you never speak again you know I’ll keep your word” (142). As critic David DiSalvo puts it, “Black then reaffirms to God that despite this loss, he will still always stand behind ‘the Word.’”[15]  

Cooper goes on to say that while the action is continuous “it is terribly fragmented, the dialogue broken by brief linguistic ellipses, single syllable articulations, terse lines, and longer silences . . . [and] non-linguistic grunts.” There are actually no ellipses in the entire play, and the grunts she is referring to are Black’s occasional response of “Mm hm,” which are not non-linguistic as they often serve the purpose of letting the speaker know the auditor is listening, comprehending, and that he should continue. Or they carry a meaning not fully articulated. August Strindberg and Anton Chekhov more or less invented the art of the dramatic pause and this was taken up to perfection by playwrights like Beckett and Pinter, but in this play there are only three stage directions in the entire play indicating silence and two indicating a pause, and they are specifically related to dialectical exchange. For instance:

White:  (Pointing at the Bible) You don’t think you have to believe everything in there in order to be saved? 

Black: No. I don’t. I don’t think you even have to read it. I aint for sure you even got to know there is such a book. I think whatever truth is wrote in these pages is wrote in the human heart too and it was wrote there a long time ago and will still be wrote there a long time hence. Even if this book is burned ever copy of it. What Jesus said? I don’t think he made up a word of it. I think he just told it. This book is a guide for the ignorant and the sick at heart. A whole man wouldn’t need it at all. And of course if you read this book you goin to find that they’s a lot more talk about the wrong way than they is the right way. Now why is that?

White:  I don’t know. Why is it?

Black: I’d rather hear from you.

White: I’ll have to think about it.

Black: Okay


White: Okay what?

Black: Okay go ahead and think about it. (67-68)

This is linear thinking and logical exchange—and typical of the exchanges throughout the play—and the silence is there to allow White time to think about Black’s question. Nothing could be further from the type of fragmented dialogue Cooper suggests in her effort to convince her readers that the play is Beckettian in form as well as content. The few silences written into the play by McCarthy all fit the same pattern. On another occasion Black tells White that if God spoke to him he can surely speak to White. After which the stage direction indicates that he drums his fingers on the table and looks intently at the professor, followed by a further stage direction indicating silence (64). Clearly Black is waiting for White to listen for what the prophet Elijah called the “still small voice” of God.[16] Finally, the third author-directed silence in the play comes at a moment of terrible existential urgency when Black tells White that according to Jesus eternal life is his if he just lets his “brother off the hook.” The monologue grows in urgency as Black explicates what this entails: 

Black: You got to actually take him and hold him in your arms and it dont make no difference what color he is or what he smells like or even if he dont want to be held. And the reason you wont do it is because he dont deserve it. And about that there aint no argument. He dont deserve it. (He leans forward, slow and deliberate.) You wont do it because it aint just. Aint that so? 


Black: Aint it?

White: I don’t believe in those sorts of things.

Black: Just answer the question Professor.

White: I don’t think in those terms.

Black: I know you don’t. Answer the question.

White: I suppose there’s some truth in what you say. (79)

I have quoted from the text at some length to illustrate how McCarthy’s few silences contribute to the dialectical structure of the play, but we can also see from these exchanges why Black is not a particularly sympathetic character to some readers. In these exchanges and others like them he is clearly the fervent evangelist. But we should keep in mind that whereas we do not take seriously the fundamentalist on the street corner who tells us our lives will be forfeit if we do not accept Jesus into our hearts, in this case the professor’s literal biological, if not eternal, life is hanging in the balance. Black knows that if he loses the dialectical debate White will return to the station and throw himself in front of the Sunset Limited.

