Critical Essay Blood Meridian

I was recently invited to read at a “Noir at the Bar” event at the Meshuggah Café, in Saint Louis. The reading was hosted and arranged by Jed Ayres, the crime writer, and fellow readers included Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest, which was adapted by Harold Ramis into a film of the same name, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

Being as this was my first time reading one of my books in public, before a crowd, I was quite anxious. I felt that I did reasonably well in my performance (selecting a chapter from one of my earlier, hardboiled crime novels, Rolling Country). After each of the invited writers had read, many books were signed and sold, and then our select group adjourned to the rooftop bar of the Moonrise Hotel, where I was staying during the course of my short visit to Saint Louis.

We discussed many topics that night, but mostly we talked about books, since writing them was our métier. Eventually, during the course of the evening, the subject turned to Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked Western magnum opus, Blood Meridian.  For readers not familiar with the work, scholar Dana Phillips offers a more than adequate summary in the opening passages of his study, History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:

“[Blood Meridian] is only very loosely centered around the character identified to the reader simply as ‘the kid’. Its opening pages offer a summary of the kid’s early life in the Tennessee hills, his flight to Texas in 1848, and his recruitment by a troop of filibusters, most of whom are slaughtered by a force of Comanche as their expedition makes its way into Mexico. The kid then joins up with Captain John Joel Glanton’s band of scalp hunters, who have a contract to provide the Mexicans with the hair of Apache raiders preying on isolated borderland villages and towns. Glanton and his men begin their own bloody campaign of depredations, which lasts for a year or two and several hundred pages. The kid is one of the few survivors of this campaign. The last chapters of the novel offer a compressed account of the final twenty-eight years of his life of wandering, and of his eventual death in an outhouse at the hands of his old comrade-in-arms, the seven-foot tall three-hundred pound hairless albino Judge Holden, a man of incredible savagery and great intellectual facility.” (Evans, 433-434)

Although generally ignored by critics, and selling in unimpressive numbers upon initial publication, the book has gone on to become something of a cause celebre in recent years. Part of the obsessive attention the book draws has something to do with the various interpretations suggested by the text. Phillips hints at the unwieldy, impossible-to-categorize nature of the book in the aforementioned essay:

Blood Meridian is a very complicated book-although complication is not a quality often associated with the label Western…[R]eviewers attempting to map this novel’s outlandish aesthetic and moral territories resorted to striking but desperate oppositions. To them, the novel seemed a blend of Hieronymus Bosch and Sam Peckinpah; of Salvador Dali, Shakespeare, and the Bible; of Faulkner and Fellini; of Gustave Dore, Louis L ‘Amour, Dante, and Goya; of cowboys and nothingness; of Texas and Vietnam.” (434)

My own personal feelings about Blood Meridian are a bit more prosaic: I find the novel to be a pretentious, nearly-unreadable pastiche hybrid of every writer from Ernest Hemingway, to H.P. Lovecraft, to Norman Mailer. I concede this statement is harsh, and would thus like to qualify it by adding two caveats, the first being that I consider Cormac McCarthy to be far superior to me as a writer, and that, secondly, while I find Blood Meridian to be a grim, impenetrable slog, I have enjoyed some of Mr. McCarthy’s other books (including No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses) immensely.

It must also be said that, regardless of what one thinks of the man’s writing, McCarthy belongs to a small corpus of postmodern stylists who have eschewed all of the blandishments of fame, shunning the limelight and remaining publicly indifferent to all the encomiums showered on his work. On the continuum where authors can be plotted, from the most reclusive to the most shamelessly fame-mongering, Cormac McCarthy could perhaps best be contextually situated somewhere between J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon (the latter of whom did actually lent his voice to an episode of The Simpsons, something it would be unfathomable to imagine McCarthy doing). According to Dana Phillips:

“Throughout most of his career, which began in the mid-1960s, McCarthy had worked and published in obscurity. Promotional campaigns meant little to him; he refused the interviews, personal appearances, and academic sinecures that might have made his name more widely known sooner. And for many years his readership was limited to a small group of admirers mostly from the South.” (433)

Decorum alone, however, cannot excuse the stylistic excesses and abysmal lack of narrative fluidity that, in my opinion, comprise the bulk of Blood Meridian. The author Charles Portis, something of a recluse in his own right, not only ignores the praise heaped on him and his work, but the Arkansan also wrote what I consider to be a far superior Western, True Grit (adapted for the screen twice, first in a film starring John Wayne, and then in a later, more faithful adaptation, filmed by the Coen Brothers and starring Jeff Bridges).

Several of my fellow scribes at the rooftop bar that night took umbrage at my strong opinion of Blood Meridian. One, Jed Ayres (author of Fierce Bitches and Peckerwood), arched and eyebrow and said, “You don’t like epics, huh?”

I shook my head. The epic nature of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not what I find risible about the book. In point of fact, I love epics, and, though the genre is most often associated with works of antiquity, I count at least two modern novels as epics, and number them among my ten all-time favorite reads, the first being Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and the latter of the two being Mitchell Smith’s Stone City.

In To Disenchant and Disintoxicate (sic): Blood Meridian as critical Epic, author Justin Evans categorizes Blood Meridian as an epic, but qualifies this statement by adding that McCarthy subjects (and perhaps subverts) the genre, by giving it the postmodern treatment:

“By analogy with critical theory, we can read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) as a ‘critical epic.’ It tries to make this most traditional literary form into a self-reflexive and self-critical but idealistic agent, one that respects the ideals of traditional literary forms but radicalizes them in order to criticize modern societies… [s]ince the epic has often been tied to the affirmation of social norms.” (405)

The extreme violence of the book, many have argued, is meant to be read as an allegory or metaphor for every Occidental form of violent dominance and subjugation (often with racist undertones or outright xenophobic justifications), from imperialism to Manifest Destiny, to, as previously mentioned by scholar Dana Phillips, American intervention in Vietnam.

The violence of the book is one of my central objections to Blood Meridian, though not because the gore serves as an allegory, criticizing the bloodshed inherent in the maintenance of Western hegemonic supremacy in global affairs. My problem with the violence is that its cumulative effect is to first inure the reader, and then ultimately to bore them, numbing them with the fugue-like repetition of descriptive passages detailing scalpings, hangings, and eviscerations, one after another. Much like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho or Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, the horror is not delivered with the irregularity that gives a suspenseful tale of terror its power to shock. The book is just a narratively slack catalogue of abuses.

According to James Dorson, in his article Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “Since its publication in 1985, the extreme scenes of violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian have posed a central problem for critics.” (105). Dorson argues (or rationalizes) the violence not by “…either historicizing it in the context of American imperialism, or by naturalizing it as part and parcel of the human condition…” (IBID), but rather “[t]hrough a reading of Judge Holden’s character as a figure of the law… propos[ing] instead to read its violence as the result of a metaphysical yearning for meaning to brace us against the fear of the unknown.”(IBID)

The problem with the character of the Judge, though (the main antagonist in this fatalist epic) is that while he may be, for Dorson, a symbol for “a metaphysical yearning for meaning to brace us against the fear of the unknown,” he is not believable as a character; he is merely a cipher for the philosophical pontification that Dorson mistakes for profound meaning. Characters can work as symbols, but they must first stand inspection as flesh and blood creatures, as did, for instance Captain Ahab or Mr. Kurtz, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, respectively. Both men are violent, and arguably mad, but the creators of Ahab and Kurtz ably show, through slowly unfurling, revelatory passages, how these men arrived at their barbarized states.

Dorson, meanwhile, undercuts his own argument and inadvertently bolsters mine, when he writes, “There is no ‘atavistic egg,’ neither divine nor secular, that can explain or legitimate [the Judge’s] existence. There is no ground to base his rule upon, just ‘the shore of a void’ (111) from which all of his unfathomable malice arises.” (160) The Judge is about as real and complex as the villain in a slasher movie aimed at a teenage audience, although McCarthy is talented enough to cloak his character’s deficiencies in a literary patina that might distract the reader from realizing the Judge is not the creation of the 19th century’s bloody, Westward expansion, but is a boogeyman, created ex nihilo for the sole purpose of killing, like the numerous “baddies” Jason, Freddy, etc., who populate the exploitation genre once derisively referred to as “dead teenager movies.”

Dorson even echoes my sentiments on the subject of the more general violence of the novel, rather than that specific to the judge: “The sheer accumulation of atrocities and their matter-of-fact representation, characteristic of the novel, tend to break down any semblance of plot and make it difficult for readers to cognitively process the violence.” (IBID)

My own writing is quite violent. My latest novel, for instance, the Western, The Dove and the Crow, has already drawn mixed reviews from readers due to its gore and brutality. My previous published Western, Orphan Elixir, has also elicited revulsion in a number of people who have read the work, and have registered their disgust at various critical outlets, like Amazon.com and Goodreads. In defense of my own works, though, I should say that the violence in Orphan Elixir or The Dove and the Crow is leavened with humor and scenes of general tranquility. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, bludgeons the reader with redundant orgies of sadism, a cheerless litany that makes the book a chore to read.

The violence, which I have discussed at length, is not the only aspect of the novel that is desensitizing and renders the book virtually unreadable. It is, at a fundamental level, poorly written, in punishingly tumescent prose that alternates between the baroque and a kind of tone-deaf, affectless turgidity. The book is afflicted with what, after having encountered it many times in print, I have uncharitably dubbed “And-itus” (sic), a kind of writing in which a seemingly numberless stack of coordinating conjunctions denature the prose of any sort of rhythm or cadence. Here is a sample, quoted by Dorson:

“…riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them […] and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.” (IBID)

I lost count of the number of times the word “and” was used in the above passage, but the diligent (or obsessive-compulsively inclined) reader is welcome to do the tally. McCarthy’s prose, spellbinding when he’s in rare form (as in his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road), can be quite a thing to behold. In the case of Blood Meridian, though, the writing recalls Truman Capote’s pithy (but perhaps apocryphal) assessment of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” Kerouac, at least, had the twin excuses of attempting to create a literary style akin to jazz music, and the effects of an amphetamine bender, to absolve him of his redundancies. McCarthy has fewer excuses.

The only plausible apologia for this kind of excess is offered by the previously-quoted Justin Evans, who, sees such language as innate to the “formal devices of the epic” (406), a parataxis, “…the yoking together of words or phrases or even sentences by simple conjunctions like ‘and,’ rather than the use of subordinate clauses.” (IBID). It is little wonder, then, that the book has drawn comparison not only to the epics of Greek antiquity, but also to the Bible, which, regardless of one’s faith or which translation they prefer, does become quite soporific, especially in its recounting of who begat whom; replace the word “begat” with “scalped,” however, and it becomes even easier to understand why Blood Meridian and the Bible might deserve space on the same shelf.

When McCarthy isn’t stringing coordinating conjunctions together like a washerwoman hanging up laundry on a clothesline, he seems to be doing a pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft at his most misanthropically byzantine and eldritch. Dorson highlights this nearly-saurian stylistic tic in his essay, by singling out the following passage, which serves our purpose here nicely: “In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.” (310)

This sort of writing can be effective in small doses, as in the case of Lovecraft’s short stories. Over the course of a novel of epic length, however, attempting to decipher the meaning of McCarthy’s words merely becomes a psychic endurance test. Along with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, I read Blood Meridian cover to cover, not because I enjoyed it, but because I hated it, and felt that by finishing the book I was somehow defeating an unseen, unfathomably alien intelligence that had lured me into a masochistic test of wills, from which I could only emerge victorious after reading my way through the gauntlet of senseless words laid across the page.

The hands on the clock seemed to draw to a standstill as I read the book, as “time [was] often slowed down to a repetitive and homogenous grind, where the action seem[ed] frozen into a gaudy fresco of massacres and mutilation.” (Dorson, 110)

And now, having read the book and written of it, I hope to never speak of it again. I will say, though, that in spite of my genuine loathing for Blood Meridian, I was somewhat excited to learn that it was being considered for film adaptation by two men, first Ridley Scott, and then later by Andrew Dominik. Both men eventually dropped out of the project for different reasons, Scott to pursue a then-unspecified project, and Andrew Dominik to helm an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the ill-fated starlet Marilyn Monroe, Blonde, tentatively scheduled for a 2016 release and starring the lovely Naomi Watts, of Mulholland Drive fame.

How, the reader may wonder, after this scathing essay, could I be looking forward to a film adaptation of a book I despise? The answer is simple: My issue lies with the prose of McCarthy’s work, which, when converted into visual poetry (preferably by Aussie Andrew Dominik, who helmed the masterful adaptation of Ron Hansen’s Western, The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) might become a thing entirely separate from, and wholly superior to, the novel that serves as its source material.

It has been said that mediocre books make great films, and both Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, based respectively on inferior works by Peter Benchley and Mario Puzzo, lend more than a modicum of credence to this theory. It is, then, perhaps more than plausible that a great film can be salvaged from the wreckage of Cormac McCarthy’s bloated Western.

I would like to close this essay by saying that, despite the sometimes snarky, sometimes exasperated tone of this work, I by no means meant the assessment in the sulfurous spirit of, for instance, Mark Twain’s condemnation of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. When Twain vented his spleen (with, it should be added, a satiric scalpel far finer than mine), he meant to encompass the whole corpus of Cooper’s body of work. I, on the other hand, can only reiterate that, with the exception of Blood Meridian, I have enjoyed most of what I’ve read by McCarthy, that I consider him to be a far superior writer to me, and that, long after the three Westerns I’ve written have faded into the ether of memory, or sit stored and cached on some seldom-frequented server at the corner of the internet, people will be still talking about Blood Meridian, and Cormac McCarthy.

Sources:

Dorson, James. Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 36, Aesthetic Politics-Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary (Winter 2013), pp. 105-121. Indiana University Press. Print.

Evans, Justin. To Disenchant and Disintoxicate (sic):Blood Meridian as Critical Epic. Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 2 (November 2014), pp. 405-426. University of Chicago Press. Print.

Phillips, Dana. History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 433-460. Duke University Press. Print.

Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow, a weird western.

About Jan Ovcak

Jan Ovcak is currently laboring on several important works of criticism at once, in near-complete obscurity. "You can only predict things after they have happened." -Eugene Ionesco. View all posts by Jan Ovcak →

The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Blood Meridian
 by Cormac
McCarthy.

Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Cormac McCarthy’s brilliance as a writer cannot lessen the
strangeness of his narratives. What other novelist moves so quickly
from loving descriptions of flora, fauna and rock formations into
bloodthirsty violence? It is almost as if one had married those
meticulous books on geology by John McPhee to the worldview of
film abattoir director Sam Peckinpah. So much compassion is
cherished on the weeds and stones, that hardly any is left over for
the poor inhabitants of McCarthy's savage borderlands.

The character of Judge Holden in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is
peculiar in the same way that this book is peculiar. In fact, Holden
would hardly be believable . . . if it wasn’t
for the example McCarthy sets himself.
The judge is capable, as the occasion war-
rants, of ruthless violence or remarkable
delicacy. He is fastidiously concerned with
the geology, the history, the archeology of
his Western surroundings. He will give
learned discourses on arcane and sundry
topics, in polished periods that stand out
incongruously given their settings and
audience. And then he will travel on to his
next act of bloodletting.

Here is a passage that conveys both the
exquisite beauty of McCarthy’s writing, as
well as its incorporation of mind-numbing brutality as an accepted
part of the landscape. The body of a dead youngster, who has
probably been abused and murdered, is being laid to rest—which in
the world of Blood Meridian means having his corpse thrown into
the mud. McCarthy writes:

His neck had been broken and his head hung straight down and it
flopped over strangely when they let him onto the ground. The hills
beyond the minepit were reflected grayly in the pools of rainwater
in the courtyard and the partly eaten mule lay in the mud with its
hindquarters missing like something from a chromo of terrific war.
Within the doorless cuartel the man who’d been shot sang church
hymns and cursed God alternately. The squatters stood about the
dead boy with their wretched firearms at rest like some
tatteredemalion guard of honor.

The reader doesn’t know whether to savor those carefully chosen
words that your spellchecker would probably reject—
tatterdemalion, chromo, cuartel—or to cringe at the callousness of
the scene described. This is McCarthy at his most stylized and
disturbing; indeed, at his best, I would suggest. He excises the tragic
from his tragedies, and thus makes them more a part of everyday
life. At the same time, his accounts retain a larger-than life
resonance, a combination of grandeur and horror, because of the
respect he pays to each cuartel and cactus along the way.

Other authors have stood out for their descriptions of landscapes. I
typically view this as a minor achievement for a novelist—far more
impressive are those writers, such as Dostoevsky or James, who
explore the inner landscapes of the soul, I would argue, than those
who merely relate the passing scenery. Yet I make an exception for
McCarthy. His bleak settings are almost external manifestations of
the emotional lives of his characters. No other writer is quite so
skilled at making his readers feel the psychic tremor at the heart of
the merely geographical.

And McCarthy has a thousand ways of describing a sparse desert
that most passersby would characterize merely as “empty.” I would
need to cite several dozen examples to convey the full richness of
this aspect of Blood Meridian, but readers merely need to open to a
random page to find an instance of this skill. Just as a librarian
throwing a dart at the text of The Sun Also Rises will inevitably
strike upon an account of eating or drinking, or doing the same with
Updike will encounter some creative variant on copulation, the
same technique applied to the world of Blood Meridian will
doubtless intersect a description of prairie or desert or hill country.

A typical McCarthy passage: “They rode all day upon a pale gastine
sparsely grown with saltbush and panicgrass. In the evening they
entrained upon a hollow ground that rang so roundly under the
horses’ hooves that they stepped and sidled and rolled their eyes like
circus animals. . . . On the day following they crossed a lake of
gypsum so fine the ponies left no trace upon it.” The characters of
his books both haunt these landscapes and are haunted by them in
turn.

But don’t be fooled by this into surmising that there is not much plot
in Blood Meridian. Cormac McCarthy mimics the conventions of
those old Western dime novels, with some fisticuffs or near-death
experience showing up every few pages. One might even trace the
similarities between this novel and, for example, a book such as
Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. But though Grey is a much
better writer than most highbrow critics realize (they would hardly
know, since genre novels of all sorts, and especially Westerns,
merely exist for them as objects of scorn, not curiosity), McCarthy
is in a class by himself in celebrating in narrative form the prickly,
lonesome dramas of life in the Southwest. Of course, an even more
striking difference exists between McCarthy’s book and Grey,
Wister, et al. The Western genre demands villains and heroes; while
in the world of Cormac McCarthy, a Nietzschean will-to-power
prevails, and heroism is at best a rumor, at worst a deception.

The story of Blood Meridian follows the exploits of a young man—
unnamed in the book and merely called “The Kid”—who falls in first
with a group of U.S. Army irregulars, and then with the Glanton
gang. John Joel Glanton is a real historical figure, who operated as a
leader of mercenaries tracking down and scalping Apaches for
Mexican authorities. But soon their violence is directed at anyone
who crosses their path at the wrong time. Just as inevitably, their
perfidy starts to seep into their dealings with each other.

Although the unnamed ‘kid” is the ostensible focal point of the story,
McCarthy is clearly far more fascinated by Judge Holden, the
erudite nihilist who accompanies Glanton on his depredations. A
survey conducted by Book magazine in 2002, placed Holden as one
of the fifty greatest characters in fiction since 1900. And with good
reason. The paradoxical behavior of this savage savant serves as the
magnetic center of the novel, and personifies that mysterious
combination of brutishness and scrupulousness that permeates
Blood Meridian.

The judge, with his pedantic displays of learning, is best situated to
pass judgment and offer some overarching interpretation to the
cascading violence of this world gone mad. After all, Holden is the
master of court cases, precedent and principle. But in Blood
Meridian
, all verdicts are provisional, more a matter of chance or
destiny, and power vetoes the prerogatives of reason at every turn.
Even judges in such settings mostly mouth empty words or out-and-
out lies. Truth-telling here is reserved, it seems, only for the author
himself.

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