Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Some claim to have read this book more than 30 times. I can see why. But this is my first Cormac McCarthy novel and I need a long rest. It took me three years before I had the energy to read Moby Dick a second time. Moby Dick and Ahab, an apt comparison as both novels are densely packed, thick, startling of imagery, literary in the scope of allusions, and each contains a figure that seems at the centre: Ahab, and in the case of Blood Meridian, The Judge who is both seeker and sought, himself the eternal whiteness of the whale.

It’s been exhausting to read, emotionally spilling over into my days. I’ll say little of plot. Plot, anyway there is none, no plot of fixed abode, no stable geography, no narrative of straightness where the journey one embarks on can make sense and be staged and reach an end. There is no end. There is endless night. The Kid, the Ishmael of the book that begins “See the child” goes circle to circle, older and different and the same. For nothing is clear. The Kid is the Judge is the Kid and everything and everyone is aspect of each other, every place, every lump of ore – chemicals and elements abound – and the earth itself is imbued with morality and destiny. Destiny: sometimes, often in fact, the subjectivity of a character is absorbed into the hallucinatory and unfixed visual environment, the environment of fire and  flux and dark light, and nothing lasts. Though at a different level, what lasts is the words, just the words, words, language, thoughts, concepts, signs as dry as the desert, pale images of what they are stamped from and what they represent. Coins, reflections, moons that are not moons, such symbolic stamping of the febrile thinness of human narrative over the terrible meaningless violence of existence:

The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a coldforger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile from men’s fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of his becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.

The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning.

These extracts give a flavour of the style you will face. And who talks, who writes? Indeed, who reads? The Judge is a dreadful nightmare of a being, the final paragraph of the novel, the circular journey, will burn you. Structurally, the space between the author and the Judge is unclear, certainly he gets some great lines:

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others

Is destiny fought, lived, manifest and directed, shaped, rationalised? The Judge again:

Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.

For the Judge, only the simaculrum matters. The world and everything in it can be scorched and annihilated provided he, personification of Power – political, savagely human – orders it, owns it, decrees it in classification and narrative:

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

Only this ownership of power marks a man from the fury of existence, only one who owns the power to determine meaning:

The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his

inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere

upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In

order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur

upon it save by my dispensation.

A man seeks his own destiny and no other…Will or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.

All shimmers, on vast horizons, forms transmute with each miniscule flick of perspective and the blinding sun. Only terrible energy does not change, war itself, the meaning of life if life is to have meaning, and it is a meaning of this realised largeness of heart and the serpentry to go beyond it by ordering a destiny against destiny, and existential triumph over ineluctable fate:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.

The Meridian is between these two elements, not between a frontier and a wilness of America where the traverses of the pack of wolf men are back and forward and round and round, and their purpose so too, always created after the action that motivates them:

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creatures could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes.

And these stakes are most dreadful most life-giving:

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 hazaed…. 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, and all…. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

If war is not holy, man is nothing but antic clay.

Probably not a good selection for a light read. I shall be going on to The Road, his latest. Not that it matters. Matter, itself undifferentiated from thought, no longer matters. McCarthy by fiction rips history from its absolutely fictional foundation. The centre that holds for ever yet cannot hold, is a crucible. Everything burns, everything is illusion, every word is written over:

That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fires ran over the metal of the horses’ trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men. All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear. The thunder moved up from the southwest and lightning lit the desert all about them, blue and barren, great clanging reaches ordered out of the absolute night like some demon kingdom summoned up or changeling land that come the day would leave them neither trace nor smoke nor ruin more than any troubling dream.

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