To return to the quote I cited earlier, I am not sure what Cooper means by “Black’s agonizingly agnostic faith.” After all when White asks him if he really believes Jesus is in the room with them he answers, “I know he’s in the room” (10). Black’s faith is never in question—if anything, it is too certain; after all he professes knowledge here, not faith. But McCarthy has also distinguished between the two characters by making one, Black, concrete and specific and the other, White, general and abstract. As Philip Brandes describes them in his review of a production in Los Angeles, “White (Ron Bottitta) is a professor, a jaded atheist who lives in a world of abstract conceptualization; Black (Tucker Smallwood), an ex-con turned devout Christian, is all about practical street smarts, concrete experience and rescuing others (even those he may not like).”[17] Black’s faith is not based on propositional statements such as: “I believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior.” Rather, he experiences his faith with his senses, metaphorically and literally. He tells White, “If it aint got the lingerin scent of divinity to it then I aint interested” (13). Likewise he does not accept the gospel at second hand but rather hears God’s voice: “I hear this voice. Just as clear. Couldnt of been no clearer” (49). White on the other hand has a propensity for abstraction and generalities, and frequently speaks in epistemological absolutes. While for Black God is experienced, for White “God” is just an idea, and furthermore one which he pronounces on in absolute terms: “the whole idea of God is just a load of crap. . . . It’s simply a fact” (62-63). He also claims to “know” that no better world awaits the believer (133). Even world-renowned atheist Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion counts himself a six on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being absolute certainly that there is a God and 7 absolute certainty that there is not.[18] White also sometimes speaks in academic jargon, saying, “The dialectic of the homily always presupposes a ground of evil” when he means, “How many wrong paths are there? There number is legion. How many right paths? Only one. Hence the imbalance you spoke of” (69-70). He is also too literal, as befits his role in the scheme of the play as emblematic of Enlightenment rationalism. When Black says he is trying to keep White “from slippin off into the night” White responds, “It’s not night” (80).

Ferry describes our post-Nietzschean world as in “accordance with Nietzsche’s wishes, the idols are all dead: no ideal, in effect, animates or disturbs.”[19] White says that his reason for desiring suicide is his “gradual loss of make-believe. That’s all. A gradual enlightenment as to the nature of reality” (120). McCarthy’s use of the word “enlightenment” here is surely not accidental. Writing of another of his nihilists, the Judge in Blood Meridian, Steven Frye writes: “The thematic tie that links the Judge to antireligious materialism and philosophical naturalism becomes clear in his many monologues, in which he reveals himself as a natural historian and an avatar of Enlightenment science.”[20] Going further, Frye writes that for McCarthy meaning is found and sustained when human beings “participate in fictions that are more truthful than actualities bereft of purpose, since they are embodied with principles of unity, communal understanding, and intimations of the divine, principally as it is defined in terms of order, harmony, human intimacy, and finally in the only thing that can be seen as real—grace.”[21] Thus White’s refusal to participate in “make-believe” ironically removes him further from the truth. His alienation is so pronounced that he did not even visit his father when he was dying of cancer and the thought of seeing his mother again, if there is an afterlife, is torment to him: “I yearn for the darkness. I pray for death. Real death. If I thought that in death I would meet the people I’ve known in life I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate horror” (135). He is a self-confessed misanthrope who says the word “loathe” is not powerful enough to describe his feeling for his colleagues at the university (82). Taking the word etymologically, White is an idiot: he is utterly alone and therefore intellectually deprived. 

Further, he is in a very real sense mad, insane. “Separation from society also inflicts unbearable psychological tensions upon the individual, tensions that are grounded in the root anthropological fact of sociality,” writes Peter Berger in his classic sociological study The Sacred Canopy. “The ultimate danger of such separation is, however, the danger of meaninglessness. This danger is the nightmare par excellence, in which the individual is submerged in a world of disorder, senselessness, and madness. Reality and identity are malignantly transformed into meaningless figures of horror.”[22] Thus White’s isolation and misanthropy and his view of the world as meaningless are inextricably connected. And this is another reason I use the word “masterpiece” in regard to McCarthy’s play. The formof The Sunset Limited recapitulates the theme. For instance, Berger also writes that each human being “is formed in the course of protracted conversation (a dialectic, in the literal sense of the word) in which he is a participant.” He adds that, “once the individual is formed as a person, with an objectively and subjectively recognizable identity, he must continue to participate in the conversation that sustains him as a person in his ongoing biography. That is, the individual continues to be a co-producer of the social world, and thus of himself.”[23] Black not only attempts to reinscribe meaning into White’s life, but in a very real sense he attempts to reinscribe him back into society, into meaningful human contact. Black does this not only by engaging him in protracted conversation—and desperately attempting by whatever means available to keep the conversation going whenever White threatens to leave—but also by trying to find other people, any people at all, whom White might be able to begin meaningful relations: “I don’t know, Professor. I just tryin to find you some constituents out there somewheres” (84).  Additionally, White is in some sense responsible for the cultural world he abhors, for the dissolution of the fragile cultural things he believes will pass away soon. He is a co-producer of the social world, and this is why Black will say when he prays: “We thank you today for the life of the professor that you have returned to us and we ask that you continue to look after him because we need him” (98). White should eschew suicide and work to create the meaningful world he wishes to see.

