Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian
or the Evening Redness in the West

In the season of joy, peace and consumerism, what can one say about such a book? Hands down, it is the most bloody, most murderous, most haunted with evil book I have ever read.

It is also astonishingly beautiful.

But I don't agree with the cover blurb about "regeneration through violence." I didn't find regeneration in this book. The beauty generally comes from the constrast between the brutality of the actions (constant murder) and the lush descriptions of landscape, which are often harsh, yet they sustain life; they offer alternatives to murder; they offer the argument that meaning can exist outside the context of human discourse. That is, land itself, nature itself, is meaning (though, of course, the book, all books, language is a human medium).

I didn't like the ending, which I'm going to explain next, so last chance to jump out if you don't want to know.

The novel, in quick synopsis, follows a 14-year-old American boy (called "kid") through travails in Mexico in the mid-1800s, where he joins a crew of mercenaries who hunt Indians for their scalps, which they sell. One of the mercenaries is "the judge," who is more than thug; he knows multiple langauges, is deeply read, has many engineering skills, and is generally a Superman (Nietzschean implications intended).

In the book's final pages, the crew has been dispersed. Most all are dead. The kid and the judge alone remain. The kid has opportunities to kill the judge, but he doesn't. They are separated. Years pass. The kid becomes "the man." He meets the judge, who calls to him: "The last of the true. The last of the true. I'd say they're all gone under saving me and thee. Would you not?"

They converse, then the judge says: "I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior's right, and thereby will the dance become a false danse and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there who always is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?"

"You ain't nothin," is the reply, and we are very nearly at the end. The judge by this point has already accused the kid of withholding part of his heart from the murderous project, one which all recognized he was good at. A natural born killer. Yet he himself won't admit it. "You're crazy," he says to the judge earlier, though he declines the opportunity to eradicate this evil man. Live and let live, might be his motto, if he weren't such a proficient killer himself. He kills, but not with the purity of evil the judge wants to see in him.

Their final encounter is in an outhouse, and it's ambiguous. Except the judge survives to return to the narrative, dancing and saying he will live forever. The kid/man may be dead (it's unclear) or he may just be gone. The resolution is no resolution. Certainly nothing is regenerated here.

Is the judge the devil? That's an easy, oversimplified interpretation, but is he?

I wondered what others had to say, so I set off across the ... western plain, I mean, the internet ...  and found that the NYTimes reviewer from 1985 didn't like the ending either:

The kid and the judge are our own dead fathers, whom Mr. McCarthy resurrects for us to witness. He distances us not only from the historical past, not only from our cowboy-and-Indian images of it, but also from revisionist theories that make white men the villains and Indians the victims. All men are unremittingly bloodthirsty here, poised at a peak of violence, the ''meridian'' from which their civilization will quickly fall. War is a civilized ritual beyond morality for the judge, but not for Mr. McCarthy, who positions his readers to evaluate the characters' moral and philosophical stances. The kid frequently responds to the judge's grandiose speeches by saying, ''You're crazy'' - a notion so plausible that it effectively undermines the judge's authority.

Mr. McCarthy carefully builds this dialectic only to let us down with a stylistically dazzling but facile conclusion. Years later, in a saloon where a bear dances on stage, the kid encounters the judge, who calls himself a ''true dancer'' of history, one who recognizes ''the sanctity of blood.'' There is a hint that he kills the kid. Last seen as a towering figure on stage, the judge is ''naked, dancing . . . He says that he will never die.'' H E is denied the last word, though. Mr. McCarthy's half-page epilogue presents a man crossing the plain making holes in the ground, blindly followed by other men who search for meaning in this pattern of holes. The judge's enigmatic dance and the long ordeal of the novel's violence demand more than this easy ambiguity. There are, of course, no answers to the life-and-death issues Mr. McCarthy raises, but there are more rigorous, coherent ways to frame the questions.

The ending also get special mention on the book's Wikipedia page:

... the most common interpretation of the novel is that Holden kills the kid in a Fort Griffin, Texas outhouse. The fact that the kid's death is not depicted might be significant. Blood Meridian is a catalog of brutality, depicting, in sometimes explicit detail, all manner of violence, bloodshed, brutality and cruelty. For the dramatic climax to be left undepicted leaves something of a vacuum for the reader: knowing full well the horrors established in the past hundreds of pages, the kid's unstated fate might still be too awful to describe, and too much for the mind to fathom: the sight of the kid's fate leaves several witnesses stunned almost to silence; never in the book does any other character have this response to violence, again underlining the singularity of the kid's fate.

Some other links:
Here's some choice Bloom:

AVC: The violence in Blood Meridian is uncharacteristic. It’s not used as a cheap metaphor or a means of catharsis or transformation.

HB: Oh, no, no. The violence is the book. The Judge is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake.

AVC: So you think that, despite your own initial reaction to it, McCarthy is successful in the way he uses violence in the book?

HB: More than successful. It’s not only the ultimate Western, the book is the ultimate dark dramatization of violence. Again, I don’t see anyone surpassing it in that regard.

AVC: You’ve been extremely critical of the politicization of teaching literature…

HB: Critical, young man, is hardly the word. I stand against it like Jeremiah prophesying in Jerusalem. It has destroyed most of university culture. The teaching of high literature now hardly exists in the United States. The academy is in ruins, and they’ve destroyed themselves.

AVC: Do you have a similar resistance to political readings of literature? For example, do you have a problem with those who have read Blood Meridian as a critique of American imperialism?

HB: I don’t think it’s that at all. I think that’s too simplistic an understanding of McCarthy. When he issued that unforgettable vision of the Apaches advancing into battle against the cutthroat desperadoes who are going to cut them down… Who are, after all, these invincible monsters, and in the end all but the Judge will be dead… I don’t think that the aesthetically minded reader is trying to think of that as a sociological commentary on the degradation of the Apache Nation. It’s a grand picaresque in its own right. I don’t think McCarthy was interested, at least at that point in his career, in moral judgments, any more than Melville was involved in moral judgments or Faulkner was involved in moral judgments—at least until he got soft later on and produced a beastly book like A Fable. The kind of apocalyptic moral judgments made in No Country For Old Men represents, I think, a sort of falling away on McCarthy’s part. Blood Meridian is too grand for that.

Can't say that I always agree with Bloom, but I do here.

Blood Meridian is grand.

No comments: