Prolegomena

I love that word, ‘redux’. I associate it with Aeon Flux (cool MTV cartoon of the early 90’s, not the strained and two dimensional film of last year), with an excellent writer whom I greatly admire (and from whom I first learnt it), and feels like a snappy but erudite add-on that you can use (as I just have) to the general and genial approval of all! It’s how you tszuj a blog-post!

The Middle Bit (i.e. The Body)

Blood Meridian. A troubling work, a mineshaft lined with funhouse mirrors, a gory paean to something vast and sufficiently vague as to leave erudite scholars arguing for years. Is it an exploration of gnostic beliefs, an indictment against the nature of man, a meditation on a specific historical epoch, or a reductio ad absurdum of the Book of Job? I’m playing fast and loose here with my analysis, like a man who accelerates into the curve of a mountain road even as he feels his tires begin to slide out from under him. Let me see if I can pull this off.

This is in part a response to a series of posts and arguements I unearthed in a 1997 discussion board in which very intelligent people argued lucidly and heatedly about these questions. My position, in response to their multifarious positions is that yes, Judge Holden is meant to be seen as an incarnation of the Devil, his avatar striding the bloody wastes, watching men die as he entices them to indulge in their bestial natures.

What does this mean, however, for the book as a whole? Should we read the men contained within its pages consequently as victims of his manipulations? Hardly. In McCarthy’s world, men –

(This is where I should go back, erase my paragraph, and begin anew, giving the impression of a smooth and professionally written essay. As if it were! I shall reveal my pauses and doubts, hesitations and revisions in all their lackluster glory. Onwards, Brave Christian Soldiers!)

Much of McCarthy’s authority stems directly from his mastery of the English language. There is a need to understand the content that stems directly from the sense of awe one feels while reading his prose. The man’s control of the language is protean: at times he waxes lyrical over the landscape, crafting alien and utterly arresting metaphors for the movements of clouds, the flight of dust, the passage of men beneath the moon. At others, he reduces his prose to a brutal, faux-Hemmingway curtness, macho and brutal in its terseness. I had to read the novel with the OED by my side, something I rarely do, but necassary when reading an author who casually employs obscure nouns with the same frequency he uses common verbs and adjectives in utterly new and startling ways.

This for me is the cause of my preoccupation. Written in any other way, Blood Meridian would be unable to support its nihilistic, near mindless violence and depravity. It succedes in intriguing and beguiling because of the authority the author manifests. Once hooked, however, once awed by the telling, what does one do with the tale?

What is McCarthy trying to tell us? What are we to take from this book? I know subtantial arguements can be made to support a wide array of positions, but this is where I stand: mankind’s propensity for violence (and by this I mean men’s – McCarthy’s treatment of women as either the rare dispensers of kindness, victims of violence or cipher-like passive witnesses to life is telling) is as natural as it is terrible, and common in all men regardless of age or race. The book opens with a quote describing the finding of 300,000 year old skull which showed evidence of being scalped. Man’s first and most primal impulse when faced with the world is violence. To kill, desecrate, shoot, destroy, burn and oppose. It is a blankness within our souls that can rise up and overwhelm us with terrible and natural ease.

How does Judge Holden fit into this view? The Judge is McCarthy’s witness to man’s basic nature. He is this basic impulse personified. Not as a grunting, bestial murderer, but as the epitomy of a civilized and intelligent man who most chillingly abets this murderous desire. Who accepts it, who lives it, who is this urge, who is entropy. This tale could be told without Holden, and while its message would be the same, it would be impoverished without his presence. Holden is McCarthy’s Judge, his presence, his arbiter who observes but does not lead. Glanton leads the gang, and Holden never usurps that authority. He is content to watch, to laugh, to expedite and help in times of trouble. But never does he force or command. He doesn’t have to. All he has to do is witness the world, witness men, watch them in their bloodfest and laugh, massive and bald and gleaming before the midnight fires.

I fear McCarthy may have correctly guessed a fundamental aspect of man’s nature, but not its entirety. His decision to focus so unrelentingly on this base nature comes at the expense of versimilitude; one sets the book down awed, but not wholly convinced. There is more to man beyond a powerful instinct to dominate and kill, and by neglecting not only these finer qualities (as well as the feminine half of the species), his view is impoverished. One has to but look about the world to see countless affirmations of McCarthy’s vision, but by focusing solely on this he reduces his characters to caricatures.