Blood Meridian and the Western Ideal of Nature
In American culture, the West is represented as a sprawling wilderness to be dominated by mankind. The idea of the frontier began with the Puritans in the 1600s as a dwelling of evil, a godless land that needed to be claimed by a higher power, but later grew to become a place of rebirth and freedom. This image eventually drove the country’s westward expansion, with the primary motivation being religious. Supporters of Western movement argued that it was mankind’s destiny to conquer the West – viewed as a promised land – and its unknown territories. Doug Williams’ “Pilgrims and the Promised Land: A Genealogy of the Western” argues that the core of the Western genre was born from this belief. The typical Western, whose themes can be traced back to Puritan tenets and expansionist ideals, features protagonists who defeat villains that represent the evil in nature. This hero freely roams the frontier and is a guardian for those terrorized by its villains. In typical Western media, the defeat of the villain is synonymous with the landscape becoming tamed and civilized. The protagonist, with their skills and virtues seemingly handed to them from God, is fated to conquer nature and whatever else refuses to bend to their righteous will. The protagonist’s inevitable victory is representative of the country’s beliefs on expansion, the idea that as a superior society America will only naturally colonize the west.
The Western novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy challenges this theme by presenting nature as indomitable. Rather than simply using the land as setting, McCarthy describes it in intense detail to dwarf the characters and their conflicts. The landscape seemingly has a will of its own, making even the most powerful characters appear miniscule in comparison. The book also questions the core religious undertones of most Westerns. There are no Puritan ideals driving the main characters onward; those who pursue a religious path, such as the novel’s priests, are deemed unfit to survive on the frontier. The religious connotations of this “promised land” have been stripped and the characters attempt to conquer it as its new god. However, the characters’ attempts at domination are ultimately thwarted by the forces of nature. Although they are expected to “win” like classical Western heroes, their failure demonstrates the point that no one is simply fated to claim the earth. Through the powerful representation of the landscape and the negative depiction of religion, Blood Meridian acts as a revisionist novel by defying two of the Western’s core values.
While in classic Westerns landscape is a mere prop over which the characters rule, Blood Meridian’s is an overwhelming presence. As people push westward in the novel, nature becomes more violent. In one scene the main group sees a dustspout that sent “pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding […] like some drunken djinn” (McCarthy 117). Nature is compared to a djinn, a powerful mythical being, which makes the landscape appear as a god that retaliates against the men who attempt to conquer it. McCarthy gives the landscape the position of higher power in order to demonstrate mankind’s helplessness in its wake. To further emphasize the sense of desolation in the face of nature, McCarthy writes that “the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out […] but rage at what?” (McCarthy 117). The dying man is powerless against the forces of nature, in fact, he cannot even “cry out” against it. He is left voiceless, unable to complete even the most basic form of protest against the overwhelming presence. The pilgrim may “rage”, but it is all but pointless when the landscape has dominated so completely over him. McCarthy’s nature is not the Western “promised land” described in Williams’ essay but is “a place where the devil rules” (Williams 101). Although the essay argues that the West is a place of opportunity, Blood Meridian defies this by depicting it as a dangerous land that dashes all hopes of domination.
Even the novel’s powerful characters, such as the godlike Judge Holden, do not completely succeed in conquering the landscape. Besides killing the “villains” of the novel, the natives who represent the wilderness, the Judge attempts domination by acquiring knowledge of the entire natural world. He is the closest character in the novel to mastery over both man and nature, but ultimately does not succeed in taking over the latter. Due to the Judge’s unique position as a sort of demi-god, a being above man but inferior to nature, McCarthy uses him as a tool to counter the core beliefs that drive the Western. In his domination over humankind, the Judge demonstrates that religion has no place on the frontier and that only man has the ability to become masters of the earth. However, in his failure to reign over nature, he simultaneously shows that no matter how powerful people become they will always remain at the mercy of the natural world.
