Outer Dark

and the Dismissing of Responsibility as a Purgatorial Plane

Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write to discover what I am doing” (O’Connor, 1988). This is art.

In No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. The mind that responds to the intellectual and spiritual values that lie hidden in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music, discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of being that it did not know it could ever achieve” (Merton, 2002).

And perhaps this is where Cormac McCarthy’s subconscious comes through in Outer Dark. In his own art. It is up to us readers to interpret it, and those translations will differ depending on who we are. That’s the beauty of art.

On the surface, Outer Dark is about Culla and Rinthy Holme bringing a child into the world through their incestuous relationship and the ramifications that follow. Culla’s shame that stems from this transgression follows him throughout the story. This is his purgatory.

In the beginning, his subconscious reveals itself in a dream where he is surrounded by “a delegation of human ruin who attended him [the prophet] with blind eyes upturned and puckered stumps and leprous sores” (McCarthy, 1993, p. 5). Culla asks this prophet, “Can I be cured?”

Later, I will address the prophet’s answer and what that could mean for all of us.

Filled with shame and disgust, we find Culla hiding his infant in the woods. Along his path, herons—symbolizing balance and stability—are described as “exploding slowly” from a pothole. The gentle power of wisdom and knowledge leaving the area with a methodical grace that “rose before him with immense and labored wingbeat” (p. 16). This is the absence of stability as Culla knows it.

He places the child “where the ground held moss of a fiery nitric green” (p. 16), a descriptive wink of imagery toward a highly corrosive acid—the foundation of the nameless child’s pending journey. It cannot go well from here.

And as the abandoned child wails, we find Culla “putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor” (p. 18). In shirking responsibility and avoiding the consequences of his actions, Culla becomes a caricature of an intercessor or comforter (paraclete). That is to say: an advocate for himself.

From this point on, secrets beget secrets.

Here, Culla has fully entered the outer darkness, a nod to Matthew 25:30: “And cast the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This verse calls to mind his earlier dream sequence.

Later, a tinker discovers the abandoned child. The tinker seems to be the very embodiment of noise “jangled on through an iceblue light in his amulet of sound” (p. 21). Along the journey, the child is rocked into silence, becoming “quiet again as if motion were specific against anything that ailed it” (p. 21). A type of lullaby.

It is important to note that Culla is a feminine noun, and his name is defined as a cradle. He seems to have been given a stamp from birth, a natural talent, so to speak, that might be considered a calling.

But he turns away from the power of his name and its maternal significance. In essence, we see that the tinker, an ill-prepared parent, has taken Culla’s talent and offered the child its own strange cradle in the form of the wagon, rocking it to sleep.

Culla’s downward spiral continues in the futility of mindless work expressed as he sits on a stump and carves “at it intently with his knife” (p. 26). Then he sits on a stone, and “with a dead stick drew outlandish symbols in the dust” (p. 27). This scene calls to mind a point when the Christ drew something in the dirt with his finger, surrounded by men who were ready to stone a woman caught up in adultery. Here, we find Culla sitting on a stone, the very thing that the law uses as judgement. Yet we never know what words or pictures either one of them draws. 

Upon meeting a squire, every question posed by Culla is asked in a defeated manner, as if expecting the worst, as if not to give up his hopes. In fact, he repeats the phrase “I reckon” again and again.

The squire tells him, “It’s a sacred thing, family. A sacred obligation.” And then he goes on to say, “But shiftlessness is a sin, I would judge” (p. 47). The squire turns from an employer to a judge. And he takes pride in his hard work that he delegates to others.

In Dante’s Purgatio, the first terrace is Pride. Further on in Outer Dark, we see other vices like wrath and sloth.

Culla turns to thievery. During this act, he is described as “a small figure scuttling from shadow to shadow with laborious ill-grace, carrying in one hand the squire’s boots and disappearing into the barn” Culla turns to thievery. During this act, he is described as “a small figure scuttling from shadow to shadow with laborious ill-grace, carrying in one hand the squire’s boots and disappearing into the barn” (p. 48). His actions seem to be less weighty, less real the further he descends.(p. 48). His actions seem to be less weighty, less real the further he descends.

