Monday, September 14, 2009

The false values of Blood Meridian

I've written before about my difficulties with Cormac McCarthy, how I think he dwells on the evil that man is capable of and is unable to discern any ameliorating qualities. This is why I think he is such a deeply flawed writer. I came across this quote from Erich Heller on Oswald Spengler, and it could just as easily stand for my views on McCarthy:

Spengler's history is untrue because the mind which has conceived it is, despite its learning and seeming subtlety, a crude and wicked mind. The image of man which lurks behind Spengler's vast historical canvas is perverted, and could only be accepted by a hopelessly perverted age. For Spengler has no idea of the true stature of the problem of human freedom. Therefore his historical vision is lacking in depth as well as in love, pity and pathos. It is a worthless and deeply untruthful sort of history which lacks these qualities, for they are the proper tools of human understanding.

If Spengler's men were real men, his Culture-Souls real souls, and his Destiny really destiny; if, in other words, Spengler had realized the full pathos of human freedom under the shadow of necessity, his historical plot would move us with the force of tragedy. As it is, there is no terror and no pity in his acceptance of Destiny, but merely a conscious decision for the false values, and this is the classical definition of sin and wickedness.

What McCarthy has done is to re-imagine Zarathustra as judge Holden, but as only half a man, a man without humanity. Love, pity and pathos are stunted things in McCarthy's world.

30 comments:

Court said...

This is thoughtful stuff, Tom. Someone I respect once said of McCarthy that his unending darkness in BM was just the flipside of a the sentimentalism of, say, a romantic novel; and that's why he didn't think much of the novel. (Have I typed this here before? Forgive me if I have.) I think this is along the the lines of what you're saying.

I'm struggling to disagree. But I find that I can do it mainly, and possibly only, on stylistic grounds. That is, McCarthy's grand style overwhelms any moral points, or the lack thereof. I'm not sure if that is good enough.

Dylan said...

"Stunted" strikes me as a good way to describe McCarthy's fiction. Although I appreciate certain elements of McCarthy's worldview, I can't help but notice a certain lack of amplitude in his characters. It's as though they're morally and spiritually anemic, animated by rigid ideologies rather than the exigencies of (as you note) love and pathos.

I think McCarthy gets away with this because he always posits his characters in liminal zones--the Mexican border, the river's edge, the road. Characters like Judge Holden, Suttree, and Anton Chigurh are an embodiment on the moral vacume that characterizes such places. I see them as products--and even functions--of the landscape itself. Maybe the blank affect and lack of conscience evident in so many of McCarthy's characters is really humanity subordinated to the enormity and violence of the American aesthetic.

Mark said...

I still think most of this sets aside the Border Trilogy.

BM is the anti-Romantic novel to balance out the (in my opinion) so obviously skewed concepts of Thoreau, Emerson, and the oft-recurring ideas in the last three or four hundred years that man is better without restraint than with. Isn't BM, rather than a depiction of how men always are and must be, instead a depiction of men without restraint in certain circumstances?

Given that qualifier and given that BM is loosely based in history (the loosely true story of American scalp hunters, title and author I cannot recall, and also Major John Chivington's massacre of peaceful, pro-US Indians outside Denver during the Civil War) and given that men have shown themselves so very capable of everything in Blood Meridian... I would argue that while it is unbalanced (and that seems to be kind of the point), it isn't necessarily distorted.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks all for good comments. BM as the flipside of sentimentalism is a good observation. And morally and spiritually anaemic is also a fair summary of most of his characterisation.

Products - even functions of the landscape: that's an interesting observation. Certainly, the landscape is essential to BM, the 'optical democracy', as he describes it.

The Border Trilogy: I think they're curious books in McCarthy's oeuvre. They don't totally fit. Nonetheless, I'm not sure there's much in them that contradicts the point from the Heller quote. John Grady and Billy Parham may be closer to standard heroes, but it doesn't bring them much satisfaction or happiness in life.

I don't think BM distorts the history of that period. Far from it, it's pretty accurate. If you read Chamberlain's Recollections of a Rogue and Mayne Reid's The Scalphunters there's a great deal you will recognise from BM. I think the distortion comes from McCarthy's relentless use of these periods of extreme violence. He seems unwilling to see any good in the world. Even if you see a positive message in the end of The Road - and I don't - it still comes at the cost of all human civilisation as we know it. The message would then seem to be that there may be the possibility of goodness in individuals, but not in society. That's a distortion, surely.

Anonymous said...

