Here are a few themes of Blood Meridian, subtitled The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy.
The character Holden, called “the judge” is Mephistophelean, and at the end is revealed as the devil himself.
His chief attribute is that he is the accuser, as with the preacher at the beginning, the expriest Tobin near the end, and the kid, throughout but especially at the end.
The judge takes copious notes and specimens of things, not to discover creation, but to remove things from creation. Most particularly archaeological specimens, but he does the same with living things. He creates not a book of life, but of anti-life. He removes the past.
Because the judge, the devil, recognizes the importance of hard things; the incontrovertible truth of being, he is intent on the proper naming of the things he collects. In the same way, McCarthy uses obscure terminology throughout, mostly nouns, to bring certainty and specificity and reality to the world the characters inhabit. He describes the landscape with astonishing specificity, so much so that we come to see the landscape itself as another character. It is to say the world is real, the most real thing presently imaginable.
The movement west corresponds to the dance referred to in the closing chapter: the business of daily living with which we are consumed.
The judge reveals to the uncomprehending “kid” that the day of the Lord is not yet here; that for now we “dance.”
I’ve read some reviews that talk about the dabblings into Gnosticism that the novel supposedly suggests, but I think they’re wrong. McCarthy may not himself be a Christian (I don’t know) but his book certainly is.
So with that background, some particular notes. If you don’t want spoiler alerts, you can stop here, but really, as with other McCarthy novels, I don’t think this “spoils” anything, but rather enhances the reading.
The mercenary gang encounters some potentially hostile riders in the mountains.
Who are you? called Glanton (the gang’s leader).
Amigos, somos amigos. [Friends, we’re friends].
They were counting each other’s number.
De donde viende? [Where are you from] called the strangers.
A donde va? [where are you going?] Called the judge [a member, of sorts, of the gang]
The narrative goes on with the two groups competing for the same road, each eventually backing away and finding another route, to avoid violence from which they might not emerge victorious. The clear answer to the questions: It doesn’t matter where you come from, nor where you go. Life is about movement; about this momentary striving.
Then, in the next chapter (chapter 10) which immediately follows, we see that it does matter where you’re going, after all. This is artistic genius. The judge is revealed, beyond the hints since we’ve been reading from the beginning, to be a Mephistophelic character. He’s identified as a “merestone,” an archaic word for boundary marker, but in the judge’s case it is the boundary between heaven and hell. The Judge’s supernatural nature is clearly evoked in the engraved inscription on his rifle: “Et in Arcadia Ego.” The devil’s range in this world is coincident with God’s, he asserts. He is the regnant Prince of the Air.
It’s in this context that I most clearly identify this as a Christian book. I mean evincing Christian ideas, of course, not that it’s necessarily written by a Christian or to advance Christian ideals. The still-believing expriest Tobin is speaking to the kid. The kid is not the protagonist, exactly, he’s just you and me. Here’s an exchange between Tobin the expriest and the kid:
The expriest shook his head. Oh it may be the Lord’s way of showin how little store he sets by the learned. Whatever could it mean to one who knows all? He’s an uncommon love for the common man and godly wisdom resides in the least of things so that it may well be that the voice of the Almighty speaks most profoundly in such beings as lives in silence themselves.
He watched the kid.
For let it go how it will, he said. God speaks in the least of creatures.
The kid thought him to mean birds or things that crawl but the expriest, watching, his head slightly cocked, said: No man is give leave of that voice.
The kid spat into the fire and bent to his work.
I ain’t heard no voice, he said.
When it stops, said Tobin, you’ll know you’ve heard it all your life.
At night, said Tobin, when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep, who hears them grazing?
Don’t nobody hear them if they’re asleep.
Aye. And if they cease their grazing who is it that wakes?
Aye said the priest. Every man.
I have to tell you I had chills at this point. What the voice of Tobin is telling us, I think loud and clear, is that we hear the God of the universe all the time, so loud and unmistakeably that we write it off to nothing. Imagine being in a loud bar where you’re yelling to make yourself heard, and then suddenly, inexplicably, you’re transported to the middle of a quiet wood, where the sound of a bird far off seems obscenely out of season. The noise in that bar was the noise of God. It’s what we experience constantly. Or think of this, maybe it’s closer to home. The air conditioner hums in the background while you sleep. It stops. You awake.
I’d like to think McCarthy is the expriest Tobin. He certainly speaks to us like his character speaks to the kid.
The judge becomes more and more obviously the devil, throughout the book. At the beginning he accuses a tent revival preacher (falsely) of all manner of child molestation and other horribles, to the effect that the tent is burned down, life is lost, and the town is thrown into chaos. All this before the journey into killing and madness at the border even begins. Midway in the novel, the judge asks of Tobin: “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” It’s the big question of why God tolerates evil, the most frequent lightning rod for atheists’ rantings against Him. But McCarthy also shows his character the judge as a manipulator.
Books lie, he said. [The judge, referring to the Bible.]
God don’t lie.
No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.
He held up a chunk of rock.
He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.
The squatters in their rags nodded among themselves and were soon reckoning him correct, this man of learning, in all his speculations, and this the judge encouraged until they were right proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools.
People are easily manipulated, in other words, as with the judge’s words in the opening scenes with the evangelist.
The judge at every turn speaks the devil’s due in this age and all ages. “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. . . . Decision[s] of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right.”
Well. He speaks directly and truthfully of the effect of naturalism, the spirit of delusion in the present world, which holds that there is no God and no meaning, ultimately, and so questions of that which we hold “moral” and “immoral” are questions solely of power, not of any authority by which we attach labels of “good” and “bad” to what we do or fail to do. The devil, the judge in this novel, doesn’t aggressively advance himself. He is a negation. His undertaking is to negate good, the evidence of a Source of that morality which he dispenses with so handily. He tells a new recruit to the gang: “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is there is no mystery.”
I wrote that the kid is not the protagonist, really; that he’s just you and me. I’ve now seen many reviews which describe him as an anti-hero or some such. Usually in the context of saying the whole novel is an anti-Western. All these reviews (perhaps I’ve missed some) misunderstand McCarthy more than I’ve ever misunderstood anything ever. We start out with the kid, and then he’s a bit player all through the middle of the novel, and then the novel closes focused on him. What happens in his final encounter with the judge, when the judge is made explicitly the devil, and not merely a foreshadowing of ultimate evil? I won’t tell you all, but I’ll tell you this much. The kid resists the devil. Repeatedly the Judge tells the kid he (the kid) is a liar.
You’re the one that’s crazy, said the kid.
The judge smiled. No, he said. It was never me.
You came forward, [the judge] said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgment on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise.
It was you, whispered the kid. You were the one.
I don’t know how to take “the body of which you were pledged” than the then-prevalent Christianity of American civilization. After more clever dialogue by the Judge, again:
You, said the kid. It was you.
It was never me, said the judge. . . .
Lies, said the kid. Lies, by god lies.
I want to be a little cautious, here, and not over-read the text to make it say what I want it to say. But it’s right there in black and white, and if you’ve gotten this far, to the end of the novel, with any kind of understanding of what’s going on, I don’t see how you can miss it. We’re reading about the eschaton. The judge is telling the kid there’s plenty of time to carry on with the dance. He’s referring to the silliness of the wild west bar scene before them, with whiskey shots and a dancing but now dead bear and prostitutes coming and going and a general air of no-heed-for-the-morrow licentiousness. But he also means the time into the future, through generations, when mankind remains heedless of God:
And some are not yet born who shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s soul, said the judge. He turned slightly. Plenty of time for the dance.
What did he just say? The “dauphin?” What could this mean other than the Christ? Moments later the judge is interrogating the cornered kid. He expresses his disappointment with the kid, who says (with us, I hope) “I aint with you.”
The judge tries to explain to the kid that there is order even in the apparent chaotic circumstances of the bar. “Order is not set aside because of their [the bar patrons’] indifference” he says. In fact,
If it is so that they themselves have no reason and yet are indeed here must they not be here by reason of some other? And if this is so can you guess who that other might be?
There is order in the universe, despite the misapprehension of mere chaos, and what’s more, there has to be an “other,” an order-giver. The judge asks of the kid:
Can you guess who that other might be?
No. Can you?
I know him well.
Indeed he does. The judge is the negator, the accuser, the seeming omnipotent and omni-competent, but only in the worldly realms in which he is loosed. The “other” is God.
McCarthy doesn’t leave us with any doubt about what all this means. It’s not accidental. He has the judge saying a ritual is called for, to mark the occasion, a ceremony, and further:
A ritual includes the letting of blood. Rituals which fail in this requirement are but mock rituals.
The genuine thing is Christ, the ultimate atonement, and all other bloodshed is the result of human animal barbarism or mistaken scapegoating. The copious letting of blood that has filled the kid’s life heretofore is the pointless letting of blood of flawed humans, by other flawed humans. The typical man understands none of this, the judge observes, and is therefore “little more than a walking hovel hardly fit to house the human spirit at all.” The judge asks:
Can he say, to such a man, that there is no malign thing set against him? That there is no power and no force and no cause? What manner of heretic could doubt agency and claimant alike? Can he believe that the wreckage of his existence is unentailed [a legal word, meaning without posthumous commitment, here referring to the afterlife]? No liens, no creditors? . . . To whom is he talking, man? Can you see him?
No, of course the kid can’t see Him. He is the unseen, the reason for our faith, “the conviction of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen,” who is the claimant and the One who redeems from these lifetimes of chaos and bloodshed, those whom He will.
I used to bemoan the lack of good Christian fiction, since CS Lewis, but here it is, whether Cormac McCarthy intended it as such, or not.