Notes on Blood Meridian
by Justin E. H. Smith
I want to say a number of different sorts of thing about Blood Meridian, but I think it will be true to the way Cormac McCarthy himself approached the novel in its creation to move out from the most elementary constituents. Let’s start with apostrophes.
There are no quotation marks, nor is speech set off by italics (there are no italics at all, in fact, save for the epilogue, which is entirely italic). But quotations are marked by other punctuational and orthographic cues in a way that flows naturally and clearly. It struck me on my first reading in fact that McCarthy had solved the seemingly impossible problem of capturing spoken language in an adequate and verisimilar way. Out of fidelity to his characters, McCarthy cannot but permit them to drop the terminal g’s from gerunds, and to rely on contractions of phrases like I am not, I cannot. But these people are illiterate and anyway unconcerned with the conventions of high speech, and so are not aware in their speaking that they are leaving anything out. And so there is no need for apostrophes that in conventional prose signal the awareness of an absence, and we are left with pure speech:
We goin to whip up on the Mexicans.
In this way McCarthy avoids lapsing into a condescending campestral in the manner of Snuffy Smith: I’m fixin’ to do some shootin’, &c., and gives us, one feels, unmediated access to a variety of speech that predates all recording technology by a half century.
Some words are deformed, too, beyond simple contraction, e.g.:
Ort to of shot that one too.
The most significant deformation of this sort comes in the choice –not a small choice– of the accusative form of the second-person personal pronoun:
You aint seen my dog have ye?
Without context, we naturally incline to reading this in an Elizabethan manner, in a way that rhymes with pee or lee. In the novel however it is always clear that ye lies somewhere between yah and yuh (often approximated in American writing as ya), a very familiar American vowel, as in:
What can I get yuh?
This pronoun, it seems to me, does important work for McCarthy as the bridge between the discursive traditions of the Old and the New Worlds, between Milton and Peckinpah, whose successful bridging is the the principal literary accomplishment of Blood Meridian.
I said ‘Old and New Worlds’ and I said ‘Milton and Peckinpah’, but another way of saying this might have been: between epic and the movies. The novel relies on cinematic conventions throughout; it has wide-focus and narrow-focus shots, images that would not makes sense without an intervening century of film. To cite just one example:
They diminished upon the plain to the west first the sound and then the shape of them dissolving in the heat rising off the sand until they were no more than a mote struggling in that hallucinatory void and then nothing at all.
Relative to whom, now, are the riders disappearing? In the event, there was no character left behind to watch them. We can only imagine a stationary camera tracking their gradual disappearance: we are the omniscient unspecified perceiver of the events that unfold in literature, but our perception is cinematic to the extent that it is not a view from nowhere, but a ‘shot’.
At the same time, the language is unrelentingly archaicizing, reaching back long before the events recounted in the novel of the mid-19th century, which happen to have been contemporaneous or nearly so with the first proto-cinematic fiction of Flaubert and other French ‘realists’. There is a fiddler who stands without the door; there are strange forgotten forms of quantification:
Of humans they saw none.
There is inversion of the standard adjective-noun order of modern English:
They crossed a cinderland of caked slurry and volcanic ash imponderable.
A favorite verb is the Germanic ‘reckon’, which survives in the contemporary German rechnen, to compute, but which in English suggests a form of deliberation prior to the discovery of mathematics, let alone computers, when deliberation was ultimately modeled after the arbitrary power of God at the final judgment:
…some maelstrom out there in the void, some vortex in that waste apposite to which man’s transit and his reckonings alike lay abrogate.
There is frequent reliance on the existential, rather than predicative, use of the verb ‘to be’:
Before man was, war waited for him.
And McCarthy’s favorite archaicism, of which I counted more than a dozen occurrences, is the nor that is not preceded by a neither, which generates a curious impression that everything is, implicitly, negation:
Little was said, nor were they quarrelsome among themselves.
Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go.
Several men pushed forward to feel the iron and to rock it where it stood, nor did the judge lose the opportunity to ventilate himself upon the ferric nature of the heavenly bodies and their powers and claims.
Is McCarthy’s archaicism anachronism, as in, mere anachronism? It seems to me that the author has sought to adopt a register that is appropriate to the conditions of the Texas-Mexico borderlands of 1850, and to the people there, who are repeatedly described as ‘neolithic’ or ‘stoneage’ (the abolition of hyphens in the novel is also worth noting), as either savage and heathen or ‘christian only in name’ (and worth noting, too, the strategic deployment of the lower case). The language cannot be contemporary, cannot be 19th-century, because it is describing a region and a sequence of events that in no way fit with the self-conception of that age that European novelists like Flaubert were actively producing. And this is the story of America: when Europeans (including, one supposes, those of Boston and New York) were worrying about who was showing up at whose salon, the settlers of the western frontier were massacring Indians, raping children, and collecting scalps. And what other personal pronoun but ye could work for the psychotic hillbilly epic that tells of this conquest (thanks to which I was able to spend my childhood in the malls and on the freeways of California)? Already completely defunct in the enlightened parts of the English-speaking world, the pronoun would live on in the outer reaches, where Enlightenment was at best a gross joke (a joke underlined moreover in the character of the judge and in his natural-historical researches), and would endure, to this day even, as a link between premodern Anglo-Saxon elementalness and something quintessentially American:
I’m gonna whoop ye.
Like the pronoun on which we have been dwelling, there is another word, a common and familiar noun, that bridges the Anglo-Saxon and the American Western. I have in mind the word country, which Americans seem to have taken the lead in conflating with ‘state’ or ‘nation’, but which has never lost the parallel sense of environment or surrounding wide-open space or campagne: a parallel that perfectly suits the mythology of ‘country’ that is implicit in the 20th-century idea of ‘country-western’, an idea whose 19th-century origins McCarthy aims to lay bare. The medieval, pre-nation-state conception of country is explicitly stressed in the author’s summary at the beginning of chapter VI, where he cryptically cites a stock legal phrase descending from Old French:
Et de ceo se mettent en le pays [And with that they set out into the country].
And toward the end of the novel, when the kid is locked up in San Diego and, so he thinks, soon to be hanged, there is speculation that it was the country that made him crazy. One suspects that this is meant in both senses, both in the sense of the desert and the other landscapes he has endured, and in the sense of the United States, whose imperial expansion is the distal cause of everything that happens to him.
McCarthy is sometimes called ‘nihilistic’ by commentators, in view of the fact that his characters engage in horrible violence without any apparent moral reflection. In fact, his characters are almost total ciphers, whose actions are not really actions at all, but events in a cosmos that also prominently features shooting stars and lightning storms. I don’t even want to engage the criticism that this novel is ‘too violent’ (this is much like saying Swan Lake would have been better if there hadn’t been quite so much dancing), but I do think it is worthwhile to insist that the absence of reflection, like the violence itself, is entirely necessary to the novel’s artistic aim, and entirely appropriate to the author’s epic intent. That is, he is describing, I won’t say a premodern world, but an extramodern one, one that integrates human beings within an all-encompassing cosmology, but does not set these human beings over against that cosmos as a special kind of agent, the ‘moral’ kind. This is the point of McCarthy’s constant return to the pre-anthropocene geology that anticipates the human events he describes, and in relation to which these events are a sort of degenerate echo.
It has often been argued (though by now somewhat controversially) that the individual moral subject had not yet been discovered in Homeric epic, that the world Homer describes is a cosmos governed by the fates in which war cannot be morally problematized because human action has not yet been sufficiently set apart from, say, meteorology to make bloodshed appear as devious or preventable.
I suspect that it is only from within such a cosmos that we can adequately reimagine the experience of the violence between the American irregulars and the Native Americans they were charged with annihilating. Although all of the characters, Native and non-Native alike, remain total ciphers, one comes away, astoundingly, with the sense of having understood for the first time what this particular historical encounter was like for the various parties with their various limited perspectives. The breathtaking account of the kid’s first encounter with Indians, during a Comanche ambush, involves nothing but a sort of inventory of their wardrobe and ornamentations, but the articles noted are already enough to tell so much of the story of the European conquest of the New World, and of the way this was lived, in medias res, by the lowly ones on both sides with a life-or-death stake in the outcome of the conquest. The passage is worth citing in whole:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear and cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horse’s ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotseque with daubings 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 [note!], screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
As it is not difficult to anticipate, unpleasant things ensue. There is a report of a man who has to crawl across the salt flats naked for days to arrive, almost dead, at a settlement. He can’t walk, because the Indians have cut off the bottoms, but only the bottoms, of his feet.
It is a victory of McCarthy’s epic imagination that such atrocities are recounted without inducing in the reader the slightest interest in ‘taking sides’. US imperialism and its ideology of manifest destiny are, we all know, the side that is to be blamed, ultimately, for the fact that some lad lost his soles. But that’s not what this novel is about, and in refusing to be about this it already subverts the mythology of the western genre that it also represents par excellence. This novel is about a world Homer already knew, where war is an ontological force that lies deeper in the order and reason of the cosmos than human history, where humans have nothing to learn –where there can be no Bildung for a young hero– even if they can at least come to know, through its most magnificent instances, the order that precedes them:
He rose and turned toward the lights of the town. The tidepools bright as smelterpots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website