See the child, he is pale and thin.
Cormac McCarthys Blood Meridian
One of the great pleasures of reading literature is coming across a novel that upon finishing there is no doubt of its status as a masterpiece. A novel whose characters and themes burrow deep down into your subconscious where you find yourself dreaming about it and running it through your mind throughout the day. A novel that if you are a writer like me makes you stop and re-evaluate your own work, your own thoughts, because it leaves you feeling like an immature child at the feet of masters.
I finished Blood Meridian this week. Now, it’s not like I discovered it. Blood Meridian is a novel that has been sitting on my pile of unread books for several years now, but I’ve avoided it. I delayed its reading because I feared it. I feared that it would affect me too deeply and if I was unprepared, it would consume all of my other literary interests and explorations. With the recent passing of Cormac McCarthy and it’s catapulting onto the bestseller list and to the forefront of literary conversation I felt like I couldn’t postpone it any longer.
My fears were well founded. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is an American Masterpiece. A powerful blend of American history, an alchemical brew of wild west mythology, Biblical spirituality, Gnostic mysticism, and Melvillian inspiration, wrapped and led by the Miltonian Devil himself. Blood Meridian is a novel that places McCarthy on the same plane as Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Joyce, and Melville, assuring his literary immortality for as long as men read the written word.
Blood Meridian follows the character known only as The Kid, a teenage son of an abusive alcoholic, who’s mother died in childbirth. The novel starts with the Kid running away from his home in Tennessee, making his way South, drinking, doing odd jobs, and getting shot in a bar fight. He finds himself in the Texas Republic in the aftermath of the Mexican war and enlists in an ill-fated company of men who plan to range into the southwest territories to fight Mexicans. As foretold by the prophesy of a drunken Mennonite the expedition is come upon by a band of Comancheswho savagely slaughter them in an ambush, a bloodbath of mutilation and necrophilic rape.
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
The Kid finds himself one of two survivors and makes his way across the blasted desert, eventually imprisoned in a filthy dungeon in the town of Chihuahua. Here is where the novel starts in earnest. He is set free and joins a band of scalphunters led by the vicious and charismatic Captain Glanton and the strange pale hairless giant known as Judge Holden. The governor of Chihuahua offers them $100 for each Apache scalp, and the crew, made up of vicious men, scarred and mutilated, branded physically and spiritually, adorned in grotesque trophies of human ears, set off into the west to commit violence for gain. What follows is an orgy of violence and depravity across the southwest. Scalping, murder, drunken rampage, rape, robbery, and unspeakable violence, that culminates in tragedy for all involved.
McCarthys Blood Meridian is interesting, his prose is masterful, near Biblical, a concoction of The King James Bible and Pagan epics such as Beowulf. His style is one of vivid ultra-violence wrapped in the language of symbolic poetry.
It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog's, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jeda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before this torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.
The novel is filled with passages as the one above, beautiful pieces of prose poetry that capture the spiritual dimension and ruggedness of the southwestern landscape and the subliminal nature of its inhabitants. With this novel McCarthy revolutionized his style, made it his own, and left his personal mark on American literature.
But with all great works of literature the narrative plot is often the least important level, the surface of what should be a sea of meaning, and Blood Meridian is a deep, dark, and cold body of literary depth and subtext. Beyond the narrative of the Kid riding with Clanton’s Gang of fortune seeking murdering scalphunters you have a story of America, the West, on the Blood Meridian where the laws of civilization do not apply and war is the way of the land, bloody war, rape, murder, on the sun blasted land and over the ruins of older unknown civilizations. “All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage.” And McCarthy brings forward all the themes of civilization, savagery, the will to power, in one of his most famous and powerful characters, the Judge Holden.
The judge looked about him. He was sat before the fire naked save for his breeches and his hands rested palm down upon his knees. His eyes were empty slots. None among the company harbored any notion as to what this attitude implied, yet so like an icon was he in his sitting that they grew cautious and spoke with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.
The Judge, a massive man, pale and hairless, lacking even eyelashes. A sophisticated man, versed in many languages and scientific arts such as geology, paleontology, biology, knowledgeable and talented in music, art, marksmanship, superior in every aspect. A man who dillegently catalogues flora, fauna, and artifacts he comes across in his ledger, before destroying them. A murderous, amoral psychopath, espousing views alien to the illiterate Kid. An implied pedophile child killer who leaves a trail of murdered and raped children in his wake, but is too feared by the rest of Clantons Gang to be stopped.
The Judge is the core, the heart, of Blood Meridian. A Miltonian demon, that many commenters ascribe to being a representation of pure evil, Satan himself, but I personally feel like he is a representation of mankind. A mankind separated and in opposition to the sacred. The Judge is the human intellect taken to the extreme, devoid of morality, in opposition to God and lording over history and nature. “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth. Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgments.” The Judge is man untethered by morality, man become Luciferian, man’s ego and impulse towards violence mixed with the apex of his philosophical intelligence. I find interesting the contrast of the repeated mentions of the Kids illiteracy, his lack of knowledge, compared to the Judges erudition and intellectual skill.
Blood Meridian, like all literary masterpieces, is a work that merits much discussion. It is a life changing work, that must be read and re-read. It won’t leave you feeling good, but it will stay with you, like great art does.
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
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The worst thing that was done to the Native American was the infantilization of their culture and struggle by the postmodern neolib. The idea that their land was stolen implies the status of victim as opposed to the reality that the land was hard won in an amoral war against a violent and powerful people that put up a savage resistance for close to two centuries.
When the Roman legions defeated the Gauls the Cesar wrote of their ferocious savagery with awe and respect. They were given their civilizational due even if they fell before the superior power of Rome. For a while, Americans gave the Native his due in Westerns, even naming sport teams and the most ferocious war machines in their honor.
But in the last few decades post-liberal academics have castrated the Apache warrior. Has turned the once proud Commanche into a victim, a pseudo-mystical new age squaw peacefully sitting around the campfire to be violated by the European invader.
I’m not a Native American, but if I were I would like to think of my ancestors as they truly were. Violent powerful men who ruled the forests and plains of America, conquering and enslaving each other, and when encountering another civilization, adapting to the horse and striking fear into the hearts of the new men for generations. I rather remember my ancestors as a force of nature to be feared on the plains of the West, warriors that fought until the end, not as victims who were stolen from which implies weakness.
There is honor in fighting and losing, there is no honor in being a child stolen from.
I think The Judge and Anton Chigur from No Country For Old Men are McCarthys greatest creations. Both are representative of elements of mankind’s evil almost portrayed as forces of nature.