Existentialism in Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is such a symbolically and philosophically dense novel that anything short of volumes dedicated solely towards its analysis would not do McCarthy’s work justice. However, it may still prove beneficial to hone in on a certain fragment of the text and see what may be gleaned from it through literary analysis. Though this novel covers a vast amount of different topics and philosophies, one that stands out particularly is existentialism. Nowhere is human finitude more glaringly obvious than in Blood Meridian. So, moving forward, there must be yet more specificity, as it is conceivable an entire book still could be dedicated solely to existential philosophy in Blood Meridian. For this essay’s purpose, which is dwarfed compared to how deep and rich certain ideas may be mined out of the novel, the reader may look to specifically the end passage of the story as well as the relationship between the Judge and the kid as symbols of existential philosophy.

It may be beneficial first to get a sense of existentialism in which can later be applied to the novel. An umbrella statement is shown in William Barrett’s thorough examination of existentialism in his book Irrational Man. He writes:

Science stripped nature of its human forms and presented man with a universe that was neutral, alien, in its vastness and force, to his human purposes. Religion, before this phase set in, had been a structure that encompassed man’s life, providing him with a system of images and symbols by which he could express his own aspirations towards psychic wholeness. With the loss of this containing framework man became not only a dispossessed but a fragmentary being…Moreover, man’s feeling of homelessness, of alienation…has come to [have him] feel himself an outsider…to God, to nature, and to the gigantic social apparatus…[even] from his own self. (Barrett 35, 36)

Existentialism, as shown by Barrett, is essentially the idea that man, through science (which is a point that will be brought up later) has come to realize that human life, in all its senses, is finite; in that, man is “homeless” as Barrett accurately puts it. It is to realize that there will be an end and nothing else after that end.

This mode of thought is highly relevant to Blood Meridian. This is a novel that not only deals with death at astonishing volumes, but it deals with it in ways that are absolutely gruesome. It is a novel, in fact, partly known for its grotesqueness and pure violence alone. The Glanton Gang, its core members as well as the ones that weave in and out throughout the story, are intimate with death: “friends” (or at least acquaintances) are killed at incredible volumes and by various tribes as well as amongst one another, members of the Glanton Gang were issuers of death themselves (whether it be by scalping, by gun, by throat-slitting, etc.), and all had come face-to-face with death in the most intimate sense. Dana Philips writes: “Blood Meridian, in contrast to most novels and most popular Westerns, accepts homelessness as its inevitable condition. It does not express an aspiration for domesticity and repose–for a home on the range” (452). If anyone was to become familiar with existential ideas it was them; perhaps this novel even acts as a sort of commentary on existential philosophy: look how atrocious people can behave without a God of some sort. Babies are hung on bushes, brains are boiled, children are scalped, puppies are shot; the list could extend for many pages. The world portrayed in Blood Meridian is anarchic, pure chaos. It is a Godless place. Or certainly there is at least strong argument for it. One of the introductory passages has a priest getting shot on account of things that were likely not true, churches are desecrated and abandoned, anyone that seems to make notions towards a God is ridiculed; Tobin, one of the instrumental members of the Glanton Gang, is an ex-priest. There is an immense amount of religious artifacts and symbols, however they are nearly always portrayed in a bad or damning light. The kid himself seems to act as a symbol to McCarthy. He seems to be one of the only members of the Glanton Gang that can even be considered to be semi-redeemable morally. Pair that with the fact that towards the end of the book, with the kid now the man, the reader sees him having an almost instinctual desire to make amends with God: “He had a bible that he’d found at the mining camps and he carried this book with him no word of which he could read.” (McCarthy 325). In this, through an existential lense, the reader may interpret McCarthy’s having the man reach towards God as a comment on what a world could look like without religion. The kid throughout the novel seems to be the only one harboring any form of sympathy, as callous as it may appear at times. In his desire to become acquainted with religion, the reader may make the connection that an association with God is the only way to have some form of morality at all. Without it, the reader sees what horrific tragedies occur.

In the moments just leading up to the Judge and the man’s final conversation, the reader may look to a scene that emphasizes certain points through the random death of a dancing bear at the bar in which the Judge and the man were currently at:

One of the men had drawn a longbarreled cavalry pistol from his belt. He turned and leveled the pistol toward the stage…The shot was thunderous and in the afterclap all sound in that room ceased. The bear had been shot through the midsection. He let out a low moan and he began to dance faster, dancing in silence save for the slap of his great footpads on the planks. Blood was running down his groin…The man with the pistol fired again and the pistol bucked and roared and the black smoke rolled and the bear groaned and began to reel drunkenly. (McCarthy 339)

Though the Judge and the man have not even begun to talk to one another yet, the reader still sees signs of existentialism. The seeming randomness of the shooter’s act alone acts somewhat metaphorically in that death is oftentimes rash, random, and unprecedented. Elmo Kennedy has an appropriate maxim: “Death is so easy and life is so random.” These points highlight existentialism in that they not only emphasize human finitude, but rather they go further than that and acknowledge this finitude. Moving forward in the passage, the reader sees that after the bear is shot, he dances faster. This perhaps is McCarthy’s commenting on the human spirit. As the bear is shot and more or less realizes its impending death, it not only resumes its activity as before, but it does so with even more gusto. On that same token, just as man emerges into enlightenment about there being no afterlife (and thus an eventual total and genuine death in its most real sense), man resumes its activity as before as well. Man does not just cease to exist or cease to pursue passion; rather it does so in new and different ways, open now to new possibility. And to continue on this tangent, man may even seek to do what he wants with more urgency just as the bear dances more enthusiastically upon getting shot; man’s knowing that death is random and imminent prompts him to pursue what he will now with a sense of a deadline.

