Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian

David Foster Wallace—a writer I feel unusually connected to, though more as a person than as a novelist—described Blood Meridian as “Probably the most horrifying book of this century, at least fiction.” He also included it on a list he compiled of the most underappreciated books of recent decades. (Its reputation has grown considerably over time, so I doubt it would count as underappreciated today.)

Other than the little Wallace had to say about Blood Meridian, I knew little or nothing else about the book before reading it. I did spend several hours, though, after I read it browsing the Internet and reading discussions and reviews of the book. It’s pretty rare for me to do that, but I was genuinely curious what other readers made of this, and how they interpreted the symbolism. (I tend to be terrible at symbolism. I have an extraordinarily good mind in certain areas, and the mind of the average 11 year old in other areas. Symbolism in art is one of the latter areas.)

Blood Meridian is usually described as the story of “the kid” (who is never named), a 14 year old runaway at the start of the novel who seeks his fortune with various bands of mercenaries and bandits and such in the southwestern United States and Mexico of 1849. He may indeed be the protagonist in the context of the main themes and symbols of the book, but on the other hand he goes unmentioned for long stretches of the novel as other characters and events are described. So you could also make the case that the book has more of an ensemble cast rather than one true protagonist.

Without a doubt the most attention-grabbing character, whether you want to label him as the main character or not, is Judge Holden, usually referred to as simply “the Judge.” (I don’t think his first name is ever given. Nor does anyone have more than the fuzziest notion of where or when, if ever, he was literally a judge.) More on him later.

From what I read, author McCarthy did a great deal of research in order to make Blood Meridian as true to its times as possible. Many of the characters and events of the novel are based on real people and events. How close they are to reality cannot be known with much precision, as the historical record is sparse as to these specifics. The bulk of the evidence for much of it, in fact, comes from just one memoir of unknown reliability.

Blood Meridian is an unusual book in multiple respects, both stylistically and substantively. I can see why it would appeal to someone like Wallace, who appreciated thinking outside the box and challenging literary conventions.

An example of its stylistic unconventionality is that dialogue is printed without quotation marks or explicit identification of the speaker.

I’m sure there’s some point to writing that way, but since I don’t know what that point is, to me it comes across as a meaningless gimmick. You can almost always infer who’s talking; it just takes a little extra effort. But again, pointlessly so. It’s the same as if random paragraphs were printed in tiny type that was legible but a strain to read. Yeah, it’s “different” to write that way, so I guess it’s “postmodern” in some sense, but it just makes the book slightly more difficult to read without adding any compensating value. What’s objectionable about the convention of using quotation marks to indicate you are quoting someone? Of all things to be challenged or overturned, why that?

I suppose Wallace would say that making you slow down and strain a bit in reading is itself of value. You can’t read a book like this on automatic pilot using the reading habits you’ve built up over a lifetime, and shaking you up like that opens up your mind in general in beneficial ways. Or something like that. I don’t know.

To me, though, it’s still like watching a movie with subtitles. I’ll do it since it’s the only way to watch certain movies, and some subtitled movies I like quite a bit, but all else being equal I’d certainly rather a movie were in English so I wouldn’t have that extra little difficulty in watching it.

Another unconventional aspect of Blood Meridian is that it is written in an unusually formal style of language; Wallace compares it to the King James Bible.

It also contains an unusually high quantity of description. Every last little detail about the sky, the desert environment, the behavior of animals, the clothing people are wearing, and on and on and on is painstakingly described. It’s impressive evidence of just how thoroughly McCarthy researched the setting in which his story takes place.

I’ll admit that for me as a reader, though, this really isn’t a positive. I tend to be thoroughly fascinated by issues of human psychology and morality and such, and gladly will read about and ponder those at great length, but physical description like this rarely interests me, not just in literature but in life. I’m completely oblivious to 90% of observational things that everyone else seems to automatically notice and care about. So I’m sure this is an unusually well written and indeed beautiful book stylistically and descriptively, but most of that is lost on me.

A substantive thing that’s unconventional is the violence. It’s virtually nonstop from cover to cover. The kid and those he associates with rampage throughout the territory raping and murdering whoever crosses their path. And just so you don’t think it’s casting Americans as the (uniquely) bad guys, 90 percent plus of the Mexicans and Indians behave the same way.

