Judge Holden Holds Forth on War (Blood Meridian)

Books, Literature, Writers

From Chapter XVII of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian

They grew gaunted and lank under the white suns of those days and their hollow burnedout eyes were like those of noctambulants surprised by day. Crouched under their hats they seemed fugitives on some grander scale, like beings for whom the sun hungered. Even the judge grew silent and speculative. He’d spoke of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man but that body receiving his remarks counted themselves well done with any claims at all. They rode on and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of gray-beards, gray men, gray horses. The mountains to the north lay sunwise in corrugated folds and the days were cool and the nights were cold and they sat about the fire each in his round of darkness in that round of dark while the idiot watched from his cage at the edge of the light. The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.

The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.

The judge smiled, his face shining with grease.

What right man would have it any other way? he said.

The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

He turned to Brown, from whom he’d heard some whispered slur or demurrer. Ah Davy, he said. It’s your own trade we honor here. Why not rather take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each.

My trade?

Certainly.

What is my trade?

War. War is your trade. Is it not?

And it aint yours?

Mine too. Very much so.

What about all them notebooks and bones and stuff?

All other trades are contained in that of war.

Is that why war endures?

No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.

That’s your notion.

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god. Brown studied the judge.

You’re crazy Holden. Crazy at last.

The judge smiled.

 

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A Blood Meridian Christmas

Books, Literature, Writers

Cormac McCarthy’s seminal anti-Western Blood Meridian isn’t exactly known for visions of peace on earth and good will to man. Still, there’s a strange scene in the book’s final third that subtly recalls (and somehow inverts) the Christmas story. The scene takes place at the end of Chapter 15. The kid, erstwhile protagonist of Blood Meridian, has just reunited with the rampaging Glanton gang after getting lost in the desert and, in a vision-quest of sorts, has witnessed “a lone tree burning on the desert” (a scene I have argued is the novel’s moral core).

Glanton’s marauders, tired and hungry, find temporary refuge from the winter cold in the town of Santa Cruz where they are fed by Mexicans and then permitted to stay the night in a barn. McCarthy offers a date at the beginning of the chapter — December 5th — and it’s reasonable to assume, based on the narrative action, that the night the gang spends in the manger is probably Christmas Eve. Here is the scene, which picks up as the gang — “they” — are led into the manger by a boy–

The shed held a mare with a suckling colt and the boy would would have put her out but they called to him to leave her. They carried straw from a stall and pitched it down and he held the lamp for them while they spread their bedding. The barn smelled of clay and straw and manure and in the soiled yellow light of the lamp their breath rolled smoking through the cold. When they had arranged their blankets the boy lowered the lamp and stepped into the yard and pulled the door shut behind, leaving them in profound and absolute darkness.

No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam’s flank.

The “shroud of palest fire” made of sparks is a strange image that seems almost supernatural upon first reading. The phenomena that McCarthy is describing is simply visible static electricity, which is not uncommon in a cold, dry atmosphere–particularly if one is removing wool clothing. Still, the imagery invests the men with a kind of profound, bizarre significance that is not easily explainable. It is almost as if these savage men, naked in the dark, are forced to wear something of their soul on the outside. Tellingly, this spectacle upsets both the mare and her colt, substitutions for Mary and Christ child, which makes sense. After all, these brutes are not wise men.

[Ed. note -- Yes, this post is recycled (regifted?) from last year].

“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.

“The Authentic American Apocalyptic Novel” — Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562

Harold Bloom’s esteem for Blood Meridian may have done much to advance the novel’s reputation over the past decade. His essay on the book, first published in his 2000 collection How to Read and Why and later included as the preface to Random House’s Modern Library editions, makes a strong case for Blood Meridian’s canonical status. Bloom begins, in typical Bloomian fashion–the anxiety of influence is always at work–by situating McCarthy’s book against other heavies–

Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2000 than it was fifteen years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian . . .

The Garden of Earthly Delights -- Hell, Hieronymus Bosch, 1503-1504

Bloom goes  on to rate Blood Meridian over DeLillo’s Underworld, several books by Philip Roth, and even McCarthy’s own All the Pretty Horses. Indeed, Bloom proclaims Blood Meridian “the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” This doesn’t mean that Bloom is at home with the book’s violence; he confesses that it took him two attempts to read through its “overwhelming carnage.” Still, he makes a case for reading it in spite of its gore–

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence–its language, landscape, persons, conceptions–at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.

Bloom repeatedly invokes Melville and Faulkner in his essay, arguing that Blood Meridian’s “high style” is one of its key strengths (unlike fellow aesthetic critic James Wood, who seems to think that McCarthy is a windbag). The trajectory of Bloom’s essay follows Melville and Shakespeare, finding in Judge Holden both a white whale (and not so much an Ahab) and an Iago. He writes–

Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them.

I think that Bloom’s great insight here is to read the book as a prose epic as opposed to a linear novel; to see that Blood Meridian foregrounds a deeply tragic and ironic reworking of the great American myth of Manifest Destiny. While hardly a pastiche, the book is somehow a collage; a massive, deafening collage that numbs, stuns, and overwhelms with its layers of thick, bloody prose. The effect is akin to the apocalyptic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Dense and full of allusion, paintings like The Triumph of Death and The Garden of Earthly Delights surge over the senses, destabilizing narrative logic. Like Blood Meridian, these paintings employ a graphic grammar that disorients and then reorients. They are apocalyptic in all senses of the word: both revelatory and portentously conclusive. And like Blood Meridian, they showcase “a sinister aesthetic glory” (to use Bloom’s term), a terrible, awful, awesome ugliness that haunts us with repulsive beauty.

“Books Are Made out of Books” — Blood Meridian and Samuel Chamberlain

Art, Books, Literature, Writers

In his 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian, as many critics have noted, is made of some of the finest literature out there–the King James Bible, Moby-Dick, Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, Faulkner, and Shakespeare. While Blood Meridian echoes and alludes to these authors and books thematically, structurally, and linguistically, it also owes much of its materiality to Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue.

Chamberlain, much like the Kid, Blood Meridian’s erstwhile protagonist, ran away from home as a teenager. He joined the Illinois Second Volunteer Regiment and later fought in the Mexican-American War. Confession details Chamberlain’s involvement with John Glanton’s gang of scalp-hunters. The following summary comes from the University of Virginia’s American Studies webpage

According to Chamberlain, John Glanton was born in South Carolina and migrated to Stephen Austin’s settlement in Texas. There he fell in love with an orphan girl and was prepared to marry her. One day while he was gone, Lipan warriors raided the area scalping the elderly and the children and kidnapping the women- including Glanton’s fiancee. Glanton and the other settlers pursued and slaughtered the natives, but during the battle the women were tomahawked and scalped. Legend has it, Glanton began a series of retaliatory raids which always yielded “fresh scalps.” When Texas fought for its independence from Mexico, Glanton fought with Col. Fannin, and was one of the few to escape the slaughter of that regiment at the hands of the Mexican Gen. Urrea- the man who would eventually employ Glanton as a scalp hunter. During the Range Wars, Glanton took no side but simply assassinated individuals who had crossed him. He was banished, to no avail, by Gen. Sam Houston and fought as a “free Ranger” in the war against Mexico. Following the war he took up the Urrea’s offer of $50 per Apache scalp (with a bonus of $1000 for the scalp of the Chief Santana). Local rumor had it that Glanton always “raised the hair” of the Indians he killed and that he had a “mule load of these barbarous trophies, smoke-dried” in his hut even before he turned professional.