Following Berger—who is himself borrowing from Sartre, not Freud—we can say that White is a sort of masochist: “Man cannot accept aloneness and he cannot accept meaninglessness. The masochist’s surrender is an attempt to escape aloneness by absorption in an other, who at the same time is posited as the only and absolute meaning, at least in the instant in which the surrender occurs. Masochism thus constitutes a curious convulsion both of man’s sociality and of his need for meaning.”[24] In this case the modern locomotive and the nothingness that follows is the absolute that White surrenders to. In his relation to this absolute White even employs religious language and embodies the enthusiast’s fervor: “I yearn for the darkness. I pray for death” (135). Cooper writes that because of White’s realization of the meaninglessness of existence “survival may not be the virtue it once was. In the one thing he refuses to give up—the act itself of giving up—White demonstrates a perverse yet very real source of courage.”[25]Certainly White recalls Nietzsche’s aphorism in that he “would rather will nothingness than not will.”[26] But I would hardly call this courage. In fact, while he evinces the masochist’s desire to surrender to something more powerful than himself, he lacks the masochist’s love of pain, having calculated that at the speed the locomotive is traveling it will outrun his neurons and he will feel nothing (123). This brings us to a subject we have yet to discuss: suffering.

White asserts—again as an epistemological absolute—that “the world is basically a forced labor camp from which the workers—perfectly innocent—are led forth by lottery, a few each day, to be executed. I don’t think that this is just the way I see it. I think it’s the way it is” (122). He claims that “being happy” is “contrary to the human condition” (54). According to White “no one” is happy: “Suffering and human destiny are the same thing. Each is a description of the other.” But here Black catches him in a logical inconsistency:

Black: We aint talkin about sufferin. We talkin about bein happy.

White: Well you cant be happy if you’re in pain.

Black: Why not?

White: You’re not making any sense.

Black: The point, Professor, is that if you didn’t have no pain in your life then how would you even know you was happy? As compared to what? (55)

Of course people in pain can be “happy” and people free of pain can be miserable; this can be empirically demonstrated, which the putative empiricist White should know. What brings happiness—I think the better term is joy—is meaning, precisely what White lacks in his life. In his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychotherapist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel writes, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” He closes the book with these words: “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”[27] McCarthy’s play demonstrates the cogency of Frankel’s thesis as well as it does anything else. It might be helpful to remark here that in what is perhaps the best essay I’ve read on this play, Robert Wyllie persuasively argues that McCarthy based Black on the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard and White on the gloomy philosophical pessimist Schopenhauer: “Black’s faith, White’s despair, and their open-ended Socratic dialogue all reflect the influence of Søren Kierkegaard upon McCarthy.”[28] Leading McCarthy scholar Steven Frye also affirms the powerful influence of Kierkegaard and other Christian existentialists on McCarthy’s writing.[29]

If Black clearly speaks for the author, why do some critics so strangely side with White? Part of the answer lies in the heartfelt agony and clear-sighted depiction of human cruelty and suffering he expresses at the end of the play. Also, as mentioned before, the success of dialectical drama depends on the persuasiveness of both characters. That said, it is unlikely that anyone would conclude that the Devil speaks for Shaw in the dream sequence of Man and Supermanor that Tristan Tzara speaks for Stoppard in Travesties or that the Marquis De Sade speaks for Weiss in Marat/Sade, however persuasive such characters might be. Conversely, it is virtually impossible to settle on who wins the debate when reading Mark St. Germain’s dialectical drama Freud’s Last Session, the atheist Freud or the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis; unless one gives attentive notice to a short stage direction near the end of the play (which reminds us also why it is important to remember that these are plays and meant to be performed). At one point Freud confesses to Lewis that even his doctors will not remove his prosthetic jaw because of the hideous stench. Later in the play, in an effort to relieve his debating partner’s pain, Lewis will put his hand in Freud’s mouth and remove the artificial jaw. I spoke with a director and she told me she slowed down the action here and then froze this moment when she directed the play.[30]It is this performed action of neighborly love that ultimately compels me to conclude that Lewis is the winner where otherwise it would have been impossible to draw a conclusion. We should remember also that it is likely that even Plato’s dialogues were originally performed at his academy, in some fashion or another. “[W]hat is most important” to remember, Puchner writes, “is that [Plato] mixes abstraction and embodiment. It is this mixture that sets his drama apart from its competitors.”[31]

