As promised, I now take up some of the philosophical and ethical problems posed by Cormac McCarthy’s remarkable novel, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. In doing so, it’s important to note that Blood Meridian is open to any number of readings. In fact, the twenty or so intellectual historians who discussed it in Cambridge last week—at the annual IHG seminar—had myriad, often contradictory interpretations of the book. Blood Meridian is a window onto the western canon, from the Bible to Shakespeare to Milton to Nietzsche to Freud. It’s also a “western,” or rather, an anti-western in the tradition of Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, and Quentin Tarantino. Stanley Fish’s provocative argument that there are no texts in his figurative classroom, only readers, is less overstated when the “text” in discussion is as capacious as Blood Meridian.
At first glance, I thought Blood Meridian evinced a certain conservative take on human nature in relation to civilization—on violence in relation to culture. I felt like I was reading Camille Paglia brought back to life as a preternaturally talented novelist. The violent borderlands that serve as the setting of the novel are just beyond civilization, and as such, savagery reigns supreme. Violent, Dionysian impulses are let loose outside the confines of culture. Men are free to kill, rape, torture, and commit any deranged act. The only constraint on such madness is the enemy, who is equally mad. This is human nature at its base. The edifice of our modern, urban civilization is all that keeps us from such debasements. This is a conservative notion of culture in the vein of the New Humanists. All that stands between humanity and anarchy are the refinements of culture. Human nature is otherwise timelessly violent all the way down. One of McCarthy’s three epigraphs signals such meaning:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped. – The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982
This reading of Blood Meridian is too easy. At another level, the book could be read from a diametrically opposed vantage point: as a romantic, even nostalgic critique of modern civilization in the vein of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Cormac McCarthy’s Frankenstein character is, of course, Judge Holden, or simply the judge, whom Harold Bloom calls “the most frightening figure in all of American literature.” The judge, who evokes Shakespeare’s Iago, Melville’s Whale, and especially Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, is far and away the most learned, cultivated, civilized character in Blood Meridian. A multi-linguist, the judge is also versant in a range of scientific disciplines, including paleontology and chemistry. And yet, the judge takes depravity to a whole new level. Every time the Glanton Gang visits a new town, a young child goes missing, a clear allusion to the judge’s pedophilia. In this way, the judge is representative of Adorno and Horkheimer’s “dialectic of enlightenment,” a literary character appropriate to the nuclear age. The judge demonstrates that materialism and rationalism are not the antidotes to madness, but rather are the slippery slopes to nihilism. Just to make this point clear, McCarthy gives the judge a bit of dialogue that might have been ripped straight from Nietzsche: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenchantment of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test.”
So which is it: does Blood Meridian display a conservative sense of human nature in relation to civilization, or does it evince a romantic critique of scientific progress? Both? Neither? McCarthy is a novelist, not a theorist. As such, Blood Meridian doesn’t offer up a clear-cut ethical stance. It is ambivalent and ironic. Even the judge’s ethics, which are not to be confused with McCarthy’s ethics, are contradictory. Although the judge at times seems like a proxy for the barbarities of modernity, at other times he mixes rationalism with the seemingly atavistic impulses of the pre-modern. The judge, who is a skilled dancer, believes that life is a cosmic dance. He is a poet of war: war is not to be understood rationally, but rather as a force that gives life meaning in often unexplainable ways. In short, the judge blurs the cosmological with the natural. Perhaps this is the philosophical position of Blood Meridian. Perhaps it is Derridian in its disavowal of the metaphysical-physical binary.
Or perhaps not.
In any case, Blood Meridian will continue to be read as a great work of art for generations to come, in part because it opens up so many timeless questions, without offering any pat answers. Also, it’s an exciting read—which should not be lost in any discussion of its philosophical and ethical implications. It is an aesthetic masterpiece.