e n d n o t e s k a t h e r i n e m c n a m a r a
dozen years ago, the American West was on my mind. I had finished writing a book about Alaska, where I had gone to live when younger, and now wanted a wider, literary perspective on our westward expansion. The novelist Thomas Pynchon suggested I ought to read a remarkable work of fiction, BLOOD MERIDIAN OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST, by Cormac McCarthy. His advice was sound. The prose enthralled, even as the archaic subject of the novel infused the reader I was then with awe-filled terror.
On the North American continent, so long inhabited by immigrants and their descendents, I thought that our (children of immigrants’) literature seldom had attained the imaginative truth of myth. By myth I meant a kind of story rooted in belief so profound it animates the very way one sees the world and which in the fineness and accuracy of its detail, explains that world by its description. It need not (surely, cannot) explain causality; it is not science; it does not support rational knowledge. It is another way of knowing seldom available to us modern, educated people. In the Alaskan Interior, occasionally, I was permitted a glimpse of such knowledge.
Occasionally, true artists are so permitted; one cannot envy them. Melville was permitted; Faulkner, too, likely; and in this book at least, Cormac McCarthy stood with them. His was a chthonic vision. Some vermillion impulse had risen from the very ground of the West and touched his imagination, and he gave it form. The book he made was not for the squeamish. I began it three times before succeeding and thought my hair would turn white as I read. To regain a necessary distance I wrote a series of notes, then put them away. This war-filled summer I opened BLOOD MERIDIAN again, and re-read the notes. I believe they stand.
Best Not To Look In There
The kid, Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist, was the child who would lead me further West in literature, into the mythical American wilderness. He was a child of “history present,” the eternal return, impersonal and without a self. He has no name and no stake in property: “His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.” The kid is a character of no ambiguity. He never learns to read or write. The land teaches him some things: how to eat, how to take his bearings. The unalterably violent, erotically described gangs of men he drifts into teach him something else. He looks for this thing, and expects it; he rides to it as a pilgrim. Is he a creature of belief, of free will and consent? He has had no formation but that his father “lies in drink,” and has no moral center but his taste for violence.
In Faulkner’s great novella “The Bear” a reader finds what could have been one line of the kid’s patrimony, born in an instant of possibility. Here is Isaac McCaslin, arguing with his cousin McCaslin Edmonds. He is twenty-one, trying to come to terms with the land he has inherited and how he cannot “relinquish” because his forebears have not truly “owned” it; because it was established by God that man should oversee and “hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood.” He cries out about the nature of his God:
I imagined the kid born in the shadow of that cry; I saw him as the negative possibility of Ike McCaslin’s desire for “the communal anonymity of brotherhood.” The kid was as doomed and lowly as a child of God could be.
What is the nature of his heart?
Now the kid is fourteen; the year is 1847. (It interested me to trace the years in McCarthy’s fiction, to see if, as decades passed, there had been moral development in the citizenry; another way of measuring Progress, I thought, as an ethic of the American civil religion1.) He has run away from home, gone to New Orleans, fought and been shot, recovered; he has traveled in mud and rain and seen brutal death; he asks no man for anything, and can defend himself. He has turned west, toward Texas; or toward the land McCarthy calls Texas, where “not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.”
This “Texas” is not only an historical evocation. The word also calls up a sacred land; but no gentle meaning for sacred there. In archaic and biblical cadences delineating the moral landscape through which the kid journeys, a theogony is traced. The kid rides west on a pilgrimage to mindless violence. The word McCarthy assigns again and again for this place is darkness. It is a metaphysical darkness.
On the dark trail the kid meets a hermit.
