_Blood Meridian_ and professors of English
This recently popped up on my YouTube list, a good indication that all the tracking activity devices are doing a fine job on me. I teach this novel in a course (the one on death I just discussed last week), and several other McCarthy novels in other courses, so the traces of my tracking things McCarthy are doubtless all over my computer.
It immediately reminded me why, as a college student interested in literature and writing, I started as an English major and then quickly lost enthusiasm for it. I had a lot of professors like this one, who liked and recommended writers and writing that I often found wholly uninteresting and looked down their noses at books I loved. They also typically had a view of literature and its value that I didn’t share. The ‘literature as politics’ view that is now virtually the only one available in higher ed wasn’t quite as prevalent, certainly, in the ‘80s when I was in college, but it already existed, and I ran into it frequently, and I knew I wanted nothing to do with it. The novels that moved me did so because they spoke to universal human experiences (death, love, the meaning of life), in prose that was aesthetically moving. I could not see how narrowing the frame to talk only about “this group’s experience of love,” even if the group in question were one to which I belonged, would improve my experience.
Note how Prof. Hungerford spends the first five minutes of her discussion of Blood Meridian essentially telling the students it’s icky and one probably should not like it, and indeed that she couldn’t bring herself to finish it in her first two attempts because it was so contrary to her moral universe. I’m fine with a teacher giving personal insights into the subject matter; I do it all the time. But you have to moderate that in such a way that you don’t overly prejudice the students’ approach to it.
It’s not as if Blood Meridian gives you violence in a celebratory way. It isn’t even amoral in its presentation of violence, at least not in my reading of the book. Violence is clearly awful in the novel. But it is not avoidable in the world we inhabit, and we had better find a way to endure it.
English professors at prestigious universities likely rarely grow up in settings that would make McCarthy’s violent world seem plausible. I’m admittedly thinking in stereotypes here; the hoity-toity bourgeois family of two college professors producing offspring destined also to teach in universities and vacation at the Vineyard. But there’s at least some sociological evidence to back the generalization up too. Many college majors have a strong relationship to social class background, and the less ‘practical’ attract more of the refined classes, while those from lower in the hierarchy are often drawn to what seems (but of course may not be) more substantial. Pierre Bourdieu wrote a good deal on and around this topic, in a French context but nonetheless generalizable to some significant degree.
(I’m trying hard—and probably ineffectually—not to let my solidly white trash background wholly determine my reading of what she thinks on this, as her very person gives of an aura that tells me I couldn’t possibly be a member of her tribe).
Whatever she and her Yale students think (and I confess I didn’t watch the entirety of her exposition, so perhaps things happen later to reveal that I’ve mischaracterized her view), McCarthy’s world, and not the one they inhabit, is the real world. Blood is everywhere, people do the most vile things to one another on a daily basis, and not infrequently for no reason other than that they are entertained by it. And perhaps it is not even entertainment, but just the reflex of an animal like other animals that is fashioned by its history to strike out at irritations large and small. In the West of McCarthy’s fiction, a look can bring death, or merely the calculation that some minor thing is to be gained by the violence that produces it. It is a hard, a very hard, thing to take into one’s gut about us. To fully wrap one’s head around the fact that blood seems to be the grease of the engine of life, both while flowing inside and spilling out. That’s the point McCarthy is making, over and over, in his fiction. I find him compelling in large part because that view of the world seems accurate to me, however much I’d like it to be otherwise.
I remember quite clearly the first of his novels I stumbled on, while staying in a vacationing friend’s home for a few weeks. I spied it sitting on a bookshelf. Cities of the Plain. I knew the Biblical allusion of the title, but I still do not know what bade me open the pages and start reading, and then finish the book in a day or two because it was so enthralling in the bleakness of its perspective that was yet redeemed, somehow, by the way its characters met the fates that awaited them. Seemingly the most random of occurrences—a temporary change of residence, and a book that came into my attention for reasons unknown—turned into a discovery of great meaning. On finishing it, I thought “Here is a book I should have written, if I were smarter and more industrious. I must read everything I can find by this person.”
There must be other college professors of English who, as this one in the video, feel obligated to teach their students of McCarthy’s work, given his deserved reputation as one of the greatest living American novelists. (I did some research locally, and I could detect no attention accorded him in the Bucknell English Department, so at least I must credit Professor Hungerford for doing better than my colleagues have done on this). I strongly suspect nearly all of them have her aversion for his way through the work of writing.
My own students have a range of reactions to him. I give them, beyond Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses. Some blanche and cringe, or at least they say this was their reaction. More are unable to enter McCarthy’s world because it is too distant from the ones they have known, what with all the cowboys and horses and hard physical labor and fights with knives. But a few have profusely thanked me for introducing them to his work.
YouTube also gave me this, a delicious little bit of Harold Bloom saying just what I think about the state of education on literature in America. I have more than once been given to reflect, after some bit of evidence of the fact, on how it is possible these days that Ph. D programs in literature so frequently produce graduates who hate literature, or at least who are monomaniacally committed to turning it into something it is not and cannot be. It is also a matter of nearly perfect predictability on my campus, and I’m sure on many others: whenever some politically correct hubbub roils the faculty listserv or the main quad and the world-changing professors give their pronouncements on the matter, the bulk of the more vapid such statements will come from people employed in the Department of English.