Chamberlain’s Confession also describes a  figure named Judge Holden. Again, from U of V’s summary–

Glanton’s gang consisted of “Sonorans, Cherokee and Delaware Indians, French Canadians, Texans, Irishmen, a Negro and a full-blooded Comanche,” and when Chamberlain joined them they had gathered thirty-seven scalps and considerable losses from two recent raids (Chamberlain implies that they had just begun their careers as scalp hunters but other sources suggest that they had been engaged in the trade for sometime- regardless there is little specific documentation of their prior activities). Second in command to Glanton was a Texan- Judge Holden. In describing him, Chamberlain claimed, “a cooler blooded villain never went unhung;” Holden was well over six feet, “had a fleshy frame, [and] a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression” and was well educated in geology and mineralogy, fluent in native dialects, a good musician, and “plum centre” with a firearm. Chamberlain saw him also as a coward who would avoid equal combat if possible but would not hesitate to kill Indians or Mexicans if he had the advantage. Rumors also abounded about atrocities committed in Texas and the Cherokee nation by him under a different name. Before the gang left Frontreras, Chamberlain claims that a ten year old girl was found “foully violated and murdered” with “the mark of a large hand on her throat,” but no one ever directly accused Holden.

It’s fascinating to note how much of the Judge is already there–the pedophilia, the marksmanship, the scholarship, and, most interesting of all, the lack of hair. Confession goes on to detail the killing, scalping, raping, and raiding spree that comprises the center of Blood Meridian. Chamberlain even describes the final battle with the Yumas, an event that signals the dissolution of the Glanton gang in McCarthy’s novel.

Content aside, Chamberlain’s prose also seems to presage McCarthy’s prose. In his book Different Travelers, Different Eyes, James H. Maguire notes that, “Both venereal and martial, the gore of [Chamberlain's] prose evokes Gothic revulsion, while his unschooled art, with its stark architectural angles and leaden, keen-edged shadows, can chill with the surreal horrors of the later Greco-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico.” Yes, Chamberlain was an amateur painter (find his paintings throughout this post), and undoubtedly some of this imagery crept into Blood Meridian.

You can view many of Chamberlain’s paintings and read an edit of his Confession in three editions of Life magazine from 1956, digitally preserved thanks to Google Books–here’s Part I, Part II, and Part III. Many critics have pointed out that Chamberlain’s narrative, beyond its casual racism and sexism, is rife with factual and historical errors. He also apparently indulges in the habit of describing battles and other events in vivid detail, even when there was no way he could have been there. No matter. The ugly fact is that books are made out of books, after all, and if Chamberlain’s Confession traffics in re-appropriating the adventure stories of the day, at least we have Blood Meridian to show for his efforts.

Blood Meridian — Judge Holden on the Raising of Children

Books, Literature, Writers

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is larded with strange little pockets of the black humor, humor so black that it’s hard to catch on the first or second reading. Re-reading the book again this week, I was struck by how funny a passage in Chapter XI is. The passage comes immediately after one of the more confounding moments of the book. Judge Holden, the giant, malevolent, Mephistophelean antagonist who dominates the narrative, has just told a puzzling parable about a harness maker who commits a murder and then begs for his son’s forgiveness. It’s a strange story and I’m not sure exactly what it means. Anyway, after he tells this story, Tobin, the ex-priest asks the Judge, “So what is the way of raising a child?” Here’s the reply–

At a young age, said the judge, they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions. They should be made to run naked in the desert until…

Hold on now, said Tobin. The questions was put in all earnestness.

And the answer, man, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind, would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet?

The humor of the Judge’s initial, concrete answer rests on the fact that it is wholly earnest: even in his bizarre, hyperbolic surrealism, the judge is serious. Pits, wild dogs, wild lions. Running naked in the desert. That’s how kids should be raised. The move to the abstract–to highlight humanity’s predatory instincts–is a retreat from humor to philosophy, a pattern that McCarthy repeats in the novel. The effect stuns the impulse to find humor in the language. Humor cannot sustain throughout the narrative, even though it is present.

