Textual Detritus – McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Textual Detritus is a running series of notes focused on my reading list for exams related to my PhD studies.  These are not reviews so I will refrain from explaining plot lines.  These posts also contain any number of spoilers for the books in question though I’ll try to keep them hidden behind a cut.  Simply, the idea here is to get some of my immediate thoughts down in a coherent manner for later use or discussion.  As such, I make no claim about the level of thought, coherence, or grammar to any of these posts.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

I completed this novel over a number of months with large breaks in between my opportunities to pick it up.  As such my thoughts here are more scattered than what I hope to get down as I move forward with this project.

Trying to capture my thoughts about Blood Meridian resembles trying to capture the exact portent in a dream that informs the sleeper that he or she is in fact in a nightmare.  Once the fear settles in those first moments always turn a bit fuzzy.  That isn’t to say that the novel is bad.  Rather, it is beautifully written, particularly McCarthy’s descriptions of the landscapes.  His focus is intense on detail to such an extent that when the nightmare begins, that is when the violence literally erupts from the landscape in one of any number of ambushes that populate the novel, you’re left staggered.  The intensity of the detail is perhaps best captured in a passage describing the Judge that occurs late in the novel:
“They were both of them naked and they neared through the desert dawn like beings of a mode little more that tangential to the world at large, their figures now quick with clarity and now fugitive in the strangeness of that same light.  Like things whose very portent renders them ambiguous.  Like things so charged with meaning that their forms are dimmed” (282).

Like the whole novel, the Judge here is rendered unintelligible in the light of so much meaning that the reader is left wondering just what the hell is going on.  The intense violence that permeates the book (and the Judge) leaves you bewildered in its senselessness.  That said, it isn’t a far jump to realize that exactly that sort of numbness is the point.  If nothing else, McCarthy buries any pretense of the golden west with men like Wister’s Virginian.  No one is innocent here.  Even the allusions to children are overshadowed by both the Kid and the idiot that the Judge seems to take under his wing.  (Perhaps the only exception to this can be seen in the young girl who grinds the organ for the dancing bear in the novel’s final chapter).  What we get is slaughter.  The buffalo hunter’s recollection in XXIII seems to tie this to a larger history of the West and not just the war that McCarthy is focused on.  That said, it’s worth noting that he does this reference obliquely enough that it can get lost in the larger motions in the novel.

Still, It can be no coincidence that the blurring of form through meaning is tied to the Judge.  Easily a Satan figure, the Judge is mankind’s greatest advocate, and its greatest pretense at justice.  He is no judge in the legal sense, but he does provide the novel’s only moral judgments.  Part of this can be attributed to the fact that what is not found in the Judge’s ledger does not deserve to exist in his eyes.  This motion is a manifestation of his view that all creation seems to be within his dominion.  His declaration to the Kid that what he has seen may not exist without their interpretation and presence.  What happened to yesterday, he asks.  The reader may well ask what has happened to the atrocities purveyed in the book when we close its cover.  They do not exist as such without our visceral reaction to them (visceral at least from my experience and those of the other readers I’ve spoken to).  The Judge is right to some extent that we create reality through our perceptions and interpretations.  Does that then mean that the Judge is right in so far as he’s the only one mighty enough to realize that interpretation and to seize it?

Yet I cannot help but rebel against this very notion through my repugnance of the Judge and all that he does.  We’re left with the Miltonian dilemma from Paradise Lost: we love to hate Satan.  Sure, Satan ultimately is wrong, but damned if he isn’t entertaining to read.  So it goes with the Judge.  The Kid, in his general silence, becomes a perfect vessel for the Judge’s courting of the reader and, like the Kid, we pull back just as we know the Judge is watching us.

The desire to figure out the blurred meaning of the Judge is one tension in the novel.  The other is to repudiate him.  The Kid’s ending (without giving too much away), leads us to wonder about the Michael Herr’s claim that it’s a novel of “regeneration through violence” that graces my paperback’s cover.  The Kid does have his redemptive moments.  In a den of bastards, he’s the only one with a drop of compassion to him.  Yet McCarthy doesn’t depict the west or the Kid’s running struggle with the Judge as that epic battle of good and evil.  The question of the judge may be more of an undermining of how any such judgment can be possible.  In the conflagration of the war and events that McCarthy focuses on, the question is how can one judge violence that has no context.  The answer seems to be only through an act of supreme will such as the Judge’s.  Like Satan though, such an act of will itself leads us to a precipice and like the Kid, both action and inaction in the face of that violence and such a will lead to a disaster of some sort.

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