As Culla continues his journey through this self-inflicted purgatory, Rinthy appears to come more alive. She danced “slowly in the center of the room like a doll unwinding” (p. 53). Once dressed and outside, she is seen “humming softly to herself…, turning her face up to the sky and bestowing upon it a smile all bland and burdenless as a child’s” (p. 53).

After speaking to a storekeeper, Rinthy is not stuck in a “shadow-to-shadow world” like Culla. Instead, she is “trapped in fans of dusty light” (p. 57). Along her path, there is a “thin yellow flame that kept her from the night” (p. 62), her “face seized in the light she bore” (p. 62).

Her movements are intentional as she walks “processional, a lone acolyte,” traveling sure-footed, as if assisting a member of the clergy in a liturgical service. In fact, she bathes herself at a well, the soap burning her eyes in a “caustic sting” (p. 63), a cauterizing effect of her sight, of the way she sees things in the world, perhaps a transcendental cleansing.

Directly after this bath, the lone whippoorwill is heard no more. This is important since the bird symbolizes impending death or doom or a bad omen, in general. Even when a man asks her, “You ain’t afeared of the dark are ye?”, she moves past him with her “air of staid and canonical propriety” (p. 64). Propriety was a word Jane Austen finds endearing.

“Manners,” Austen once said, “is what holds a society together. At bottom, propriety is concern for other people. When that goes out the window, the gates of hell are shortly opened, and ignorance is King.”

Rinthy asks people if they have seen “that tinker,” saying that she is “a-huntin this here tinker” (p. 73). Determined and committed, she asks directly.

It is interesting to note that Culla’s and Rinthy’s parents are never mentioned in the picture.

Based on Culla’s actions, it would be fair to postulate on the high likelihood of him having a father wound. This kind of wound usually occurs early on in one’s life, meaning that a father would have been emotionally and/or physically unavailable or absent to his child.

The father can also be very critical and negative toward his child. The effects show even in adulthood as low self-esteem and confidence, anxiety, depression, anger and rage, self-preservation in the form of being closed off to one’s romantic partner, becoming a people pleaser, and finally, if not addressed, repeating the pattern of the unavailable father (for further reading: Healing for the Father Wound by H. Norman Wright).

When Rinthy asks for Culla’s attention, calling him out his name three times, he turns to her and says, “What, damn it” (p. 31). Could it be that he has heard this phrase repeated to him as a child growing up? That when he would ask a question, the answer would be dismissive, absent? Or could it be that he does not want to hear his own name?

Watch Culla’s behaviors:

While at the minktrapper’s house, he is “stretching with his hands deep in his pockets, rocking a little on his heels” (p. 125). As if looking to reduce his stress and anxiety, he is seen “with his pockets full of old shelled fieldcorn he had gathered and which he chewed” (p. 132).

Coming to a branch of water, he plunges his hands into the shallow stream, “framing his own listing image” (p. 134). It’s as if he wants to hold or comfort himself or come to some conclusion in getting a grip on things.

This shows how disconnected he is with his own body.

Recall that earlier, he placed his hands “palmupward on his thighs and he sat watching them as if they were somehow unaccountable” (p. 30).

How can he bring himself to touching the very body that caused his sister such distress, that brought on so much shame to himself? Who does he have to turn to? Who could be that safe, nonjudgmental place for him?

Eventually encountering a whiskey-drunk beekeeper, Culla witnesses a wagon filled with unearthed coffins, and as the wagon passes, Culla muses that “someone should have cared more than to leave an old man half naked in his burial box” (p. 88). Here, Culla is able to see things for the way they are, as long as it does not involve his own actions. This is the first mock miracle he encounters. The dead unburied, but not raised to life.

Later, we find Rinthy at dawn: “with the wind among her rags she looked like something replevied by grim miracle from the ground.” While Culla has witnessed the literal raising of the dead in the coffin-riddled wagon, Rinthy seems to be the very embodiment of death resurrected, a truer miracle.

