"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy


The sanctity of blood

Many MS Word files have been saved and blogposts posted and dinner party conversations become heated and articles published and seminars prolonged into late afternoons in discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian (Random House, New York, 1985). Many of the words written and spouted are intelligible in that upper plane whose rarefied air is breathed only by academics and intellectuals.

Leo Daugherty in his 1992 article, Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy, for example, describes the novel as a "rare coupling of Gnostic 'ideology' with the 'affect' of Hellenic tragedy by means of depicting how power works in the making and erasing of culture, and of what the human condition amounts to when a person opposes that power and thence gets introduced to fate.” Daugherty sees Holden as an archon, and the kid as a "failed pneuma." Right. With you, there, Leo.

Mr. McCarthy’s refusal to give interviews on the subject has only, amusingly, poured gasoline on the flames of speculation and hypothesis.
 
 
Chris Dacus in the Cormac McCarthy Journal for 2009 (there’s a Cormac McCarthy journal?) wrote an essay entitled, The West as Symbol of the Eschaton in Cormac McCarthy, where he expressed his preference for discussing the theme of theodicy in its eschatalogical terms in comparison to the theological scene of the last judgment. OK, Chris, no arguing with that, is there.

Well, I am sorry but I can’t compete with that. I don’t actually want to. And I venture to say that my regular readers, both of them, wouldn’t want to either.

Indeed, I hesitate to add to this sanguinary swamp of Blood-Meridiana at all. However, any self-respecting Western blog (and this one is at least self-respecting, if not respected) has to deal with Blood Meridian at some point. Though it may fairly be described as an anti-Western, there is no doubt that the book is one of the great milestones alongside the trail of the development of the genre. If you want to understand the Western at all, there are certain movies you really need to see and certain novels you would do well to read. In the former category, Stagecoach, Red River, High Noon, The Searchers, to name but a few. The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch. You know. The usual suspects. In the second group, The Virginian, Riders of the Purple Sage, Little Big Man, Lonesome Dove, some others. They mostly pick themselves. Ron Hansen’s book The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Probably In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake. Blood Meridian.
 
 
Antiwestern? Maybe. But although those Olympian academic intellectuals probaby look down with scorn on the Western novel as genre and wouldn't even consider that Blood Meridian might be one, I have a sneaking suspicion that Cormac McCarthy has written one. A journey, gunplay, Indians, saloons. Man against man and man against nature. Oh, it's not cowboys and Indians as we know it, Jim, but it is a Western. Even the name of the central character, 'the kid'.

Well, I have just re-read Blood Meridian and here, for what they are worth, are a couple of thousand words on the subject. If you are an academic or intellectual, stop reading now. Pick up the latest number of The Cormac McCarthy Journal instead. This month there’s a great article on Blood Meridian as the Ur-story in Manichean Zoroastrianism.

Blood Meridian hits you with both barrels. The first barrel is the intense, lyrical style, for it is a 330-page prose poem written in McCarthy’s own English (or english, as he would call it), without the benefit or baggage of inverted commas or apostrophes, peppered with archaic and arcane vocabulary and necessitating the re-reading of whole paragraphs, if not pages, which you do in wonder.

Then the shot from the second barrel hits you and that is the implacable, toe-curling blood-letting. It is certainly the most violent book I have ever read. If you are at all squeamish, go back to your Zane Grey. Passages leave your nose wrinkled and eyes closed in fascinated distaste.

But these two aspects of the book are also what make it uniquely good. As an example of the first you can open the book at almost any page, bibliomantically (not really), my copy falling open at page 130, where the expriest Tobin recounts to the kid:

Ye’d run out upon a little promontory and ye’d be balked about by the steep crevasses, you wouldnt dare to jump them. Sharp black glass the edges and sharp the flinty rocks below. We led the horses with every care and still they were bleedin about their hooves. Our boots was cut to pieces. Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through to the molten core of her. Where for aught any man knows lies the locality of hell. For the earth is a globe in the void and truth there’s no up nor down to it and there’s men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoof-prints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock?

And so on. It is noticeable that everywhere they go on their journey, the land is arid, barren, inhospitable and full of death. The ragged band crosses desert, malpais, gypsum flats, emptiness. Even in areas where things grow there is nothing verdant. Crops rot unharvested in the fields. The only villagers seen are diseased, old, witless.
 
No known photograph of John Joel Glanton survives but this is Samuel Chamberlain (1829 - 1908) who rode with Glanton and wrote about the expedition in My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue 

Many Western writers have described the slaughter of the buffalo but few as powerfully as McCarthy in Chapter XXIII. He concentrates on the collection of the residual bones. He would.

