Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How the West Was Won -- Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am really not sure of what I think about Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian . It traces the time an abandoned youth, "the Kid," spends rambling with the Galton gang through the ultra-violent days of the Wild West. At times the gang works as soldiers in the Indian Wars, slaughtering even the innocent, because they were paid per scalp. At other times, the gang acts like pure outlaw adventures -- for instance, tearing towns apart, or fleecing travelers at a ferry crossing that they commandeered. In fact, the majority of the book is filled with so much malicious gore -- both sanctioned and illicit -- that, after a while, the violence becomes dull as the reader grows inured -- "Okay. I get it. The world is often bloody, and men cruel."

But the way McCarthy writes about the cruelty is stark and evocative. He manages to bring a biblical cadence to the writing, while making his descriptions as stark and stripped-down as Hemingway. For instance...
"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."

Indeed, McCarthy's command of language is part of the book's genius. But, unfortunately, not enough to save the book from "sagging" in the middle as the gang's catalog of atrocities grows. In fact, I left the book an my bedside for a couple weeks after getting about half way through, thinking, "where's the story?"

However, I am glad I finished. Because, like Melville before him, in McCarthy has written an evil little book, and you get the impression he feels spotless as a lamb. Indeed, Blood Meridian is even more stark than Moby Dick , and the antagonist -- the mindless cruel & sadistic, pederast & child murderer, and yet hairless and baby-like Judge -- is far more malevolent than the Great White Whale. Because, instead of representing a force of nature, the Judge is a human, who revels in humanity at its worst.

The Judge fancies himself the Lord of all creation -- a suzerain. And things that he does not know are, in his own words, an offense to him. He lauds war, and praises the nobility of the pursuit like a chilling mock Nietzsche. But, unlike the philosopher who fainted at the sight of blood, the Judge revels in blood-sport. And praises the pursuit of violence and power as "the only game that counts." And sets all other pursuits below that of war: "All other trades are contained in that of war." And sees life as blood struggle with pitiless, unabashed and yet oddly impotent cruelty.
"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."

The Judge is also a cultured man -- polyglot among Philistines. He studies the classics, quotes Latin, and also things scientifically, cataloging the flora and fauna he stumbles across, and sees "the bones of God" existing in the rock of creation. And pontificates at great length. Parts of his discourse are quite edify. For instance, when he ponders on why only men can be evil...
"A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it."

So when McCarthy finally leaves the blood bath after the Yuma Indians slaughter the gang, we find that the Judge, wandering naked through the desert, hunting the morally ambiguous Kid. And the novel heats up as a real plot emerges. And becomes a wonderful meditation on the lawlessness that grew America. And the encroaching men of law and order who, coming in from the east, are in the epilogue seen driving fence poles into the empty spaces. Civilizing and codifying the Judge out of existence.

And yet, the Judge survives.
"And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked and dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he will never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."

Blood Meridian , in the end, is chilling. It is a parable with an "immoral," or at least ambiguous moral. It is a haunting meditation of what humans have done to each other throughout all history -- murder their brothers in a nearly non-stop flood of war and violence. And, while McCarthy looks at that reality unflinchingly, in my considered opinion he allows the story to get derailed. Too bagged down in sullen depravity before stepping into the real narrative flow.

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