Culla is later seen isolating himself, chewing on corn. Upon seeing this, a stranger approaches him and asks if he has cholera, and when Culla says, “It weren’t nothin but a mouthful of corn” (p. 138), the man doubts his honest answer. The man replies, “I lost a whole family to it now don’t lie to me like I ain’t never seen it” (p. 138).

Think of it: in the moment when Culla is glaringly honest about something that can be proven immediately in the “damp explosion of chewed corn in the dust,” his word is totally doubted.

What is a man to do? Is this purgatory? Or is it a mirror of those around him and who he could turn into? Remember, the definition of purgatory is “having the quality of cleansing or purifying.”

This is a process.

Later in his journey, Culla finally meets the three strangers who have been on a killing spree in the background of the story.

Notice that one of the three strangers is named Harmon. One letter away from harmony. Might this mean that the one thing standing in Culla’s way is the question of why? Why did he have this relationship with his sister? We would need to look at his upbringing, his trauma, his wounds that happened long before this story was told. We would have to speculate the extent of his father wound.

When the bearded man of the three speaks Holme’s name, the word “seemed to feel bad in his mouth” (p. 174). As if the phonetic sounding out of the word home were against the man’s beliefs, outside of the jurisdiction in which he operated.

In fact, this man takes pride in not giving one of the other two men—his followers—a name. The word Harmon is an actual place, mentioned once in the Book of Amos, where a people were to be exiled. Everything about these three men detests hearth and home.

I propose that Outer Dark is prophetic. Do we not get locked into a mind-numbing wandering on the screens of our phones, our televisions, our tablets, our computers?

It is true enough that we create our own little pockets of purgatories in the here and now, that our purgatories can be self-inflicted or not.

First, we must tackle the issue of responsibility.

Diffusion of responsibility most often occurs under conditions of anonymity. From this, stems deindividuation, which is a post-modern phenomenon that has matured into a commonplace mode of being. It is essentially “a state in which one’s identity is hidden.” Online trolls are a result of this.

But deindividuation has always been here, hasn’t it? In the Book of Genesis, Isaac was fooled when his son, Jacob, deceived him, taking the birthright that belonged to Jacob’s brother, Esau. In this story, Jacob covers his arms in lambskin so that his blind father would think, upon touching him, that Jacob is his more hairy-armed brother, Esau.

Deception.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that deindividuation could lead to sociopathic tendencies. In her book, Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas believes “that a lot of the sociopath’s traits such as charm, manipulation, lying, promiscuity, chameleonism, mask wearing, and lack of empathy are largely attributable to a very weak sense of self” (Thomas, 2014).

When Culla is asked if he is looking for work, he says, “I could use one” (p. 84). Here, it is a subtle request for permission. It seems that Culla knows he has an obligation to work, but he is never direct.

There is a great possibility that he thinks his words do not matter. That regardless of what he says, the person on the other end of that conversation holds unnamed power of his personhood, over his decisions. Therefore, he acts indifferent.

Flannery O’Connor once said, “The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode.” So, let’s put this to the test about the human condition.

With Culla in mind, we can assess some common symptoms of the father wound: the lack of desire to thrive, chronic depression and anxiety (Culla’s physical actions as stated before), excessive laziness and procrastination (Culla seeking a machine saw to replace an ax for a job he was hired out for), ongoing struggles with addictions, inability to trust other men, living in a highly isolated environment, and a pervasive sense of shame about one’s existence.

What could we learn from Culla’s actions? How can we apply that to ourselves?

It wouldn’t be negligible to start with engaging in some form of therapy in a clinical setting. In the right therapeutic environment, one needs to allow the inner child to finally feel. This may include re-parenting oneself and investing in friendships with other men who have been through something similar. The elements one should be looking for in a such a community are commitment, encouragement/accountability, confidentiality, courage, and truth.

CS Lewis once said, “Friendship…is born at the moment when one man says to another What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…” (Lewis, 2017).

We are all affected by the past. None of us are immune. And there is strength in community.

Isolation, the opposite of community, can make one’s mind spiral out of control, neural pathways deep-grooved and running on the same hamster wheel. The same shame which turns to guilt (there is a difference between the two), which turns to secrecy, isolation, separation, until finally repeating negative behaviors and patterns.

Humans are meant for community. If this is doubted, ask any inmate who has been in solitary confinement for quite some time.

A study says that “exposure to psychosocial stressors, such as social conflict or being judged by others, leads to increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system.” This, in turn, results “in increased fear inducing…higher cortisol levels, as well as impaired cognitive abilities.”

Although Culla was pressing on his reflection in the stream, what could be a better alternative? It might’ve been better for him to practice havening, a technique of massaging your temples and face in a hunched over position. This psychosensory technique raises feel-good chemicals in the brain. Mindful walking, grounding, yoga, and deep breathing techniques are also good ideas (Koniver, 2023).

Rather than running full-tilt through our own quagmires of shame into self-destruction, it would be more ideal to lift up our fellow man or woman or brother or sister with words of encouragement, seeking acts of selfless service.

All the above examples are facets of responsibility. Responsibility is not about perfect. It’s about living in the present. Responsibility does not mean taking on more projects or anything more than one can handle. Responsibility does not mean always getting it right. Responsibility is not meant to remind one of his or her shortcomings.

Responsibility is a gift.

And yet, responsibility is easier said than done.

Marcus Aurelius once said, “Consider yourself dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; and live, according to nature, the remainder that is allowed you.”

Lewis once said, “I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am ‘coming round,’ a voice will say, ‘Rinse your mouth out with this.’ This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be fierier and more astringent than my present sensibility could endure” (Lewis, 2017).

The hero’s journey always goes through some kind of purgatorial plane.

A hero is defined as a person who is admired for courage.

And what is courage? The ability to do something that frightens one. Strength in the face of pain or grief.

Which leads us back to Culla’s dream sequence in the beginning where he asks the prophet if he can be cured. Keep in mind that, by definition, cure means to relieve symptoms of a disease or condition.

At the end, Culla circles back to a blind man and sits there without movement or sound. The blind man “turned his head and smiled upon him his blind smile” (p. 242). He does not see Culla’s shame, only recognizes him as a fellow human being.

In his nonfiction piece, McCarthy writes, “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us…The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general, but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad it doesn’t include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic…The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesn’t say that you can’t ask for help” (McCarthy, 2017).

Here, the spade turns, and we must consider the transcendental legitimacy of fiction.

Where do we come into play?

May we look on one another as the blind man looked upon Culla at the end of the story. May we be as determined as Rinthy.

If, like Rinthy, we are asked either literally or metaphorically, “Are you afeared of the dark?”, what might we say in response?

Returning to Culla’s dream at the beginning of the novel. The prophet looks down at him and, answering, says, “Yes, I think perhaps you will be cured.”

Bibliography

Koniver, Laura. “Practical Applications of Grounding to Support Health.” Biomedical Journal, Vol 46, Issue 1, 2023, pages 41-47. https://www.sciencedirect.com/…

Lewis, C.S. (reissue edition, 2017). Letters to Malcom, Chiefly on Prayer. HarperOne.

Lewis, C.S. (reissue edition, 2017). The Four Loves. HarperOne.

McCarthy, Cormac. (reissue edition, 1993). Outer Dark. Vintage. 

Merton, Thomas. (reissue edition, 2002). No Man Is an Island. HarperOne.

O’Connor, Flannery. (1988). The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. FSG.

Thomas, M.E. (2014). Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Hiding in Plain Sight. Crown. 

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Brodie Lowe is the recipient of the Elizabeth Boatwright Coker Fellowship in Fiction and the Author Fellowship of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is also a two-time finalist of the Ron Rash Award in Fiction. His stories have appeared in The Broad River Review, Mystery Tribune, Eastern Iowa Review, and elsewhere. He has written The Silver Cord (Southern Gothic thriller), Wilder Days (short story collection), and Reaper of Oz (prequel to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). He is currently writing Beast in the Blood, a direct sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, and a screenplay based on William Gay’s Twilightwww.brodielowe.com.