Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West
War, Religion and Dance in Blood Meridian
In the novel Blood Meridian, written by Cormac McCarthy in 1985. McCarthy’s shows how he has gone through research on the history of the West before writing this book. McCarthy illustrates how gruesome the expansion to the west was. McCarthy describes a lawless group of men in the West as lesser people because of there ruthlessness on the landscape. McCarthy has recurring theme or war, religion and dance to show the life in the West.
Blood Meridian takes place in Tennessee where a runaway teenage boy who doesn’t have a name whos called “the kid” runs to New orleans where he fights and meets Judge Holden a mysterious violent man. This is where the theme of war plays a role in the novel. Holden and Glanton are leaders of their gang. They contorl their pack of nomadic criminals who rob, rape, torture, and kill across the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. McCarthy explores the era after the Mexican-American War. During this time, vigilante, mercenary gangs patrolled the Mexican/American border in pursuit of Apache Indians whose existence threatened the introduction of Western civilization. The novel has been celebrated for its historical accuracy as well as McCarthy’s literary style, which is evident in the densely poetic yet matter-of-fact language, the characters who straddle both gritty reality and familiar archetype, and its pervasively bleak and violent atmosphere. Blood Meridian is a tragic procession of bloody violent acts, from barroom brawls to great and terrible massacres on the plains; even the landscapes of the novel is indifferent forming traverse of life in them. Since McCarthy didn’t just stick to one theme in this book it expresses how he it’s a good author and how he does deserve to be on the best author list. Not only does he change the theme but in his books he puts in thought and research so there’s no missing parts. For example the theme of war wasn’t just about how McCarthy thought of war it’s about real life warriors felt.
McCarthy deconstructs the novel so readers are able to view how a dark move to the west was. By doing this it shows how culture was affected which caused different thoughts on American westward expansion because of the dark elements McCarthy uses in this novel. All of McCarthy’s books relate back to religion in belief of god. In the book Blood Meridian MaCarthy constantly asks where there a god watching them or not and if there is does he act upon the humans that are suffering. In Blood Meridian the character known as “the kid” is sleeping in a church causing them to show how no one cares to help others to express how christanity is starting to die off. In Blood Meridian, violence and hatred is expressed in the world, which shows there’s no way God could exist. If there was such a thing of “God” then the book would have a different theme. But seeing there isn’t a great outcome there is no God because of the way nonone cared about one another or their problems. For example in the beginning of the novel a Judge enters a tent at Reverend Green where there is Christian revival, causing him to slander the Reverend and quickly converts religions, However, the Judge acknowledges that there are “strange affinities” between priests and warriors, the novel connectects them by religion and war. Throughout the novel, an ironic comparison is implied between the rebirth of a soul into God through baptism with the rebirth of a warrior through the shedding of blood. This theme also helps the case on why McCarthy should be on the best authors list because he has facts it’s not opinion based. McCarthy reverses back to real time eras not just what’s happening in the moment of time.
Dance is another theme expresses thought the novel. The judge took a big role in dance becoming a theme. For example the Judge tells “the kid” in Fort Griffin to dance the ritual. This was to express how it is strictly ordered to participate in a role of personal despair. Judges characterizes warfare, as a deadly dance of fate and wills. In the novel it states ‘They must sleep, however I must dance.’ These lines are crucial to this theme because it shows how dancing also played a role. The Judge explains to “the Kid” only a true dancer who has seen war and horror will be able to dance. This shows how people did not dance unless they were apart of a fight. After awhile of dancing people started to leave first went the gangs then “the Kid”, and finally the last person dancing the Judge. The world of Blood Meridian has come to supplant the rituals of Christian worship causing many different types of dance to take place for example the black Jackson dance, the scalp hunters dance, and even the idiot dance were all dances that accommodated everyone because there was a different personality for the dances.
The Issues of Morality in Blood Meridian
Every society has an established system that categorizes a behavior as being good or bad. It all depends on what is considered proper or improper. Literary artists in various settings have had an interest in describing and discussing certain behaviours as per their perceptions. From their works and other non-fiction works, there seems to be some recognized moral principles and standards that are prevalent across many societies and cultures and could therefore be taken for being universal. These traits include honesty and compassion. Cormac McCarthy an American author produced the novel, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West with the character like the kid and Judge Holden as the protagonist and the antagonist. McCarthy uses the two characters to demonstrate the two stands of morality. The protagonist is pro-morality while the antagonist engages in activities that are seemingly immoral. The story revolves around the historical time when America was in intense violence at the border with Mexico between 1849 and 1850. During this time, there was a gang by the name of Glanton Gang that purposed to hunt human scalps. They engaged in mass murders as they sought to get the scalps. Their main target was the Native Americans as some regional leaders paid bountifully for any scalp of the Apaches. As the demand for the scalps increased, the gang murdered almost everyone that they came across including the Agrarian Indians, vulnerable Mexicans, as well as Mexican and American soldiers. Judge Holden first interacted with the kid in a religious revival in Texas where he accuses the clergyman of raping a young girl and a goat and even incites the attendees of the revival to physically attack the preacher. However, Holden’s accusations were false. In addition, the kid is involved in a fight with a bartender in an instance where he is recognized as an excellent fighter. The kid is thereafter convinced to be part of the US Army irregulars to claim land, Mexican land for the US. The gang succeeds in entering Mexico but many are killed while others, including the kid, were arrested. During the arrest, he meets Toadvine, who facilitates their release to join the Glanton Gang. Upon release, they meet Holden, who kills innocent people brutally for the scalps. The gang engages in extreme activities in Arizona where they take over a ferry belonging to the Yuma, but the Yuma’s overpower them and kill most of the gang members. The kid and Toadvine survive with injuries. Afterwards, they encounter Holden who tries to take their pistol and reserve water. Holden attacks Tobin and the kid fires back by shooting at the Judge’s two horses. Furthermore, Holden gets furious and wants to kill the kid. The kid also had chances to kill him but hesitates showing his compassionate side. They eventually get to San Diego but they are arrested again. They are suspected of being involved in the Gang and the kid tells the authorities of how the Judge led the gang in committing crimes. Therefore, the kid maintained a moral principle of being honest and compassionate despite being entangled in a very violent environment.
The kid is exposed to extreme violence throughout his life. Regardless of the fact, the kid still showed acts of compassion. At a tender age, he attended the revival where he witnessed Holden hypocritically accusing an evangelist of raping a goat and a young girl, thereby instigating people to mob the preacher (McCarthy 56). In the same manner, the character in question attacked a bartender physically injuring him after they crossed paths (109). After these encounters, the kid discovered that he was a good fighter, and as a result, he was involved in different gangs where he would use the skill in fighting to enhance his survival in a notable violent environment. Throughout his journey the kid still portrayed to readers, also noticed by Holden, that he is different than most of the members in the gang, For example, McGill, a member of the gang, was caught on fire (163). At that moment the author made it known that the kid approaches with acts of compassion to try to help his comrade but unfortunately, Glanton stopped him. Another similar illustration would be when Davie Brown, another teammate, had the misfortune of getting an arrow pierced through his leg (167). Davie asked for help and everyone refused, as they knew the consequence that would happen to them if they failed to take the arrow out, but the kid was keen on helping him. To conclude, McCarthy wanted the readers to see this side of the kid, making the little details of compassion make a great impact in the kids timeline.
People that are often exposed to gang activities are easily thought to be dishonest. Gangs are known for training their members to keeping the secrets of the group and not exposing anything despite the pressure. The kid was involves in several gang activities. He could be mistaken for a totally immoral person that would never open up about the truth concerning his membership or any other person’s participation in the gang activities. However, he proves to be moral when he was arrested and imprisoned at San Diego (253). Holden visits him in jail where he tells him that he had told the soldiers the truth about everything. The kid is however quick to tell Holden off that he was a leaser of the Glanton Gang. His sincerity and reproach amuses Holden, who in several instances had been depicted as a dishonest person that would lie over anything. Holden could have adopted the immorality from the ruthlessness in the battlefield and the exposure to violence. However, the kid’s honest character was never altered by the violence or influenced by Holden.
In conclusion, the discussion above comprehensively covers the issues of morality as they relate to exposure to violence in Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. The common assumption would be that people the engage in violent gang activities are immoral, ruthless and do not have any sense of humanity. They could be believed to have no value for the life of others or uphold simple values such as honesty and mercy. However, there are certain members of the violent communities that still uphold morality and show acts of mercy, and honesty. The kid from the novel is a perfect illustration of how humans should hold on some of the essential moral principles despite the exposure to environments that discourage any form of morality.
Violence and Redemption in Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be
Violence and Redemption
In the profound book The Powers That Be, author Walter Wink reflects on the theme of “redemptive violence” and states that: “The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right”. McCarthy’s intense Western novel Blood Meridian reveals that violence cannot save someone from evil, and the belief in “redemptive violence” is unrealistic and absurd. McCarthy’s world is a world without God. Without the basis of a faith, there is no possibility of redemptive violence. Many reviewers have determined that McCarthy’s violence is shown in a way that cannot be described as just “evil”, but McCarthy presents his violence in a context that shows that violence is not necessary for or rewarding to human beings. It is not possible for violence to be redemptive, and there are many events within Blood Meridian that prove violence to instead be destructive. When all the context of violence disappears, the violence is neither redemptive nor destructive. Through the characters of Glanton, Toadvine, and the Judge, Cormac McCarthy shoots down the possibility of violence being redemptive and emphasizes that when all is said and done, violence just is.
Through the character of John Glanton, ex-soldier and leader of his gang, McCarthy proves that violence is not redemptive. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is set in the era of manifest destiny, which represents the idea that American settlers were fated by any means necessary to expand and colonize the western part of the continent. However, through Glanton, Cormac McCarthy shames the idea of manifest destiny. Glanton and his gang kill for survival. Walter Wink writes in The Powers That Be, “Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts.” The origins of Glanton’s violent actions have no correlation with westward expansion. It is not possible for violence to be redemptive without context. Glanton’s violence is simply “what works”. There is no reason or factors that back up his rampant killing and merciless scalping except for the occasional survival. During the gang’s journey, Glanton and his men pass through the Gileños camp. The Gileños act peaceful, do nothing to provoke Glanton and his gang, and yet the men ruthlessly raid the campground. McCarthy describes the scene: “Women were screaming and naked children and one old man tottered forth waving a pair of white pantaloons. The horsemen moved among them and slew them with clubs or knives… Glanton and his chiefs swung back through the village… hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy” (162). The motivation behind Glanton’s random violence is lost. Manifest destiny, faith, or survival plays no part in the gang’s killings. Through Glanton, McCarthy proves that without context violence just is.
Through the character of Toadvine, another member of Glanton’s merciless gang, McCarthy confirms that violence without context is insignificant. Toadvine, unlike many of the other criminals that he travels with, in fact shows a slight sense of humanity during his time with the gang. But even with the small portion of compassion, he does nothing to stop the violence or remove himself from any violent situation. This emphasizes McCarthy’s ideas that violence cannot be redemptive, and that violence just is. One example of Toadvine’s strange appearance of sympathy is his interaction with the small Apache boy that the men take into their care. McCarthy describes the scene: “The Judge sat with the Apache boy before the fire and it watched everything with dark berry eyes and some of the men played with it and made it laugh” (170). Toadvine and the men enjoy the stranger’s company but, “in the morning the Judge was dandling it on one knee while the men saddled their horses. Toadvine saw him with the child as he passed with his saddle but when he came back the Judge had scalped it” (170). This casual act of violence strangely upsets Toadvine, and he pulls out his pistol and says to the Judge, “Goddamn you, Holden” (170). Toadvine seems furiously confused as to why the Judge had killed and scalped the innocent young boy. When the entire context is stripped away from the scene Toadvine simply lets random violence happen, and he soon forgets about the instance and, at the Judge’s orders, puts his gun away. The Judge is also representative of the myth of redemptive violence.
