Reading There Will Be Blood as the expanded epilogue to Blood Meridian

Watching (again) Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood last night, it struck me that the film can be read as an expansion of the epilogue to Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian.

Here is that infamously perplexing passage, a strange note that punctuates the devastating infanticidal horror at the novel’s core:

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

I’ve heard numerous interpretations of this passage over the years. Many of the interpretations dwell on the metaphorical power of the epilogue—it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire.

I’m fine with all of these interpretations, for I foolishly take Judge Holden at his word when he points out that, “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.” Let me eschew the symbolic then, at least momentarily, for the literal.

The epilogue’s literal imagery suggests a man working with post hole diggers: Is he building a fence? Constructing telegraph poles? Exploring? Surveying? Whatever his intentions, he marks and measures the land.

Whether the digger is a leader or not, he has followers, “the wanderers in search of bones” as well as “those who do not search.” Bones of what? Are the searchers hunting relics? (To revert to the metaphorical—sorry—are these bones the dead eyes Emerson warned us not to look through?). Or are the bones something else—dinosaur bones, Texas tea, carbon, fuel?

there will be blood

So There Will Blood and there will be bones: Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, a misanthropic, near-malevolent, and ultimately murderous oil man—what I want to say is that he is (a failed version of) McCarthy’s Epilogue Digger. Is not There Will Be Blood  a film about digging, about holes, falling in holes, dying holes, striking fire from holes? And is not There Will Be Blood also a film about the abjection of holes—the oil, the mud, the much, the blood that coats hands and faces, eyes, lips, ears burst? Of the recapitulation of the hole as the primal space for culture—a fertile, generative, fecund, deadly space? The hole as the space of shame and possibility? Daniel Plainview, surveying California, marking lines for his followers to follow, striking oil, striking fire. No?

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We might see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film a repetitious revision of McCarthy’s novel—a recasting of sorts, with Plainview possessed by Glanton’s maniacal spirit—and Glanton in turn possessed by the spirit of the Judge, the dark omnipresent bad father. Both film and novel mediate their Oedipal dramas in an utterly masculine world. Blood Meridian affords more speaking roles to women than There Will Be Blood does, but both see fit to discharge any notion of a mother from the Oedipal contests they depict, rendering the kid in each narrative the warden of strange gangs, strange wanderers. Anderson allows H.W. to suffer but live and perhaps thrive, to find a mate, to escape into new and alien territory, outside of the holes his surrogate father has dug. Our would-be hero of Blood Meridian, the kid, dies in an outhouse, an abject hole.

And Daniel Plainview—he murders the false priest (which the judge failed to do—although Tobin was a true priest though ex-priest), murders a version of himself—another brother, another Abel. He’s not a good guy. If we read McCarthy’s epilogue through his latest novel, The Road, or even through some of the lines in No Country for Old Men, we can see that “the good guys” are charged with carrying the fire—and is this not what the Epilogue Digger is doing? Carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth? Plainview would like to carry the fire, to generate new life, new communities, but he fails, he falls, he crumbles. He abandons his child, and then denies his child. “I’m finished!”

Am I finished? I’m now more confused than when I started this riff. The germ of the idea woke with me this morning—the alien landscape of PTA’s film seemed to restage for me moments in McCarthy’s novel in some waking dream—and like a dream seemed perfectly illogically logical. But bound up in my language I’m not so sure. What I did detect in the film, last night, that I had previously perhaps missed, or maybe forgotten, was how admirable Daniel Plainview often is, especially early on in the film—decisive, bold, asserting his own agency and working with his own hands, he’s a Nietzschean figure. But his paranoia gives way to madness and corruption. Okay. I’m finished.

“The Blue Jay” by Billy Gaddis — Juvenilia from William Gaddis

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William Gaddis juvenilia from Washington University’s Modern Literature collection. (You can read the entire piece there).

“People often ask me, ‘How can you be so stupid and still proclaim yourself a communist?'” (Slavoj Žižek)

An article on cemeteries, and other ideas from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Note-Books

The spells of witches have the power of producing meats and viands that have the appearance of a sumptuous feast, which the Devil furnishes: But a Divine Providence seldom permits the meat to be good, but it has generally some bad taste or smell,–mostly wants salt,–and the feast is often without bread.

 

An article on cemeteries, with fantastic ideas of monuments; for instance, a sundial;–a large, wide carved stone chair, with some such motto as “Rest and Think,” and others, facetious or serious.

 

“Mamma, I see a part of your smile,”–a child to her mother, whose mouth was partly covered by her hand.

 

“The syrup of my bosom,”–an improvisation of a little girl, addressed to an imaginary child.

 

“The wind-turn,” “the lightning-catch,” a child’s phrases for weathercock and lightning-rod.

 

“Where’s the man-mountain of these Liliputs?” cried a little boy, as he looked at a small engraving of the Greeks getting into the wooden horse.

 

When the sun shines brightly on the new snow, we discover ranges of hills, miles away towards the south, which we have never seen before.

 

To have the North Pole for a fishing-pole, and the Equinoctial Line for a fishing-line.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.

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I put down notes, I edit it. Writing disappears (Slavoj Žižek)

“Dear Willie” — William H. Gass Writes to William Gaddis

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From Washington University’s marvelous Modern Literature Collection.

 

A Scapegoat for Promiscuous Drunks, Friendly Calls, and Humbug Resolutions

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From Mark Twain’s January 1st, 1863 column in the Territorial Enterprise:

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

Read “The Fir-Tree,” Hans Christian Andersen’s Depressing Story About the Existential Fate of a Christmas Tree

“The Fir-Tree” by Hans Christian Andersen

Far down in the forest, where the warm sun and the fresh air made a sweet resting-place, grew a pretty little fir-tree; and yet it was not happy, it wished so much to be tall like its companions— the pines and firs which grew around it. The sun shone, and the soft air fluttered its leaves, and the little peasant children passed by, prattling merrily, but the fir-tree heeded them not. Sometimes the children would bring a large basket of raspberries or strawberries, wreathed on a straw, and seat themselves near the fir-tree, and say, “Is it not a pretty little tree?” which made it feel more unhappy than before. And yet all this while the tree grew a notch or joint taller every year; for by the number of joints in the stem of a fir-tree we can discover its age. Still, as it grew, it complained, “Oh! how I wish I were as tall as the other trees, then I would spread out my branches on every side, and my top would over-look the wide world. I should have the birds building their nests on my boughs, and when the wind blew, I should bow with stately dignity like my tall companions.” The tree was so discontented, that it took no pleasure in the warm sunshine, the birds, or the rosy clouds that floated over it morning and evening. Sometimes, in winter, when the snow lay white and glittering on the ground, a hare would come springing along, and jump right over the little tree; and then how mortified it would feel! Two winters passed, and when the third arrived, the tree had grown so tall that the hare was obliged to run round it. Yet it remained unsatisfied, and would exclaim, “Oh, if I could but keep on growing tall and old! There is nothing else worth caring for in the world!” In the autumn, as usual, the wood-cutters came and cut down several of the tallest trees, and the young fir-tree, which was now grown to its full height, shuddered as the noble trees fell to the earth with a crash. After the branches were lopped off, the trunks looked so slender and bare, that they could scarcely be recognized. Then they were placed upon wagons, and drawn by horses out of the forest. “Where were they going? What would become of them?” The young fir-tree wished very much to know; so in the spring, when the swallows and the storks came, it asked, “Do you know where those trees were taken? Did you meet them?”

The swallows knew nothing, but the stork, after a little reflection, nodded his head, and said, “Yes, I think I do. I met several new ships when I flew from Egypt, and they had fine masts that smelt like fir. I think these must have been the trees; I assure you they were stately, very stately.”

“Oh, how I wish I were tall enough to go on the sea,” said the fir-tree. “What is the sea, and what does it look like?”

“It would take too much time to explain,” said the stork, flying quickly away.

“Rejoice in thy youth,” said the sunbeam; “rejoice in thy fresh growth, and the young life that is in thee.”

And the wind kissed the tree, and the dew watered it with tears; but the fir-tree regarded them not. Read More

This is just to say

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Donald Barthelme interviewed by George Plimpton (Video)

From The University of Houston and via Jessamyn West.

“To read and to read and to read and to read” (Faulkner’s advice to young writers)

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you may have touched on this previously, but could you give some advice to young writers? What advice would you give to young writers?

William Faulkner: At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that—that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to—to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is, to be—to curiosity—to—to wonder, to mull, and to—to—to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.

Unidentified participant: How would you suggest that he get this insight? Through experience?

William Faulkner: Yes, and then the greatest part of experience is in the books, to read. To read and to read and to read and to read. To watch people, to have—to never judge people. To watch people, what they do, with—with—without intolerance. Simply to—to learn why it is they did what they did.

More/audio.

Manuscript Page of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

William Faulkner explains the genesis of The Sound and the Fury

Unidentified participant: This is a question about writing in general. I think maybe you just answered it, but they say until Hawthorne came along that there were two ways to construct a story: either start with the characters and then a plot, or start with a plot and make up your characters, and they say that Hawthorne started with the idea and invented both. And I wonder, I know there’s no one formula to producing a story, but I just wonder where you start most often and what you feel is most important, what pattern you [have worked out] to use?

William Faulkner: Three methods you just stated, all will work but—but none—neither or none are more important than the others, and no one can say just what method the story demands. Apparently there’s something inside the man or the woman that must be—be told, must be written. It could be an anecdote. It could be a character. It could be an idea, but I don’t think you could say which system to—or which pattern to assume in order to—to create a story or a book.

Unidentified participant: You have no favorite pattern? It just depends on the individual—?

William Faulkner: That’s right, that’s right. It could be an anecdote. The Sound and the Fury came out of an anecdote, a picture of a—a little girl, the muddy seat of her drawers when she climbed the tree to look in a parlor window, and that’s—the book came from that.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner

William Faulkner: Sir.

Unidentified participant: In The Sound and the Fury, the first three sections of that book are narrated by one of the—of the four Compson children, and in view of the fact that Caddy figures so prominently, is there any particular reason why you didn’t have a section with—giving her views or impressions of what went on?

William Faulkner: That’s a good question. That—the explanation of that whole book is in that. It began with the—the picture of the—the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. and I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to—to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more—more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed, and I tried myself, the fourth section, to tell what happened, and I still failed. [audience laughter] So—

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, when you wrote this, did you have it thought out beforehand, the whole sequences, or did they sort of evolve as you wrote it?

William Faulkner: It evolved as I wrote it. It began with the picture, as I said, of—of the little girl climbing the tree to tell her brothers what was going on in the room where the grandmother’s funeral was taking place, and the rest grew from that.

Via/audio.

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Via:

Goodnight from Bukoswki

Žižek riffs on Kafka, Borges, love in the good old fashioned sense, and so on and so on

The authors William Faulkner consistently returned to

Unidentified participant: Sir, when you are reading for your own pleasure, which authors do you consistently return to?

William Faulkner: The ones I came to love when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. Moby-Dick, the Old Testament, Shakespeare, a lot of Conrad, Dickens. I read Don Quixote every year.

Via/audio/more.

J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

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The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

 

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post last year. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.