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Friday, September 03, 2010

Book Review: "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy

The post-apocalyptic work “The Road” compelled me to search out more from the talented author Cormac McCarthy. Having been assaulted by “No Country For Old Men,” I held that very little could be more brutal. “Besides,” I wondered, “what would a Western story be like, written by an contemporary author?”

So I read, “Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness In The West.”

This is not your father's Louis L'Amour or your grandfather's Zane Grey. McCarthy unapologetically uses Spanish like Tolstoy uses French in early editions of "War and Peace." It's like watching the last 15 minutes of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" over and over again, and expecting that something different will happen with each ending. Only it's much, much worse.

If “The Road” was a post-apocolyptic event (and there he never describes how the destruction came), then “Blood Meridian” is the event. Blood Meridian is historical fiction, very (very) loosely based on the bloody activity of the Glanton gang on the Texas-Mexican border in the mid-1800’s.

The introduction of this edition by Harold Bloom was a treat, but received with mixed emotions (I read the introduction twice to make certain I was understanding--like seeing a mirage . . .). I was disappointed to learn in the introduction how the book ended, but realized after reading the body of the work that I actually anticipated it—for relief. I greatly appreciate Bloom’s commentary, for without it, I would have committed the same act as he the first time reading: put it down. Perhaps I should have. Personally, I was intrigued by the parallelism he drew, comparing this book with a few other classic works, particularly the comparison with Melville’s Moby Dick (if you’ve read Blood Meridian, and have never read Moby Dick, you just may enjoy it now!). I was very interested to see how this played out.

Bloom correctly pinpoints what he calls “the visionary center” of the book from a point that happens to be approximate to the exact center:

They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.”

This is paragraph is dynamite unexploded apart from the full text; but, it does not accurately describe the true center of the book. We find this true center about six chapters from the end, in Chapter 17. The conversation is war, and McCarthy wages war on all things beautiful and good. Earlier in the story, there is a description of a small book carried by the judge, one of its central characters. As they move through the land, he takes notes or makes a sketch then obliterates in some fashion the very thing that held his attention ("Anything that exists without my knowledge, exists without my consent").

Chapter 17 gives us a conversation around this campfire, where the judge explains, “It makes no difference what men think of war . . . war endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” Observation: this thought carries forward, complimenting the old man’s comments regarding death in “The Road.”

The Judge is a peculiar character (to say the least) who seems to have an eternal past, and claims to never die. One wonders if he was not inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, in "The House of the Seven Gables?" When Judge Pyncheon appears on the scene, people took particular notice to his strong resemblance of the original Col. Pyncheon who built the house--both Pyncheon's being vicious and unrelenting.

McCarthy speaks through the judge, dropping the bomb that attempts to destroy the basis for all things good. He declares that moral law is subverted by historical law: “A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views. His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view.” He says that principles are trivial and history is absolute.

The failure of this view is found in the same paragraph: “Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgments ultimately he must submit them before a higher court.”

The priest being addressed by the judge has nothing to say because he, too, has broken moral law by his participation in the bloodletting. The judge takes his silence as consent. Everything is upside down and backward. What is living must die, and through death, find meaning—there is no meaning in life. But how can there be meaning in death? The judge says “Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all.” Sporting games require skill that leads to defeat. War “swallows up game player and all.”

This is what is most horrifying about the book—the philosophical absurdity. Try as he might to cast off moral absolutes, man still finds himself accountable.

"Blood Meridian" is the record of destruction at work from within a man.

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