As to the violence, the party is out to kill aborigines for the scalp bounty offered by Mexican states and they slaughter Indians (called indians) first, then villagers, then anyone at all simply for the cruel bloodlust of it. There’s a telling part where the men ride down a steep trail and meet a party of mules coming up carrying flasks of mercury. The hunters ride furiously down, shooting down the muleteers with great revolvers and driving fifty beasts off the cliffs to burst bloodily below in explosions of red and silver. They do it for no reason other than mere meanness and pure prepotence.

In the end their excesses lead to an annulment of the bounty and pursuit of the hunters by the Mexican military but it does not stop the bloodshed. The sanginary violence is reciprocated by the various indians they meet, Comanche, Apache, Yuma. Scalpings and flayings and torturings to death are commonplace. Men, women, children, animals, all are bloodily destroyed. There is no revisionist idea here that the brutal whites are slaughtering the innocent Indians: all men participate equally in the bloodfest and at every opportunity. The whites are repellently decorated with scalps and scapulars of human ears while the Indians are shockingly horrific and truly frightening in their fragments of white-ladies' garb and painted faces.

But it is, above all, the language that hits you. Here is an attack by Apaches:

They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.

A peyote dream must be like that.

      They rode all day upon a pale gastine sparsely grown with saltbush and panicgrass.

If I wrote that, Bill Gates's schoolmasterly spellchecker would underline most of it.

The Victorian chapter headings are in a way a delight too, though I preferred to read them at the end of each chapter because the book often depends on surprise – a shocking episode of violence in many cases.
 
At one point they meet Mangas Coloradas
 
One of the challenging things about reading Blood Meridian (I found) is its impenetrability. No real destination is ever given for the long ride that takes up 90% of the book, beyond a vague seeking out of people to slaughter. It’s almost a dream journey. And the ‘protagonist’, a youth known as only as the kid, is taciturn and withdrawn. We do not know what he thinks. We are used, in Westerns anyway, to having a hero, or at least a central character, who is going somewhere, has a destination or aim, achieves it usually. Here you are left with the impression of the pointlessness of it all. Perhaps the pointlessness is the point.

I read somewhere (sorry, I forget who said it) that McCarthy has excised the tragic from the tragedy. In some ways it's an odd opinion but in others it's just right because the blood and destruction are casual, everyday events with, it seems, no consequence.

And who is 'talking'? You struggle to identify the voice. It can't be the kid; he is too silent, too uneducated, even perhaps unthinking. It isn't the judge, though he would be capable of such language. But it isn't Holden. Well, of course it's Cormac McCarthy. But we are used to reading the story from the point of view of a character, even his thoughts. This is observed from outside.

The other characters, apart from the kid, are strongly drawn, and by their actions or speech (in the case of the judge, both but especially the speech) you know them. The kid meets the Peake-ishly named Toadvine early on, with initials HT (presumably for Horse Thief) burned into his brow and missing his ears. Toadvine survives far through the book and we get to know him.

There are two John Jacksons, one white and one black, and perversely, once the black Jackson has beheaded the white Jackson and there is no more confusion over the name, so the surviving Jackson can now be known as Jackson without ambiguity, McCarthy refers to him not as Jackson but only as the black.

Tobin asserts that he abandoned the novitiate and was never a priest but the judge always calls him Priest. He is more ‘readable’ as a character because he talks more and fears and loathes the judge. Priest or not, he takes full part in the slaughter and pillage.

Glanton is the leader, sometimes referred to as Captain. This character is based on the real John Joel Glanton (1819 – 1850) who was possibly an outlaw in Tennessee, fought for Texan independence, was a Texas Ranger and soldier of fortune who led a band of scalphunters in Chihuahua, then Sonora and then in modern-day Arizona. He was killed by Quechan Indians while operating a ferry and robbing and murdering passengers and Indians. The character of McCarthy’s Glanton is illustrated when he tames (‘mans’ as he puts it) a vicious dog abandoned in a pueblo, an animal which which becomes slavishly loyal to him, but when the party is joined by an exhibited ‘imbecile’ in a cage, and the dog, with some protective instinct, pads alongside, Glanton viciously quirts the dog and drives him back to his own side. He will allow no dilution of viciousness.
 
Quechan Indians finally did for Glanton
 
Doc Irving is less well delineated. But we have here a grotesque representation of the professions, the Army (Glanton), medicine (Irving), the clergy (Tobin) and the law (Judge Holden), all renegades and psychopaths.

But the strongest character without a doubt, the one who stays in your memory longest, is the polymathic Judge Holden. It’s his giant size and his alopeciac smoothness, exacerbated by his frequently appearing naked, that make him a grotesque, but he is also the wordiest of the characters and the most intelligent. His philosophy, often expounded (mostly pontificating to those who understand almost nothing of what he says) is fascinatingly horrible. He talks of war as noble ritual and the sanctity of blood. He says that anything that exists without his knowledge is an insult to him. All liberty too: he would have every bird confined to a zoo. He never sleeps and he says he cannot die. Perhaps he is the devil. He is the only survivor.

In the last chapter the kid meets himself, as it were. Now in his forties, 1878, he comes across a violent uneducated boy, Elrod, just like himself when he met Toadvine, and kills him. He tries not to but is obliged. Elrod even uses the same words that the kid did in Chapter 1, when warned that he could be killed if he persisted: They ain’t nobody done it yet.

In fact although the kid shoots and kills, he is the least engaged in the slaughter of all of them. The judge knows that the kid's heart was not truly committed to mayhem. Just as the kid met Toadvine and started his life of blood on the way to the jakes, on a boardwalk over the mud, in Chapter I, so he goes to his (presumable) death the same way in the last chapter.

I did not understand the epilogue at all. Not at all.

There has been much talk of making a movie of Blood Meridian. Ridley Scott (who produced The Assassination of Jesse James...), Todd Field (Bob Younger in the 1995 Frank and Jesse) and James Franco (no Western connection that I know of) have apparently all tried to launch it as a project but given it up. You can understand it: how would you translate that prose to the screen, how would any studio accept that essential degree of blood, how would such an uncommunicative protagonist as the kid fare in a film, how would you cast the judge? Maybe Jim Jarmusch could make it, as a sort of acid Western like Dead Man. But I doubt it. We'd need Peckinpah Redux with Brian de Plasma and Quentin Tarantino and even their combined arterial artistry wouldn't be enough.

Well, that’s what I have to say about Blood Meridian. Not very intellectual, was it.

8 comments:

  1. Wrong. It was intellectual -- and even better -- understandable.

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  2. John Maddox Roberts11/18/13, 2:14 AM

    A fine summation. I would add that the opening pages of Chapter One, taking the Kid from Tennessee to the river to New Orleans to Texas, ending in Nacogdoches, comprising barely two pages and ten paragraphs, is the finest, most compact piece of descriptive writing I have ever encountered.

    As for adaptation, feature film might not be the way to go. The Starz series Spartacus has shown that outrageous bloodshed has become acceptable on television, though in cartoonish fashion. Paradoxically, the main difficulty might be the lack of sex, as there is virtually none in BM except for an occasional rape, implied child molestation and the odd bit of necrophiliac sodomy. Also, there are no good female roles, which might make producers back off. Maybe some fearless New Zealander would be willing to take it on. I'd watch it.

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    1. Yes, maybe TV. Though I saw an episode of Spartacus and thought it very poor so I hope that team doesn't get hold of McCarthy. Having said that, Deadwood was wonderful...
      Jeff

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  3. Jeff, thanks so much for your modest but succinct review of the themes in McCarthy's nearly perfect work of art. I read the book about 10 years ago and thought I understood it, then this past month, I've managed to read it twice back to back. I missed nearly everything except the violence on the first go around a decade ago. I'm now inspired to make an art project based on the themes within book and came across your article looking for Chamberlain/scalping, source images. Thanks again, if you have time, please stop by my very non-western art blog - http://www.catalyss.blogspot.com/ and website - www.acevanart

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  4. Thanks for your comment and good luck with the project.
    Jeff

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  5. Thanks for the review, Jeff, and thanks for the book recommendations. Thanks for the blog - I've been looking for some new Western novels, and now I've got some.

    I just finished Blood Meridian for the second time. I enjoyed it much more, this time, because some of the chapters I couldn't understand, I would listen to via the audiobook, which is available on Youtube here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2x0-u_bwvQE

    I enjoyed BM immensely. I love some of the language. The account of the first indian attack, when the Comanches attack the filibusters, is such good writing that it made me feel anxious - just imaging that horrendous scene was enough make me feel fear, and to me, that is good writing.

    I love Westerns, I love history, I love the history of the old West. I love Roughing It, by Mark Twain.

    But I'm not a literary man, I'm a chemist, so I found BM, with its use of arcane words and terminology, often impenetrable. I wondered, is this supposed to be so hard to read? Why the untranslated Spanish? Why not just write, "X said something in Spanish". If the argument is, "well, that is what the kid heard", well the kid didn't understand Spanish. Neither do I, and when I hear it, I sure can't articulate it into individual words and sounds. I just hear Spanish. If the kid DID understand Spanish, then why not have the characters say the translated English, as the kid would have understood those words? E.g. "X said, "Give me the gun," in Spanish."

