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Booklog: Blood Meridian

August 13, 2007

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy
Read: 8.4.07
Rating: Very Good

Blood Meridian is a multi-faceted assault on meaning. Certainly, it is well-known for being a deconstruction of the “myth of the Western,” and its fetishized violence, but below this surface, the text sets itself against all efforts to extract meaning from nature, from violence, from history and even from life itself. Any meaning present in the world, according to Judge Holden, whose voice dominates the book, is imposed upon the world by the man who is wise enough to realize that life itself has none.

Plotwise, Blood Meridian is loosely based on historical events that took place around the border of Texas and Mexico in the middle of the 19th-century. The action follows the path of “the kid,” a fourteen-year-old drifter who falls in with a band of scalphunters led by the ruthless John Glanton; but the dominant character is certainly”the Judge, an otherworldly figure who is responsible for nearly all of the book’s main passages and who leads the assault on meaning. Among the book’s characters, the majority of whom are impossibly reticent, only the judge understands, interprets, and speaks. The other members of Glanton’s gang pass through life, doing their best to remain unimpressed by it: killing, drinking, whoring, but never thinking — in short, doing their best to avoid meaning in all its manifestations.

The assault on the meaning of nature is voiced specifically by the Judge early in the book, yet it also is prevalent throughout the narration. As Glanton’s group of scalphunters traverse the terrain, the Judge often acts as botanist and historian, taking samples from the landscape and sketching them into his book; he then typically destroys the specimen. When a member of the party asks his purpose, the Judge replies “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” and goes on to expose the view that “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.” To the objection that the task of understanding everything on earth is impossible, the Judge explains:

The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

It is important to note that the Judge does not merely study nature as a means to understand it — he wages war against nature with the intention of defeating it and bringing it into submission. The only meaning that it has for him is as an enemy.

For the Judge, war is both meaningless and the only chance man has to enforce his meaning on the world. It is meaningless in that it is always present, and it is useless to discuss it:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. 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. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

War is thus also compared to stone in its actuality; thus, it is another thing to enforce meaning upon. In war, the Judge has an arena in which to set himself against others and dominate them. The only possible meaning of life is existence over non-existence, and war continually feeds his need for enemies against which to test his continued existence.

When considering the significance of Blood Meridian, it does not do to consider only the words of the Judge, for it is clear that he is an evil character, and that whatever moral compass the text does have points away from the Judge and towards something else. However, the fact that no other voice counters his, and that the even-toned nature of the text does not encourage the elucidation of other meanings, leads me to believe that the assault on meaning is not only voiced by the Judge, though it may be led by him. Consider this passage, typical of the book’s narration, which describes the party’s march across the desert:

The horses trudged sullenly the alien ground and the round earth rolled beneath them silently milling the greater void wherein they were contained. In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.

First allow me to say that this is magnificent; McCarthy’s prose, at its peak, is unrivaled. The phrase “optical democracy,” wedged within this passage, speaks marvelously to the book’s depictions of the landscape and the culture in which Blood Meridian is set. In this land where difference is annihilated, and rock and man approach sameness, the importance of the Judge’s quest for dominion resonates.

The violence of Blood Meridian is breathtaking in its banality and the casual nature in which it is committed and described. Anyone approaching the text looking for “redemption through violence” (I’m not sure what this means) will find none. Violence itself has no meaning, and no one group or person is above another in the committing of it. Glanton’s band is originally hired to hunt down Apaches, who are depicted as ruthless killers who not only kill and scalp but hang dead babies in trees as a warning to their enemies. Clearly, one would not have to climb very far to reach the moral high-ground with these “savages,” as they are unflinchingly called, as an enemy. But the members of Glanton’s scalphunting troupe are not interested in morality; they kill, rob, and plunder with the same thoughtlessness as the Apaches. The only person in the text who succeeds in rising above thoughtless killing is “the kid,” who still kills, but is often depicted as hesitant, and in one case spares the life of a man he was meant to eliminate. However, the kid’s voice is never sufficiently fluent, and his reasons for his action or inaction remain mysterious to the reader. In contrast, the Judge not only explains his own thoughts and motives but those of the kid as well:

You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Here me, man. I spoke in the desert to you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

The kid’s resistance to the voice of the Judge is the book’s main act of heroism, but it too is a rejection of meaning, not the creation of it. The Judge here speaks of history, hinting that if there is any meaning to be drawn from events, it is applied after the fact. The kid’s insistence on making judgments on his own actions, instead of simply acting and surviving, is to the Judge a sign of weakness and will lead to his annihilation.

As is hinted in the quote above, Blood Meridian also contains an assault on history. The kid and his thoughtful approach towards violence will not make the history books. This is textually rich on two levels. First, Glanton and the Judge, Blood Meridian’s two most violent characters, are the only ones based on historical fact (although from what I have gathered the history is very sparse). Second, it must be remembered that the kid is the book’s main protagonist, and its hero if it has one, so passages like the following have double-meaning. The kid lies in a swoon, recovering from surgery:

Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.

In short: even history will not provide meaning. But should we expect the text itself, which “heroizes” the kid, to do so?

During the book’s final section, which takes place over a decade after the demise of Glanton and his gang, the kid, now referred to as “the man,” encounters the Judge, who is eager to reminisce. The setting is carnivalesque, and the Judge, looking around, offers his opinion that life is analogous to a dance in which we all participate, “and none here can finally comprehend the reason for his presence for he has no way of knowing even in what the even consists.” In the pages that follow, the Judge’s assault on meaning is made manifest, and takes on a larger target: life itself. He tells the man that they are playing

A solitary game, without opponent. Where only the rules are at hazard. Dont look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar that bonds? The judge leaned closer. What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man’s jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward?

