Earlier this week, on Transcendental Tuesday, I discussed the value of that universal, the Trinity, especially as a tool of literary interpretation. As in Walter Van Tilburg's The Track Of The Cat (Western Literature Series), the trinity is often stylized with a spiritual man, an animal man, and a middle man, torn between the extremes of his spiritual/animal nature. All three are one, the human condition.
Some literary works place a duality on top of the trinity, splitting them, Zeus-like, into two trinities, one light and one dark. The three in the light are the better angels of our nature, while the three in the shadow self are the furies.
The furies appeared in Virgil’s work, as well as in Dante’s INFERNO, and they were a trinity composed of Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera (blood vengeance, righteous anger, and jealousy). The furies represent the shadow self, the repressed animal nature of man. Sopholcles used the furies in the Oedipus plays.
Joseph Conrad's furies are counterparts to Cormac McCarthy's furies. Both are trinities--dark spirit, dark middle man , dark animal man; you might see them as a stylized shadow side of superego, ego, and id. The three who descend together on the protagonists consist of, respectively:
1. Jones - the dark-suited leader who epitomizes the spiritual darkness. Like the unnamed leader of McCarthy's triune, he is identified with the devil. Jones is not really his name, but an alias. He is identified with fire, as McCarthy's counterpart is described as sitting in the fire. As it happens, Conrad wrote an alternative ending of VICTORY with Jones being consumed by fire, laughing, yelling that he was a force that could not be destroyed.
2. Ricardo - who is the counterpart to McCarthy's Harmon, the middle man pulled both by the dark spirit and by his brute animal nature, which incorporates lust. Material, cunning, greedy and jealous, never satisfied, Ricardo is again and again described by Conrad as a feline, a wild cat, and a "cat stalking." McCarthy also uses the cat to signify animal nature.
When reading Conrad's description of Ricardo's cat smile quickly appearing out of the darkness, I could not help but think of the cat smile on OUTER DARK's bloody baby.
3. Pedro - this is the counterpart to the id(iot) in the Outer Dark triune. He is basic brute animal man, he smiles but "gapes" stupidly, with "simian arms" and "a monkey mind."
Joseph Conrad's VICTORY is the parable of a man who represses his animal nature and isolates himself on an island, but after he rediscovers his need for love and intimacy, the darker forces of human nature also descend upon him. Cormac McCarthy's OUTER DARK is a parable about the evolutionary fall of consciousness into animal man.
Other versions of the furies exist throughout literature, of course. One of my favorite reads this past year was TONY AND SUSAN by Faulkner scholar Austin Wright, which I discovered through the Friday's Forgotten Books series at THE RAP SHEET (at this link). This inner book (for, Joseph Conrad-like, it is a book within a book) concerns a professor living the life of the mind who represses his knowledge of the animal nature of man, much to his chagrin. He and his family are set upon by a triune of thugs, a dark trinity of furies. The symbolic cat gets some play in this novel too.
As with all great literature, interpretations of these books vary widely and I don't pretend that my take is any better than others. Both the recalcitrance of the book and the great variety of possibile interpretations are what make such literary works fun to read.
Linked for additional reading: Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee Period by Dianne Luce, The Mythos of Cormac McCarthy by Elisabeth Andersen, No Place for Home: Spatial Constraint and Character Flight in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy (Studies in Major Literary Authors) by Jay Ellis, and Conrad's Victory: Resurrection Lost by John P. Anderson.