Discourse Theory in The Crossing
In The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy tells the story of Billy Parham, a teenager who sets out across the countryside and into Mexico, first to return a wild wolf to her native mountains, second to retrieve the stolen horses of his slain family. In his journeys, Parham meets a number of people who speak at length to him, either to give advice or to tell a story, or both at the same time. Four episodes in particular become important to the grand scheme of the narrative in that they touch on the topic underlying the entire novel--the nature of discourse in relation to the nature of the world. Both implicitly and explicitly, McCarthy addresses issues of discourse. The stories themselves and the pattern formed by grouping the stories within a novel touch on the most basic elements of discourse: the story, the teller, and the listener, as well as the ways in which all three relate to one another. The storytellers include comments on discourse in their tales. Taken as a whole, the four smaller stories create a larger structure, not just a novel, but a picture of the concerns tackled by modern discourse theorists.
James Moffett, in his Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1983), speaks at length about the nature of abstraction as it relates to discourse. Several of Moffett's ideas can be readily applied to The Crossing in an effort to more fully grasp McCarthy's structure and his character's speeches. In effect, McCarthy reidentifies what Moffett defines as "the superstructure of discourse" (18). This trinity of subject, speaker, and listener acts as the most basic unit in discourse. From the triangle formed by the three, communication begins.
Building on the mental growth theories of Piaget, which hold that mental growth essentially consists of a self's movement outward from egocentrism, Moffett identifies a maturation pattern in discourse ability corresponding to the individual's capacity for and use of abstraction. As the self matures, it begins to encompass more of the external world. The more the self encompasses, the more it analyzes and synthesizes that world. The result is a larger self, a self more able and apt to speak at higher levels of abstraction. The less egocentric the speech, the more abstract. In this sense, abstraction refers primarily to the distance between speaker and subject: the closer a speaker is to his subject, the less abstract the resulting discourse, according to Moffett (22).
Abstractions can be measured by examining the location in space and time of the speaker's subject (Moffett 19). For example, a boy speaking to a friend about himself is less abstract than a boy speaking to a friend about another boy he once knew. In the first case, the speaker (the boy) is close in time and space to his subject (himself). In the second case, the speaker (the boy) is more distanced from his subject (another boy he once knew) because the subject falls outside of his physical being and in a different time (the past).
The various levels of abstraction form a system of concentric rings. The innermost ring contains the lowest level of abstraction, the most egocentric speech. The rings continue indefinitely outward from the central ring, each successive ring containing increasingly abstracted and decreasingly egocentric speech. Through the five narratives in The Crossing (this count includes the larger narrative of the novel itself) McCarthy leads both Billy Parham and the reader through the system of these rings in an attempt to create an ideal reader/listener.
The first speaker Billy Parham meets, the old wolf-trapper, should be placed within the innermost abstraction ring. His speech does not follow any sort of concrete narrative so much as it follows an esoteric line of reasoning related to the man's self-made philosophy of the world. The reader never truly glimpses this philosophy, only hears hints of it. The subject leaps from a history unknown and untold to matrices (44-45). His short speech about hunters and wolves and men who "drink the blood of God" (45) follows an order known only to himself with little or no outside referents available either to Parham or the reader. He speaks from the first-person point of view about first-person material -- wolf-trapping. The speaker and subject are hardly separated by time and space, if at all.
The old man, like his speech, stands alone in the world, another clue to his egocentrism. His caretaker states that "he thinks he knows better than the priest. He thinks he knows better than God" (48). In fact, the man shares a common ground with few in the world. His family is gone. The caretaker explains to Parham the pair's relationship, proclaiming, "He is nothing to me" (48). The old man exists alone in the world, necessarily egocentric.
McCarthy uses the egocentrism of the man as a starting point for the discourse journey of the novel. The text then follows both Billy Parham and his travels to Mexico and back (and back again), also requiring the reader's trip through the levels of abstraction. From the centralized beginning, all parties are free to make moves outward. In the old man's ramblings, McCarthy also imbeds the first glimpse of the primary underlying topic of the novel -- the discourse triangle. The old man states,
Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals that God has made go to and fro yet this world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them. (46)
The "they" of the text represents the storytellers; the "acts and ceremonies," "acts of their own hands," and "that which they name and call out to one another" represent the stories. Both of these elements exist within the "world." The piece missing from the structure is the listener/reader. For this reason, "the world between is invisible to them." McCarthy is using The Crossing to create an ideal reader, the very reader in the process of reading.
