16 June 2023

Sorrowing and delighting the world

‘The Road’ is not Cormac McCarthy’s best known novel even though it was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Although not talked of much initially, it is his ‘Blood Meridian’ that has come to be recognized as his magnum opus and indeed as one of the greatest ‘American’ novels of all time (that’s US American of course).

Cormac McCarthy passed away a few days ago. He was almost 90 years old. I was not familiar with his work. Yesterday someone posted a quote from ‘The Road,’ with an ‘RIP’ at the end of it.  

‘Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.’  That’s the quote. So I searched.

‘The Road,’ is said to detail a journey of a father and his son over several months ‘across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed industrial civilisation and almost all life. I don’t know the context in which the above words were spoken or written down as a comment of the author, but they certainly resonate with this blurb.

I also came across an appreciation written by A.O. Scott and published in the New York Times. Scott’s first line is telling: 'A page of Cormac McCarthy might sometimes be taken for poetry or scripture: the lean lines; the sparse punctuation; the jagged right-hand margin.’

True. I read the quote again and I will write it down here so you and I can reflect on it further: ‘Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.’

That’s not ‘a page of Cormac McCarthy.’ It’s just a single line. Prose? Well, it was taken from a novel, so ‘yes’ would be the answer. Poetry? Of course. Scripture? Why not!

We can take that line out of the book, out of dystopian landscapes, out of the Americas, out of time and it still holds. McCarthy makes us ask a timeless question: are landscapes sorrowful or is it our eyes, borrowed or otherwise, that sorrow them or make them seem sorrowful? It is a question about the observer and the observed. Physics has explored this and concluded that the observer will leave a trace on the observed.

Poets or rather critics have considered such things and come up with the term ‘pathetic fallacy.’ The poet (or writer or any other kind of artist) can attribute human feelings and responses to inanimate things or any kind of creature, wild and wonderful, big and small.

And so, that which one finds lovely would be shrouded in pain in the eyes of another. We can sorrow landscapes, we can make them joyful, despondent, reflective, meditative, angry or apathetic. We give them an additional dimension of life. We can also rob them of crucial elements of being. It’s a useful tool for a writer. Literature and art are made of such things. A communications device, then.

McCarthy has offered a layer of time or indeed layered it all with time. He has framed it with sin or debt. He’s written about a yesterday, a tomorrow and yet he’s also positioning the reader in this very moment of reading and being.

Whose time have we borrowed, we must now ask. Who has loaned us a world? And what are those loaned worlds made of? What do we do with it? Are we planning to scar or caress? Would be heal if we caressed or would be scarring in ways unanticipated? And those other eyes that might stray towards the outcomes we generate, would they be sorrowful on account of what they find or were they sad anyway and regardless of the splendour and magic before them would they nevertheless clutter it all with sorrow?

Did someone ‘sorrow a world and an era,’ that made borrowing inevitable? Did we then decide to ignore histories and treat sorrow and sorrowing as the only things that count?

Prose, poetry and scripture; just words, just preferences, and yet that singular ability to say something and have it labeled in a multiplicity of ways speaks of exceptional writing skills. The truth is that the lines of life are for the most part lean. Punctuation is not the preserve of those who write simply by living. The margins on either side are jagged.

The world sorrows us and we sorrow the world. And yet, despite all this, the world delights and is delighted by those who walk this earth. People like Cormac McCarthy.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

The greatest fallacy 

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Beyond praise and blame

Letters that cut and heal the heart

Vanished and vanishing trails


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart