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.
or any blood on a tremor ran that perilous architecture
and the ponies stood rigid and quivering . . .
school teacher would submit that the sentence violator is writing
in his 4th language or using a Google translator from village
Mandarin to English.
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.
. . . worlds sprawled in their pale ignitions across the
. . 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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?
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?
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 serious consideration 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
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.