A brief ride through the evening redness in the West
Some further notes on _Blood Meridian_, having just finished it with my Faces of Death class
We just finished reading the book this week. The third time, I believe, that I’ve used it in this course.
It is a tough book for students.
Why then do I give them this book, which even Harold Bloom, one of its biggest academic fans, admits he had trouble with in the early going because of the ubiquitous, meticulously described acts of violence and murder? It’s a fair question.
One of my students gave a solid answer the other day as we were discussing the early adventures of the Glanton gang. “McCarthy wants to make sure that you can’t avoid looking at what produced our world,” he said. OK, that’s my phrasing, as I don’t remember exactly how he put it, but the idea is translated more or less undistorted.
Yes, blood, violence, and conflict produced our world.
But not only that. Not only that.
I believe McCarthy wrote a book filled with blood, violence, and conflict in order to draw our attention not to the blood, violence, and conflict, but to the “not only that.”
This is perfectly contrary to Bloom’s reading, I know. I am currently working up something lengthy on this, but am still in process. Here are just a few preliminary thoughts.
Though I previously affirmatively linked to Bloom trashing contemporary literary studies, his own way through Blood Meridian seems hopelessly larded with the references to other great American literary works that are the language of literary critics but not necessarily that of authors and of readers who are not teaching in English departments. McCarthy has clearly read Melville and he admits to considering him among the writers worth paying serious attention to in a number of interviews, but the comparison of this novel to Moby Dick strikes me as more an academic exercise than a faithful attempt to understand what McCarthy is trying to do with the book.
Here is my view: Blood Meridian is not centrally about the character of the Judge, and certainly it does not champion his worldview. The Kid is the central character.
McCarthy starts with him and follows him faithfully through the narrative until his awful death. And as is true in many other great novels, the author has made some effort to stitch himself into his character, which is something of a way of showing how much he identifies with him and how important he thinks he is. The Kid was born in Tennessee in 1833. McCarthy was born in the same state 100 years later.
What is the character of the Kid? He is violent, almost inevitably given his deeply broken familial history and his experiences in a world in which violence is required for survival. He is even capable of real brutality, not merely self-defense.
This would seem to make him like the other members of the Glanton gang. But why then does the Judge so obviously pick him out of the group as an object of attention and, by the end, as a target for elimination based on what the Judge describes as his failure to live wholly by the amoral worship of war that is his own philosophy?
It is because the Kid, fallen though he clearly is, yet has the spark of compassion within him.
The evidence in the novel is abundant, though one has to be attentive to avoid missing it in the much more quantitatively evident episodes of murder and depravity.
The Kid stays with the wounded Sproule after their troop is massacred by the Comanche and does all that the stubborn Sproule will allow him to do in his aid. He helps the most singularly monstrous member of the gang outside of the Judge himself, the vicious Davey Brown, to remove an arrow from his thigh after everyone else in the group refrains from aiding him. Tobin, another member of the group who had previously been a religious novitiate and is known as “the expriest,” chides him for this, but what more Christ-like act than to show compassion to such a sufferer?
The most important piece of the novel in my reading comes very close to the end, only pages before the Kid’s final confrontation with the Judge which gets so much attention from Bloom.
About a decade after the main events of the novel, when all the members of the Glanton gang save the Kid and the Judge are long dead, the Kid is hired by a group of travelers westward to lead them to a distant location.
Inexplicably, he abandons them at a desert well.
This dreadful transgression is communicated bluntly, in one sentence. Immediately after it, as the Kid is riding out of the wilderness, he sees a religious procession of penitents passing, flailing themselves with whips and following a man in white robes carrying a heavy wooden cross.
The Kid watches them pass and then sleeps. The next day, he finds the penitents again—all of them slaughtered hideously by some unnamed band of attackers.
It is one of many scenes in the book in which it appears faith is the victim of war. Earlier passages describe churches in ruins after murderous onslaughts, saints used as target practice, corpses lining the sacristy. This final such passage would seem to hammer the point home. War wins over faith.
Yet, as the stunned Kid rides among the massacred bodies, he sees one woman sitting quietly. He goes to her and effectively confesses his sins to her.
“He spoke to her in a low voice. He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things and had been at war and endured hardships. He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her countrypeople who would welcome her and that she should join them for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die.”
Only after this does he realize she is a mummified corpse, “dead in that place for years.”
This, I submit, and not the final encounter with the Judge, is the statement of most importance on the Kid. There is no explicable reason, given his birth and his history, for his empathy with those who suffer. The material reality of his life provides no obvious explanation for this. And yet…