John Cant calls it an ‘intellectual exercise, almost wholly metaphorical in character’, and suggests that ‘a reading of the text thus becomes an exercise in interpreting the myth [of American exceptionalism]’. He explains further:
McCarthy deliberately sets out to give his texts mythic form and… does so in such a way as to point out the destructive consquences of structuring the consciousness of individuals by means of powerful mythologies which they are not in a position to live out. He also critiques the myth of Exceptionalism in its various forms: the “redeemer nation” of Puritan ideology; the democratic “last best hope for mankind” of the revolutionaries who created the Republic, the pioneer “civilizers of the wilderness”; imperialist America’s “manifest destiny” to bring Christianity and capitalist vitality to “lesser races” under the aegis of the expanding nation; the provider of the “more abundant life” for Europe’s “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”; and the “champion of the free world” against the “evil empire of International Communism”. Beneath all these forms of Exceptionalism lies the pastoral conception of the New Adam. A number of critics read McCarthy’s texts as elegies for a lost American Eden…although it is clear that McCarthy characterizes the modern world as a waste land in both the literal and metaphorical sense it is clear that he depicts both the rural past and the wilderness as anything but paradisal.
I can accept that thesis, although its weakness, to me, is that it focuses on negatives – what McCarthy is seeking to prove is not the case. I agree that McCarthy is subverting standard genre tropes, but the question remains: to what end? I am not sure that Cant ever quite addresses this fundamental issue. He hints at it, for example when he suggests that ‘the consistent representation in his texts of the dialectic of vitality and insignificance does mark McCarthy as a religious writer in a Godless world’, but having raised the issue he affords it insufficient attention. It is not wholly accurate, for example, to describe McCarthy’s world as godless. God may or may not present himself to the humanity of Blood Meridian, but nonetheless his spirit is inescapable. ‘He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things,’ as judge Holden tells us. And ex-priest Tobin suggests: ‘it may well be that the voice of the Almighty speaks most profoundly in such beings as lives in silence themselves…. God speaks in the least of creatures.’ These quotes suggest, not a godless world, but rather a world in which God makes no allowance for humans.
This notion is explored by Georg Guillemin, who observes that Blood Meridian is a ‘post-humanist’ work in which nature is imagined ‘beyond anthropocentric terms’. He suggests that ‘the absolute lawlessness of the characters matches the absolute wilderness of the setting’, from which he concludes that the novel is ‘pastoral’. I am unconvinced that the logic of this bears scrutiny, but Guillemin goes on to claim that ‘the pastoral intention of Blood Meridian [is] the suspension of the human claim to stewardship over nature.’ Thus, McCarthy is promoting a sense of animism: ‘The only metaphysical or ideological paradigm the author endorses is wilderness animism. Even the judge’s soliloquies represent an animistic adaptation of gnostic notions.’ I find this difficult to accept fully. While the ‘stones, trees, bones of things’ quote could certainly be argued as animistic, the god portrayed by judge Holden is not some pastoral animal spirit, attuned to the pulses of nature. On the contrary, he tells us ‘War is God.’ And, no matter that McCarthy’s characters fail to reconcile themselves to God or find redemption, God will anyway ‘foller’ them ‘always even unto the end of the road?’ Guillemin’s explication of ecopastoralism in Blood Meridian is unconvincing, a fact he seems to accept himself when he suggests ‘the text’s skepticism toward its own ecopastoral vision … may thus explain the underlying melancholy mood.’ (In passing, I can think of many ways to describe Blood Meridian, but melancholy is not one of them.) Moreover, the notion of metaphysical animism strikes me as forced. It seems to me that Guillemin has established his thesis and manhandles the text into its straitjacket, seemingly oblivious of the fact that a significant chunk of the novel’s thematic intention remains resolutely outside it. While one could accept, in McCarthy’s term, an ‘optical democracy’ in which nature and man are seen on equal terms – beyond anthropocentrism – it does not account for the remarkable violence that obtains in the novel. It is one thing to say that God does not distinguish between man and any other of his creations, but why should this then result in man’s descent into savagery, which is what happens in Blood Meridian? McCarthy, in his Mr Johnson quote from Cities of the Plain, would argue that those outlaws who arrived in the west were pre-disposed to such levels of depravity but, since this violence was not replicated elsewhere, this is a logical fallacy. McCarthy may be saying then, as Guillemin contends, that there is democracy beneath the gaze of the almighty, but he must also be saying something more, something specifically about humanity. Guillemin’s thesis overlooks this.
Bent Sørensen characterises Blood Meridian as katabatic – a mythographic representation of the descent into hell – pointing out as evidence that one of the paratextual chapter headings in the novel is ‘The Katabasis’. This, of course, extends the notion of ‘quest’ or journey that is typical of the western genre and attaches to it a religious dimension that is clearly appropriate to McCarthy’s vision. Many of McCarthy’s novels could be read in this light, most notably, of course, The Road, in which the journey is all and the destination is seemingly annihilation. Sørensen’s analysis, then, is a useful one but, again, one must ask what is the result? In most katabatic journeys, an end point is reached – Hell – and some change is effected in the character, good or bad: either he pulls clear of Hell or is sucked into it for eternity. In Blood Meridian, no-one appears to learn, or to change. The journey is all. The destination is meaningless.
One could argue that the kid demonstrates a degree of increased awareness at the end, when his reluctance to confront the ‘new kid on the block’, Elrod, is counterpointed with his earlier bloodthirstiness but, if so, what is his reward? He finds his own violent death in the jakes, at the hands of his nemesis, the judge. If Sørensen is correct and the kid has arrived at his katabatic destination, this is troubling because McCarthy is therefore telling us that even conscience cannot save you from damnation. The concept of katabasis becomes meaningless if the only destination possible is hell, and if growth through understanding is impossible. And yet this is something one could clearly take from the narrative of Blood Meridian. And so, some further analysis is required.