Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

With all books, there is a difference between author and narrator. Sometimes the difference is slight, sometimes great. Omniscient narrators tend to reflect the author’s stance about the story more than, say, first-person narrators, which often strike poses very unlike the authors’, excepting the case of confessional “fiction” (which is not actually fictional). At first I thought Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (Modern Library)‘s narrator spoke without irony, without distance being injected between his voice and the author’s feelings about the story. As I read on, I felt more and more an ironic distance between McCarthy and the narrator. I felt as if McCarthy were telling me to resist this narrative for its excesses, its hyperbole and its superstition and fatalism.

Omniscient narrators are not usually unreliable. This one certainly speaks with an authority we are invited initially to believe. The narrator knows the landscape and how it regards the people trudging through it, like pawns in a game ruled by its unalterable ends. We can say that the landscape is the most revealed character in the novel, as Harold Bloom has noted. The narrator seems to speak with unquestioned insight about the world, which he animates. We glimpse the landscape’s recalcitrant and indifferent interiority in the poses it strikes, that is, in its eerie lightning, meteor showers, ominous clouds, threatening mountains, and its hellish surfaces that stretch for miles. It is god-like and uncaring, harsh and without mercy.

But the Judge also speaks with authority, and we do not believe him: his actions are clearly manipulative, and so must be his words. The judge shares the narrator’s King-James-inspired dialect, though the judge uses that rhetoric to a much greater extent, consciously, with the intent to manipulate and gain authority.

Whenever a dialect is assumed in a narrative this automatically distinguishes the personalities of author and narrator. Once I had this present in my mind, when I was about three quarters of the way into the book, I began to look for signs of slight parody, by which I mean, not humor, but notable and critical repetition. I found it immediately, everywhere. I began to note some formulas being used in the narration. An object or person in the landscape is frequently described as “like some” fearful object, monster or god from ancient times, mythology or religion. Things are often described as “like some” ominous or meaningful thing. Sometimes there are as many as four of these formulaic constructions per page. On page 251 of the Modern Library edition, for instance, the lakebed of lava is “like a pan of dried blood, threading those badland of dark amber glass like the remnants of some dim legion scrabbling up out of a land accursed…” while the character called “the idiot” is “clinging to the bars and calling hoarsely after the sun like some queer unruly god abducted from a race of degenerates…” and there lay a ridge “sand or gypsum, like the back of some pale seabest surface among the dark archipelagos.” On 282, judge and idiot are “Like things whose very portent renders them ambiguous. Like things so charged with meaning that their forms are dimmed. ….” and the judge pale pink is “like something newly born, lurching … across the pan at the very extremes of exile like some scurrilous king stripped of his vestiture…” and who “was bedraped with meat like some medieval penitent.” There is at least one “like some” construction every few pages in the last quarter of the book where I started counting. Another common formula, which also appears in the quote above, is “the very” whatever of such and such. Formulaic writing is bad writing in the hands of an amateur and good parody in the hands of a master. I think McCarthy is a master, therefore I think it’s an indication that we should understand it as having a critical distance.

“Seems” may be an operative word thorough the book. The foreboding landscape that says over and over again, You are doomed to your fate, only seems to say so. Things are like this and that; and things behave as if they were this or that. Simile is almost always used over metaphor. While metaphor actually changes one thing into another, and speaks with more objectivity, simile makes fragile comparisons that are always subjective.

I met McCarthy in 2001 or so. We both had offices at the Santa Fe Institute, a center for complexity science (I doing research, he writing fiction). We had a few conversations, mostly about postmodernism, for which he expressed great disdain, disdain for the view of science as “just another narrative.” As far as I know he still writes at SFI. I presume that he continues to enjoy the intellectual atmosphere of that place. The prevailing philosophy there typically involves the belief that nature, as complex, is inherently unpredictable. Without being critical of science an enterprise that seeks to know and therefore to posses the world–as does the judge, who is the evil scientist character, clearly–complexity workers tend to be aware of the limits of human control. At the same time, however, the inherent complexity of the world offers new possibilities for imagining a new kind of human agency and creative freedom. Agency, free will, destiny, fate, one could say, is the theme of Blood Meridian. War, gore and brutality are also themes, but war is justified or not depending on whether or not it’s inevitable or due to fate (or so the judge argues) and whether or not we can make choices in our lives.

My analysis of fate would be deeper in a longer writing. Suffice it here to say that the notion of fate espoused by the (unreliable?) narrator feels very ancient to me and akin to that of epic narrative. Blood Meridian, many have noted, is an epic. It shares many characteristic of that genre, including the absence (relative to modern literature beginning, say, with Hamlet) of individual interiority. We do not know what members of the Galton gang think. Modern literature conventionally shows thought in asides, soliloquies, in stream of consciousness, internal monologues, none of which we have in Blood Meridian. Whereas in modern literature a man is often shown to be in a constant state of becoming, in epic, a man is equal to his actions and his fate is inextricably linked to his innate character. Does Blood Meridian uphold this epic view of character and fate or does its over-the-top narration belie it?

I think ultimately McCarthy invites us to resist a narrative that describes, in too much gory detail, two columns of blood gushing out of a decapitated trunk of a man, whose head was struck off, unbelievably, in one stroke with a knife.

Blood Meridian is a pre-modern narrative of fate, strangely devoid of notions of honor that justified the gore in the Iliad and that goaded poor Hamlet on in a time when such notions were fading. I believe that probably there still exist Galtons in this time and age. But they are otherworldly. They don’t belong in our psyche. They belong to a rhetoric we cannot help but doubt.

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments