Friday, July 15, 2011

Thoughts on Blood Meridian

"A ritual includes the letting of blood. Rituals which fail in this requirement are but mock rituals."

A few days ago, I finished Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West.

And then I sort of wandered about in a daze for the rest of the day-- the way I did after first watching Apocalypse Now, or hearing Shostakovich's 8th quartet for the first time. It's a book that's emotionally draining the whole way through and then, in the last fifty pages or so, hits you in the gut like a stab wound. It's a serious contender for the greatest American novel of the past thirty years. Maybe fifty. It's the closest thing contemporary literature has to its Heart of Darkness and McCarthy does for the bloody and empty American West what Conrad did for the Congo.

Which is to say, transforms it into a vessel for all our sins.

So, since it obviously affected me pretty powerfully (the last time I felt like this after finishing a book was The Sound and the Fury), let me share some of the most memorable things about it with you. For the sake of readability,  let's set that list at 5.
"Top 5 Most Horrifying Scalpings! Go!"

#1: Blood Meridian is the Most Violent Book I Have Ever Read.
I've read some pretty brutal stuff-- and not just over-the-top shock value violence either (*cough*BretEastonEllis*cough*). The Wasp Factory, And the Ass Saw the Angel, those occasional scene of horrifying bloodshed that crop up in Murakami novels. Strong stuff, powerful stuff, bloody stuff.

Once you've read Blood Meridian, you don't get to talk about those books as being violent. The protagonist is a 14-year-old kid traveling with a pack of scalp hunters south of the border, watching everyone else  slowly be consumed by the blood and the thrill of war. There's a scene where, during a raid on a Native American village, one character grabs a baby in each fist and swings them into the ground like drumsticks. This isn't even a major scene. This just happens, and it gets one sentence devoted to it and then it's on to more scalping. The violence in this book is raw and real and will probably make you nauseous at a couple points.

"They moved among the dead harvesting the long black locks with their knives and leaving their victims rawskulled and strange in their bloody cauls...Men were wading about in the red waters hacking aimlessly at the dead and some lay couple to the bludgeoned bodies of young women dead or dying on the beach."

...Here. Have a kitten in a bow tie.
I need to stress that this isn't gratuitous. The book is very much taking the notion of the West, of cowboys fighting evil Injuns and of helpless, peace-loving Indians being killed for no good reason, the notion that the savagery of an uncivilized land could possibly be just or good, and just destroying it. It's what Peckinpah would be if his movies weren't fun at all and he never tried to make the violence elegant. Blood Meridian declares war on the notion of the Romantic West and frontier justice, and by God, it wins. It's impossible to look at any traditional Western the same way again, having been forced to confront the bloodshed and cruelty that the lawless West was made of. Which brings us right to...

#2: Jesus Christ You Guys, Judge Holden. Oh My God.
Blood Meridian contains one of the greatest and most terrifying villains of all time: Judge Holden. The Judge is a seven-foot-tall, black-clad hairless monster who is more pale than anyone in Mexico has a right to be. He's also quite possibly a pedophile, certainly a sadist, and plans to someday rule the world.
"The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation."
"Each Holden Dollar will be worth FIVE British pounds. For that is the exchange rate I will set, when I kidnap their queen!"
 All of this makes Holden sound like a cheesy, hammy villain. But he's not. Not by any stretch. For the first half of the book, he's the person your sympathies are going to lie with. He helps the protagonist, he's smart, he's eloquent, and-- killer though he may be --there is a sense of order to what he does; he doesn't kill out of boredom or spite or anger like the rest of the band of scalphunters.

About the time he takes his first scalp-- from a ten-year-old boy --you'll most likely be reconsidering that. As the book goes on it becomes clear that whatever code and order the Judge lives by makes him more evil than a savage killer: he has a responsibility, a self-imposed mission, to kill. The fact that he does so without glee or joy only underscores the fact that he views murder, bloodshed, the scalpings and the rapes and the beheadings, as an act of moral duty. He becomes terrifying because he views his evil and his brutality as simply a natural act, not just as something to be enjoyed but the only thing in life worth doing.

"If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes."
#3: I'm Pretty Sure the Judge Is More Than Human.
So, looking at those two points, I'm pretty much convinced that the Judge (who, let's not kid ourselves by overemphasizing The Kid, is the real main character) is definitely some kind of mythic figure. Well, that and the fact that he never ages and can see the future. Those are clues too.
"Aww, real smart Jasper. Ya figure that one out yerself, or didja need help?"
I don't buy the theory that the Judge is an embodiment of war or violence, because then he wouldn't have the terrifying method to what he does-- despite his savagery, the Judge has a plan and it has taken him to Mexico. And I definitely don't buy the notion that he's Satan or an Angel or any part of an established pantheon. I think reading any of McCarthy's major works should be enough to convince you that God and the Devil don't have any hand in the world of his works. To view the Judge as part of that hierarchy implies an active, powerful God who cannot exist in the book we're given.

I do think the Judge is an embodiment of something, though: the American West. Specifically, the conquest of it. That's where his vloodlust gets its order from, and that's why he has an insatiable need to rule. That's why he's obsessed with power, civilized and savage at the same time, relentless, intellectual, the only man in the Glanton Gang who maintains a twisted sense of order and morality. He's an avatar of manifest destiny and the sins of America's expansion. If the book is an indictment of the West the Judge is the main defendant-- the sins he commits are the sins of our country's past, and if you're horrified by and terrified of him (and you will be), you're going to have to confront those sins in the very nature of the Western.

That, or he's Judge Doom. Who, for the first time ever, is the less terrifying alternative.
The good news is that this book has a distant, happy ending if that's the case. The enigmatic final page shows a figure going through the darkness in the desert, kindling fires and digging fencepost holes, followed by the unfortunate. The wasteland is getting fenced in. Kindness is moving west. Light is starting to close in on the Judge. The fire that is carried through No Country and The Road is being kindled. I think what McCarthy's trying to remind us is that the Judge's days are numbered. The West is pretty much dead, and despite what most Westerns would have you believe, good riddance. Once it became conquered the twisted, systematic evil of the Judge wasn't needed. The Judge's very existence-- and every act of evil he commits-- leads slowly to his obsolescence. Although he's terrifying, he can only exist while he still has land to conquer.

In other words, all the other Westerns were wrong: an uncivilized existence is bloody and cruel, the frontier was a place of unspeakable evil, and we should all be pretty goddamn glad that Judge Holden can't exist in our world. And then nothing bad and inhumanly, implacably evil ever happened on the Texas-Mexico border ever again!

Oh. Right.
#4: At Least The Language isn't a Horrifying Assault On Your Soul.
If America ever decides to rewrite the Bible, we oughta give Cormac the job. The man knows how to give language weight and power and beauty better than any American writer since Faulkner. I can open my copy up to any page in the book, grab a sentence at random, and it will be more beautiful than anything I will ever write. Here. I'll prove it. Here are three quotes, taken at random:
"No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and the raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one the propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire."

"Glanton fired again into the thick ruff of fur forward of the bear's shoulder as it turned and the man dangling from the bears jaws looked down at them cheek and jowl with the brute and one arm about its neck like some crazed defector in a gesture of defiant camaraderie."

"On the day that followed they crossed a lake of gypsum so fine that the ponies left no track upon it. The riders wore masks of bone-black smeared about their eyes and some had blacked the eyes of their horses. The sun reflected off the pan burned the undersides of their faces and shadow of horse and rider alike were pained upon the white powder in purest indigo."
"I'll take my Nobel with a glass of bourbon, please."
 The language McCarthy uses is fresh and old at the same time. It feels like you've never read anything like it, but so smooth and natural and precise that you can't help but become instantly familiar with it, like it's been a part of you for years. I wasn't joking when I compared it to the King James Bible, because that really is what it's most like. Something powerful and natural, language that is unique among literature and yet perfectly suited to its task. Blood Meridian isn't written in English so much as it's written in Cormackian and we just happen to be very good at translating it; to read it is to look at an entirely new and original voice that the story could not exist without.

#5: Blood Meridian Made an Acolyte of Me.If you can't tell, reading this book was a powerful experience. And it's one that's definitely going to shape the way I look at McCarthy from now on.

I'd enjoyed the previous works of his I've read--No Country For Old Men, The Road, the first half of All The Pretty Horses. But none of them hit me like this. No Country and The Road are both great books, but they're also fairly transparent. The Road's language and story are powerful, but it's really obvious what it's doing: stark, minimal language to impart a feeling of desolation and the need to move forward, an emotionally draining story about the way that the ones we love keep us human. It deserved its Pulitzer, make no mistake. No Country was a great, incredibly fast-paced thriller with some real philosophical meat to it. Pretty Horses was, linguistically, a perfect reminder of the brilliance of Faulkner and Hemingway and a pretty smart look at the way that we cling to the dream of the West. But Blood Meridian is a different level. Blood Meridian is one of the greatest books I've ever read and there's an incredible amount to it. Those books establish McCarthy as one of America's great contemporary writers, Blood Meridian establishes him as one of the greatest of its history.

From the original language to the intensely complicated, disturbing ideas it explores, this is an incredibly deep book.There's enough meat on here to fuel discussions and debates for years, and enough startlingly original and innovative material to motivate people to keep writing and trying new work.

It's probably--alongside Europe Central or Gravity's Rainbow, maybe--our country's greatest novel by a living writer. It's certainly among them. I can't praise it any more than the novel itself could show you, so pick it up, keep Wikipedia's extraordinary good plot summary handy for the muddled bits, and keep someone around to hug you.

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