No one’s word is worth anything; any agreements are violated as soon as it’s in either party’s self-interest to do so. The macho code means the most trivial of insults or disagreements can easily escalate to a fight to the death. (It’s established early that the norm in such barroom brawls and such—when firearms aren’t involved and you have to fight hand-to-hand—is to use your knife, a broken bottle, or whatever sharp object is handy to stab your opponent in the eye to incapacitate him so you can then more easily finish him off.) Animals are abused and killed. Children are murdered. Corpses are desecrated—through necrophilia, the slicing off of body parts for souvenirs, and especially scalping, since there are authorities in the little towns and settlements that will pay for scalps of Indians and other enemies they feel threatened by.

I didn’t experience this violence as “horrifying” as much as deadening I suppose. Especially in the first half or so of the book it’s so relentless, so total, that I felt less and less inclined to react to it, rather like how the thirtieth murder in a slasher movie never grabs you or shocks you the way the first or second can.

Then again, I suppose there’s another sense in which the very ubiquity and repetitiveness of the violence is indeed disturbing, maybe even “horrifying.”

I remember one of the first reactions I had to the book, just a few pages in, was that these people don’t even seem human to me. They don’t seem like people I could ever imagine meeting in real life, though perhaps what I was really responding to on some level is that in ways too subtle to normally even be conscious of they aren’t like people I encounter in literature, or even in history or journalism the way such stories are always filtered through a storyteller.

You learn little about their inner lives except what you can infer from the dialogue. And you can infer precious little from that, since they are almost all taciturn fellows who speak in a kind of minimalist macho way intended to convey little information and less emotion but just the message not to mess with them.

Nowadays, not just in literature but in everyday life and certainly in public discourse, there’s almost always some effort to justify violence and deception and the like. There’s an implication that they are deviations from the norm or from what ought to be and therefore require some such justification. Yes, it’s almost always some sort of lame rationalization, but at least there is thereby an acknowledgement that there is some obligation to see things from a normative point of view. Even the most juvenile possible appeals to “might makes right” that you might hear from defenders of Nazis or of the Manifest Destiny genocide of Indians still assume that something better make it right or you ought not be doing it.

But the people in this book rarely even bother defending their actions that way. Yeah, there’s the perfunctory casual racism and such, but it’s infrequent and superficial. Mostly they come across like cold, unthinking, violent robots.

Or animals maybe. I remember a conversation I had with a friend long ago wherein he expressed bemusement at people rationalizing what they do in terms of “oughts.” “Dogs and cats don’t think in such terms. They just do what they do—what’s instinctive, what’s in their self-interest—and that’s that. Surely at some fundamental level we’re very much the same way, no matter how we like to pretend otherwise.”

Blood Meridian depicts a world in which that pretense has been dropped. To make use of another David Foster Wallace reference, it’s like the fish in his “This is Water” anecdote who have no idea what water is because they’ve never experienced anything other than being totally enveloped in it. Since these characters spend every day—as does almost everyone they encounter—stabbing people in the eye and collecting scalps and such in a constant struggle to survive, there’s nothing to contrast it with, nothing to defend it against, nothing to question about it. They’ve been reduced to their animal essence, an essence that has no room for moral rationalization, let alone moral reasoning.

Maybe that’s what’s horrifying, seeing people reduced to that level. They’re like the cannibals in The Road, the only other Cormac McCarthy book I’ve read, where unspeakable brutality is so much the norm that they no longer exhibit the slightest misgivings about it, the difference being that in The Road those are minor characters whereas the main characters—the man and his son—are still very human and intent on retaining that humanity. Blood Meridian to me is even more nihilistic and depressing than The Road.

But that does let up some later in the book. There does arise at least some rudimentary moral conflict, some modest indication of psychological complexity in some of the characters.

By the way, I don’t know if that makes it a better or worse book—it certainly makes it more conventional—but it did make it a more interesting read, at least for me. Whatever you can say about the literary value of the unrelenting amoral violence of much of the book, the repetitious, deadening nature of it eventually gets rather boring. Seeing even slight signs of humanity in some of the characters got me back into the book toward the end.

One of the characters—usually called “the priest” or “the expriest,” though as he himself notes, he studied for the priesthood but was never in fact a priest—starts to function as I suppose the conscience of the kid. At least he attempts to warn the kid about the judge—again, more on him shortly—and to urge him to resist him, implying that there’s something evil and forbidding about him, though he’s not very specific about what that is. And so there’s a kind of conflict between the kid and the judge, the sense that it’s a matter of moral import whether the kid succumbs to the judge or not.

OK, but let’s get to the judge.

First of all, the judge is physically very unusual and imposing. He is something like 7 feet tall, and not a Manute Bol kind of tall, but a solid, bulky kind of tall. He has phenomenal physical strength, proportional to his size if not greater. He is completely hairless, not just on top of his head, but lacking eyebrows and all body hair.

