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Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness In the West by Cormac McCarthy, a Second Reading

December 24, 2017

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“It makes no difference what men think of war…War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner.”

“If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?”

These two quotes sum up the ethos of Blood Meridian. War, violence, brutality are as much a part of the natural world as any creature or land feature, and man wanders that world with no special benefit from any god.

I first read Blood Meridian in 2008. It is a difficult read—an asymmetrical, blood-drenched story of a motley gang of Americans hired by the town of Chihuahua in 1849 to help eradicate nearby Apaches. Paid $100 per scalp, the gang soon realizes that any scalp will pass as the scalp of an Apache. Driven by greed, they cut a path of carnage across the west.

The story loosely follows the Kid, a semi-anonymous character who exists more as witness than active participant. The rest of the gang reads like some demented Canterbury Tales—the leader and ex-Texas Ranger, John Glanton; the Judge, a hairless sociopathic monstrosity who is both highly educated and artistically refined, yet commits countless atrocities against man, woman, child and animal; the ex-priest; Toadvine, who wears a scapular of severed human ears, and a dozen others. Here is the long but fantastic passage where the Kid first encounters the gang just after they’ve made the deal with the governor:

They saw patched argonauts from the states driving mules through the streets on their way south through the mountains to the coast. Goldseekers. Itinerant degenerants bleeding westward like some heliotropic plague. They nodded or spoke to the prisoners and dropped tobacco and coins in the street beside them.

They saw blackeyed young girls with painted faces smoking little cigars, going arm in arm and eyeing them brazenly. They saw the governor himself erect and formal within his silkmullioned sulky clatter forth from the double doors of the palace courtyard and they saw one day a pack of viciouslooking humans mounted on unshod indian ponies riding half drunk through the streets, bearded, barbarous, clad in the skins of animals stitched up with thews and armed with weapons of every description, revolvers of enormous weight and bowieknives the size of claymores and short twobarreled rifles with bores you could stick your thumbs in and the trappings of their horses fashioned out of human skin and their bridles woven up from human hair and decorated with human teeth and the riders wearing scapulars or necklaces of dried and blackened human ears and the horses rawlooking and wild in the eye and their teeth bared like feral dogs and riding also in the company a number of halfnaked savages reeling in the saddle, dangerous, filthy, brutal, the whole like a visitation from some heathen land where they and others like them fed on human flesh.

 

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In my second trip through Blood Meridian, I brought along a set of guides to help unravel the historical, biblical and literary references. It is also helpful to consider Blood Meridian in the context of McCarthy’s other work, as it marked his entry into the American west and paved the way for the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain) and No Country for Old Men. My stack of companion books includes the original inspiration (Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession), John Sepich’s Notes on Blood Meridian as well as an assortment of essays across nine books, The Cormac McCarthy Society’s quarterly (yes—nerd alert—I am a member) and various other publications. It’s noteworthy in itself that after a lukewarm reception upon its publication in 1985, Blood Meridian has drawn so much attention. It’s a book that can be read at a surface level (though it would probably be more mystifying than satisfying—it’s been called “plotless” by more than one reviewer), but the magic of the book is in the excavation of meaning, the untangling of references buried in the text. In addition to the books I’ve been using, one might trace Blood Meridian’s lineage to Moby Dick, Milton, Spinoza, Emmerson, Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot and the Bible, to name a few. It is a book that invites obsession.

When I say Blood Meridian is a difficult read, I mean that it feels like a fight, as if you are being assaulted. The chaos of the text mimics the chaos of the story. There is little punctuation, no quotation marks, rambling run-on sentences, antiquated phrasings and a lexicon so vast that I sometimes wondered if McCarthy was inventing words. I marked any word I didn’t know, and I’d estimate there to be 200+ throughout the book. Chromo, cuartel, tattermalion, fusils, ciboleros, ignis fatuus, videttes, mochilas, solerette, gibbous, spanceled, crenellated, Gondwanaland, quirting, eskers, escopeta, slaked, sloe-eyed, thrapple, porphyry, apishamore, pritchel, garrafa… McCarthy’s writing is often lyrical, but here even more so. It has an Old Testament quality to it. The language elevates the text to the level of psalm in parts. But with its exotic quality, it also makes us outsiders. We are looking in on a kind of historical text, unable to question the verisimilitude of what is being told to us. We must take McCarthy at his word.

