I never could have imagined someone to be able to carry on writing such a deadly and poisonous book in the last half a century as McCarthy did in this wonderful bloodthirsty story. Although written some more than 25 years ago, Blood Meridian is not only a Western novel, with roaring cowboys and yelping injians, but the first metaphysical Wild West narrative I have ever set my eyes on. Cormac McCarthy is not really the heir of William Faulkner in terms of writing Gothic stories since while the former delves into the uncanny symbols of desert wilderness, the latter mourns over the grave of the Southern long-lost legacy, which is almost a continent apart in terms of background and subject matter. There may be one poignant poetical semblance between the two: the long string of parchment of sentences linked together by the “and” & “or” mortar.
The action takes place somewhere on the borderline of New Mexico and the Chihuahua state of Mexico, where Americans, Yuma, Apache and Comanche Indians, together with Mexican officials fight over the same piece of land as if to reclaim it by slaughter (“war is god” states one of the main characters in the novel). The desolate landscape amounts to a kaleidoscopic overview of sand and desert alone. In fact, the novel centers around the life of a young runaway, the kid, who is 16 at the beginning of the novel, cast away from home by a drunken father, who joins by chance the famous outlaws of the “Glanton Gang”, a bunch of savage scalp-hunters and mercenaries which in the 1840s were for some time “under contract to territorial governors” to wipe out the Indians in the region. John Glanton is a genuine historical character of the Wild West in the memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, the same person who provided the main source of historical hindsight to McCarthy’s narrative. However, McCarthy turns proofed historical events into a colorful cloth of lyrical story-telling that bleeds horribly at times. This is one reason why some readers find the novel abhorrently violent.
There are nevertheless many gloomy scenes in the novel. Contrary to what some might believe, there are no “good guys” in Blood Meridian. As if in some twisted Gnostic gospel, this world, created by the covenant of God and Satan alike, is covered by evil beings all the same, irrespective of them being humans, animals, stones, mountains, trees. In McCarthy’s novel all conspires against anything, all display their sharp teeth, corroded by time, to all living creatures, from times immemorial to future successors, bequeathed with the sin of death and murderous passions. This world is fallen form Grace and degraded to the stature of an ill-equipped, and thereby more bloody, gothic butcher shop.
At the same time, it goes without saying that there are no “civilized” people in this novel, such as the concept of Manifest Destiny might lead one into fancying. McCarthy reckons, in one of the most stylized and astonishingly lyrical passages, that brutes swarm the down-trodden deserted world of ours and that it is our destiny to act as such. There is no Heroic Quest and no heroes in it. Even the Ganton gang is made up of Indians, Americans, some Mexicans recruits, a Vandiemenlander, the representatives of the whole peoples of the world, and if there is any foul fault it comes down to the humanity in us and nobody particular, no race or nation or womb to cast the blame on.
The Injians fight about horrifically and do not seem to be the victims of the white-men.
“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 prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horse’s ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and 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”. (p. 55)
Scenes like this, filled with broken skulls or blood dripping torsos or eviscerated carcasses, occur rather regularly in the novel, adding spice to the plot and making it an exhilarating reading (which is rather strange considering the odds). There are many wickiup encampments and Mexican pueblos that are pillaged and ransacked by the band of American desperados, sometimes with such ferocity and cold-blooded scrupulosity that it utterly shatters your senses. However, I for one felt no pity for the poor women and children viciously hacked or gunned down by Glanton, Bathcat, Toadvine, the expriest, the Delawares or the ferocious Judge Holden, which is, again, deeply puzzling. I think there are others, and not a few, who felt the same way I did.
However, there are also a lot of subtle references to the Old Testament, in fact, the whole scenery has a biblical gist to it from the very start to the end. McCarthy alludes to the desert in which Moses and his people walked across with a seeming purpose for decades or the very same desert in which Jesus Christ, after many a days of hunger and thirst met the Devil himself. Yet, as I have already said, our world lies perpetually flawed by an unrepentant fall into evilness and wickedness. In the land of cowboys and shabby bars and lewd whores “women, whiskey, money and niggers” stand for the evil within.
