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the Dance of Time
in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian
This essay was published in Southwestern American Literature, 30.1 (Fall 2004): 23-36.
Abstract: This analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seeks to identify how the novel illustrates a pragmatic and postmodern understanding of language. We do not discover the truth about the world; we narrate it. This parallels Richard Rorty’s point that "We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there." Judge Holden explains the world by relying on Nietzsche and Darwin’s theories, but these theories do not explain the raconteur performance of the Judge himself, especially as he appears near the end of the novel; nor do they explain the world illustrated in the Border trilogy. The image of Shiva Nataraja or lord of the dance becomes an informing metaphor near the end of Blood Meridian to suggest that meaning and explanation are not prima facie evidence of the will-to-power or of random genetic changes, but are narratives. McCarthy works out a postmodern view of language in association with the character of the Judge in Blood Meridian that subsequently informs the Border trilogy.
Blood Meridian (1985) is McCarthy’s most historic novel, but it is also puzzling because it is the work in which McCarthy begins to elaborate the view of pragmatism and postmodernism as an answer to the enigmas presented by the oneiric images of his early novels. David Holloway recognizes this saying that Judge Holden “embodies McCarthy’s modernist attempt to retrieve a sense of relatively fixed meaning in the world, just as surely as he stands for a decidedly postmodern warning against where such a search might eventually lead” (197). Especially when Blood Meridian is considered part of “the Border tetralogy”—and both Holloway and Wallach endorse this grouping—it seems more likely that McCarthy is promoting, or at least musing on, postmodern epistemology rather than warning against it. Accordingly, Robert Jarrett characterizes Cities on the Plain as a postmodern work in which “dream, biography, history as a whole, and finally the historical novel itself is the unique dream-projection and construct solely of the individual’s imagination” and narration (338). Blood Meridian offers a turning point in McCarthy’s oeuvre. It is almost as though McCarthy created Judge Holden to give voice to a Darwinian or Nietzschean answer to what life was about in his first three novels, but then became fascinated with the Judge’s language and social construction. Among other things, Blood Meridian is about history, time, and language.
John Sepich traces many of the original documents and identifies the historical namesakes of the major characters. At least part of the historical model for Judge Holden was offered by John Glanton who led a band of American killers through northern Mexico in the 1840s hunting Indians for bounty. The Governor of Chihuahua, Angel Trias (who contributes to Holden’s erudition), paid the marauders $200 per scalp. McCarthy’s novel recounts their exploits from the point of view of the kid who is fourteen-years-old at the beginning of the book. The novel presents an argument between the view that human behavior is instinctively driven by violence to gain power and the recognition that such theoretical belief is pragmatically indefensible, being only a possible arrangement or interpretation of select experience given, for example, in Nietzsche’s outlook. Sara Spurgeon offers support for half of this argument, saying the “Human will [. . .] is the most powerful force in the novel” (90). We know that “the wrath of God lies sleeping” and can erupt any second. But is it objectively true that “it was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it” (Blood 40)? And how would anyone know? Spurgeon offers an interesting gloss on sacrifice to suggest that the novel illustrates an anthropomorphic ritual “of sacred war” to renew life (93). She suggests that the new form of this recapitulation of an ancient rite, in which human sacrifice replaces an animal victim, rose in part because totem animals like the buffalo were eliminated and in part because science increasingly replaces myth to provide the vocabulary that evokes the mystery of life. Consequently, she characterizes Holden as “clothed in the sacred rhetoric of science,” primarily that of Darwin’s biology (91). Spurgeon’s reading, however, accepts myth in a Freudian or Jungian sense as a sui generis process of cultural construction fueled by libido, which has violence as one of its twin manifestations. Because the mystery of violence is more fascinating than the narrative, the ritual (like sex) continues to engross us no matter how often it is repeated. Although he favors a Marxist (Frederic Jameson) reading, Holloway suggests a more radical approach in which “Blood Meridian might be read as a critique of how we think about language” (191). If “only men have power to wake” the wrath of God, language must offer a prod to violence.
