ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945

Lecture 18

 - Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (cont.)


In this second lecture on Blood Meridian, Professor Hungerford builds a wide-ranging argument about the status of good and evil in the novel from a small detail, the Bible the protagonist carries with him in spite of his illiteracy. This detail is one of many in the text that continually lure us to see the kid in the light of a traditional hero, superior to his surroundings, developing his responses in a familiar narrative structure of growth. McCarthy’s real talent, and his real challenge, Hungerford argues, is in fact to have invoked the moral weight of his sources–biblical, literary, and historical–while emptying them of moral content. Much as the kid holds the Bible an object and not a spiritual guide, McCarthy seizes the material of language–its sound, its cadences–for ambiguous, if ambitious, ends.

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The American Novel Since 1945

ENGL 291 - Lecture 18 - Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (cont.)

Chapter 1. Structural Allusions: McCarthy’s Formulation of the Hero [00:00:00]

Professor Amy Hungerford: Starting on page 312, here is the little detail. This is the kid after he has left the Glanton Gang. They’ve been routed by the Yumas, and now he is on his own.

He traveled about–[This is the middle of the page.] He traveled about from place to place. He did not avoid the company of other men. He was treated with a certain deference as one who had got on to terms with life beyond what his years could account for. By now he’d come by a horse and a revolver, the rudiments of an outfit. He worked at different trades. He had a Bible that he’d found at the mining camps and he carried this book with him, no word of which he could read. In his dark and frugal clothes some took him for a sort of preacher, but he was no witness to them, neither of things at hand nor things to come, he least of any man.

It’s that detail of the Bible that interests me here. He had a Bible he’d found at the mining camps, carried this book with him, “no word of which he could read.” Why does the kid carry a Bible, when he is illiterate, and why does it appear at this moment in the narrative? These are the questions I want to try and answer. I want to account for this little detail through an argument that will pick up the points I made about allusion on Monday and integrate those into a different kind of argument. What does this Bible signify at this moment? The kid, I would guess to most of you, seemed like, at this point, he had become somewhat different. Is that right? Did you feel that, by this point, when he leaves the Glanton Gang, he’s matured in some way? Did you feel that? Yes? No? Yes. Maybe. If you didn’t, you swam against McCarthy’s own prose.

Remember that at a certain point late in the novel he is no longer called the kid; he is called the man. I’m sure most of you caught that. What this says to us is that McCarthy has built the structure of the narrative along the familiar line of the Bildungsroman, the novel of a boy growing into a man. It’s hard to miss this when that’s the character’s only name, and it changes in the middle. This is a fairly obvious gesture towards that very well-known narrative structure. There are other indicators, though, that suggest a transformation of the kid, or some sort of complexity to the kid, that might be belied by the way the narrative is conducted.

Remember that difference I pointed out on Monday between Melville and McCarthy, between the interiority you get through Ishmael as a narrator, the complexity of him as a character, and the flatness of the kid. You don’t have an Ishmael character whose mind you can see into. We don’t see into the minds of these people very often. If the Bible signifies, as it seems to do to the people who see him and take him to be some kind of preacher, to have some kind of wisdom, if it suggests a development, what kind of development is it? The judge is the person who gives us something to go on in this respect, and if you look on page 299 we can see what that is. The judge and the kid are at odds in the desert after the rout of the gang, and the kid is hiding with a loaded gun. And the judge is hunting him, and he keeps calling out to the kid.

“The priest has led you to this boy. I know you would not hide. I know too that you’ve not the heart of a common assassin. I have passed before your gun sights twice this hour and will pass a third time. Why not show yourself? No assassin,” called the judge, “and no partisan either. There is a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. Do you think I could not know you alone were mutinous, you alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen.”

The judge sets the kid apart from himself and from the gang. In this moment, especially, we feel that the kid has some kind of moral superiority, some kind of resistance to the violence that has been dominating the novel up until this time. You can see it, also, in a late example of the judge. He says, on 307, when he meets up with the kid much later when the kid is in prison (This is on 307, about two thirds of the way down):

“Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not. Can you tell me who that was?” “It was you,” whispered the kid. “You were the one.” [And then I’m going to skip down a little bit.] “Our animosities were formed and waiting before we two met, yet even so you could have changed it all.”