Therefore it seems likely that some of the critics of The Sunset Limited might be viewing the world from the same closed world structure or immanent frame that was discussed earlier; that is, from the same vantage point from which White himself views the world. Taylor writes that this viewpoint can seem to those who hold it “obvious, compelling, allowing of no cavil or demurral.” Yet he adds that this type of “thinking is clouded or cramped by a powerful picture which prevents one seeing important aspects of reality.” He cites Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, “a picture held us captive.” For instance Cooper seems to take it for granted that “the absurdity of existence . . . the futility of human existence” is self-evident and that the stage is the perfect medium to explore this “recognition.”[32] While White might be a morbid case, Taylor claims that “those who think the closed reading of immanence is ‘natural’ and obvious are suffering from [a] kind of disability.” This “spin of closure,” as he calls it, “is hegemonic in the academy.”[33] I would suggest that this “spin of closure” is in part what McCarthy’s play is about. After all, it is no coincidence that White is an academic.

With this in mind let us consider Black’s account of his transformation, his conversion, or what in the New Testament is called metanoia, his “turning in a new direction.” According to Black he was stabbed with a knife while in the chow line in prison and in retaliation nearly killed his assailant, who was “never . . . right after that” (48). While recovering in the infirmary, near death and with 280 stitches in him, Black hears the voice recounted earlier. As a dedicated “master of suspicion” White questions how strange it is that “a fellow prisoner became a crippled one-eyed halfwit so that you could find God” (49). Cooper aligns herself with White here, writing that Black “unproblematically links violence to redemption . . . Black’s insistence that an act of bloodshed sparked his redemptive journey suggests that he ‘buys into’ the sacramental nature of ritual bloodshed.” According to Cooper, if Black “is correct and grace is achieved through the shedding of blood, a concept personified in the divine martyr whom Black cites, Jesus, then Black’s attempts to save White from self-immolation are perhaps counter-intuitive.”[34] The assumption is that Black never actually heard the voice of God, and that this psychological experience of conversion follows necessarily from his own act of violence. But Black is not “insisting” nor “buying into” anything; he is merely relating what happened to him. I am reminded of another convict who finds God in another contemporary American play. In Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the A Train Angel confronts Lucius with the strange “convenience” of finding God while on death row. He responds, “I coulda had God when I was six, sixteen, thirty-two, thirty-five, he wasn’t goin’ nowhere! It happens I didn’t get him till I was forty-two; a suicidal, multiple homicidal drug addict starin’ down at Death Row! Would I have preferred to find him at twenty-five? Hell yeah! But I didn’t!”[35] In that brilliant drama of ideas it turns out, ironically, that after great resistance Angel will have the more enduring conversion experience.

Black had led a violent life and it brought him to prison and nearly to death. While lying in the infirmary he hears a voice, with utter clarity (he tells his auditor twice). White and Cooper assume that this could not have been what Black claims it to be, the voice of God. But why? Because they assume a priori that there is no God, and certainly not one who speaks to human beings. Taylor writes that beginning in the eighteenth-century Deists “have a deep distaste for action (putatively) inspired by God.” He goes on, “From a philosophical perspective, such as that of Spinoza, historical religion could be written off as pandering to popular fears and illusions.” He adds, “But of course, what doesn’t figure in this kind of indictment is the (alleged) interventions spoken of in the autobiography of Santa Teresa, or the writings of John Wesley, nor a fortiori the myriad of unknown, less awe inspiring acts and experiences of ordinary people which they have understood as related to God.” [36] It is just assumed that such claims are not true, even when coming from notable figures like the twentieth-century Marxist philosopher Simone Weil, who claimed that “Christ himself came down and took possession” of her when she was reading a poem by George Herbert.[37] The point is: why should we not take Black—and others like him—at their word? As the play is a critique of a type of thinking that, in the author’s view, leads to nihilism and potential destruction, I think we should give Black the benefit of the doubt, especially when we see the fruit of the experience: metanoia, or a life completely turned in a new and life-affirming direction.