What you may be missing about McCarthy is that he does not deny human virtues or motivations, he just leaves them out of this novel and I think with good reason. In Blood Meridian, the character is actually the dance. As the judge frequently expresses, "men are fond of games and all child knows that play is nobler then work" and the value of the game depends on what is risked in the process. We see that this is true at least in what atracts people to fiction. Contemporary TV-shows and movies are full of such coin toss (yes, i know a differnt mccarthy book has such shite in it) situations where characters are often made to risk their lives for such irrational reasons in such impossible scenarios that the whole thing might as well be a game. Just take a look at medical dramas and how in each episode we see the bleeping heart monitor (by the way, it is actually impossible to revitalize a stopped heart with paddles, they can only be used to correct arythmias) and people coming back to life. It takes deep thought and creativity to get people to watch things without death or action scenes and the only TV show I know which has really done it is Mad Men.
Even though the constant violence in Blood Meridian would suggests a similar coin toss situation attraction to the novel it is in fact the complete opposite. Because we don't know the hopes and dreams of the characters, we don't know what in fact is risked in the game. We don't feel for the characters and their deaths become truly part of a dance. It is the properties of the dance that the novels is concerned with. The dance is suprahuman. Take Woody Allen's characters with their "silly and neurotic" search for love or Felix Hoenikker's search for knowledge, when love is achived or an invention made, man's mind is made such to find a new purpose and if the new purpose is the same as the old purpose (love again, new knowledge again, thrill from risk again) and many people go through such repetitions, we begin to see a suprahuman process emerge, where these continual repetitions form a process that shapes history. On the western plains the dance has taken a spectacular shape, but such a book could have been written about university laboratories, producing more scientific papers than any one person can read even in his narrow field (be it cell penetrating peptides or the zoology of salmon) and fuelling with mad speed man’s wish to shape the stuff of creation to its will. So Mccarthy's novels become about the process and the shape of the road. Faulkner is wrong when he says that the internal conflict of the human heart is the only thing deserving sweat and agony. Literature, in the end is about educational entertainment provided through characters which some would say are neccessarily caricatures, so Mccarthy's dance is as good a character as Jason Compson, Kilgore Trout, Arya Stark or Little Red Ridinghood. It intrigues us and it actually exists, though we as its participant might as well be ignorant of its properties. Truth and entertainment in one is more than enough and mccarthy widens the scope of literature and is the only author i've read proving wrong postmodernists who say that all themes of human exsistence to write about have already been covered in the canon and all one can do is play with the pieces. So Blood Meridian has no values because it is of a process to which such a term cannot be inscribed.
PS. I'm more of a casual TV-watcher myself so I don't know too much about literature and just wondered on to your site accidentally, but i was suprised to see that even though you say you hate mccarthy, you have so much written about the man's work. Why is that?

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks a lot for this. I note you posted anonymously: I hope you come back, though, because there's some thought-provoking stuff in your reply.

What you may be missing about McCarthy is that he does not deny human virtues or motivations, he just leaves them out of this novel and I think with good reason.
Yes, it's certainly true that he does. Virtually the only backstory with more than a couple of lines in his books is Bell's Vietnam history. I'm not so sure about it being with good reason, though. Human motivations must be accounted for somehow.

In Blood Meridian, the character is actually the dance.

Yes, the final scene is of the judge dancing. I equate this to Nietzsche's Zarathustra, except Z's is a dance of life and the judge's is a dance of death. And yes, you can certainly see life as a dance of death and the dance of death as a game of chance, but that still does not eliminate the fact that human beings hope and aspire and desire. Those are powerful emotions, yet they are given no credence in the McCarthy universe.

Because we don't know the hopes and dreams of the characters, we don't know what in fact is risked in the game. We don't feel for the characters and their deaths become truly part of a dance. It is the properties of the dance that the novels is concerned with. The dance is suprahuman.

This is the key to it, isn't it? This is where we are seeing the same thing, from different points of view. I guess I don't acceot that the dance is suprahuman, or if it is, that we should simply accept the fact.

Take Woody Allen's characters with their "silly and neurotic" search for love or Felix Hoenikker's search for knowledge, when love is achived or an invention made, man's mind is made such to find a new purpose and if the new purpose is the same as the old purpose (love again, new knowledge again, thrill from risk again) and many people go through such repetitions, we begin to see a suprahuman process emerge, where these continual repetitions form a process that shapes history.
Yes, that's good. Again, there's a Nietzschean feel to that.

On the western plains the dance has taken a spectacular shape, but such a book could have been written about university laboratories, producing more scientific papers than any one person can read even in his narrow field (be it cell penetrating peptides or the zoology of salmon) and fuelling with mad speed man’s wish to shape the stuff of creation to its will. So Mccarthy's novels become about the process and the shape of the road.

Yes, i see the point you're making. There is a quote from The Crossing: 'The shape of the road is the road. There is not some other road that wears that shape but only the one. And every voyage begun upon it will be completed.'

i was suprised to see that even though you say you hate mccarthy, you have so much written about the man's work. Why is that?
Aha, I think you're the first person to ask me that fairly obvious question. I'll do a new post on that, I think.

thanks again for your comments.

Anonymous said...

While I respect all of these comments, I think that Mark has it closest to the mark. The omission of character growth and of any sign of human ‘goodness’ in BM is rather the point. If the novel is taken as an extreme critique of the modern West’s rewarding of the supremacy of the libido dominandi (and of power politics taken to it’s ultimate- the strong do what they will, they weak suffer what they must), the lack of character growth and any sort of redeeming quality suits the works end.

The only thing approaching goodness in the BM might be the single act of a defrocked priest when he recognizes the evil incarnate in the judge and tells the Kid to shoot him (p.285 – Vintage softcover). But of course, in what amounts to the climax of the novel, the Kid doesn’t shoot the judge when he has the chance, and fails to do so in the ensuing gunfight. Goodness, then, is only hinted at in the guise of righteous action to combat evil (i.e., Gandis sometimes need howitzers to back them up, in terrible paraphrase of Obama’s Nobel speech). The fact that the Kid doesn’t act when he has a chance is perfect for the book. If the work had any character growth or some semblance of a happy ending or any redeeming qualities at all, it would only serve to undermine the main assertion in the book: that the horrific acts therein are unjustifiable.

The Zarathustra connection is a fine one, and without a doubt the character of the judge and the dance are the central unifying ‘concepts’ of the work. But remember, we come to see throughout the novel that the Judge isn’t really intended to be understood as flesh and blood (and this is not an original thought), but rather the Judge represents the evil incarnate of the super-man. [Note his many super-human abilities and characteristics; note his dancing, fiddling, riddling, and facility with tongues; his cataloging of the world’s things in the big Book, only to destroy them; how he’s first met sitting naked in the desert, and seems to escape every situation unharmed; he never sleeps, he never dies…]. Every other character in the book is destroyed by their will to power. The Judge is not cowed to this principle, because he is that principle. Even the Kid in his own lame way, by refusing to see how his actions and omissions have led him to the final dance with the Judge, is complicit in his own destruction. At the end, the Judge speaks to the Kid:

“…And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?

“You ain’t nothing.”

“You speak truer than you know.”… (P.331- Vintage softcover)

As the dialogue between the two continues and ends for the last time in the book, the judge implies that the devil alone (as the ultimate evil impetus) is the true dancer, is the one beast that remains dancing on the stage: ”…All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name. One by one they will step down into the darkness before the footlamps. Bears that dance, bears that don’t.” (P.331) In the end, I think it’s important to remember that the judge’s running discourse of bloody meaning, of battle as the highest celebration of life, is put forth by the allegorical superman of passions in tribute to the devil. The judge “…know[s] him well.” (P. 328). One need not have a Christian viewpoint to see the value in such symbolisms.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, while I like my own narrow interpretation of Blood Meridian concerning the modern West, the quotes that open the novel (as well as many passages in the text) leave the definite impression that the author is writing of a recurrent and deep-seated blood lust in the fiber of mankind, and not just a more recent deviation. In this respect, the book's central thesis of the dance of death reminds me more of Van Crevald's nonfiction book The Transformation of War, a work that asserts provocatively that battle is innate to mankind as it's highest form of 'game'.

Despite the fundamentally perverse notion, I recommend it as a quick and insightful read that helps to ellucidate the rise of low intensity conflict, guerilla war, and terrorism as the 'wars' of the late 20th century and the future. The book was published (I believe) around 1990 and some of its prognostications are spooky in their evocation of the last 20 years of world history. Check 'er out.

-Carlos

Jarrod said...

Part 1

Wow, great blog, I enjoy reading this stuff. I'll cut to the chase though. I think you must be careful referring to the characters in Blood Meridian, or the judge in particular, as being "devoid" or as "lacking" goodness or character growth. When you do that, I think you are looking at them through a what the judge would consider a false lens, and are cornering yourselves into becoming "false dancers". Once you do that, the entire meaning of the novel is lost.

To understand the judge, you must look at him in a fundamental light. Yes, he is in human form and possesses a wide range of characteristics, but his view of the world is much simpler than what many people interpret. Think of the undeniable truth of something like math, 1+1=2. Math is universal, what we consider an indestructible language. The judge is born out of something before that, something simpler. Picture the world without humans, Alan Weisman does this brilliantly in "The World Without Us," either before humans existed or after we are gone, and what you will see is incessent warfare among plants/animals/species/subspecies. That is because, as long as there is diversity amongst living things, there will always be a dominant species in every environment. That domination/submission is what shapes the earth. Nature in that regard, deals in life and death. It doesn't bargain with itself and allow certain species to exist because of any moral law, it simply progresses with daily non-judgemental warfare, not to survive, but because this is the only way that time may press on. This is a "historical law", as long as death marks the end of existence and as long as diversity exists among the living, warfare is unavoidable. This progression has shaped the world you see today.

Enter man. An evolved species. He enters a world of warfare. War exists before him. Man possesses the mental capacity to dominate the earth, much like the dominant species before him. This domination doesn't exist due to any particular choice, but the domination must exist because natural law insists that there be one dominant species as long as life and diversity exist. "We are not speaking in riddles here." Man assumes the role, because of mandatory self preservation, and with a mental capacity with which the world has never seen. Scientific evidence suggests that man is responsible for the dying out of hundreds of mammal species in North America. Man wars against itself. This is where the judge comes into focus.

Along with that increased mental capacity, man also has the ability, unlike any being before it, to create some sort of "moral" ground. It's here that you have to define the judge as being numero uno, the natural order that comes first, and the moral law as being reactionary to him. "Moral Law is an invention of mankind... historical law subjects it at every turn." The judge, and this natural warfare, must exist as pure as he does, otherwise there would be nothing to construct moral law against.

Jarrod said...

Part 2

This is why you see him as a scientist... "the smallest crumb can devour us." The judge is well aware of the constant warfare that nature is waging back on man. Every species of life on earth tries to dominate through killing. Whether it be a certain type of beetle in a forest, or a large mammal on a prarie. It will kill to survive and multiply at will if the opportunity is there. Not all species have that capacity, because the surrounding environment is filled with species with the same goal, who have evolved along the time line just the same. As depicted by Alan Wiesman as to what would happen to civilization if man were to be gone tomorrow, nature would eventually seize back all traces of mankind.

The judge, as natural law personified, recognizes that man is the ultimate in historical law. He revels in this, notice how he's the only one in the book who seems to have any inner peace. He calls it "war" as a way to communicate it, but it's much simpler than that. It's progression through time. One species becoming the dominant species through natural progression. This progression is the dance. On the Mexican border, the judge sees in the kid this man-made invention of moral skepticism, that what is going on "isn't right." He realizes that men bear the ability to judge themselves, unlike any being to ever walk the earth. "Mans vanity may very well reach the infinite." They have the ability to question the nobility of warfare, which is a natural phenomenon, therefore, they have the ability to judge the scientific progression of the earth. "The dancers will become false dancers."

Therefore, to me, the judge is just warfare. Not a man-made definition of warfare, but warfare as the simple progression of time and the natural required election of one species as dominate, and the others as submissive. "There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone, all others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name. Bears that dance, bears that dont."

In that sense, the judge comes first, before everything else. He will never die, he cant. If he does, that to which all moral law takes aim against will cease to be. I don't consider him devoid or lacking anything, he just is, the basic structure of all existence. The very first time a living thing competed against another for survival, what the judge represents was there. (the newspaper clip about the 300,000 year old scalped skull is a of utmost importance). Millions of years later, man emerges carrying out that dance in a similar but more advanced fashion. The judge is there, smiling.

Jarrod said...

To view the judge as aligning with the devil, I think, is also irresponsible. Our current notion of the devil is one that is at odds with goodness. Since "right" is a man-made thing, as the judge would view it, anything at odds with "right" exists in the man-made realm which I think is totally separate of the judge. The dance existed long before man. Satan, or the devil, is the other end of the human formula of "right." I don't think the judge would align himself with anything man-made. He exists visually as a man, and has taken a vested interest in the activities of men, but only because they are the ultimate practicioners of a natural order.

Even if if you are Christian, and you think Christ was sent by God... I still think you must acknowledge that the judge, or at least what he represents, comes before Christ... otherwise, there is nothing to measure Christ against. You could very well argue that "moral law" was a gift from God for man that would allow him to trudge through life with the capacity to resist the natural order. The judge would probably acknowledge that type of thinking, but he would still insist that he is the core from which all moral law revolves around.

The judge himself even seems to be preparing for man to evolve into a more advanced species. He continues the line of progression, fully-haired primate, to mildly haired cavemen, to less haired man, to a no-haired judge. The more and more you look at the judge, the more terrifying and truthful he becomes.

Tom Conoboy said...

Excellent and thought provoking stuff, thanks. There’s some great debate going on here.

Yes, I do accept that my reading of McCarthy has been too shallow, to an extent, and I’ve missed some of what he’s trying to do. I’ve probably been too literal in my reading.

However…

I do get wary when people talk of looking through a false lens, or of not reading it from the judge’s point of view. So, for me:

When you do that, I think you are looking at them through a what the judge would consider a false lens, and are cornering yourselves into becoming "false dancers". Once you do that, the entire meaning of the novel is lost.

The question is, does being called a ‘false dancer’ by a false prophet – the judge – make one a false dancer? If that were the case, it would mean accepting the judge as a true representation of natural law, which I’m not necessarily prepared to do. Not entirely.

, the judge sees in the kid this man-made invention of moral skepticism, that what is going on "isn't right." He realizes that men bear the ability to judge themselves, unlike any being to ever walk the earth. "Mans vanity may very well reach the infinite." They have the ability to question the nobility of warfare, which is a natural phenomenon, therefore, they have the ability to judge the scientific progression of the earth. "The dancers will become false dancers."


I don’t think that’s a logical conclusion. The judge can represent natural law, sure, and he can ascribe to it ascendancy over moral law. I accept that natural law will dominate, because that is the nature of evolution but that is not the same as saying, as the judge does:

"There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone, all others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name. Bears that dance, bears that dont."

This is where I lose McCarthy. He takes for granted an absolute that I don’t think is absolute.

Anonymous said...

Hi all. Jarrod-- good stuff, thank you. I like the interpretation of the Judge as a natural law incarnate, and it reminds me of the opening monologue of the narrator in Thin Red Line (the film by Terrence Mallick)-- "...What's this war at the heart of nature..." (The opening quote in Blood Meridian about the skulls is what had me revisit my own conclusions by the way, and mention the Van Crevald book.) The she-wolf in McCarthy’s The Crossing seems to embody this same idea of the primacy of violence, in the “dark nation” in its eyes, though in a more benign aspect.

Re the devil symbolism: actually I said the last "beast" on the stage was the devil, and the Judge just a big fan. While perhaps that’s not a correct interpretation, I am a reader of Eric Voegelin and believe religious symbolisms can have meaning to be explored with regard to humanity regardless of whether the social milieu still accepts it in consensus as "truth". I think that McCarthy, with his implied fallen Catholic usages and biblical tones and themes, would probably agree. (The church scene in Suttree is very telling: “It’s not God’s house,” yet the bulk of the book is an exploration of human depravity, whether it be called ‘sin’ or ‘bad choices’.) I am not a Christian with a living faith, but I have grown up in a context where the ideas of good and evil are discussed, and often Xtian symbolisms are used (-the devil, of course, being a later invention to the insights of the Christ). In the same vein, I think we can learn about humanity by studying or writing about snake-god in the jungles of somewhere, even though I don’t presently believe in a snake that is 7 miles long and comes to me in a medicine vision (-although there was this one night…). In this regard, and to paraphrase Voegelin poorly, I think it’s important to remember that the field of historical and religious meaning is littered with the debunked and defeated gods, ideas, and cultural norms of the past. Things overlap and don’t break cleanly with one another. As such, McCarthy may well be speaking of the natural law of death/warfare at the heart of life as the central thesis of the work, and yet still over-lay it with a xtian symbolism, such as the idea that reducing man to this law, making him a true dancer in the Judge’s world, is to make him the devil’s advocate. After all, while the Judge as warfare is pre-biblical, McCarthy is most certainly not.

So, perhaps like Tom, I take issue with some of your conclusions, but the basic thesis of your post makes sense. Kudos for its breadth and insight. One point, though, returning to symbolism of the beast on the stage at the end of the book: the “one beast” on the stage appears to live on forever in the thrice quoted passage above, which is at odds with the idea that it represents “the victor” of the dance; even that beast would step down into the eternal darkness at his appointed time. -Or, where you saying that the Judge, as natural law personified, was that beast? I reread your post and wasn’t quite sure. But if so, what of the “other” who pulls the strings on the dancers, the implied principal to death’s agency, whom the Judge knows well? (p.328) This being seems to be separate from the Judge, unless it was the Judge’s joke on the kid (-quite possible- but then he would be speaking “in riddles”). If you visit again, please take a moment to clarify this point, as I agree with the basic thrust of your interpretation.

Thanks for your time,
-Carlos

Anonymous said...

Hello Jarrod, all—
I returned this morning to present the idea that the violent depravity and sexual proclivities of the Judge go beyond the “natural” realm of domination for survival (-puppies purchased for drowning? -a bed shared with a young mexican girl and a retarded monkey-man?). But in fact, the latest studies on higher primates, dolphinae, and elephants suggest that they do in fact kill for sport and exhibit non-procreative, ‘perverse’ sexual behaviors. So there goes that argument. However, the same type of intense observational studies have also led to the insights that, for example, elephants will return year in year out to the spot of a mass culling, walking the ground for hours where the blood of their relatives dried and faded into the dust. More and more, we are coming to see that what we once viewed as the exclusive province of humankind is in fact a shared territory of higher natural orders, only significantly more developed in humans.

The writing of BM predated these scientific insights, of course. I offer them as a gadfly might, Jarrod, to your suggestion (in quoting the judge, p.250) that the moral impulse is only an invention; might it not also be a ‘natural’ progression to view the natural law of absolute dominion and submission as something to be overcome? Many today believe that the vast extinction of species that has followed our human expansion has not been in our best interests, and not simply for ‘eco-moralist’ reasons, but for practical scientific purposes as well as for reasons of systemic balance. Despite our natural desire to dominate, the human cannot live alone whether as a species or in society (-the one beast dancing on the stage would not last very long…). The power to destroy and dominate indiscriminately has imbedded in it an implied knowledge of the whole system, or else the actor's very dominion might be subverted by the cruelty he undertakes. But like the Judge’s unfinished book of species, such Gnosis is always incomplete and must be viewed as false hubris, as time and again it has proven to be. The notion that the Judge is the super-evolution of man seems to return to the idea throughout the discussion that he is in fact the libidinous superman of modern Gnostic speculation. In the dialogue you quote, Jarrod, between the judge and the ex-priest Tobin (p. 250), the judge silences the ex-priest through the force of his arguments, driving his last nail home, “…the priest has put by the robes of his craft and taken up the tools of that higher calling which all men honor. The priest also would be no godserver but a god himself.” What better statement of modern Gnosticism is there?

Again, while I find your thesis that Judge Holden personifies the natural order of warfare compelling and correct on its face, I think the textual questions (mentioned in the preceding post) hint at another gossamer level of meaning in the novel, a thin veil laid over the evening redness in the west. In my opinion, every other novel by McCarthy has at least this veneer or substratum of moral or spiritual questioning, even if the implied author of McCarthy’s novels clearly rejects religion in its calcified doctrinal belief structures. Without a doubt there is a vacuity of meaning in the world of Blood Meridian, as the God in the epilogue who has put fire in the rock, is merely a watcher in the heart of man, “…so that [the wanderers] appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality.” (p. 337). With the image of a clock-work divinity who lays in repose (a monitor of “…escapement and pallet”), we have the image of man’s meaningless ‘progress’ across the plain, “…a validation of sequence and causality”. (Id.) Jarrod, while perhaps you might view this as confirmation that the moral impulse is in fact an appearance only, I view it an indication that the implied author sees a deep-seated problem with the world he envisions; a world where the imagined God who created the stone no longer penetrates the masonry of men’s hearts.

Thanks for participating, -Carlos

Anonymous said...

Me again, pardon. I posted the foregoing a while ago, and was bothered by my use of the word "pallet" in the epilogue, referring to God as though in repose. I think it better to see the phrase "...monitored with escapement and pallet" (BM, Pg. 337) as denominating the clock-maker vision of divinity (as stated in the prior post) tied to the pallet of death. That is, a god who looks from afar having put things into motion and waits at the other end as undertaker. In other words, a divinity with no place or participation in existence.

This doesn't change the essential meaning of the analysis in the prior post. (Actually, in my view it strengthens it.) The idea remains that the curious little epilogue is added to the text to undergird the silent discourse in the text: that Judge Holden’s Gnostic vision of reality is true, as far as it goes; that it is partial, for all it’s fundamentality. The wanderers progressing across the plain are mere “…mechanisms” that “…move haltingly” because the divinity that put fire in the stone is now banished from the stage.

Again, Jarrod, as a secular humanist, I use these terms (as in my readings of Voegelin) with symbolic meaning. In other words, I don’t believe McCarthy is at all saying to bring back the God of the Old Testament, rather, just don’t expand the frailty of humanity to create a itself as a false god. For those interested in McCarthy’s implied view of these themes (-where violence, Gnosis, and our vision of God intersect), his novel The Crossing provides more discursive clarity and fewer horses getting stabbed. Heh.

Thanks again,
-Carlos

Carlos said...

The Epilogue to Blood Meridian has some limited but telling intertextuality with the Bible, “Judges” chapter 6. The Book of Judges tells of War and is a cyclical vision of belief and unbelief.

Judges 6:20

The angel of God said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened bread, place them on this rock, and pour out the broth." And Gideon did so.

(21) With the tip of the staff that was in his hand, the angel of the Lord touched the meat and the unleavened bread. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the Lord disappeared.

(22) When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the Lord, he exclaimed, "Ah, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!"

(a few short verses omitted that don’t contribute or detract)

(25) That same night the Lord said to him, "Take the second bull from your father's herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father's altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.

(26) Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering."

-----------------------------------------
Epilogue to Blood Meridian, p. 337:

“In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes the fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.”

(P.337)

Carlos said...

Re Epilogue to Blood Meridian as compared to Judges 6:20-26…

The repetition of the terms “steel” and “fire” and “hole” are important, I think. In McCarthy’s epilogue man has replaced the Angel of the Lord from Judges 6:21 (man’s post-digger symbolically replacing the angel’s staff) and man strikes the fire out of the rock (symbol of God’s power), using his steel. [Note, the direct intertextual symbolization of fire from the rock is only used in connection with God.] The steel symbolizes man’s technological prowess (including guns, knives, his ability to wage war effectively), which has taken the place of the miracle-working angel.

The holes are in fact the souls of man, now vacuous of meaning as man is now his own god, enkindling the fire (spirit) in the hole, each in turn. For that reason the wanderers on the plain “…move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality”. (p.337) There is only the empty heart overseen by a monitoring clock-maker/undertaker god of which man does not participate. The “…continuance” of mankind as a progression under the divine has broken into a mindless moving across the plain; a verification of “…sequence and causality” only, as if man were the being who put the fire in the rock in the first place, as if each soul owed its existence only to the one before it.

The Epilogue of BM invokes a biblical verse that relates directly to a proof of God’s existence and the smashing of altars to false gods. (These the verses preceeding the "sword of Gideon" passage, Judges 7:14.) This provides telling evidence that the epilogue exists to undergird the silent discourse of the novel: Judge Holden’s self-elevation into the god of war above all others is the Baal of Gnostic immanentization. He is a false ‘judge’ as compared to the judges of the Book, yet he is clearly the victor in the world of Blood Meridian. He does not speak in riddles, though McCarthy perhaps does.

Please don’t jump all over me for being a closet-xtian; we need to be able to speak about the themes an author invokes, however one chooses interpret them… . I found the intertextuality using an online searchable Bible (hallelujah!) Likewise, no offense intended to those with a living faith.

Thank you-

courtmerrigan said...

Fascinating stuff, everyone. I lack the time to throw my comments in at the depth which this conversation deserves, but I am reading ardently. Thanks.

Carlos said...

Court,
That's good to hear- I hoped we hadn't gone too esoteric- and clearly I have too much time on my hands.

By the way, in the same manner we critiqued Jarrod's insightful contributions for some conclusions that didn't flow from his analysis, I should back off some of my own. My overall reading of BM and of the Epilogue in particular is definitely influenced by my study of the rest of McCarthy's work. Reading from the BM text only, the epilogue can also be interpreted to describe "the state of things" as they exist in the world of Blood Meridian, without any further judgment about right or wrong. In other words, the implied author may be giving a diagnosis without there being a specific prognosis. Judge Holden may in fact be the war at the heart of life, man made god through blood sacrifice, and the epilogue may simply be restating the issue through its monotonous prose-poem like a final coda or summation.

Tom Conoboy said...

The holes are in fact the souls of man, now vacuous of meaning as man is now his own god, enkindling the fire (spirit) in the hole, each in turn.

Fascinating idea. Not sure I go along with it, though. For McCarthy and similar seekers of truth, I'm not sure the soul can ever be made vacuous. This is a quote from Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium, about the Brethren of the Free Spirit:

‘The soul,’ said one woman, ‘is so vast that all the saints and angels cannot approach it. It fills all things.’ For the Brethren of the Free Spirit the soul was not merely destined to be reabsorbed into God on the death of the body; in its essence it had itself been divine from all eternity and was still potentially divine even whilst inhabiting a human body. In the words of the heretical treatise which was found in the hermit’s cell near the Rhine: ‘The divine essence is my essence and me essence is the divine essence... From eternity man was God in God... From eternity the soul of man was in God and is God... Man was not begotten, but was from eternity wholly unbegettable; and as he could not be begotten, so he is wholly immortal.’ It is in the light of this that one must interpret the recurring assertion of the heretics: ‘Every rational creature is in its nature blessed.’

Such a viewpoint would clearly chime with the ex-priest Tobin, especially the line you quote about him being no godserver but a god himself. I don't think the human soul is destroyed in McCarthy, it just can't find any means of redemption. The transcendent God is absent, and the judge has, as you say, appropriated the role of immanentised God.

Carlos said...

Yes, perhaps a better interpretation is that the holes are simply the bodies of man, with the immanentized pseudo-god-man “chucking” life into them.

In either case, your assertion that the soul is not destroyed in McCarthy, but just lacks a valid means of redemption (with the 'death' of the transcendent god)- that strikes me as directly on the mark, and perhaps a perfect statement to describe the leitmotiv in McCarthy's entire body of work.

Thanks, Tom-

Jarrod said...

To the anonymous poster who addressed my earlier posts, thanks for responding!

You present some interesting points. I agree with a lot of what you wrote. Perhaps my usage of "man-made" morality wasn't accurate, maybe I should have said "man-specific" morality. Perhaps the existence of man's ability to create a "right" and "wrong" is in fact a natural phenomenon, but acknowleding that doesn't weaken the Judge. He still has to exist in order for that morality to have a pole from which to tether. "Moons, coins, men."

Regarding some of the violence committed by the Judge (scalpling the child, the suggested rapes)... there is no doubt some element of theatrics involved there, as the real life Judge Holden was known to commit such violence. I think the overall stigma attached to McCarthy's Judge gains a bit more steam when it's rooted in historical fact. Though, I don't think those particular acts of violence say much about what he represents. I wans't a big fan of the scalping scene, I thought it put the Judge in an inconsistent light with the rest of the novel. Though, "wolves cull themselves, man" is a relevent line here. As you noted, the beasts of the jungle are known to carry out similar acts.

The Judge also speaks on natural selection on page 249 in his "two men at cards." Almost a flawless representation of Darwin's natural selection. "The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevacable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one.... This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence."

Here the Judge is attributing the "dance" and natural selection to the Gods... or God.

Jarrod said...

Still, as much as McCarthy (or us) dress up our decriptions with fancy language, I still think the Judge remains simple, almost too simple. My best description of him would be to imagine two living things, any two... place them side by side in an environment. One will live longer than the other. One will adapt better (maybe not effectively), but by any measurement, one will surpass the other... just the same as two basketball teams playing a game, there has to be one winner.

That is the judge, everything stems from that simple scientific fact. In his simplest form, the Judge is an acknolwedgement of a pecking order amongst living things, in how they compare with eachother, and how they deal with the environment in which they have been placed. He knows that all living things seek out their own survival and none other, therefore, his motivations align with that. He considers that the true architecture of man, of all living things.

In essence, he's really just assigning a deified persona to Darwin's natural selection. A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their heads around that because the two aren't typically placed together.

Jarrod said...

Also, I think it's poignant to combine a few of his comments for further meaning. On p. 146, the men have wandered through the ruins of "an older culture." The men ask him about what type of indians used to live there. He tells the harnessmaker parable, and then says that "passable masons" used to roam those parts. He says "For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe..."

Couple that with ... "only nature can enslave man, and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth." P.198

Right there, you have to acknolwedge that the Judge exists in all of us. If, at any point in your life you have attempted to control your own environment, you are carrying out the warfare that the judge speaks about in the above passages. Things like air conditioning, heat, caulking, insulation... any of the daily supplies we use to ward off the advances of nature to infringe upon our comfort levels... the judge would smile upon those things because that is man becoming suzerain of his world. Everyday, as humans, we establish that pecking order. We have seized control (by force), a piece of land in which we control and serve ourselves on. Think of all the living things that have died for you to control that piece of land that your house rests on. The Native Americans who used to occupy these lands, the forests that used to cover the ground and all of the animals that used to live there. You control that piece of land because a series events took place in which an order was established. All of that, pure Judge Holden. Nothing more, nothing less. It goes on every day. "We have dancing nightly and tonight is no exception." "He never sleeps, he says. He says that he will never die."

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Jarrod, excellent stuff again, thanks.

To pick up on a couple of comments:

In essence, he's really just assigning a deified persona to Darwin's natural selection. A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their heads around that because the two aren't typically placed together.
Well yes, there's a reason why they aren't typically placed together. They don't go together. Which is one of my problems with BM.

But:

Right there, you have to acknolwedge that the Judge exists in all of us.
That I'm much more ready to accept. It's an uncomfortable truth, but a truth all the same.

Jarrod said...

Thank you.