Much of the novel is an unequal dialogue between the kid, a shrewd but illiterate teenager, and Judge Holden, whose historic prototype “was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico” (Sepich 128). Although he is the son of a schoolmaster, the kid shows little evidence of social formation: “he can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence,” perhaps as an alternative and compensation for his inability to use language to construct a narrative to tell his story with some measure of control (3). On the Texas frontier in 1849, the kid is unsurprised to find that men “fight with fists, with feet, with bottles or knives. All races, all breeds. Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes” (4). Before accepting such implied Darwinian claims about violence and human nature at face value, we may be obliged to answer the question of the hermit whom the kid finds living in a bare sod hut and whose sole possession seems to be the dried heart of a former black adversary. His question is about language. He asks, “Where does a man come by his notions. What world’s he seen that he liked better?” (18-9). The myth of an ideal world (or ritual pattern) is made of words and concepts abstracted from the social contexts of our experience. Myth promises a linguistic permanence and depth in contrast to our fleeting and disappointing experience. Myth promises refuge in contrast to the narration of the perils and accidents of life. Our longing for that unknown frontier and future seems an instinctive hunger for power or control, perhaps uttered as an animal growl or probed for by violence that rejects the shoddy historical world we are forced to live in.
If the frontier does not offer a return to Eden or the discovery of El Dorado, it does provide a kind of laboratory in regions where men have “gone to hide from God” and consequently can revert to primal, unchecked, and amoral urges (44). The experiment hopes to discover, or confirm, that humans are instinctively depraved and violent. Of course the experiment is flawed because although we can escape to the desert, we cannot escape language. The experiment is written as an extension to the paradigm views offered by Homer or John Calvin or Charles Darwin or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or someone else who selected and arranged the evidence to illustrate a story, a belief, or a judgment. Consider, for example, the Native Americans. Are they Rousseau’s uncorrupted noble savages or instinctive predators impelled by insatiable violence? Our first glimpse of Southwest Indians surprises us almost as much as they did Captain White, who thinks—in a metaphor that conjures the talk and outlook of Teddy Roosevelt—they will provide bully sport (51). Hundreds of Comanches emerge out of a whirlwind of dust “like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering [. . .] like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and lip jerks and drools” (53). They have a “barbarous” language but they also seem insane, screeching and yammering rather than speaking. The prefatory allusion to the novel, concerning a fossil skull 300,000 years old that “shows evidence of having been scalped,” suggests that similar antic nightmare violence has screamed in human skulls for at least that long. What has civilization, language, and history done to soothe the savage beast? It seems to have merely offered more colorful costumes for instinct. As Voltaire might have described it, we find the cathedral in Chihuahua festooned with “the dried scalps of slaughtered indians strung on cords,” no doubt for the glory of God (72). They are procured, the narrator says, by an offer from the governor of Chihuahua of $100 a head (79). Sepich shows that the bounty on Apache scalps was actually double that amount at a time when the U.S. Army paid a private $15 a month for approximately the same work (124). Sepich also tells us that the historical General Angel Trias, governor of Chihuahua, spent eight years traveling Europe and was “well versed in several of the European languages” that only seem to enhance and magnify violence, turning it into a more deliberate and controlled ritual (131). Incredibly, Sepich’s historical work suggests that McCarthy actually toned down the violence of the historical record!
Does McCarthy offer something like Euripides’ view in which violence is another name for man? Savage warriors ride out of the salt desert “like the cries of souls broken through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below” (109). Such violence seems to be demented, compulsive, or impelling. Is such violence, like Freud’s understanding of sex, a cathexis or catharsis that releases pent-up frustration and energy without hoping to force events to conform to the pattern of some narrative? Temporarily bereft of all civilized forms, wandering in the middle of a blank gypsum lake, the riders do not find God or the devil, much less Platonic forms, for “out of that whirlwind no voice spoke.” And why not? Because the pilgrim “may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what?” (111). There is no form before we speak it. The desert is empty. If God speaks, Holden says, his words are “stones and trees, the bones of things” that literally do not have meaning, syntax, or context until we construct these in language (116). Meaning is a property of language. The word stone has meaning, but the stone itself is not a word or concept. It provides the occasion or stimulus for a perception. In itself, the world is stark and blank and without moral quality. “For the earth is a globe in the void and [in] truth there’s no up nor down to it” (130). This parallels Richard Rorty’s point that "We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there" (4-5). We do not discover the truth about the world; we narrate it in myth and science. The difficulty of trying to understand and narrate the world is complicated by the fact that we are part of the temporal process that we associate with the world. Thus “a man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with” (19). In the unpublished screenplay, “Whales and Men,” McCarthy has a character explain the pragmatic view, saying that we do not live “in the world as given”; we live in a “linguistic model of the world” even as Rorty said (Luce 209).
Together with their dogs and horses, people inhabit an embodied, temporal dimension, but they cannot immediately fathom its meaning any more than the animals that bark and snort. Near the end of Blood Meridian a horse looks out at the Pacific Ocean, “past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea,” but of course the horse does not speak, nor have linguistic thoughts about its perceptions, and consequently cannot know the significance of its experience; cannot know what the narrator wrote about stars and whales (304). In All the Pretty Horses an old man claims to have “seen the souls of horses” or rather one soul, for “the horse shares a common soul” (111). This is so because the horse cannot speak to thereby create an individual identity on top, as it were, of its generic or genetic type. It is the rider, John Grady Cole who “spoke constantly to” the horse “in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law” (128). Seeking to explain our experience, we do not, Foucault tells us, somehow plunge deeper into the world or deeper into our experience because discourse is not a group of signs that refers to pre-existing structures or explores some putative and pre-existing depth of meaning. Discourse is, Foucault says, a collection of social “practices that systematically forms the objects of which” we speak to thereby create the illusion of depth and meaning we hope to fathom (49). We transform perceptions experienced by the body into ideas and meaning by adding social and linguistic dimensions to those of embodiment and temporality. In the amalgamation constructed by language, these dimensions are exclusively human. They tell us as much about culture as about the world. Holden is not simply an instinctive predator. He narrates to explain his violence echoing the writing of Nietzsche to say, for example, that “moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak” (250). No doubt. But is it objectively so; exclusively so? Is this the sole truth about moral law, which, as a modernist program, would abolish all alternative explanation? Consider who is preaching, the chief killer whose greatest satisfaction is found in the compulsive murder of children. Holloway makes nearly the same point I am trying to make, saying that “If Holden aims to totalize all existence within himself by controlling the act of representation,” or narration, this control is subverted “by the deconstructive rhetoric of the text itself” (193), which is aware that “The order in creation which you see is that which you have put there” (Blood 245). Holden would like to be the only voice, to offer the only narrative, which would consequently be Truth. He cannot for two reasons. Language is not his, or anyone’s invention and possession. Like everyone else, he learned a mother tongue from mom. For all his preaching, Holden never paraphrases Heidegger’s recognition that “language speaks man.” Holden’s second and related problem is that in using language he necessarily addresses someone who understands the language and cares for the meaning of what he is saying. Total domination and transcendence are not possible because the recourse to language necessitates appealing to an audience.
Holden is charismatic by any measure—in physical size, in pathological violence, in erudition, and in declamation. Still we would do well to resist his mesmerizing, raconteur charm and rhetoric that turns everyone into his victim. Tobin, once a student for the priesthood, voices Dostoyevsky’s caution: “your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery.” Holden is a barker who offers mystery in every shape. Tobin, the so-called expriest, is in a position to know that “the mystery is that there is no mystery,” which paraphrases Foucault’s point that language is all surface and can only falsely promise depth or a “return to the state” of raw meaning “anterior to discourse” (48). Tobin knows that Holden is an actor pretending to be more than a member of the cast, “as if he were no mystery himself, the bloody old hoodwinker” (252). Earlier Tobin twice declined to answer the kid’s question, “what’s he a judge of?” (135). The answer is that Holden presumes to play the part of a primitive god who judges all. Neither plaintiff nor defendant, a judge creates the illusion of conferring objective value. But Tobin is right; the judge is a hoodwinker. The priest and Judge are men playing scripted roles in the vaguely defined discourse communities of Christian religion, myth, science, and law for an audience that recognizes the contexts. They are part of the drama, not outside or above it. In his first appearance Holden upstages a tent revivalist by telling outrageous lies about how the preacher had sexually molested an eleven year old before “having congress with a goat” in Arkansas (7). After casually inciting a riot Holden admits that he had “never laid eyes on the man before today. Never even heard of him” but he knows the community and the kinds of dramas that are enacted in it (8).