    I run the risk of raising ire with this comment, but I think sometimes people ascribe brilliance to things they don't understand. I've heard this book described as the greatest american novel ever, written by a genius, one of the finest books of all time, and so on. I didn't find it to be that, exactly.

    I have been in situations with my research supervisors, and non-scientists have heard the supervisors talk, in highly technical chemical jargon, or mathematical or statistical jargon, or computer-science jargon. Often those laypeople who can't understand the jargon, think that the speaker is brilliant.

    I remember thinking my physiology lecturer was a genius, because of the vast numbers of names he knew for bones, muscles, nerves, and so on.

    When scientists talk shop, I've heard non-scientists say things like, "that's incredibly complicated" or "that must be so hard", and other such things. They'll hear my explanation of my recent research, in which we spent a year developing 8-hydroxyquinoline-5-sulfonamides with aryl or alkylfluoride substituents, for diagnosis and treatment of alzheimer's disease. The drugs disrupt beta-amyloid plaques, by binding copper and zinc in the brain, and transporting these ions across cell membranes, restoring metal-ion homeostasis in aged brains and restoring cognition in alzheimer's patients.

    I find that stuff pretty cool, but it makes me no smarter than a mechanic. I can't fix my car when it breaks down, and when I look into the engine, it appears so complex, that it would take a disciplined mind to fix it.

    Scientists are often viewed as either geniuses or suspicious people, because unless you're a scientist, it is hard to understand what they're saying. That applies within science too - I have trouble understanding what a physicist is talking about, or an engineer. In fact, even in chemistry, I can't understand the content of most articles in the Journal of Physical Chemistry, while I can understand all in the Journal of Organic Chemistry.

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  6. Please forgive me for taking so long to make my point. I'm no writer and my thinking is undisciplined at times, but I hope I'm making my point. Cormac McCarthy uses passages in Blood Meridian that I couldn't understand, and I expect even those with artistic or literary backgrounds would have only understood a bit more. The epilogue, for example, as you mentioned.

    What the hell did it mean? Does it make something genius, because we don't understand it? Is the epilogue brilliant, or meaningless? For me, I need to understand something before it means anything, and so I found myself routinely frustrated in the book, wondering what was happening, trying to understand which character was speaking, or what the author was trying to say, when he such statements as these (this from the epilogue):

    "On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones end those who do not gather."

    Is it just supposed to be hard to figure out? If so, then why is it good? Why is it better than the descriptions in books that aren't seen as literature (like Dan Brown or John Grisham or something)?

    Perhaps I should take a class on literature or poetic interpretation. I would love to be able to understand this book more than I do, but I find myself sort of irritated at my confusion. I felt like a child reading a book that is "too hard" for him, like when I tried reading the Bible as a young boy, and there was "David begat so-and-so, and so-and-so begat Jim, and Jim begat John, and John begat Jack", etc, and I wondered what they meant and why it was there.

    Thanks again for the blog. I don't mean to appear so culturally ignorant. I don't understand abstract paintings like those of Jackson Pollock, either. I feel like I'm blind to meaning that others obtain. But I do think it is worth asking, "is this really a work of genius or just a bunch of paint slapped on a canvas? If it is genius, what makes it so? If I can't understand what it means, does it mean I'm unenlightened, or does it mean the art is intentionally hard to understand.

    In that case, isn't the author just lazy? Take the Sopranos ending - it was left open to interpretation, I think. Maybe it was because the writers thought, 'to hell with it, if we see Tony get killed people will be disappointed, if we don't see him killed, it will be disappointing, if he goes to gaol people will think we're making a new season later...so let's just leave it up to the viewer."

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  7. I don't think Blood Meridian could ever really be made into a movie, because so many scenes would be left out, and others condensed, that the film would bear little resemblance to the book. In a book with no clearly defined character arc, acts/movements, it would be a tough ask. The judge's pontificating on war, and death are in my mind quite important to the character - but they'd be a hard slog for moviegoers. I think it would take a filmmaker prepared to lose money, and to receive reactions like those I remember seeing to "No Country for Old Men". In the small town where I live, in regional australia, not exactly a cultural mecca, the credits literally drew jeers and boos from the crowd. They were angry. Some walked out earlier than the end, but most stayed just to shout and jeer and boo, when the credits began to roll. It was disconcerting.

    Thanks for your review, I like it because it is so easy to grasp, and I love your blog. Forgive the mass of text. I'm tired and I think it is the sign of an undisciplined mind, which mine certainly is. Maybe Blood Meridian is the work of a genius, but it is simply beyond me.

    That's probably the most likely explanation - but its worth talking about, and a book I think everyone should read (maybe not, as you said, those who are squeamish or abhor violence in all its forms).

    Pete

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