After the introduction with the wolf-trapper, McCarthy is able to address more concretely the topic of discourse. He moves Parham and the reader to a more abstract ring with the priest's speech. One step further than the wolf-trapper, the priest's story still retains some first-person qualities but states the bulk of its material in the third person. The majority of the priest's narrative concerns itself with another man, a man initially far removed from the speaker. The tale, though, finds its significance only in its relation to the speaker. Eventually the tale of the old man becomes a part of the life/tale of the priest. Thus, the entire story becomes a first-person story as all the material relates somehow back to the speaker.
The point of view has also shifted. In spite of the fact that the tale is, indeed, ultimately first-person in nature, the priest chooses to tell the story largely in third person, referring to himself not as "I," but as "the priest." The reader, in fact, never receives absolute confirmation that the priest and the storyteller are one and the same. Instead, deduction becomes necessary at the point at which the teller states, "You will have guessed by now of course who was the priest" (157). As the teller of the story is the only referent other than Parham, who is obviously not the priest, a logical leap of faith is required and made. The "he," then, refers to the priest/teller himself. The shift in person from first to third distances the teller from the subject.
As explained by Moffett, use of third person necessarily relegates the subject to a more abstract state. "I" and "you" exist as absolutes; "he," "she," "it," and "they" exist only as abstractions, some hypothetical beings outside of the immediate situation by means of time, space, or both (11). By shifting from saying "I am here because of a certain man" (142) to saying "The more he considered them . . . " (157), the priest moves himself outside himself and the entire story to a further abstraction.
The story of the blind man moves even further out on the rings of abstraction. This story has no first-person relation to the teller. The blind man's wife relates the entire tale. McCarthy states that "the woman began to tell of their life" (275), but, in fact, she, herself, plays no part in the tale. The story is purely and surely the blind man's. In this case, the subject and teller are beyond one another's direct influence. The relationship is strictly a marital one, the woman having no claim to the subject other than that it is her husband of whom she speaks. The narrative has moved past the egocentric, first person about the first person of the wolf-trapper and the third person about the first person of the priest. The blind man's story is told by a third person of a short remove from the third-person point of view.
The gypsy's story of the two airplanes also comes from the third-person point of view but becomes more abstract because of the relative distance of the speaker. In the telling of the blind man's story, the teller knows the subject intimately: she is his wife, and she lives with him. The physical distance is short. The gypsy, however, has no relation to his subject. In this case subject and teller are distanced by both time and space (and truth). The story of the airplanes, then, is from third person by a distant third person. The subject has no firm connection to the teller.
The novel itself forms the outermost position of abstraction. The whole text encompasses all the stories, plus the threading narrative of Billy Parham. The teller, McCarthy, and all the stories are distanced by all possible factors: distance, time, and reality. The abstraction of the novel rests also on the nature of the larger ideas. An idea, according to Moffett, becomes more abstract as the ideas upon which it is built become more abstract (22). As McCarthy builds the text on an increasing hierarchy of abstraction, the text itself becomes the highest abstraction. The system of abstraction within the novel, then, works both laterally and vertically. As the individual stories move outward in concentric rings from a least abstract center (wolf-trapper) to a most abstract outer ring (gypsy), the text moves upward on the layers, reaching a higher plateau of abstraction with each successive lateral move of the rings. The result is a complex hierarchical system of story and teller, built upon increasing distances between the two.
Increasing distance between teller and subject does nothing to eliminate the inherent need of the one for the other, however. McCarthy discusses this symbiotic relationship at length within the context of the teller and story itself. Moffett states that within the context of the narrative we cannot distinguish the teller of the story from the story itself (122), or as Yeats puts it, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Similarly, McCarthy states in the priest's discussion that "the tale has no abode or place of being except in the telling only and there it lives and makes its home" (143). The teller and tale are necessarily inseparable. No tale is told without a teller. If the teller has no tale, he cannot tell.
These two elements, though, cannot exist alone. The symbiotic relationship extends beyond the teller and the tale to encompass the listener/reader, as well. A telling presupposes a listening. Nothing is told if no one hears. Again the theories provide some insight into the priest's segment. Apparently, the priest "talk[s] to himself in the absence of any godsent ear from the outer world" (143). As a teller, his tale goes on in the absence of any listener, but for nought. It is not heard. A tree indeed makes a sound if it falls in the forest when no one is around, but for what end? A sound is only truly a sound in its being heard. A story told without an audience may as well be a lonely tree in a very quiet forest.