In this mid-19th-Century southwest where the story takes place, man and nature are on equal footing. Much has been written about the “visual democracy” of the book.  The men fade into the landscape, are lost within its vastness. They are at the mercy of the land, and often there is no mercy to be had. One story tells of a man lifted by a random cyclone and smashed dead to the ground. And early in the book, a Delaware is snatched from his horse and killed by a massive bear (but as the book spans the taming of the west, this incident is counterbalanced by the killing of a performing bear in a bar in the final scene—the wild has been tamed, brutalized, murdered).

Blood Meridian is the story of a primitive world that presents a demonstration of man as animal. Devoid of the boundaries prescribed by civilization, the gang devolves into monsters. They degenerate not just in their violence but in their simple daily habits: “…the company sat among the rocks without fire or bread or camaraderie any more than banded apes. They crouched in silence eating raw meat the Delawares had killed on a plain with arrows and they slept among the bones.” (154) Or when they “drink jaw to jaw with their horses.” (158)

At this point they are animals, and the things they are capable of, in the context of the animal world, are perhaps not so shocking. Descriptions of eviscerations and decapitations are of the natural order. Bones and blood are but objects. Men are just creatures who act upon other creatures with no consideration for a higher order morality. There is no law. Power is earned with violence.

The tendency with a book like Blood Meridian is to look for the meaning, the moral, like you might find in a fable. That’s a tricky proposition, as much of the book is cryptic. But here’s my stab at it—Blood Meridian is about history and truth and the supposed relationship of the two. In support, I put forth five pieces of evidence:

 

—1—

As they travel across the desert, the Judge sketches at every opportunity. The rocks, the flora and fauna, the landscape. But at one point, a man Webster objects to having his portrait sketched by the Judge. The Judge is understanding and recalls a man who he once sketched, and that man was haunted by it. The man was fearful that his enemy would find the portrait and deface it, and thus he would be defaced (147). The man conflated the representation of himself as the reality, and what was done to the representation was done to him. This is not unlike history in that once a person is dead and gone, a change in the telling of their story is a change in the lasting reality of that person.

 

—2—

In another scene, the Judge tells a parable of a man whose father admits to murdering and burying a traveler. In the parable, the boy goes to the grave of the victim—a fact only he knows. “Before he went away he visited that place and cast away the rocks and dug up the bones and scattered them in the forest and then he went away. He went away to the west and he himself became a killer of men.” He has inherited the violent tendencies, but he has erased the sin of his father by destroying the evidence.

 

—3—

A people without a recorded history do not, for all intents and purposes, exist. When they die, they are returned to the democracy of the land. Here is a scene in which the Judge actually steals the existence of a people:

They camped that night at the Hueco tanks, a group of natural stone cisterns in the desert. The rocks about in every sheltered place were covered with ancient paintings and the judge was soon among them copying out those certain ones into his book to take away with him. They were of men and animals and of the chase and there were curious birds and arcane maps and there we­­­­re constructions of such singular vision as to justify every fear of man and the things that are in him. Of these etchings—some bright yet with color—there were hundreds, and yet the judge went among them with some assurance, tracing out the very ones which he required. When he had done and while there yet was light he returned to a certain stone ledge and sat a while and studied again the work there. Then he rose and with a piece of broken chert he scappled away one of the designs, leaving no trace of it only a raw place on the stone where it had been. Then he put up his book and returned to camp. (180)

The Judge doesn’t just record the paintings, he “takes” them. It is the opposite of creation. It is complete erasure. And if one believes God to be the creator and creation to be the ultimate act of love, then this destruction is the purest of evil. This symbolism is as overt as we’ll find.

