Posted by: Kristen Hicks | September 5, 2011

On Blood Meridian

“The men as they rode turned black in the sun from the blood on their clothes and their faces and then paled slowly in the rising dust until they assumed once more the color of the land through which they passed.”

On the Writing:

Reading Blood Meridian is a thoroughly unique experience. I’ve never encountered a piece of art that portrayed violence and cruelty with such affective beauty.  Just take the line above, the images and feelings being conveyed are stark and unpleasant–mired in blood and desert heat, and yet the language employed is downright poetic. This is true of pretty much the entirety of the novel.  I’ve never read a novel that just begged to be read out loud the way this one does in order to reiterate the beauty of the words.

Just take this line about two groups of men, ready to destroy one another:

“When Glanton spun to look at his men he found them frozen in deadlock with the savages, they and their arms wired into a construction taut and fragile as those puzzles wherein the placement of each piece is predicated upon every other and they in turn so that none can move for bringing down the structure entire.”

The only thing stopping men from destroying one another in this scene is the delicate balance imposed by the realization of mutually assured destruction. Have you ever encountered a potentially deadly conflict between two parties portrayed in such a poignant way?

The novel is also filled with language likely to make even the most dedicated student of the English language go running to a dictionary several times a page.

Whenever McCarthy touches on an image that would traditionally be representative of natural beauty, he always includes some element that serves to undercut it either by an image of human cruelty or a force of natural destruction.  Describing the experiences of the Kid, the primary character through whom we experience the novel, over time:

“On that lonely coast where the steep rocks cradled a dark and muttersome sea he saw vultures at their soaring whose wingspan so dwarfed the lesser birds that the eagles shrieking underneath were more like terns or plovers…he was twice in the city of San Francisco and twice saw it burn and never went back, riding out on horseback along the road to the south where all night the shape of the city burned against the sky and burned again in the black waters of the sea where dolphins rolled through the flames, fire in the lake, through the fall of burning timbers and the cries of the lost”

Thus, here the coast and the sea are dark and lonely and filled with vultures, a symbol of death; San Francisco and the dolphins off its coast are taken over by destructive fires and coupled with cries of suffering.  The experiences the Kid brings with him color his perception of the world so that beauty is a non-entity, everything he encounters represents destruction and death.

On the Judge:

“If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay”

Easily one of the most compelling and memorable aspects of the novel is the character of the Judge.  The man who expresses much of the philosophy and “wisdom” at the center of the novel, the Judge is a man with a distinct sense of morality, one which bears little resemblance and is, rather, in contradiction with the morality of the breadth of human society. The Judge represents the closest thing to reason in a time and place when anything kin to altruism or weakness is one of the worst traits for survival; when a man’s success is measured largely in his ability to perpetrate violence and survive in a harsh setting in which both man and nature are out above all to destroy.

The book gives the constant impression that the reader is missing something, that in the day to day actions of the characters, something deeper is occurring. The Judge is one of the primary examples of this.  He is the rare character who is made better and more poignant by our inability to really understand him. He’s impossible to pin down, completely larger than life and encompassing so much more than we can really comprehend.

Many (including a man who approached me at a restaurant as I was reading to inform me it was his favorite book) have interpreted him to be the devil. I’m not so sure I agree, though I imagine there are valid arguments to be made for that understanding of him. I think the character makes more sense to me in the context of the novel and how I understand it as a symbol of man; more specifically, of the darkness in man that comes out whenever context allows, the ability of man to justify his darkest impulses and act accordingly without guilt.

Complicating his character, he is fascinated by the world around him, taking samples of new plants he encounters and demonstrating a keen interest in and understanding of science.  As such, other than the ex-priest, his most clear foil, he is the only character who demonstrates an interest in learning and knowledge.

One of the primary subjects he lectures on, to whomever might be around and listening is war.  He worships war as the most divine calling of man.

“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 its ultimate practitioner…Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard…all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.”

We get very occasional glimpses in the novel of characters who don’t thrive on violence, the women who who attempt to adopt the idiot the men have picked up and save him from his life of squalor (unsuccessfully) come to mind and, presumably, many of the nameless, faceless villagers the Glanton gang encounter, but they are excessively rare.  The majority of the people living in the world of the novel and all of those that we spend any real time with live lives centered on destruction.

The Kid finds himself positioned between the ex-priest and the Judge at a certain point, in a game where all lives are at stake. A cursory look at the scene might make it seem a fight between good and evil, religion and a worldview more devoted to selfishness and violence; but really, we are given little incentive for seeing the ex-priest as a representative of good other than his past profession, one he abandoned in exchange for riding alongside a group of bandits reveling in violence. If anything, the conflict seems to me as being more between the figure who takes an active, leadership role in perpetrating cruelty; and the one who gives up moral certitude and chooses to follow along with rather than stand up to acts of evil. In the setting of this novel, there’s not really anyone who represents traditional ideas of “good”.

The book never presents a clear moral opinion on anything. The Kid merely takes in what he experiences, never seeming to think much about what he encounters.

The thinking is left to the Judge. After a long period apart, the Kid encounters him again later in life and gets a little more of his dark philosophizing:

“A man seeks his destiny and no other…Any man who could discover his fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well.  The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty.  It is hard. It is barren. It’s very nature is stone”

On the History:

Much that is disturbing in Blood Meridian is made more so by the knowledge that it portrays a fictional version of scenes known to have occurred in history. The leader of the gang that the Kid and the Judge are part of is Glanton who fronted a group of scalpers, initially paid by various officials in the Mexican government to help wipe out violent Native Americans, and later sought by many of the same officials due to their crimes against peaceful Native Americans and Mexicans.

Presumably, the bleakness and violence of the events of the novel and the cruelty of the men perpetrating them is largely accurate, at least according to the account of a man who was a member of the party, S. Chamberlain. Especially surprising is the presence of the Judge in the annals of history, as McCarthy so deftly succeeds at making him a mythic character.  Here’s Chamberlain’s description of the historical figure that likely spawned the fictional behemoth: “a cooler blooded villain never went unhung”.

On the Genre:

Literary critic, Harold Bloom considers this the final Western:

“It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, it essentially closes out the tradition.”

I haven’t read or seen too many Westerns and most of those I have encountered likely fall under the category of revisionist westerns, which attempt to take a more honest look at the darkness behind the historical periods of lawlessness that Hollywood and Louis L’Amour drew on for their more romanticized stories of heroes vs bad guys.

I did read Lonesome Dove earlier this year and often thought of the two books in comparison to one another. Interestingly enough, the two books were published in the same year. Lonesome Dove is set about three decades later than Blood Meridian, its central characters, Gus and Call, were involved in the war against the Native Americans in a more official capacity than the Glanton Gang, as Texas Rangers.  The violence of this time is mostly referenced as something of the past, most of their enemy had been wiped out and the characters are able to live a much more peaceful existence than that of the world in Blood Meridian. There are brief glimpses of a bleakness, violence and lawlessness kin to the reality experienced by the Kid, but it exists more on the fringes of the world of Lonesome Dove. They haven’t managed to move fully towards civilization and away from the chaos of a world defined by violence, but they’re getting close.

The two almost seem to work well as historical companion pieces, as well as different forays into a changing genre. I largely appreciated them on very different levels: the greatest strength of Lonesome Dove is the reality of the characters and how relatable they are; the element of Blood Meridian that makes it really great is its astounding use of language.  The stories they tell, if taken together, can be viewed through the lens of the progression of humanity, the move from the chaos that brings out the worst in us, towards the state of civilization which (arguably) allows us to co-exist with less instances of violence and a greater sense of community.

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