Monday, January 17, 2011

"117" in No Country For Old Men and The Road, Part 2 of 2

This "117" post is getting so long that I am dividing it into two parts! In the first part, "Anton" is the key to "117" in No Country For Old Men, and the non-"117" "Anton" has resonance too in The Road. The "117" in The Road could be read merely as a nod to himself, to the "117" in No Country For Old Men. But I also think "117" has its own meaning in The Road independent of No Country For Old Men, and it is once again a date rather than a Biblical reference. But first I'd have to talk a little about Hamlet's Mill, which I thank Candy Minx for recommending to me some years ago.

Hamlet's Mill is grand and looping and suggestive ... the reading experience was like a rollercoaster ride. One main thesis, in my reading of the book, is that many of the world's apocalyptic and creationist myths can be traced to explanations of the earth's precession. Ancient civilizations were capable of detecting and measuring the earth's wobble, which makes one revolution every 26,000 years or so. If the sky-clock is divided into twelve segments, such as the zodiac, then the earth's precessional clock-hand moves from one zodiac sign to the next once every two millennia plus some years. Due to the direction of the precession, the order would be in the reverse order as the signs would go from month to month; i.e., instead of going from Capricorn to Aquarius to Pisces etc., the order would be from Aries to Pisces to Aquarius etc. The zodiac sign the precession is moving toward is said to be rising, while the zodiac sign moving away from is said to be going south, or sinking below the horizon or into the ocean. The ending of one zodiacal age giving way to the beginning of another, simply due to the earth's precession, is the real meaning of apocalyptic myths, according to Hamlet's Mill.

Christianity taps into the symbolism of the mythology. The age of Aries yielded to the age of Pisces at about the time of Christ, and so a pair of fish has been a symbol of Christ. Now, two millennia later, the age of Pisces will soon yield to the age of Aquarius. I think The Road is an apocalyptic myth about this current changing of the ages.

The apocalyptic event in The Road occurs as the son is about to be born; the father represents the old age of Pisces, the son the new age of Aquarius. The first and immediate act of the father is filling the tub with water, to herald the age of Aquarius, the water-bearer. The father feels a need to go south with the son. The father believes that the south would be warmer, but there is no evidence for that, no explanation why they have not already done so in prior years. The father also feels a need to go toward water, the ocean. The acts of "going south" and "sinking into the ocean" are, as indicated above, the symbolic motions of the ending zodiacal age due to the earth's precession. When the father reaches the ocean, he sees all those dead fish carcasses in the water, symbolizing the death of the age of Pisces; he even swims into their midst to link himself symbolically with them. (In a flashback earlier, the dead perch in his uncle's lake is a foreshadow; later, the woman says "once there were brook trout".) Shortly after reaching his goal, the father realizes, even decides, it is time for him to die. As the father is dying, the son bring him a cup of water, a proper role for a representative of Aquarius, the water-bearer.

I think "117" in The Road is once again a date, one which marks the beginning of Aquarius by two ancient Western works. On the Roman calendar, January 17 is when the sun begins, at day's end, its course in Aquarius. There are two Roman sources for this: Ovid's Fasti and Columella's De Re Rustica.

In Ovid's Fasti ("Roman Festival Days"), Book I is about January, and lines 651-652 are about January 17:
"Haec ubi transierint, Capricorne, Phoebe, relicto,
Per juvenis curres signa gerentis aquam."
Which translates to something like:
"When this [day] has passed, Phoebus [Apollo; light; the sun], leaving behind Capricorn,
Begins his course through the sign of the water-bearer [Aquarius]."

In Columella's De Re Rustica, Book XI, this is written about January 17:
"Cancer desinit occidere"
Which translates to something like:
"Cancer finishes setting"
Since Cancer is directly opposite from Capricorn in the sky-clock, Columella is effectively saying the same thing as Ovid.

The scene toward the end of The Road, in which the light moves with the son, seems strange if read literally. Ovid's explanation of the Roman calendar sheds "light" on this scene: the sun, the light, is now in Aquarius, which the son symbolizes. This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius; let the sun shine in!

Interesting side-note: January 17 is when Cancer has reached its nadir and begins to mount its ascent (Columella) just as Capricorn has reached its zenith and begins to make its descent (Ovid). McCarthy's birthsign is Cancer, which McCarthy deems significant (his self-portrait contains what could be the Cancer glyph over his eyes and face), and so January 17 could be seen as personally significant to McCarthy, as this meaning of "117" marks for him an upturn after hitting a trough, a renaissance after a decline, a rebirth from a death.


Here are some fun trivia on "117":

(1) McCarthy's birthday is July 20, 1933, and Blood Meridian's the kid's birthday is about a century earlier, November 13, 1833. However, neglecting the year, the number of days from July 20 to November 13, inclusive of these days, is 117.

(2) Pagecount, in general, I don't give much significance to, simply because it is not a number the writer could control, as he could with, say, chaptercount and scenecount. But this set of numbers does seem interesting: In the repagination of Blood Meridian, the pagecount is 351=3x117, the three also being a significant number across McCarthy's works.

(3) And then there is the Kabbalah:
The Hebrew word "aleph-vau-pe-lamed" means "to be darkened", "to black out".
aleph=1; vau=6; pe=80; lamed=30.
The Hebrew word "zayin-yod-qoph" means "meteor", "spark", "flicker", "ghost".
zayin=7; yod=10; qoph=100.
In The Road, 1:17am occurs shortly after the light streaks across the sky ... perhaps a meteor (=117), as the world is permanently darkened (=117), and shortly before the birth of the son who carries the spark (=117).


For now, this discussion has not included what could be an implicit "117" in Blood Meridian, which would involve a bigger conspiracy theory, to be discussed in future posts...


  1. Cormac McCarthy himself was asked directly by Oprah as to the significance of 117. Cormac told Oprah that is has no significance --it's just a number that got struck in his head. He was very direct about it.

    I'm sure you're familiar with the Oprah-Cormac interviews (available on It's interesting to read your eloquent dissection of the number--a true analysis--and then to know Cormac meant nothing by it. What do you think of that, Ken, the common affliction of the viewing public to ascribe meaning to art (paintings, sculpture, writing, etc.) where no meaning was intended.

    I personally think this is the beauty of art. The understanding that the artist might have meant nothing--or everything-- and like a mental puzzle, we can try to figure it all out. Deceased artists, unfortunately, we cannot ask "what did you mean by this?" Or is it unfortunate? Perhaps it's better to not know, to leave it a mystery, to enjoy the mental puzzle, and to ultimately interpret the work as we, the individual, see it.

  2. Greetings, Coolkayaker1! McCarthy himself, of course, is the ultimate authority on his own works, yet McCarthy might not be, I believe, a reliable source to explain his own works! Hence, although McCarthy said this (about "117" that time, about other things at other times), I don't necessarily take what he said at face value. However, I am also not saying that what I have posted here (or at the Cormac McCarthy Society Forum) has McCarthy figured out, or that it is the only interpretation, or that it is even valid, and so I do leave open the possibility that McCarthy meant nothing more than the denoted words. There are alternate viewpoints, some of which I also subscribe to, or which I have heard that are equally compelling, that shed different insights into McCarthy's works. The beauty of art is not ruined by people talking about the art. Enshrining a work of art lest its mystery be revealed, therefore ruining the enjoyment of it, is not something I believe in. Talking about a work of art that one loves could be enlightening, but it is definitely a lot of fun!

  3. Here, here, Ken. I agree with you in every regard. I believe you're right, Cormac is certainly a tough character to corner, and although Ms. Winfrey did get him to agree to an interview (albeit, only with the coaxing of his agent Amanda Urban, from what I read, and even then, only at his "home turf" of the Santa Fe Institute, rather than in the Chicago studio (you go, Cormac!), I'm doubtful that a man as private as Mr. MCCarthy would really open up all his inner explanations just because he was asked. Heck, he was so uncomfortable during that interview (hand to cheek, slumped down in chair -- again, you go,Cormac!), he probably doesn;t even know what he was saying! I think you'd agree, Ken, the reason we enjoy Cormac so much is not only his writings, but the character of the man...the contemplative, unassuming, anti-establishment character of Cormac is truly a thing of beauty. He is "himself", and for that we applaud.

    I think you're absolutely right to look into 117, and all other things McCarthy, and I for one enjoyed reading your thesis and explanation. I like yours more than McCarthy's, frankly.

    Just as man wants there to be a God, a Cormac reader wants there to be meaning behind the words. I know I do, at least. And I thank you for shedding some light into this sometimes murky corner.

  4. McCarthy had one major slouch on that couch, as close to lying down as he could get and still technically be called sitting!

    I find that the McCarthy interviews and feature articles about him in the last few years to be rather threadbare. McCarthy doesn't say much of anything of value (a friend summarizes, "McCarthy just makes pronouncements."), interview questions do not get to McCarthy's inner self or his art, and article writers treat him more like a celebrity to hang around with for some time than the artist whom some of us would like to know better.

    I think part of what makes McCarthy a great artist is that he has been able to express his inner self in his own voice. Nowadays, many writers are lauded by critics as "the next Cormac McCarthy" or some similar platitude, and those writers might even like it. But to my ears, it could also mean that such a writer has emulated, perhaps even very well, the voice of a respected artist, but has not yet discovered his or her own voice and cannot yet express his or her own inner self; that the writer might be a good copyist but is not the real thing. The comparison to McCarthy could actually be more negative than positive, in my opinion.

  5. Oh, and, Coolkayaker1, if you haven't already, you should check out the Cormac McCarthy Society Forum (link is on the "McCarthy Links" page), a lively, entertaining, informative, friendly, and contentious online community where I and many others discuss all things McCarthy ... and everything else under the sun, hahaha! (If you have checked it out, and if you already have registered to post comments, which one are you?)

  6. Thanks, Ken. I've seen the Forum but do not yet belong. Something for me to check out in more depth, thank you for the suggestion.

    I certainly agree with your "next C.Mc" comment; that platitude is one best left unsaid.

    Now that I said it, though, it sure would be nice if I really could write like Cormac. Simple in many ways, highly complex in many others (like the final paragraph of The Road).

    I find Cormac to be an enigma, and that is what attracts us to him. See you, Ken.

  7. You know what's interesting to me is that Delillo's novella Omega Point is 117 pages long. The novel has everything to do with an end and new beginning. I read Omega Point after I had become aware of 117 in McCarthy's work so I couldn't just dismiss at as coincidence.

  8. Love this stuff Ken....I am deep into 117 at the moment...and have some ideas...keep on working!