h1

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.

h1

Now I want to re-read Middlemarch

August 9, 2007

A. S. Byatt’s shower of praise in the Guardian won’t shed any new insight into Eliot’s Middlemarch, but it will remind you why “It is possible to argue that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel.”

When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work – as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise – not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world. Here is Casaubon, having just been told he is mortally ill: “When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die – and soon’, then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.”

h1

Ulysses reading group?

August 9, 2007

I want to bring this up at Tilting with Windmills, but I think it will be less alarming to throw it out on my own blog first:

  • would anyone be interested in a forming a reading group to work our way through James Joyce’s Ulysses?

I say this, obviously, because I would not only be very interested in joining one, but in spearheading the operation. Ulysses is, far and away, my favorite book of all time, but one that I have only read completely through once, despite returning to it and reading chunks several times a year.

Many book-bloggers have expressed trepidation about Ulysses, and I’ve often attempted to calm their fears and say something slightly more eloquent than what I mean: “Just read it!” There is no possible way that it will let you down, even if you can’t shake the sense that you’re only “skimming the surface,” because the surface of Ulysses is magnificent!

I also believe that Ulysses is an ideal choice for this type of blog-collective, for several reasons:

  • it is a vast, multi-voiced, text, therefore making it excellent for a multi-voiced reading experience
  • it can be discouraging at times, so a cloud of peers will be very helpful
  • the amount of secondary material that can be brought in, for assistance, for exploration, and for depth, is astronomical, and much of it is readily accessible on the web
  • it is ideally read with some sort of schedule or structure, as it can be so very easy to put down, but can be difficult to return afterwards

So what say you? Would anyone be at least a little bit interested? If so, leave a comment and let me know.

(pictured: Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses)

h1

Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year

August 8, 2007

An excerpt from J.M. Coetzee’s upcoming novel, Diary of a Bad Year, recently appeared in the New York Review, and it’s available online. The form of the story is intriguing: the text alternates between a book being written by the protagonist and his attempts to speak with a wildly attractive woman living in his building. Coetzee is always in perfect command, and adopts different voices well, so I think the alternations could work over the length of the novel. Here is a snippet from the “essay” portion:

The Seven Samurai is a film in complete command of its medium yet naive enough to deal simply and directly with first things. Specifically it deals with the birth of the state, and it does so with Shakespearean clarity and comprehensiveness. In fact, what The Seven Samurai offers is no less than the Kurosawan theory of the origin of the state.

The writer-protagonist is laying out an extended argument, using many authors and examples to speak broadly about the origins of the state. The “essay” will then be interrupted by his first-person voice:

She has black black hair, shapely bones. A certain golden glow to her skin, lambent might be the word. As for the bright red shift, that is perhaps not the item of attire she would have chosen if she were expecting strange male company in the laundry room at eleven in the morning on a weekday. Red shift and thongs. Thongs of the kind that go on the feet. 

All told, Diary of a Bad Year is fine reading, and does exactly what an excerpt should do: pique interest for the whole of the text.

h1

Against Behe (and the followers of Venus)

August 7, 2007

Two aspects of Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe that most impress me are his unflinching materialism, which easily avoids despair, and how well his observations about the universe have stood the test of time, despite the fact that two-thousand years of science have made mincemeat of his theories. Take, for example, this lovely passage, which could easily be a response to a current view that is presently very popular and “controversial,” intelligent design. Lucretius has been explaining the movement and shape of atoms, and he begins a new section with this gem:

In the face of these truths, some people who know nothing of matter believe that nature without the guidance of the gods could not bring round the changing seasons in such perfect conformity to human needs, creating the crops and those other blessings that mortals are led to enjoy by the guide of life, divine pleasure, which coaxes them through the arts of Venus to reproduce their kind, lest the human race should perish. Obviously, in imagining that the gods established everything for the sake of men, they have stumbled in all respects far from the path of truth. Even if I knew nothing of atoms, I would venture to assert on the evidence of the celestial phenomenon themselves, supported by many other arguments, that the universe was certainly not created for us by divine power: it is so full of imperfections.

h1

the one who says “I”

August 2, 2007
h1

Booklog: Franny and Zooey

July 30, 2007

Franny and Zooey
J.D. Salinger
Read: 7.3.07
Rating: Very Good

I suspect that most readers have a work of fiction they turn to for comfort and rely on for encouragement; Franny and Zooey has, for many years, been mine. I suspect that the time is coming when it will be replaced by some as-yet-unknown book, but Franny and Zooey has served me well for six or seven years, and I will be sad to see it supplanted.

I typically read Franny and Zooey right after reading The Catcher in the Rye, during the summertime, when I am in a state of mental disarray. I admit that it is often reading The Catcher in the Rye that puts me in a state of mental disarray — or at least pushes me further into one — so it’s only fitting that Franny and Zooey should be part of the solution. If The Catcher in the Rye is an dear choleric friend whose monologue reveals the sadness of life, Franny and Zooey is the older, more detached, friend who has “been through it” and can offer a charming, almost inspirational antidote.

That being said, Franny and Zooey does not hold as much meaning for me as it once did. The revelations at the end, that the fat lady is Christ himself, for example, now seems a little silly, and a lot unhelpful. Now the earnestness of Salinger’s prose, which is hopelessly clever and heartwarming, is the main attraction. I do not grow tired of the narrative voice adopted by “Buddy Glass,” nor do I lose any affection for the two main characters. It’s an affection that Salinger himself clearly shares: I can’t think of a writer who is more obviously fond of his characters, which makes his narrative voice of the loving older brother a particularly good choice.

Franny and Zooey is a deeply spiritual book, in a way that most works of modern fiction don’t dare to be. The personal religious hodge-podge adopted by the Glass family is deeply personal and idiosyncratic, specifically in that it rolls religion and the making of art into one giant ball, rolling it towards the phony disappointments of life, trying to knock them all down at once. The target is familiar from The Catcher in the Rye, with the adversarial word here being “ego” instead of “phony.” Like its predecessor, Franny and Zooey rails against the superficial, the surface, and anything that you could call “the earthly.” My paraphrase of the problem is: “What can one do without feeling like a terrible phony? without hating it?” The “answer,” or at the very least the coping mechanism, presented here, is this:

The artists only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.

Singleness of vision. A sense of personal goodness, and the ability to pursue it despite the phonies that surround you, and the phoniness that is within in. Is this a satisfactory nugget of wisdom? I used to think so, and I still do think it’s helpful. But I think it’s appropriate that as I age, I find more enjoyment in Salinger’s art itself than in his pronouncements about what it should be.