In counterpoint to the gospel of violence (“before man was, war waited for him”), Holden preaches the long view of Darwinian history in which a few million individual deaths mean nothing. It is only the whole that is meaningful and the whole can only be understood or valued by Hegel’s God, by some consciousness that transcends time and process. Speculating on Anasazi ruins and feigning surprise, Holden asks, “Do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons” whose individual lives are meaningless (147). Holden is most convincing when his text is pragmatic epistemology. The Judge recognizes that meaning is social and has no a priori status. Among his band of scalp hunters, there is a Tennessean named Webster (as in Webster’s Dictionary) who ironically makes the point that “no man can put all the world in a book.” Holden seems to agree but in fact makes the more abstruse point that order and truth are produced by social agreement rather than found as objectively existing entities. “Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world” (141). Giving witness to perceptions in language is the necessary ground of meaning; “in this was expressed the very nature of the witness and [the idea] that his proximity was no third thing but rather the prime, for what could be said to occur unobserved?” (153). “The third thing” suggests the correspondence model of truth that offers a model comprised of three parts: (1) an autochthonous or pre-existing thing or pattern, (2) the idea of that thing expressed in language, and (3) a witness who can judge the adequacy or truth of the word to mirror the thing it names. The problem with this view is that it requires two or three conflicting contexts. How do we know that the primal thing or form pre-exists? We know it only by perception. Nor is the word some free-floating entity without context. It is grounded in some speaker’s perception as that speaker is engaged in some discourse community context to talk to another person. In fact all three items have the same context: perception and language. Foucault reminds us that discourse and words “do not come about of themselves, but are always the result of a construction” in language (25).
Without an a priori Platonic precedent or analogue, almost anything is possible in this itinerant carnival and “migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning” (245). The ultimate destination is, of course, death and oblivion, which are “calamitous beyond reckoning” for the individual ego. But that is not the same thing as saying that the universe is itself a calamitous, absurd, or malevolent process. “The order in creation [. . .] is that which you have put there,” invented and agreed upon in such conversations as Plato’s dialogues, the Bible, Newton’s physics, or Darwin’s biology. Holden claims that “existence has its own order,” which “no man’s mind can compass,” because that mind surreptitiously doing the measuring and claiming to be outside the system is itself part of the process, a “fact among others” (245). But nearly everyone cheats preferring mystery and depth. Thus the narrator hints that the universe is objectively meaningful in the emblem of the horse “watching, out there past men’s knowing” (304). In Cities of the Plain Mr. Johnson says that at night on the desert “your horse will see things.” He tries to clarify what he means: “I aint talkin about spooks. It’s more like just the way things are. If you only knew it,” but, of course, we cannot because all we know is what we say to each other about our perceptions (124). And obviously the horse does not know because knowing is a process of language. So, who knows this mystery? Holden says, “None here can finally comprehend the reason for his presence for he has no way of knowing even in what the event consists” (329). The knowledge of context or how the present situation articulates with the whole would only be available from the perspective of someone outside and unaffected by the process of life, and no one can have that perspective except as conjecture, not even Holden. Of course, McCarthy is outside the world of his characters, writing their world. The question is then what does his writing seek to illustrate?
For those inside the temporal process of life, reductionism is hoodwinking because it pretends to have a perspective outside the system of language and that is not possible. There is no “system by which to divide” things back into their origin. Foucault says that although we search for “a secret origin” and explanation, we only move “towards an ever-receding point” of total knowledge “that is never itself present in any history” (25). McCarthy writes almost the same thing: “Whoever would seek out his history [. . .] must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin” finding “no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing” (310). McCarthy’s views here are congenial with Richard Rorty’s pragmatism and Michel Foucault’s postmodernism. Rorty’s social philosophy is, however, genial and urbane in contrast to the primitivism and violence illustrated by McCarthy’s fictional characters. Nonetheless the two thinkers share much of the same ground in the idea that if we must default on heaven and the truth, we should have music and art as compensation. If we cannot sing hymns in the pews as true believers, we should be able to dance on the bare boards. At the end of the novel, Holden asks, “What man would not be a dancer if he could?” The judge proclaims the dance of Being to be “a great thing” even though it is often and inevitably violent (327).
|In the novel that preceded Blood Meridian, Suttree (1979), the character of the same name is digging clams from a river when he finds an “uncanny token of a vanished race,” a stone gorget. A gorget is a piece of armor that protects the throat, the voice. The ancient artifact is carved with twin gods, “their spangled anklets raised in dance” (327). Suttree also contains an anomalous scene of Shiva Nataraja, the lord of the dance of Life, who simultaneously whirls, surrounded by burning time, and yet remains still to suggest the whole of creation. Suttree sees a street preacher, “his red hands joined in a demented mudra above his glowing skull” who begins “a dance of exorcism.” Like Nataraja, he begins “to rotate with arms outspread and his small feet mincing” (382). In Blood Meridian, Rick Wallach recognizes that Judge Holden poses as “Shiva, who dances the dance of war and cosmic destruction” (128). In the Nataraja image Shiva is dancing on and destroying the dwarf of ignorance to liberate us from our attachments, which are always illusory projections (maya). He is not annihilating some objective enemy. The Hindu process, moving towards moksha or liberation, is one of divestment. We must exhaust our karma to become bored rather than fascinated with rituals and community games that offer us parts to play.|
McCarthy’s dances, however, fascinate us by their primitive social violence that seems to anticipate but not yet know language, for “what joins men together [. . .] is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies” (307). Without words to transform perceptions and control what they mean, violence seeks to erase perceptions in order to remain in a dream world it can control. Because we are human we cannot escape language, which provides the ground of meaning for all ritual. Part of all ritual is about power, about who speaks or kills and who listens or becomes victim. It is about who tells the story. Myth falsely suggests that the story is eternal, self-generating, or spontaneous. As a pragmatist Holden knows that all of the actors speak socially scripted lines for an audience and that the entire carnival or play—every actor and every audience member—is destined for oblivion and therefore cannot accomplish anything through the ritual in the world of maya. Energy and being are not renewed or invoked by the blood of sacrifice. The metaphor is more Hindu: we are working through a series of attachments, investments, and illusions to wear out or exhaust emotion and become liberated from the impelling power of libido, from the oedipal trick of life.
A dance is not always spontaneous. Recognizing movement as dance limits the possibilities in the direction of codification and repetition. Ultimately, dances do not matter except for the catharsis they offer. They accomplish nothing in history. And if that is the case, then truth and morality do not matter. What matters is catharsis and the quality of the performance, the aesthetics of motion in time that are conceptualized as dance. In Spurgeon’s reading the characters, including the Judge, are actors in myth and ritual (81). The mystery is a social performance or dance in which individuals are conjoined in a communal soul to incite and celebrate violence (Blood 152). We know from Freud that the origin of violence is oedipal negation. McCarthy suggests the same thing, that it is “the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not?” (329). The dance-battle is ego formation, to be a person and to survive against all threats. Holden plays barker for this circus, announcing that “the world goes on. We have dancing nightly” (330). We all join in a vast dance of culture and time even though at any given moment “there is room on the stage for one beast and one alone. All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name” (331). The “one beast” provides provisional form and theme but it leaves no permanent historical residue. Dance and myth revel in the expressive function of language. They do not expect to find discursive objects or truth. Some may feel that Holden’s ritual is too aesthetic, too frivolous, and ultimately, as Holloway suggests, too devious in its subversion of transcendent or at least historic order. But truth does not beckon or even exist outside the dancehall of music and language. Outside, stars fall “across the sky myriad and random, speeding along brief vectors from their origins in night to their destinies in dust and nothingness”; it is beautiful and vast and means nothing (333). There can be no story without language. Language does not exist except in the human experience where perception is an embodied, temporal, and cultural performance. Holden is himself language, a lie who personifies the lie of life and libido. Reminiscent of Rabelais’ Gargantua, he is “like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die.” Like Shiva, the god who both adds the fuel of karma to our illusions (by being the object of our longing) and who finally destroys them by subsuming them (as the life process), Holden dances and provides the music: “he is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die” (335).
Blood Meridian closes with a cryptic epilogue that connects most closely with the beginning of the final chapter that describes “violent children orphaned by war” (the Civil War), who scavenge the bones of eight million slaughtered buffalo (322, 317). In the epilogue, we find a man “progressing over the plain” by making holes in the ground with a strange implement that works something like a hammer to strike “the fire out of the rock which God has put there” (337). This reminds us of earlier lines: “The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it” (40); and “war endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him (248).” The man may be planting the seeds of civilization using a kind of hammer, sword, or spear. His progenitors no doubt chipped arrowheads from flint. Prometheus’ spark, hammered like spearheads from the stone, enkindles civilization. Sex is a kind of violence, Freud says. The phallic sword cuts into mother earth to plant civilization. “Those who do not search [. . .] move haltingly [. . .] like mechanisms” or clockwork robots (337). Life is violent, a negation against stasis and entrenched form. Suttree offers Darwin’s view that “Life does not come slowly. It rises in one massive mutation and all is changed utterly and forever” (459). Change is violent. Mechanisms endlessly repeat the same ritual operation in contrast to the violent man on the plain who “progresses” by literally breaking ground for a new future. “He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again” (337). Spurgeon sees this ritual as negative suggesting that the man is “digging postholes” to fence a cemetery for the buffalo bones and to unhorse the free rider (98). She thinks the ceremony is a funeral for nature or for the Neolithic myth of “some balance or relationship between humankind and nature” (99). In any case, the sower (if he is that) is not Holden and the epilogue does not exonerate individual acts of violence. Holden is maya, a mesmerizing character, who in the end is inflated into an avatar of life itself. The character we identify with and who provides moral instruction is the kid.