He’s not looked down on as a freak due to this appearance, but perceived warily as a kind of otherworldly, dominating presence.

He has an attitude of being above it all, a supreme confidence, an intellectual arrogance, a refinement of sorts, an awareness that he is a highly self-directed being in world filled with people who are the opposite.

He has a seemingly impossible breadth and depth of knowledge of the natural world, and of just about everything for that matter. He’s constantly taking notes in a book he carries with him at all times, cataloguing every animal and plant and such that he encounters. Asked why, he remarks that to know the world is to subdue the world and that his goal is to basically know every fact about everything. He’s obsessed with control (to the extent that such a cool, aloof character can be said to be “obsessed” with anything), remarking that the very freedom of birds offends him, and that if he had his way they would all exist only in zoos.

He’s in the same band of cutthroats as the kid and most of the characters for much of the book, but he’s never really one of them. It’s like he’s some outsider tagging along for his own mysterious purposes.

The kid first encounters him well before he becomes a member of this particular group of ruffians, and he finds out that everyone seems to have encountered the judge at some point in their past, always in different circumstances.

The judge, it is said, joined this group before the kid’s time when they were wandering through the desert pursued by hostile forces, and he just happened to be sitting on a rock out in the middle of nowhere seemingly waiting for them. He used his wits to enable them to prevail over their enemies, and became an unofficial leader/advisor of the gang from that point on.

Unlike pretty much every other character in the book, he is verbose, and delights in voicing vague, abstruse philosophical discourses that he has to know the kid (who is illiterate) and all or almost all of his other listeners could never follow in a million years.

If there’s a theme to these discourses I suppose it’s a defense of a kind of Nietzschean “beyond good and evil” thing (though I’d say the behavior in this book is pre-moral or below-moral rather than somehow beyond or above it). He thinks it’s natural and fated for men to kill each other and to engage in endless war.

He describes war as sort of the ultimate noble competition, the one arena where you are truly tested, where everything is at stake.

He’s seemingly indestructible. Certainly he carries himself with a confidence that nothing can kill him. Whether that’s because he’s extremely clever, strong, skilled with weapons, etc., or implies some supernatural immortality is not clear.

He also seemingly doesn’t age. In the 20 or 30 years or so that the book covers (all but the last few pages are about the first 10% or less of that time period), he’s said to look exactly the same.

He’s evil, but more in the sense of denying there is any good or evil or considering himself above such considerations than just garden variety sadism and such.

Which is not to say he’s not also sadistic in straightforward ways. It seems to be kind of an amusing pastime for him.

I’m thinking of two scenes in particular to illustrate that. In his first appearance in the book, he strides into a revival meeting and loudly denounces the preacher as someone who in the past was driven from his previous post following a scandal of child molestation and bestiality and has taken refuge in this new town hoping no one finds him out. He’s able to whip the crowd up into a frenzy to where they physically attack the preacher. Later, in a tavern, when questioned about the incident, he nonchalantly admits that he made it all up.

It wasn’t a matter of revenge or anything. It’s not like he had some beef with this preacher. It seems just to have been random destructiveness, just a way of having some fun by manipulating people into harming each other—kind of like the pointless malevolence of Internet trolls, enjoying causing problems, pain, and conflict just for the “lulz.”

Later in the book, when the gang has momentarily stopped in some small town (where, as usual, they’re drinking and whoring and shooting the place up), he purchases two puppies from a street vendor and proceeds to kill them in cold blood, evidently for no reason other than pure cruelty.

So the question is, is the judge Satan? From my reading online I find that this is much debated.

My opinion is that the Satan identification is at least close to the mark.

There’s some speculation that McCarthy intends him to be some sort of demon-type figure from Gnostic or Manichean mythology—an “archon”—rather than the traditional Christian Devil. I think of him more as if there were some sort of supernatural evil being like that that people of various religions and cultures have some very vague notion of but that doesn’t closely match the details of any of them. So he’s sort of Satan, but no more than he’s sort of an archon and sort of countless other personifications of evil. In any case, I have to think he’s either supposed to be the Devil or something Devil-like.

He seems very likely supernatural. It’s probably, but not definitely, impossible to kill him like you could kill a man. He probably, but not definitely, doesn’t age. He probably, but not definitely, is capable of being in multiple places at once.

In his introductory scene when he provokes people into becoming a frenzied mob, the preacher victim even screams in alarm and warning that he is the Devil.

