This section contains 1,671 words
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Critical Review by John Lewis Longley Jr.
SOURCE: "The Nuclear Winter of Cormac McCarthy," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, Autumn, 1986, pp. 746-50.
In the following essay, Longley notes that every major episode in Blood Meridian is based on a real event in history. The critic comments upon the themes evident in every McCarthy novel: the "pervasiveness of evil," the "usurpation of authority," and the "denial of responsibility."
Blood Meridian is not for the tenderhearted. In his fifth novel, McCarthy presents us with a new locale and a different time frame. The action in each of his first four novels is centered in East Tennessee and takes place in the middle of the 20th century. Blood Meridian takes place in northern Mexico and what is now the American southwest. The time is 1848–1850 with an epilogue some years later.
One thing must be clearly understood from the start. Every major episode in this book is based on real events. The major characters are all people who actually existed. What they did, the actions they performed are to be found in the documents of the period. The basic situation is this: Governor Trias of Chihuahua province must confront the Apache, who are literally destroying the province by wiping out much of the Mexican population. The governor opts for the Final Solution; he declares open season and a bounty: $100.00 gold American for every Apache scalp, age and sex of the scalpee not a consideration.
The strike force is organized by Glanton. These men are not militia or police or wagon train guards. They are experienced, highly professional killers. Killing is what they do. Many of them are already under death sentence in other jurisdictions. When they find an encampment of Apache, the blood flows, and many scalps are brought in. The reward money is thrown away in an epic spree of drinking, rape, and looting. In a few days, graffiti begin to appear on walls: Mejor los indios. Other scalps must be obtained. The killers soon discover that once a scalp has been lifted and carted about for weeks, no one can tell if the scalp is Indian or Mexican. The killing becomes democratic: anyone with black hair is killed and scalped. The rest of the novel traces the rapid decay of group and personal discipline. At the end they are killing and robbing anything that moves.
So much for the historical record. The documents are in the archives if anyone cares to read them. But McCarthy is no more likely to rest with the historical record than he was to describe East Tennessee simply as he found it. What we have to consider is the work as fiction—what he has done with time, place, and people.
Several elements or conditions are present in any McCarthy novel. Chief among them are denial of responsibility, usurpation of authority, and the rejection of Grace. What is often most troubling to the general reader is not only the pervasiveness of evil, but even more the lack of any rationale, any motive for the things that people do. McCarthy has repudiated several attempts to make him into a philosopher, but there is a metaphysic working here: as with the Greeks, the sign of evil is the violence it brings forth. As so often is the case in his other fiction, landscape (whether it is a bucolic landscape filled with murderers, or a grubby slum like McAnally Flats) is landscape as metaphor. The landscape in Blood Meridian is like the landscape on the moon, or like the surface of the earth will be after a prolonged nuclear winter when everything is dead. On the prosaic level of factual realism, this landscape is simply the Great American Desert—desolate, arid, littered with the bones of animals and men. Its abiding characteristic is its enormous indifference to everything that happens: hope, travail, terror, death. At a wider and deeper level, this landscape is the landscape of Hell—the inevitable configuration of a world without Grace. Once this condition is understood, the incredible becomes commonplace and the unthinkable becomes routine.
This being true, no one escapes. There are no good guys anywhere—not the Indians, the Mexicans, the Americans, including the handful of black Americans who ride in Glanton's band. They are murderers all, by profession and by choice. The most that can be said for the Indians is that they kill and scalp for fun and glory, not for money.
In characterization, the novel is purely ensemble playing. There is no central character whose story waits to unfold. If there is a protagonist, it is "the Kid," not otherwise named, whose story begins and ends the novel. The Kid is introduced at age 14: "He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence." The Kid is perfect for the part he is fated to play: to cause suffering and to endure suffering. He is often used as a foil to play off the ideas and actions of Judge Holden.
