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Vol. 20, No. 1, 2021
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Robert J. Lewis
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cormac mccarthy's

an appreciation by



Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real
Cormac McCarthy,

What cannot be said above all must not be silenced but written.
Jacques Derrida


The distinguished American critic Harold Bloom referred to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “clearly the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer,” despite sentences (and they abound) like this:

As if the white man were in violation of his person, had stumbled onto some ritual dormant in his dark blood or his dark soul whereby the shape he stood the sun from on the rocky ground more something of the man himself and in so doing lay imperiled.

Horseblood or any blood on a tremor ran that perilous architecture and the ponies stood rigid and quivering . . .

A high school teacher would submit that the sentence violator is writing in his 4th language or using a Google translator from village Mandarin to English.

But then there are sentences like this, and they abound and remind us of the evocative powers and supremacy of language:

. . . the hail leaped in the sand like small lucent eggs concocted alchemically out of the desert darkness.

Constellations . . . worlds sprawled in their pale ignitions across the nameless night.

. . . and watched how the ragged flames fled down the wind as if sucked by some maelstrom out there in the void, some vortex in that waste apposite to which man’s transit and reckonings alike lay abrogate.

. . . one of the mules went skittering off down the canyon wall . . . turning in that lonely void until it fell from site into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever of memory in the mind of any living thing that was.

On the subject of literature, H. L. Mencken writes: "The world, for all the pressure of order, is still full of savage and stupendous conflicts, of murders and debaucheries, of crimes indescribable and adventures almost unimaginable. One cannot reasonably ask a novelist to deny them or to gloss over them."

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a novel unlike any other, earns its ranking among the world’s great literature not so much for its blood-saturated dossiers but for its haunting, mesmerizing language and incomparable imagery that sources both cosmology and philosophy; and also by asking the largest of questions of sentient life: What kind of species are we, and how does that measure up to the kind of species we want to be, which, if only by inference, has been the project of every civilization whose mission has been to leave behind, abolish every trace of its animal origins. An impossible undertaking says the author for whom all men, without distinction, are the sons of Cain, for whom the advancement of civilization runs parallel to the species fascination with killing and wielding power.

From one savage reckoning to the next, McCarthy holds up a polished mirror to the soul of the species and finds a soul on ice, men in thrall to impulses that set him apart from all other forms of life, men he compares to some “terrible hatching,” men for whom contrition and redemption have no place in the real world, men who have worn suits, presided over justice, preached the word of God only to find true fulfillment in waging war, in collecting scalps: “The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner.” As for man’s prized institutions, his cultural heritage and the nameless acts of kindness that span the globe, their niche existence is a right granted at the say of the warrior, the four-star general, which can be withdrawn in an instant, on an impulse that is its own jury and justification. As for the esteemed arts and humanities -- as effective as a paper bag against a run of bullets. If there is a law of life, its first commandment sayeth: To the north and south of, and on both sides of the blood meridian, proper conduct is what you feel like doing until someone stops you, and proprietorship is what you have until someone takes it away.

In deciding on how to best lay bare the true nature of man, McCarthy inserts his avatars into the untamed, lawless borderland between Mexico and the United States in the 1850s, much like William Golding set loose his under-aged Lords of the Flies on an uninhabited island where, left to fend for themselves, they resort to behaviour that does the brute nature of the species proud.

Breaking with the orthodoxy of the Western genre, Blood Meridian is richly layered in allegory and apocalypse, and charged with Biblical cadence and intonation. McCarthy’s riders ply their trade where civilization has made few claims, in desolate, adamantine topography ruled by want and deprivation, where men do what seems right at the time.

The novel, which unfolds like a long day’s night into misanthropy, tells of the lives of an arbitrarily assembled gang of riders (mercenaries), who, under the leadership of captain John Glanton, are hired to relieve any and all Indians of their scalps for which they are handsomely paid.

