I. How to Tell A Joke:
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
George Bernard Shaw
A joke is a strange and delicate thing. For a joke to work, the punch-line must be both unexpected and inevitable. A punch-line is something true and undeniable, yet also something that you can’t see bearing down on you. Once it arrives, however, it seems as though there could never have been any other end but this. In this way, a punch-line is not that different from Death.
Because of this, and the fact that jokes also often involve bodily waste and/or personal injury, I think it is fair to consider Blood Meridian a comedy in the manner of Twelfth Night or Tom Sawyer or As I Lay Dying.
The novel contains the stuff of comedy: witty banter, pratfalls, toilets, dances and clowns. Once the reader is able to look past the buckets of entrails, or perhaps because of those very buckets, she will find a very funny story made up of the most common comic elements.
Yet, there is a comedy beyond this comedy, an anti-comedy, an absurdity. Just as the men of Blood Meridian push themselves to the limits of living, the novel pushes the limits of humor, finding a bleak void where only one person laughs.
II. Comedy Is Meaningful:
“It’s only a flesh wound.”
The Black Knight, Monty Python’s The Holy Grail
As a general rule, for a joke to be funny, it must make sense. There are exceptions to this, as I will discuss below, but in general this is true. Comprehension is essential to comedy. For wordplay to work, the words must be understood. While humor is often chaotic and regularly turns meaning upside down, at its core, it must still exist within some sort of understandable meaning to be recognized as humor. In this, humor is essentially conservative as it reinforces and plays off of our collective understanding of the meaning of the world and words around us.
Q: What happened when the Rabbi fell down the stairs?
This joke is funny because it makes sense. We understand the words; we understand the pun. Humor reinforces meaning. It comforts us: while the world may seem chaotic and meaningless at times, don’t worry, it will all come together and we will all laugh in the end. Everything will make sense when the joke is finished.
There is plenty of straight humor in Blood Meridian. Consider Toadvine, the novel’s most obviously comic character.
We first meet him when he fights a child in a mud pit by some outhouses. Take this out of the context of the novel’s parade of violence and degradation for a moment: two drunks fighting in the mud near toilets are inherently funny. If it were on YouTube, we would love it.
For that matter: don’t take it out of the context of violence and degradation. Violence and degradation are humor essentials. Turn your mind for a moment to Monty Python. Monty Python regularly uses violence and human degradation for purely comic ends. Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life gorges on plate after plate of food, spewing buckets of vomit. He finally explodes, graphically, after eating a wafer-thin mint, spraying the restaurant in entrails and vomit. This is funny. This is also not that different from anything that happens in Blood Meridian.
But Toadvine (blessed with a name that would make both Dickens and Pynchon proud) is not just a physical comedian, but also the sharpest wit in the novel.
Upon entering a cantina: “What have you got that a man could drink with just a minimum of blindness and death.”
To Judge Holden, upon the Judge’s discovering that one of the scalping party has disappeared: “I allowed you knowed he was gone. It ain’t like he was so small you never would miss him.”
Early in the novel, when Toadvine meets up with the Kid again in the Mexican prison, the prisoners are fed cold mush and “fitted with chains,” then “routed out into the streets…stinking” and overseen by a “goldtoothed pervert” carrying a whip and forced to clean human filth and waste out of the gutters, “dragging behind them their sacks of refuse.” Toadvine turns to the Kid and says, “How do you like city life?”
Throughout the novel, Toadvine appears detached from the horrific action that surrounds him. He is an ironic observer, untouched by everything. Of course, humor is a defense mechanism, a tool to keep the comic soul separated from the painful world around him. It comes as no surprise that Toadvine dies, hung unceremoniously at the end, nearly off-stage (in a manner similar to the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). The only surprise is that he isn’t given one last joke to tell.
It isn’t just Toadvine’s character that is traditionally comic. The novel possesses many of the elements of Shakespearian Comedy. There is a pastoral setting where noble people spin lovely speeches on the nature of life. There are rustic fools who are witty beyond their meager station. There is the Kid’s hidden identity (which is never revealed) and there are surprise reunions. The novel even ends, if not with a wedding, with revelry, celebration and dance.
The riotous celebration follows the scalp-hunter’s first successful expedition, with everyone outfitted in fine new clothes, drinking all of the booze in the town and Jackson “vowing to Shoot the ass off Jesus Christ, the longlegged white son of a bitch.” The party is as chaotic and comic as anything in a Marx Brothers movie.
III. Comedy Is Meaningless:
“Humor is another defense against the universe.”
There is also, of course, a Fool: Judge Holden, the giant man-baby; the totally hairless, pale philosopher. Or as Tobin, the expriest, calls him, that “bloody old hoodwinker.” Prone to stripping, given to dancing on dainty feet, the Judge seems to marry Lear with his Fool in one strange and very funny maniac.
The Judge is the novel’s central character and embodies what I see as the novel’s central meaning: there is no meaning to any of this.
Of course, the Judge dos not articulate this position. Rather, he usually says the opposite. He goes on at length about man exerting his will over the world and about the primacy of war and blood and death, but as Tobin divines, this is all just a con, a lie, a joke. The novel’s central meaning is not what the Judge says, but what he does.
When the Judge is first introduced, he appears at a tent revival and before the crowded and stinking congregants, he claims that the preacher, Rev. Green, is on the run from the law of several states for various sex crimes against children and goats. This results in a melee and a rabid and muddy posse forming to lynch Rev. Green.
When some of the men of the town asks the Judge, who later is sitting serenely at a bar, how he knew about the preacher, the Judge responds, “I never laid eyes on the man before today. Never even heard of him.”
The response from the men: “The men looked like mud effigies. Finally someone began to laugh. Then another. Soon they were all laughing together. Someone bought the judge a drink.”
Here in the Judge we see the novel’s other type of humor: anti-comedy, the absurd. Anti-comedy works by moving the framework of the joke so that the listener is now part of joke itself.
Q: What happened to the Rabbi when he fell down the stairs?
A: I have syphilis.
If this makes you laugh, it isn’t because the joke is inherently funny, but because of the context: the fact that you were told a joke that didn’t mean anything. Neil Hamburger is funny not because of his jokes, but because of the reaction of those watching him who are not in on the joke.
The Judge’s condemnation of Rev. Green is not a typical joke. He does not seek to explain to anyone what he has done. Only when he is sought and asked does he confess that he doesn’t know the man. Only then are the edges of the joke revealed are those involved able to see it for what it is and laugh along with the Judge who is laughing at them.
Later in the novel, the Judge gets into a debate with some of the scalp hunters about the Earth’s origins. “The squatters in their rags nodded among themselves and were soon reckoning him correct, this man of learning, in all his speculations, and this the judge encouraged until they were right proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools.” Here again, the Judge spends his time spinning elaborate lies, not for gain or revenge or any other productive reason, but only to amuse himself when the others believe him.
Though the Judge’s flights of fancy are never revealed again for what they are, regular and repeated reference to his smile and laugh are made. See pages 140, 226, 284, 310, and 327 for a few examples. For the remainder of the novel, when the Judge is present, the Judge is holding forth in the manner of Polonius from Hamlet or Mr. Compson from The Sound and the Fury.
The aphorisms and philosophy of those men are the result of being a blowhard and a drunk, respectively. How do we read the Judge? Is he some alien deity, pale and all-knowing? Some inconceivably learned man? Death itself? Do we take his constant, eloquent ramble at face value? Or do we understand that throughout the novel, the Judge is having one over on everyone, even the reader.
IV. This Novel Is a Joke:
“Ha ha ha ha ha.”
Let me be clear: when I say that his novel is a joke, I do not mean that in the colloquial sense of “this novel fails and makes me laugh at it.” What I mean is this: works of literature fit into certain forms—sonnet, limerick, epic, western, romance. Blood Meridian’s form is that of a joke. It has a set-up and it has a punch-line. It is a joke against meaning, against form, against the reader, against jokes themselves. It is a terrible and bleak joke that exists out in the dark beyond even the absurd. But it is still a joke.
Where a joke usually just inverts the expected meaning, and anti-comedy subverts the expected context for humor, Blood Meridian completely perverts. Consider the tree full of babies. A horror beyond horrors to be sure, but after fifty-five pages of suffering and pain already, this reader’s response was not that of disgust but a loud, “You have to be kidding me!”
The vision of the West presented here reminds me of nothing so much as a vast, sun-blasted /b/. Humor pushed beyond funny, beyond so-not-funny-it-is-funny, out to some extreme. Humor for the sake of pain and suffering. A tree would usually bear fruit, symbols of life, the fleshy seeds of new trees and new life. And babies of course are themselves symbols of new life, the new year, the newly born savior. Yet here, new life hung where new life should be, we only have a grim expression of death and decay. Yet the novel intentionally under cuts the horror and shock of the tree by placing it as part of the sub-headings for the chapter along with any number of non-events. There it is: “Tree of dead babies.” The novel introduces it with a shrug.
V. Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before
“I’m just getting my LULZ”
Who is telling this joke? I believe that the clear answer is the Judge. He is the narrator of the novel. Throughout the book he writes in his journal, drawing and cataloguing everything he finds. He contends that nothing exists that he does not allow to exist. The novel’s strange stylistic turns of phrase, the faux-biblical speak, mirror the Judge’s own high-flown language that he uses to bullshit people. Blood Meridian is the Judge’s own joke.
He presents us with the Kid, a hero in the epic style, born by a sign, the falling stars, the meteor shower, and we wait through the novel to see what will happen to him, what he will learn, how he will grow, as any good character in a novel should, but the Kid is always occluded from our view. He does very little. He speaks even less. He cannot read or write. He has no name. But we wait for him to rise up, to DO SOMETHING.
And then at the end, in an outhouse, yards from a dead dancing bear and midget prostitutes, yards from music and light and dancing, the Kid meets his fate. The Judge rises up and we realize too late that this is the punch-line, this is the only end there ever could have been to this joke that has been ranging across the West for miles and years, that this is the only way anything can ever end. That the joke does not seem funny is immaterial, since the joke was only ever for the Judge’s amusement anyway.
- 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.
- 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