READING: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

We can’t deny our histories come in narrative form. We don’t always mean harm. The story is how we remember and pass on the events of our lives to those we don’t live long enough to meet. But it is also true the last word on history has gone to the those in power and this version has the story rise high above what really happened to a romantic peak before it falls and lands in the minds of the majority and becomes what people remember as the truth.

While there may be a political agenda behind this historical fudging, there is this also: We like to know we come from good stock and, even if our ancestors may be less than law-abiding, we like to think they stood for freedom in tyrannical times at least. Perhaps it is human nature to sand off the edges and putty up the holes. Then we, and others like us, can sleep soundly in our beds. But every so often someone like Cormac McCarthy comes along to disabuse us of such notions, to throw us to the wolves by telling it straight, straighter than straight without a glint of romance or a hint of a reprieve.

Some have called McCarthy’s, Blood Meridian, the most horrifying novel of the twentieth century, and to date I, for one, have not read a more violent one. McCarthy tells the story of the Glanton gang, who did truly travel the borderlands of Mexico and the United States in1849 and 1850. As McCarthy tells it and other reports confirm, this band of men were paid by the Mexican government for the scalps of the war-like Apache and Comanche, who were harassing Mexican citizens. Very soon, the gang was scalping peaceful Native Americans, villagers and Mexican army officers and not just for the bounty. They had developed a taste for blood.

McCarthy’s main character is known for the majority of the story as ‘the kid’, and it his fortunes we follow throughout the novel. McCarthy introduces us to him at the very beginning and then leaves us and this character to fend for ourselves:

“He watches, pale and unwashed. He 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.”

As a reader, I was uneasy as hell at having ‘the kid’ as my companion. Still, one can’t waver this early on. We are in an empty world with a big sky.

“Now come days of begging, days of theft. Days of riding where there rode no soul save he. He’s left behind the pinewood country and the evening sun declines before him beyond an endless swale and dark falls here like a thunderclap and a cold wind sets the weeds to gnashing.”

The language has the rhythm and imagery of an epic and I am thinking we are with Homer. The power of it draws the reader along without question. We are already primed to believe what is to come. However, if I thought McCarthy would go easy in the beginning, I was dead wrong. The violence is unrelenting, almost as shocking as a broken bottle to the eye. One can’t hold this kind of level reportage up to a meter of gratuitous or not. It does not run that way. There is no plumping of it for effect. The violence is simply told, but epically so, in the same way as he paints the sky.

“They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of colour like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.”

Then this:

“The fire steamed and blackened and a stray cloud of smoke rose and the columnar aches of blood slowly subsided until just the neck bubbled gently like a stew and then that too stilled. He was sat as before save headless, drenched in blood, the cigarillo still between his fingers, leaning toward the dark and smoking grotto in the flames where his life had gone.”

Nor does McCarthy give us a sympathetic character to hold onto or someone to root for. He does not allow us to take refuge in the mind of the kid. With no access to this character’s thoughts, McCarthy refuses to frame the violence or to soften it. There are no journeys into the hearts of men to redeem the characters. In this way, I think McCarthy wished to make no excuses for the damage done. We are to judge without context.

In leaving it up to us to deal with the violence, he provides a challenge of a moral nature. At one point, I felt I failed it. Was I immune, bored even, as others have said? Not at all. I had slunk into a corner while blood was spilt just beyond me. Although, I cannot know what it means to live with this extent of violence, McCarthy quietened my outrage and I wondered if this might be how one like me would manage in such a time and place. Would I have turned my back on it because it was everywhere and nothing could be done? I would have hoped to have done better.

While McCarthy does not give us an outright hero, he does supply us with a greater villain. The psychopathic Judge Holden looms large and hairless over the events of the novel. He is the most philosophical in the gang and he justifies his child rape and murder by his belief that violence is in heart of all men. He says:

“Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favour of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test.”

Judge Holden is all the more terrifying because of this. He confronts the reader with the idea of fate. In rejecting violence, is one at odds with one’s own fate? Of course not, but the Judge does like to talk and there is a kind of Satanic charisma one needs to break free of in order to recover self-determination again. If something can be said for the kid, it may be that he sees through the Judge’s grand justifications. The Judge is glorifying blood and war once more:

“I tell you this. As war becomes dishonoured and its nobility called into question those honourable men who recognise the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?”

Of course, the Judge is speaking of men like he and the kid, who have shed blood, but the kid stops him with:

“You ain’t nothin.”

And we know already the circumstances which gave rise to wholesale murder on the borderlands are passing and for me, there was a long, slow exhale of the breath I’d held since first meeting the kid.

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