And yet, when considered in the context of the settling of the west, this is American history. A denial, an erasing of our own sins. This is the violence of forgetting, and I think above all else this is the theme of Blood Meridian. It’s not the preachy “we shouldn’t have wiped out the natives” narrative. It is the accusation of a deeper crime—of eradicating not just a people, but their story.

 

—4—

Then consider how Blood Meridian comes to us. The book is itself a history retold, a reshaping and embellishment of Samuel Chamberlain’s story, which already reads like a tall tale. I was surprised upon reading My Confession to see how much of Chamberlain’s story McCarthy lifted directly, down to the characters of the Judge and Glanton. But this in itself is an erasing, a changing of history. Blood Meridian, a novel, is more popular than My Confession. More people will know of the Glanton Gang’s bloody escapades through Blood Meridian than My Confession. So is not this book an act of violence itself?

 

—5—

And then there is the notion of witness. The Judge addresses this directly in a dialogue with the “ex-priest,” where he states that the position of the witness “was no third thing but rather the prime, for what could be said to occur unobserved?” (159) In other words, the person who is there to witness the event and live to tell the story is the prime, the first, the owner of said story.

In a world where so much goes unseen, events are owned by the witnesses. If there is a god in this world, it is the witness, the storyteller, for he can make of the world what he wishes. Whether or not it was so is irrelevant. In the wasteland where most perish, the truth dies with the fallen bodies. It is picked apart by buzzards, sun-bleached and eventually blown away as dust. The truth is meaningless, because the truth is whatever the tattered survivor who makes it out alive decides to make it.

This is why the Judge, many years later, delivers the end to the Kid. It is not just in the character of the Judge’s unending cruelty. The Kid is the witness. He holds the evidence in his memory. And the Judge, well, he is the Judge. He is the ultimate decider. The Kid, as witness, steals power from the Judge, power the Judge is not willing to relinquish.

 

So there you go. That’s my theory of Blood Meridian. I would hesitate to say that I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone, but I would. It is a virtuosic spectacle, but you have to be up for it. I still have a lot more to explore. There are plenty of people smarter and more obsessed with this book than I am. But that a single book can inspire such investigation is proof enough, at least in my mind, that it’s an amazing book.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Victor LaPorte permalink
    December 24, 2017 11:01 am

    Thanks Jim. Very insightful. Did you find out if those words were made up or actual words? I just figured, oh another word I have never seen.

    On thought about disappearing in the age of Facebook, maybe that is its allure. To never be forgotten and to write one own story, forever preserved in digits.

    Merry Christmas.

    Oh, one thing. Maybe more obsessed. I doubt much smarter:)

    Victor

    • December 31, 2017 7:13 am

      I was going to try to put together a list of all the words I didn’t know and look them all up. Most I’ve looked up of his are real, though he does like using old-world language, peppers in Spanish and sometimes mashes two or more words together for a new word. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Victor!

    • December 31, 2017 7:15 am

      Also, did you get through Blood Meridian? I know you were reading it. A lot of people give up on it. What’d you think?

      • laporte victor permalink
        December 31, 2017 8:25 am

        I loved it even though it was difficult for me to get through. I wasn’t intimidated by the brutality (except for flinging babies by their heels against rocks to shatter their skulls) it was the poetry and rhythm of the writing I was challenged by. I found myself re-reading bits and pieces throughout the book to make sure I was taking stock of his writing. I’m really into westerns and once I get through Moby Dick (Covering the classics) I’m going to try Chamberlain’s story.

Trackbacks

  1. Notes on Blood Meridian by John Sepich | Disco Demolition Night
  2. My 2017 Book List | Disco Demolition Night

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