Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, a novel in dramatic form, revolves around a conversation between two men, Black and White, about the existence of God. White is a man in despair whom Black has just prevented from killing himself by jumping in front of an oncoming train. Black takes White home so that he can try to convince White of the goodness of life and that faith in Jesus gives life meaning, both of which White rejects. Ultimately, White leaves Black’s apartment, un-swayed by Black’s arguments, leaving a shaken Black asking God if what he did was “okay.”
McCarthy’s stories often include a memorably monstrous figure. Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is most famous, but even more diabolical is Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, and more grotesque is Lester Ballard in Child of God (whom I previously discussed in “Strange Dignity”). These characters share a sense of having come into the world fully formed as evil. There was never a point at which they were corrupted; this is the way they seem to have always been. There seems to be no reason for their perversity, which challenges faith in the goodness and order of creation.
In The Sunset Limited (both the novel and the film adaptation starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson), White similarly appears naturally corrupted, not so much in his willingness to be monstrously cruel towards others as in his rejection of his own goodness. We know nothing of his history at the start, and even when we learn some of it, it cannot fully account for his perverse despair. Like McCarthy’s villains above, he ultimately seems to be this way for no reason. However, unlike those villains, he is not a larger-than-life monster. Instead, he is all too human, and this makes him, in some ways, more unsettling than, say, Judge Holden who almost seems to be of supernatural origin. While the Judge is frightening because of how far removed he seems from humanity, White is unsettling because his frustrations and loneliness are familiar human issues. He faces all the struggles of the average man, but his answer to them is to destroy himself.
The Chitchat Apostolate
In White, Black is confronted with the problem of evil. How is he to respond to or understand something that, for no reason, rejects the good? He responds with truth and love, which Pope Benedict XVI identifies as pillars of Catholic social action. In his encyclical Caritas in veritate, he describes how
truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the “economy” of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth. In this way, not only do we do a service to charity enlightened by truth, but we also help give credibility to truth, demonstrating its persuasive and authenticating power in the practical setting of social living. (n. 2)
Black is bold in telling White that it is faith in Jesus that provides the meaning to life that White cannot see (and would refuse to accept even if he could see it). He says bluntly that he perceives Christ’s presence in his life. He balances this proclamation of Christian truth with showing love towards White; he save’s White’s life, feeds him, and tries to find White “constituents” who could be his friends. He engages in what Catherine Doherty, foundress of Madonna House, calls the “chitchat apostolate,” which tends toward a person’s intangible needs for friendship, in chatting about cooking with rutabagas and tripe, and telling jailhouse stories. All in all, Black acts to bring about good in White’s life; he acts with love.
However, even though Black’s conversation with White is founded on the pillars of truth and love, this fails to convince White of anything. Black does everything right from a Catholic perspective, yet his efforts do not bear fruit. His response to this evil seems insufficient. Now, this might not be his fault; the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart says in The Experience of God that
An absolutely convinced atheist, it often seems to me, is simply someone who has failed to notice something very obvious – or, rather, failed to notice a great many very obvious things. This not any sort of accusation or reproach. Something can be incandescently obvious but still utterly unintelligible to us if we lack the conceptual grammar required to interpret it; and this, far from being a culpable deficiency, is usually only a matter of historical or personal circumstance.
Hart then goes on to use the example of a person raised in a culture without written language who encounters an abandoned city whose history is written down and available to the discoverer. The person would have an incredible amount of information staring him in the face, but he is unable to know what the information is – or even that it is there – if he does not realize that written language exists.
White, however, is not simply ignorant. He is a professor and is used to evaluating and studying Western art and culture. He is not entirely familiar with the tenets of Christianity, but he does know enough to discuss them in part. Even though he does not share Black’s “conceptual grammar,” White knows that he could find meaning in life if he were to accept those tenets, but he pre-emptively rejects the meaning they would provide, and therefore he will not accept them. It is not simply that he is unable to believe, but that he is a luciferian figure who rejects belief as such, aware of the cost.
