The sanctity of blood
conversations become heated and articles published and seminars prolonged into
late afternoons in discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian (Random House, New York, 1985). Many of the words
written and spouted are intelligible in that upper plane whose rarefied air is
breathed only by academics and intellectuals.
the novel as a “rare coupling of Gnostic ‘ideology’ with the ‘affect’ of Hellenic
tragedy by means of depicting how power works in the making and erasing of
culture, and of what the human condition amounts to when a person opposes that
power and thence gets introduced to fate.” Daugherty sees Holden
as an archon, and the kid as a “failed pneuma.” Right. With
you, there, Leo.
only, amusingly, poured gasoline on the flames of speculation and hypothesis.
2009 (there’s a Cormac McCarthy journal?) wrote an essay entitled, The West as Symbol of the Eschaton in Cormac
McCarthy, where he expressed his preference for discussing the theme of
theodicy in its eschatalogical terms in comparison to the theological scene of
the last judgment. OK, Chris, no arguing with that, is there.
actually want to. And I venture to say that my regular readers, both of them,
wouldn’t want to either.
all. However, any self-respecting Western blog (and this one is at least self-respecting,
if not respected) has to deal with Blood
Meridian at some point. Though it may fairly be described as an anti-Western,
there is no doubt that the book is one of the great milestones alongside the
trail of the development of the genre. If you want to understand the Western at
all, there are certain movies you really need to see and certain novels you
would do well to read. In the former category, Stagecoach, Red River, High Noon, The Searchers, to name but a few.
The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch.
You know. The usual suspects. In the second group, The Virginian,
Riders of the Purple Sage, Little Big Man, Lonesome Dove, some others. They mostly pick
themselves. Ron Hansen’s book The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Probably In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake. Blood Meridian.
Well, I have just re-read Blood Meridian and here, for what they are
worth, are a couple of thousand words on the subject. If you are an academic or
intellectual, stop reading now. Pick up the latest number of The Cormac McCarthy Journal instead.
This month there’s a great article on Blood
Meridian as the Ur-story in Manichean Zoroastrianism.
barrels. The first barrel is the intense, lyrical style, for it is a 330-page
prose poem written in McCarthy’s own English (or english, as he would call it),
without the benefit or baggage of inverted commas or apostrophes, peppered with
archaic and arcane vocabulary and necessitating the re-reading of whole
paragraphs, if not pages, which you do in wonder.
toe-curling blood-letting. It is certainly the most violent book I have ever
read. If you are at all squeamish, go back to your Zane Grey. Passages leave
your nose wrinkled and eyes closed in fascinated distaste.
an example of the first you can open the book at almost any page, bibliomantically
(not really), my copy falling open at page 130, where the expriest Tobin
recounts to the kid:
promontory and ye’d be balked about by the steep crevasses, you wouldnt dare to
jump them. Sharp black glass the edges and sharp the flinty rocks below. We led
the horses with every care and still they were bleedin about their hooves. Our boots
was cut to pieces. Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could
see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all
wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through to the molten core of her.
Where for aught any man knows lies the locality of hell. For the earth is a
globe in the void and truth there’s no up nor down to it and there’s men in
this company besides myself seen little cloven hoof-prints in the stone clever
as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock?
land is arid, barren, inhospitable and full of death. The ragged band crosses
desert, malpais, gypsum flats, emptiness. Even in areas where things grow there
is nothing verdant. Crops rot unharvested in the fields. The only villagers
seen are diseased, old, witless.
Many Western writers have described the slaughter of the buffalo but few
as powerfully as McCarthy in Chapter XXIII. He concentrates on the collection
of the residual bones. He would.
As to the violence, the party is out to kill aborigines for the scalp
bounty offered by Mexican states and they slaughter Indians (called indians)
first, then villagers, then anyone at all simply for the cruel bloodlust of it.
There’s a telling part where the men ride down a steep trail and meet a party
of mules coming up carrying flasks of mercury. The hunters ride furiously down,
shooting down the muleteers with great revolvers and driving fifty beasts off
the cliffs to burst bloodily below in explosions of red and silver. They do it
for no reason other than mere meanness and pure prepotence.
the hunters by the Mexican military but it does not stop the bloodshed. The sanginary
violence is reciprocated by the various indians they meet, Comanche, Apache, Yuma.
Scalpings and flayings and torturings to death are commonplace. Men, women,
children, animals, all are bloodily destroyed. There is no revisionist idea
here that the brutal whites are slaughtering the innocent Indians: all men
participate equally in the bloodfest and at every opportunity. The whites are
repellently decorated with scalps and scapulars of human ears while the Indians
are shockingly horrific and truly frightening in their fragments of white-ladies’ garb and painted faces.
vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and
they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the
animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun
and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated
again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and
there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of
their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate
trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from
their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries of souls broke
through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.