The judge, here again, singles out the kid as having somehow betrayed the gang, and he suggests that–this is on the prior page–he has lied to the authorities. But he suggests that the kid had actually conspired with the Yumas to make it possible for the Glanton Gang to be decimated, that he had given them information and allowed them to ambush the group. He suggests that the kid was actively working against the gang in this scene. Is this true? Is the kid somehow special? Does he stand apart from the gang? This is a question I want you to ponder.

Now, one very distinguished reader of this novel, Harold Bloom, has called the kid a hero. There is a preface to the Modern Library Edition of this novel where Bloom argues that the kid is the hero against the heroic evil of the judge. And remember, in my discussion of Milton’s role as a source of allusion in this novel, what Milton’s Satan brings with him into this novel is that sense of heroic evil. Bloom sees the kid as the heroic good–flawed maybe, maybe a little bit modest–but yet still the heroic good. And Bloom actually makes a mistake that I think is quite indicative of a mistake in reading. That’s he capitalizes “the kid.” He makes “kid” like a proper name, capital K, Kid. You never see it that way in the novel.

Is the kid a hero? Is there moral development? I want, now, to see whether there’s any case to be made for this, and to do that I’m going to track the kid through the middle of the novel. There are about 75 pages in the exact center of the novel where the kid does not appear very often. This is also a structure that pertains in Moby-Dick, so this is again something that he has partly borrowed from Melville. When the kid does appear, let’s see what he does. This is during the time, by the way, when they’re just massacring anyone who is breathing on the desert plain. Any peaceful tribe they come across, they will skin anyone whose hair looks like it could be an Indian scalp. Let’s look first at 157. This is the first place where the kid is noted to appear in this section. This is McGill emerging from the burned encampment.

McGill came out of the crackling fires and stood staring bleakly at the scene about. He had been skewered through with a lance and he held the stalk of it before him. It was fashioned from a sotol stalk and the point of an old cavalry sword bound to the haft curved out from the small of his back. The kid waded out of the water and approached him and the Mexican sat down carefully on the sand. “Get away from him,” said Glanton. McGill turned to look at Glanton and as he did so Glanton leveled his pistol and shot him through the head.

It looks like the kid is approaching him as a kind of act of mercy. Here is a man skewered through with a brutal weapon, and the kid approaches him. Glanton’s response is simply to kill him, seeing him as more of a burden to the gang than anything else, but the kid approaches. Here, you do see a difference between the kid and Glanton, at least in their approach to McGill. 162, a somewhat similar case when Davy Brown has an arrow through his leg. Brown has asked someone to help him push it through so he can then extract the arrow, and everybody has refused. This is on 161.

“Boys,” said Brown, “I’d doctorfy it myself but I can’t get no straight grip.” The judge looked up at him and smiled. “Will you do us Holden?” “No, Davy, I won’t, but I tell you what I will do.” “What’s that?” “I’ll write a policy on your life against every mishap save the noose.” “Damn you, then.”

So, they’re just kind of playing with him, and laughing at him as he suffers. “Then finally the kid rose. ‘I’ll try her,’ he said. ‘Good lad,’ said Brown.” And they go through the process of pushing the arrow through, and the priest chides him after this is all done.

When the kid returned to his own blanket, the ex-priest leaned to him and hissed at his ear, “Fool,” he said. “God will not love ye forever.” The kid turned to look at him. “Don’t you know he’d have took you with him? He’d have took you, boy, like a bride to the altar.”

I think what he means there is that David Brown would have killed him, would have killed the kid if he had had the chance, somehow, in his moment of pain. So, the kid does look, again, he looks quite merciful, in this passage. We see him on 169 at dinner with the governor of Chiapas, Angel Trias. This is on 169. This is a very brief mention. “The kid in the first starched collar he’d ever owned and the first cravat sat mute as a tailor’s dummy at that board.” The ex-priest has sort of indicated with his eyes to note that the judge and Trias are conversing in some unknown language, a language that none of them know, and it’s as if to say–that look is as if to say, “See there. He has a kind of mystical evil about him. He speaks even in these other languages that no one can understand. He’s an otherworldly figure,” the ex-priest seems to be saying just with his eyes. The kid is just like a dummy here. He is just a blank. On 173, this is the passage I noted on Monday where Toadvine and the kid are grumbling against the judge and Glanton because of their penchant for massacring peaceful Indians and Toadvine puts the pistol to the judge’s head. There is a parallel moment in the desert after the rout of the gang when the kid does not kill the judge; the kid has his chance and he also does not kill the judge. So, this is another appearance of the kid. They’re talking together. And, I won’t read it, but you can look at it if you like. That’s on 173. 178, the kid instigates a bar fight. This is towards the middle of the page. They’re all assembled in a bar.

The kid addressed the table in his wretched Spanish and demanded which among those sullen inebriates had spoken an insult. Before any could own it, the first of the funeral rockets exploded in the street as told and the entire company of Americans made for the door.

And this begins the chaos that will eventuate in piles of bodies in this cantina as the Americans leave. And then on 204, this is about the time that the kid returns to the narrative. This is with Shelby. Remember, they’ve drawn lots to see who will conduct the mercy killing. “Of the wounded men two were Delawares and one a Mexican. The fourth was Dick Shelby and he alone sat watching the preparations for departure,” and the kid draws the arrow, but he does not kill Shelby. He lets Shelby die in the desert.

Chapter 2. Maturation without Morality: Revising the Bildungsroman [00:15:07]

These moments look like a kind of mercy, but I’m going to argue that they are not, in fact, instances of mercy, that in the end they are not accountable for by any kind of moral calculus, that they resist that kind of evaluation. Why? Because every time the kid shows mercy, he shows mercy to one of his own gang and we know what the gang goes on to do. Right? They simply go on killing more people. So, the allegiance that he seems to show with suffering, the mercy, is so selective that it can’t be called such, and it’s a kind of trick of McCarthy’s narrative to allow us to see the suffering of these men in this kind of detail, while the suffering of all the people they kill goes by pretty quickly. You do see infants being bashed together, or you see people run through with lances. You see people’s heads hacked off; you see many scalpings. But there’s never a moment when that’s really focused on, that we really see it and are asked to feel for that suffering person. It’s spectacular violence, in that literal way that we know that word “spectacle.”

There is no moral development. Why do we think that there should be? I pointed out two reasons. One is that the judge points out, or argues that, or advances the rhetoric that, the kid is different from all the others. That’s one reason we think that. The other reason is that he transformed from “kid” to “man,” and that old narrative of Bildungsroman suggests the acquisition of wisdom. And we associate wisdom with moral complexity, moral sophistication, moral depth. These are things we bring to the novel out of our immersion in a cultural tradition of such stories. There are other reasons, though, and I’m going to go to page 143 now. This is the parable of the traveler. You’ll recall that this is a story that the judge tells as a kind of instructive story to the men as they’re sitting around. And the story is that there’s a traveler passing through a wild part of the mountains, and he is accosted by a man who lives there. The harness marker who lives there invites the stranger in, and then tries to get money off him and then finally the traveler gives him a lecture on morality. In the end, as the traveler leaves, the harness maker accosts him again, and kills him and buries his bones. The wife discovers this and cares for the bones of the traveler. The son of the harness maker becomes himself a killer of men.

So, it’s a little story that we get here. The story seems to be about a contention between good and evil, between the harness maker who is a wild and chaotic force: he lives in the woods; he dresses up as an Indian to perpetuate his crimes, and he takes advantage of innocent victims. The traveler is possessed of moral knowledge. He can give a coherent moral speech, and he is not unwilling to exhort the harness maker towards a better life. It seems to be all about moral contention, and the point of the story, from the judge’s point of view, is to show that evil is an inheritance. So, the son of the harness maker becomes a killer of men, too, but that the lack of a father (The traveler, we find out, had fathered a child who was as yet unborn, and so that child when born is, as the judge says, “euchered of his patrimony.” This is on the bottom of 145: “All his life he carries before him the idol of a perfection to which he can never attain.”) the absent father takes on this quality of being a perfect model that the son can never attain. He never learns that this man was a human being, and therefore that he could never be the kind of ideal he can be as a dead man.

So, his point is that that child’s life is, as he says, “broken before a frozen god and he will never find his way.” What this ending of the story doesn’t tell us is that the descendants of the traveler, of the innocent victim, actually also become killers of men. And we discover this at the very end of the novel, when the man makes his last kill, and this is on 323. Remember the scene? The man is camped out outside the village, and this group of bone pickers, or sort of migrants in the desert come up to him, and they’re curious about the scapular of ears he wears. I said on Monday that this belonged to Toadvine. I was mistaken. It belongs to Davy Brown; it belonged to David Brown. So, he’s wearing Brown’s scapular of ears, and the travelers are curious about this. And one boy in particular won’t believe him about their origin, and taunts him and sort of calls him a liar. The group backs away. That night, that young man comes back with his gun and he says on 322:

“I know’d you’d be hid out,” the boy called. He [now “the man”] pushed back the blanket and rolled onto his stomach and cocked the pistol and leveled it at the sky where the clustered stars were burning for eternity. He centered the foresight in the milled groove of the frame strap and holding the piece so he swung it through the dark of the trees with both hands to the darker shape of the visitor. “I’m right here,” he said. The boy swung with the rifle and fired. “You wouldn’t have lived anyway,” the man said.

And they come up, the boy’s family or his companions in the dawn, to get his body and they say, top of 323:

“I know’d we’d bury him on this prairie. They come out here from Kentucky, Mister, this tyke and his brother, his mama and daddy both dead. His granddaddy was killed by a lunatic and buried in the woods like a dog.”

So, that little sentence tells us this is a descendant of the traveler from the judge’s story. That’s who was killed by a lunatic and buried in the woods like a dog. The brother who’s been killed by the kid, now the man, tried to kill the kid. So, we know that he has become a killer of men with that same taste for mindless violence that broods in the kid at the very start of the novel, and his younger brother, about twelve, inherits the dead boy’s gun. So, we see that inheritance, yet, of violence, continuing. So, what appears to be a parable, what’s told to the group of men by the judge in the form of a parable– invoking the parables of the Bible which have spiritual, moral lessons to them or can have spiritual, moral lessons to them–that discourse is not, in the end, a discourse that will divide killers of men from people who are not the killers of men. It does not help us to divide up the world between evil and good. It does not track along those lines that the judge’s story about the kid, that the kid is his nemesis, that the kid is the counterforce to his evil.

Chapter 3. Asserting Immortality: McCarthy’s Literary Ambitions [00:24:49]

It does not track along those lines, and in fact, the whole novel renders the idea of a moral machinery moot, and you can see that, a little bit, too, in the epigraphs. I won’t stop on those right now. The epigraphs to the novel suggest, also, the futility of a moral discourse. I argued on Monday that there were two threads of tradition, or inheritance, or influence that McCarthy is drawing on: one historical–and I noted Sam Chamberlain’s source material from his account of his life with the Glanton Gang–and then that whole train of literary allusions that I unearthed for you. The historical is made moot in this wonderful little passage from the judge. If the moral is made moot in all these ways that I am discussing, the historical is dismissed quite quickly, 330. He says:

“Men’s memories” [This is the very last line of the page.] “Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.”

Think about that claim, in the context of a historical novel: “The past that was differs little from the past that was not.” You can read “the past that was not” as the fictive past, the imagined past. This claim is that the true past has no significant distinction from the fictive past, that men’s memories are no source of truth about the past. In this little line McCarthy says to us, “That historical record that I was quite careful to invoke, that I was quite careful to follow in some places, from which I got lots of detail that I used in my novel: forget about that. My novel stands on an equal plane of authority. It gives me a platform to make equally valid claims of truth about history and about the world.” This is a kind of grandiloquent argument for fiction as opposed to history. On 309, we have another interesting look back to the material that I was talking about on Monday. This is when the kid is dreaming about the judge while he’s undergoing surgery for the arrow wound in his leg.

In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great, shambling, mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go.

What does that mean, “There was no system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go”? What I did on Monday was excavate some of the origins of the judge as a figure in Ahab, in Milton’s Satan. This tells us–in the voice of the narrator, this time–that you can’t reduce his character to those origins, that to excavate the allusions, or to note the literary tradition out of which such characters arise, does nothing to reduce the singularity of McCarthy’s artistic creation. Even finding that eerily similar description of Judge Holden in Sam Chamberlain’s account, McCarthy seems to be saying to us, doesn’t reduce him to some understandable character. That claim for the judge’s preeminence as a character is brought home to us at the very end when the novel switches to the present tense and makes these remarkable claims for the judge. And this is when they are dancing after the kid has been killed in some horrific manner of which we’re not told. And here is the judge dancing, and you get the refrain that “He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die.”

He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat. And he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

The judge himself is a figure for the artist. He’s a music maker. He’s a performer, a dancer, in this passage, but the assertion is that he will last forever. And the only way, I think, to understand that, is to see him as a literary character. Very self-consciously in this moment, that like Milton’s Satan, he’s a character that will live in the tradition, that will never die out in the imagination of readers. It’s a remarkably ambitious claim to make for your own character. But when you read it with that passage I just read, about the impossibility of dividing him back into his origins, you begin to see McCarthy’s literary ambition, and that is to add to the tradition in a significant way.

McCarthy says about writing novels that it’s not worth doing–you cannot write a good book–unless it’s about life and death. He dismisses, for example, Proust and Henry James as important writers on this ground, because they’re not writing novels about life and death. I would argue that McCarthy needs his novel to be about life and death because he is looking for the sound and the feel of literary authority. In these passages, I’m suggesting that it’s a literary authority coming out of a Miltonic tradition, perhaps out of the tradition of great American novels like Moby Dick, but it goes much deeper than that, and this is where I get to my original little detail of the Bible, the illiterate kid holding the Bible. 248, we get a discussion among the men of the Bible in the context of a discussion of war. This is what is said about it. This is Irving, or, actually, first Black Jackson and then Irving.

Chapter 4. The Bible of the Illiterate Kid: Literary Artifacts and Empty Scripture [00:33:12]

“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.”

I would argue that this is a description of McCarthy’s own book, except there is one thing that’s different. The good book does, indeed, count war an evil. McCarthy’s novel does not fail in making us see war as evil, because we’re confronted over and over again with these scenes of violence, over and over again with its gratuitous nature. We feel the waste when that last young boy is killed by the man. We feel the waste of his life. We feel the tragedy in discovering that the sons of the harness maker and the sons of the traveler both come to the same end and become killers of men. We see that evil and, like the Bible, there is many a bloody tale within it. It does not count war an evil, because it has not allowed a moral machinery to have a place in this universe or in the logic of the novel. What it holds out instead is the feeling of morality, the feeling that you could have a rhetoric that would divide the kid from the judge in a meaningful way, that would divide killers of men from not killers of men, that would divide the good from the evil, that would divide the peaceful from the warlike, even that would divide history from fiction, if there’s something moral about the truth of history.

Why does McCarthy use the pattern and the sound of biblical language throughout the novel? I think this is why. Robert Alter–who, if you’ve studied the Bible in any college course, you’ve probably at least come to know his work–he is a great translator of the Old Testament, and he came out recently with a version–I think it was in 2004–which he titles The Five Books of Moses. It’s the Pentateuch, and it’s retranslated in a very startling style. It’s trying to honor the syntax of the Hebrew, which is paratactic, which means that it’s strung together with “ands” rather than subordinated the way that Latinate languages are subordinated. So, the King James Bible has, in the English tradition, been the prestigious literary translation of the Bible. Alter, in 2004, tries to make the modern equivalent of the King James Bible. And, in the introduction to that translation, he says that what he’s trying to do is to take the innovations of writers like Stein, Faulkner, and–the only one from the late twentieth century he mentions–McCarthy, to make a Bible that is true to the Hebrew syntax.

This citation from Alter, this foremost scholar on the Bible and biblical translation, suggests just how successful McCarthy has been in persuading the ear that he is writing something like scripture. He has persuaded Alter’s ear that this book is the equivalent of Hebrew prose. He is so successful in doing that, that he can make these gigantic claims. And I would point you back to the beginning of the novel, the citation of his father, the only line we get really about the kid’s father: “His father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink. He quotes from poets whose names are now lost.” It’s as if McCarthy is telling us, “I’m erasing all that past that I’m invoking from the Bible on up, from the Bible to The Iliad, to Milton, to Wordsworth, to Melville. I’m invoking it all, but forget all those names. Remember just one: the judge or, better yet, McCarthy. That’s the one that you can remember.” So, McCarthy gives us the feel of scripture, and yet he erases all that could be the content of scripture. That’s why I am interested in the Bible in the hand of an illiterate kid.

What is the Bible in the hand of an illiterate kid but the symbol of that kind of narrative, the symbol that there can be an authoritative narrative about the nature of the world, about all of history, about its meaning, about its structure, a book that can compel its readers, that can speak to life and death in the most ultimate way, but because it’s in the hand of an illiterate person it cannot be read? So, what McCarthy is saying to us in that tiny detail, is that the Bible is important as an artifact, as a literary artifact, proof that such narratives can exist. And McCarthy sets out to produce one, and, in keeping with the illiterateness of the kid, one that has no moral content at all, has only made claims about the material of the universe and not the spiritual quality of the universe, and that persuades entirely by the sound of rhetoric and the structures that are familiar to us from the narratives of our tradition. That’s the ambition of the novel. I’m actually right on time, so I will stop there.

[end of transcript]

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