Thursday, February 3

Book Review: Blood Meridian

[What was originally meant to be a quick link to another blogger's post on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian with a few additional thoughts quickly spiraled out of control as my unending enthusiasm for the work spilled out of me. This is a post intended for those who have read the novel and know it, and I would encourage those who have not yet had the dubious but undeniable pleasure of traversing its sunburned plains to read the book as soon as possible.]

I just re-read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, one of my finalists for that ever-contested title of Great American Novel, based on the discovery of an excellent post by Sheila O'Malley of The Sheila Variations and a brief chat with her about that most awe-inspiring and terrifying of literary characters, Judge Holden. Sheila has been gracious enough to link my material to her fantastic blog more than once, and it's a pleasure to be able to narrow down the trove of her spotlight-worthy posts to discuss here.

Sheila and I largely share the same view on Holden, if another view could be said to exist at all. Just as all those who read Othello must recognize Iago as a being of supreme evil, so too must the judge be considered one of the great monsters of the arts, a condensation of Moby Dick's gargantuan presence and power into the form of a human being, which possibly is even scarier. McCarthy's novel is sparse and endothermic, retreating from its epic, descriptive tableaux into intimate, graphic and chilling that tap into man's soul and find the darkest recesses, or at least we can only hope to God that the darkness only exists in tiny cracks. At the center of the vacuum is the judge.

Not that this is obvious at first. Taking a leaf from Melville, McCarthy starts, if not with Ishmael's first-person perspective then at least a focused third-person view of the kid, the unnamed teen who quickly displays the same skill and penchant for violence as anyone else in McCarthy's caked-blood vision of the West. The first time we meet the judge, in fact, the author -- I almost said "camera" -- stays with the boy as he turns to watch this mysterious man denounce a revival-tent preacher as a deviant and a fraud. It is masterful setup, not only playing upon our identification, however, slight with the protagonist's discomfort with the preacher's Bible-thumping but modern cynicism. I can't speak for anyone else, but the thought of a snake oil salesman getting his, especially one spouting off a few verses, feels good, damn good. But the mob that runs the preacher out of town (and possibly harms or even kills him) returns to the saloon to toast the judge, and someone asks how he knew the preacher was a fraud. The judge casually responds that he never met or heard about the man in his life, causing only the briefest pause before the crowd laughs.

Despite the cruel reveal of the moment, there's still the possibility of morality in this man, whose encyclopedic knowledge of science and philosophy pit him against the empty spirituality of endless sermonizing. Sheila writes:
He seems to have a moral center. His first entrance into the book speaks to a sense of honesty and outrage that I latched onto. He recognizes hypocrisy in the preacher and he is unafraid to put a stop to it. In such a brutal amoral world, such honesty is refreshing. You can be lulled into a sense of complacency. You feel that perhaps the judge will protect the innocent. That is only my own failure of imagination and privileged 21st century life that would make me think such a thing.
I know exactly what she means, though I think the bluff goes even farther. McCarthy's stark description, and his carefully researched use of Gnostic imagery, create a spiritual void of the West that the modern, jaded audience wants to see filled with science, the deliverance from superstitious ignorance. And for a literary audience, that holdout crowd of defenders unwilling to cede what few patches of ground not to be overrun with America's blind fetish for not knowing things, the thought of the supremely educated man providing the shred of morality we clearly cannot count on from the kid is all the more delicious. Slowly, ever so slowly, McCarthy hands us a length of rope and whispers instructions for tying a noose.

Though the judge rides with a gang of rapacious, ultraviolent thieves and scalpers (a gang the kid slips into via the osmosis-like joining and un-joining of members to the posse), his actions are ambiguous enough to suggest a nobler intent. He disarms more than one potentially hairy situation with a command for language and an ability to put forward his knowledge in ways that entertain and transfix dumb, blood-hungry cowboys and Mexicans. His almost poetic focus on leaves and rocks and anthropology make him attractive even as McCarthy's phrasing never lets us forget that something about him.

Harold Bloom, who praises Blood Meridian as one of the greatest modern literary accomplishments and generally gives the rest of McCarthy's canon passing interest (if that), does something of a disservice to the amount of research McCarthy put into the novel -- which was considerable -- by dismissing much of the resonance of the author's Gnostic imagery and the undercurrent of commentary on Manifest Destiny/American imperialism, another trait it shares with Moby Dick. Yet Bloom is quite right to avoid pigeon-holing anything about the book, and especially the judge, as mere political commentary. Even casting the judge as a Gnostic demiurge, a demon presiding over the terrible expanse of the desert that makes the national border separating the United States from Mexico utterly meaningless, somehow limits him.

McCarthy builds him masterfully, evolving his distinct presence from faintly hope-inspiring to mysterious to unsettling to frightening to outright, pants-wettingly terrifying. He SCARES me. Scares me in a way that no cinematic villain ever has, despite the aided benefit of sight and sound to imprint upon my memory. Whatever feeling of trust one might have placed in him at the start as the rational, observant mind tagging along has long since faded by the time Toadvine, the earless horse thief, discovers him standing over a dead Apache child and scalping it.

Then, 198 pages into a 337-page book, comes the full turn. Scribbling his endless, perfectionist notes in his ledger, into which he also crushes leaves and soil, Holden finds himself drawn into a conversation with Toadvine that is far beyond the latter's ken. At last, Holden explains his position.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. 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.

What’s a suzerain?

A keeper. A keeper or overlord.

Why not say keeper then?

Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.

At once, this man, already revealed to be a child killer, possibly a pedophile, becomes a being more fundamentally disturbing, spread out like the the setting into something so vast that meaning and interpretation dissipate. The judge sees the chaos of his surroundings but believes himself to be its future ruler. Amazingly, this never once seems like hubris. He rides with the gang not because of the greed of Glanton and most of the men who fade in and out in deliberate anonymity, nor even the predilection toward violence that motivates the kid. He finds purity in blood beyond the bloodlust. Blood is man, man is war and, as the judge himself says, "War is God."

This revelation rearranges the purpose behind Holden's preternatural mastery of philosophy and science. Religion has no place in this void, but knowledge will not fill the gap. The judge's intellect serves as facets of his planned dominion, and that which exists outside his considerable knowledge must be stamped out. He hinted at this earlier when he told a story about a harnessmaker who takes in and subsequently kills a traveler to reach the seemingly unrelated point about raising children harshly. Holden says kids should be thrown into pits with animals, to make mankind into the exaggerated Spartan ideal. The wilderness around the men is so unforgiving because all the wildlife in it matured in such conditions, so only the strongest wolves, bears and coyotes reached adulthood. For the judge, mankind must return to its primitivism to truly rule the world. Adam and Eve lost their position as masters of Eden for gaining knowledge and civility. Is it any wonder, then, that the judge spends so much time dancing naked on the plain?

Under his influence, Glanton's gang begins to fight less for the money and more for the sheer hell of it. They return to the Mexican city bearing scalps the way we think of Americans marching through liberated Europe, blanketed by support and gratitude though they come caked in blood (their own and that of victims). And they are showered in money. These rough-riders, most of whom are wanted with death sentences in America, could easily retire as kings. But something burrows into their heads, and soon Glanton is leading horrid charges through Mexican villages that make the violence to that point tame (somehow, McCarthy would pull this off again in the last 80 pages, which accelerate to the point I become dizzy with nausea). That money the men so coveted becomes valueless: one man, Brown, takes an ornate shotgun worth hundreds, no doubt, to a blacksmith to have the barrels cut down. The artisan refuses, unwilling to maim so beautiful and valuable a work of craftsmanship. But by that point, Brown cares only about using the gun, not prizing it or selling it. Likewise, Glanton, before his death, is reduced to absent-mindedly pouring gathered treasure into a box already filled with enough loot to last him four lifetimes in the mid-19th century. But the judge has snared them, turning them into killing machines who fight and die because they must. He has fitted them into his mold.

Slowly, the judge lets on that the kid does not fit into his mold. I've read this book thrice now and have yet to find the indication of the kid's humanity until after the judge tells him about it. This is not a mistake. No one, not even the kid himself, sees the "clemency" in his soul that the judge sees plainly. Sheila mentions the judge smashing the kid between the pages of his ledger; I always envision the judge raising his book and slamming it down on the boy's head like an idle scrivener crushing a spider in dispassionate ennui.

For the judge does not hate. Even Iago hated. We have no idea why he hated, but the intense glee he took in his destruction of his master displayed a rage not tempered by the character's intellect. The judge merely surveys, takes note, and destroys. He's an unstoppable juggernaut, a hairless mound of intractable flesh that always survives unscathed, always finds his target. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his stalking of the kid and Tobin, the expriest who retains just enough of his sanctimonious hold on theology to recognize the devil when he sees 'em. No matter where the two flee, there stands the judge, perfectly positioned on the horizon drawing nearer -- I always imagine him in this sequence as a cross between Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter and the animatronic Gunslinger from Westworld. It's psychological torture that turns the taciturn kid jittery and the already-broken Tobin into a hissing, sputtering bundle of fear. With the gibbering idiot in tow, the Lear to the judge's Fool, Holden reminds us that it is always the Fool in Shakespeare who knows all, who manipulates for his own amusement (there is a reason Iago was always played by the comedians of the troupe), but where the Fool usually attempts to berate his master into self-awareness for good, the judge does the same for evil. The judge will kill Tobin one way or another, but he wants to see if the kid might. His attraction to and viciousness toward children cause him to court the lad, hoping to eradicate that piece of soul within him, to convert the lad without killing him.

But the kid does not leave Tobin until they are separated in rescue and recuperation, and we at last start to see what the judge was talking about. He finds the boy in a jail cell, having framed him for all Glanton's massacres. The kid, now openly terrified of the man, backs to the other end of the cell as Holden beckons, but the judge continues to explain his position. "I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man if nothing but antic clay...Only each was called upon to empty his heart into the common and one did not. Can you tell me who that was?" The kid responds that the judge is the one; for the first half of the novel, that was also my response.

But the judge knows. He always knew. He is as capable of seeing through man and nature as McCarthy, who displays an ability to leap perspective with ease. Though he never uses first person, that initial identification with the kid seems personal until he moves to larger third-person view of the gang, his distant prose never probing any of them to emphasize the anonymous jumble of greed and culpability. Then, several times throughout the book, he suddenly opens up, turning the tiniest description into a piercing view of humanity, so operatic in scope that the book should come to a screeching halt and inspire derisive laughter at the obviousness. But it's never obvious, and McCarthy uses these bouts of omniscience with precision, never making outright commentary but dovetailing into the slightest burst of stream-of-consciousness musing that deepens the novel and makes it more uncomfortably universal than it already is. Consider how he describes a fire the men sit around:
The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be.
Beautiful. An ode to man's Promethean origin in the one place left in the so-called civilized world where man still has yet to move beyond the simple mastery of fire.

Those moments of grandeur swell and collapse like crashing waves, and the tide goes out at the end. The boy, now a middle-aged man, lives in quiet self-contempt, wearing the necklace of Injun ears he took from a hanged comrade as his makeshift albatross, and when he wanders into a saloon and finds the judge, unchanged, waiting for him, we feel the inevitability of the reunion. All the kid/man could ever do was put off this meeting, put off this demise. I cannot quote from their last conversation because I would be unable to follow up an excerpt with anything save drooling adoration, but it summarizes everything about the book, the bleak worldview of its blood existentialism and even its flecks of un-mined humanity (which McCarthy would bring forth in earnest with his response to the book 20 years later, The Road).

Then, there's the matter of the man and the jakes. When he goes to relieve himself in the outhouse, he opens the door to find the judge waiting for him, naked. The towering being takes the man in his arms, and the door closes. That's it. After 333 pages of unrelenting gore, McCarthy will not tell us what happens, and further tortures us when another man opens the door and recoils in stunned silence. This, naturally, leads to intense speculation on the part of the reader as to what happens in that outhouse. There can be little doubt that the man is killed in some fashion, but how? Patrick Shaw wrote an entire piece on the kid's fate, arguing that the judge sodomized him. It's certainly a possibility, especially considering the hints dropped along the way with the Indian children Holden abducts, but I find that explanation too simplifying.

Shaw writes:
The public revelation of the act is what matters. Other men have observed the kid's humiliation… In such a male culture, public homoeroticism is untenable and it is this sudden revelation that horrifies the observers at Fort Griffin. No other act could offend their masculine sensibilities as the shock they display… This triumph over the kid is what the exhibitionist and homoerotic judge celebrates by dancing naked atop the wall, just as he did after assaulting the half-breed boy.
I can see where he's coming from, but he is suddenly attributing the perspective, which has never identified with the characters other than the kid, to unnamed characters. Furthermore, if we take Shaw's view as the "correct" one (a dangerous term to use in interpretation), it reflects most poorly on McCarthy, not the men in his West. He has shown us horrid things this entire time: killings, infanticide, other rapes, torture. For him to pull back and say that sodomy, of all the violations of the novel, is the one thing too terrible to mention aloud, to suggest that homosexual violation is the sole unspeakable taboo of his West, would make him so disingenuous that the weight of the novel would suddenly sag and collapse.

Now, I'm not going to lie: what Shaw envisions is one of the first things that popped into my mind (and continues to do so) when this scene arrives, but that is McCarthy's genius. After devoting so many pages to repugnant descriptions of the worst gore, equalizing violence that undermines whatever Manifest Destiny commentary one might attribute to the work by revealing the Indian atrocity to match the white men, McCarthy suddenly bows out. By leaving the scene a mystery, he dares us to come up with mental images more grisly and horrible than anything he previously wrote. Thus, he proves the novel's entire point: that man is still violent, still able to tap into visions of terror with ease. Every time I am unable to stop myself imagining what happens out on the jakes, and it makes me culpable in the novel's bloodshed. All you can really do is accept the unknowable nature of it, resigned to standing outside the outhouse, silent but for the glissandi of the flies buzzing around the shit and the judge quietly eradicates that element he could not control.

It would make for a chilling anticlimax to a movie, a movie I hope never gets made despite the renewed talks of adapting the novel. Blood Meridian belongs in literature, where the reader projects into that vastness. Though I have always imagined the judge as Brando's Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, I do not want to see him on the screen. He occupies that uniquely literary realm between the abstract and the terrifyingly tangible and plausible. A film, for all its merits, cannot capture that -- just look at film versions of Othello (which is, after all, a play): Iago is never so scary on the screen as he is in print. Then there's the other side: what if they actually get the son of a bitch right? I don't know that I could handle the judge in person, towering 30 feet over me.

Early on in the novel, Marcus Webster, one of the interchangeable members of Glanton's ever-thinning and refilling gang, questions the judge's ledger and why he is always cataloging. "No man can put all the world in a book," he says. "No more than everything drawed in a book is so." Even the judge agrees, because he knows he cannot enter certain beings into it, beings like the kid. Yet the most unsettling aspect of Blood Meridian is just how much of our world Cormac McCarthy does put into his book, writing with enough detail to make everything real and enough space to let everything else seep in. I cannot think of a better and more affecting American novel from the last century.