Judge Holden, perhaps the most vicious killer traveling alongside Glanton’s gang, is a character that enriches McCarthy’s argument on the myth of redemptive violence. Holden keeps the gang together. He, in fact, believes that violence is redemptive and he preaches this conviction to his followers. At the base of Judge Holden’s sermons is the idea that war is God. In Blood Meridian, the characters reside in a world without God, so it is easy for Glanton’s gang to believe what the Judge preaches. Walter Wink reflects on this idea, writing that, “In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favor those who conquer.” The Judge believes that the only way to survive and prosper is through violence. He examines the idea that by knowing everything, one conquers everything. Wink also writes, “If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.” To know is to control. Through the Judge, McCarthy shows the destruction of violence.
Many critics argue that the McCarthy’s portrayal of violence in his novel Blood Meridian is shown to be redemptive and necessary. However, set in the era and the ideology of manifest destiny, Blood Meridian implodes the idea of redemptive violence. With the context of religion stripped away from every action in the novel, there can be no possible way that the violence could have a reason or justification. The actions of McCarthy’s characters in his novel prove that the myth of redemptive violence disillusions these warlike men. Walter Wink writes in his book The Powers That Be, “Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our genes. Humanity is not the originator of evil, but merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it.” Wink’s idea parallels with McCarthy’s belief that man is an evil being. Through his characters, McCarthy proves that violence cannot be redemptive, and when all context is taken away, violence simply is.
Judge Holden: Role of Antagonist in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
An Exploration of Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
As human beings, we often find ourselves searching. It is ingrained within us to question the nature of the world, and to discover the truth of what surrounds us. From the creation of the wheel to the first landing on the moon, we have never stopped exploring and asking new questions. One question that humanity has searched to answer since the dawn of our existence is a seemingly simple one. What is evil? This question is one that has consistently eluded us. Naturally, many intriguing and promising answers have come to the surface in an attempt to answer what evil might be. However, evil seems to be a broader and more complex subject than we have been able to define within the confines of language.
The nature of evil may, in some ways, be a contributing factor to its persistent ambiguity. Evil is not a concept easily perceived by those that are not, in some form or fashion evil themselves. To those blessed with goodness, evil is a concept that is often understood in its shallowest of terms. To begin to understand evil, however, one must actually be exposed to evil. Due to this translational handicap, man has attempted to form the concept of evil through experiences, thoughts, and anecdotes, among other things. Humans choose to form the idea of evil through many small wisps of enlightenment coalescing into a tangible concept, rather than defining evil in the typical fashion one might explain any other simpler notion by attempting to categorize and restrict such a broad and varied word within a specific, concise meaning.
In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the antagonist, Judge Holden, serves as one such wisp of enlightenment. Holden transgresses from the laws of nature, normalcy, and all good and wholesome. Through his transgression, Holden becomes a supernatural embodiment of evil. Portraying one of the most supreme villains ever depicted in literature and thereby yielding new light to the study of evil’s meaning.
One aspect of Holden’s aura of evil surrounding him is a close resemblance to The Devil, both in appearance and nature. The most immediately disquieting trait of The Judge, is his appearance. Judge Holden is seen in Blood Meridian as “An enormous man dressed in an oilcloth slicker…bald as a stone and he had no trace of beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them. He was close to seven feet in height” (McCarthy 6). Holden’s strange and powerful figure clearly parallels that of a snake. Completely hairless and eerily pale, Holden seems to “shy [in] ne like the moon”, similar to a scaled reptile (McCarthy 175). Similarly, The Devil is often compared to a reptile. In the Bible, The Devil is referred to as “the great dragon” (NIV Revelation 12:9) as well as “the ancient serpent” (NIV Revelation 12:9), even being referred to in Ezekiel as “every precious stone” (NIV 28:13), relating The Devil’s appearance to a luminous and scale-like quality. The Devil is also said to be extremely tall and powerful, having been one of the greatest angels under God (Wellman).