Love and Reason
It is important to note that the conversation between Black and White is not an exchange of rational arguments for and against the existence of God, although they always lurk on the sidelines. Instead, the conversation transcends logical propositions to rest finally on issues of love, the greater apologetic. Rational arguments may or may not lead one to believe in an uncreated creator, or in the historicity of an empty tomb, but it is love shared among members of a communion and experienced as coming from that uncreated creator, that makes this belief seem real and vital. White hates instead of loves, and does not accept the love others give him; he tries to pay Black for having saved his life, which Black did as a gratuitous act of love shown to a fellow person Jesus has commanded him to love. Having cursed his neighbours thousands upon thousands of times, he has hardened his heart like Pharaoh. White is not completely insensitive to others; he looks to see that no children witness his suicide attempt, and makes occasional attempts to avoid offending Black too deeply. He may be failing to appreciate these obvious signs of concern for others as proof of a sort of love, but in his perverse despair he could probably interpret them as a failure to hate everybody properly.
One gets the sense that White could relatively easily be convinced of God’s existence, but would reject God all the same because he rejects the idea that God is loving or that He should be loved. He rejects God partly because of the evil he sees in the world, which he believes reveals the meaninglessness of human action and the absurdity of hope. He believes that if God exists, the sound of human suffering must be the sound most pleasing to His ears, and such a god would not be worth worshipping.
White is right to say that suffering has no meaning in and of itself (although there are instances in which there can be significance in accepting suffering), and that if it turns out that the suffering is part of a providential plan, God does seem to be cruel and capricious. His failure is not one of reason, but of love and of hope. Matthew Boudway, in Commonweal, notes that
The main appeal of an afterlife to those of McCarthy’s characters who believe in it—or hope for it—is not so much the promise of personal immortality as the prospect of reunion with the dead. They are often unsure that they can communicate directly with God, but they pray to their departed loved ones, and the confidence that these prayers are heard is the foundation of whatever faith they have. To put it another way: Rather than believing in what Christians call the communion of saints because they believe in God, their belief in God, strong or weak, springs from their belief in a communion of saints.
White, however, dreads seeing those he has known who have already died. He would rather cease to exist than see his mother again. He has no community on earth, having no close friends and cursing his neighbours daily, and so he has no interest in communion with others in another life. His rejection of earthly communion leads to his rejection of heavenly communion.
Love and Freedom
Boudway further argues that the villains in McCarthy’s stories tend to find meaning by “constructing abstract theories that will account for everyone’s past, as well as everyone’s future. Not incidentally, these comprehensive theories have the effect of absolving the villains of any responsibility for their deeds.” These theories allow the villains to say that they have no choice, and that they are simply fulfilling a larger role that fate or chance has given them when they do evil. White does something similar in that he has constructed a vast theory of nothingness that absolves him of responsibility for destroying himself. He believes that nothing in the world has real meaning, that his life has no meaning, that to live is to suffer for no reason, and that to die is to be nothing and to not suffer, and so, self-destruction is the only logical action. He believes that evolution inevitably leads to organisms perceiving the meaningless absurdity of existence, and so killing himself is the end result of evolution, over which he has no real control.
McCarthy’s stories tend to contain a moment when characters choose very deliberately to do evil or cooperate with it. The Counselor does this most obviously, in that the title character who chooses to participate in the drug trade is made very aware of its dangers and is constantly asked whether he truly wants to participate, and does so anyway. In Blood Meridian, the kid has a chance to shoot and kill the diabolical Judge, but chooses not to (despite my silently screaming at him to do it). The Sunset Limited reverses this, in that White chooses not to do good. He does not make the leap into faith. Instead, he lets himself be swept along by the current of his grand theory of nothingness, which absolves him of responsibility for rejecting belief. His choice is simply consistent with his idea that evolution leads to awareness of life’s absurdity, and so he need not answer for it.
The Sunset Limited ultimately comes down to what Black and White do with their freedom in a fallen world, whose inhabitants must hope for justice in the next world, if they hope for it at all. Reason by itself falls short and love always runs the risk of being rejected. Black is right to respond to White’s despair by loving him; in reality, he can do nothing more. He cannot override White’s freedom because freedom exists for the sake of love, as Pope St. John Paul II says in Love and Responsibility. So, if White is to learn to love and receive love, it must be done freely. Black knows that he is divinely commanded to love White, and because he also knows that he has the freedom not to do so, he feels responsibility for White once he has chosen to fulfill that command. He fulfills his freedom by using it to love. White denies his freedom and abdicates responsibility for his choice, believing it to be inevitable. Because he rejects freedom, he must also reject that for which freedom exists: love.