Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West | Critical Review by Geoffrey O'Brien

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West.
This section contains 1,089 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Geoffrey O'Brien

Critical Review by Geoffrey O'Brien

SOURCE: "Cowboys and Nothingness," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXI, No. 280, July 15, 1986, p. 48.

In the following review, O'Brien discusses Blood Meridian within the context of the Western genre, noting differences and similarities between the two.

The Western, being the simplest of genres, is also the most protean, ever ripe for new variations. For a moment in the '60s, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone appeared to have arrived at its logical dead end, but writers today are taking a fresh look at the genre. It attracts like a power source, a link to the limitless. Reinventing the Western means re-inventing America, turning the creation epic upside down to come up with a different end-product: a new Texas, a new Mexico, a new definition of reality. Notions of the real, of course, change with alarming swiftness, so that The Wild Bunch or For a Few Dollars More, billed in their day as cynical anti-Westerns, now seem as soaringly romantic as any of their predecessors. All that empty space is what does it. Almost as mechanically as a drug, desert and canyon and prairie elevate the squalidest occurrences into ritual splendors. Set a third-rate racketeer against infinite sky and he becomes Wyatt Earp. No wonder writers and filmmakers can't stay away from a genre that does half their work for them.

In Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy reduces the Western to its essential components: landscape and killing. From the classic Hollywood variety he has preserved the hypnotic expansiveness of wide-screen vistas and the technical precision of large-scale bloodletting; and to compensate for the absence of a Fordian or Hawksian mise-en-scene, he has forged a distinctive prose which might be described as Hardboiled Biblical, a weird blend of cold-eyed photo-realism and prophetic diction. Reading the book is like watching a slowly unwinding painted panorama. From a distance it resembles a magnificent canvas by Bierstadt or Church, but as you peer more closely at its clefts and dells you find them crammed with hacked bodies and discarded torture implements: "The dead lay awash in the shallows like the victims of some disaster at sea and they were strewn along the salt foreshore in a havoc of blood and entrails. Riders were towing bodies out of the bloody waters of the lake, and the froth that rode lightly on the beach was a pale pink in the rising light. They moved among the dead harvesting the long black locks with their knives and leaving their victims rawskulled and strange in their bloody cauls." What disturbs is not so much the violence as its lack of resonance, the way the immense surroundings swallow up suffering.

As Blood Meridian traces the depredations and torments of a band of scalp-hunters roaming the Tex-Mex border in the 1840s, its welter of skirmishes and massacres feels like a single moment impossibly distended, a moment of absolute pain preparing to give way to nothingness. In most Westerns, violence is climactic; here it's as predictable as the passage of time, and the moments of high drama occur when the slaughtering is unexpectedly suspended. During the rest of the book, killers kill and are killed with such rolling repetition that the horrors begin to seem incidental twitchings of an essentially immobile landscape. McCarthy's drifters are "like beings provoked out of the absolute rock … in a time before nomenclature was." For them the articulations of language amount to no more than "the dull boom of rock falling somewhere far below them in the awful darkness inside the world." A mindless life-force asserts itself through violence in the face of imminent extinction.

The book imposes itself by sheer duration and reiteration. Its long-winded cadences testify that there is no limit either to the killing or to the barren territories through which the killers ride, stagger, and ultimately crawl. Dialogue is guttural and terminally inarticulate. When the lone survivors of a Comanche raid encounter each other amid gutted torsos and handfuls of viscera, they converse about as expressively as McCarthy's people ever do: "What kind of indians was them?" "I dont know." "Damn if they aint about a caution to the christians." These minimal exchanges are set off by the baroque profusion of language that McCarthy lavishes on their surroundings. The life of the book resides in its rocky underpinnings and spiky vegetation. On a single page we move among "gray lava dust" and "scalloped canyon walls," through "fallen rock and scoria and deadly looking bayonet plants," into "an old reliquary of flintknappings and ratchel"—pausing only for a moment by "a bush that was hung with dead babies"—to end up at "a village on the plain where smoke still rose from the ruins and all were gone to death."

This dominance of background pushes cowboy-picture aesthetics to their limit: between precisely described, usually violent action and engulfing, luridly beautiful settings, there's no room for any privacy of thought or feeling. The human interior ceases to exist. But if Blood Meridian stakes out a domain of emptiness, the emptiness is dense, messy, a tangle of desperate and dying creatures. In a previous novel, Child of God, McCarthy dealt with similar material, but there the action was restricted to an east Tennessee backwater and most of the atrocities stemmed from a single deranged person. Blood Meridian encompasses all places and all people, going beyond the hermetic rigors of genre toward a theoretically unfinishable cavalcade, like a camera panning across an endless field of corpses.

In fact the book doesn't really end; it dissolves, in a manner I don't find altogether satisfactory. With most of the cast annihilated, the last few chapters threaten to veer from hallucinatory realism into a more allegorical mode. The Judge, a murderous intellectual madman who has quietly dominated the band of killers, takes on an increasingly supernatural air, and the drooling idiot who accompanies him across desert wastes evokes an unfortunate Shakespearean parallel—unfortunate because an appeal to literature can only weaken the unmediated intensity of the bulk of the novel. But whatever one makes of McCarthy's mode of withdrawal from his nightmare, the book's termination is curiously unimportant. The hell of endlessness McCarthy has taken us through is enough to convince us that if the book did not end inadequately it could not end at all. Blood Meridian has no more destination than its blood-spattered protagonists, only a relentless forward movement. The terror of that blind and arbitrary process—a process also known as history—soaks into every page. Like all Western heroes, McCarthy's mercenaries ride off into the sunset: and the sunset devours them.

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This section contains 1,089 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Geoffrey O'Brien
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