Sunday, June 07, 2009

Approaching the blood meridian (4)

What is curious about Blood Meridian is the way that its violence has become accepted, even almost acceptable. Whatever McCarthy’s intention with the novel, it is as though, through his undoubted artistry and ability with words, he has bestowed a kind of acceptability on the aesthetic of violence. Indeed, this has been the case throughout his writing career. It is noteworthy, in reading criticisms of McCarthy, that the same selections from his texts are quoted in article after article: the murder of the child in Outer Dark; Lester Ballard mouthing lasciviously into the waxen ear of the female corpse he is raping in Child of God; the various outrageous misdemeanours of judge Holden in Blood Meridian; the charred remains of the cannibalised child in The Road and so on. It is as though a legion of critics are mesmerised by this violence, by the audacity of an author in claiming for high literature the viscera and malevolence of the schlock horror novel.

Denis Donohue describes setting Blood Meridian as a text for a course in Aesthetics and Aesthetic Ideology because he wanted to counter what he perceived as the current trend of reducing novels to the level of political manifesto and reaching, through them, ideological conclusions both about the text and its author. He chose Blood Meridian, he says, because its creative power seemed ‘to be at one with McCarthy's refusal to bring in a moral verdict on the characters and actions of the book.’ Donoghue’s point was that the experience of reading literature should not ‘consist in finding one’s prejudices confirmed’.

It is hard to argue with Donogue’s aims: didacticism in literature may be tedious, but it is scarcely more corrosive than didacticism in criticism. However, such is the power of McCarthy’s writing, and such is the mythology that appears to have built up around McCarthy’s mythology (metamythology?) it seems to me that there is a lack of rigour in debating the political, religious and social implications of his work. Certainly, a novel should not be reduced to an affirmation or negation of a critic’s prejudices; but nor should manifest failings be overlooked for fear of losing sight of the aesthetic. Aesthetics cannot work in isolation. Donoghue makes the point that McCarthy is describing a world ‘beyond good and evil’. This is undoubtedly true: there is no morality in Blood Meridian, so there can be no delineation of good and evil. What I have not yet grasped, however, is what this is telling us. As a reader, I read books both for entertainment value and for the message they impart to me. Although Donohue is right to say that we should not read in order to have our prejudices confirmed, when I consider my personal values, I can see that they have been heavily influenced by books. The Tin Drum, in particular, is the novel that changed my life. There is and there must be a connection between a reader and a book. It is not enough to simply deny, in the name of aesthetics, any discussion on the meaning of a novel.

So what is that meaning? I am aware that, thus far, I have been doing what I criticised one critic for, and listing the things Blood Meridian is not. The next stage is to consider what it is. The answer, it seems to me, lies in Thus Spake Zarathustra, which judge Holden so regularly bastardises, and the various gnostic texts and motifs and beliefs which are referenced throughout the novel. That's where the answers lie.

But what the answer is, that's anybody's guess.

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