Near the end of the novel Holden visits the kid who is jailed in San Diego fearing that he may be hanged. Holden tells the boy various lies before he begins to speak as the avatar of life, telling the boy, “Dont you know that I’d have loved you like a son?” (306). Sounding like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Holden tells the kid that he had willingly come forward “to take part in a work” that would seem to be Manifest Destiny or perhaps, as Spurgeon argues, the destruction of the Paleolithic myth of hunting animals and the reconstitution of some more ancient rite of sacred war, if that is possible (96-7). In either case, Holden says, the kid shirked doing his part by entertaining self-conscious moral reservations: “You broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise.” The “body” is both the physical body, animated by violent libido, and the social body in which men are bound together by common enemies in the celebration of violence (307). Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the Judge inverts familiar morality to tell the kid, “There’s a flawed place in the fabric of your heart.” For “you alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen” (299). We must be careful to be consistent here, following something analogous to a Theravada Buddhist line of thinking about how compassion for other beings is ultimately a kind of self-indulgent defense mechanism that serves to reinforce the illusion of possessing a permanent or eternal ego immune from the dance of time. If everything is process, both one’s own ego and that of the beloved are illusions of history that must be abandoned, worn out, or lost. In something of a mirror image version of this thinking, we find the rest of the predatory band “appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order” and therefore vital and protean. They were “like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless [. . .] to wander ravenous and doomed and mute [. . .] in a time before nomenclature was” (172). Perhaps these were what the figure in the epilogue was provoking from the rock or planting as Jason planted dragon teeth. As Culla discovered in McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark, when you affix a name to a feeling, you also give it a moral shadow, a meaning. You no longer act or react to the primal flow of events (cf. Dao). You assume responsibility for your actions and become apperceptive, self-conscious, and addicted to the control offered by narration. Unlike Culla, the kid never speaks his name. But the kid is neither an animal, an infantile idiot, nor one of Nietzsche’s ubermench. It is Holden, the devourer of children, who is often called childlike because as Life he is amoral, oblivious to the suffering phantom forms that life inhabits for fleeting moments.
The kid’s fall from Eden and his unconscious immersion in life comes in three moral decisions to be compassionate rather than predatory, to seek a name and history that evokes care in Heidegger’s sense. After the nineteen partisans incredibly rout an encampment of a thousand Indians, Brown has an arrow in his shoulder that none of his comrades will touch. The kid finally pities him enough to drive the arrow through the shoulder to thereby extract it. Tobin, “the expriest,” hisses: “fool, he said. God will not love ye forever” (162). Like daring to extract a thorn from a lion’s paw, the pain could easily cause Brown to kill the Samaritan. Spurgeon sees in this incident a violation of “the internal order of the myth” of predation or natural selection (95). The kid seeks to create history, to care about an individual and perhaps to expect reciprocal care.
In the second incident the kid is commissioned to execute a wounded comrade, Shelby, before General Elias’ Mexican Army can arrive, whereupon Shelby will be slowly tortured to death. The kid is reluctant to treat his comrade as an enemy, even though Shelby provokes him or forgives him, saying, “If I had a gun I’d shoot you” (207). In desperation Shelby snatches “at the butt of the pistol in the kid’s belt.” Still the kid does not kill Shelby but leaves him to his fate in something of the reverse of what he did with Brown (209). Years later, in his final interview with Holden, the judge reminds the kid of his guilt, asking “where is Shelby, whom you left to the mercies of Elias in the desert?” (331). Good works accomplish nothing. Paradoxically, the kid’s compassion only produced a worse death for Shelby. Holden’s intent is to get the kid to recognize that in the long, biological view, the dance of the stalking predator is natural and that he should not feel responsible for deaths that neither he nor anyone can forestall. Violence and death feed life. Individuals with their histories do not matter. Only the Hegelian dance of life matters. Only Shiva matters.
