An Assault on the Senses: McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

200px-CormacMcCarthy_BloodMeridian(About a year ago, a colleague asked me to put together essays that might accompany a coffee-table book on McCarthy’s western fiction. He had a “book idea.” The book idea didn’t go anywhere, so I’ve revised the short essays about reading McCarthy’s novels. Periodically, I will include those in the blog. I’ve already posted on the three Border Trilogy books. Plus, I’m tired of writing about higher ed this week.)

I had a professor in graduate school who once described his first encounter with a William Faulkner novel as painful and distressing. “I got about ten pages into the novel,” he told us, “and I threw the book across the room.” One can only imagine what his first encounter with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Or Evening Redness in the West might have been like. Certainly, anyone who read McCarthy’s Child of God, a novel about a murdering necrophiliac, or Suttree, a novel where a character has sex with watermelons (yes, I said watermelons) shouldn’t be surprised at the violence and degradation possible within a McCarthy novel.

McCarthy’s first foray into the west, though, elevates the violence and distress such that after my first reading of the novel, I took a shower. And had a drink. And wondered if this was the same western landscape I saw when I watched John Wayne or Clint Eastwood on the silver screen. This novel is a visceral attack on the readers’ senses, challenging them with a linguistic sophistication that seems to contradict the violent emptiness of the landscape. It’s not, quite frankly, for the faint of heart.

McCarthy doesn’t necessarily bring the landscape alive in the novel as much as he captures its capacity for death and danger. Using what my mom used to call five dollar words. The dialogue and violence is a lot like The Outlaw Josey Wales on steroids. With the Oxford English Dictionary strapped to his belt. Within the first fifteen pages, McCarthy writes about “hewers of wood,” a “shellalegh,” and a sky “sprent.” And those are the easy words. The only name the kid ever receives is when the judge calls him “blasarius,” a term found in Black’s Law Dictionary.

Sometimes reading the novel makes you wish you had prepped for the SAT test a little better. His use of complex, and sometimes archaic, language is part of the assault. The land is harsh and dusty and violent: there are no lazy days. The language mirrors the difficulties of the novel’s content.

McCarthy sets the tone for the novel early. The kid travels from Tennessee to New Orleans to Nacagdoches where he meets Judge Holden, one of American literature’s most literate and dangerous villains. Holden accuses the minister at a tent revival of “congress with a goat” (better than a watermelon, I guess). All hell breaks loose. Later the kid gets in a fight that leaves him unconscious in the mud, and then he helps burn down a hotel. Good times. He leaves town passing “the old stone fort” (14). We might wonder if the fort is there to keep undesirables out or if the fort should work to keep the undesirables in town where they might be controlled.

Once the kid passes the Presidio del Rio Grande south of Eagle Pass, TX, he enters what appears to be the wild open deserts of northern Mexico. In many ways, McCarthy exploits his readers’ ideas regarding Mexico. Popular culture might paint Mexico as an uncivilized region, an “infernal paradise,” but this would be a mis-reading of McCarthy’s novel. The areas in Mexico are just as uncontrolled as those in Texas. The kid travels across the Bolson de Mapimi, spends time in jail in Chihuahua, crosses the plains of San Agustin, and camps near Pueblo Kivas.

Mexico is not more or less corrupt than America as the kid travels the region. Man imposes his will on the landscape by building forts and town and the landscape imposes itself on the men, convincing them they need walls and forts to survive. It’s a violent symbiotic relationship that McCarthy crafts throughout the novel as he paints a bleak picture of the kid’s travels.
One of the more famous scenes in American film is the opening of Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch. The film opens as William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and the other men ride into town, passing a group of children (boys and girls) watching scorpions and fire ants battle. More striking, perhaps, is the kids have built a pit and we watch them flip the scorpion into the ants. Certainly, one might argue the kids are simply watching nature at work, but what is most disturbing is joy on their faces. While the children are torturing the scorpion, the Reverend Wainscoat is preaching about the dangers of drink to the temperance society: “Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou nor thy sons with thee least ye shall die. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red and when it bringeth his color in the cup when it moveth itself aright. At the last, it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder.”

William Holden and his men ride by both groups dressed as soldiers and in a moment of brilliant irony, the town’s soldiers salute them as they make their way to rain hell down on this sleepy little town. McCarthy takes his cue from Peckinpah: order and safety are an illusion in a town where children are torturing scorpions with fire ants.

The serpent and the adder aren’t hidden in the demon rum: they are hidden in the hearts of men. In McCarthy’s novel, the judge is the most sophisticated madman in American literature—he organizes and records in his journal while participating in the massacre of innocents and the rape of children. “What’s he a judge of,” we might ask. Us, perhaps? The evil that might lurk in the hearts of men.

The land in McCarthy’s world is stark and deadly: scorpions, rattlesnakes, fire ants, and men coupled with the natural world do not promote long, healthy living. Early in the novel, the kid holes up in an abandoned church with Sproule, a man whose wounded arm has started to seep. He suffers from consumption and he tells the kid “I come out here for my health.” The kid shakes his head, as do we.

There’s nothing in the novel to support the idea that moving West is a safe proposition for man or beast. In fact, there’s not much in the novel to suggest the land or the people have any redeeming qualities at all. McCarthy’s characters are like the scorpion in Peckinpah’s film. They struggle to overcome the dangers lurking out West. The novel tells us, it seems, that if you appreciate where we are now, you have to accept that someone poked holes in the ground with the same energy and dedication as the people who killed anyone who might stand in the way.

This idea, that progress is built on the bones of others, is at the heart of McCarthy’s novel and, in the end, part of what makes the novel difficult to read. We are, McCarthy seems to imply, culpable for the past or, at the least, responsible for understanding that past. And it’s a past, McCarthy seems to say, that rests at that bloody meridian of savagery and civilization.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

7 Responses to An Assault on the Senses: McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

  1. Jon says:

    I am teaching Blood Meridian as a part of AP Language and Comp and want to know if you can reccomend any secondary material (poems, essays, short stories, essays).

  2. Getting ready to teach _Blood Meridian_ again in a gateway research methods and literary theory class and this would make a great intro. Last time, 2 years ago, I used that very opening sequence in The Wild Bunch to get discussion going on both the language in McCarthy and the use of violence as critique in the film and the novel. Good times, indeed.

    • John Wegner says:

      Great minds think alike! I once taught a violence in film and lit class. We finished the semester with McCarthy’s novel and, since there is no movie version, we created story boards for the novel. The interesting thing about the novel for the students was imagining the depth of the violence with which McCarthy saturates us. At the very end of the class, I we watched that opening scene. The kids with the scorpion are just creepy we concluded, but they really do capture the idea of violence. Hope the class goes well.

  3. Pingback: Blood Meridian, or the Evening of Redness in the West, Cormac McCarthty | lasesana

  4. nicky301 says:

    Man, I am really gonna have to read some McCarthy…”a shower…and a drink” – wow!

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