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.