James Wood (Is Wrong) on Blood Meridian

Critic James Wood wrote extensively about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in his 2005 essay for The New Yorker, “Red Planet.” Here’s his lede–

To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.

Wood later details McCarthy’s gift as “one of the greatest observers of landscape”–

“Blood Meridian” is a vast and complex sensorium, at times magnificent and at times melodramatic, but nature is almost always precisely caught and weighed: in the desert, the stars “fall all night in bitter arcs,” and the wolves trot “neat of foot” alongside the horsemen, and the lizards, “their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks,” fend off the world “with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates,” and the grains of sand creep past all night “like armies of lice on the move,” and “the blue cordilleras stood footed in their paler image on the sand like reflections in a lake.”

Wood then goes about attempting to explain his problems with McCarthy the “ham” who produces “histrionic rhetoric” —

[McCarthy’s] prose opens its lungs and bellows majestically, in a concatenation of Melville and Faulkner (though McCarthy always sounds more antique, and thus antiquarian, than either of those admired predecessors).  . . .

It is a risky way of writing, and there are times when McCarthy, to my ear, at least, sounds merely theatrical. He has a fondness for what could be called analogical similes, in which the linking phrase “like some” introduces not a visual likeness but a hypothetical and often abstract parallel: “And he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” . . .

The danger is not just melodrama but imprecision and, occasionally, something close to nonsense. . . .

The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders.

So, Blood Meridian doesn’t meet the standard of Wood’s cherished “free indirect style,” where an author subtly shifts into a character’s voice. Wood craves these delicate internal borders. He can’t bear the idea that the towering figure of Judge Holden might come to ventriloquize the novel. It is worth noting here that Wood frequently extols the free indirect styles of Marcel Proust and Henry James–two authors McCarthy dismissed in a 1992 interview with The New York Times, saying “I don’t understand them . . . that’s not literature.”  Wood values a mannered precision of realism that McCarthy openly professes little interest in; rather, McCarthy uses a mythic, amplified, and at times grandiose style in Blood Meridian to explore issues of life and death. And Wood is perhaps not wrong here. At times Blood Meridian edges into bombast, although I believe McCarthy controls his language more than Wood allows. In either case, McCarthy’s language is ripe for parody, as exemplified in this clip from Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums

I would be happy to leave Wood’s criticism of Blood Meridian and McCarthy alone at this point. Fine, Wood doesn’t like it when McCarthy goes balls-to-the-wall; whatever. But at the end of “Red Planet” Wood turns to attacking McCarthy’s perceived failure to vindicate God’s goodness in the face of evil. Wood here (and elsewhere, always elsewhere) shows his deep conservatism. Wood necessitates that all literature reveal a platonic center, a stable, beating heart that must also be a platonic good. Here he is, griping about McCarthy’s “metaphysical cheapness”–

Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .

But McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.

If Wood finds only a nihilism in Blood Meridian (and the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre) that he fundamentally disagrees with, he should simply say so. Instead, Wood demands that Blood Meridian be a theodicy and then condemns it for not being one. He shamefully attempts to hold the work to a radically subjective rubric that cannot be answered. Put another way, the failure that Wood finds in Blood Meridian is a failure to answer to a version of God–and God’s judgment–that Wood would like to believe in (or, more accurately, be comforted by).

Wood is a bully (of both authors and readers) whose criticisms rarely enlarge the works they seek to address. We see his program at work in “Red Planet,” where his aim is to deflate Blood Meridian’s giant language and not appraise it on its own terms. That the book survives–and thrives–despite Wood’s criticism is hardly surprising; that a critical conversation of Blood Meridian should include Wood is depressing.

8 thoughts on “James Wood (Is Wrong) on Blood Meridian”

  1. As much as I admire McCarthy, I do find his writing frustrating at times. Even a lighter work like Suttree has passages that come out nowhere: “A floodtide of screaming fiends and assassins and thieves and hirsute buggers pours forth into the universe…” Who is saying this? Is it Suttree? Is it the narrator?

    Anyway, thanks for paying homage to Blood Meridian this week. I wasn’t aware of the anniversary

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  2. “Wood demands that Blood Meridian be a theodicy and then condemns it for not being one”

    To me this seems a coherent position.

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    1. Hi, Alvaro — I don’t disagree that Wood’s position is coherent, but I think it’s still poor literary criticism he’s practicing. I think a critic shouldn’t judge a book for what it didn’t do. I think if Wood disagrees with McCarthy’s vision, he just needs to say that instead of pretending that a moral disagreement is actually a rhetorical failure on McCarthy’s part.

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  3. I agree, it’s not a critic’s job to be didactic about religion. But, still, I think his writing on many things is quite illuminating, such as when he wrote about the influence of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer on ALL authors, religious nor not. He certainly accepted Virginia Woolf’s atheistic aesthetic appreciation quite happily, when discussing their influence on her. I must admit a little comfort in reading about the bible myself, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, even if it contributes to my belief that his writing adds weight to what it criticizes. It certainly helped me understand my feelings about Joyce and Nabokov–how contrived their characters felt, how contrived their metaphors felt, why they bored me to utter death and defeat–compared to Mann, Faulkner, Robinson, Kafka, or even Murakami.

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