Blood Meridian is a book that almost everyone has heard of, read, or intends to read at some point. It’s been called one of the Great American Novels (and Cormac McCarthy one the Great American Writers), and the greatest Western or most ruthless debunking of the Western myth of Manifest Destiny ever written. Many who have read it are probably at a loss to say whether it is a work of genius or depravity, and it is mind-numbingly violent, lyrical, and profound at the same time.
Opinions on its message and philosophy differ so wildly that I wonder if McCarthy deliberately wrote it to confound all the attempts of literary critics to make sense of it. I, myself, was torn between my appreciation for the absolutely stunning passages of poetic brilliance — particularly his descriptions of nature, cold, barren and utterly aloof — and the unrelenting violence of the story and characters.
I’m not really sure what all the profound-sounding philosophical comments of the Judge mean, but McCarthy presents us with a Western world completely devoid of goodness, kindness, philanthropy, morality or mercy. This novel is a repetitive litany of brutality, casual murders, rapes, massacres, purposeless violence, and futility. He also intersperses this with lush descriptions of the barren landscape of the West which are so breathtakingly vivid that you have to stop and read them over to yourself repeatedly, marveling at what he can do with the English language. His prose can be sparse, dense, ornate, profound, and biblical in weight, seemingly without effort. You can find hundreds of quotes from the book online, but just picking a few should give you an idea:
They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Richard Poe, who has the requisite gravitas needed for such ‘Serious Literature.’ I had previously tried to read the book but was turned off by the relentless violence. This time I let McCarthy’s words wash over me, leaving strange afterthoughts and impressions. I frequently didn’t know exactly what was meant by the Judge’s pronouncements, but I knew something about Man’s nature was being opined. At other times, the images were just cruel and brutal and designed to shock:
Five wagons smoldered on the desert floor and the riders dismounted and moved among the bodies of the dead Argonauts in silence, those right pilgrims nameless among the stones with their terrible wounds, the viscera spilling from their sides and the naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts. Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out their grinning mouths. In their wigs of dried blood they lay gazing up with ape’s eyes at brother sun now rising in the east.
McCarthy bludgeons the reader with the repeated one-two punch of beautiful nature descriptions alternating with the ugliness and evil of men’s violence to each other. What is the poor reader to make of this? And that brings us to the most important character, the Judge, on whose quotes literary critics and English professors must spend hundreds of hours of pained analysis and debate.
The Judge is a philosopher and highly educated, but he is also utterly amoral and contemptuous of all men save those who embrace violence and war. He is very much a larger-than-life metaphysical presence, but whether he is a proxy for Satan, an archon (a lesser angel who serves the demiurge in Gnosticism), or for McCarthy himself, there is no final answer. We should all be careful not to equate his pronouncements with the author’s own beliefs, and yet no other characters voice anything near as clear a philosophical stance. So we are left to ponder his words, which are strange and disturbing indeed.
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 a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views. His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view. The willingness of the principals to forgo further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof. For the argument is indeed trivial, but not so the separate wills thereby made manifest.
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 dance, and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be? Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.
I could easily spend weeks analyzing and debating the statements of the judge, and whether these represent, either in part or in full, the thoughts of McCarthy. Fiction is a means by which authors entertain and explore various ideas and philosophies, but it would be foolish to assume this process is straightforward. I’m not a lit major or critic, so I can only provide my own understanding of what the judge is saying, and guess at how closely McCarthy agrees with him.
1) The ultimate test of a man is war. Only in war is agency (divine will) expressed. Those who win are favored — those who fall are found wanting.
2) Moral law is a creation of the weak. Historical law takes precedence, and expresses agency in selecting between men in conflict. The cause of the dispute is trivial — it is the clash of wills that bears meaning.
3) Men who do not engage in war or conflict are ‘false dancers.’ Only those who embrace war and are baptized in blood are ‘true dancers.’
If my understandings are correct (and that’s a BIG if), then the philosophy of the Judge is both absurd, repugnant, and completely in opposition to the moral framework of the world’s great religions, not to mention notions of morality and the sanctity of law in the modern world. It’s hard to imagine anyone in modern society who could possibly be attracted to this philosophy other than hardened survivalists who kill game for their sustenance and have underground stockpiles of weapons and canned goods, etc. They are waiting for the apocalypse and have a copy of Blood Meridian on hand.
Given the erudition and knowledge of Biblical concepts that I assume McCarthy has, is he truly suggesting that the message of peace and forgiveness of the New Testament and Jesus are complete nonsense? I just can’t tell because, in Blood Meridian, only acts of violence and brutality get any stage time. There is no dichotomy of good and evil, just the latter. If his intent is simply to debunk the Western myth of the Manifest Destiny of the White Man to bring civilization to the Savage, then McCarthy would have depicted the Indians in more sympathetic tones. Instead, they are just as brutal and venal as the white men of the story. The supposed narrator, the Kid, is a non-entity, although he becomes the Man in the final chapters and tries to oppose the arguments of the Judge in their final encounter. Still, it is impossible to consider him someone that McCarthy wants us to sympathize with — that is, unless McCarthy considers all modern men ‘false dancers,’ weak and directionless. (He doesn’t bother to think about women, of course, in his macho world.) If it is true, as the Judge asserts, that the true men must be baptized in blood and violence, then the vast majority of us are indeed unqualified to dance. And yet the vision of Blood Meridian is so unrelentingly brutal that it’s equally hard to think McCarthy is advocating a return to our blood-thirsty frontier roots, killing and rampaging at will, clashing with and annihilating native peoples. So what is he after, in the final analysis?
I get the impression that McCarthy looks down at the soft and weak existence of modern men, but does that mean he himself is the ruthless alpha-male that dominates the pages of Blood Meridian? Is he the Judge? Or does he simply take pleasure in playing around with the concept, through the extreme lens of the Old West, and his ultraviolent prose poem to the sanctity of war? Perhaps it’s not fair to ask this question, but knowing that McCarthy has not actually experienced war or battle, fought and killed, does he really have the right to sing its praises? With some exceptions, my impression is that those who have been in the heart of war and death do not glorify it. I also note that, in Blood Meridian, a large amount of the killing is one-sided slaughter of Indians or civilians, and from a distance with a rifle. Can that be considered war? I could understand it more if we were talking about men of equal strength, armed with swords, fighting to the death. But any way you cut it (no pun intended), I don’t consider war or killing sacred in any way.
In the end I could not say that I ‘got’ this book, which is why I settled on a 3-star rating. For the sheer brilliance of writing I would give 5 stars, while I’d assign 2 stars for the story itself, which is bloody and repetitive from start to finish. For the muddled philosophy of the Judge, which I cannot make sense of, I give 1 star. However, I have to give credit to McCarthy for forcing us to explore some dark philosophical territory, so that deserves 4 stars. And through the magic of rounding, that adds up to 3 stars. If you don’t like my arithmetic, we can have a duel to the death to settle it…