Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel and putative masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985), describes a murderous spree undertaken in Mexico in 1849 by John Joel Glanton and his crew of irregulars; they are contracted by Mexican governors to hunt for Apaches—they will be paid by the scalp—but they end up murdering and raping their way across the majestically described desert landscape, killing Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos in an indiscriminate and chaotic binge of violence (which tends to coincide with their many alcoholic binges).
Given that these characters have no real goal, their narrative is shapeless, a concatenation of gruesome incident without development. If the novel could be said to have a political point or historical thesis, it perhaps lies in this formal mockery of progress—progress being the ideology that justified the conquest of the west. This a novel without interiority; there are no characters we could take for real people. Its two main figures are the kid, a nameless runaway who joins Glanton’s party and whose wandering through life gives the novel its overall structure; and Judge Holden, a huge, hairless, bald, albino, scholarly “mutant” who is the Glanton expedition’s most learned and articulate member, a voice for the novel’s seeming theology of nihilism and war-worship:
This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
It has taken me years to read this now-classic novel all the way through. I was not so much repelled by the violence—“I aint that sensitive,” as one of McCarthy’s riders might say, albeit without the quotation marks—as unsure of how to receive the language of the narrative.
McCarthy’s apparent stylistic conceit is that the narrative voice represents the mind of nineteenth-century America, with all its verbal command of Biblical, Classical, and modern learning; it is like Hawthorne or Melville shorn of their manifest humanism, along with the Faulknerian element of the recklessly careering long sentence and Hemingwayesque precision of dialogue and description. (Also, despite its willful stylistic archaism, this novel’s long vistas and spectacle set-pieces could only have been written after cinema, even if we also believe, as I have heard some argue, that cinema was long implicit in western perception, in the eye of Apollo, as it were.)
For a long time, my defense against this novel was to dislike it. I am still not really convinced of its profundity; as “philosophy” Blood Meridian is—particularly in the judge’s speeches—a beautifully eloquent digest of pessimism and skepticism. The judge does Heraclitus, he does Nietzsche, he does Freud: it is wonderful, but it is not original, not a revelation. Judge Holden maintains that war is our only means of self-definition, self-assertion, and self-construction. It is, in a way, a novel of its time, perhaps even more so than Beloved, the black-Catholic-sentimental-gnosticism of which (“Yonder they do not love your flesh”) is more optimistically and progressively engaged in the American literary tradition, whereas Blood Meridian appears at first to pair quite well, maybe too well, with ’80s cynicism and postmodern theory.
But I have grown to love Blood Meridian. Part of learning to love it required learning to treat it more like a modernist poem or avant-garde text—my reference points were The Waste Land and Naked Lunch—than like even the canonical radical novels it echoes, by Melville or Joyce or Faulkner, all of whom write out of some humanism, however residual, and preserve some sentimental interest. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, should be treated as an experience, an onslaught of language, a vision, a symbolic structure—but not as a narrative inviting sympathy or identification.
A riddling late modernist text full of enigmas and ambiguities and difficulties, Blood Meridian is perhaps better studied than read—or better read while sitting up, pencil in hand, wi-fi connection enabled, so that you can learn what an archimandrite is, what saguaro looks like, what “Sie müssen schlafen aber Ich muss tanzen” means. I intend this as a compliment; I expect I will read it again.
To celebrate my newfound enjoyment of this novel, I will spend the rest of this review on three mysteries the text presents; my solutions will be somewhat heterodox, or, rather, startlingly orthodox. To anticipate, I will argue that it is much less skeptical and nihilistic than it appears.
1. “What’s He a Judge Of?”
The kid asks this question early in the novel, to the ex-priest Tobin, who does not reply. Near the end, he gets his answer in the form of a delirious dream he has after an operation to remove an arrow from his leg following his survival of the wreck of Glanton’s expedition. At first the judge appears to him with his Shakespearean fool—an “idiot” Glanton’s men had picked up along the way—but then the fool vanishes and a metalworker appears:
The fool was no longer there, but another man and this other man he could never see in his entirety but he seemed an artisan and a worker in metal. The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a coldforger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile from men’s fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.
“Of this is the judge judge”—but what is “this”? A form of forging currency without fire—according to this website, cold forging is generally done at room temperature to pliant metals, by hammering them into shape using a die, just as this passage describes. The forger’s “exile from men’s fires” has a twofold implication: 1. the forger is outcast from all human society; 2. as a matter of method, he is cut off from humanity’s traditional engagement with nature, going deeper and deeper into autonomous artifice—shaping metal with other implements of shaped metal. This passage returns us to a speech delivered in the novel’s second chapter by a hermit:
A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.
The judge, then, is immortal, but what he implies has not yet come to pass, as of the middle 19th century: the complete deracination of humans from nature, our enclosure within a world of false values produced without contact with or reference to nature. The judge implies the self-running evil machine; he is the devil at the elbow of God who made man with this capacity. Of this—the turn to a wholly technological society, a wholly enculturated and automatic world—is the judge judge. Violence was not his ultimate meaning, and in fact violence might, in McCarthy’s view, be a relief from such infinite falsity, such machine-living, which is probably why he describes violence with such evident relish.
Moreover, if we interpret the novel’s conclusion to mean that the judge has raped the kid before murdering him (he “gathered [the kid] in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him”), the judge stands revealed not only as a debaser of currencies but a performer of unnatural acts; the nimble-footed and epicene judge stands, in terms of a natural law philosophy, for an enemy of human production and reproduction.
McCarthy perhaps here shows himself a good Catholic, a follower of Dante, who put the sodomites and the usurers into the same circle of Hell. (Hence the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion, on the one hand, and capitalism on the other—a coherent position that endlessly bewilders American commentators on right and left.) Therefore the novel, homophobia and all, appears more conservative or reactionary than skeptical or nihilistic—more Pat Buchanan, less postmodernism.
2. The Kid as Hero
The kid is born to a schoolteacher—an “Irish Schoolteacher,” in an early draft, hence implicitly Catholic. The novel’s opening command—“See the child”—has an air of the epiphany about it. McCarthy quotes Wordsworth: “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.” Here is the rather saccharine Wordsworth poem McCarthy invokes:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Obviously McCarthy’s allusion is irreverent: this is a novel without “natural piety,” in that it shows nature to be indifferent and human nature flawed and rapacious. Wordsworth’s trust that “nature never did betray the heart that loved her” has little meaning in Blood Meridian’s cosmos. But for all that, the child is the father to the man he will become in the sense that all history already lives in him; if childhood is not a Wordsworthian idealization in McCarthy, it is nevertheless a place of potential, the potential for good as well as evil. We might say the same for nature, which does not ultimately bow before the judge.
By the end of the novel, the kid, still illiterate, has become a kind of priest, carrying a Bible he cannot read and wearing a parodic scapular of human ears that he scavenged from a fellow member of Glanton’s expedition. The judge’s near-obsession with the kid suggests that he construes some threat in the kid, some challenge, some force (the same that he perceives in nature when he says that the freedom of the birds offends him) that must be routed for the judge to succeed in his quest to master everything in the universe.
As for the kid’s father, he is gone by the second page, but the father-function of the learned Irishman will be performed in the novel by the ex-priest Tobin, who counsels the kid to kill the judge. The kid’s refusal to kill the judge is his inarticulate but active riposte to the judge’s values, as when Christ kisses the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky (who is one of McCarthy’s favorite writers, according to this New York Times profile).
3. The Epilogue
Here is Blood Meridian’s strange epilogue, italics in original:
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.
