Putting the Sartre Before the Horse: Thoughts on My Latest Reading of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

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Arizona Sunset. Photograph by Sheila Sund. 2011. Wikimedia Commons

“No man can live with Death and know that everything is nothing.” ~ Antonius Block, knight in The Seventh Seal

“Life insurance is connected with a death command.” ~ Michel Foucault

Please Note: This review contains mature themes, swear words, and explicit descriptions of violence. These are not intended to be gratuitous but necessary to the analysis of the novel and to the explication of connections between the novel and events in history.

This wasn’t my first time reading Blood Meridian but I read it again to get some of my thoughts in order.

The more I read, the more this quote from Pynchon’s Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 resonated with me:

“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. In the songs Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard sang was either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty . . . or only a power spectrum…. Tremain the Swastika Salesman’s reprieve from holocaust was either an injustice, or the absence of wind; the bones of the GI’s at the bottom of Lake Inverarity were there either for a reason that mattered to the world, or for skin divers and cigarette smokers….At Vesperhaven House either an accommodation reached, in some kind of dignity, with the Angel of Death, or only death and the daily, tedious preparations for it. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious or none.” (p 150).

Blood Meridian (BM) is a novel in which the devil is in the details and the details are hyper-descriptions, metaphors, and elaborations of grit and gore. As the novel is widely known and analyzed I will select a few aspects that interest me rather than detail the plot. Briefly, McCarthy loosely based his tale on John Chamberlain’s memoir My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue that chronicles in part the depredations of the scalp hunting Glanton Gang throughout Chihuahua, Sonora, and New Mexico.

The novel’s beginning is a barrel of violence and mud careening down a hill; it’s both thrilling and amazing. It’s an exemplar of a novelistic opening (I admit though I confuse the this revivalist meeting with that in Elmer Gantry). Things, in a sense of lightning writing, calm down for a long haul of desert and dogs and mules and moons. BM operates as a series of on/off switch with staccato moments of action contrasted with long sequences of nothingness in which the landscape takes an oppressive lead. Action ramps up again at the end.

Moby’s Dick

On this most recent reading I felt that I could almost taste the books McCarthy admired, which I suspect included Moby Dick and Thomas Pynchon. Here’s an obvious comparison:

From Moby Dick

“Oars! Oars!’ he intensely whispered, seizing the helm — ‘gripe your oars, and clutch your souls, now! My God, men, stand by! Shove him off, you Queequeg — the whale there! — prick him! — hit him! Stand up — stand up, and stay so! Spring, men — pull, men; never mind their backs — scrape them! — scrape away!’”

And now from BM:

“We hauled forth our members and at it we were and the judge on his knees kneadin the mass with his naked arms and the piss was splashin about and he was cryin out to us to piss, man, piss for your very souls…”

Hilarious stuff here, more pricks than kicks (apologies Samuel Beckett), pricksongs and descants (apologies Robert Coover).

Vietnam, Mexico

As people are aware, this is a novel themed with theodicy. We are asked to consider questions such as why does an omnibenevolent god allow evil? Or, why does a god create and then allow humans to be inhumane? Does a human’s free will supersede even a god’s omnipotence? Has the god turned it’s back or does it believe that in order for good to exist, evil must exist?

The judge says, “God dont lie./ No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words. He held up a chunk of rock. He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.” I won’t go so far as to say that BM is about eschatology as Bloom and others have suggested, but it does seem the judge provides us with possible answers to the question of theodicy. The first rests on the free will of humans. Violence is more common to man than is fire. The domain of god then is ontological and describes all things in time and space, in life and death. The domain of morality and evil rests with man. Or, the answer is that god’s design is includes evil, as Judge Holden says, “War is god,” which may be read as the judge sees war as some omnipotent thing, or that war is a part of god. In the latter instance it would seem that the theodical question is answered via St. Augustine, who said, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist” (St. Aug., Enchirid., xxvii).

I also sense a mindset behind the violence in BM and this prompts me to seek it’s attribution.

I locate it with America’s involvement in the Vietnam war and as a result of accounts and images that entered into public conscious. I’m thinking of the photograph of the execution of Nguyen Van Lem or the photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc. I’m thinking of the My Lai Massacre in which up to 504 unarmed civilians — men, women, and children — were raped, mutilated and massacred by the U.S. Army. We also recall that only one soldier, Lieutenant Calley, Jr. was convicted, receiving a life sentence in 1971 and receiving a parole in in 1974. A bright light is thus shined on the manner in which the United States respects killing, even of civilians, in the name of war.

