Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is seen by critics as a uniquely violent and powerful work of modern literature, and McCarthy achieves such an arresting mood through the sheer depravity of the deeds described, in conjunction with the contrast conveyed by momentary acts of humility. McCarthy makes even more vivid and degenerate the actions of the group through Judge Holden by expressing the violent thoughts and justifications for their violence from the eyes of an horrific and twisted killer. Less fearsome scenes do sometimes emerge, but are meant to be understood in contrast with the barbarity of McCarthy’s episodes and characterizations.
The violence portrayed in Blood Meridian is of such barbarism and atrocity that it leaves the reader aghast by the deeds perpetrated. The reader is immersed within this world of terror and violence in the first pages of the book, as the kid finds himself thrown into several conflicts and affrays as he sets off from his homeland – his first being in a religious assembly as the Judge enters and accuses the preacher of being a criminal, thus erupting the place into gun shots, ‘already gunfire was general within the tent … women screaming … folk trampled underfoot in the mud,’ and again as the kid flees from the meeting to a saloon, with violence there ensuing between him and a drunken man, ‘the man lunged after him with the jagged bottleneck and tried to stick it in his eye … the [kid’s] hands were slick with blood,’ thus setting a mood of violence which governs the kid’s journey onwards.
As the kid journeys through the barren and savage country of Southern United States, he is enlisted to join the army of Captain White. He is consequently captured and recruited to a band of American ex-soldiers whom the local authorities charge with the order of killing and scalping Indians who roam the American desert, thus commencing the savage and barbaric journey which witnesses atrocities unseen before. The tale recounts the mindless violence of the group as they kill any who stand in their way. This violence is made so striking through the sheer brutality of it, manifested in ‘They found the lost scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels … where they’d been roasted until their … brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes.’ The conjured image is made so striking and disturbing to the reader through McCarthy’s vivid and unadulterated description of the bodies to such horrific detail rarely found in the pages of a novel. Furthermore, McCarthy’s portrayal is made all the more striking by the matter-of-fact manner of the description, manifested in the simple ‘They found the lost scouts’ and offers no sense of emotion or shock, paradoxically making the description, through its plainness, all the more shocking and disturbing. The purity and lack of emotive language of the description seems incomplete and unnatural to the reader, yet portrays the innate disposition within all the men in the group for killing and violence as the reader sees that this event does not faze or disturb them, thus truly exposing the barbarity of these men. The vividness and metaphor deployed by McCarthy so too makes the depravity of the violence perpetrated in Blood Meridian even more striking to the reader, manifested in the White Jackson’s slaughter of the black, ‘with a single stroke swapt off his head. Two thick ropes of dark blood … rose like snakes,’ which through the vivid and strong metaphor of the blood accentuates the image of barbarism to the reader, making even more vivid the violence portrayed.
In this way, McCarthy depicts a sense of the men’s immunity to violence and depravity, yet through the Judge, he portrays a leitmotif of the moral and physical victory of killing in conflict, thus making the violence perpetrated even more chilling, as a sense of justification for the depicted depravity is suggested. The Judge is portrayed to be far more perceptive and creatively capable than the remainder of the group, and he is respected and seen by them as a teacher. Judge Holden is compared by many critics to Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost on account of the unmitigated depravity of his thoughts and actions. These themes are manifested in his justification of violence – ‘war is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is God,’ in which the Judge explains his beliefs that war is indeed innate in man, and war divides the strong and the weak. He goes on to say that ‘if war is not holy, man is nothing but antic clay,’ thus proposing that killing is a holy act, and that war and death, rather than God, looks and rules over everything. McCarthy utilizes the Judge as a symbol of evil who poisons the blank minds of the group by telling them that killing is a holy and righteous act, thus encouraging them to commit ever more depraved acts as the novel wears on. The final words spoken of the Judge as he dances naked on the stage are ‘he says that he will never die,’ which offers a twisted, psychological idea that through his violence perpetrated in the novel, he becomes immortal and holy under the God which is War. These Satanic thoughts of the Judge portray to the reader the needless and endless violence which ensues throughout the novel to be religious fulfilment and victory in life, making more depraved to the reader the atrocities which ensue.
Despite these constant acts of perversion throughout the novel, McCarthy offers occasional moments of morality and normality which he uses as scenic juxtapositions to these horrific acts. Such a moment is exemplified in the Judge aiding the idiot in the river when he could have left him to drown, ‘he gathered the naked and sobbing fool into his arms and carried it up into the camp and restored it among its fellows.’ McCarthy uses the idiot to illustrate the capability of the group to be morally capable of supporting another human, and considering it being more of a hindrance than an aid to the group, this moment is utilised as a moral compass, giving the reader relief from the violence in the form of a normal act of good will and kindness. The kid and Judge Holden are the only ones in the group depicted to have a great enough moral capacity to see what is right and what is wrong, though the latter chooses to disregard this for a life of violence. The kid on the other hand, despite his obvious bloodthirsty tendencies, offers to the reader a sense of humility, as exemplified when he defies Glanton’s orders to kill a wounded straggler in the group, because he cannot bring himself to kill a companion, “why do you just get on with it?’ The kid looked at him, ‘If I had a gun I’d shoot you,’ Shelby said. The kid didn’t answer,’ and through the scenic juxtaposition and contrast of this deed of morality and the consequential onslaught, the reader is able to gain a perspective of normality and humility, making the acts the gang carry out seem all the more violent and depraved.
McCarthy achieves such a striking effect on the reader through the vivid descriptions of the deeds which the group commit, furthered by occasional glimpses of humility which provide an arresting contrast to the despicable violence depicted. Through the Judge, McCarthy creates a figure of such corruption and moral degeneracy that he represents the ever-growing violence committed by the group as he poisons their minds with the idea that ‘War is God’. Harold Bloom’s description of the Judge as ‘violence incarnate’ epitomises the idea that McCarthy uses the Judge to express the satanic evil of the group as the violence gradually becomes the centrepiece of the novel, conveying the group’s changing intentions as their violence becomes the obsession and pinnacle of their lives throughout the novel, thus making even more striking and horrific the deeds portrayed, as they make physical the horrific and abhorrent thoughts and outlooks of the Judge.