Blood Meridian — Cormac McCarthy

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Blood Meridian is a blood-soaked, bloodthirsty bastard of a book, and certainly the most violent piece of literature I’ve read outside of the Bible and certain Greek tragedies. Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel passes itself off as a Western–and it is a Western, to be sure–but more than anything, it’s a brutal horror story.

Set predominantly in the 1850s, Blood Meridian chronicles the westward journey of a protagonist we know only as “the kid.” After a few false starts (including getting shot, robbed, arrested, and surviving a Comanche massacre) the kid eventually meets up with John Joel Glanton‘s “expedition”–a group of men of mixed backgrounds hired by Mexican authorities to kill–and scalp–the nomadic Apache who prey upon Mexican villages. However, led by the nefarious, larger-than-life Judge Holden, Glanton’s gang quickly descends into a relentless robbing, raping, and killing spree; they savagely massacre peaceful Indian settlements along with the Mexican villages they were contracted to protect.

I could keep summarizing the book, but I don’t see the point, honestly–a mere description of the plot could never do real justice to the weight of this book. The narrative is taut and fast-paced–in fact, at points the action is so radically condensed that I had to go back and re-read sections–and there’s no shortage of the “men doing men stuff” that McCarthy is so good at detailing–but it’s really the combination of the book’s evocative imagery and philosophical pondering that hook the reader.

Most of that philosophical pondering comes from the Judge, who waxes heavy on everything from space aliens to metallurgy. In his parables and aphorisms, the Judge comes across as part-Mephistophelean, part-Nietzschean, all dark wisdom and irreverent chaos. I found myself re-reading the Judge’s speeches several times and chewing them over, trying to digest them; for me, they were the best part of a great book.

Blood Meridian, like most excellent things, is simply not for everyone, and I don’t mean that in any snobbish, elitist sense. Any reader turned off by its freewheeling violence would be justified, and I’m sure plenty of folks out there would take issue with its ambiguous conclusion. Depictions of genocidal mania that seem to end inconclusively are not for everyone, particularly when they are rife with archaisms, untranslated Spanish, and McCarthy’s signature apostrophe-free punctuation. I had two false starts with the novel, including one where, at about exactly half way through, I realized I had to go back and start the novel again. I owed it that much. And it was worth it.

Blood Meridian is literally stunning; perhaps the best analogy I can think of is going to see a really, really good band that plays really, really brutal and strange music that sorta melts your face off. After the show you’re sweaty and exhilarated and even unnerved; your ears are ringing and your chest is pounding. And then the band packs up, and the house lights go on, and they pump in music from a CD, of all things, and the music just sounds tinny and pale and blanched of life after the raw power you’ve witnessed. Reading anything else right after finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West is sort of like that. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note--Biblioklept originally published this review on April 6th, 2008. We're running it again as part of a week of coverage celebrating Blood Meridian's 25th anniversary].

Comic Book Artists and Criminals

Books

The Beilever’s 2009 Art Issue came in the mail today. It’s got cool interview between Chris Ware and Jerry Moriarty. A large poster of one of Moriarty’s painting comes with issue, which also prints several of the “paintoonist’s” works. But not this one:

Jerry Moriarty

Jerry Moriarty

Image via Molossus, where you can read an insightful review of Moriarty’s collection, The Complete Jack Survives.

The new Believer also features an interview with Aline Kominsky-Crumb, as well as some of her images. But not this one:

need_more_loveWB

Aline Kominsky-Crumb

There’s also a pretty cool rogue’s gallery of of famous literary criminals. Forensic artist (y’know, a police sketch-artist) Barbara Anderson recreates eight criminals based solely on literary description. The list includes Oliver Twist’s Fagin, who looks like some dark-elf pedophile, Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, that irascible pedophile Humbert Humbert, and, surprisingly, master forger Wyatt Gwyon, erstwhile hero of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. One of our all-time favorite baddies is also there, although we really didn’t imagine Blood Meridian‘s Judge Holden would look look like Steve from The Jerry Springer Show:

Picture 2