Cooper writes, “Black’s prayerful agony at the end is a starkly failed attempt at experiencing the presence of God.”[38] But did she really expect McCarthy, if he favored Black’s point of view, to have Black hear God’s voice after White exits? That would have been mawkish and ruined a brilliant play; it would have spoiled the open-endedness necessary to dialectical drama. Black’s relationship to God is tested when he is unable to save the professor, but he asserts his continued faith even in the face of silence and defeat. Although he overstates the case, perhaps Vanderheide has a point when he writes, “The Joban angle of the narrative suggests that, if anything, God arranged the encounter with the express purpose of curing Black’s daemonism. Black, however, fails to recognize this. Too far gone in his self-identification as a fisher of men, he is in fact unwilling to ‘let [his] brother off the hook.’”[39] By daemonism he means allegorical lack of freedom, the characters’ obsession with one thing: for White self-annihilation, for Black saving White. Yet McCarthy is juxtaposing one character who feels no commitment to his fellow man and another who does; after spending the morning in discussion with White, after sharing a meal with him and continuing to exhort him on the ultimate value of life even in the face of suffering—and Black emphasizes the value of White’s own particular life, not life in general—he relinquishes his hold and lets him go. Black has saved his own life by giving himself to others, and it is natural that he wishes to save this strange man also, a man that it seemed Providence had led him to at the crucial moment.

McCarthy has carefully constructed the play as a modernist allegory. Therefore The Sunset Limited is a tale with a moral, however concealed it may be in its subtle modernist framework. Black’s prayer, quoted in part earlier, precedes a meal that the two men share together; and this meal is essential to the meaning of the play: it is a shared communion, which along with baptism is the most important of the sacraments. While initially reluctant to eat, White eventually is persuaded to partake of the meal and finds it delicious. Naturally Black describes the cuisine as “soul food” (98). This meal is especially important because White has no friends and, as Black says, “You break bread with a man you have moved on to another level of friendship. I heard somewheres that that’s true the world over” (93). White laments the absence of wine (Black is a recovering alcoholic), as if to note that the Eucharistic sacrament is incomplete. Nothing that Black does is able to alter White’s determination to end his life. Values that have sustained civilization up to now are void: God, family, friends. Death is the last value.

If McCarthy is opposing an extreme form of secularism that leads inevitably to nihilism against an authentic theism that finds its ethos in love of God and love of neighbor, then we need to look more closely at the worldviews of these two characters. As a good Enlightenment rationalist White places the intellect above all else. He believes “in the primacy of the intellect,” yet admits that this very intellect eventually brings one to an “awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility” (96, 136). Yet there seems to be a contradiction here, for he says that it is evolution that brings intelligent life to this realization; yet in Darwinian evolution, traits are supposed to be passed on for their survival value. So intellect, despite its “primacy,” is self-defeating. White is apocalyptic and may be prophetic. After all, The Sunset Limited was published the same year as his post-apocalyptic novel The Road. The theme and pattern of the two works is almost identical, as in the novel a man’s wife commits suicide, refusing to live in a world of darkness and despair, while the father chooses life. More particularly, the father is a self-appointed protector of ultimate value, embodied in his young son. In a world now bereft of all human values they are attempting to “carry the fire,” to keep the light burning in a world of almost total darkness. It is intimated that the boy is the receptacle of that fire and in fact is associated with the Word of God, that is, with Christ. As his father says, “If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”[40] In both The Road and The Sunset Limited McCarthy envisions the end of all human values and the intrepid attempt in the midst of such darkness to keep humane values alive. 

