'Blood Meridian' by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West - Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (London: Picador, 2010), 355pp


"The Mennonite watches the enshadowed dark before them as it is reflected to him in the mirror over the bar. He turns to them. His eyes are wet, he speaks slowly. The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell aint half full. Hear me. Ye carry war of a madman's making onto a foreign land. Yell wake more than the dogs." (pg. 43).

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is violence. Not merely a violent book, but the violence is so graphic, so relentless and so dominant a theme of the story that one could write a one-word review of the novel - "Violent." - and have said everything that is necessary to say about it. However, this is not meant as criticism, or disapproval. Set mostly in and around the Texas-Mexico border at the time of the American frontier, it follows 'the Kid', who falls in with a group of mercenaries paid to scalp renegade Indians, led by the brutish Glanton and the terrifyingly cryptic Judge Holden. Their quest descends into an orgy of indiscriminate violence, as they scalp not only Indian tribes but Mexican villagers and other innocents, including children, to the point that violence becomes the aim in itself, rather than a means to an end.

Blood Meridian shines a light on the raw, animalistic nature of Man. Using the lawless American West as his backdrop, McCarthy is presenting what happens to men when removed from legal, social and moral constraints. Crucial to all this is the Judge, apparently a supernatural figure or - my preferred interpretation - the pure embodiment of the concept of Man's violence. Without the Judge, the Kid and the rest of Glanton's gang would be directionless and would not fulfil Man's potential to lay waste to such a large tract of fledgling civilisation.

For me, it is significant that, for the most part, Glanton's gang preys on innocents. The vast majority of Indians they kill are peaceful or defenceless, and later victims include Mexican villagers, children, white pilgrims and other assorted rabble. The Judge embodies, in my view, the destructive element of Man's character which prevents Man from civilising himself, by appealing to baser instincts and destroying what he has created. These innocents are attempting to expand the frontier, to bring civilisation to a lawless land - they represent the goodness in Man, the civilised side. Glanton's gang, goaded on by the Judge, represent the evil in Man, destroying that which has been built. It also perhaps explains why the Judge does no harm to the imbecile, seeing it as a purely animalistic man and therefore inflicting violence upon it would be pointless. In contrast, the Judge extends his most sadistic violence towards young children, whether through physical harm or sexual abuse, as children are the embodiment of innocence, yet also perhaps the most vulnerable to corruption. One may also link this to the Judge's relationship with the Kid, particularly the ending of the novel at the jakes. As the Judge himself says at one point: "For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe." (pg. 154). Through violence and destruction, the Judge and his charges seek to undermine this attempt to build in stone and drag Mankind back into the primal mud. The charismatic Judge is the leader whom men follow and have always followed, who provides them with sanction to destroy through collusive debasement.

This, perhaps, leads one to the 'blood meridian' of the title. The novel is, in essence, a coming-of-age story for the Kid. Like all men, he grows up, peaks and declines. On page 154 the Judge provides the following philosophising: "The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievements. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day." As men approach their peak, they know their decline and eventual death - the 'darkening and the evening of his day' - is on the horizon. The Judge represents Man lashing out at this cosmic injustice, struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. Hence the Judge's constant struggle to take charge - "it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate." (pg. 210). The Judge knows that "Only nature can enslave man" - i.e. can take away his life - but erroneously believes that by challenging nature man can be "suzerain of the earth." (pg. 209). He proclaims that "War is god", the "truest form of divination" (pg. 263) and by succeeding in this 'game', one can not so much become immortal but at least strike out a victory against nature, and by doing so come to terms with mortality. However, I believe that McCarthy means to show us that following the Judge's guidance is counter-productive. Man seeks to challenge his mortality by using violence, yet in doing so allows the evil in Man to destroy the goodness and innocence; by destroying that goodness, Man has in effect killed himself, or at least that part of his soul that might have been worth preserving. "When the lambs is lost in the mountain, he said, they is cry. Sometime come the mother. Sometime the wolf." (pg. 69). Men are the lambs, lost in the world and looking for direction. A good figure, here represented by the mother, can direct them on the right path. An evil figure, such as the Judge, is the wolf, can corrupt and destroy them.

However, all of the above is purely speculative on my part, and it is a tribute to McCarthy's prose that others could present vastly different interpretations that could claim to have equal or even greater validity. As a note on the prose, it is incredibly lyrical and poetic - a beauty which is more marked for standing in contrast to the brutality of the violence depicted. Consider, for example, this description of riders silhouetted against the desert:

"... they rode with their faces averted from the rock wall and the bake-oven air which it rebated, the slant black shapes of the mounted men stenciled across the stone with a definition austere and implacable like shapes capable of violating their covenant with the flesh that authored them and continuing autonomous across the naked rock without reference to sun or man or god." (pg. 146).

There are also some great descriptive passages, such as when an Apache finds himself "staring into the black lemniscate that was the paired bores of Glanton's doublerifle." (pg. 241). A lemniscate is essentially a sideways figure-of-eight - an apt description for a shotgun barrel (yes, you will probably need a good dictionary to fully understand this novel). However, such weighty prose does make the story very dense, and it is quite an exhausting read. The violence, although as I mentioned above as being necessary to the story, is also so indiscriminate and wanton that it is easy to lose your place in the book as, if you are not careful, the events coalesce into one large, indistinguishable, violent mess. There is a large part in the middle of the book where the Kid is rarely even mentioned, and I think the novel loses its direction in this section (though this may be intentional as Glanton's gang is wandering across the desert). It does require a considerable amount of mental effort to get through, even more so because of the depressing nature of the atrocities and depravities committed by the gang. Because of these drawbacks, Blood Meridian is not to my mind a masterpiece. Nevertheless, it is an incredibly rewarding book and well worth the effort it demands.