In an interview contained in the book Adventures in Reading Cormac McCarthy by Peter Josyph, Harold Bloom interprets the epilogue thusly:
And yet, unless I misread, in that strange, italicized epilogue, there is that man who is traversing the plain, and he’s holding a two-handed instrument. I didn’t say so in How to Read—I was writing, I hoped, for very common readers indeed and I didn’t want to overburden them with associations and allusions—but McCarthy, who is profoundly allusive and very erudite, undoubtedly has in mind that great moment in Milton’s Lycidas when you are told that the corrupt clergy and the whole corruption of England will be cleansed by “that two-handed engine at the door” (105). That two-handed engine, that implement, is being wielded by a figure striking fire that is imprisoned in the stone, which is clearly a Promethean motif. The Judge is off in the meridian sunset. That figure is at dawn. Clearly there is an opposition. There is, I think, a hint—a hint, but a real one—I don’t know how otherwise to interpret it—that a new kind of Prometheus or Promethean figure is rising up at the dawn and will perhaps move west and perhaps challenge the Judge, although we do not actually know that. That would be the only thing that might keep the Judge from being immortal.
I agree with Bloom that “implement with two handles” in Blood Meridian probably refers to “two-handed engine” in Milton’s Lycidas—Milton’s “two-handed engine” is “perhaps the most famous crux in English literature,” as Josyph quotes an editor observing, and McCarthy is sufficiently allusive that this can be simply presumed an allusion. The context in Milton’s poem is a prophecy delivered by St. Peter that the lupine corruptions of the clergy will soon be challenged:
Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake;
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
“How well could I have spar’d for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck’ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more”.
That this passage about bloody predation is of some tonal and imagistic relevance to Blood Meridian should be obvious. But whatever Milton means by “two-handed engine,” he is clear about who wields it: not Prometheus but Christ or God. This would accord well with my Catholic interpretation of the judge as master of unnatural acts and techno-artifice, the judge whose new fool and servant is a coldforger. In the epilogue, we have the coldforger’s opposite number, as much as the judge’s, a figure who is not exiled from fire but master of it, a figure who can summon the real value God has placed in nature to challenge the false value of the cold coiner. Not so cynical, not so postmodern, after all.
What is this novel? Nihilistic and skeptical, it appears at first. Gnostic, say some critics. Promethean, says Bloom. Let us entertain my fancy that is in fact deeply Christian. Were this obvious (and it is admittedly not), would the novel enjoy its current eminence? If I am right, McCarthy is lucky he has such an extraordinary way with words—so extraordinary that he is able to pass his true currency (according to his own valuation) for false in the marketplace.
[…] is strange book to read right after Blood Meridian in my haphazard tour of late-twentieth century American literature; the two novels, both written […]
Hey there John, I am a fellow Blood Meridian fan and I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your review. I was fascinated with McCarthy’s reference to technology and it’s good to know that I am not the only one who noticed. Your review is very thorough and certainly gave me more insight, especially the portions about the “child the father of the man” and the “implement with two handles” references. I agree that despite the nihilistic impression, something about the book is deeply Christian and the poem you cited gave me more perspective. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks very much–glad you enjoyed it!
Thank you for this fantastic review, though I would perhaps have liked a little more coverage of the epic nature of this novel (or should I say prose epic).
I intend to reread this great book alongside Moby-Dick after reading Suttree and a couple of other novels.
But I would consider this my favorite novel, first for introducing me to the wonderful world of Cormac McCarthy, for helping strengthen my appreciation of great literature and of style, for its memorable and powerful treatment of violence and the American masculine, for its being my own first introduction to the world of the “Great American Novel,” its epic scale and fantastic richness of the visual descriptions and language that can truly be described as epic (harkening back to Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville), and the power of the Judge and the Kid (more so the Judge)
I desperately want to see this filmed in 70mm, in a widescreen ratio of 2.76:1, and its epic and violent qualities depicted in the best and richest and fullest way possible.
I am glad you came around to loving this novel after your agon with it. I’m looking forward to a review of Moby-Dick and I hope you do mention Blood Meridian, as Melville’s and McCarthy’s epics are so related to each other in symbolic and language-related matters and even questions of story and events.
[…] still introduces some of the same complications that trouble so difficult and repellent a work as Blood Meridian. Consider the opening […]
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