In: Criticism

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

So much has been made of the violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian–not even Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, for all its misogyny and postmodernism, is this violent–that it’s easy to overlook how humorous all of it really is. The Bible, of course, is the same way: the sheer ridiculousness of God’s bloodlust–matched only by his fits of jealous rage–is what makes it so funny. And like the Old Testament’s Jehovah, McCarthy casually marches his characters through a desert wasteland, visiting them with horror upon horror, and almost never offering an explanation. Those who like books in which all actions have a reason–some higher purpose, serving the ur-god Plot–will be confounded by Blood Meridian.

But looking for meaning–especially twenty-first-century meaning–in Blood Meridian’s violence is, I think, to miss the point entirely. Blood Meridian’s world is on an entirely different plane. Its morality–and yes, it’s a moral book–is almost unrecognizable to our modern culture. Yes, one could argue that this is a reprehensible book, gratuitous in its depictions of murder, rape, and genocide, but McCarthy isn’t trying to shock us. No, the violence in Blood Meridian transcends shock value–lifted, in part, by McCarthy’s gorgeous prose–and, instead, becomes a part of the portrait. This was simply the way things are done here, without question or explanation. Blood Meridian’s lawlessness becomes the law.

None of this is more apparent than in the character of Judge Holden. Like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, he’s a man convinced of his own infallibility, a demigod whose pride will lead to ruin. We watch Holden with equal parts fascination and disgust: he’s a charming, frightening man, a parody of religious superstition, a high priest who, despite speaking in tongues, seems to have solved all the riddles of the universe. Perhaps we’re not meant to take Holden seriously, but he’s convincing, in the horrifying, freakish way that Pentecostal preachers can be convincing. We believe them not because what they say is true, but because they believe what they’re saying.

And therein lies the heart of Blood Meridian’s mystery: what is McCarthy selling? We know something is lurking just under the surface, teasing–yet it never comes fully to light. Blood Meridian makes us appreciate the beauty of the unknown, of not having everything explained. It all seems pointless, and it probably is. But McCarthy is a minimalist: the style here is far different from the experimentation in No Country for Old Men and The Road, but Blood Meridian only tells us what we need to know. Not only does McCarthy ask for our trust, but he places a lot of trust in his readers. Of course, this can make for a frustrating book. But McCarthy’s prose (mirrored by the slow, steady gait with which Captain Glanton leads his party) carries us along, sometimes trickling, and sometimes roaring like the river at the novel’s climax. It’s an ugly book, a dreamscape that dares us to wake up. But we’ll never want to.

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