In the summer following my senior year of high school, I read Blood Meridian, the most violent piece of art I had encountered at that point in my life. Now that I have just finished rereading this novel, it is still the most violent piece of art I have experienced.
The novel tells the story of the Glanton gang, a group of Americans, residual from the Mexican-American War, set out to Scalp Native Americans for money. The novel’s main character is the kid, never named. He is very far from being a hero, and I’m unsure that I would deem him an anti-hero either. The judge, the socalled antagonist of the novel, is more like a hero than the kid, much like Milton’s Satan is in some sense heroic – or perhaps it’s just the case that the judge (and Satan) are merely more sympathetic characters than the socalled protagonists of their respective works.
Every sentence of McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian is unbelievably enticing. The reader feels guilty at finding such violence, or such representation of violence, so incredibly beautiful. McCarthy’s prose some strange alloy of archaic and contemporary, of the Bible and of Modern American Literature. His writing has been most related to the Old Testament, Dante Alighieri (esp. The Divine Comedy), John Milton (esp. Paradise Lost), Herman Melville (esp. Moby Dick), and William Faulkner (esp. As I Lay Dying). I don’t think there is any other prose work whose diction and syntax I enjoy more. The only rivals might be the work of James Joyce.
The novel, both in its violent content and strange diction, has been one of the most difficult books I have read. It took much work. I read it once before, and this time I read each chapter, looked up all the words I didn’t know, and reread the each chapter while listening to an audio book.
In guise of Cormac McCarthy’s nihilistic worldview (this is what I understand his belief system to be), Blood Meridian seems to present this violence as eternal. War is eternal, or it at least began with man and may or may not end with him too. There is much more to this nihilism, but for fear of speaking too much or speaking incorrectly, I will not.
What I am going to quote is an oft-quoted passage of the novel. I do find this passage incredibly beautiful and terrifying, as well as representative of the linguistic and violent qualities of the text. The Glanton gang gets attacked by a clan of Native Americans, I believe Apaches:
The first of the herd began to swing past them in a pall of yellow dust, rangy slatribbed cattle with horns that grew agoggle and no two alike and small thin mules coalblack that shouldered one another and reared their malletshaped heads above the backs above the others and then more cattle and finally the first of the herders riding up the outer side and keeping the stock between themselves and the mountain company. Behind them came a herd of several ponies. The seargent looked for Candelario. He kept backing along the ranks but he could not find him. He nudged his horse through the column and moved up the far side. The lattermost of the drovers were now coming through the dust and the captain was gesturing and shouting. The ponies had begun to veer off from the herd and the drovers were beating their way toward this armed company met with on the plain. Already you could see through the dust on the ponies hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones, and some among the company had begun to saw back on their mounts and some to mill in confusion when up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers bearing shields bedight with bits of broken mirrorglass that cast a thousand unpieced suns against the eyes of their enemies. A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, fogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace and sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’ whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. (pp. 54-55)
My other post on Blood Meridian from the summer after my senior year in high school: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy