Blood Meridian Essay Topics

Published in Issue 16

Discussed in this essay:
• The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp.
• Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp.
• Child of God, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 206 pp.
• Suttree, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 480 pp.
• Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 352 pp.
• All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 320 pp.
• The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 432 pp.
• Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 292 pp.
• No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.00. 309 pp.
• The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 287 pp.

This essay has been broken up into multiple pages. To read the entire essay in one printer-friendly page, click here.

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Blood Meridian

Thus, the person that Suttree will become very much resembles the cowboy-protagonists of McCarthy’s next four novels. Though surrounded by everymen who change as circumstance dictates, the more willful men in these four books are guided instinctively by their very similar underlying beliefs, and they cling to what they know, even in the face of otherness and extreme adversity.

Blood Meridian, the first of the four, is set at the beginning of the myth of the West, and the next three, comprising The Border Trilogy, are set at the end. Though these novels reevaluate the myth of the rise and fall of the great American West, they also have loftier aspirations: they are questing novels with no clear goal, and in the inevitable confusion entailed by a quest with no point they attempt to articulate a philosophy about life. In deconstructing the trappings of the heroic journey, these four books have the most clearly defined plot arcs and sense of morality of any McCarthy had written up to that point. It is here that McCarthy will most clearly—perhaps at times too clearly—elaborate the philosophical beliefs that animate his writing.

Blood Meridian also marks an important shift from McCarthy’s Appalachian novels for how he changes his use of the road as a trope. The road is without a doubt the main organizing trope of all McCarthy’s work, yet, unlike the denizens of McCarthy’s first four novels, who were content to wander in small circles within the environs of Knoxville, Tennessee, in Blood Meridian and the books that follow McCarthy’s characters will become true wanderers. They will strike out on the open road and become lost.

Blood Meridian was the only book McCarthy published in the 1980s, coming six years after Suttree and seven years before All the Pretty Horses. Such great expanses of time are likely significant: in this period McCarthy had outgrown his native Tennessee, given up his status as a drifter, found a new home in New Mexico, and celebrated his fiftieth birthday. Congruent with these personal changes, Blood Meridian both distinctly evolves McCarthy’s style, setting, and concerns post-Suttree yet remains very much unlike the explorations McCarthy will make of the same terrain in The Border Trilogy.

Blood Meridian is a bridge between two distinct writers. It marks the start of McCarthy’s use of the myths and landscape of the Southwest border, yet it also draws from prior works by combining the carvinalesque atmosphere of Suttree with the violent world typical of the three novels that preceded that book. It is the author’s most blatant and most successful attempt at an epic, and it begins his use of extremely villainous characters to represent pure evil.

The book involves a gang of Americans hired by the Mexican government to kill Indians. With every shotgun blast and severed scalp these men create their own reality, and thus, whereas McCarthy’s earlier characters simply accepted their anarchic world, Blood Meridian’s characters attempt to create their own. In this they have a leader: Judge Holden, a Kurtz-like philosopher warrior who believes in war as others believe in God. The judge talks over the heads of the rest of the men and is thus often forced to debate himself, and it is in his gnomic, contradictory pronouncements that McCarthy creates Blood Meridian’s dialectic over the nature of free will. The judge’s most consistent debater is found in the character of the kid; although he lacks the learning to debate the judge with words (indeed, the judge is at one point said to know all languages and all things), the kid’s humanistic actions at vital junctures during the gang’s rampages through the Mexican north implicitly contradict the judge’s philosophy of domination and death.

Blood Meridian has been identified (to my mind correctly) as an embodiment of the Vietnam aesthetic: its almost unending series of horrors, its theme of a paternalistic American war in a colored nation, and its dramatization of men being desensitized into killers are all reminiscent of the experiences of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, and McCarthy’s depiction of such in Meridian draws heavily on art inspired by Vietnam: the war films of auteurs like Kubrick and Coppola and books like Michael Herr’s Dispatches. In this way, it is the logical culmination of the brutish, morally befuddled world that McCarthy develops in his first four novels. 1

We must pause here a moment to pay our respects to the judge, variously described as Ahab, the white whale, or half and half. Massive, hairless, at times a mad war god and at others a fearfully powerful infant, the judge compels attention as an incredible enigma and perhaps McCarthy’s greatest creation. Is he human or not? What does he believe? Where does he go after Blood Meridian ends, and was his tenure restricted to the dark period of manifest destiny, or might he still be a part of the American way of life?

In a typically convoluted declaration, the judge sums up both sides of his thoughts on free will:

This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation. . . .

The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Essentially, the judge argues that knowledge and willful action are only possible once all the facts of a life are known, but the problem is that the only way to make these facts known is to live a life. Thus, as the judge says, life is an already-woven “tapestry”; merely tracing one thread through it, a person will have “taken charge” of his life. But again, the paradox: this is only possible once the tapestry is woven, once a life has been lived and all choices are already made.

I dwell on this point because this is not only the question at the heart of ,em>Blood Meridian but also the question at the hearts of The Border Trilogy and No Country for Old Men. And, in fact, in nascent form something like this philosophy can be seen in McCarthy’s writing before Blood Meridian. McCarthy is an author obsessed with moments of choice for his characters, and in the above quote the judge lays out the quandary that drives him to obsess over these questions of choice, as well as those of divination and moral culpability. Is there a point in which a person can preview the tapestry whole-formed, and thus be in a position to truly choose his course in the world? Or must we always be in the dark as to what form our life will take when all is said and done, and therefore not truly be in a position to make choices that will define our future?

On these questions Blood Meridian is intentionally vague; indeed, one of the book’s great pleasures is its artful ambiguity, watching how McCarthy balances between any clear statement on the book’s big questions. Because the judge takes pleasure in watching his companions struggle beneath the weight of his pronouncements, and because those very remarks are often obscure to the extreme, it is difficult to say what precisely is the judge’s morality, or if he even has one beyond a worship of the chaos of war. He does indeed make many statements that hint at a morality (e.g., “War is the most honest form of divination”), yet these conflict with the fealty he pays to something approaching a great worship of randomness. At one point, he quite forcefully declares that human agency is meaningless in the face of something like a cosmic destiny:

A man seeks his destiny and no other, said the judge. Will or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well.

The great reckoning in Blood Meridian is something that might be called “the kid’s choice.” Alone among all the book’s characters, the kid has a chance to shoot the judge and see if he can be killed. In a tense, perfectly wrought scene, the judge stands naked and unarmed in the desert before the kid, who is armed with a gun and quite pointedly described as a “free agent.” The judge taunts the kid, goads him to take a shot, and the kid is cheered by one of his companions: “You’ll get no second chance lad. Do it. He is naked. He is unarmed. God’s blood, do you think you’ll best him any other way? . . . Do it or I swear your life is forfeit.”

This man ends up being correct. The kid does not shoot—whether he ever truly had a chance to kill the judge, and whether his agency, real or imagined, made any difference in the outcome, are all questions Blood Meridian remains silent on. The scene brings to mind Sylder’s question from The Orchard Keeper: “who owes who?” How did the judge and the kid end up in this battle? Was there any logical order that brought them together, can we unwind and understand the strands of causation that made them mortal enemies? Again, Blood Meridian is wonderfully ambiguous on these questions; what is known with certainty is that at the novel’s end the judge tracks the kid down years after the men have disbanded and murders him by strangling him against his enormous belly in an outhouse.

In the light of the kid’s choice not to murder, it is worth looking back for a moment to McCarthy’s first book, The Orchard Keeper, where McCarthy depicts the very first murder of his career: Sylder, the whiskey-runner, kills a hitchhiker who attacks him. Foreshadowing the judge’s ambiguous supernaturalism, the hitchhiker radiates a “profound and unshakable knowledge of the presence of evil.” Just a few sentences later McCarthy further embellishes this: “Thanks, old buddy, the man said, sliding across the seat to the far door without apparent use of any locomotor appendages.” Also recalling Blood Meridian, the murder is an act that Sylder quite consciously chooses to commit:

Sylder held him like that for a long time. Like squeezing a boil, he thought. . . . Then he eased his grip and the man’s eyes widened.

For Christ’s sake, he gasped. Jesus Christ, just turn me loose.

Sylder put his face to the man’s and in a low voice said, You better call on somebody closer than that. . . . He dug his thumb into the man’s windpipe and felt it collapse like a dried tule.

This is clearly a moment in which Sylder chooses death over life, and this murder prefigures the rest of the novel: Sylder will later assume a fatherly role to the son of the man he has (unbeknownst to either) murdered, and there are intimations that the book’s other principal character has his life impacted by the dead man’s corpse. This would seem to mean that Sylder has chosen his fate, except that at the moment of the murder he had no clue as to the repercussions such a murder would entail. Sylder’s choice to murder resembles the kid’s choice not to: they are choices whose willfulness is uncertain.

The kid’s choice not to pull the trigger, and the quite clear moral and philosophical matters that underlie it, inaugurate a new stage in McCarthy’s career: before Blood Meridian his writing has never been so allegorical, with characters obviously representing certain ideas. McCarthy will further his newfound interest in allegory in The Border Trilogy as his two protagonists, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, adventure in a mid 20th century Mexico. Never does McCarthy so much become a novelist of ideas as in the trilogy, especially its large hinge novel, The Crossing, although the results here are mixed. Whereas Blood Meridian’s ambiguity and carnivalesque feel could support the judge’s occasional philosophizing as just one more odd element in an extremely strange and baroque picaresque, the allegorical elements of The Border Trilogy stick out more. In these books that finally brought McCarthy widespread fame, it seems he took up a form of writing that he could make salable, but not artistic.

Just as Blood Meridian’s ambiguity and moral uncertainty owe much to the aesthetics of Vietnam, The Border Trilogy’s moral clarity seem rooted in . . .

Published in Issue 16

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This is a paper I wrote last year.  Just wondering  if anyone would be interested in giving me their thoughts.


Blood Meridian is a story rife with sacrificial qualities.  Though this paper is not of the length to sufficiently argue that the core of the book is what René Girard calls the “sacrificial crisis,” this paper will begin the work of looking at the sacrificial nature of the novel’s structure.

Always in the background of Blood Meridian is the historical setting, the Mexican War, a war for borders and a melting pot of cultures, order and disorder, and unchecked violence.  The Mexican War is a crucial backdrop to a sacrificial understanding of the text, as all-out-indiscriminate war, as it is poetically rendered in Blood Meridian, constitutes a sacrificial crisis, in which war does not contaminate warriors alone but simply anyone who lives.   As Rene Girard states in Violence and the Sacred when discussing Greek tragedy, “it is not the differences but the loss of them that gives rise to violence and chaos” (51).

In addition to the Mexican war playing a structural and thematic role in the novel, the epigraphs from Paul Valéry and The Yuma Daily Sun are critical foregrounds that seem to cast a more explicit light on what I argue is the novel’s purpose, which is to expose what Girard calls the “hidden violence of the sacrificial crisis” which “eventually succeeds in destroying distinctions,” and constitutes “a crisis affecting the cultural order” (49).   Just as Girard notes how “with the passage of time the terror inspired by the original crisis fades from memory” (285), the epigraph from Valéry, which states, “Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint…Finally, you fear blood more and more.  Blood and time” (1), seems to be pointedly reminding the modern reader not to forget the mechanisms by which cultural order is thrown into chaos as well as restored to stasis, which is the sacrificial crisis, and the selection and killing of a surrogate victim, all of which find their origin in religion.  The surrogate victim is that being, or group, which is elected to be responsible for the violence that threatens a communities’ cultural stability, and the killing of the surrogate victim is the means “by which men expel from their consciousness the truth about their violent nature” (Girard, 82-3).  McCarthy is clearly not interested in expelling this truth.

An interesting note about McCarthy’s allusion to Valéry’s passage is that it is taken from Valéry’s book History and Politics, and is a passage from a dialogue between a fictional Chinese man to a fictional Valéry (cited in Sepich, Notes on Blood Meridian, 110-11).  Of course, the Chinese man is not really a Chinese man, and Valéry is and is not really Valéry.  The Chinese man is Valéry, and the fictional Valéry is his European readership, as well as himself.  Using a Chinese man, a foreigner, though one who also speaks English, fulfills the requirements of a surrogate victim, as he represents a “double” (Girard, 271-2).  As a foreigner the Chinese man exists outside the community and its cultural order, and is therefore a foreign object within the body of the community.  However, seeing as how he clearly speaks English very well, he has access to and an understanding of the symbols, the words, this community depends on in order to create and maintain the signification of differences which retain order.  He therefore exists exterior to the community and has access to its interiority, fulfilling the qualifications of the sacrificial substitute, an exterior force, from outside the community, that exposes the community to the sacred, the violence within itself which is identical to the violence of its past and seems to be the foretelling of its future.

This represents a tendency to use the foreigner as a sacrificial substitute, reflected early on in Blood Meridian as the Kid wanders violently through the south: “They fight…All races, All breeds.  Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes.  Men from lands so far and queer that standing over them where they lie bleeding in the mud he feels mankind itself vindicated” (4).  I of course do not argue that foreign policy is a theme or focus in Blood Meridian, though I do argue that McCarthy seems to recognize the sacrificial relationship inherent in Western foreign policy, past and present, as a type among other types of sacrificial relationships, which govern our own relationships.

The epigraph from The Yuma Daily Sun reports an anthropological finding in northern Ethiopia discovered in 1982, which states that “re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped” (1).   Here McCarthy references historical fact, something akin to the “original act of violence” (26) that induced the cycle of the sacrificial crisis and the surrogate victim.  Here McCarthy quite explicitly points to ancient history and then begins his story in 1847, a mere 138 years prior to publication of Blood Meridian.  The intention here is clear.  If spontaneous and undifferentiated violence, represented by scalping, continues to occur or simply rears its head again 300,000 years later in the Mexican War, what makes the modern world believe that 138 years makes such a huge difference between humanity then and now?   The sacrificial mechanisms used to hide the violent means of retaining our cultural order may today take on different forms, some perhaps more subtle, but what is hidden is still violence, and what is mitigated is the fear of violent outbreak and that fear itself being the catalyst for that same violent outbreak.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and bizarre examples of the presence of the sacred, and thus the threat of a sacrificial crisis, is the character of Judge Holden.  The reader’s first exposure to the Judge is at Revered Green’s tent revival, where the Judge walks in to the crowded tent from the rain and accuses Revered Green of illiteracy, bestiality, child rape,  being wanted by the law in four states, and finally of being an impostor priest.  The crowd turns into a mob and general violence ensues (6-8).  Afterwards the Judge meets some of the men who were in the crowd, where the Judge confesses that he had “never even heard” of Reverend Green, and the men begin to laugh and are described as “mud effigies” (9).  Effigies are pregnant with sacrificial qualities and commonly represent saints as well criminals, political figures, or any figure that encompasses a violent mixture of emotions within a community.  The mixture of both symbolically “good” and “bad” figures possible when describing these men, only recently separated from the lynch mob, as “effigies” indicates the presence of the sacred and the breakdown of differences.  That the men are all described as mud effigies, meaning they all look alike, also points to the loss of differences.  This is the loss of difference between good and bad, where prohibitions that keep order are lost, where “must not” becomes “must.”

