Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian Was Almost a Plain Old Western
The Sneaky Literary Influences Behind a Modern American Classic
Blood Meridian, widely regarded as Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, tells the story of “the kid” (early on “the child,” and in the final chapter “the man”) as he leaves his childhood home of Tennessee and becomes entangled with a group of vicious scalp-hunters. Most of the novel’s action takes place when he is a young teenager. Though the kid is the protagonist of the novel, the center of interest is Judge Holden, usually just “the judge,” who presides over the Glanton gang like a Western Mephistopheles. A struggle takes place between the kid, who harbors “clemency for the heathen,” and the judge, the embodiment of a Satanic will-to-power who insists that war, with its ultimate stakes, is the only game worth playing, and that violence is what ultimately binds men together.
Early drafts of the novel, which McCarthy began working on in 1974, indicate that he initially had a different sort of book in mind. In the drafts, the novel reads like a more raucous, and, despite the extreme violence and profanity, more traditional western. What seems to have turned the book into something new and strange is the emergence of the judge as the frightening center of a metaphysical work concerned with the nature of evil, and featuring a struggle between a tempter devil and a boy who, though bereft of moral guidance in his young and troubled life, resists the pull of the judge’s call.
The archives point to several sources for this metamorphosis into a novel of ideas. Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony was a major influence on the novel. The account of the saint’s temptations in the desert inspired McCarthy to transform his western into a story of spiritual warfare in the deserts of Mexico and America. McCarthy’s reading of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which features discussions of Renaissance paintings of the temptations of saints, also informs the narrative. Jacob Boehme’s vision of the devil as a frightening but necessary component of the divine reality at the heart of things also had a significant impact. Indeed, along with McCarthy’s papers for Suttree, the archival material related to Blood Meridian contains numerous cultural reference points that help to locate McCarthy’s creative efforts within a dynamic intellectual network of books, writers, and ideas.
A fascinating, and perhaps illuminating, reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness appears in McCarthy’s notes for Blood Meridian. The reference follows a sentence, typed as a fragment within the notes and without the surrounding narrative context, that made its way into the published novel. McCarthy typed, “He spoke, the judge, of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man. (The horror, the horror? See H of Darkness).” In Conrad’s novel, these are the notorious last words of Kurtz (“The horror! The horror!”), pronounced to Marlow as he lies on his deathbed. The judge’s words appear in chapter 17:
Crouched under their hats they seemed fugitives on some grander scale, like beings for whom the sun hungered. Even the judge grew silent and speculative. He’d spoke of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man but that body receiving his remarks counted themselves well done with any claims at all.
As a figure of the Faustian will-to-power, the judge, in recommending a purge of outside claims, would seem to be affirming the savage, primitive will. Spengler, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche all inform, in different ways, McCarthy’s crafting of the judge as an apostle of the primal will and the violence that attends it. The reference to Conrad invites comparisons between the judge and Kurtz.
Though such a comparison, as McCarthy would have been aware, requires qualifications, broadly considered the two characters overlap at certain points. Both are exemplars of the will-to-power conceived in terms of a violently rapacious culture of colonial dominance, racist oppression, and exploitation of the natural world—the judge would have all the birds in zoos, buffalo hunters hounding to near-extinction an endangered animal, and the massive accumulation of ivory in the Belgian Congo. What makes them distinct is Kurtz’s ambivalence about his enterprise, an ambivalence that the judge would not entertain. Kurtz learns the dance of death that the judge performs with sinister delight, but his journey into the heart of darkness is marked by contradictions within his character. He, unlike the diabolical judge, is terrified by what he sees when he looks into that heart. The kid also journeys into the heart of darkness, but, like Kurtz, experiences internal contradictions and moral ambivalence.
Nevertheless, there are striking parallels between Kurtz and the judge. The postscript that Kurtz appends to his report to the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs—“Exterminate all the brutes!”—is the authentic voice of the judge, and Kurtz’s handwritten addendum nullifies the treacly boilerplate altruism that forms the “official” report. Kurtz, like the judge, sees what lies behind the Faustian Western project of global expansion. The all-too-human Kurtz’s final judgment on his actions and on human nature in general is contained in his final, frenzied expression of horror, but as a willing participant in that horror he is a Faustian suzerain, one who can lead others in a macabre dance of death.
Both McCarthy and Conrad use the metaphor of the dance in connection with these two characters. Marlow notes that Kurtz participated in “certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand—to Mr. Kurtz himself.” Unable to entirely repress his admiration for the man, Marlow acknowledges that “he had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honor.” Like the judge, he calls others into a unified enterprise sealed in blood. Kurtz is also, like the judge, regarded as a prodigy or genius by those who come into contact with him, not least the ambivalent Marlow. In addition to great intelligence and eloquence, we are told that he is an exceptional musician, which is also one of the attributes of the judge. Like the judge in the life of the kid, he haunts Marlow as a permanent enigma, both frightening and enticing:
I had a vision of [Kurtz] . . . opening his mouth voraciously as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind. He lived then before me, he lived as much as he had ever lived—a shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, of frightful realities, a shadow darker than the shadow of the night, and draped nobly in the folds of a gorgeous eloquence.
McCarthy gave much thought to the judge, looking to several fictional models as guides to his creation—Milton’s Satan, Goethe’s Mephistopheles, Flaubert’s devil in The Temptation of St. Antony. To this list Conrad’s Kurtz should be added.
McCarthy is on record as an admirer of Flannery O’Connor, and readers have noted similarities between the two writers—notably, their liberal reliance on the grotesque, narratives punctuated by shocking moments of violence, characters drawn from the shabbier purlieus and lower classes of society, and an unflinching commitment to exploring the conflict between good and evil. At a deeper level, both writers conceive of grace as an unsought cleansing ordeal, something like St. Paul’s “salvation, yet as through fire.” McCarthy has mentioned O’Connor in interviews and correspondence as well as in a marginal note in an early draft of Blood Meridian.
