Politics and Society

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy: A Review

From Memento More to Momento Male
    What was he thinking?
    This is the question I had to ponder after reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called masterpiece, Blood Meridian, (also known by its alternative title, The Evening Redness in the West.) For me, this question represents a desire to understand an author’s intentions: not to inquire into his psychology, but into the logic behind the choices. Like, ‘why did McCarthy write a book like BM?’ and, ‘why did he write it the way he did?’ And why did a literary scholar as eminent as Harold Bloom call it “the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer”? Having duly pondered these questions for weeks, I finally have some satisfaction regarding McCarthy’s book, but I am in the same state of near befuddlement as before regarding Bloom. But I do have a theory . . .

   The novel ostensibly chronicles the life of a nameless protagonist, called 'the Kid', who leaves his home in the East as a boy and, eventually (at sixteen years old), tries his luck in the borderlands and badlands of Mexico around 1849, first with a hapless band of ‘filibusters’, and later with the doomed band of scalp-hunters, the notorious Glanton gang. (It is crucial to understand at the outset, that the narrative is based on actual events and, at least, some historical characters!) Originally authorized by provincial Mexican governors to hunt down Apache raiders, the scalp-hunters are lead by John Joel 'Glanton' and are accompanied, and seemingly steered, by the colorful and mysterious Judge Holden (most often called, simply, 'the Judge')—obviously, the real Anti-hero of Blood Meridian-- whose evident perversity and viciousness seem to thoroughly corrupt the expedition, leading to ever bloodier and more damnable outrages. Though it must be granted that there are no innocent members of this group, 'the Judge' is a horse of a different color altogether. So also is Blood Meridian a Western of a different order.
    In a deft amalgam of fictionalized characters and historical events, McCarthy employs his literary license freely, even while sticking doggedly to the historical record regarding the stops and stays and endless digressions of the Gang as they rampage across the Sonoran desert. The most striking use of license is his innovative non-depiction of character. In a complete break with tradition, he makes no attempt to bring the actors or their actions into intelligible relief against the backdrop of historical record. Mostly, they remain for us, as does even the protagonist, only what they did, what they were a part of, without the benefit of motive or excuse. This is so, with one telling exception: It is only 'the Judge' who can be considered, even by the admittedly low modern standard, a fully rendered character. Only he has memorable traits; like his gigantic frame, his hairless body, which sweats profusely even in the chilly air of the mountains or the nighttime desert; his skill at diplomacy and oratory; his penchant for languages, rational argument and copious note taking on archeology and geology. He even evinces real personality traits, like his noted, glib self-satisfaction and his self-avowed love of dancing. Everyone claims to have met or seen him somewhere before, and, by the end of BM, we understand why he is so unforgettable. (We even understand why they apparently try to forget!) If Blood Meridian is the fictional account of a campaign of irredeemable savagery, 'the Judge' is the very embodiment of bloodlust. He alone rises above the obdurate historical facts. And why  not? Apparently, he is their motive force.   
    Even before the novel has begun, in one epigraph among three, McCarthy has stated the premise of his tale: viz.

          “ . . . a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull . . .shows evidence
          of having been scalped.”
                                                     --The Yuma daily Sun, June 13, 1982

It seems to me, everything we are to experience in the long course of the novel follows from this blunt fact: savagery, or bloodlust, or whatever name we give it, is an elemental part of the human condition. This is, apparently, Cormac McCarthy’s interpretation of the anthropological evidence. As immutable as time, as implacable as weather, and as ineluctable as death, bloodlust is with us as it has always been with us. It is a brute fact: blunt, and unanswerable.
    Despite the enormity of excess, which characterizes McCarthy’s style of writing—from the oracular asperity of the narrative voice to the relentless and relentlessly obscene acts of violence and scenes of carnage; then on to the disquieting absence of character, not to mention punctuation—it is most important, I think, to notice what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t ‘elevate’ the story above what it is in its broadest outline: a dumb fact. It just happened! He refuses to impose upon the historical fact a convenient rationalization or mitigating explanation. Instead, he merely dramatizes it in the saga. (Indeed, the nameless protagonist is really nothing more than a plot device, used by the author like a pack-mule to carry his vatic consciousness through the wasteland of this hell on earth.) As for his interpretation of the fact--the primordial bloodlust-- he simply personifies it, without explanation or elaboration, in 'the Judge'. It is a testament to his skill as a novelist, if not to his ambition as a moralist, that he accomplishes this by innuendo! We never actually see him commit his outrages. He makes this our interpretation of the fact that wherever the Judge goes, there also goes mayhem and savagery.