Again, and more clearly, meaning is assaulted, and only existence is propped up in its place. The Judge lives life as if it were a game where the enemy is death itself, and there is nothing more. Therefore, when the book comes to a close, and the Judge finally succeeds in killing the man, his victory is complete. The book’s final words are: “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” He is the winner; meaning, and its last resort, death, are both defeated.

What is one to make of a book whose message is so impossibly bleak? James Wood, one of my favorite critics, asserts that the Judge should not be confused with McCarthy, and I am certain that this is true. However, it is very troubling that no other voice is included in the text to counter the sever eloquence of the Judge. Wood believes that this is a serious flaw, present in McCarthy’s work as a whole:

But there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be. In “Child of God,” we get this assurance: “As in olden times so now. As in other countries here.” The mercenaries in “Blood Meridian” are said to ride “like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.” The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders. (source)

I agree wholeheartedly: Blood Meridian has no borders within the text, and the effect is absolutely crushing. The only possible counterweight to the voice of the Judge is the conscience and judgment of the reader, who must surmise a method of responding to the book’s assault. It is a deeply personal struggle, and a difficult one.

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9 comments

  1. Hi Ted!
    A Google Search on ‘meaning of life’ served up your words on ‘Blood Meridian’. I just spent a week in S. Dakota and it was a great reminder of the contrast between reality and what history/man and ‘hollywood’ has written.

    From you review, I look forward to reading the book to hear more of the Judge’s thoughts (and will try to keep an open mind.) More so, I want to peel back a few layers to delve into the whole ‘meaning’ debate…one I live with every day.

    Thank you!
    Louise
    Author, “No Experts Needed. The Meaning of Life According to You!”


  2. Oh..i love those days when you just don’t have anything better to do than to search for random blogs trying to find something interesting to read. And i’m always lucky, today i found your blog and it brightened up my day to the MAX,
    looking forward to coming back for an evening read 🙂


  3. Great review! I haven’t dared touch The Road yet, have you?


  4. LK, I finally read The Road last week (what a Christmas present!) and liked it even better than Blood Meridian. Whether I’ll get around to reviewing it…


  5. Oh go on, I think that anyone who reads The Road needs to talk about it.


  6. Excellent commentary–thanks for sharing! I’ve read quite a few of McCarthy’s novels, and have even done some work on them. No one could doubt the incomparable depth of his work among other contemporaries, that much is certain. Once you read a few of his works, though, the power begins to feel insulating. That’s turning lemonade back into lemons of course, but do you have any other suggestions for contemporary Americans works that may fall into a similar vein as McCarthy, and with which he can be properly compared? I read a Woods piece citing Raymond Carver as a possibility, but I’ve yet to look into any of Carver’s stuff. But without committing the fallacy of thinking that all literature is derivative, there must be something out there that simply isn’t discussed or known in popular discourse. Otherwise the guy is just that unique and we’re stuck digging Heidegger or Derrida out of the poetic muck, which is just no fun! Thanks again.


  7. Wow glad to find someone who tries to read between the lines of this phenomenal book and sees many different interpretations. I definitely agree with it’s “assault on meaning”, leaving it up to the reader to find it out themselves, just as in real life.
    Mine?…The judge is a devourer of souls, even a demon incarnate, picking up pieces of history as they ride through the desert, recording it in his ledger as a means for him to retain it as knowledge and then most of the time destroying the evidence, erasing it from the history of the world. This is what separates him from the others, for he wishes to totally dominate everyone and everything, to become “suzerain” of the world.
    The ending is the perfect grand finale to such a gory, violent time in America, where for so long the westward expansion was described as a romanticized era. I tend to agree with McCarthy’s view, that it was chaos and a terribly violent chapter, and the violence that lives in man’s nature, from the beginning of time to the present, might always be there below the surface, hand in hand.
    The demise of the kid and the way (or lack of) it is shown leaves the reader open to any possibility. Since we have traveled with the kid on his oddyssey, many graphic and heinous crimes are witnessed, and reactions to these crimes by the characters is almost non-existent. With this, the reader comes to expect this pattern. What the reader does not expect is the last few pages of the novel, where the kid disappears from the pages entirely, and the judge is last seen dancing gleefully. This can only be attributed to the judge finally devouring the last humane piece of the kid’s soul that he speaks of, for the kid was the only one who ‘betrayed’ the gang by retaining a shred of humanity. McCarthy leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks, in other words, whatever the worst possible thing the reader can think of happening to someone, happens to the kid. Raped? Killed? Both raped and killed? The end for the kid is too awful to speak of, and it isn’t, we are only left with a couple strangers walking in on the aftermath and being completely shocked by it, the first real instance of a reaction to any of the violence in the novel. And thus, as the judge did by devouring so much historical evidence as they ride across the southwest throughout the book and they disappear from the earth, so does the kid. The reader is left to react whatever way they will at this horror, and hopefully, they wish to speak out against such atrocities, so many of which fill our newspapers today. This is an unbelievable masterpiece. I will read it many more times. What are other people’s thoughts?


  8. At Montezuma:

    I share your interest in the novel, which you have stated well enough for me not to go into great detail. While I could argue the internal plot/character/theme points all day, what distinguishes McCarthy’s novel is his equivocal use of narration and authorship. Absent from the novel is any kind of reflexive “omniscience” present in so many other modern novels, or the subjective romanticism so prevalent in literature. Even when McCarthy draws attention to his own narration, it is doubled or tripled in meaning and usually he only acts with an ironic kind of agency. Check out John Sepich’s analysis of the book. In my opinion, it’s the most comprehensive–which is saying a lot about a book for which comprehensive analysis is repelled by the book itself.


  9. Thanks for posting this great review, I am a huge McCarthy fan but haven’t gotten to read this one yet.



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