In The Sunset Limited Black carries the fire while White is drowning in total darkness. McCarthy’s irony is potent: for White is appalled that Black chooses to live in the ghetto, as if he might find a better life for himself elsewhere. He calls the neighborhood “a moral leper colony” and asks him why he does not go someplace where he might be able to do some good. Black replies, “As opposed to someplace where good was needed?” (76). Black is serene and happy in the ghetto while White, who lives in more luxurious surroundings, is miserable. I am reminded of Satan’s line in Paradise Lost, “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.”[41]

White: I don’t understand why you live here.

Black: As compared to where?

White: Anywhere.

Black: Well I’d say this is pretty much anywhere.

The better question would be, Why do you, White, live where you do, in the mental universe you occupy? Place of residence does not matter, what matters is inner disposition. Whereas the wife in The Road decides to depart a post-apocalyptic world devoid of all humane values (she expects that she and her boy will be raped and killed), White does not wish to wait around for what he believes is inevitable. He predicts the end of civilization and wishes to depart before the cataclysm arrives: “Western civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys at Dachau but I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now” (27). He adds, “The things that I loved were very frail. Very fragile” (25). White’s nihilism succeeded a time when he still had faith in the values of civilization, but he realizes it was an illusion. And that illusion which sustained him for a time, will soon abandon everyone else as well; it “is largely gone. Soon it will be wholly gone” (25). As he puts it, “The truth is that the forms I see have been slowly emptied out. They no longer have any content. They are shapes only. A train. A wall. A world. Or a man. A thing dangling in senseless articulation in a howling void” (139). As will be noted, this is where Cooper gets her title and finds the comparison with Beckett most pronounced. All the forms that used to sustain human life, for White, have been emptied out; life is totally absurd and meaningless. But Beckett did not write dialectical dramas, plays where a nihilist clashes intellectually with someone who very much occupies a world of meaning and purpose. If Taylor’s magnum opus A Secular Age had not been published the year after The Sunset Limited appeared, we might be excused for assuming McCarthy read the book and that it inspired his play. For White very much embodies the “disenchantment” that Taylor, borrowing from Weber, stipulates as one of the key characteristics of the secular age. White is disenchanted. Black asks him if he ever had one of those days when “things just fell into place.”

White: I’m not sure what you mean.

Black: Just one of them days. Just kind of magic. One of them days when everything turns out right. 

White: I don’t know. Maybe. Why?

Black: I just wondered if maybe it aint been kindly a long dry spell for you. Until you finally took up with the notion that that’s the way the world is. (42)

When White asks if he is a prisoner in Black’s apartment, White replies, “you was a prisoner fore you got here” (31). White occupies a zone within the stahlhartes Gehäuse, the iron cage that Weber proclaimed came with increased rationalization. We must acknowledge that the views White articulates are very real perceptions and McCarthy clearly shares his apprehension. But the answer to the problem is not isolation, misanthropy, and suicide, but more along the means found by Black (I am not suggesting, of course, that McCarthy thinks we should all become Christian evangelists. However, opening oneself to what might lie beyond the immanent frame, if that is what it takes to perceive meaning again, may be recommended). Taylor writes about “the heroism of the modern misanthropic stance,” a heroism that “consists in continuing to live in the face of the [perceived] meaninglessness and worthlessness of life.” He brings up Camus, whose stance may be more heroic than Christian martyrdom because of its persistence in philanthropic action when “bereft even of the hope of return, which the martyr still has.” Nonetheless, Taylor asks us to imagine that “the highest good consists in communion, mutual giving and receiving, as in the paradigm of the eschatological banquet,”[42] which we see dramatized so powerfully in McCarthy’s play. Black lives in the ghetto by choice, and has no possessions because the junkies he tries to help would steal them. It is notable that in our hyper-mediated world Black has no cell phone, no computer, no television, and even lacks anything to play music, which he loves. The opening stage direction, in an obvious allusion to Karl Barth, points to “a bible and a newspaper” on the kitchen table as the sole source of media we see.[43] DiSalvo writes that what White suggests by the fragility of things is that what he loves have “shattered amidst the decay of culture—a world changing too quickly for anything of depth and substance to survive for long.”[44] Some philosophers of science now predict that rapid technological development will soon bring us to a point where artificial intelligence will usurp the human intellect’s position of “primacy,” what is called the “Singularity.” As French philosopher Luc Ferry writes, “For the first time in the history of life, a living species holds the means to destroy the entire planet, and this species does not know where it is going.”[45] And Walter Benjamin writes that our “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”[46] McCarthy has created a character who can look forward to his own destruction with rapturous delight, and Black provocatively asks if directing his violence inward as opposed to outward is not perhaps “the same thing” (92). 

