“It was a lone tree burning on the desert” — Blood Meridian’s Moral Core

Books, Literature, Writers

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian begins as a strange, violent picaresque bildungsroman, detailing the adventures of a teenage runaway known only as “the kid.” When the Kid falls in with John Glanton’s marauders, the narrative lens expands and pulls back; Glanton’s gang essentially envelopes the Kid’s personality. The pronoun “they” dominates the Kid’s own agency, for the most part, and the massive figure of Judge Holden usurps the narrative’s voice. The effect is that the Glanton gang’s killing, raping, and scalping spree becomes essentially de-personalized, and, to a certain extent, amoralized.

The Kid, and perhaps the ex-priest Tobin and the Kid’s erstwhile partner Toadvine, are the only major characters who bear any semblance of conventional morality in the narrative. The Kid exhibits a willingness to help others early on when he agrees to stitch one of Tobin’s wounds; later, he removes an arrowhead from a wounded man when no other member of the company will (Tobin chides him for caring, declaring that the wounded man would have killed the Kid had the Kid’s efforts been unsuccessful). For most of the central narrative though, the Kid’s individual actions are consumed into the gang’s “they.” However, at the beginning of chapter 15 the narrative focuses again on the Kid, who is charged with killing a wounded man named Shelby to “spare” him from the approaching Mexican army (this is a bizarre version of mercy in Blood Meridian). Shelby pleads to live and the Kid allows it, even giving the man some water from his own canteen. After he leaves he catches up with a man named Tate whose horse is wounded. Tate remarks on the boy’s foolishness for helping him, but the Kid does so nonetheless, sharing Tate’s burden as they try to make their way back to the rest of their party. Tate is soon killed by Mexican scouts. In both cases, the outcome of the Kid’s moral actions–the will to help, to save, to preserve life–are negated by the book’s narrative outcomes, but I would argue that his intentions in the face of violence somehow secure his humanity.

His journey alone to rejoin the Glanton gang is figured as a kind of vision quest, a strange echo of Christ in the desert, perhaps. At its core–and perhaps the moral core of the book–is the following strange passage–

It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A herladic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before the torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.

The burning tree alludes to YHWH’s appearance to Moses as a burning bush, and also the tree of smoke that led the Israelites through the desert. Significantly, all the strange, terrible creatures of the desert come to meet around it in a “precarious truce.” The burning tree inverts the natural, inescapable violence that dominates the novel and turns it into a solitary, singular moment of peace. When the Kid awakes–alone–the tree is merely a “smoldering skeleton of a blackened scrog.” God is not in the permanence of the object but rather in the witnessing of the event–Blood Meridian locates (a version of a) god in the natural violence of burning and consumption. There is a strong contrast here, I believe, with the book’s other version of god, the Judge’s proclamation that “War is god.” The Judge, a cunning, devilish trickster, wants to reduce (or enlarge) war to all contest of wills, to pure violence–to divorce it from any ideological structure. Yet the burning tree episode reveals natural violence divorced from ideology. The animals (and the man, the Kid) suspend their Darwinian animosities in order to witness the sublime. The episode is silent, outside of language, order, ideology. This silence is echoed in the novel’s final confrontation between the Judge and the Kid, who retorts simply “You ain’t nothin'” to the Judge’s barrage of grandiose language. While the rejoinder may not save the Kid, its rejection perhaps saves his soul (if such a thing exists in the novel, which I believe it does). So, while larger-than-life Judge Holden may dominate the novel, Cormac McCarthy has nonetheless given us another moral road to follow, should we choose to.

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10 thoughts on ““It was a lone tree burning on the desert” — Blood Meridian’s Moral Core

  1. I would agree that McCarthy is allowing a moral choice, despite the apparent lack of one, in Blood Meridian. It never seems to me that he is saying that the world and man and life are evil, or that they must be, but simply that they are what they are. It is up to each of us to make of the world what we will.
    Like in the following quote from The Crossing:
    Memories dim with age. There is no repository for our images. The loved ones who visit us in dreams are strangers. To even see aright is effort. We seek some witness but the world will not provide one. It is the history that each man makes alone out of what is left to him. Bits of wreckage. Some bones. The words of the dead. How make a world of this? How live in that world once made?

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  2. Revisit the dancing bear scene towards the end of the novel. I think that moment speaks most truly to McCarthy’s point of human compassion being lost on one another while juxtaposing the reader’s sympathy for a beast that would, in normal circumstances, be predisposed to shredding every living creature in its vicinity.

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  3. Great blog … The burning tree also saved “the kid” from freezing to death when he was caught in the snowstorm after the mercy killing scene with Shelby and Tate … and before the burning tree revealed itself, it was also the probable campfire of the Glanton gang or the kids enemies when he first saw the fire at a distance … the burning tree in fact saves the kids soul … a wonderful scene …

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    1. Hey, thanks. Yeah, good point, the fire does save the kid’s life. The whole book, to me, is a series of wonderful/bizarre/engrossing scenes. I’ve read it at least once a year since the first time I read it…

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  4. Came upon this after having just finished the novel. Good essay; an especially refreshing counterpoint to the claims of nihilism or amorality in reference to McCarthy’s work. I encountered one argument that distressed me a bit, that the novel is biblical and profound aesthetically but bereft morally. If that’s the case, then it’s just 300+ pages of pointlessly virtuosic violence. I thought it was more than that, and I’m glad there’s someone out there who agrees. McCarthy’s sister-in-arms would, in my opinion, be Flannery O’Connor. And O’Connor is very helpful because she explicitly stated that she wrote with moral purpose and to engage in moral questions, but she dealt with violence and nihilism as to not be didactic. She wrote stories that were like moral puzzles, shifting responsibility to the reader, not the writer, to navigate through a difficult narrative to find answers to really tough questions. I think McCarthy is the same way. His novels, Blood Meridian especially, are not sermons but depictions of very harsh, seemingly immoral worlds. It’s our job as readers to enter into these worlds imaginatively and find our morality in them. You’ve seemed to have done that. Bravo.

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