Looking back to that Vietnam era we find these events prompted widespread moral questions about the nature of violence in a supposed just country, under the aegis of a just god. I see in BM similarities in the unending horrors, the slogging through an unforgiving geography with an aim to wreak death and destruction, the taking of human trophies, ears for example. This again mimics actions by American soldiers. According to Larry Cottingham of Tiger Force, a US military unit which he said was estimated to kill, scalp, and behead hundreds people for their belongings and for sport. Apparently collecting ears as trophies and wearing them around the neck was common. (Poole, 2003)

As a country we have transitioned to the glorification of war criminals, psychopaths, and serial murderers. We now call them heroes. Genocide is used as synonym for peace, normalcy, and ethical behavior. To call this out is now criminal as the kangaroo indictments against Julian Assange demonstrate. I recall hearing Noam Chomsky once speak about how when the US Department of War was changed to the Department of Defense the number of covert interventions went dramatically up. So what becomes fascinating in BM is the way in which McCarthy presents violence at face value. Violence is what we good Americans dole out and support on a regular basis. We have always done so. Why bother trying to hide this fact?

Waiting for Godot

The movie The Shooting (1966), written by Carole Eastman (under the psedonum Adrien Joyce) and directed by the brilliant Monte Hellman (who studied under Roger Corman) is one of the strangest western movies to date. Two men are hired for a revenge killing by a mysterious woman, and they are in turn tracked by a a mysterious killer. The viewer is dragged across a sizzling frying pan for one hour twenty. It’s desolate, blistering, barren, and sere. What a great great film. This film in turn nods to an entire lineage here of what I call existential westerns. These include everything from Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) written by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry and again directed by Hellman, and Duel (1971) written by Richard Matteson, the great short story writer, and directed by Steven Spielberg, Easy Rider (1969) written by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and directed by Hopper, and it extends to movies like Zabriskie Point (1970) written by a number of people including Michelangelo Antonioni and Sam Shepard, and directed by Antonioni. (I add the dates to show that the same mindset I’ve been talking about was pervasive in the arts during the Vietnam war era).

In all of these films we have minimal dialogue and action within a cloud of ennui as vagrant souls take what is offered in a quest to nowhere. I think it’s more of the moral questioning I raised, a questioning of what makes any sense in a world were the atrocities of Vietnam are taken as commonplace.

Three non-sequitur thoughts before I tackle the ending.

1.) BM is a manhunt, it’s the kid hunting for the man in himself.

2.) I don’t think there’s ever, ever been a good cover design for the novel.

3.) I see no particular difficulty in making a great movie from this book, contrary to the historic bellyaching about not being able to do so.

He Sure Doesn’t Ride off Into the Sunset

Now to the ending or more accurately two endings: the ending and an epilogue (again a draw upon Moby Dick). The ending consists of the kid, now the man, who heads to the outhouse where the judge “gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh” and he throws the wooden barlatch. No one’s getting out. Later two men head down to the jakes and they both look in. Nothing is described so we don’t know what they saw. We know the judge lives because later he’s dancing naked. In a sense, pure violence, the violence of slaughter in the form of the judge as the devil or death eventually embraces everyone who approaches it. Any scenario in the outhouse involving the kid might have occurred via force or even self sacrifice. I’ll allow imaginations to fill in this gap.

To look at this ending through another lens, recall Frank Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger in which readers are forced to speculate which door is chosen, without ever receiving an answer. Philosophical dilemmas without a clear conclusion are forms of the trolley problem designed by Philippa Foote in 1967. They are meant to highlight the fact that no moral stance is without complexity and ambiguity. One answer may not suffice. Don’t you just love it when you say, oh yeah because the lens fits.

To follow up on a more dialectical approach to the ending, we can go to Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason:

“Violence always presents itself as counter-violence, that is to say, as a retaliation against the violence of the Other. But this violence of the Other is not an objective reality except in the sense that it exists in all men as the universal motivation of counter-violence; it is nothing but the unbearable fact of broken reciprocity and of the systematic exploitation of man’s humanity for the destruction of the human. Counter-violence is exactly the same thing, but as a process of restora­tion, as a response to a provocation: if I destroy the non-humanity of the anti-human in my adversary, I cannot help destroying the humanity of man in him, and realizing his non-humanity in myself. I may try to kill, to torture, to enslave, or simply to mystify, but in any case my aim will be to eliminate alien freedom as a hostile force, a force which can expel me from the practical field and make me into ‘a surplus man’ condemned to death. In other words, it is undeniable that what I attack is man as man, that is, as the free praxis of an organic being. It is man, and nothing else, that I hate in the enemy, that is, in myself as Other; and it is myself that I try to destroy in him, so as to prevent him destroying me in my own body.” (Sartre, p. 133).

I just can’t beat that for summing up the driving force of BM. Violence, or beauty for that matter, cannot exist without a point of comparison. There is no deontological must driving lives, like it or not, and BM does a great job of forcing this issue upon readers.

“When the Traveler turns west, time travel ceases to be travel and becomes instead an inexorable suction, pulling everything into a black hole.” William S. Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads

The Epilogue is an enigmatic little ending scene. Apparently in 1983 McCarthy sent the new ending to his editor for hopeful inclusion according to a post on https://www.cormacmccarthy.com/topic/the-end-of-blood-meridian/

Here’s what we know about the epilogue: We have a hand implement with two handles and we have a steel that can enkindle, or set afire. The round and perfect holes are already made, evidently, before the fire is started.

As for the object, McCarthy refers to a flint and steel striker, as was common in the time period of this novel. They were often made like a letter C with curlicues at each end, thus the two handles, and they could be used for as he writes “striking fire out of the rock.” There are pictures on line. Here’s a video demonstration of someone using it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7zEI5EU058

The holes could refer to Native American fire cooking holes, also called a smokeless fire pit, or a Dakota fire hole. There are two holes (search Wikipedia for dakota fire pit illustration) and it is designed to produce little or no smoke. Often the tuft of turf can be replaced afterwards to hide evidence of a fire.

Behind are those who seek and gather bones, or who do not, and whose progress is monitored. We are primed by the novel but we cannot assume these are human bones. Remember there is the scene of shooting bison all day long, day after day. According to the Time Line of the American Bison, Around 1870, “Homesteaders collected bones from carcasses left by hunters. Bison bones were used in refining sugar, and in making fertilizer and fine bone china. Bison bones brought from $2.50 to $15.00 a ton. Based on an average price of $8 per ton they brought 2.5 million dollars into Kansas alone between 1868 and 1881. Assuming that about 100 skeletons were required to make one ton of bones, this represented the remains of more than 31 million bison.” (https://www.fws.gov/bisonrange/timeline.htm)

So we might assume the people referred to are homesteaders or those heading toward homestead land according to the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and the Homestead Act of 1862. They move on, restless, looking for a place to call home.

I also felt, and it has been mentioned by others, that this epilogue may refer to Plato’s Cave as there are “light like mechanisms” and “they are restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality.” But the facts are found in the landscape, in the moon, in the dirt, in vast expanse even as realty is often apochryphal. Images are often seen at a distance, they shimmer on horizons, they cast long pencil thin shadows, they wobble in the heat. Bodies are cleaved, burst, and blackened. The rest becomes conjecture.

And I also think of the late great Sheldon Wolin, who wrote in Democracy Incorporated,

“Our concern is with a particular species, the cosmic myth, and with a unique permutation that occurs when the cosmic myth is combined with secular myth. A cosmic myth might be defined as a dramatic form with epical aspirations. Its subject is not a simple contest but an inevitable, even necessary showdown between irreconcilable forces, each claiming that ultimately its power draws upon supernatural resources. Their capabilities far exceed the scales of ordinary politics. Typically, one force portrays itself as defending the world, and it depicts the other as seeking to dominate it by a perverse strategy that thrives on chaos. Although each possesses a different form of power from its rival, each claims that its power alone is drawn from a sacred source, that therefore it alone is blessed while its foe is diabolical” (p. 10).

The Dancing will Never Die, nor Will the Judge Die

No it won’t, this dance of life and death. The phrase “Sie müssen schlafen aber Ich muss tanzen,” is translated, “I would like to sleep, but you must dance,” from Theodor Storm’s poem Hyacinths of 1851. This is followed by “It does not stop, it goes without ceasing; The candles are burning and the fiddles are screaming.” At the end of BM, before the epilogue, they are dancing, the fiddles play, and fiddlers grin hideously. About the judge, “He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” We’re tossed from the Storm to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. We can play chess with Death and we can delude ourselves about winning but the result is known. The quote below the title is from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal in which Block confesses to the Priest who turns out to also be Death. Block says, without a sign from god “Then life is a senseless terror. No man can live with Death and know that everything is nothing.”

At the start of the book it is the judge who dethrones the revivalist preacher, death triumphs over religion. The judge says, “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” The judge sees through everyone, he’s always present and wantonly killing with no remorse and with a glib tongued.

A brief side note about the title Blood Meridian. Thomas Mann used the phrase twice in his early novella Tonio Kröger, although it is unclear whether the girl of Tonio’s infatuation existed or not, — the second time Mann indicated an illusory friend — so the novel blurs the real and illusory world. (I credit Wong, 2015 for this).

References

Chamberlain, J. (n.d.) John Glanton’s Gang. Retrieved online at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/HNS/Scalpin/heads.html

Poole, O. (October 21, 2003). America’s elite Tiger Force ‘slaughtered civilians in Vietnam.’ The Telegraph.

Sartre, p. 133, Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Wolin, S. (2008). Democracy Incorporated. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wong, G. Y. (2015). Christ T. — Tonio K. in Disguise — Autobiography and Intertextuality in Thomas Mann’s Tonio K,röger and Christa Wolf’s Nachdenken über Christa T. Master’s Thesis. University of Calgary.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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