Saturday, June 1, 2013

Blood Meridian (Book Review)

At a first glance, John Le Carré’s latest novel, A Delicate Truth, would appear to have little in common with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West.  After all, one deals with the moral fallout of the British and American war of terror in the twenty-first century, whereas the subject matter of the other is a purportedly lawless American west during the nineteenth century.

But on closer scrutiny, there are dark parallels, because however much many of McCarthy’s works appear to explore some innate darkness of human nature, they are all—and Blood Meridian more than most—anchored to historical bedrock.  Like A Delicate Truth, McCarthy’s novel explores what happens when people with few prospects are invited to enter a context in which violence is encouraged, in which racism forms the foundation for thought, and in which powerful interests exploit these things for material and political gain.

Like McCarthy’s other works, Blood Meridian requires a change of setting on the part of the reader for entry.  The absence of quotation marks quickly stops being annoying, however, and the weightiness of his prose swiftly begins to seem majestic rather than clunky.  The journey of a group of scalp hunters, as it unfolds across the southwest of the United States and northern Mexico, is not for the faint of heart.

We quickly see how state and private enterprise on the border—the U.S. military and the ‘entrepreneurs’ who wreak havoc as they go from village to village massacring Native Americans and anyone else who stands in their way—are connected.  A U.S. military captain “leaned back and folded his arms.  What we are dealing with, he said, is a race of degenerates.  A mongrel race, little better than niggers.  And maybe no better.  There is no government in Mexico.  Hell, there’s no God in Mexico.  Never will be.  We are dealing with a people manifestly incapable of governing themselves.  And do you know what happens with people who cannot govern themselves?  That’s right.  Others come in to govern for them” (34). 

A twenty-first century reader can imagine the Dick Cheneys, Tony Blairs, George Bushes, and Donald Rumsfelds of our world nodding sagely at such expostulation, which seems to play with the familiar refrain, Pobre México...tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos. 

A dying member of the company of murderers, who could well be the Blackwaters and XEs of their day, standing in where the U.S. army cannot go while profiting massively from manufactured lawlessness an disorder, rasps out, “I come out here for my health” (58).

The violence in the novel is deliberately and disturbingly casual.  You could blink and miss a massacre, yawn (though that’s not likely) and overlook savage torture.  The violence becomes so incidental that separate instances frequently do not merit paragraph breaks, those being reserved for sweeping descriptions of the epic terrain against which this de facto war plays out.  At one point, members of a company drive a half-mile long mule train off a cliff onto jagged rocks below for no particular reason (194).

The character responsible for manipulating much of the novel’s brutality is a character known as “the Judge” who, McCarthy suggests, has a keener insight into human nature than his malleable compatriots.  The Judge, unlike the novel, is ahistorical, and he would have us believe that what we see unfold, sometimes between fingers over our eyes, is natural, and nothing more than the way of the human world from time immemorial, as illustrated by his dialogue (sans quotation marks to differentiate speakers) with a compatriot who would dearly love to believe otherwise:

“Might does not make right, said Irving.  The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally.  Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favour of the weak.  Historical law subverts it at every turn.  A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test.  A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views.  His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view.  The willingness of the principals to forego further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof ... decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all questions of right.  In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural” (250).

“What’s he a judge of?” asks the kid (135), as close to a protagonist as McCarthy gives his readers.  The kid receives no answer, and the men “rode on.  They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.  For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds” (152).

As McCarthy suggests, the particular form that this conjoined mass of soon-bloodied men makes might be novel.  But the art that builders of empires have perfected, that art of whiting out populated spaces on a map, and sending the vulnerable in their own society to empty and remake those lands, before casting those sullied agents aside, is by no means unique.  It is an art that was practised on the nineteenth century American frontier, as racial manifest destiny ploughed its way west, bloodying the furrows of what was sold as a republic, and it is one which is deployed with equal deftness as the United States today seeks to remake an uncooperative world after its own red visage. 

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Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West—Cormac McCarthy  New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

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