Thursday, September 15, 2011

BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy

Don't 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 which bonds?... 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? Look at me.
--Judge Holden in Blood Meridian

Judge Holden 'makes' Blood Meridian. Without him it would be a beautifully written western with a violent, Peckinpah-ish lyricism; with him, it's a great and fascinating novel that deserves shelf-space among the best works of Melville and Hawthorne. Judge Holden ('Judge' is possibly his first name, significantly mistaken for his title by the novel's other characters [cf, bizarrely enough, Judge Reinhold]), this seven-foot, 332-pound, dancing, declaiming, murdering masterpiece of malevolence, this ice-blooded preacher of the gospel of war, this terrifying and terrifyingly familiar embodiment of American nihilism, is by far the most impressive character in Blood Meridian and probably the greatest in McCarthy's entire oeuvre. Don't trust Holden when he claims not to speak in mysteries, for how else can he speak when he is himself the greatest mystery, appearing first to the Glanton gang as their satanic deliverer sitting calmly on a rock in the wilderness and proceeding to instruct them in the improvised manufacture of gunpowder from its natural plutonic elements? This story in chapter 10, which Chaucer might have titled 'The Ex-Priest's Tale,' is in my opinion the point at which the book blasts out of its 'revisionist western' subgenre and achieves true greatness. And the judge provides the powder for that blast. He seems bigger than the book, in the same way that Shakespeare's greatest characters are so much larger than the borrowed plots that struggle to contain them. And like Hamlet and Lear he is constantly performing, irrepressibly theatrical--even at one point declaiming naked upon a battlement in a raging thunderstorm a poem that could only be the storm scene from Lear. (McCarthy is artist enough to describe this performance only vaguely and indirectly, letting the reader connect the literary dots. The Lear connection becomes more obvious later when we see the Judge wandering with his 'fool.') Also like those Shakespearean creations in their respective plays, Holden is the only character in Blood Meridian whose consciousness seems uncannily to contain the book in which he appears. When he tells his fellow killers that "Books lie," only he seems to appreciate the delicious irony, only he seems to realize that he is a character in a book. What else could be the meaning of his mysterious smile as he speaks these words? Even more interestingly, it might be argued that Judge Holden is the 'narrator' of Blood Meridian, that the book is 'spoken' in the voice of his polymathic, polylingual consciousness. He is, after all, the only man still alive at the end, still dancing, still talking, and still insisting that he will never be stilled.

(This hypothesis might clear up one of the book's concluding mysteries: Why does the scene-synopsis at the head of the last chapter describe the last scene in German? Obviously, this is another example of the multilingual Holden showing off. The fact that the line's 'Ich' refers to Judge Holden seems to confirm the hypothesis. This is McCarthy's way of identifying the narratorial consciousness at novel's end.)


Joe Miller said...

My dad and I had a lengthy argument last night about whether or not 'Blood Meridian' surpasses 'Heart of Darkness' in terms of presenting the brutality of the imperialist mindset and the essentially destructive urges of man. What do you think? Is the question even worth pursuing?

BRIAN OARD said...


It's an interesting question. I've always seen Conrad as basically a moralist and the view of empire in Heart of Darkness, for all its ironic complexity, as basically a moralistic critique. Blood Meridian discounts the moralistic humanism from which Conrad begins, going beyond good and evil (there are passages in which Judge Holden seems to have read Nietzsche even though he's speaking in 1849) to reveal the nihilism inherent in all power structures. The episode of the Colorado River ferry late in the novel, for example, is a little allegory of laissez-faire capitalism run amok into an orgy of robbery, rape and murder. (I'm thinking especially of the paragraph on page 262 of my paperback edition that begins "Nor did he appear the following day....")

Joe Miller said...

Are you referring to passages like this? "The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind may compass, that mind being but a fact among others." That sort of nihilistic skepticism can also be found in Montaigne, particularly in the 'Apology for Raymond Sebond'. Here's one of my favorite examples: Man is always inclined to regard the small circle in which he lives as the center of the world and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe. But he must give up this vain pretense, this petty, provincial way of thinking and judging." I think that Nietzsche is closest to Montaigne in moments like these. That would mean that the Judge could have easily found inspiration for that sort of perspective in 1849.

This also raises the issue of knowledge/power, something that Judge Holden is very concerned with. What do you make of that, and how does that connect with the novel's exploration of the insanity and callousness of Manifest Destiny?

BRIAN OARD said...

Judge Holden sounds more specifically Nietzschean further on in that chapter, when he says, "Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn..." There's a part of me that wants to believe Holden has impossibly read The Genealogy of Morals many years before it was written, but it's more likely McCarthy wants to show us that Holden has read everything Nietzsche will read and has come to similar conclusions.

About knowledge, power and Manifest Destiny, what comes to mind is the judge's curious anthropological work, carefully sketching into his book items that he then destroys, the stated goal of his recording being the oblivion of all traces of indigenous peoples. So the judge is a kind of anti-anthropologist who transforms reality into text because a single text can be more efficiently destroyed. First kill the people, then record their traces in a book, then erase the traces, then destroy the book. It seems a perfect formula for cultural genocide, until we remember the memories forever in the judge's brain and his prediction that he will never die... He's a haunting character--and a haunted one too. Much more haunted than the settlers who will come later and who will, as D. H. Lawrence pointed out, assume the land is virgin because the aborigines have already been murdered.

Joe Miller said...

Now THAT'S disturbing. He draws sketches of everything he comes across; if your identification of the Judge as that portly former Exxon CEO is correct, then the fate of the whole world might be at stake!

welker said...

This is one of those books I have left standing on the bookshelves for an unconscionable length of time without managing to pick it up and read. Thank you for this very pointed reminder to remedy that omission ASAP.
I came across your blog by way of finding your exceptional description of Max Beckmann's "Departure" on the web.