Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The approach to the blood meridian (3)

Sara L. Spurgeon agrees with Cant that the novel is explicitly mythmaking. She sees it as an ‘origin myth – a sacred tale recounting how the world came to be.’ She argues:

Whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will, I would argue, is one of the central questions of the novel, implicating American attitudes regarding man’s conquest of nature, the relationship of Anglo America to any non-Anglo peoples, and America’s imperial mission especially as it was imagined in relation to the West.

I disagree. Spurgeon is adducing intent from action, and reaching the wrong conclusion. In the quote I have just given, she is quoting in turn from the opening of Blood Meridian, and certainly the passage in question sets the tone of the novel, making clear that we are exploring man’s relationship with nature and, in particular, the wilderness. And yet, such is the one-sided nature of the battle McCarthy portrays, it seems quite clear that he is not ultimately interested in men or the affairs of men. There is, for him, no debate about man’s conquest of nature: it isn’t possible. It is, then, a central fact of the novel, but not one of its central questions. Spurgeon, though, remains fixed on the idea that McCarthy is deconstructing notions of mythmaking. She says:

McCarthy moves Blood Meridian through the dark and disordered spaces of what Lauren Berlant terms the National Symbolic, but unlike the familiar icons of mythic frontier tales, McCarthy’s characters seek no closure, nor do they render order out of the chaos of history. Rather, they reveal the chaos at the heart of history and the myths we make from it. The novel functions on the level of mythmaking and National Fantasy as an American origin story, a reimaging upon the palimpsest of the Western frontier the birth of one of our most pervasive National Fantasies – the winning of the West and the building of the American character through frontier experiences.

I agree that the characters seek no closure – they remain throughout curiously ambivalent about their respective fates – but I would argue that, although some element of deconstructing the mythologies of the west is certainly evident here, there must still be something more to explain the level of violence incurred in Blood Meridian. One way, perhaps, to approach an understanding of this novel is not to look at the myths that McCarthy inverts, but those he maintains. We have already seen, in the quote from Mr Johnson in Cities of the Plain, that McCarthy accepts that the west was not in itself inherently responsible for the culture of violence that grew up around it: it was an incidental conjuction of the migration of dangerous men and the invention of easy and cheap weaponry. Yet McCarthy otherwise perpetuates the myths surrounding the arrival of this new community of western pathfinders. He would have us believe that the west grew organically on the backs of these men, speculators (Blood Meridian is set in 1849, the year of the Gold Rush) and opportunists, and while the baser of men’s instincts (greed, violence) were to the fore, those political and social foundations we might recognise in society were largely absent. This is not so. Frederick Jackson Turner, writing in 1893 on the significance of the frontier in American history, was emphatic on the role of commerce in developing the west as we know it. He wrote:

In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave – the meeting point between savagery and civilization. Much has been written about the frontier from the point of view of border warfare and the chase, but as a field for the serious study of the economist and the historian it has been neglected.

He explained further: ‘The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader’s ‘trace;’ the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads.’ Commerce, then, was a key driver in the development of the west. And again:

Thus civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous.

Thus, Turner demonstrates that there was a clear human, political, economic dimension to the west. This does not translate into the typical western myth, and nor does it to McCarthy’s myth. For example, in Blood Meridian he states:

The Americans might have traded for some of the meat but they carried no tantamount goods and the disposition to exchange was foreign to them. And so these parties divided upon that midnight plain, each passing back the way the other had come, pursuing as all travelers must inversions without end upon other men’s journeys.

McCarthy is again promulgating this myth of the wanderer, of the traveller. ‘They rode on’ appears every few pages in Blood Meridian, and in the Border Trilogy, too, even though it is set in the second half of the twentieth century. Those travellers may, as Sørensen claims, be on a katabatic journey, but such is the hopelessness of their plight it is difficult to argue this convincingly. So what are they doing? The overriding aesthetic in Blood Meridian is one of violence. It is simply saturated in it. The characters, virtually without exception, are driven by aggression. Patrick W. Shaw, in his analysis of the violence in Blood Meridian, relates this to Erich Fromm’s two modes of aggression – benign and malignant – the latter of which is found only in humans and is symptomatic, in Fromm’s thesis, of our existential alienation. It causes us to visit violence on each other for no particular reason and, further, to gain satisfaction from that violence. In short, Shaw concludes, ‘malignant aggression defines the human animal.’ From this, Shaw then suggests that in Blood Meridian:

[McCarthy] elaborately fictionalises the syllogism that underlies Fromm's psychology of human violence: malignant aggression dictates human culture; and by accepting the human-ness of violence one can avoid intellectual and physical servitude, albeit the cost of such autonomy will most probably be horrific.

There is merit to this discourse. The potentiality for violence in man is well-known and the capacity for evil to infest a group psyche is made clear in Nazi Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Rwanda or any number of human horror stories. Thus, Blood Meridian could indeed be argued to be an analysis of, at the very least, the inherent aggression of human beings. But this is to assume that the worst must always prevail. This is to assume that evil will always, perforce, dominate good. And yet we know this is not the case. For every Adolf Hitler there is an Oskar Schindler; for every judge Holden there is a Raymond Rambert who, at the very moment when he could finally escape the plague city in Camus’s The Plague, places the common good above his own self-preservation and remains to fight. Good and evil are not unique to themselves; they are, always, in binary opposition to one another. Except, it seems, in the blood meridian. Therefore, one must look further than simple human nature to understand this novel.

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