The Weblog

Home for the heteronomous

Code, Language and Corruption

Since Josh brought it up in comments and Pat gestured at it in his “my computer is in too weak a state to write a post but is dandy for purposes of writing a New-Yorker-length comment” post, let’s have a post specifically about C‘s use of codes in the first week’s reading. (I’m sure none of us are so gauche as to require them, but I’ll suggest SPOILER ALERTS for any discussion ranging into the rest of the book.)

I don’t have anything quite so developed as an argument, but I’ll throw out some of the elements I’m tracking. First, a list of codes and cants:

  • Sign language, which Carrefax deprecates in favor of speech (“Are you sure they’re not signing?… You have to make them speak. All the time!” (7)
  • Telegraphy
  • Ciphers in the Times’s personal notices
  • The hand-motions that Widsun and Sophie exchange during the pageant
  • Chemistry
  • Sophie’s wall

The first of these provides a backdrop for the story, but it’s not particularly germane. The second belongs primarily to Carrefax and Serge. The last four are implicated in Sophie’s fate.

Each of these codes is susceptible to corruption, accident, mis- or malignant use; none appears as simply a neutral field for the free play of meaning.  There’s the spycraft that Widsun appears to be recruiting/seducing Sophie into, and the explosion yielded by Sophie and Serge’s experiment. You could also add Serge’s vibrant dyslexia to the pile, a corruption of the written word as its learned: “He keeps switching letters round… He see letters streaming through the air, whole blocks of them, borne on currents occupying a zone beneath the threshold of the comprehensible…” (38). (Mrs. K-sky reports experiencing a similar effect.) Does it seem that language and code as a field for power games and dreadful mistakes will be a running theme?

Some stray thoughts:

“—in the beginning, ladies and gentlemen, was the Word” (14). Carrefax goes onto pronounce that “speech is divine.” I’m not sure what role exactly Carrefax’s exalted logocentrism will play in the development of the above, but McCarty sure unfurls it boldly, and it seems as if he’s inviting us to get the reference and extrapolate from there. Maybe some of you professionals can better pick up what he’s putting down, here.

Josh, you mentioned Proust’s extended visual metaphors in McCarty’s approach to language — anything further to expand on that here? What about the rest of yinz? Pat, did I cover a tenth of what you were going to put in your Unwritten Blog Post?

July 5, 2015 - Posted by | C | ,


  1. Also, since I sometimes feel like I’m stronger at reading the subtext than the text: is it unambiguous that Serge finds Widsun fucking Sophie in the tent, and that her madness and death are connected to the trauma of an abusive relationship? Do we think that there’s a chance Sophie is working on spycraft and is assassinated?

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 5, 2015

  2. I would also add maps and geometry as major categories of symbols. There are the building-block symbols Serge is playing with on p.25. Also the records of students they listen to in the attic (52), the Realtor’s Game (as I mentioned, on 50-51), the codes used to run the silk looms and the ciphers on the silk tapestries (39-40). When Sophie makes the dead cat’s leg move, Serge thinks of “semaphore machines” and wonders if the “morbid and hypnotic sequences being executed by the dead cat’s limb contain some kind of information–‘contain’ in the sense of enclosing, locking in, repeating in a code for which no key’s available, at least not to him…”

    As I said in my initial comment, I think it’s unmistakable that McCarthy is filling the world with codes that bleed into each other and into “reality,” and that those codes are often bound up with or straddling the line between life and nonlife.

    I think it’s unambiguous that they are having sex in the tent, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be unambiguously traumatic. Without being too spoilery, I definitely don’t think her madness and death are supposed to be unambiguous.

    Here’s an example of the type of metaphor in Proust I was thinking of:

    “I would amuse myself by watching the glass jars which the boys used to lower into the Vivonne, to catch minnows, and which filled by the current of the stream, in which they themselves also were enclosed, at once ‘containers’ whose transparent sides were like solidified water and ‘contents’ plunged into a still larger container of liquid, flowing crystal, suggested an image of coolness more delicious and more provoking than the same water in the same jars would have done, standing upon a table for dinner, by showing it as perpetually in flight between the impalpable water, in which my hands could not arrest it, and the insoluble glass, in which my palate could not enjoy it. I decided that I would come there again with a line and catch fish; I begged for and obtained a morsel of bread from our luncheon basket; and threw into the Vivonne pellets which had the power, it seemed, to bring about a chemical precipitation for the water at once grew solid round about them in oval clusters of emaciated tadpoles, which until then it had no doubt, been holding in solution, invisible but ready and alert to enter the stage of crystallization.”

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 6, 2015

  3. Go Proust!

    I thought it was possible that Widsun was behind the sheet having sex with Mrs. Carrefax. Sophie starts to say, and interrupts herself, that Serge is not actually Mr. Carrefax’s son, so it’s indicated that Mrs. C. has had lovers before; and I think that Sophie deliberately sends the deaf children to crown Widsun and Mrs.C. as King and Queen during the pageant. But sure, it certainly could have been Sophie with Widsun behind the sheet. However, when she comes back from Oxford she starts saying, and then interrupts herself again, that she’s been sleeping with one of her professors –I thought that Widsun was just a tutor, like Mr. Clair, and not an Oxford don.

    I think that McCarthy’s decision to kill Sophie off so quickly is mildly monstrous and very counter-intuitive –but then, I read a lot of novels by women who would never have dealt with her that way. I didn’t see a breath of self-destructiveness in her in the chapters before her voyage out to Oxford –even during the chemistry explosion she is marked with recklessness, not self-doubt–. So I do hope there’s more to be learned about her rapid undoing.

    After nattering on about the Revision of Novels of Edwardian England in the first chapters of this novel I am most abashed that I have never read The Magic Mountain by Mann, which is clearly part of the reason for having an entire chapter devoted to a Mittel-European Sanatorium, and so I can’t see how McCarthy is revising that. Without having read this inter text, all I could think of was The Grand Budapest Hotel, the main action of which is in the early ’30s, not 1914. Did you guys think it was cheap to have Serge lose all his symptoms all at one when he lost his virginity?

    Comment by poc2666 | July 7, 2015

  4. I didn’t mind the decision to kill Sophie off mainly because it allowed him to do the funeral pageant, which I thought was great, and also because I didn’t think Sophie was a terribly interesting character before that.

    I didn’t actually read it that he was cured, I read it that he went completely blind and then thought it was interesting that he’s simply healed, no further explanation necessary, at the start of the next section. Looking at it a second time I see that you’re right. Of course, there isn’t much explanation for why he’s sick in the first place. Maybe I just thought that the whole sanatorium chapter simply didn’t work and I was happy enough to move on from it. But I also haven’t read The Magic Mountain, so maybe I too would feel differently if I had.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 8, 2015

  5. Should we pause to read The Magic Mountain?

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 9, 2015

  6. A Comp Lit student here three years ago asked me to do an independent study with him mostly about Kafka –a visiting professor at the time was a Kafka specialist, I don’t know why he didn’t ask her– and wanted to read Magic Mountain along with a bunch of other books. I read 75 pages into MM before I told him that would be a dead end for what he wanted to do, and we should read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education instead. What I meant by “a dead end” was that it was as slow as molasses. I’ve been told that once everyone gets into the sanatorium and starts talking, then it is rip-roaring fun. They said something similar about Doktor Faustus too, which I slogged through in 1981 and will not revisit. Love Mann’s novellas, though–

    Comment by poc2666 | July 10, 2015

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: