Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, Blood Meridian, which narrates the travels of The Kid among the scalp hunters of the Texas-Mexico border. Harold Bloom hails the novel as “the major esthetic achievement of any living American author. The novel begins with the following three epigraphs, which are illuminated as you read on:

Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time.-Paul Valery

It is not be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness. -Jacob Boehme

Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a reexamination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier showed evidence of having been scalped. -The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

In the first epigraph, Valery says that this cruelty seems almost irresistible. He also makes a link between blood and time, which becomes more important in the third epigraph. In the second, Boehme speaks of death as being the very life of the darkness–this is a very strange reversal and play on words. This one seems very complex. The third is relatively easy to understand and it ties in with the first epigraph. Essentially it is here to show that scalping, cruelty or violence, has always existed in man. It’s not as if we are all of a sudden violent and weren’t before–Man has always been drawn to violence. I think this is what McCarthy wants to say when quoting these epigraphs.

I now am going to discuss different themes and topics that seemed important to me.

Books and Violence:

Throughout the novel, McCarthy paints this image of books as not worth of trust. We also see that this lack of trust in books correspond to the desire for violence.

[The Kid’s father] lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. (p. 3)

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[The Kid] can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. (p. 3)

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Oh God, cried the reverend [after being accused by the judge of molesting a young girl]. Lies, lies! He began reading feverishly from his opened bible. (p. 7)

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Books lie, he said.

God dont lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things. (p. 122)

The Kid’s father, a schoolmaster, sits drunk muttering the verses of forgotten poets. The reader is unsure whether these poets are forgotten because maybe we’ve lost the poems themselves or because we, as humans, have stopped reading in general. I think that McCarthy means the latter, but I guess I can’t assert that wholeheartedly. The Kid’s taste for meaningless violence is correlated to his inability to read and write… The judge accuses a pastor of molesting a young girl. We get the sense, after meeting him later in the book, that the judge makes all of this up, and just wants to watch the pastor squirm in the fiery judgment of his congregation. The pastor immediately turns in his bible in search of a response, and he frantically flips the pages, and this nervousness makes us question not only the pastor, but also the truth of Scripture, of The Book. Later on, after we meet back up with the judge, we hear that we are not to trust books, because they lie! McCarthy is showing us how people are. Man is violent, and has been forever. But McCarthy might be pointing something out in particular of our age. I believe McCarthy might be suggesting that there is something particularly violent about the modern age, and that there is a certain allergy to reading, communication, and thought now.

Man is Drawn to Violence:

This novel is incredibly dark, violent, and graphic. I was able to read it and understand what it was all for without getting to bogged down in how horrible the violence was, but I could see someone putting down the book. Harold Bloom himself did not finish the novel the first two times he attempted reading the novel, as he stated in an interview.

The Kid meets a hermit in the desert:

[The hermit] turned and rummaged among the hides and handed through the flames a small dark thing. The kid turned it in his hand. Some man’s heart, dried and blackened. He passed it black and the old man cradled it in his palm as if he’d weigh it. (p. 19)

McCarthy shows us this “dried and blackened” heart to show us what man’s heart looks like. I am unsure whether McCarthy is pointing to what man’s heart has always looked like or whether this is an image of ‘the modern heart.’ I am unsure. Where McCarthy seems to stand is that man is always been drawn to violence, but there is something frightening about how violent man is currently, especially now that there is an epidemic of anti-intellectualism. The hermit goes on to speak about man:

No. It’s a mystery.  A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a maching. And a machine to make a machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it. (p. 20)

The hermit speaks about how man is dangerous because he can choose anything. This novel shows us a bunch of people who can choose anything, both good and bad, and who only choose bad. There is little to no ‘good actions’ in this novel. A mennonite, after a bar fight of The Kid’s, says this:

The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell aint half full. Hear me. Ye carry war of a madman’s making onto a foreign land. Ye’ll wake more than the dogs. (p. 43)

The mennonite speaks of waking the wrath of God. Although it’s strange because he might not be speaking of the wrath of God. It’s almost as if the mennonite says that they will, in violence, wake something horrible within their own hearts–as if being violent itself is the punishment for violence. McCarthy chooses to use a certain word that is interesting.

They rode through the heat of the day following with the waterkegs empty and the horses perishing and in the evening these elect, shabby and white with dust like a company of armed and mounted millers wandering in dementia, rode up off the desert through a gap in the low stone hills and down upon a solitary jacal, crude hut of mud and wattles and a rudimentary stable and corrals. (p. 50)

McCarthy, in this passage, intentionally invokes the Scriptural word and concept of ‘the elect,’ those chosen for salvation. I think what McCarthy is doing is making a twist of Scripture, which he often does. I believe his is saying that these ‘elect’ are called to violence (instead of being called to salvation as it is in Scripture). McCarthy’s diction puts me in a state of awe. In both the examples, above with ‘elect’ and below with ‘south.’

After a while [The Kid] nodded toward the south. I believe this here is the most traveled. (p. 70)

In this one word, south, McCarthy invokes the theme of evil, especially with the following sentence. The south road, the evil way, is far too common among man. We also get a beautiful allusion in the following passage:

[The judge] had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now, all mounted in german silver and the name that he’d give it set with silver wire under the checkpiece in latin: Et in Arcadia Ego. A reference to the lethal in it. Common enough for a man to name his gun. I’ve heard Sweetlips and Hark From The Tombs and every sort of lady’s name. His is the first and only ever I seen with an inscription from the classics. (p. 131)

Et-in-Arcadia-ego etinarc

“Et in Arcadia Ego” is a reference to two paintings, both painted in the 1600’s. One by Guercino and another by Poussin. They former depicts shepherds looking at a skull, and the latter depicts shepherds looking upon a tomb. The title means “I was in Arcadia also,” and the speaker is Death. Arcadia is in Greece and it is far inland. The sea, in ancient time, often symbolized or was thought of as relating to death. But these paintings show that death is everywhere. This is why McCarthy included it this latin phrase. Also, it is interesting to note that the man most learned in classics is the person we trust the least, the judge. WE CANNOT TRUST BOOKS OR LIGHT OR THE CLASSICS! The reason for this is because McCarthy is showing the correlation between aversion to books and a desire for violence.

We get another image of man as violent in the following passage. There are two men named John Jackson, one white, one black. Earlier in the novel, the black Jackson killed the white one. At one point he gets separated from the scalping gang, but they find him:

About daybreak the judge and the Delawares returned. They had the black with them. He was naked save for a blanket he’d wrapped himself in. He didnt even have boots. He was riding one of the bonetailed packmules from the conducta and he was shivering with cold. The only thing he’s saved was his pistol. He was holding it against his chest under the blanket for he had no other place to carry it. (p. 205)

McCarthy shows us in the character of Jackson, man clings to violence desperately, even if it is the last thing he gives up. We will go on being naked and starved as long as we get out violence. This is the image McCarthy paints for us. Decently farther down the novel, neatly to the end, The Kid, now old, is speaking to some kids who ask about the necklace of ears that used to hang around David Brown’s neck, but now encircle his neck:

How come them to be so black as if they aint niggers.

They turned that way. They got blacker till they couldnt black no more. (p. 333)

Excuse the the last word of the first line. This book is set in 1840’s-1870’s and that was common to say. What really matters here is that these ears were from humans that David Brown had killed with the rest of the gang, including The Kid. They kept on growing more black. Man, in recent times, has begun to black more and more until it is as dark as can be. McCarthy is pointing out that we have become so violent that it seems impossible to get any worse. In describing the stars in the last few pages, McCarthy says this:

Stars were falling across the sky myriad and random, speeding along brief vectors from their origins in night to their destinies in dust and nothingness. (p. 347)

This is where man is headed, a vector towards nothingness. That is, man is headed down, falling, as of now. I don’t read McCarthy as a man in despair, but as a man stating what IS. I don’t believe McCarthy to be a man without hope. Do I, as Christian, think that McCarthy has his hope in the right place as an agnostic? No, but he is not without hope. He sees that if we begin to notice our violence, which is what the goal of this novel is trying to get us to do, we can then look at that at correct it. Read, communicate, love.

Bible Images and Stories Manipulated:

Throughout this novel, McCarthy, who knows his Scripture and Theology just as much, or better, than most Christians, turns around well known Bible images.

LAZARUS:

I have been in Texas since thirty-eight. If I’d not run up on Captain White I don’t know where I’d be this day. I was a sorrier sight even than what you are and he come along and raised me up like Lazarus. Set my feet in the path of righteousness. I’d done took to drinkin and whorin till hell wouldnt have me. He seen somethin in me worth savin and I see it in you. (p. 32)

Here, a Sargent in the American army claims to have been “saved” and raised like Lazarus by Captain White, the captain of an army that goes to impose God and government on Mexico. So, here we see that the Sargent is “Saved to Violence,” he is raised to join a killing army.

SIMON PETER DENIES CHRIST

They dragged [The Kid] forward with shouts and gestures. Mire, mire, they cried. He stood before the jar and they urged his consideration of it and they tilted it around so that the head should face him. It was Captain White. Lately at war among the heathen. The kid looked into the drowned and sightless eyes of his old commander. He looked about at the villagers and at the soldiers, their eyes all upon him, and he spat and wiped his mouth. He aint no kin to me, he said. (p. 73)

Captain White, the “Jesus” character from the previous image of Lazarus, is now the analogous Christ again. The Kid, like Simon Peter denies knowing the “criminal” and leader. There are obviously differences–as there are with all of these reversals of Scripture.

EZEKIEL

[The man] pointed to his chest. When he turned to the Americans his voice softened again. You are fine caballeros, he said. You kill the barbaros. They cannot hide from you. But there is another caballero and I think that no man hides from him. I was a soldier. It is like a dream. When even the bones is gone in the desert the dreams is talk to you, you dont wake up forever.  (p. 108)

Look at Ezekiel 37 (through v. 14). In Ezekiel there are bones which raise and flesh is placed on them and breath is breathed into these bodies. In Blood Meridian, there aren’t even any bones to raise in the first place.

HELL

Where for aught any man knows lies the locality of hell. For 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 hoofprints in the stone clever as little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock? I’d not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was little devils with their pitchforks had traversed the fiery vomit for to salvage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up form their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It’s a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things this world must touch the other. And something put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen them there myself. (pp. 136-137)

“The locality of hell” has been moved to earth by McCarthy. Now there are sinners bad enough that hell spits them out. McCarthy seems to be suggesting that hell isn’t so far, hell is in man, hell lies in men among us, in all of us.

WELCOMING CHRIST INTO JERUSALEM

The village of Coyame had for some years been laid under annual contribution by Gomez and his band. When Glanton and his men rose in they were fallen upon as saints. Women ran alongside the horses to touch their boots and presents of every kind were pressed upon them until each man rode with an embarrassment of melons and pastries and trussed chickens gathered in the bow of his saddle. When they rode out three days later the streets stood empty, not even a dog followed them to the gates. (p. 179)

This passage seems similar to the welcoming of Christ with palms into the city of Jerusalem a week before he is crucified. Now no one wishes them farewell. But of course, they are not killed or crucified like Jesus.

JUDAS AND CHRIST

There is a section that describes the transaction between the judge and a boy with two dogs. This passage is too long, and I wish not to quote it at length. 1) There is a boy with two pups. 2) The judge purchases both of these pups. 3) The judge does a magic trick with the coin, pulling the gold coin from behind the boys ear and gives it to him. 4) The Vandiemenlander (a fellow of the Glanton gang) stands urinating. 5) The Vandiemenlander pulls his pistol and shoots both pups. 6) The judge continues on. 7) The boy runs up to the water where the dogs lay dead as he holds the gold coin in his hand.

This is a rough analagous event that relates to Judas in Christ. The boy, like Judas, sells the pups, like Judas sold and betrayed Christ. The judge, perhaps like the High Priests, gave the boy money, and brought him to the Vandiemenlander, maybe like Pontius Pilate or the Roman guards, and the Vandiemenlander killed the pups. It’s very implicit and not an exact analogy, but its similar enough to note.

Fire:

The image of fire is important in this novel. Sometimes in constitutes the good, the light. But other times it symbolizes anger, rage, or violence.

The judge like a great ponderous djinn stepped through the fire and the flames delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element. (p. 101)

The most evil character in the entire novel, a novel of evil itself, becomes part flame essentially. This is a creepy image and it makes us wonder, “who or what is the judge?”

At dusk [The Glanton Gang] built a fire and roasted the deer. The night was much enclosed about them and there were no stars. To the north they could see other fires that burned red and sullen along the invisible ridges. They ate and moved on, leaving the fire on the ground behind them, and as they rode up into the mountains this fire seemed to become altered of its location, now here, now there, drawing away, or shifting unaccountably along the flank of their movement. Like some ignis fatuus belated upon the road behind them which all could see and of which none spoke. For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so be sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies.

“Ignis Fatuus,” in latin, literally means “stupid fire.” This fire, and the other fires deceive there eyes, just like all luminous things, which have “a will to deceive.” Light cannot be trusted in this novel. All the characters do the same as The Kid’s father does on the first page of the novel,

God how the stars did fall. I looked fro blackness, holes in the heavens. (p. 3)

Often the medievals would think the stars were holes to the heavens. McCarthy reverses this by saying that these people are looking to darkness by looking at the holes in the heavens. Dark and light are reversed. The light is not primary or worthy of trust in this book.

Finally,

The flames in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be. (p. 255)

Fire and man are part of each other. Fire is living and has its own “bloodbeat” like man. Man is less without fire. Man is divided form his origins. Each man is alike, and the first man and the last are the same.There is more going on here, and I don’t fully grasp it. I have a theory, but it is not formed enough to say.

Children:

[The Kid] can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man. (p. 3)

“The Child the Father of the Man:” originally from a poem by William Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I behold
              A rainbow in the sky:
          So was it when my life began;
          So is it now I am a man;
          So be it when I shall grow old,
              Or let me die!
          The Child is father of the Man;
              I could wish my days to be
          Bound each to each by natural piety.

Wordsworth seems to indicate that childhood shows what will happen to man. McCarthy adds that children are violent, and that shows that he will grow up to be violent. Think about it, kids are obsessed with superhero’s and train wrecks and fighting. There’s at least some truth in what McCarthy is saying.

In the predawn dark the sounds about describe the scene to come. The first cries of birds in the trees along the river and the clink of harness and the snuffle of horses and gentle sound of their cropping. In the darkened village roosters have begun. The air smells of horses and charcoal. The camp has begun to stir. Sitting all about in the accruing light are the children from the town. None of the men rising know how long they have been there in darkness and silence. (p. 109)

In childhood, the behavior and thoughts of children about predict the scene to come in manhood. McCarthy is saying that children are violent and evil just like adults. Christians refer to a similar concept in the theological doctrine of ‘original sin.’

This country was filled with violent children orphaned by war. (p. 335)

Again, McCarthy is just reiterating himself. Also, this shows that man is sort of passing along violence via war.

__________

This novel is definitely one of my favorite novels, (along with Crime and Punishment, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and The Eighth Day). It is a novel that might scare people that have an aversion to blood or more graphic imagery. It also might frighten Christians because of the biblical imagery from a non-Christian writer. I would say to those people that the novel is completely worth reading. Now, I don’t agree with McCarthy on everything. However, I 1) respect his knowledge of the Bible and Theology, 2) agree that man is naturally inclined to be drawn to violence, and 3) agree with him about children, in the sense that I adhere to original sin. To anyone who thinks that man is not naturally inclined to violence after the fall I pose this question: Why did Christ die such a violent death? Was it accidental? Or is violence such a central aspect of human nature that in order to save us from it, Christ had to die a death submitting to that violence? And as far as original sin goes, the bible clearly states man’s depraved nature from birth after the fall. Is that the end of the story? No. BUT GOD–the two greatest words ever.

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