Harold Bloom is one of the most towering figures in American literary theory and criticism. Currently the Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, Bloom—a fierce defender of the canon and a proponent of aesthetic reading at a time when more politicized approaches hold sway in academia—has written dozens of books, including important theoretical works like The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry and A Map of Misreading in the 1970s. Later works like Ruin the Sacred Truths and The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation displayed his wide-ranging interests and fascination with the religious experience in America. Bloom was also one of the first champions of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness In The West, the most recent selection in the A.V. Club’s Wrapped Up In Books feature. He took a few minutes recently to talk about the novel and its place in American literature.
The A.V. Club: Talk a bit about how you came to read Blood Meridian. You apparently had a hard time getting through it the first time.
Harold Bloom: I read it on the recommendation of a friend, Gordon Lish, a New York book editor and a specialist in fiction. He said that it was a very splendid work, but that he was always appalled by the violence of it, and I wondered what he meant. I think I had read some earlier McCarthy, and had mixed feelings about it—it seemed to me to be Faulknerian in a way that was not really integrated in a way that made it McCarthy’s own. It may have been Suttree, in fact, a book that I haven’t read since. It was a strong book, but you had the feeling at times that it was written by William Faulkner and not by Cormac McCarthy. He tends to carry his influences on the surface, quite honestly.
The first time I read Blood Meridian, I was so appalled that while I was held, I gave up after about 60 pages. I don’t think I was feeling very well then anyway; my health was going through a bad time, and it was more than I could take. But it intrigued me, because there was no question about the quality of the writing, which is stunning. So I went back a second time, and I got, I don’t remember… 140, 150 pages, and then, I think it was the Judge who got me. He was beginning to give me nightmares just as he gives the kid nightmares. And then the third time, it went off like a shot. I went straight through it and was exhilarated. I said, “My God! This reminds me of Thomas Pynchon at his best, or Nathanael West.” It was the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In fact, I taught it for several years in a class I gave here at Yale—interestingly enough, in a sequence starting with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, moving on to Miss Lonelyhearts, then The Crying of Lot 49, and the fourth in the sequence was Blood Meridian.
I finally wrote something about it, and I was contacted by his people at Random House; they were going to put out a nice cloth-bound library version of it, and they requested to put what I had to say about it in a book called How To Read And Why in as an introduction, and I of course consented. Certainly, the book holds up; I wish that the rest of McCarthy, both before and after, was that good. I think the Border Trilogy has its moments, especially the first volume [All The Pretty Horses], but the second [The Crossing] and third [Cities Of The Plain]—especially the third—were disappointments. I was not one of the admirers of No Country For Old Men, which I found strained and the brutality coming through it all so… Nothing really mitigated it. The negative protagonist has none of the legitimacy or grandeur that Judge Holden has. And The Road I’ll have to visit again, because it really wore me down, that book, until the last 40 or 50 pages, where the father-son bond, I felt, was conveyed with real beauty and majesty. I want to make sure my impressions of it were correct. But to have written even one book so authentically strong and allusive, and capable of the perpetual reverberation that Blood Meridian possesses more than justifies him. I don’t think McCarthy will ever match it, but still… He has attained genius with that book.
AVC: When you called it “the ultimate Western”, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?
HB: No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition. And in the sense that it serves as an extension of the pastoral tradition, it provides an interesting and ironic contrast with American Pastoral by my friend Philip Roth.
AVC: The violence in Blood Meridian is uncharacteristic. It’s not used as a cheap metaphor or a means of catharsis or transformation.
HB: Oh, no, no. The violence is the book. The Judge is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake.
AVC: So you think that, despite your own initial reaction to it, McCarthy is successful in the way he uses violence in the book?
HB: More than successful. It’s not only the ultimate Western, the book is the ultimate dark dramatization of violence. Again, I don’t see anyone surpassing it in that regard.
AVC: You placed Blood Meridian not only firmly in the Western canon, but in your own “canon of the American Sublime.” Have there been any books since that time that you’d consider to be part of that canon?
HB: Well, we have four living writers in America who have, in one way or another, touched what I would call the sublime. They are McCarthy, of course, with Blood Meridian; Philip Roth, particularly with two extraordinary novels, the very savage Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, which I mentioned before; Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which is a little long for what it does but nevertheless is the culmination of what Don can do; and, of course, the mysterious figure of Mr. Pynchon. I don’t know what I would choose if I had to select a single work of sublime fiction from the last century, it probably would not be something by Roth or McCarthy; it would probably be Mason & Dixon, if it were a full-scale book, or if it were a short novel it would probably be The Crying Of Lot 49. Pynchon has the same relation to fiction, I think, that my friend John Ashbery has to poetry: he is beyond compare.
AVC: Blood Meridian is a book that’s filled with all sorts of religious symbolism and mysticism, but it’s often difficult to discern its exact attitude towards religion.
HB: The citations and references to the work of Jacob Böhme, who is, after all, a very specific type of Kabbalistic Gnostic… I think you would have to say that they’re something of an evasion of the themes in Blood Meridian. McCarthy knows exactly what Gnosticism is, and he could have made Judge Holden into an explicitly Gnostic figure if he’d wanted to. He wants to keep Judge Holden completely inexplicable. Saying that he is a sort of Gnostic demiurge is too facile for McCarthy’s portrayal of him.
AVC: You’ve been extremely critical of the politicization of teaching literature…
HB: Critical, young man, is hardly the word. I stand against it like Jeremiah prophesying in Jerusalem. It has destroyed most of university culture. The teaching of high literature now hardly exists in the United States. The academy is in ruins, and they’ve destroyed themselves.
AVC: Do you have a similar resistance to political readings of literature? For example, do you have a problem with those who have read Blood Meridian as a critique of American imperialism?
HB: I don’t think it’s that at all. I think that’s too simplistic an understanding of McCarthy. When he issued that unforgettable vision of the Apaches advancing into battle against the cutthroat desperadoes who are going to cut them down… Who are, after all, these invincible monsters, and in the end all but the Judge will be dead… I don’t think that the aesthetically minded reader is trying to think of that as a sociological commentary on the degradation of the Apache Nation. It’s a grand picaresque in its own right. I don’t think McCarthy was interested, at least at that point in his career, in moral judgments, any more than Melville was involved in moral judgments or Faulkner was involved in moral judgments—at least until he got soft later on and produced a beastly book like A Fable. The kind of apocalyptic moral judgments made in No Country For Old Men represents, I think, a sort of falling away on McCarthy’s part. Blood Meridian is too grand for that.