This month marks the 30th anniversary of the publishing of Cormac McCathy’s anti-western Blood Meridian: or the Evening Redness in the West. In 1985, it was not popular with audiences, nor always received well by critics – Harold Bloom, the famed professor of literature at Yale, was appalled by the violence, giving up on it multiple times.
In the years since, Bloom became one its greatest champions, coming to consider Blood Meridian one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is one of Stephen King’s top-10 favorite books. David Foster Wallace listed it as one of five direly underappreciated works of fiction since 1960. (Why? Wallace says “don’t even ask.”)
Is McCarthy’s purported masterpiece worthy of such accolades? Why has it left such a mark on the American literary scene in the past three decades?
Those who are not readers of McCarthy’s novels will still recognize the titles of some of the films adapted from his books, such as All the Pretty Horses, The Road and the Best Picture-winning Coen Brothers work No Country for Old Men. Blood Meridian fits within the same paradigm: a story set in the (usually not contemporary) American West that is symbolic of some larger philosophical conversation.
The world McCarthy creates is, as usual, one in which life is nasty, brutish and short. In an early episode, a crowd listens to a preacher calling people to redemption. A giant man who is present interrupts to tell the people that he knows the so-called preacher and he is a phony and what’s more he wanted for an incident with a young girl. The crowd needs hear no more and turns on the preacher, killing him.
When asked about the incident in a bar later, the tall man answers that he’s never seen the man before in his life. The others laugh, sipping the drinks that he has bought them. Cynically, they had expected his story to be correct and didn’t question it before taking action. In the aftermath, they are not horrified, but amused. Life is cheap in Blood Meridian, but that is why it makes it such a significant book.
It follows the historic John Joel Glanton gang through semi-real, semi-fictional escapades, focusing on a young protagonist, referred to only as The Kid, who joins them sometime after witnessing the incident with the preacher. One of the leaders of the gang is none other than the gigantic man who instigated the preacher’s death: Judge Holden.
The Judge is described as coming close to seven feet tall, being of unmatched strength–he lifts a Howitzer like it’s a regular rifle–completely hairless, with pale, almost colorless skin. (It is an unsettling fact that McCarthy based him on the actual, historical Judge Holden, who fits this description all too well, though his words and actions in the novel are entirely fictional.)
It is the Judge who imparts the terrifying worldview, eloquently, eruditely, persuasively, that–to him and his listeners–seems to justify the massacres, rapes, thefts and destruction which the Glanton gang undertakes. They move from one to another, horrifically killing Native Americans, Mexicans and others with seemingly little purpose; the events unfold almost with no plot. But perhaps this is the point.
From time to time, the Judge holds forth on his philosophy, enrapturing even those other characters who sense something wrong in what he says. With extensive and, for that time period, impressive, knowledge of everything from history to astronomy, he tells the other members of the gang of the true way of the world.
He is perturbed by the fact that he is not omnipotent and seeks to ever expand his control over everything he sees. Otherwise, the Judge seems to fear, he is nothing special. As he says, “[E]xistence has its own order and that no man’s mind can encompass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”
The Judge is unsatisfied being but a fact among others. He must control, but the only way he knows to control is to destroy. In a famous monologue, he states:
Whatever exists…whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent….
These anonymous creatures…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….
This is my claim… And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation….
The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.
The Judge would like to see himself as God, holding the strings of fate, and he speaks like a prophet–for him who has ears to hear. In his final monologue, he tells of the great dance, one of violence and war, in which all beings participate, but of which they have no conception. The Judge is willing to let some people know of this fated dance and that it explains the cruelty and death of the world, but will certainly not deign to explain its ultimate purpose.
On the predestination of such a “dance” of life, Carl Kandutsch, professor of comparative literature at Yale, explains:
[T]he Judge’s…idea of human action is limited to games of chance, in which every action is fully defined by the rules. In making a move, the player has no alternative course of action; in order to count as a move in the game, the player must perform just this action – casting the dice, drawing a card, etc…. [I]n the absence of the virtues like skill and grace, and the responsibilities that go with such virtues, games of chance are only made interesting by the external incentive, the wager, that rewards the winner or punishes the loser. In that sense, games of chance illustrate a mode of action that excludes the concept of personal responsibility–other than responsibility for playing the game at all.
If one wishes to sum up the vicious actions of the characters, this is how.
McCarthy’s prose is some of the most brilliant and beautiful to be found in a modern novel. It contrasts with the ugly violence it so vividly depicts, with descriptions repulsive in detail.
Ultimately, Blood Meridian may defy analysis, but that has not stopped anyone from trying. McCarthy teases us with Gnostic philosophy–especially present in the epigraphs–in which the Judge could be understood as an “archon,” a sort of creator demon who governs some region of existence. But this is not a philosophy McCarthy will commit to; things are not so simple.
Additionally, the novel is often interpreted as an example of theodicy, an attempt to explain why God allows evil in the world. For example, the Judge asks, “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?”
If there is theodicy in Blood Meridian and if the Judge is God – as he sees himself or at least as he wishes to be – then the ultimate plan for which reason he allows evil is cruel, arbitrary and undisclosed, as his own actions are. Paradoxically, it approaches nihilist purposefulness. It is all-consuming yet eternal, resulting in a conclusion to the novel that will not satisfy anyone unwilling to accept its consistency with the philosophy of the Judge.
Blood Meridian is not for the faint of heart, with its almost ceaseless disturbing violence. For others, McCarthy’s imagery, prose and characters are entrancing. It is not a novel that lets go of one’s imagination or memory easily, and for this reason, it has fastened itself tenaciously into the American literary consciousness.