“Best not look in there”: there the kid looks. What he sees is darkness. He has no mind to comprehend it; he has no family or community, no law or religion; he is without distinguishing qualities and exists for himself alone. He is an individual. (He is the negative type of Ike McCaslin’s romantic yearning that the meek shall inherit the earth.) Therefore, he sees war, fought across the demonic land into which he rides. BLOOD MERIDIAN is a book about war, and about a human possibility no one in his right mind would choose; yet, without cease, humans choose it. They choose war, or so I have believed. Therefore, if we were men, that is, humans, endowed by our Creator with free will and conscience, if we followed His way, would we not therefore renounce the choice of war?
If that was my naive question, McCarthy’s answer was as hard as Calvin’s, and as Hegel’s: in his theogony, history is indeed a slaughter bench; his theology is implacable, more determinist than Calvin’s. With gaze held steady he envisions no redemption outside slaughter. In such a world, what choice does one such as the kid have? “In him broods already a taste for mindless violence.” Thus predestined the kid will enter the field of war; and, empty-minded, he will be crazed and destroyed by it.
Dry, stony, Spanish landscapes, snake-eyed stubble-beard grotesques killing everything that moves. . . Spaghetti westerns are fantasías on the American western, a genre that is itself a voluptuously violent visual fantasy about our history. The movies flicker through the pages of BLOOD MERIDIAN. A brassy undertone of Morricone-music mocks its pure vernacular. This book is grandiose, it’s an epic, it’s movie melodrama. The kid’s trail compañeros are killers, truly, but stylized, in their ghastly antics almost comical. The story advances cinematically, one scene succeeding another, the transitions purely formal. A passage, one among the many, evokes the scene. It is the appearance of a band of scalphunters riding into the capital of the state of Chihuahua. They are led by a veteran soldier named Glanton, an American hard man. The kid and a man called Toadvine, and another Kentuckian, “a veteran of the war,” are incarcerated in the filthy calabozo. They are about to be delivered.
The scalphunters, filthy and decrepit as spaghetti banditos or Alaskan end-of-the-roaders, are, equally, pre-Homeric (“patched argonauts”). Their purpose (“Goldseekers”), too, is eternal. McCarthy’s theogony allows no history, and there is no progress; its very movement is repetition, it is eternal return2. BLOOD MERIDIAN is not an historical fiction; it does not purport to retell what happened to these people in this place as family or nation. Though his faceless individuals are the characters of chronicles, legends, movies, they also are only types, and they enact something larger than themselves, of which they are wholly ignorant, as they are wholly ignorant of themselves. They are mythical. But this is an American myth and it subsumes all forms into itself; and it is McCarthy’s telling of a cosmic principle clothed in a configuration his reader can recognize. The scalphunters are a bloody eternal band. They also, recognizably, are part of us, the U.S.
Riding with the scalphunters is a character called the judge, who is, ought to be, an alarming presence in American literature. He is a comic-grotesque, an incarnation of an eternal force, the trickster whose milieu is blood-letting, whose society is men whose anti-community is the roving gang, whose hearth the night’s campfire. After the convention of frontier penny-dreadfuls, or the legend of Faust, amid those many who can neither read nor write he is a man of learning and books. He is the one who will, as Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin despaired, “elect and choose.”
The kid is sixteen, the year 1849, when he washes up in the mud and rain and the jakes of Nacogdoches. The judge appears first as a monstrous imp at a sodden tent revival. He invokes panic and incites the crowd to become a mob, then to kill a preacher, and fades from the kid’s view into the darkness. He will reappear in new guises. He has set the pattern. Some time later, the kid sees him amid that “pack of visciouslooking humans,” the scalphunters, riding into the capital of Chihuahua.
The judge is Glanton’s – the scalphunters’ leader’s – advisor, and he is the story’s evil daemon. He has long since chosen the kid. In an inverted way he will act as his father, willing to teach him how to live in the enormous darkness that “is like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.”
The kid, always watchful, comes to ride with the filthy band. His heart is empty and is never faint, and he has no ideas at all. He has no fear. The scalphunters are witless men. At the evening campfire, their imitation hearth, they call upon the judge to instruct them, and the judge, with delicate contempt, does so.
One such night his subject is war. Deftly he instructs them that they are men at war; and that war endures and is no human invention. Here opens a fantastical scene, no aspect of it without metaphysical weight. Near the campfire the judge “stood half naked and sweating.” “All listened as he spoke, those who had turned to watch him and those who would not.”
How then, in McCarthy’s theogony, are men creatures of God, who are endowed with free will? If war endures, what choice is theirs; and what God has made them? If the judge is the fearsome one who reads, what book is his text; and what is its nature?
His book is men and the cosmos; their nature is chance and possibility, and their will exists to be tested. No moral law mitigates this, and thus is all men’s choice and election subsumed to a larger will: the world is a dice game, a gamble, and men are players. His logic is as rigorous as the Grand Inquisitor’s, or the Jesuit, Naphta’s; it is the dark side of Manichaeism; it is exuberantly nihilist. I could not dismiss it: the judge carries an inviolable authority. He had to be studied and his terms considered. It was folly to shy away from him because he is horrible, because he also is fascinating, and because he, his like, endures.
“War is god.” The judge shocks even the scalphunters. These are creatures who have abandoned home, family, land, so that all they came from was behind them and dead to them, and who prey on all that lives; and yet, who carry in themselves some rudiment of biblical teachings left over from their childhoods. In some dim way they know they are among the doomed and lowly. For a moment they retrieve a shred of moral principle:
But Irving’s protest, and Brown’s more reflexive reaction (“You’re crazy Holden. Crazy at last.”) carry no weight and are lost in the judge’s smile. He tells them:
His logic is unmovable, his argument pitiless. He is shameless and arrogant; he is merely observant. He foresees all opposition.
Gaily he invites scholastic disputation; but not even the ex-priest in the company will dare answer him. The judge is satisfied.
No disputation possible: the logic of war is not open to rebuttal; how could it be? War endures. A gun silences a protester.
However, I was a reader; no gun was turned on me. As my dismay rose it was met by McCarthy’s refusal to turn aside. I could not turn aside, but read to the end; only then did I begin to recover myself, as is necessary. BLOOD MERIDIAN is a book containing such violence and the poetic description of violence that this word, violence, pales as I write it to mere reference. Wishing to disarm it, I traced its linguistic origins. The dictionary (Amer. Her.) noted its Indo-European root, wei-, meaning vital force. Related words are vim, violate, violent, from the Latin vis, force. Related meanings are, “to treat with violence,” and “vehemence.”
About “vital force” the dictionary told me that Indo-European metaphysics appears in its root word aiw-: “‘vital force,’ whence ‘long life, the eternal recreation of life, eternity’”; also, “‘endowed with the acme of vital force, young’.” Its derivatives are ever, every, never, medieval, age, eternal, and eon.
This was some awful, cosmic kind of pun. The vital force of life and the vital force of war conflated, long life and youth conflated, and one becomes the other!
That etymology hardly laid the ground for disputation. The judge found an answer for it in his book of the world.
Still I looked for my own ground to stand. I turned back to the dictionary, to war, and, chillingly, it offered a “word history” that was like a funhouse-mirror image of the judge’s order of creation:
Your only protection was to stay out of its way
In the Interior of Alaska I saw a man shot, lying in a field of snow, the snow around him red, the blue sky as hard as enamel. The man swore at the nurse and cursed her as she inserted an IV-needle in his arm. Four paramedics had to hold him down. He was a drug-taker and one of those men they call an end-of-the-roader. I saw a woman come out of her cabin at sunset, the right side of her face bruised where her husband’s aimed rifle butt had hit her. The bruise was the color of the sunset, which was beautiful; but her face was not beautiful.
Two of the woundings I saw, among many hundreds I did not see. Two intense moments as life went on. Moral law had not intervened. Something remained to trip off small explosions in my memory. Reading the fictional, or mythical, violence of BLOOD MERIDIAN was another kind of experience than watching it happen. The violence of the book was an astringent. Once I could stomach the reading, I felt cleansed by it. The prose was immaculate. A friend of mine, a translator of languages and woman of moral acuity, lifted an eyebrow at my surprise, and suggested: “Of course: there is no ambiguity. That may be why violence – at least, reading about it – can almost invigorate us.”
