Thursday, December 17, 2015

Further Notes on Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy

The Judge and the kid 

"They were about in the morning before daybreak and they caught up and saddled their mounts as soon as it was light enough to see.  The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning." (p 86)

The Judge

"He adduced for their consideration references to the children of Ham, the lost tribes of Israelites, certain passages from the Greek poets, anthropological speculations as to the propagation of the races in their dispersion and isolation through the agency of geological cataclysm and an assessment of racial traits with respect to climatic and geographical influences." (pp 84-5)

"The judge like a great ponderous djinn stepped through the fire and the flames delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element." (p 96)
Holden is a mysterious figure, a cold-blooded killer. Aside from the children he openly kills, he is seen enticing children with sweets, and a child often goes missing when he is in the vicinity.  Further, at one point in the novel he is seen with a naked 12-year-old girl in his room.  Holden displays a preternatural breadth of knowledge and skills—paleontology, archaeology, linguistics, law, technical drawing, geology, chemistry, prestidigitation, and philosophy, to name a few.  At one point "he purported to read news of the earth's origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat."  His "appostate supposings" are contrasted with simple faith of believers who were susceptible to the Judge's speculations.  They "were soon reckoning him correct . . . and this the Judge encouraged until they were right proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools" (p 116)

He is described as seven feet tall and completely bereft of body hair. He is massive in frame, and enormously strong, capable of holding and wielding a howitzer cannon much like a regular gun. His skin is so pale as to have almost no pigment. This strange appearance, as well as his keen, extremely fast reflexes, strength, apparent immunity to sleep and aging, and other abilities point to his being something other than a conventional human being.  He sermonizes at one point, "but it was no such sermon as any man of us had ever heard before." (p 129)  He becomes an entity not unlike Satan leading his fallen army in Book Six of Paradise Lost.
In the final pages of the novel, McCarthy makes more direct reference to the Judge as a supernatural entity, or even as a concept, personified.  He appears in the kid's dreams:  "In that sleep and in sleeps 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." (p 309)

The Judge appears larger than life and McCarthy's prose makes him appear to be a character who has wandered into this story like a character out of Moby-Dick.  Yet in spite of that resonance the Judge stands alone,  a character unique to the world of Blood Meridian. While Harold Bloom compares Judge Holden to the Iago of Shakespeare's Othello,  the combination of his stature and supernatural references lead me to prefer a comparison to the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost.  Either image makes him the most sinister character in American literature.

The kid

"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 shped to man's will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay." (pp 4-5)

A boy of fourteen at the beginning of the story, "the kid" spends much of the narrative as a sixteen-year-old traveler on a journey with the Glanton Gang through Mexico and Arizona. In this novel that renders morality mute the kid has a special place.   He is pulled out of prison by Glanton and later seems immune to much of the violence that surrounds him. 

While he says little he takes actions that help others, as when he removes an arrow from a man incurring the wrath of Tobin, the expriest.  "Fool, he said.  God will not love ye forever." (p 162) The words of the expriest are, unfortunately, full of portent for the kid.  Even when the kid is present he is described as mute as when the Judge, Glanton, and his gang meet with the Mexican officials to present their booty.  It is an impressive scene that the kid watches in silence.  

But in silence the kid cannot bring himself to kill one of his comrades.   In a touching scene the kid is chosen to handle (kill) a wounded man named Shelby.  They go off and Shelby tells the kid that he would kill him.  
"Why dont you just get on with it?  he said.
The kid looked at him.
If I had a gun I'd shoot you, Shelby said.
The kid didnt answer.
You know that, dont you?
You aint got a gun, the kid said.
He looked to the south again.  Something moving, perhaps the first lines of heat.  No dust in the morning so early.  When he looked at Shelby again Shelby was crying." (p 207)
The kid does not kill Shelby, he cannot.

By the denouement of the story the kid has become the man.  "In the spring of his twenty-eighth year he set out with others".(p 313)  But he is a man of mystery just as he was when a kid in Glanton's gang.  This is symbolized no better than when the narrator describes him thus:  "He traveled about from place to place.  He did not avoid the company of other men.  He was treated with a certain deference as one who had got onto terms with life beyond what his years could account for.   By now  he'd come by a horse and a revolver, the rudiments of an outfit.  He worked at different trades.  He had a bible that he'd found at the mining camps and he carried this book with him no word of which could he read.  In his dark and frugal clothes some took him for a sort of preacher but he was no witness to them, neither of things at hand nor things to come, he the least of any man." (p 312)

A mute witness all along.  The child who was "father of the man".  A young man born to violence from his home through his travels to his end.  His dreams and his destiny become a strange story of blood and violence;  one that swirls around him eventually engulfing his life as it did so many along the trail.  


R.T. said...

I think either Iago or Satan are good comparisons to the Judge. Evil is their only reason for being.

James said...

R. T.,

Certainly one of the main themes of the novel is good vs. evil and the Judge is the prime representative.

Brian Joseph said...

This is such a deep with with such deep characters.

I remember thinking, at the time that I read this book, that The Judge was the personification of violence.

I think that this book would bear up strongly to multiple readings.

I also enjoyed Harold Bloom's commentary on this novel.

James said...


Thanks for your thoughts on this novel. I agree that it is worth multiple readings, but I will need some time before another reading, perhaps to pursue some of his other novels that I have not read yet. Bloom's commentary is good, but this book invites a wide range of interpretations.

R.T. said...

Postscript: When I read a book like _Blood Meridian_, I am left with a lot of questions. Among them -- not necessarily the most worthwhile questions -- are these: (1) Will this book be read by anyone in another two or three generations? (2) Will I read this book again (and why would I do so)? (3) Why does this book receive such high praise from so many esteemed critics and readers? Well, I ponder.

James said...

R. T.,

You raise some very good questions. I'm not sure about the future for others but I will probably read this book again because of its depth of meaning and wealth of literary allusions all encompassed in a narrative that breaks many of the standard rules for novels. The reasons why I will read this book again may also be part of the reason it has been praised by critics and readers alike.