Hi you guys. I’ll cite page numbers along the way to prove I am not totally making stuff up. I have the 1992 Vintage edition. As far as I can tell the page numbers are the same in the Modern Library edition.
So! This is the second time I’ve read Blood Meridian. The first I was 18 and it blew me away. It did something I had no idea writing could still do—I mean, I’d read Shakespeare and Moby Dick, but this was from a year I was alive. The book was a dreamlike and unflinching and mysterious performance, it was hilarious and horrifying. I didn’t know exactly what was going on all the time but I was unbothered by that; it was just a crazy ride. And—being 18—I never finished it. Got distracted. No idea how it turned out.
Part of me was fine with that. The point of the book seemed to be the way it was written, not what happened. The point was the performance, the way it reordered things.
Now that I’ve reread it (and it’s had a lot of power over my imagination in the 15+ years since the unresolved first read), I can say this book might be the darkest I’ve ever read—but in style it’s incandescent, and that mysterious opposition (one of many in the book) is no accident. McCarthy wants us to see a world where the only fact is violence, and anything else (morality, mercy) is a fiction. Humans are brutal animals in this world. But Blood Meridian is also a book about how we create and cross into a world of meaning. Which we do by stories—by mythology, by religion—that complicate the world and fill it with mystifying contradictions that seem to indicate a superior intelligence at work.
It’s a weird way to make the case but let me say it: there are tons of words here whose meanings I can only hazard (swales? purlieu?), but I enjoyed being disoriented by them. Better still: that I wasn’t confident of every word seemed like it had to be intentional. I mean no one knows what “thrapple” means, right? These words pushed me out of having total control, maneuvered me into a strange world and into trusting McCarthy that he wouldn’t lose me there.
My sense that disorientation was on purpose seemed born out pretty soon (page 85) when the judge says “Words are things… Their authority transcends his ignorance of their meaning.” (Of course, nothing is straight in this book; the judge is talking about a lie he has told to a Mexican whose hand no one will shake.) I feel that McCarthy is telling us directly: words have authority, “suzerainty” (interesting speech on 198-199!) over us. And McCarthy uses their dislocating strangeness to put us back at the beginning of mankind, before law, mythology, before the wheel, before everything but killing.
Of course it wouldn’t be much of a book if he just took us and left us there, and I contend he also gives us a history or anthropology of how we “mature”; similar to how the kid becomes the man, it’s a story about how the species moves from savage to civil life—via what I’ll call religion.
Religion starts with one of the craziest words in the book: “That night they sat at the fire like ghosts in their dusty beards and clothing, rapt, pyrolatrous” (111). This comes after many slaughters, at the end of a despairing trek across a particularly harsh land, during which there arose deadly whirlwinds out of which “no voice spoke” and instead is audible at night only “the dull boom of rock falling somewhere far below them in the awful darkness inside the world”; finally they cross a lakebed of gypsum “so fine the ponies left no track upon it.” And in this trackless bed they build a fire – they make a centerpoint, around which they sit enraptured. I’d say here we’re at ground zero: the beginning of the end of pure wildernesss. Our earliest ancestors, orienting the universe around the point of their first bonfire, inventing in a sense the first geometry, the first moment when the world had an order to it (and a shared centerpoint, instead of just each orienting the world around his own head), and it was a circle of warmth, and in it they felt (maybe for the first time) safe and therefore worshipful, idolatrous of fire—pyrolatrous.
Fire only takes us so far, though. The burning tree in the desert (215) doesn’t speak like the bush that directed Moses; the origin of its burning is explicitly lightning, not miracle—but here’s the thing: McCarthy calls the tree in the morning a black “stylus” in a terrain “without other designation.” The world is a blank; the burnt tree is a writing implement. What we write with it—how we order the universe—is up to us, no god giving orders. If we want to say the burning was a sign—well, that story will come to have authority. But I think for McCarthy it’s clear that there was no sign. Just us. In McCarthy’s “time before naming,” remember, we’re not in Eden cared for by god—that’s mythology, written later, looking back, imagining something better than what was. No, before naming we’re in Gondwanaland, “wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order” (172).
The judge even says: “The order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze , so that you will not lose your way” (245, and straight from ancient Greek religion, the story of Theseus ). So: becoming more than provisional—moving from bonfire to storytelling to religion: an attempt to describe the world in parable or narrative, lend it sense—is based on a lie.
Lies, though, acquire weight , moreso over time. Look at the ridiculous parable the judge tells (at a campfire, 142-147). It’s a Job-like folktale without much point anyone can see, it ends with bones scattered and people broken. “But there’s a rider to the tale.” And that’s the trick: the dead man’s unborn son will never know his father, and so is screwed. Because he will never witness his father’s “small mean ways” or “see him struggling in follies of his own devising.” This son will imagine a perfect father, one he can never live up to, not a man but an idol carved in stone. This tragedy is the point of the judge’s tale and it ends there. McCarthy goes on a little longer: “[The judge] sat before the fire naked save for his breeches and his hands rested palm down upon his knees. His eyes were empty slots. … so like an icon was he in his sitting that they grew cautious and spoke with circumspection among themselves…” So the judge himself in telling a powerful story becomes like a statue, the air around him like the air in a temple where people whisper in respect, mystification, fear.
Okay, I better highlight what I mean by religion. I don’t mean the baby Jesus or Orpheus or the Pyramids, or Zoroastrian dualism or Roman priests examining viscera. I mean the root of them all: the will to see in the plain observed facts of the world evidence of something more. The mysticizing of the universe so that it isn’t just what we see but the embodiment of an unseeable intelligence with a plan. I mean religion as a story we tell—any story—that transforms the universe from wilderness into something orderly (and all stories do this, or what’s their point?). The judge says “The mystery is there is no mystery” (252), and I think McCarthy accepts that—while writing a book that is full of mystery.