It invigorated me, because its art had not “bled it of its strangeness.” The frisson was erotic, but not merely sexual, if it was at all sexual. Yet, when I saw what I saw, it too was strange; I had not grown up with it and it was new to me. What images of violence I carried in imagination came from movies and television, counterfeit images as I knew; and came from news videos of the Vietnam War, and all the wars since that have appeared on television. Of those I was a disembodied spectator, watching but in fact removed in time and space.
In Alaska I was present, and felt direct emotion: surprise, compassion, a deep calm, awareness of beauty. Recalling the moment, however, I was aghast; only after repetition, when I began to imagine possibilities, did fear touch me. This is to say that the experience was made of more than one quality; and – this is equally important – it took place in three physical dimensions. At the same time, before my eyes it occurred as though for the first time. The act seemed unreal (“Is this a movie?”), but its effect, the wound in the living flesh, was palpable. Those women and men were people I knew, and they tried to keep going; as for me, in the end I got away. Since then, that part of the world has seen an increase in the violence; even worse, in its randomness.
Cormac McCarthy’s uncompromising fiction, or, his telling of the myth, placed the violence in long perspective. The formality of the narrative; the almost comic, because nearly unbelievable, quality of its imagery (finally, though, not unbelievable, because I have seen and heard enough of it, and know it will not end); its distancing in time and distortion of space; its incantatory prose, biblical cadences, metaphysical arguments, archetypal characters – none of this is banal; but none is at odds, either, with the chronicles and tales of the mountain men, pioneers, warring tribes, the hermits, crazies, desperadoes, socio- and psychopaths who exist in the history of the West and the North. In the kid and the scalphunters is displayed a quality whose like I first saw in the eyes of certain men in the remoter parts of the North. It was a fury, a vital force, violence in their spirit, that they tamped down and held under iron control. There were men of this kind, though, for whom self-control was not tight enough and could never be so; who were bound to go on until something, a mere nudge, provoked them and the force broke through. Then it worked its own course. Your only protection then, the people advised, was to stay out of its way. Nothing human but equal or greater force could stop it.
“All listened as he spoke, even those who had turned to watch him and those who would not.”
The kid belongs to the judge
The kid is an American type. He has no knowledge, particularly not of himself. (He is innocent!) He seeks no attention and has no inclination to speak. He is wary and defensive; when he must act, he acts instantly, his nerves all reflex. He is an individual because, willfully, he belongs to no one or thing. But he belongs to the judge; for only in relation to the judge can he begin to know himself.
If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay
After a terrible journey the kid makes it to California, where he knows no one and has no standing or name; he is wounded, and has stopped drifting. “He seemed to be waiting for someone to come for him and after a while four soldiers entered and arrested him.”
His mind unhinged, he has, just barely, begun to understand what the wei- darkness means. He has learned fear.
One morning he wakes and sees a terrifying visitor: the judge, who like himself has survived the frightful ordeal in the wilderness. With feral intuition he knows the judge is crazy. The judge, irresistible, is about to test him again. It will be the penultimate test. He begins with a monumental, sophist’s joke: he suggests the kid is a creature of free will and choice, and the agent of his own fate.
It is an uncanny, blasphemous moment. The judge is the Tempter of the desert, he is the Antichrist: he is a casuist, and master of the dialectic: he is a moral shape-changer and wears every face that evil has worn in literature. The kid is nothing, not St. John, but lost and doomed, and there is no society and no redemption for him. But, inexplicably, the kid is released; the Spanish doctor decides to think he is a young Easterner from a good family; his wound is operated on. He falls into delirium.