Without single mention of the egalitarian nature of their association, the riders are comprised of men from all walks of life: from a cultured judge, to an ex-priest, and The Kid just turned 14, nameless, mankind’s child in its natural state, a blank slate that will faithfully register the unredacted history of the species for whom violent confrontation and waging war are its coefficients stenciled in stone. The storyline is as thin as the blood runs thick. The riders, de facto serial scalpers, engage in their unseemly mission without surcease, with the in between time given over to orgy and self-gratification. When they disappear or are killed off, they are replaced by others.

Unlike Jonah of the Bible who is eventually spit out and saved, the riders are swallowed up by terrain that is by all standards inhospitable to human kind but for renegade Apaches, Yumas, Delawares and Yaquis who live on its fringes, raiding Mexican and American border towns for their necessities. Motivated by a calamitous confluence of profit, survival and revenge, there are no good guys and bad guys vying for the higher moral ground. It’s savage against savage, in confrontations that strip away everything that doesn’t properly belong to man’s thralldom to his animal self. This unceasing stripping away constitutes the central quest of Blood Meridian where there is no passage or transcendence, and no reward that follows great suffering and deprivation: only the eternal recurrence of the same written in blood. Where the riders ride there are only bones and burnt out remains of life that has disappeared from all memory save the blood that encrusts their meager possessions, a constant reminder of what is unchanging in the shape of the species after all the pretense has been skinned off the flesh.

What distinguishes Blood Meridian from all other literature is the manner in which its unrelieved violence and carnage seem to float above the narrative like an ether or a dream sequence on repeat. The tone is mantric, incantatory, as the word incubates worlds that, however gruesome and gory, are not unfamiliar. And like all great art, what emerges is more forceful and persuasive than the actual things themselves.

As Job’s faith tested in the Bible, the riders are tested. In mostly rocky outcroppings that range from the bereft to the lunar, the horde is hailed upon, threatened with starvation, scorching heat, bitter cold, searing wind and blinding sand storms. But where at the end of terrible suffering there should be thankfulness, renewal and spiritual awakening, there is only prolonged debauchery and a nihilism that is so singular it takes on the likeness of a Bosch painting come to bear witness. In an endless orgy of the senses, all objects, man, woman and child are of equal value in the bonfires of consumption until they are done with, discarded and left for dead.

In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence . . . and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.

None of the riders attempts to escape his destiny: from The Kid who can’t read or write to the totally hairless (as they say of angels), pale-skinned, 7-foot-tall judge, an inquisitive and cultured man who speaks five languages.

When we are first introduced to the judge he is railing against a pedophile priest, turning the congregation into an angry mob, only to learn that the judge fabricated it all – for his amusement we presume. It is this same avuncular judge who, in a public square, after having played with a small Indian child in his lap, puts a gun to his temple for the value of his scalp: the inculcations and constants of civilization no match for the species obsession with killing and turning a profit.

The big pistol jumped and a double handful of brains went out the back of his skull and plopped on the floor behind him.

The judge has no interest in stoking fear or winning approval, but in finding himself in the truth of his being which provides for his freedom. He could have conducted his life like Tolstoy’s Ivan Illych before his final awakening, but chooses to live as he was meant, and tells it this way:

The truth about the world . . . a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tent show whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The judge’s predilection to nakedness, himself in the truth of his being, is the truth set free. His life illuminates the “horror” Conrad hints at in Heart of Darkness. And not unlike Camus’ Meursault (L’Etranger) the judge exercises a fascination over the reader who is awoken to urges and desires that are tantamount to the darkest confessions of the species. In the book’s final pages, dancing stark naked in a saloon, the judge declares he’ll never die. He bears witness and is everyone's first witness to man's untamed, violent nature which is as fixed as the gene sequence that prefigures it. There will always be war, just as there is no claimed territory that hasn’t been stained in blood.

