Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant now than when it was written. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian, much as I appreciate his Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon. McCarthy himself has not matched Blood Meridian, but it is the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.
My concern being the reader, I will begin by confessing that my first two attempts to read through Blood Meridian failed, because I flinched from the overwhelming carnage that McCarthy portrays. The violence begins on the novel’s second page, when the 15-year-old Kid is shot in the back and just below the heart, and continues almost with no respite until the end, 30 years later, when Judge Holden, the most frightening figure in all of American literature, murders the Kid in an outhouse. So appalling are the continuous massacres and mutilations of Blood Meridian that one could be reading a United Nations report on the horrors of Syria in 2019.
Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence—its language, landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s. When I teach the book, many of my students resist it initially (as I did, and as some of my friends continue to do). Television saturates us with actual as well as imagined violence, and I turn away, either in shock or in disgust.
But I cannot turn away from Blood Meridian, now that I know how to read it, and why it has to be read. None of its carnage is gratuitous or redundant; it belonged to the Mexico-Texas borderlands in 1849 and 50, which is where and when most of the novel is set. I suppose one could call Blood Meridian a “historical novel,” since it chronicles the actual expedition of the Glanton gang, a murderous paramilitary force sent out by both Mexican and Texan authorities to murder and scalp as many Indians as possible. Yet it does not have the aura of historical fiction, since what it depicts seethes on, in the United States, and nearly everywhere else, in this third millennium. Judge Holden, the prophet of war, is unlikely to be without honor in our years to come.
Even as you learn to endure the slaughter McCarthy describes, you become accustomed to the book’s high style, again as overtly Shakespearean as it is Faulknerian. There are passages of Melvillean-Faulknerian baroque richness and intensity in The Crying of Lot 49, and elsewhere in Pynchon, but we can never be sure that they are not parodistic.
Blood Meridian‘s magnificence—its language, landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.
The prose of Blood Meridian soars, yet with its own economy, and its dialogue is always persuasive, particularly when the uncanny Judge Holden speaks:
The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.
Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everything on this earth, he said.
The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.
Judge Holden is the spiritual leader of Glanton’s filibusters, and McCarthy persuasively gives the self-styled judge a mythic status, appropriate for a deep Machiavelli whose “thread of order” recalls Iago’s magic web, in which Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio are caught. Though all of the more colorful and murderous raiders are vividly characterized for us, the killing machine Glanton with the others, the novel turns always upon its two central figures, Judge Holden and the Kid.
We first meet the Judge on page six: an enormous man, bald as a stone, no trace of a beard, and eyes without either brows or lashes. A seven-foot-tall albino, he almost seems to have come from some other world, and we learn to wonder about the Judge, who never sleeps, dances and fiddles with extraordinary art and energy, rapes and murders little children of both sexes, and says that he will never die. By the book’s close, I have come to believe that the Judge is immortal. And yet the Judge, while both more and less than human, is as individuated as Iago or Macbeth, and is quite at home in the Texan-Mexican borderlands where we watch him operate in 1849 and 50, and then find him again in 1878, not a day older after 28 years, though the Kid, a 16-year-old at the start of Glanton’s foray, is 45 when murdered by the Judge at the end.
McCarthy subtly shows us the long, slow development of the Kid from another mindless scalper of Indians to the courageous confronter of the Judge in their final debate in a saloon. But though the Kid’s moral maturation is heartening, his personality remains largely a cipher, as anonymous as his lack of a name. The three glories of the book are the Judge, the landscape, and (dreadful to say this) the slaughters, which are aesthetically distanced by McCarthy in a number of complex ways.
What is the reader to make of the Judge? He is immortal as principle, as War Everlasting, but is he a person, or something other? McCarthy will not tell us, which is all the better, since the ambiguity is most stimulating. Melville’s Captain Ahab, though a Promethean demigod, is necessarily mortal, and perishes with the Pequod and all its crew, except for Ishmael. After he has killed the Kid, Blood Meridian’s Ishmael, Judge Holden is the last survivor of Glanton’s scalping crusade. Destroying the Native American nations of the Southwest is hardly analogous to the hunt to slay Moby Dick, and yet McCarthy gives us some curious parallels between the two quests. The most striking is between Melville’s chapter 19, where a ragged prophet who calls himself Elijah warns Ishmael and Queequeg against sailing on the Pequod, and McCarthy’s chapter 4, where “an old disordered Mennonite” warns the Kid and his comrades not to join Captain Worth’s filibuster, a disaster that preludes the greater catastrophe of Glanton’s campaign.