At last he sees the judge in his own mind, truly, fantastically. The judge appears in all his incarnations. He has no origins. He is the principle of the world of false coinage, and of the Hephaestean weapons-fire that smelts metals ripped from the earth.
The kid’s attachment to the judge was his only purpose: for, the judge incarnated his bent to mindless violence and revealed to him its dimensions; but he would not recognize this. But now he saw that the violence has a mind: it is the willful order of disorder and counterfeit, the logic of war. But the story had not ended. The logic of the myth would not permit the judge to be a figment of delirium, he is not eradicated by knowledge; he and the kid would meet only one time more.
The night does not end
The myth spares the kid nothing as he nears his end. The year is 1878; he is forty-five years old, no longer the kid but the man. Inevitably, he is riding toward Texas. He passes through the West as the frontier is closing; he sees the new faces of violence. He meets an old buffalo hunter who tells him about the last great slaughters, the trains of emigrants going west, the ravages of the mines.
He meets four bonepickers, kids from Kentucky and kills one, a violent and mouthy boy, a version of himself at fifteen. “This country was filled with violent children orphaned by war.” He crosses the Brazos into Texas and, closing his great circle in a raw and garish saloon, comes to his final meeting with the judge.
No matter how he dodges, he is caught up in the judge’s final casuistry; the more indifferent, the more taciturn, the more evasive he is, the less it matters. The judge will not be stopped. The writing spares no one. The man ends in somber, stereotypical sordidness in this garish, noisy saloon filled with whores, whisky, cheap music, lost children, slaves and indians, the carcass of a wantonly-slain bear; out back in the mud is the jakes. He has come back to where he started, and, in the jakes, he is annihilated by the judge.
“But I will tell you,” says the judge, last words before consigning him to Sheol:
On the Texan ground, in American history, simultaneously, more than one kind of story unfolds itself. Story depends on belief; and there we are tested. What line of story do we know how, do we dare, to refuse? But how can we live in the uncertainty it brings? We live with it because these stories we read are art. They are human makings.
In this American myth there is no redemption. Most horribly – because it is left to the reader’s imagination – no image is given of the man’s death, only the grubby circumstances of the doomed and lowly; his end is, classically, off stage. But it is no tragedy, because he was nothing. But his end is unspeakable.
The judge remains, fantastic creature, comic, fool, dialectician, slaughterer, preternatural spirit, the messenger of the god War. His last scene is cheap and cinematic and it is occult and somber; it is a Germanic music-drama and a mining-camp ghost tale; it is unstoppable and stately and very frightening. The judge is the Totentanz. “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”
1 Bernard DeVoto wrote ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI about the Rocky Mountain fur trade (the early decades of the kid’s life):
2 McCarthy’s third epigraph, one leg of his thesis tripod, is this:
Bernard DeVoto, ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947/1975)
William Faulkner, “The Bear,” GO DOWN, MOSES. (New York: Vintage International, 1942/1970)
Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST. (New York: Vintage International, 1992)
Katherine McNamara, NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, A Journey into the Interior of Alaska. (San Francisco: Mercury House, 2001)
Mary-Sherman Willis, “The Fight for Kansas: The Letters of Cecelia and John Sherman,” in “Living with Guns,” Archipelago Vol. 6, No. 3.
Where Are the Weapons?, Vol. 7, No. 2.
Patriotism and the Right of Free Speech in Wartime, Vol. 7, No. 1.
A Year in Washington, Vol. 6, Nos. 3/4
Lies, Damn Lies, Vol. 6, No. 2
The Colossus, Vol. 6, No. 1
The Bear, Vol. 5 No. 4
Sasha Choi Goes Home, Vol. 5, No. 3
Sasha Choi in America,Vol. 5, No. 1
A Local Habitation and A Name, Vol. 5, No. 1
The Blank Page, Vol. 4, No. 4
The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3
On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2
The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4
Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3
On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2
Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1
A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4
On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3
Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1
Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4
The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3
Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2
Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the Web, Vol. 1, No. 1