Blood Meridian: Donna Bowman's comments
"Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous, and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam's flank." (p. 222)
"For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be." (p. 244)
If you're wondering how Blood Meridian reads for someone who's spent her life immersed in the study of religion, both in and out of the church, and devotes herself to the interpretation of experience through a theological lens, here it comes. This novel is a cynical, devastating argument that human existence is infused with horrible, animistic, awful power, far beyond our ability to create or direct. And that religion is a sham, an invention of men who see in that power an opportunity to control other men.
I don't mind that argument at all. In fact, I agree with much of it. And I can't imagine it being made in fiction with any more darkness or precision. I was enthralled by the language of Blood Meridian—it's the kind of book that I used to read out loud under my breath for the sheer pleasure of speaking the words. The snatches of philosophy in between excursions into desolation and descriptions of depravity commanded my attention in an unusually obsessive mode; I caught myself trying to decipher them, as if beneath the plain meaning of the text there were hidden layers of typological and analogical meaning that required advanced hermeneutics to understand, and that properly interpreted would unlock some vast code.
And I think there certainly is a possibility that the novel functions as some kind of replacement Bible. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when the voice of the omniscient narrator provides not just a stark description of events one after the other, but drops in a propositional statement about ultimate truth and the nature of reality itself—like the line about fires I quoted above. Here on display is the pinnacle of the artist's magical power: to create a truth by speaking it into existence. That line comes across not as an observation of something any of us could have seen, but the invention of a way of seeing that is now unavoidable for anyone who has read it.
Yet while I realize that the narrative of the novel is the carrier of these wonders, I found myself much less interested in it than in the all-too-infrequent dialogues and monologues that occurred within it. My frustration lay in the opacity of the narrative. Things happen—horrible, horrible things—and the reader is thrown largely on her own devices to decide what it means. Perhaps that's why the occasional hints of intratextual narrative point of view were so electrifying to me.
I'm not leveling this as a criticism of the work, but as a criticism of my own reading of it. If I could bring myself to succumb to this bleak vision, I imagine I'd care much more about the characters who mill around within it. But like in a Biblical text, the characters seem like ciphers, and their interactions are presented as largely inexplicable—inhuman. I don't have much patience for Biblical readings that try to understand the characters from within ("Mary did you knoooooow ..."); these are legends of heroes, demigods, and mighty deeds, and hints of recognizable human emotion and motivation are the exception, not the rule. Their power lies in their strangeness, not their accessibility.
So I think I got stuck in the wrong frame of reference for Blood Meridian. I approached it as a novel, not as a sacred text. As a novel, the lack of access to the kid's interior presented a problem for me. In the first chapter we see that the kid is not human and has no hope of achieving humanity. He is feral. His early experience precludes the development of empathy or morality. All the discourses of the judge seem to go right over his head. The ideas that the judge uses to manipulate others and enhance his own legend are foreign to the kid. And so we receive them, too, as free-floating babble. The fact that they are more meaningful to us because of some shared cultural background and experience doesn't change the fact that the kid, the character whom we follow (even if he doesn't exactly have a point of view we can share), seems entirely disconnected from them.
It's not the story that haunts me, then. It's the cosmology expressed in asides, descriptions, the catalog of horrors. It's the notion in the first quotation above: The human spirit crackles with amoral power, our supernatural capabilities to twist the world of nature and language to our ends dancing around us like the aura of a wrathful saint, but in ourselves, "so endarkened."