McCarthy’s invocation of Moby-Dick, while impressive and suggestive, in itself does not do much to illuminate Judge Holden for us. Ahab has his preternatural aspects, including his harpooner Fedallah and Parsee whaleboat crew, and the captain’s conversion to their Zoroastrian faith. Elijah tells Ishmael touches of other Ahabian mysteries: a three-day trance off Cape Horn, slaying a Spaniard in front of a presumably Catholic altar in Santa Ysabel, and a wholly enigmatic spitting into a “silver calabash.” Yet all these are transparencies compared to the enigmas of Judge Holden, who seems to judge the entire earth, and whose name suggests a holding, presumably of sway over all he encounters.
What is the reader to make of the Judge? He is immortal as principle, as War Everlasting, but is he a person, or something other? McCarthy will not tell us, which is all the better, since the ambiguity is most stimulating.
And yet the Judge, unlike Ahab, is not wholly fictive; like Glanton, he is a historic filibuster or freebooter. McCarthy tells us most in the Kid’s dream visions of Judge Holden, toward the close of the novel:
In that sleep and in sleep to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.
I think that McCarthy is warning his reader that the Judge is Moby Dick rather than Ahab. As another white enigma, the albino Judge, like the albino whale, cannot be slain. Melville, a professed Gnostic, who believed that some “anarch hand or cosmic blunde” had divided us into two fallen sexes, gives us a Manichaean quester in Ahab. McCarthy gives Judge Holden the powers and purposes of the bad angels or demiurges that the Gnostics called archons, but he tells us not to make such an identification (as the critic Leo Daugherty eloquently has). Any “system,” including the Gnostic one, will not divide the Judge back into his origins. The “ultimate atavistic egg” will not be found. What can the reader do with the haunting and terrifying Judge?
Let us begin by saying that Judge Holden, though his gladsome prophecy of eternal war is authentically universal, is first and foremost a Western American, no matter how cosmopolitan his background (he speaks all languages, knows all arts and sciences, and can perform magical, shamanistic metamorphoses). The Texan-Mexican border is a superb place for a war-god like the Judge to be. He carries a rifle, mounted in silver, with its name inscribed under the checkpiece: Et In Arcadia Ego. In the American Arcadia, death is also always there, incarnated in the Judge’s weapon, which never misses. If the American pastoral tradition essentially is the Western film, then the Judge incarnates that tradition, though he would require a director light-years beyond the late Sam Peckinpah, whose The Wild Bunch portrays mildness itself when compared to Glanton’s paramilitaries.
I resort though, as before, to Iago, who transfers war from the camp and the field to every other locale, and is a pyromaniac setting everything and everyone ablaze with the flame of battle. The Judge might be Iago before Othello begins, when the war-god Othello was still worshipped by his “honest” color officer, his ancient or ensign. The Judge speaks with an authority that chills me even as Iago leaves me terrified:
This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence.
If McCarthy does not want us to regard the Judge as a Gnostic archon or supernatural being, the reader may still feel that it hardly seems sufficient to designate Holden as a 19th-century Western American Iago. Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them:
They entered the city haggard and filthy and reeking with the blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted. The scalps of the slain villagers were strung from the windows of the governor’s house and the partisans were paid out of the all but exhausted coffers and the Sociedad was disbanded and the bounty rescinded. Within a week of their quitting the city there would be a price of eight thousand pesos posted for Glanton’s head.
I break into this passage, partly to observe that from this point on, the filibusters pursue the way down and out to an apocalyptic conclusion, but also to urge the reader to hear, and admire, the sublime sentence that follows directly, because we are at the visionary center of Blood Meridian:
They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.
Since Cormac McCarthy’s language, like Melville’s and Faulkner’s, frequently is deliberately archaic, the “meridian” of the title probably means the zenith or noon position of the sun in the sky. Glanton, the Judge, the Kid, and their fellows are not described as “tragic”—their long-suffering horses are—and they are “infatuate” and half-mad (“fond”) because they have broken away from any semblance of order. McCarthy knows, as does the reader, that an “order” urging the destruction of the entire Native American population of the Southwest is an obscene idea of order, but he wants the reader to know also that the Glanton gang is now aware that they are unsponsored and free to run totally amok.
If the American pastoral tradition essentially is the Western film, then the Judge incarnates that tradition, though he would require a director light-years beyond the late Sam Peckinpah.
The sentence I have just quoted has a morally ambiguous greatness to it, but that is the greatness of Blood Meridian, and indeed of Homer and of Shakespeare. McCarthy so contextualizes the sentence that the amazing contrast between its high gestures and the murderous thugs who evoke the splendor is not ironic but tragic. The tragedy is ours, as readers, and not the Glanton gang’s, since we are not going to mourn their demise except for the Kid’s, and even there our reaction will be equivocal.
My passion for Blood Meridian is so fierce that I want to go on expounding it, but the courageous reader should now be (I hope) pretty well into the main movement of the book. I will confine myself here to the final encounter between the preternatural Judge Holden and the Kid, who had broken with the insane crusade 28 years before, and now at middle age must confront the ageless Judge. Their dialogue is the finest achievement in this book of augmenting wonders, and may move the reader as nothing else in Blood Meridian does. I reread it perpetually and cannot persuade myself that I have come to the end of it.
The Judge and the Kid drink together, after the avenging Judge tells the Kid that this night his soul will be demanded of him. Knowing he is no match for the Judge, the Kid nevertheless defies Holden, with laconic replies playing against the Judge’s rolling grandiloquence. After demanding to know where their slain comrades are, the Judge asks: “And where is the fiddler and where the dance?”
I guess you can tell me. I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be? You aint nothin.
To have known Judge Holden, to have seen him in full operation, and to tell him that he is nothing is heroic. “You speak truer than you know,” the Judge replies, and two pages later murders the Kid, most horribly. Blood Meridian, except for a one-paragraph epilogue, ends with the Judge triumphantly dancing and fiddling at once, and proclaiming that he never sleeps and he will never die. But McCarthy does not let Judge Holden have the last word.
The strangest passage in Blood Meridian, the epilogue, is set at dawn, where a nameless man progresses over a plain by means of holes that he makes in the rocky ground. Employing a two-handled implement, the man strikes “the fire out of the rock which God has put there.” Around the man are wanderers searching for bones, and he continues to strike fire in the holes, and then they move on. And that is all.
The subtitle of Blood Meridian is The Evening Redness in the West, which belongs to the Judge, last survivor of the Glanton gang. Perhaps all that the reader can surmise with some certainty is that the man striking fire in the rock at dawn is an opposing figure in regard to the evening redness in the West. The Judge never sleeps, and perhaps will never die, but a new Prometheus may be rising to go up against him.
If there is a pragmatic tradition of the American Sublime, then Cormac McCarthy’s fictions are its culmination. Moby-Dick and Faulkner’s major, early novels are McCarthy’s prime precursors. Melville’s Ahab fuses together Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists—Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth—and crosses them with a quest both Promethean and American. Even as Montaigne’s Plato became Emerson’s, so Melville’s Shakespeare becomes Cormac McCarthy’s. Though critics will go on associating McCarthy with Faulkner, who certainly affected McCarthy’s style in Suttree (1979), the visionary of Blood Meridian (1985) and The Border Trilogy (1992, 1994, 1998) has much less in common with Faulkner, and shares more profoundly in Melville’s debt to Shakespeare.
Melville, by giving us Ahab and Ishmael, took care to distance the reader from Ahab, if not from his quest. McCarthy’s protagonists tend to be apostles of the will-to-identity, except for the Iago-like Judge Holden of Blood Meridian, who is the Will Incarnate. John Grady Cole, who survives in All the Pretty Horses only to be destroyed in Cities of the Plain, is replaced in The Crossing by Billy Parham, who is capable of learning what the heroic John Grady Cole evades, the knowledge that Jehovah (Yahweh) holds in his very name: “Where that is I am not.” God will be present where and when he chooses to be present, and absent more often than present.
No one will compose a rival to Blood Meridian, not even McCarthy.
The aesthetic achievement of All the Pretty Horses surpasses that of Cities of the Plain, if only because McCarthy is too deeply invested in John Grady Cole to let the young man (really still a boy) die with the proper distancing of authorial concern. No one will compose a rival to Blood Meridian, not even McCarthy, but All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing are of the eminence of Suttree. If I had to choose a narrative by McCarthy that could stand on its own in relation to Blood Meridian, it probably would be All the Pretty Horses. John Grady Cole quests for freedom and discovers what neither Suttree nor Billy Parham needs to discover, which is that freedom in an American context is another name for solitude. The self’s freedom, for Cormac McCarthy, has no social aspect whatsoever.
I speak of McCarthy as visionary novelist, and not necessarily as a citizen of El Paso, Texas. Emerson identified freedom with power, only available at the crossing, in the shooting of a gulf, a darting to an aim. Since we care for Hamlet, even though he cares for no one, we have to assume that Shakespeare also had a considerable investment in Hamlet. The richest aspect of All the Pretty Horses is that we learn to care strongly about the development of John Grady Cole, and perhaps we can surmise that Cormac McCarthy is also moved by this most sympathetic of his protagonists.
All the Pretty Horses was published seven years after Blood Meridian and is set almost a full century later in history. John Grady Cole is about the same age as McCarthy would have been in 1948. There is no more an identification between McCarthy and the young Cole, who evidently will not live to see twenty, than there is between Shakespeare and Prince Hamlet. And yet the reverberation of a heroic poignance is clearly heard throughout All the Pretty Horses. It may be that McCarthy’s hard-won authorial detachment toward the Kid in Blood Meridian had cost the novelist too much, in the emotional register. Whether my surmise is accurate or not, the reader shares with McCarthy an affectionate stance toward the heroic youth at the center of All the Pretty Horses.
Excerpted from The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon by Harold Bloom. Copyright © Harold Bloom 2019. Reprinted with permission from the Library of America.