McCarthy uses the Judge to ridicule religious characters and their beliefs, challenging the idea that nature is meant to be dominated for righteous reasons. The idea that God blessed mankind to conquer the West is a common theme in the Western. Ideal Western heroes are “personifications of civilization on the frontier” (Williams 107), people on a noble quest to tame the frontier by introducing Puritan beliefs and societal rules. However, The Judge believes that mankind alone must become god over the earth and that this religious aspect is unnecessary. As a god among men, the Judge does not think there is a higher religious power because he himself has nearly attained it. As a result, he uses his power and influence over others to ridicule religious characters who defy his beliefs. For example, in the beginning of the novel, the Judge accuses a pastor of various crimes, causing a group of citizens to kill the preacher. Afterwards, the Judge admits that his accusations were lies, revealing that he dispatches anyone who believes that a power higher than man exists. The Judge’s actions represent the novel’s assertion that religious ideals have no place on the frontier, that the mission from God to push westward does not exist.
While McCarthy uses the Judge to defy the religious ideals driving expansion into the West, he also uses the character to imply that man can only do so to a certain extent. Towards the end, the Judge is found wandering through the desert. He carries “a parasol made from rotted scraps of hide”, wearing “little more than confetti” like “some degenerate entrepreneur fleeing from a medicine show” (McCarthy 310). The Judge, known throughout the novel as a god among men, is reduced to nothing but a “degenerate entrepreneur” in the desert. His description is that of a barbarian, from his parasol made from rotting meat to his tattered clothing. He is like a con man “fleeing from a medicine show” after tricking its audience, similar to the way the Judge has cast a spell of deception over the other characters. He has made the other members of the group believe that he is both immortal and unstoppable, yet in the face of nature he is revealed to be nothing more than a man barely surviving under harsh conditions. This characterization can be likened to that of a false dandy, a character who “tries to look and act like the true dandy” and “abuses his presumed possession of mastery” (Williams 105). Unlike the “true dandy” who acts as a “medium through which divine forces express themselves” (Williams 106), the false dandy attempts to appear more masterful than he actually is. The Judge tries to become ruler of the natural world and deceives others to believe he is, yet it is the very “divine force” that he tries to conquer that reveals his false dandyism. Williams’ essay describes the Western man, the true dandy, as in balance with nature, but the Judge has instead been subjected to its torment. Despite being intellectually and physically superior to his colleagues, in the face of the wilderness the Judge is no better than they are.
While it is true that at the end of the novel the Judge remains as the sole survivor of the group, demonstrating superiority over the other characters, this is only because he was able to retreat back to civilization. In the desert he is ravaged by the forces of nature, but when he reappears in a town where the Kid is arrested he is “dressed in a suit of gray linen” with “new polished boots” (McCarthy 317). While previously he wore scraps of fabric and flesh, he now appears respectable. In the presence of civilization the Judge is masterful once again, convincing the local law enforcement to arrest the Kid using his words alone. In society he reassumes his godlike authority over people, but when left to fend for himself without others to capitalize upon he is no more than a “degenerate”. This further demonstrates how McCarthy uses the Judge to both ridicule the religious ideals driving Western expansion and to show that even the best of men cannot conquer the frontier.
In the Western, religious ideals and the forces of nature are closely connected. Heroes who tame the wilderness are the ultimate images of righteousness. They are the moral guideposts for everyone else, pushing Westward with Christian beliefs. Blood Meridian acts as a revisionist Western by ridiculing those who involve religion with Westward expansion. The characters banish typical Christian ideals, but are ultimately still dwarfed by the very landscape they attempt to rule. Their actions demonstrate to the reader that the Western man’s attempts at dominating the land are pointless in the face of the harsh wilderness. This implies that the real frontier was nothing like the idyllic west presented by most media. The revisionist Western takes this idea and uses it to provide a new take on American history. While the country’s tradition of violence and domination is best demonstrated in the period of Western expansion, it is more often than not hidden behind myths of noble cowboys and romanticized landscapes. Revisionist Westerns aim to dispel these traditional myths to shine a light on America’s less glamorous history. Although some may argue that revisionist novels such as Blood Meridian are so overly graphic or exaggerated that they detract from the main message, it is important to consider that the use of such imagery is an effective method of forcing readers to face a new point of view on an old topic. In the case of the Western, a genre whose myths are deeply ingrained into American society, jarring descriptions of both man and nature help push readers away from the ideas they often grew up with. The purpose is not to vilify the nation, but rather to demonstrate that American history is not as simple and idyllic as most people are taught.
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