The Judge incites violence.  In his first visitation in the text he simply appears in the middle of a sermon and the reverend “stop[s] his sermon altogether” (6).  The Judge’s presence is sudden and mysterious, and we learn it is also capricious and malicious, much in the way that Girard describes Dionysus: “the god who wanders from place to place, engendering violence and crime with the artfulness of a satanic seducer” (Girard, 132).  His ability to suddenly appear is commented on later, when the reader learns how the Judge joined the Glanton Gang while they were on the run from the Apache, as if it were a magic trick: “There he set on a rock in the middle of the greatest desert you’d ever want to see.  Just perched on this rock like a man waitin for a coach” (Blood Meridian,132).  Just like Dionysus he seems to wander from place to place inciting violence, but as well he receives praise, as the men, after laughing at the Judge’s malicious joke on the reverend also buy him drink (9).

Rather than claiming that the Judge is an allusion to Dionysus, the aim is to see the Judge as a metaphor for Girard’s “spontaneous violence,” which threatens to tear down communities.  When the Judge accuses the reverend of multiple depravities, a mob forms, and unanimity is attained against the outsider, the one who was reverend and ultimate sinner, the “surrogate victim,” is cast out or killed (Girard, 68-88).  The Reverend Green is never mentioned again, and has been “expelled” from the narrative’s consciousness.  One can look at the sacrificial structure already suggested in the epigraph from Paul Valéry, and simply substitute the foreigner for Reverend Green and find that the same basic sacrificial structure is evident.

The Reverend Green episode also displays what Girard calls “the essential process – the arbitrary choice of the victim” (132).  The Judge had “never even heard” of Reverend Green, and yet ended up sending a mob after him on whimsy alone.  However, as is seen in the round of laughter and drinks, the Judge’s violent impulse creates unanimity, though brief, as well, since the men are then described as mud effigies, signifying the loss of differences.  Again the effigy simile has the potential to conflate both “good” and “bad” symbols, or what amounts to “desymbolism” (Girard, 65) exposing the community once again to the danger of the sacred.  In this way the Judge has symbolically initiated the narrative’s cycle of violence.

Other “sacrificial” qualities of the Judge are comments to his skills and the Judge’s own speeches.  One of the characters, Tobin the ex-priest, says “God the man is a dancer, you’ll not take that away from him” (130).  The Judge himself likens dance to war: “As war becomes dishonored…those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance…and thereby will the dance become a false dance” (349).  The dance is a ritual, which in some cases, as Girard says, reenacts the “original experience,” or, original act of violence which the ritual is intended to imitate, and in its imitation, ward off.  In any case, the dance is a ritual with ordered steps and imitations, and mastering the dance masters the original act of violence which induced the sacrificial crisis.

The Reverend Green scene is also the first time the Kid, the story’s protagonist, meets the Judge.  From the first meeting a mimesis is already on display, as the earliest description of the Kid is his “taste for mindless violence” (3).  He is also described as having “big wrists, big hands…The child’s face is curiously untouched behind the scars, the eyes oddly innocent” (4).  Upon entering the revival tent the Judge is described: “His face was serene and strangely childlike.  His hands were small” (7).  Already the image of the “monstrous double,” the Judge, is beginning to rear its head.  Both the Judge and the Kid, prone to violence, possess this same innocent and childlike quality, and their physical features, the hands, are inversed.   The roles they play are also quickly inversed.  Whereas the kid watches as the Judge incites a mob, just a few pages later the Judge watches as the kid flees town after burning down a dramhouse (12-15).

The kid unknowingly enters the dance with the Judge.  The theme of “the dance” is carried throughout the novel in alternating scenes that accumulate to build a powerful symbol of the Judge’s dance by the end of the novel.  At one point the gang of scalphunters are riding in the mountains and come across a bear “[raises] up” and looks “down at them with dim pig’s eyes” and kills one of their number, carrying off “their kinsman like some fabled storybook beast” (144-145).  Here the bear seems to simply raise up out of nowhere, attacks the party, and disappears into the forest with one of them, much like the Judge seems to simply appear.  As well the bear is described by the narrator in poetic language as a “fabled storybook beast,” as if the bear were meant to impart a lesson.  However the poetic language seems to obscure the lesson it is intended to impart, which may begin to come to light as associations accumulate.

In the last third of the novel the scalphunter’s take over the Yuma ferry crossing and essentially rob ferry riders for all their worth.  The Yuma Indians retaliate, obliterating the gang and only a handful survive, including the kid and the Judge.  The Judge is convinced that the kid is responsible for the massacre, and pursues him in the desert.  At one point during the chase, the kid is hiding behind a small hill in the desert and watching the Judge pass, naked, with a parasol made of bone and hide.  The Judge passes twice and asks the kid why he hasn’t shot him yet, as if inviting recriprocal violence (303-16).  The kid does not shoot the judge, but flees to the nearest town, where he has a dream of the Judge, and the Judge is described as having “lashless pig’s eyes” (326).  Here the images begin to accumulate and begin to take on meaning.  Whereas the bear that spontaneously appeared, killed, and disappeared was described as having “pig’s eyes,” so is the Judge.  Whereas the bear essentially came out of hiding and killed, the kid does not, and lets the Judge, who would kill him, live.

These images and structures find their conclusion in the final scenes, where 28 years after the Yuma ferry massacre the kid meets the Judge again in a bar.  In the bar is a dancing bear wearing a crinoline. The kid sees the Judge and then the bear is shot and lay “like some monster slain in the commission of unnatural acts” (345).  Soon after, the Judge is giving a speech on war and the dance, to which the kid replies, “Even a dumb animal can dance,” and the Judge retorts, “There is room on the stage for one beast and one beast alone.  All others are destined for a night that is eternal…Bears that dance, bears that don’t” (349).  Soon after, the Judge kills the kid in an outhouse.

The figure of the bear, the spontaneous violence imaged as a force exterior to man, is associated with the Judge through the image of “pig’s eyes,” and is thus associated with the sacred.  The bear image is then reversed when the bear is shown gaudily dressed in a crinoline, dancing unnaturally.  The bear combines the judge and the kid into a comic symbolic image.  At one end of the spectrum the bear is the judge, that spontaneous violence.  At the other end, seeing as how the bear is comically dressed, mocking the image of the bear in the wilderness, the bear is also the kid, whose mercy for the Judge is seen as mockery and weakness, much like the model-disciple relation Girard describes as mimetic rivalry (174-75).  The conflation of the two is so charged with meaning that it becomes senseless, “begging for referents in any daylight world,” threatening chaos, and so it is killed (Blood Meridian, 343).

The kid however is not spared.  The Judge kills him in an outhouse and the reader never sees the kid’s death, which is appropriate, since the sacrifice is intended to “expel” the sacred from memory, thus restoring order to the community.  This appears to have been achieved, as the very last scene entails the Judge dancing with everyone in the bar, and even leading the rhythm of the dance with a fiddle (353).

The sacrificial elements of Blood Meridian seem apparent and have not come anywhere near to being exhausted in this paper.  Though a sacrificial reading should not be read into the story, Blood Meridian lends itself in an obvious way to a sacrificial reading when taken into consideration, again, the backdrop to the story, the Mexican War.   Blood Meridian is driven by change.  Changes in borders, the sovereignty of nations, and even changes in social status, as the child becomes the kid and the kid becomes the man.  As Girard notes, “wherever there is a potential for dangerous change, the remedy lies in ritual” (284).  As villainous as the Judge seems, in light of the sacrificial, he would also seem to be something of a priest, maintaining the rituals required to retard the violence inherent in change.


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