There’s also some speculation among readers and critics that the judge is not even real, that the kid, or maybe all the characters, hallucinate him, or he’s just a symbolic figure meant to represent the kid’s internal struggle with evil, or he and the kid are the same person, with the judge representing the evil side of the kid when he loses control and commits atrocities, etc.

The ending to the book is famously ambiguous, and at least from the reactions I’ve read seems to be a much appreciated ambiguity rather than one that merely frustrates people.

The implication is that the judge somehow triumphs over the kid, as in the final scene he is dancing naked in an apparent bacchanalian celebration of that triumph. The exact nature of that triumph is not revealed, though it’s said that when people come across the evidence of it they are terrified.

That in itself is what a lot of readers seem to appreciate. There’s so much horror in this book that’s laid out in graphic detail, and the people within it are by now so inured to seemingly every imaginable evil—from the murder of men, women, and children, to mutilation, to bestiality, to necrophilia, to every kind of sexual assault and perversion, and on and on—that it’s something of a stroke of brilliance to say that something else happened so much worse that it shocked even these folks. Something unimaginably evil, then. And since it’s unimaginable, it couldn’t be described in the book.

So people are left to speculate. Maybe what people saw was him raping the kid, or killing him in some particularly ghastly way, or whatever, but McCarthy doesn’t tell us.

More likely than the judge doing something to the kid, I would think, is that they saw the kid doing something, or saw the results of something the kid did. Because if it was just a matter of killing or brutalizing the kid, the judge could have easily done that several hundred pages earlier.

As a Satan figure, presumably his preferred way to triumph is not to kill somebody but to corrupt them. He wins when he gets someone to embrace their darkest side, to sink to whatever they think of as the lowest level to which a human being can sink. The judge himself may be “beyond” good and evil, and so not be trying to entice people to do some specific thing that he recognizes as evil but instead to violate whatever their own deepest convictions are. That’s when he knows he’s got them.

So we don’t know precisely what he did or what the kid did, but perhaps it was whatever he knew the kid would feel the greatest guilt about, that he could never recover from.

Blood Meridian is one of those books I like having read more than I liked reading it. Just due to the language and the repetitious violence and such, a lot of it was a slog to get through, though it did pick up later as the conflict between the kid and the judge became more prominent. It may well be the kind of story that I would have preferred to hear someone give a detailed, half hour description of rather than reading it all myself.

But it’s certainly one of the more thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while. Among the things it makes me speculate about the most is this notion of people stripped of their moral pretenses and functioning like amoral animals, and how we’re really never very far from that. That’s a part of the message of The Road too, but arguably it’s even more disturbing here, as The Road is apocalyptic, futuristic fiction depicting a world quite unlike our own that we can hope never comes about, whereas Blood Meridian is based on real people and real events, not very distant from us in time or place.

It isn’t just in science fiction that we can find people reduced to this, but in history. (To take it one step further, you wouldn’t have to look too far to find it in current events too.)

I don’t think I could ever sink to that level. I’m sure the retort would be, “Yeah, everyone says that, but if you ever found yourself in circumstances like these you’d respond the same way.” I’m sure that’s true of many people, maybe most people, but I think there are exceptions. I think there are people who would rather not live than to live like that, and I’m quite confident I’m one of them.

Is it because I’m somehow morally superior? Well, I do feel like I take right and wrong more seriously than the average person, so I’m not going to deny that that’s part of it, as arrogant as that might sound.

But a lot of it is that I think I’m nowhere near as attached to life as the average person. My survival instinct just isn’t that strong. You can think of it as wimpiness rather than moral character if you prefer, but I don’t think I can be bothered to pay very much of an ethical price to preserve my life, not just because of how highly I value ethics, but frankly because I don’t value my life any huge amount.

I’m not talking about a purely reactive hypothetical scenario, like some speeding train is about to kill me and I instinctively scramble out of the way in a manner that somehow puts the people around me at greater risk. Or I’m being tortured and the only way to stop the torture is to do or say something that will kill or harm someone else. That kind of instinctive stuff you really can’t control once it gets to some level. I don’t know what I would do in such scenarios, but I have no reason to believe I’d behave any better or be any “stronger” than the average person.

I’m talking about premeditated things, lifestyle things. Like would I join some marauding band and go around massacring people like in this book because it was somehow in my material self-interest or because it was the only way I could survive? I’m quite confident the answer is no. Being the kind of person who is unwilling or unable to live like that is more important to me than survival.

So in the event of a total breakdown of civil order and such, expect me to be one of the first martyrs, an early loser—indeed, noncombatant—in any such “survival of the fittest.”

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