What to make of that last speech (328-331)? The judge, a known liar since we first met him accusing a preacher of sex with goats, now appearing theatrically, a “thespian,” and talking about ritual and “the dance”? We could spend all day on this speech but as it pertains to religion I’ll note the judge calls our life a series of ceremonies. Which is to say, I think, that we enjoin ourselves to each other—tabernacle each man within each other man, all witnesses to each other—and in doing this we as a cult or parish or broad civilization imagine and share rules metaphysical and legal that we agree the world is governed by, enact rituals or behaviors according to the rules, make games—just living by rules is playing a game—and we do it because when we are alone, without the order of games, without anything at stake, we fall into emptiness and despair, knowing one day we will “step down into darkness” and be forgotten. Suspend all incredulity if you want any stories about what happens in that darkness—McCarthy won’t do it. And I think that’s why [SPOILER ALERT] the last death is not described. It’s a blank spot because finally there can be no honest or meaningful account of it.
Now the epilogue and then I’ll shut up. It’s so oblique, I’m not sure what’s going on. I think it describes the building of railroads, crossing the frontier with orderly lines, time zones, work crews, thereby erasing the frontier. So that the frontier comes to us as myth only. We eulogize the lost frontier, we long for its purity, to live a story as simple and sensible as total freedom, good versus evil in a showdown at high noon, violence just and redemptive. We have been trying to live up to this myth in America for 150 years now, like the kid who never met his father, and we feel that our world is less and we are failures.
What do you guys think?
- 141, “The judge smiled. Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world.” A man who stands outside this and is only his own witness is “an ignorant heathen savage.” I think this means witnessing and story-telling let us share a point of view, and this is as close to a holy transformation of nature as McCarthy wants us to get.
- 146, the judge at Anasazi ruins: “Here are the dead fathers. Their spirit is entombed in the stone. It lies upon the land with the same weight and ubiquity. For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe…” I think this is true of Blood Meridian itself: the style looks unblinking at the world, the words often iconic or mysterious rather than explicatory, to make it (or any mythologizing) a kind of monument that will hold sway over how we see our past and ourselves and our potential.
- 153, the whole talk about how the witness is more important than the killer or the victim because it’s the witness who can say it happened and lend it meaning.
- 246, the judge’s explanation of the universe, using a coin, is a magic trick. It appears to disobey natural law, to transform reality. They know there must be a string attached. But they are mystified anyway.
- 250, “The priest also would be no godserver but a god himself.”
- 286, the dead Glanton gang are described as “all rubbed out.” They did nothing permanent, agents only of chaos, and so vanish as easily as a chalk drawing?
- I keep talking about mystery and mystification, so I better clarify. To me, religious mystery is contemplative and resides in contradiction: that we are mortal but also immortal; that the Christian god is one but also three; that the Jews are god’s chosen people but also conquered by Babylon and Egypt… I don’t want to drag us into specific religions but any thoughts on the contradictions in this book, you guys? I think McCarthy is constantly raising an idea only to show us an opposing idea that short-circuits it in the most thrilling way; i.e., the kid shows mercy to Shelby on 206-209 and this helps us root for the kid but at the same time the mercy just draws out Shelby’s death and may be a sign of weakness, so what the hell are we rooting for and who are we, because later on 280 I also admired the kid’s marksmanship and was rooting for him to kill Yumas so he could escape. Another mystery: part of the kid truly becoming a man is when he tells the woman who he is; but she is a dead shell, dry as reeds, so there is no witness to his becoming a man (except us readers.)
- Final thought: Blood Meridian is partly about how every story transforms wilderness into something orderly, but it is also as close as possible to contradicting this. Because what the hell happens in this book? They ride around killing. A kid gets older. Everyone dies. At no point does the authorial voice say plainly, “Here’s the moral.” The judge says that, and the judge seems supernatural—but the judge is also a liar in the very first scene we meet him, and he has to be mortal, right?—only a “passing thespian.” So the idea that he is a god or a devil is our idea because we want that big meaning to be there, and we are encouraged by the author, who also however undercuts the idea, by telling us it’s just what we want, and who is in fact (along with you the reader!) the only identifiable superior intelligence running the show.
- I love this book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
“I was born in the best state, New Jersey, and lived at the shore, which is not how it looks on TV. I wrote a book in 1996 that almost got published, and when the decision was finally reached not to make me hugely famous at a tender age, I decided on a big change, and spent months driving around the country, taking photos I still have not developed, ultimately settling in Venice Beach. There I wrote a lot of bad movie scripts that no one ever produced, which is completely normal. I also worked a variety of stupid jobs (I was the best latte-frother on 3rd Street) and eventually one job stuck, in advertising. For fun, I write stuff that no one except bookgum publishes or produces. I don’t tweet and I’m reluctant to link you guys to my Facebook page; I don’t have embarrassing eyebrows or anything, I just like the anonymity. By the end of the week I might change my mind.”
- Wednesday, Mans argues that Blood Meridian IS A COMIC novel.
- Thursday WE HAVE Dr. Girlfriend STEPPING up and discussing THE ROLE of the author IN Blood Meridian, in the LARGER LITERARY world, and HOW CORMAC MCCARTHY does or does not “LIVE UP” TO this role.
- Finally, ON FRIDAY, I’ll (this is AN AMERICAN PATRIOT now, by the WAY) wrap THINGS up with SOME FINAL thoughts and AN OPEN forum FOR FURTHER discussion SO BE SURE to keep F5ING.
- AS ALWAYS, those interested in WRITING FOR Bookgum should email ME AT AnAmPatriot@gmail.com