Holden also shows supernatural qualities of health, rarely sleeping and seeming to not age. While death lies in nearly every page of Blood Meridian, Holden is never injured and is seemingly immune to the chaos and death surrounding him. By the end of the novel, The Judge is the only one left alive of the hundred some people that started off in Blanton’s gang, Holden having killed a fair share of them himself, proving without a doubt Holden’s supernatural luck and immunity to mortal law.
Judge Holden closely resembles The Devil in his cunning and tricky nature. In the novel, Holden is described as a renaissance man of sorts. Holden proves to know five languages, can track game, shoot uncannily, play the fiddle deftly, and dance better than any man (McCarthy). Holden’s skill as a fiddle player is an obvious reference to The Devil, who is often referred to as a violin player, using it as an instrument of his trickery. Holden uses his seemingly unending knowledge to cloak himself in a scholarly mirage of harmlessness. Along the trail Holden sits with the gang, speaking passionately of geology and minerals, creating awe and admiration of his knowledge (McCarthy). Yet, when asked later on why he documents and studies nature so profusely, The Judge states “that it was his intention to expunge [the knowledge of nature] from the memory of man” (McCarthy 147). This quote lends a disturbingly different commentary on his seemingly good natured actions, shrouding his true objectives further into mystery. Judge Holden’s name itself is a clever, ironic jibe at Jesus’s popular title as “Judge of the quick and the dead” from the Apostle’s Creed. Holden frequently uses people’s misperception of his secretly convoluted nature in order to gain an upper hand, leading people to think of him, ironically as a savior or fine leader. The contrast between his fellow leader of the band, Blanton, with Holden wearing all white and Blanton all black exemplifies this horrendous misperception of Judge Holden by many (McCarthy 211). While Blanton is seemingly shrouded in darkness, Holden is beholden in light, deceitfully implying purity and godliness.
In many occasions, throughout the novel, The Judge uses his superior knowledge and silver tongue in order to get himself out of potentially hazardous situations. In one of the first instances in Blood Meridian in which the boy is with Blanton’s gang, Holden talks his way out of the gang being shot down by a Mexican armada and arms dealers by lying to them charismatically and deftly. “He sketched for the sergeant a problematic career of the man before them , his hands drafting with a marvelous dexterity the shapes of what varied paths conspired here in the ultimate authority of the extant- as he told them- like strings drawn together through the eye of a ring” (McCarthy 88). In fact, in the presence of chaos and threats Holden becomes most alive, as if warming to his natural habitat.
Holden embraces chaos throughout the novel as if the fear and pain gives him nourishment. His love of chaos is reflected through his very philosophy. In one chapter, Holden states that “War is God” (McCarthy 261), wholeheartedly accepting that killing is a game of life and that everything significant revolves around death. Holden purposely surrounds himself with chaos, as if he needs it to survive. Much like The Devil, his only objective in life seems to be the furtherance of pain and suffering of others. In one instance, Holden buys two dogs from a little boy, only to immediately drown the dogs in a lake all for the sake of watching the innocent child’s dismay. When the kid, the protagonist of the novel who eventually meets his fate at the hands of Judge Holden, first observes The Judge, he witnesses Holden enter a church tent mid sermon, “smoking a cigar even in this nomadic house of God” and denounce the preacher in front of a full room as an imposter (McCarthy 6). The Judge accuses the reverend of being wanted in multiple states for child molestation and “for having congress with a goat” (McCarthy 7).
The Judge’s ability to move a crowd to his bidding is also apparent throughout the novel. Immediately after the reverend is beaten and chased out of town by the angry crowd of church goers, The Judge admits that he had never even met Reverend Green before. Instead of hating Holden, the crowd buys him drinks in amusement. When The Judge chooses Blanton’s gang as his new home, Holden easily inserts himself into Blanton’s Gang, and soon controls the group completely, with Blanton’s full support.
Through Judge Holden’s met human essence, Cormac McCarthy enlightens the reader of what it means to be evil. The Judge’s evil permeates throughout the novel, leaving the reader with a greater sense of discovery, and closer towards understanding the hugely encompassing concept of evil. Humanity may never achieve complete discovery of all the world’s mysteries, but through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Judge Holden’s insidious nature leads humanity one step further towards our irresistible goal to define evil.