As we draw towards the conclusion, it is fitting to remind ourselves once more that The Sunset Limited is a play, a work of literature that demands embodiment by actors. I have argued over the course of this essay that the critical faculty privileged in the West has a powerful proclivity toward nihilism and ultimate self-destruction, and that White is emblematic of this faculty. Descartes, where we can locate the origin of this tendency, violently bifurcated the mind from the body, a process that Taylor calls excarnation, “the exaltation of disengaged reason as the royal road to knowledge, even in human affairs.”[47] The alienation Benjamin writes about is, among other things, an alienation from our own bodies. And this is why, finally, The Sunset Limited should if possible be experienced in the theatre. Writing about the Steppenwolf production, Diane Luce remarked how every time Black reached out to touch White, played by Austin Pendleton, he would cringe and recoil. Likewise “the body posture of Austin Pendleton, though he is a slender man, makes his belly protrude like that of a toddler. Freeman Coffey’s much larger stature and more commanding demeanor contribute further hints that his may be the more formidable wisdom.”[48] Only in performance can the totality of the play’s themes find full expression because it is, ultimately, about the way ideas live in our bodies and mold us in particular ways. Ideas are matters of life and death, and McCarthy demonstrates that with the assurance of a master dramatist


[1] Harold Bloom, “Dumbing Down American Readers.” The Boston Globe, September 9, 2003. Bloom wrote this over a decade ago. The octogenarian Roth, though still alive, is no longer “still at work.”

[2] John Vanderheide, “Sighting Leviathan: Ritualism, Daemonism and the Book of Job in McCarthy’s Latest Works.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Vol. 6 (Autumn 2008): 107. JSTOR.

[3] Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 41. McCarthy’s spelling and grammar are sometimes idiosyncratic and will not be edited. From now on citations to the play will be found in the body of the essay.

[4] While religious belief is on the rise around the world—which would have surprised almost all sociologists of religion a half century ago—it is almost non-existent in the principal centers of power, such as Western Europe and the academic world of the United States. As for the ubiquity of theistic claims among our politicians, we might cite Bertrand Russell here: “The immense majority of intellectually eminent men disbelieve in Christian religion, but they conceal the fact in public, because they are afraid of losing their incomes.” Quoted in Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 97. 

[5] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 286.

[6] Ibid., 274.

[7] This type of thinking is described by Erich Auerbach in the epilogue to his masterpiece of literary criticism Mimesis, “In this conception, an occurrence on earth signifies not only itself but at the same time another . . . without prejudice to the power of its concrete reality here and now. The connection between occurrences is not regarded as primarily a chronological or causal development but as a oneness within the divine plan, of which all occurrences are parts and reflections.” Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 555.

[8] Martin Puchner. The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theatre and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 7.

[9] Chris Jones, “Brilliant, but hardly a Play.” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2006.

[10] Plato, The Republic (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2000), 176, 187.

[11] Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011), 144.

[12] Mary Brewer, “‘The Light is All Around You, Cept You Don’t See Nothin but Shadow’: Narratives of Race and Religion in The Stonemason and The Sunset Limited.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Vol. 12 (2014): 44. JSTOR.

[13] Lydia Cooper, “‘A Howling Void’: Beckett’s Influence on Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Vol. 10, No.1 (2012): 7. JSTOR.

[14] Ibid., 10.

[15] David DiSalvo, “The Sunset Limited: Cormac McCarthy’s eulogy or anthem to meaning? Contrary Blog, February 24, 2011.

[16] 1 Kings 19:12.

[17] Philip Brandes, “Theater Review: The Sunset Limited’ at Theatre Theater.” The Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2010.

[18] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 50-51.

[19] Ferry, 207.

[20] Steven Frye, Understanding Cormac McCarthy (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 78.

[21] Ibid., 127.

[22] Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 22

[23] Ibid., 18.

[24] Ibid., 56.

[25] Cooper, “‘A Howling Void,’” 12.