The band of killers is led by Captain Glanton, a small man who is clearly insane. He can never return to the United States because of some dreadful action he has taken there. It is said that he is "… equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour…. He'd long forsworn all weighing of consequence." He holds his gang of cutthroats together by iron discipline and simple fear. They know there is nothing he will not do, since most of them have already seen examples of what he does to deserters. If Glanton should be otherwise occupied, there is always the Judge. Tobin, the ex-priest, believes that Glanton and the Judge have some terrible secret covenant. Events will bear this out.
The Judge is an albino and is seven feet tall. His skills and accomplishments are endless; not only the frontier skills needful to thrive in an empty desert peopled by savages, but others: languages, music art, science, history, philosophy. He is a fanatical botanizer and archaeologist, but not for the usual reason. Asked what he plans to do with the artifacts he collects, he replies: "To expunge them from the memory of man."
Eventually, everything about the Judge will fall into place: he hates all living things. He says: "Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent." "The freedom of birds is an insult to me." He intends to be suzerain of all the earth "… and yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life … In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation." Hence the comment of the Kid: "You're crazy."
Of all forms of biologic life, the Judge hates humans the most, and children most of all. His own personal, exquisitely refined recreation is child-murder. His procedure is to rescue a child in a massacre, pet it, win its confidence, and then kill and scalp it. Tobin, the ex-priest, repeatedly warns the Kid that the Judge has singled him out for some long-range, particularly horrible fate. But the Kid does not listen, and the story winds on to its end.
The reviewers in the large national newspapers have been having a terrible time with Blood Meridian. One suggests that readers would not find the book compatible with their orange juice and corn flakes as though most serious fiction is read at the breakfast table before rushing off to the commuter train. Another admits that McCarthy is almost a genius, but he fails (alas) because of his brutality and his excess. Blood Meridian would be a masterpiece but for the excess. One is forcefully reminded of the remark about Thomas Sutpen's recipe for morality. If only McCarthy had measured the ingredients for his pie or cake a little more carefully.
Putting this novel in a context of corn flakes is a failure to deal with it. Instead of treating it like a Gothic romance or a novel by Stephen King, it ought to be confronted for what it is. The earlier novels were often compared to Faulkner, primarily because of rhetoric and subject matter (as though East Tennessee and Mississippi were identical and somehow interchangeable). What serious critics will have to do is look for other affinities—Melville, Conrad, and Dostoevski. The Judge invites comparison with Stagrovin and Svidrigaloff, or perhaps even Nechaev himself. Instructive parallels can be drawn with Heart of Darkness—what happens in a savage wilderness when all restraints are removed, and there is no one to say Thou shalt not.
Recently The New Yorker ran a series in which the reporter traced the march of W. T. Sherman through Georgia. The series concluded with some philosophical speculation about the relationship between that episode and what went on at (for instance) My Lai. The present writer grew up in an area devastated by Sherman, but even the most horrific folk tales of my childhood never accused Sherman of scalping women and children. The reporter in The New Yorker has an interesting (if somewhat obvious) thesis, but he is looking at the wrong sources. The precedents of My Lai are not found in Sherman's march, which was carried out against white Americans. The precedents have always been there in our national policy toward anyone with a darker skin and a more "primitive" culture, which is simple genocide. Some quick examples: "The Puritans first fell on their knees and then on the aborigines." "The only good indian is a dead indian." "Civilize 'em with a Krag." "Manifest Destiny." The events at Greasy Grass and Wounded Knee. The crop-headed young men on our military bases who wear T-shirts proclaiming "Kill 'em all—let God sort 'em out."
Mr. McCarthy is not trying to tell us about the Good Little Boy. The reviewers who object to the blood in Blood Meridian either do not know what happens when several dozen people are shot, chopped, or scalped in a confined space, or they do not wish to think about it. In either case, their quarrel is with human physiology, not Cormac McCarthy's fiction.
This section contains 1,671 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)