THESIS: In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the antagonist, Judge Holden, serves as one such wisp of enlightenment. Holden transgresses from the laws of nature, normalcy, and all good and wholesome. Through his transgression, Holden becomes a supernatural embodiment of evil, and in turn, not only one of the most supreme villains ever portrayed in literature, but most importantly serves as a beautiful embodiment of evil, giving new light to the study of its meaning.
That most immediately disquieting about The Judge, is his appearance.
A. B. C. etc. Judge Holden is seen in Blood Meridian as “An enormous man dressed in an oilcloth slicker…bald as a stone and he had no trace of beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them. He was close to seven feet in height” (6) Holden’s strange and powerful figure clearly parallels that of a snake. Completely hairless, and eerily pale, Holden is seen to “shy [in] ne like the moon” (175), like a scaled reptile. Similarly, The Devil is often compared to a reptile, in the Bible being referred to as “the great dragon” (Revelation 12:9) as well as “the ancient serpent” (Revelation 12:9), even being referred to in Ezekiel as “every precious stone” (28:13), relating the devil’s appearance to a luminous and scale-like quality. The Devil is also said to be extremely tall and powerful, having been one of the greatest angels under God (“Does the Bible Say What the Devil, Satan, or Demons Look Like?”). Holden also shows supernatural qualities of health, rarely sleeping and seeming to not age. While death lies in nearly every page of Blood Meridian, Holden never is injured, seemingly immune to the chaos and death surrounding him. By the end of the novel, The Judge is the only one left alive of the hundred some people that started off in Blanton’s gang, Holden having killed a fair share of them himself.
II.Judge Holden closely resembles The Devil in his cunning and tricky nature.
A.B.C. etc. In the novel, Holden is described as a renaissance man of sorts, being said to know five languages, how to track game, shoot well, and play fiddle and dance better than any man, which in its own right is an obvious reference to The Devil, often referred to as a fiddle player, using it alongside his trickery. In many occasions, throughout the novel, The Judge uses his superior knowledge and silver lounge in order to get himself out of potentially hazardous situations. In one of the first instances in Blood Meridian in which the boy is with Blanton’s gang, Holden talks his way out of the gang being shot down by a Mexican armada and arms dealers by lying to them charismatically and deftly. “He sketched for the sergeant a problematic career of the man before them, his hands drafting with a marvelous dexterity the shapes of what varied paths conspired here in the ultimate authority of the extant- as he told them- like strings drawn together through the eye of a ring.” (88) In fact, when in the presence of chaos and threats, Holden seems to become the most alive.
Holden embraces chaos throughout the novel, as if the fear of others gives him fulfilment and revitalizes him. Much like The Devil, his only objective in life seems to be the furtherance of pain and suffering of others.
A.B.C.etc. Holden embraces chaos throughout the novel, as if the fear of others gives him fulfilment and revitalizes him. His love of chaos is reflected through his philosophy stated in one later chapter that “War is God” (261) in which he wholeheartedly embraces his idea that killing is the game of life, and everything significant revolves around death. Holden purposely surrounds himself with chaos, as if he needs it survive. Much like The Devil, his only objective in life seems to be the furtherance of pain and suffering of others. In one instance, Holden buys two dogs from a little boy, only to immediately drown the dogs in a lake all for the sake of watching the boy’s dismay. The first time the reader is introduced to the reader is when the kid, the protagonist of the novel who eventually meets his fate at the hands of Judge Holden, observes The Judge enter a church mid sermon, “smoking a cigar even in this nomadic house of God” (6) and denounce the preacher in front of a full room as a an imposter. The Judge states the reverend to be wanted in multiple states for child molestation and “for having congress with a goat” (7), all of which are found to be utter lies stated by The Judge for his own amusement, once the reverend is beaten and chased out of town by the angry crowd. The Judge’s ability to move a crowd to his bidding is apparent throughout the novel. The Judge easily inseminates himself into Blanton’s Gang, and soon controls the gang completely, seemingly to Blanton’s full support.
Blood Meridian and the Depiction of Violence
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.
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.