(Join us for a live discussion of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian at 5pm ET / 4pm CT this Thursday.)
Since we’ve been dwelling so heavily on the religious underpinnings of the book so far—and since I suspect Donna Bowman, our resident theologian, will bring much to the table when her turn comes up—I’m going to zag a bit and discuss the book’s ironic take on Manifest Destiny and “the kid,” who, after all, is the hero embarking on this wayward quest, right? But first, to respond to a couple of Leonard’s open questions about the ending:
• Speaking, as we must, of Judge Holden, who is he? And, perhaps more importantly, does he really triumph in the end?
• And on the subject of the end of the novel, what was your reaction to it? Why, in such a relentlessly violent novel, does the narrative finally shy away from fully describing the kid’s fate? Is anything accomplished by the final confrontation between him and the Judge? Did any of you find the ambiguity of the ending to be a cop-out in any way? And what did you think of the coda?
To me, the Judge Holden character is pure abstraction, an inhuman and implacable force of evil—I keep thinking of the Robert Bresson movie title The Devil, Probably)—who leaves a trail of death, destruction, and misery in his wake and whose brilliance in every conceivable field, from science to philosophy to languages to engineering, manifests itself whenever the occasion calls for it, e.g. the unforgettable “gunpowder” scene, in which he manufactures a miracle out of an almost magical (and kinda gross) alchemy. So the question of whether he “triumphs” in the end almost doesn’t apply, because he’s a force of nature—fearless, pitiless, cunning, and indestructible, with a lust for life that’s endlessly indulgent and insatiable. That last paragraph of the book, when the judge dances his little jig, keeps repeating the same couple of phrases (He never sleeps and he says he will never die) with the rhythmic certainty of a two-step.
As for McCarthy stepping back to describe the kid’s fate, I admired his restraint quite a bit in this instance, especially in the pointed way its lack of explicitness stands in such sharp relief to the unrelenting explicitness of the violence in the rest of the book. All we know are two things: “The judge was seated upon the closet. He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered [the kid] in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him.” And then a lone witness to the aftermath: “Good God almighty, he said.” I think we can sketch in whatever horrific fate we’d like between those two lines—and assume the kid is engulfed by the same perversion and violence that the judge visits upon every place he goes—but am I alone in spotting an odd tenderness by which the judges “gathers up” the kid in his arms, much like a child scooped up by a parent? The irony here is that the kid has never really experienced this kind of intimacy in his hardscrabble life. He’s known abuse and violence and the ravages of surviving a long and perilous journey, but never the sensation of being nurtured by a parent or a woman and certainly not his fellow travelers. This final moment with the judge may suggest an unimaginably awful conclusion to his life, but in this case, death may indeed have a warm embrace.
As for the coda, the language gets so abstract that I’m probably misreading it, but it strikes me as suggestive of the onset of civilization on the scorched earth where Glanton and company once tread. “In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground,” it begins, and I think it’s generally agreed that those holes in the plain are for fence poles. And with fence poles, we finally have the outlines of civilization: Property is being established, and with it presumably laws are being laid down, too. After 336 pages of marauding scalp hunters traversing the land with no real sense of direction—in fact, their sense of purpose grows murkier as the book progresses—here McCarthy gives us a paragraph that suggests something can be built on this land. That doesn’t mean that violence has disappeared from the plains (“he strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel”), but it’s the first evidence we have that something is being built rather than razed.
All of which brings me to the book’s clever twist on “Manifest Destiny,” this idea that the United States was destined—or even divinely ordained—to seize control of the untamed territory between the oceans. The funny thing about the Glanton gang is that the concept doesn’t really figure into their activities at all. Yes, they do play a role as mercenaries collecting native scalps for cash. (Aside: The fancy dinner at the governor’s house is maybe my favorite scene in the novel, and definitely the funniest. The governor treats the warriors to a banquet, and they even dress for the occasion, but the scene devolves into a indulgent bacchanal. Money line: “The governor had tapped his glass and risen to speak in his well-phrased English, but the bloated and belching mercenaries were leering about and were calling for more drink and some had not ceased to scream out toasts, now degenerated into obscene pledges to the whores of various southern cities.”) After they’ve done their business with the governor, nothing that follows could be said to have a civilizing purpose, much less the philosophical underpinnings behind Manifest Destiny. It’s just a endless succession of pitstops where the Glanton gang visits murder and rape and hellfire upon the citizenry, almost accidentally paving the way for the civilizing forces that will eventually creep to the West. McCarthy’s book is a helpful reminder that America built its foundation over scorched earth, and that its legacy of violence (and well, evil), made manifest in the character of Judge Holden, has never slept and will never die.
Last question: What of our hero, “the kid”? Everyone likes to write about the judge—and for good reason, him being one of the most vivid villains in all of literature—but maybe we should devote a little space to the Tennessee scrapper who’s the book’s ostensible center. McCarthy doesn’t provide much insight into the kid’s internal life, if indeed he could be said to have one. He’s really an accidental hero, an essentially passive figure who miraculously survives the threat of starvation and dehydration, and walks away from several massacres that claimed the lives of nearly everyone around him, from the foolhardy irregulars ambushed by Camanches to the Glanton gang overwhelmed on the ferry. Some have described Blood Meridian as a subversion of the classic Homeric journey, and you can definitely include that among the book’s many, many, many literary allusions. But the kid’s slow drift downriver to madness and death also calls to mind Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, another dark meditation on civilization and savagery in which a passive hero gets drawn into what McCarthy might call the “immense and terrible flesh” of a powerful, indomitable figure.
That said, I’m too rusty on the classics to speak all that profoundly on the book’s allusive nature, so maybe someone else can pick up the ball. Other areas of interest: What was your experience of the violence in Blood Meridian, particularly as it compares to the way you might process violence in other books or media? Any thoughts on the first third of the book, before the kid hooks up with the mercenaries? And which passage is currently haunting your dreams the most? (Mine: Anything involving infanticide. That shit hits close to home.)