In desolate, depopulate landscapes the angry gods have smashed into rubble, esker and scree, the riders, like swamp emanations taken on human form, emerge accomplished and uncontrite, and we turn the page as if their enterprise and our destiny are vitally linked.

When the riders enter a village proudly wearing scalps around their necks we are not sure if we’re witnessing the unspeakable or looking into the mirror and its blunt accusation. We read and reread because McCarthy's madly inspired language speaks to something grander than the butchery and abomination soaked into every page.

All about her lay the dead with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet like luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon.

. . . the colourful lancers fell under the horses in that perilous mist like soldiers slaughtered in a dream wide-eyed and wooden and mute.

They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coal they they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and streams ran from their noseholes.

What the riders seek will not be found along manicured bike paths or in yoga studios. Theirs is at once a primordial and metaphysical seeking whose materials are barren rock and desert, the final resting home to wind smoothed bones and skulls and of things that lived and are no more. As the riders meet in unequal partnership the vast indifference of nature they come to discover their own natures that refuse all manner of alibi. And like the countless dead they have left in their wake, we want them dead no less than we admire them for having authored and assumed their own providence and destiny, and reminded us of what is intractable in the species in its response to theat and adversity.

McCarthy’s vision is at once bleak and cathartic. We look in vain to prove him wrong but the blood history of the species has been written again and again without skipping a beat, a generation. “There has always been war,” he writes. “Men of god and men of war have strange affinities.”

Without a trace of didacticism, the author insists that what is noble and dignified in the species are artificial constructs, and that reason, pace Orwell, is but a bit player in a world ruled by animal instinct.

In bringing man’s eternal damnation as destiny into radiant unconcealment, McCarthy’s rendering is unmatched. Unprecedented as a misanthropic document, Blood Meridian implicitly makes the case that women should be allowed to oversee the planet for the next 5000 years, a position to which this reviewer shouts Amen.

Since the written word is a privileged medium with its own laws and exemptions, we must ask who has the last word: the riders or their creator? In light of their interdependence, perhaps they are both equally tasked in revealing the essential truths of man at this unholy juncture of his (thankfully) unfinished story?

If redemption and deliverance lie outside the purview of McCarthy’s band of scalpers, how is their story altered by language which preserves their deeds as possible objects of thought and contemplation? How is it that language is able to refashion lives that derive meaning through killing into a thing of beauty, an art work?

How do we reconcile the life of the author of many books with the mission of the riders whose essential temperament and imperatives are one and the same? Has the author transcended his nature in such a way that his way and the riders’ way are destinies unfolding in equally accessible commingled universes? Can we be sure the reader is better than what he was after having read Blood Meridian, a book whose rationale and ranking among the world’s literature is a shared responsibility that has not yet been granted the gravitas it deserves.

He met with men who seemed unable to abide by the silence of the world . . . as if the doings of the world were too slanderous.

What we can state as fact is that the writer has chosen the word over the weapon in reckoning with the world, and that the book we hold in our hands is one choice among many.



This is a glory

Thanks for sharing. Will mark for later research.

also by Robert J. Lewis:


Language, Aim & Fire
One Hand Clapping: The Zen Koan Hoax

Human Nature: King of the Hill

The Trouble with Darwin
The Life & Death of Anthony Bourdain
Denying Identity and Natural Law
The Cares versus the Care-nots
Elon Musk: Brilliant but Wrong
As the Corporation Feasts, the Earth Festers
Flirting & Consequences
Breaking Bonds
Oscar Wilde and the Birth of Cool
The Big
Deconstructing Skin Colour
To Party - Parting Ways with Consciousness
Comedy - Constant Craving
Choosing Gender
Becoming Our Opposites
Broken Feather's Last Stand

Abstract Art or Artifice II
Old People
Beware the Cherry-Picker
Once Were Animal
Islam is Smarter Than the West
Islam Divided by Two
Pedophiling Innocence
Grappling with Revenge
Hit Me With That Music
The Sinking of the Friendship
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene











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