     If it can be assumed, that McCarthy took his thesis from the epigraph cited above, it might be conjectured that he was inspired in the telling by Bruegel’s 16th century painting, “The Triumph of Death”. For the two bear an extraordinary likeness in content, purpose and vision. (See the painting here.) From the panoramic vision of wholesale destruction, right down to the wagonloads of bones, the scenery of the novel is as single-mindedly horrific and hortatory as is the painting itself. And, thematically, it is just as static and visionary. Exchange “bloodlust” for “Death” and we have a new literary genre: the ekphrastic novel. It does no more than render in a new or alternate medium the distilled ‘essence’ of its original. It tries, apparently, to be the literary equivalent to the painting, neither more nor less.
A Wikipedia article on the painting describes it thus:

    Armies of skeletons advance on the hapless living, who either flee in terror or try
    vainly to fight back. Skeletons kill people in a variety of ways – slitting throats,
    hanging, drowning, and even hunting with skeletal dogs. In the foreground, skeletons
    haul a wagon . . .full of skulls . . .

This differs from the details of the novel only in minor ways. Instead of skeletons, we have characters as barely sketched as stick figures, for instance. Instead of skulls, we get scalps. We can even say we read the two works in the same way! They are equally narrative, equally episodic, in their composition. For we can no more take in the many individual instances of death’s victories by a single glance at the painting than we can read the novel all at once. And they are equally unequivocal. Every episode simply reprises the same grim reality. Without rhyme or reason, death and bloodlust alike simply are. This is the blunt and unanswerable fact, whether of history, or life, or the human condition—as rendered by Cormac McCarthy, as well as--or better--by Pieter Bruegel before him.
    I am not suggesting that Cormac McCarthy actually did have Bruegel’s work in mind when he wrote, or even when he first conceived of, Blood Meridian. Obviously, I have no way of knowing this. But, I am suggesting an uncanny similarity in the two works that is striking, and must stand as more than mere coincidence: A novel that reads and looks and acts exactly like a painting: and not just any painting, and not in only a 'sorta-kinda' way; but a very particular painting, and in a very exact (if not wholly identical) way, is very remarkable. Did he ever consider the painting? For all intents and purposes of exegesis, he might just as well have! There is not a dime’s width of difference between them as works of art, at least as regards the content and style. As if to make the point all by itself, in Bruegel’s work, we can actually see the evening redness in the West! 
   Is this what makes Blood Meridian the “major esthetic achievement” that Harold Bloom takes it to be? I wonder: To earn this legend, wouldn’t it have to be a better book?
   As much time as I have given to wrestling with McCarthy’s 1985 ‘Art Book’, I can’t say that I like the novel. In fact, I couldn’t wait to finish it; to be out from under the pall of gloom cast by the vatic narrative voice, away from the one dimensional brutality of the story, at a safe distance from an accusatory oracle that would leave Nietsche's Zarathustra making up excuses. Most of all, I wanted to be back among polite sentences that don’t run on and on, or just appear as fragments in the middle of passages; sentences that obey the stern authority of subjects and verbs and wear their commas with modest compliance. Finally, I wanted the sermon to end! I was willing to go to church, in other words, but not to go on retreat. I kept thinking: ‘Even Kurtz only said it twice:’ “The horror! The horror!”
    Among a number of what (maybe only) I take to be flaws, I count this the most severe; Blood Meridian is just too damn long in going to the place it has to get to. I understand the commitment McCarthy made to the text on which the novel is based [My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue, by Samuel Chamberlain, 1869].  Once he adopted it as a template, he obviously felt compelled not to falsify it. (Could Joyce have neglected whole sections or books of Homer's "Odyssey" and still have called it Ulysses?) Perhaps he thinks that the historical detail must needs be honored. Well, that’s his business.  I don’t have to like it! In my view, he chose a framework much too big for his picture and followed it slavishly. Indeed, I suspect that McCarthy believes the real-world exemplum essentially validates his vision. (After all, it did really happen!) But facts only validate journalism, not Art!
   Moreover, the bald statement of such unmitigated atrocity is rendered with a bluntness that aims at prophetic finality. McCarthy clearly believes he is telling us something profound and awful. (Something as profound as Bruegel's momento mori.) But, is he?   Granted, sustaining such a narrative voice in that awful register over 300 pages is a feat, but it is, in my view, neither a pleasing nor a worthwhile feat. (Nor do I think he was successful in the attempt!) Finally, I think, it’s a matter of scale. “Triumph of Death” is a big picture at 4’ x 5’ (roughly), but it isn’t a mural. Perhaps Bruegel knew what McCarthy did not: you must leave some room for the rest of the story.
    Compounding the problem of excess is the artificial and unnecessary extension of the story in the final chapters. Is it warranted or necessary to summarize the next 27 years in the life of 'the Kid' in a few dozen pages, as McCarthy does?  Why? Just to have him meet up with a buffalo hunter (really just another packhorse for the author’s outraged morality), or to see him ambush and kill a 12-year-old in order to fulfill the prophetic ‘parable of the fathers,’ which was told by 'the Judge' back in Book X? These are ploys that only satisfy the author’s need for formal completeness. But he gets things backward in doing so. I still believe the form should serve the story, not the other way around.
    Perhaps now you can see my conundrum. He simultaneously created a novel art form and he bored and hectored me to abstraction! Blood Meridian may be McCarthy's best work. Still, it is no masterpiece.
   So, what of Harold Bloom’s enormous and inordinate praise? What was he thinking?

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