If I wrote that, Bill Gates’s schoolmasterly spellchecker would underline most of it.
to read them at the end of each chapter because the book often depends on
surprise – a shocking episode of violence in many cases.
is ever given for the long ride that takes up 90% of the book, beyond a vague
seeking out of people to slaughter. It’s almost a dream journey. And the ‘protagonist’,
a youth known as only as the kid, is taciturn and withdrawn. We do not know
what he thinks. We are used, in Westerns anyway, to having a hero, or at least
a central character, who is going somewhere, has a destination or aim, achieves
it usually. Here you are left with the impression of the pointlessness of it
all. Perhaps the pointlessness is the point.
I read somewhere (sorry, I forget who said it) that McCarthy has excised the tragic from the tragedy. In some ways it’s an odd opinion but in others it’s just right because the blood and destruction are casual, everyday events with, it seems, no consequence.
And who is ‘talking’? You struggle to identify the voice. It can’t be the kid; he is too silent, too uneducated, even perhaps unthinking. It isn’t the judge, though he would be capable of such language. But it isn’t Holden. Well, of course it’s Cormac McCarthy. But we are used to reading the story from the point of view of a character, even his thoughts. This is observed from outside.
speech (in the case of the judge, both but especially the speech) you know
them. The kid meets the Peake-ishly named Toadvine early on, with initials HT
(presumably for Horse Thief) burned into his brow and missing his ears. Toadvine
survives far through the book and we get to know him.
the black Jackson has beheaded the white Jackson and there is no more confusion
over the name, so the surviving Jackson can now be known as Jackson without
ambiguity, McCarthy refers to him not as Jackson but only as the black.
the judge always calls him Priest. He is more ‘readable’ as a character because
he talks more and fears and loathes the judge. Priest or not, he takes full
part in the slaughter and pillage.
based on the real John Joel Glanton (1819 – 1850) who was possibly an outlaw in
Tennessee, fought for Texan independence, was a Texas Ranger and soldier of
fortune who led a band of scalphunters in Chihuahua, then Sonora and then in
modern-day Arizona. He was killed by Quechan Indians while operating a ferry
and robbing and murdering passengers and Indians. The character of McCarthy’s
Glanton is illustrated when he tames (‘mans’ as he puts it) a vicious dog abandoned
in a pueblo, an animal which which becomes slavishly loyal to him, but when the party is joined
by an exhibited ‘imbecile’ in a cage, and the dog, with some protective
instinct, pads alongside, Glanton viciously quirts the dog and drives him back
to his own side. He will allow no dilution of viciousness.
representation of the professions, the Army (Glanton), medicine (Irving), the
clergy (Tobin) and the law (Judge Holden), all renegades and psychopaths.
memory longest, is the polymathic Judge Holden. It’s his giant size and his
alopeciac smoothness, exacerbated by his frequently appearing naked, that make
him a grotesque, but he is also the wordiest of the characters and the most
intelligent. His philosophy, often expounded (mostly pontificating to those who understand
almost nothing of what he says) is fascinatingly horrible. He talks of war as noble ritual and the sanctity of blood. He says that
anything that exists without his knowledge is an insult to him. All liberty
too: he would have every bird confined to a zoo. He never sleeps and he says he
cannot die. Perhaps he is the devil. He is the only survivor.
1878, he comes across a violent uneducated boy, Elrod, just like himself when
he met Toadvine, and kills him. He tries not to but is obliged. Elrod even uses
the same words that the kid did in Chapter 1, when warned that he could be
killed if he persisted: They ain’t nobody done it yet.
slaughter of all of them. The judge knows that the kid’s heart was not truly committed to
mayhem. Just as the kid met Toadvine and started his life of blood on the way
to the jakes, on a boardwalk over the mud, in Chapter I, so he goes to his
(presumable) death the same way in the last chapter.
apparently all tried to launch it as a project but given it up. You can
understand it: how would you translate that prose to the screen, how would any
studio accept that essential degree of blood, how would such an uncommunicative
protagonist as the kid fare in a film, how would you cast the judge? Maybe Jim Jarmusch
could make it, as a sort of acid Western like Dead Man. But I doubt it. We’d need Peckinpah Redux with Brian de Plasma and Quentin Tarantino and even their combined arterial artistry wouldn’t be enough.
Meridian. Not very intellectual, was it.