One might look to the Judge and the kid as a pair; through an existential lense, the Judge represents science and reason whereas the kid represents a remnant of faith towards anything that could be considered a religion. The Judge is this mega-intelligent, mega-philosophical entity. He is this seven foot man who can persuade even the most difficult individuals into doing things one could never imagine them doing, a master of rhetoric. He also speaks several languages (and likely knows more; the reader is only introduced to the ones that the Judge himself is confronted with. His knowledge likely extends far past this.) and seems to have an extensive grasp on all things scientific. He is always lecturing, sketching models in his book, and imposing his philosophies onto the group. In fact, his knowledge in all things scientific saves the Glanton Gang several times over; however, there is one event that stands out as particularly unlikely and particularly demonic. The Judge has mixed together a variety of miscellaneous materials and out of the essential nothingness around them finds a way to create gunpowder. The final touches to his concoction are shown somewhat horrifically as such:

We hauled forth our members and at it we went and the judge on his knees kneadin the mass with his naked arms and the piss was splashin about and he was cryin out to us to piss, man, piss for your very souls for cant you see the redskins yonder, and laughin the while and workin up this great mass in a foul black dough, a devil’s batter by the stink of it and him not a bloody dark pastryman himself I dont suppose and he pulls out his knife and he commences to trowel it across the southfacin rocks, spreadin it out thin with the knifeblade and watchin the sun with one eye and him smeared with blacking and reekin of piss and sulphur and grinnin and wieldin the knife with a dexterity that was wondrous like he did it every day of his life. (McCarthy 138)

It is ritualistic and occult-like, but ultimately it is science and it is what saves them. Assuming the Judge as a symbol of newfound knowledge and reason, the reader sees a helpful figure but he also sees that same figure carry a capacity for so much potential to be evil.

On this comparison, the kid then would be that ever-present yearning for the spiritual or religious. If anyone is to not believe in the mercy of a God, it is the kid: abused in some form as a child and then going on to endure a life of what is likely the closest thing to a Hell, the kid still at the end of the novel longs for God in some form or another, as he is carrying a bible he cannot even read. It is the instinctual extension of ourselves to the submission of some greater power. And the kid, being one of the very, very few figures in the story with a desire for religion, is also portrayed as one of the most moral and likely one the reader feels the most affinity towards. There is also the expriest Tobin who throughout the novel seems to hold on to some form of faith and belief in God. He too is portrayed in a “flattering” light, or at least a more sympathetic one. Looking at the novel with existentialism in mind, McCarthy seems to be saying that a Godless place (which the setting of Blood Meridian very much is) has the potential to become so evil. It is a sort of protest towards the complete abandonment of God.

There may be a message to be discerned from the final encounter between the Judge and what is now the man. The reader sees, after their conversation on war which deserves a book of analysis in itself, the man go to the bathroom. Upon opening the door, the man sees the Judge waiting omnipotently for him: “The judge was seated upon the closet. He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him.” (McCarthy 347). What the reader sees here is the ultimate downfall of the man, and thus, in looking at the story as an existential one, the ultimate downfall of an affinity for religion. The Judge, always naked, has a desire to overpower what he thinks is defying him. In that sense, reason and knowledge seeks to overpower, directly or indirectly, the belief in religion. The two inherently cannot exist harmoniously. The Judge is suspected by some to sodomize the kid (as the phallus is oftentimes considered a symbol of power and even domination) and looking at this metaphorically, the reader may interpret it as the eventual complete erasure of religion and/or the strive for religion. It does so with malice too, as later we see one man advising another to not even look at what became of the man. It is reason completely dominating the idea of religion with the former being the only one left standing.

The lens of existential philosophy works wonderfully to lend new focus to Blood Meridian. McCarthy was raised a Catholic, but knowing he is just as much a physicist as he is a novelist, his personal religious views may be considered mysterious at best. Contemporary Authors Online writes in McCarthy’s biography: “He is a novelist of religious feeling who appears to subscribe to no creed but who cannot stop wondering in the most passionate and honest way what gives life meaning.” Regardless of his own personal religious views, there is undoubtedly much existential philosophy to be found throughout Blood Meridian, and it is a novel that is much deserving of more thorough investigation and analysis.

Works Cited

Barrett, William. Irrational man: a Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Anchor , 1990. Print.

“Cormac McCarthy.” Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center, login.ezp.mesacc.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mcc_mesa&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1000113401&it=r&asid=3a6d0780fc238aad9ee56b0a50a6223d. Accessed 17 Apr. 2017.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York: Vintage International, 2010. Print.

Phillips, Dana. “History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian” American Literature 68.2 (1996): 433-60. Print.

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