More on The Crossing

In editing the recent review of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing, so much was taken out. For those interested in the novel, here is another exposition of a key scene. By Shane Creevy.

Perhaps the best example of the significance accorded subjectivity in The Crossing is the gypsy's story of the airplane. The gypsies arrive when Billy's horse is teetering on the brink of death. As he weaves the tapestry of his story, the gypsy restores the horse to health. Despite the abundance of death in the rest of the trilogy, therefore, one may interpret the act of storytelling as sanctifying life. Whether one believes it or not, the gypsy's tale is invested with sacred value.

Billy wishes to know the history of the gypsies' airplane. But the gypsy disregards a singular objective narrative of events. Instead, he tells Billy that there are 'three histories'. There were two airplanes. Both were lost in the Mexican mountains by young Americans in 1915. The father of the pilot, in an effort to escape the pain brought on by the loss of his son, asked the gypsies to return the airplane to Palomas. He had been haunted by dreams of his dead son in the mountains. The gypsies constructed a plan to bring the plane to the father in Palomas through the Río Papigochic but their hopes were scuppered when treacherous weather conditions blew the wings off and the fuselage was washed away. Thus ends the story of the first airplane. It is clear then that the airplane with which the gypsies are travelling is a false representation of the original airplane.

In removing the plane the father had hoped to change his son's history and gain freedom from the nightmares. But the gypsy believes this is foolish: "The history of the son finished in the mountains, he said. And there remains the reality of him." For the gitano (gypsy), the airplane – or any artifact – has no meaning except in its past. "Yet" he asks, "wherein does that history lie?". He implies that if both airplanes are constructed with the same history – one true, one invented – then there is no difference between them. But the gypsy carefully avoids any conclusive perspective on the matter. He adds that if their plane bears only a close resemblance to the reality, then this false plane is simply "one more twist in the warp of the world for the deceiving of men". Whether the gypsies' plane is real or not is of great significance at the outset of his story but, as it progresses, one realises that the significance is less on the facts of the story – what is true or untrue – but the actual telling of the story itself.

The gypsy proceeds to posit a third history for the airplane. Billy is only interested in the true account. But the gypsy is not concerned with this. He questions if such a thing exists. He is more interested in the subjective experience of dictating the story orally. The third history is the story of the story. It is the narrative that makes the other narratives possible. The gypsy, Dianne C. Luce writes, "comments on the role of fiction in our lives and on the validity of our lives as fictions". The gitano's tales are meaningful as sagas to be enjoyed by the various people they meet along the road. The third history essentially reiterates the importance of stories and narrative. "The third history, said the gypsy, is this. It exists in the history of histories. It is ultimately the truth that cannot remain in any other place but in the telling."

The image of the original artefact of history (the airplane) floating through a river in full spate is similar to Walter Benjamin's view of history. At one point, the gypsies see a dead body making its way through the river "like a pale enormous fish". There is a distinct possibility that this is the dead body of the pilot, wrenched from the fuselage. The pilot has been thrust by the storm into the Papigochic River. The symbol of this artifact of history invokes Benjamin's Angel, who sees history as "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage". The Angel sees all the events of the past as a series of spasmodic contortions and painful contractions. The historian cannot see what the Angel sees – that is, all the events of history. Instead the historian sees a chain of random events, some more important than others, that accidentally lead to the present. The Angel does not see the chain of events leading anywhere specific. Furthermore, the Angel has its back turned away from the future. With dismay and helplessness, the Angel advances into the future backwards. As Lutz Niethammer explains, "[The Angel] is startled at what he sees, because he cannot console himself with the philosophical promises that future history will indemnify the victims of the past according to a cost-benefit model of calculation. What is swept away by the history of progress piles up at his feet like massed debris of disappointments, defeats and sacrifices".

The problem of history is outlined in The Crossing by the gypsy thus: "From a certain perspective one might even hazard to say that the great trouble with the world was that that which survived was held in hard evidence as to past events. A false authority clung to what persisted, as if those artifacts of the past which had endured had done so by some act of their own will. Yet the witness could not survive the witnessing. In the world that came to be that which prevailed could never speak for that which perished but could only parade its own arrogance. It pretended symbol and summation of the vanished world but was neither."

In its attempt to homogenise the past, the gypsy tells us, the discourse of history obtains an arrogant conceitedness. But in reality, the artifacts that record the past are merely survivors. There are many more relics which could have changed the narrative of history. This is similar to Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" when he argues that "nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. [...] Only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments". Benjamin resists the notion of a neutral history.

The forgotten artifacts of the past – that is, the relics which failed to survive – have been silenced by their ruling oppressors. What is understood as history is simply one of a number of variations. Something – or, more likely, someone – has won. As Howard Caygill writes, Benjamin's "Theses" "destroys [...] the lustre of completeness that attends the past". Benjamin argues against the historicist view of inexorable progress, preferring instead a subjective interpretation of history. He writes, "[t]here is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. [...] A historical materialist [...] regards it as his task to brush history against the grain". This task was implemented in his Arcades Project, which showed the importance of multivocality and montage in the appreciation of an object – in that case, the arcades of Paris.

This radical interpretation of an object, idea, or, for our purposes, history, resists "homogenous, empty time". A homogeneous perspective regards history as unidirectional, unilinear, singular, and a true narrative of past events. In contrast fiction is considered a made-up narrative of events. In McCarthy's work, like Benjamin, the heterogeneous voice is not restrained: fiction is not subordinate to history but rather embedded in history, as is history embedded in fiction. The second (false) airplane is invested with as much reality as the 'true' airplane. Indeed, the most important object of the gypsy's story, the body of the pilot, floats down the Papigochic River after a tumultuous flood. In this description, then, truth becomes an unstable artifact of narrative.

For McCarthy, history is not so different from fiction except that it pretends a conceited truth. In contrast, fiction's unreality contains a timeless authenticity – just as the gypsy's story may be untrue but is still worth telling for the ageless insight it bequeaths to its listeners about their humanity. Either way, The Crossing seems to tell us that storytelling is fundamental to human civilisation.