[26] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A PolemicBasic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 599. This can be found in the Third Essay, section 28.

[27] Viktor Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning, trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 111, 134.

[28] Robert Wyllie, “Kierkegaard Talking Down Schopenhauer: The Sunset Limited as a Philosophical Dialogue.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Vol. 14, No.2 (2016): 186. Muse.

[29] Frye, Understanding Cormac McCarthy, 63.

[30] Personal conversation with Jacqueline Reid, who directed Freud’s Last Session at FUSION Theatre in Albuquerque, NM in 2012.

[31] Puchner. The Drama of Ideas, 20.

[32] Cooper, “‘A Howling Void,’” 11.

[33] Taylor, A Secular Age, 549-551.

[34] Cooper, “‘A Howling Void,’” 9.

[35] Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jesus Hopped the A TrainThree Plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis: Our Lady of 121st Street,Jesus Hopped the A TrainIn Arabia We’d All be Kings (New York: Faber and Faber, 2003), 168.

[36] Taylor, A Secular Age, 274-75.

[37] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), 69.

[38] Cooper, “‘A Howling Void,’” 11.

[39] Vanderheide, “Sighting Leviathan,” 111.

[40] Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Vintage, 2006), 5. The metaphor of carrying the fire of goodness in a world of darkness appears throughout the novel, the first time on page 83 and the last time on page 278.

[41] John Milton, Paradise LostComplete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1957), 279. Book IV, line 75.

[42] Taylor, A Secular Age, 701-702.

[43] This quote attributed to Barth has never been verified. However The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary cites the following: “Perhaps the most clear statement on the record from Barth concerning these matters comes from a Time Magazine piece on Barth published on Friday, May 31, 1963: ‘[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’” The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, Frequently Asked Questions.

[44] DiSalvo, “The Sunset Limited: Cormac McCarthy’s eulogy or anthem to meaning?

[45] Ferry, A Brief History of Thought, 216.

[46] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 242.

[47] Taylor, A Secular Age, 746.

[48] Dianne C. Luce, “Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited: Dialogue of Life and Death (A Review of the Chicago Production)”

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard   R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Berger, Peter L.  The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York:            Anchor Books, 1990.

Bloom, Harold. “Dumbing Down American Readers.” The Boston Globe, September 9, 2003.    g_down_american_readers/.

Philip Brandes, “Theater Review: The Sunset Limited’ at Theatre Theater.” The Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2010.

Brewer, Mary. “‘The Light is All Around You, Cept You Don’t See Nothin but Shadow’: Narratives of Race and Religion in The Stonemason and The Sunset Limited.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Vol. 12 (2014): 44. JSTOR.

Cooper, Lydia. “‘A Howling Void’: Beckett’s Influence on Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Vol. 10, No.1 (2012): 7. JSTOR.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

DiSalvo, David. “The Sunset Limited: Cormac McCarthy’s eulogy or anthem to meaning? Contrary Blog, February 24, 2011.         limited-cormac-mccarthy%E2%80%99s-eulogy-or-anthem-to-meaning/.

Ferry, Luc.  A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Trans. Theo Cuffe.      New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.

Frankel, Viktor.  Man’s Search for Meaning. Trans. Ilse Lasch. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Frye, Steven. Understanding Cormac McCarthy. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2009.

Guirgis, Stephen Adly. Three Plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis: Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the A TrainIn Arabia We’d All be Kings. New York: Faber and Faber, 2003.

Jones, Chris. “Brilliant, But Hardly a Play.” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2006.  limited-white.

Luce, Dianne C.  “Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited: Dialogue of Life and Death (A Review of the Chicago Production).”   

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1957.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006

—. The Sunset Limited. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The        Modern Library, 2000.

Plato, The Republic. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2000.

Puchner. Martin. The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theatre and Philosophy. New    

York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Vanderheide, John. “Sighting Leviathan: Ritualism, Daemonism and the Book of Job in   McCarthy’s Latest Works.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Vol. 6 (Autumn 2008):         JSTOR.

Weil, Simone. Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

Wyllie, Robert. “Kierkegaard Talking Down Schopenhauer: The Sunset Limited as a         Philosophical Dialogue.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Vol. 14, No.2 (2016): 186.   Muse.

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