July 5, 2023

Onslaught — Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”

By Stuart Mitchner

Oh my god, said the sergeant.

—from Blood Meridian, Chapter 4

I imagine Ishmael peering from the crow’s nest of Herman Melville’s Pequod, having just sighted the White Whale. Except this is dry land, the Texas-Mexico border, 1849, two years before the publication of Moby-Dick, and the crew is a rogue band of scalp-hunting soldiers. Peering through his “old brass cavalry telescope,” Captain White spies the thunderous approach of “a hell of a herd of something.”

Steady on, reader, the massive force bearing down upon you is Cormac McCarthy, armed with the first onslaught of sustained virtuoso prose in the novel, a single all but breathless sentence running a page and a half long that opens with “A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of previous owners” and closes with “all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”

There’s hardly time to say another Oh my God before we’re attacked with images of the carnage, “men lanced and caught up by the hair and scalped standing … naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws … leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures riven to alien forms of locomotion.” The second onslaught concludes with the “naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.”

Overwhelming Carnage

In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Blood Meridian Or The Evening Redness in the West (Random House 1985), Harold Bloom calls it “the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2000 than it was fifteen years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and Faulkner.”

Bloom confesses that his first two attempts to read Blood Meridian failed because he “flinched from the overwhelming carnage,” which begins on “the novel’s second page, when the fifteen-year-old Kid is shot” and “continues almost with no respite until the end, thirty years later, when Judge Holden, the most frightening figure in all of American literature, murders the Kid in an outhouse” (McCarthy chooses to lowercase “the kid” and “the judge” throughout the novel according to his characteristic disregard of conventional points of style like capitalization, quotation marks, and semicolons.)

Heaped by Moby Dick

After 340-plus pages of graphic violence, McCarthy never reveals exactly what happened to the kid in the outhouse after “the naked judge rose up smiling and gathered him in his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him.” All the reader knows is that another man opening the door to the outhouse shouts “Good God almighty” when he sees what’s inside.

No doubt “not knowing” what atrocities the judge inflicted upon the kid fits with Bloom’s notion that he’s a supremely “frightening figure.” Bloom’s earlier reference to Moby-Dick inevitably brings to mind Melville’s Captain Ahab, and in fact there are hints of Melville’s masterpiece scattered throughout Blood Meridian, even in the landscape (“a lone albino ridge … like the back of some pale sea beast”). The first time we see the “albino” judge he’s “as bald as a stone,” with “no trace of beard” and “no brows to his eyes or lashes to them.” And he’s “close on to seven feet in height.” In a later chapter, his “pleated brow” is “not unlike a dolphin’s,” and, as Bloom suggests, “the albino Judge, like the albino whale, cannot be slain.” But as a “frightening figure” Melville’s whale “heaps” the judge as it heaps Ahab, whose leg Moby Dick “had reaped away … as a mower a blade of grass in the field,” and “there was enough in the earthly make and incontestable character of the monster to strike the imagination with unwonted power…. Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror, as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults.”

No wonder Bloom refers to “figure” rather than “character” when he makes his claim about “the most frightening figure in all of American literature.” The judge would have to be superhuman, part-Ahab, part-whale, to match the power and magnitude of the white whale’s “unexampled, intelligent malignity.” And presumably only someone with superhuman power could commit an act of murder so horrific that it defies description.

“Terrifying Art”

It’s thanks to Harold Bloom that I finally read Blood Meridian. Whenever I go back to Shakespeare, I read Bloom’s Invention of the Human. And when Bloom urges the reader to “persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood,” I persevere, even though I differ with Bloom when he says “none of the carnage is gratuitous or redundant.” It’s also true that hearing McCarthy spoken of in the same breath with Shakespeare and Melville, not to mention Faulkner, makes me uneasy, but having finished the book, I have no doubt that “Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting.” And that “the book’s magnificence — its language, landscape, persons, conceptions” ultimately “transcends the violence.” But I’m not convinced that it converts “goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.”

Ultimately, it’s McCarthy’s creation of the judge in a book published in the fifth year of Ronald Reagan’s saber-rattling presidency that lifts Blood Meridian to another level. After mentioning the judge first among the novel’s “three glories,” along with “the landscape, and (dreadful to say this) the slaughters,” Bloom has to qualify the third glory with the unconvincing claim that the slaughters are “aesthetically distanced by McCarthy in a number of complex ways.”

McCarthy Dancing

McCarthy is clearly aware that the judge has much in common with an author. Besides being the most murderous of scholars, he always has a ledger book handy in which he enters notes and sketches that are admired in one scene by a character who says “them pictures is like enough the things themselves. But no man can put the world in a book.” The judge smiles at this accurate if flawed recognition of his mission. After the character says “I don’t want to be in your book,” the judge tells him, “Whether in my books or not, every man is tabernacled in every other … and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world.” Later the judge makes a more definitive statement: “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” It may sound like sublime arrogance, but isn’t this essentially the mind-set of every author who takes his creation seriously?     

In the closing pages the judge appears animated if not actually transported by the overflow of McCarthy’s creative passion, thus his manic exuberance after whatever dreadful abomination he has inflicted on the kid, he’s “naked dancing … huge and pale and hairless like an enormous infant….  He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble.”

It’s not merely the judge who’s dancing at the end, it’s the author putting the final touch on his creation, perhaps feeling as Melville did when he finished his “evil book” and felt “as spotless as a lamb.” The deed’s done and the author’s dancing side by side with his creature, his feet “light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

And when McCarthy died last month it seemed the passing of the last great literary hero. Such at least was my wishful thinker’s view of his stature. We needed a hero and his last work The Passenger/Stella Maris, published less than a year ago, was a joy to read because in it he seemed to be giving all his love and his knowledge and his art, as if opening up and enjoying the dance for all time, fancy free. And it’s only fitting to celebrate his greatest and bloodiest novel on July 4, 2023.