The first time McCarthy mentioned O’Connor in an interview was in a short 1969 piece in the UT Daily Beacon, the student newspaper at the University of Tennessee, which McCarthy attended, without taking a degree, in 1951–1952 and 1957–1959. Asked for advice for aspiring writers, he responded:
Practical advice, I believe, would be to read. You have to know what’s been done. And you have to understand it. I like the gutsy writers—Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Joyce, Faulkner. I like Melville, particularly, and, more recently, Flannery O’Connor. She has a wonderful sense of the macabre.
He also mentions O’Connor in a 2009 interview for the Wall Street Journal. Asked about his writing productivity, he said, “Someone asked Flannery O’Connor why she wrote, and she said, ‘Because I was good at it.’ And I think that’s the right answer. If you’re good at something it’s very hard not to do it.” McCarthy’s correspondence with J. Howard Woolmer also contains a reference to O’Connor. In a letter to Woolmer dated 1 April 1980, McCarthy mentions his interest in John Huston’s film adaptation of Wise Blood:
Wise Blood has not appeared here yet . . . A number of people have told me that the film is just first rate. The lead, Brad Dourif, is the actor who played Bob McEvoy in The Gardener’s Son, and Ned Beatty was also in both films. I’ll keep my eye out for any sign of it appearing in these parts. I think the film has a peculiar history. Some friends of Flannery’s getting together and deciding to do it and asking Huston if he would direct. He agreed, never thinking that they would get the money, and they turned up with it not too long afterwards, money from Germany, if I’m not mistaken.
McCarthy’s familiarity with the history behind the production—and his familiar use of “Flannery” to refer to O’Connor—suggest a deep appreciation for the author. This is the enthusiasm of a fan.
A major motif in Blood Meridian is announced early in the novel:
Only now is the child finally divested of all that he has been. His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.
This question—Are we free or determined?—is at the center of Leo Tolstoy’s speculations about history in the epilogue of War and Peace, which McCarthy references in his notes for Blood Meridian.
Box 35, Folder 7, contains several pages of handwritten notes keyed to manuscript page numbers. On two pages from these notes—written in the margins, and therefore not corresponding to page numbers—McCarthy wrote, “War and Peace.” The second reference adds, “Last pp War and Peace,” which specifies the philosophical epilogue as the subject of McCarthy’s interest. This attraction makes sense in light of the passage about free will quoted above. In fact, the question of free will recurs throughout McCarthy’s “western” corpus, where it finds its most chilling expression in Anton Chigurh’s eerie coin-tossing. Tolstoy’s concern in the epilogue of War and Peace is with the paradoxical awareness within individuals of being both bound by natural laws and motivated by free will, the paradox inherent in being both a subject and an object.
In the eighth section of the epilogue, Tolstoy puts it this way:
Looking at man as a subject of observation from any point of view— theological, historical, ethical, philosophical—we find a general law of necessity to which he is subject like everything existing. Looking at him from within ourselves, as what we are conscious of, we feel ourselves free.
Tolstoy’s grim conclusion is that the drift of human knowledge is toward an inexorable loss of sovereignty for human beings. Just as Copernicus’s theories eventually overcame the commonsense feeling that the earth is stationary in space, so our understanding of history as the undirected “summing up [of] unknown infinitesimals,” rather than a process directed by human wills, makes it “essential to surmount a consciousness of an unreal freedom and to recognize a dependence not perceived by our senses.”
It is fascinating to consider that McCarthy’s own reflections on this intractable philosophical question were shaped in part by those of Tolstoy, whom McCarthy identified early in his career as one of the “gutsy writers” that he most admired. What is gutsy about Tolstoy’s conclusion at the end of the epilogue is that he admits the near impossibility of denying the sense we have that we are free, while insisting that we deny the reality of free will. We cannot think without it, but our thinking, like a universal acid, corrodes the foundations of that very belief. According to Tolstoy, we feel free, but we know that we are not.
McCarthy does not attempt to resolve the question either, but, in a key passage from Blood Meridian, he does suggest that it may be more complicated than Tolstoy’s conclusion suggests. In the section of chapter 7 given the chapter heading “Tertium quid,” the narrator introduces a wrinkle into the classic formulation of the free will/determinism dilemma. Describing the windstorm in the desert that follows the Gypsy tarot reading, the narrator offers a cryptic aside that is germane to the question posed in the first chapter and quoted above (emphasis added):
These four [the Gypsies] crouched at the edge of the firelight among their strange chattels and watched how the ragged flames fled down the wind as if sucked by some maelstrom out there in the void, some vortex in that waste apposite to which man’s transit and his reckonings alike lay abrogate. As if beyond will or fate he and his beasts and his trappings moved both in card and in substance under consignment to some third and other destiny.
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, tertium quid means “something (indefinite or left undefined) related in some way to two (definite or known) things, but distinct from both.” McCarthy certainly does leave the something under consideration here very much undefined, but the reticence seems akin to the notorious ineffability often associated with mystical experience. Words cannot do it justice, but in it the most profound meanings inhere.
Of related interest is the chapter heading preceding “Tertium quid,” which is “The felon wind.” This is likely an allusion to Milton’s “Lycidas,” in which the speaker wonders about fate when mourning the loss of his friend: “He asked the waves, and asked the felon winds, / What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?” (lines 91–92, emphasis added). This is typical of McCarthy’s almost sneaky approach to weaving literary allusions into his own work.
From Books are Made Out of Books: A Guide to Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Influences. Used with permission of University of Texas Press. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Lynn Crews.