At a desert waterhole, in the third incident, the kid has a chance to kill the Judge who is stalking the kid and Tobin. The expriest begs the kid to do it: “Do it for the love of God. Do it or I swear your life is forfeit” (285). Tobin is right. Nearly thirty years later in 1878, the kid opens the door to a privy to find the naked Judge waiting. “He rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh” (333). We should add that strangulation, like scalping, represents total erasure and the loss of any hope to be reborn. But it hardly matters because identity and history are temporary if not illusory. One of the most illuminating of the Judge’s lectures comes at the end of the novel. Holden and the kid attend a kind of frontier barroom circus performance where the attraction is a dancing bear, brute violence taught to dance or in Spurgeon’s view, the last grotesque ritual of man in nature with the death and blood of the Paleolithic beast bereft of “meaning or significance” (92). Holden asks the kid to pick out any man in the audience, suggesting that he can easily guess what the man thinks of the world. He thinks it is his enemy or that it harbors his enemies. One knows this because it is our own oedipal attitude and because, like original sin, there is no alternative. “Can he say, such a man, that there is no malign thing set against him? That there is no power and no force and no cause?” And, consequently, no story. Can he believe that the tragedy of his life and history are meaningless, that his cries fade into a ringing silence? Can he accept “that it is this silence which will prevail? To whom is he talking, man?” (330). To whom does man speak when he rages against time? He may rage, but at what? “Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke” (111). The hot wind in the desert blows nothing but sand and we are each a grain of that sand. Of course life has meaning, but it is from the point of view offered inside of a specific, historic life, not the illusory promise of a view of outside of life where things purport to have an absolute value or none. Transcendence is the lie; we always speak to each other.
It is no mystery that McCarthy found Mexican ritual and border life interesting. In All the Pretty Horses an old dueña says that the Spanish/Mexican culture has “a deep conviction that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed. Virgins, bulls, men. Ultimately God himself” (230). This offers something of a bridge from the world of Blood Meridian, where Holden predicts that, “as war becomes dishonored,” the dance will “become a false dance and dancers false dancers” (331). The narrator of The Crossing, comments that our world is “construed out of blood” because “nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to devour it” (74). There is no true ritual without blood. The blood of animals fueled the mythic world when Paleolithic man tramped, a silent predator, through primeval forests. In Blood Meridian human blood fuels the desert world because we do not live “in the world as given”; we live in a “linguistic model of the world.”
Hemingway nominated the toreador as existential hero. McCarthy’s late works illustrate a comparable model in the taciturn cowboy, who lives almost exclusively among men, horses, and dogs and whose life is fenced by the barbwire of machismo. He dances in cowboy boots. His life is largely an anachronism without ostensible purpose. It is a ritual; an elegant, studied performance. Many critics see the dances or plots in the Border trilogy as parody and irony. I agree, but what life does not follow a social script? What life, reflected on as a social script, is not parody? To be unconscious of social roles and rituals is hardly evidence of superior insight, authenticity, or redemption. Life lived as self-conscious ritual is fraught with aesthetic meaning, the tiniest Zen movement and gesture significant, because the dancer knows he is dancing and because the dancer is both performer and audience. Perceptions are caught in the mirror of language. The dance of life has no name and no history. Celebrating a victory over the stillness and blankness of death, the dance is illusion. But the whirling Sufi is madly exalted. The language of dance is expressive not discursive.
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Lilley, James, editor. Cormac McCarthy: New Directions. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.
Luce, Dianne C. “The Road and the Matrix: The World as Tale in The Crossing.” Arnold 195-219.
McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage, 1992.
________. Blood Meridian. New York: Vintage, 1985.
________. Cities of the Plain. New York: Knopf, 1998.
________. Outer Dark. New York: Vintage, 1968.
________. Suttree. New York: Vintage, 1979.
________. The Crossing. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Sepich, John. “‘What Kind of Indians was Them?’: Some Historical Sources in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Arnold 123-43.
Spurgeon, Sara. “The Sacred Hunter and the Eucharist of the Wilderness: Mythic Reconstructions in Blood Meridian.” Lilley 75-101.
Wallach, Rick. “Judge Holden, Blood Meridian’s Evil Archon.” Hall and Wallach 125-36.
Wallach, Rick, editor. Myth, Legend, Dust: Critical Responses to Cormac McCarthy. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.