I won’t go over the plot, which is the least important aspect of the book and speaks for itself quite clearly. What I am interest here has more to do with the deep embedded meanings in the book. All abovementioned lines were meant only to come round to the beating heart of the book, that Nothingness of a character which stands for the Judge.
I pondered much about his name and I came to believe that his name is another way of saying the Judge of the World, the Supreme Master of our disgraced material bodies. And who is the Judge of all things down here if not Satan, which, like the Judge himself, travels across impressive distances in the blink of an eye or sits musing on a whitewashed rock in the middle of nowhere as if waiting for Glaton’s gang to accompany him on his evil doings? Perpetrator and instigator, wizard of all known and unknown things (and this is why he carries a ledger-book with him all the time, to get hold of the enshadowed parts of the world’s fabric), sick pedophile and gruesome executor, the Judge stands out supreme at the end of the book, immortal in his devilish dance which reminded me of a similar comical and theatrical scene in Bulgakov’s masterpiece, The Master and the Margarita, also involving hell’s fiends.
All subdue to him and none can take the gun and shot him down. The expriest, in fact a former drop-out priest apprentice, feels the Devil Holden is and when he tries to persuade the kid to kill the Judge (and his loathsome companion, a congenital imbecile he carries him around across the barren desert as an image of mankind reduced to a brutish misshaped monster) he knows that there is something inhuman (or superhuman, who knows?) in the same person who spoke out at one point that “trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all” (p. 262), only to add later on repellently “This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hands is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.” (p. 263).
Before the Judge’s malefic sermon, there is a breathtaking passage which hit me as profoundly non-relativistic but terrible at the same time, a passage that testifies to what heights of epistemological thinking McCarthy’s down-to-earth prose hits upon:
“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled by its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exists without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.” (p. 258-259).
And there is some hidden truth in Judge’s words that “Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.”
However, these are not meant to say that Blood Meridian is a philosophical riddle. On the contrary, the story is enveloped in its own shroud of mystery, while the Judge’s musings stand aside or make only a part of it.
At one moment in the book decades are passed over in the matter of lines and only here are we given the chance to surface over the American Midwest a century half ago, to see the ancestors of today’s Americans living their lives as if they could not care less about their followers. The Kid growing old becomes the sober witness of his times.
“He saw men killed with guns and with knives and with ropes and he saw women fought over to the death whose value they themselves set at two dollars. He saw ships from the land of China chained in the small harbors and bales of tea and silks and spices broken open with swords by small yellow men with speech like cats. On that lonely coast where the steep rocks cradled a dark and muttersome sea he saw vultures at their soaring whose wingspan so dwarfed all lesser birds that the eagles shrieking underneath were more like terns or plovers. He saw piles of gold a hat would scarcely have covered wagered on the turn of a card and lost and he saw bears and lions turned loose in pits to fight wild bulk to the death and he was twice in the city of San Francisco and twice saw it burn and never went back, riding out on horseback along the road to the south where all night the shape of the city burned against the sky and burned again in the black waters of the sea where dolphins rolled through the flames, fire in the lake, through the fall of burning timbers and the cries of the lost. He never saw the expriest again. Of the judge he heard rumor everywhere.” (p. 330)
As for the last grim episode, the bear-slaying scene and the devilish dance thereafter, I can only say that it was one of the most impressive and extremely shocking episodes of the narrative. I have no doubts, contrary to others more skeptical, that the Judge does in fact kill the kid at the jacks. I can picture myself the horrific image of a man bleeding himself to death in piss and shit after all the ancestral ceremonies of warfare and hunting of the desert we have witnessed all along the novel. I may dare say this is the only logical end.
Shortly before the end of the day of reckoning (this is the last part of the novel to me), the Judge whispers tauntingly to the Kid’s ear: “Hear me, man, he said. There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone. All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name. One by one they will step down into the darkness before the footlamps. Bears that dance, bears that dont”. (p. 349)
At the end of the novel, who is dancing and dancing and aware that he will never die, the lonesome 7 feet albino hairless bear?
Cormac McCarthy wrote not just a wonderful novel, but the masterpiece of the Wild West.