In the context of The Crossing, two listeners are always present: Billy Parham and the reader. As Billy Parham completes the smaller discourse triangles within the book, the reader completes the larger triangle of McCarthy's telling. This completion, then, sustains or perhaps even creates the world. The blind man tells Parham that what is material and what is real are not the same, distinguishing the two by saying, "Because what can be touched falls into dust there can be no mistaking these things for the real" (294). The priest states, "Things separate from their stories have no meaning" (142). Even the gypsy, a character not held to the truth, agrees that an artifact has "no meaning except in its history" (405). Reality, then, is dependent upon the telling of the story, not the physical presence or action of the material world. Both Moffett and McCarthy hold that the world does not exist outside of its telling. The only way we can relate to or understand the world is through language. Reality is simply what we can put a name to. Moffett states that "the great on-going panorama of life does not speak at all--not until some human tongue begins to wag" (122). The priest gives voice to McCarthy as he explains, "For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale" (143) and "The events of the world can have no separate life from the world" (148). The world, then, only appears to be animal, vegetable, and mineral. Reality, though, is only what the teller makes it. And it is the telling, the combination of the teller, the tale, and the listener that truly form reality in any knowable sense.
Stories are people's realities; the world, simply the construct of any story. Any story, though, is all stories, according to McCarthy. Again giving voice to discourse theory, the priest declares, "Each tale [is] the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the self same tale and contain as well all else within them" (143). All the separate stories within The Crossing become part of the larger narrative (and the larger narrative becomes part of the smaller stories). At the point at which Billy Parham comes in contact with the tellers, he becomes a part of their stories and vice versa. No tale can exist in the world without being connected to another tale.
This never-ending connectedness depends upon the triangle for its existence. The world surrounding each individual triangle extends laterally in all directions in an ever-expanding circle and is made known only through the triangle. In effect, the story is the world. To once again quote the priest,
The narrative itself in fact has no category but is rather the category of all categories for there is nothing which falls outside its purview. All is telling. Do not doubt it. (155)
Regardless of the teller, the subject, or the listener, the triangle (the telling) is part of a larger interconnected story (the world). The size of the triangle as determined by the relative distance among the triangle's various components neither adds to nor detracts from that triangle's connectedness with all other triangles. As more triangles are added to the story, the level of abstraction increases, stretching the triangle to encompass more of the world/story (Moffett 25).
The question becomes, then, what is McCarthy doing with all of these triangles and abstractions and pieces of discourse theory? Simply put, he is teaching the listener to listen, the reader to read. Billy Parham, as the listener to the tales, becomes a universal listener. It is his story that connects all the other stories, making them one. He unifies the book and, in so doing, unifies the world/story of the book.
The listener plays the most important role in the unity of the triangle. The unity of the stories and thus the world depends on the proper listening of the told-to: "Rightly heard all tales are one" (143). The unification of stories, and so the unification of the world, rests in the hands, or rather the ears, of the listener. He must listen correctly and willingly in order for the tales to intertwine.
The listener/reader must be active. Parham seeks out the advice from the wolf-trapper, saying to the man, "I come to ask you about trappin wolves" (42). Parham offers himself as a listener and, in spite of the man's egocentric speech, listens politely, asking questions as the conversation progresses. He does the same as the priest begins his tale, eventually asking the key question for any listener: "What is the story?" (143). At this point he fulfills the triangle, creating a reality.
The sole purpose of the listener/reader in regard to the triangle is simply to listen/read. The blind man points out to Parham in the course of his wife's telling that the pair has
no desire to entertain him nor yet even to instruct him. He said that it was their whole bent only to tell what was true and that otherwise they had no purpose at all. (284)
The teller's reason for being is simply to tell the truth; the listener's reason is to hear it.
Storytellers, though, can fail to uphold their corner of the triangle, disregarding the truth and telling tales of their own design. The gypsy does just this. Parham acts as the good listener when he says that he "wished to hear the true history" (404). He receives a fabricated history, though, as he finds out from a later traveller. The reality created by the triangle of Parham-gypsy-airplanes' story is a false reality, not contingent on the actual facts (which are themselves part of a story somewhere, and thus a triangle connected to this now false story). Thus, the fabric of reality becomes dependent on informed listener/readers. If Parham had known that the "ceiling on that airplane aint but six thousand feet" (418) (the fact), he would have averted the false triangle created by the gypsy. Since reality exists only as the triangle exists, the listener/ reader must be active and informed, actively creating true realities and in so doing creating the unity of the world.
Even as the readers read the novel itself, they become a part of its reality. That reality and so also the readers, then, become part of the world while at the same time making it. The framework of The Crossing is ideally suited to molding an ideal reader. By structuring the text to become a piece of metafiction, McCarthy can include the reader into a multitude of realities, all interconnected, on a multitude of levels, from minimally abstract to highly complex. McCarthy teaches the reader how to read so that reality can and will continue.