Going back to your original post... I read somewhere (I don't have a link), where McCarthy described the characters in Blood Meridian as the "worst kind of people." He sort of related them to the main character in The Road, in that they are complete opposites.

I don't think McCarthy is trying to push any values on the reader. For him, I think it's more of an illustration of the ultimate enemy of Christ, or any moral ground for that matter. In that regard, nothing I've read comes close to representing the true enemy of morality than this book. Though, McCarthy falls into the age old trap of doing such a magnificent job of writing Holden that he comes off as though he is promoting his ideas. Amy Hungerford, a professor at Yale, talks about this in a couple of lectures about the book on Youtube, I highly recommend them.

I just think we have differing viewpoints on where to place Holden in regards to that morality. Most people use their morality to judge the Judge... me, I think what he represents comes before the development of any morality therefore I don't choose to run him through that filter. I just view him scientifically as the natural, historical order of the world, like I would the lion of the jungle. The difference between him and I is exactly the humanity that you spoke of earlier. For McCarthy to put such a decisive finger on that notion for me, I'm indebted to him for way more than the $14.95 I paid for the book.

I may sound like a raving lunatic when I say this, but I always thought a big downfall of the Bible (I'm a Christian by the way) was that it never represented "evil" properly. Evil in the Bible is always derivative of God/Christ and goodness... it is always measured against the goodness that Christ has set before us. It is all rooted in human expression.

The "evil" in Blood Meridian is of a different nature. It is rooted in science/logic and in the ways of the natural world, the natural order of the earth. It is rooted in all of life, not just human. I think, ultimately, that is what makes the book so scary... it is an undeniable evil. Not an evil born out of free-will, but an evil that just is, and always will be.

Either way, I think we can all agree that the judge is terrifying beyond belief.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Jarrod, thoughtful as ever.

Yes, I think I've seen somewhere that he compares BM and TR in terms of being about evil and about goodness.

I don't think McCarthy is trying to push any values on the reader.
I can't make up my mind on this. On the one hand, he clearly must be doing. Each of his novels, in different ways, goes over the same basic territory, even asking the same questions (How many exchanges are there, for example, with one character saying "Do you believe in God" an the other replying "Yes but..") But on the other hand, I do accept that there is ambivalence in what he is saying. His Oprah quote that his belief in God "depends what day of the week it is" is certainly apposite here. So perhaps he's not preaching, but exploring.

Though, McCarthy falls into the age old trap of doing such a magnificent job of writing Holden that he comes off as though he is promoting his ideas.
Yes I agree absolutely! I've had a couple of people on this blog who've quoted the judge at me as if he is the holder of the divine truths, and I think "you haven't really got this novel, have you?"

The "evil" in Blood Meridian is of a different nature. It is rooted in science/logic and in the ways of the natural world, the natural order of the earth. It is rooted in all of life, not just human. I think, ultimately, that is what makes the book so scary... it is an undeniable evil. Not an evil born out of free-will, but an evil that just is, and always will be.

That's a fascinating observation. There are a number of McCarthy scholars who stress the ecopastoralism angle and the idea of nature being untameable by man, with any notion of ours to the contrary being mere hubris. That is certainly borne out in BM. There are many quotes which back it up, like the "optical democracy" passage. I can certainly go along with that, but I do struggle with the concept of evil existing in the natural order of things. I run into dangerous territory here, because if I'm not careful I start saying that evil is a human invention and come close to promulgating original sin, which I don't accept. But I'm not sure that "evil" exists in nature. Some animals do kill for pleasure, apparently (dolphins, for example) but largely the violence of nature is survival of the fittest.

So is there an evil out there that "just is", as you put it? It certainly is a frightening thought.

Probably none of this sounds very coherent, it's just my rambling thoughts, but there's certainly a lot of food for thought here, Jarrod. Thanks a lot.

Anonymous said...

Mark,

I agree with what you wrote: "Isn't BM, rather than a depiction of how men always are and must be, instead a depiction of men without restraint in certain circumstances?"

Dan

Anonymous said...

Mark,

Echoing Carlos (?), I'd leave out "under certain circumstances". The specific circumstances of BM serve to illustrate a case. It occurs when the fabric of civilization ruptures.

As I wrote elsewhere, McCarthy *may* be arguing for civilization by demonstrating its absence. It seems to be one of McCarthy's central themes.

I also find Jarrod's comments interesting. What we see is man devoid of one of the main things that distinguishes him from the rest of creation: morality. Or perhaps "humaneness".

And in, e.g., Child of God, we see a man denied love and fraternity: a man outside of society and without companionship.

In all these cases, McCarthy explores what happens.

Dan

Tom Conoboy said...

and thanks for these comments, too, Dan.

I agree with what you wrote: "Isn't BM, rather than a depiction of how men always are and must be, instead a depiction of men without restraint in certain circumstances?"

Yes, I think that's a fair point. But I do have some difficulty with it. I've written somewhere, perhaps in this thread, about McCarthy adopting Hobbes and refusing to accept the notion of the summum bonum, the highest good. But, where there is no highest good there must otherwise be some restraining influence somewhere. That restraining influence would most likely be the summum malum, the fear of death. And McCarthy omits this in Blood Meridian, too. No-one is ever afraid of death, not even the kid going to his death in the jakes. I find that hard to accept.