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War as the Truest Form of Divination: On Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

Meet the 7-foot albino who says you should petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute.

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  • We’re currently reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, to finish before our seminar on the book tomorrow evening (I pushed back one night). Harold Bloom called McCarthy “the worthy disciple of Faulkner and of Melville,” and said that no other living American novelist “has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian.” RSVP here, or from the Events channel of the community, and come say hi tomorrow night.

In one sense, Cormac McCarthy’s famously violent Blood Meridian is easy to summarize. A gang traverses Northern Mexico and the American Southwest hunting Indian scalps for profit in 1849.

The novel’s charm is much harder to put one’s finger on, given its bleak and grotesque subject matter, lack of plot, and King James diction.

In 1985, Blood Meridian received mixed reviews. For many, the violence was too much. Harold Bloom says he quit halfway through on his first reading. Later, having finished it, he judged it to be one of the greatest novels written in living memory.

I won’t give you a complete review, but I’d like to share a few reflections on what I find most interesting and edifying in this late classic.

A first edition of Blood Meridian sells for about $1,800.

Violence is Knowledge

It has been suggested that Knowledge is Power, and Power is Knowledge—an idea that runs, in a few permutations, from Francis Bacon, to Nietzsche, to Foucault.

Blood Meridian seems to propose rather that Violence is Knowledge. The most striking character in the novel, and the most famous, is a nearly seven-foot albino man, who looks like a baby, but has encyclopedic knowledge and extreme physical strength. Judge Holden delivers many of the novel's philosophically interesting lines.

Holden subscribes to a kind of Landian collapse of the fact-value distinction. Questions of moral worth or ethical correctness pretend to be questions of ultimate value, but in fact these are provincial games nested within a more absolute game that ultimately decides all value: The game of survival. War is therefore the ultimate validation protocol:

“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 hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all… 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, all.

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”

—Judge Holden

If you lose the game of survival, you implicitly lose every other possible game. Thus, according to this view, winning a life-or-death coin flip is the most absolute and rigorous proof that one is, by definition, more valuable than someone who loses the coin flip. The gang raises some of the same questions posed to Thrasymachus in the Republic (a book we’ll read in October).

As Holden goes on to elaborate, the very fact that two men will choose to duel in a matter of honor shows that, in the final analysis, man always wishes to “petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute,” acknowledging that the war for survival is indeed the final adjudication of all moral and ethical questions.

There is much more one could say about Holden’s philosophical disquisitions, and the various viewpoints represented by the other gang members. The Judge seems to contradict himself at times; he is by no means an unambiguous picture of swashbuckling genius.

The Bad Blood Business

It is widely believed that the main source for the novel is Samuel Chamberlain’s memoir, My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue (1956), first serialized in three issues of Life Magazine. We know McCarthy read hundreds of books preparing for the novel, but Chamberlain’s story provides the skeleton and many character details. The best work on McCarthy's sources is Notes on Blood Meridian by John Sepich.

John Sepich's map with the gang’s route colored. Via Biblioklept.

In the 1840s, the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua was suffering from Indian incursions. The attacks were so bad that Chihuahua was eager to pay anyone who could handle the problem. Thus, you could make a ton of money scalping Indians in Northern Mexico—I never realized how much.

Back then, a US Army man was paid ~$7-$15/month. At some point, Chihuahua City would pay $200 for a single Indian scalp. Anyone was welcome—permissionless commerce. A group of ~50 Indian hunters would only need to score 4 scalps a month for everyone to earn more than they would in the Army—for work that was roughly equal in hazard. Occasionally, a group could bring in more than 150 scalps and earn 60x more than the average Army man.

One observation, which is neither here nor there, but nonetheless striking for a reader from 2023: The book’s worldview seems to be obviously racialist, one might even say “race-realist.” The main characters in the gang, who are white, are racist and ethnically proud. McCarthy seems to endorse stereotype accuracy. The word “nigger” appears, etc. Obviously, here at Other Life we are not offended by historical realism, but we are interested in literary sociology. I am curious why we’ve tampered with many old texts, and downgraded the estimation of many deceased authors, on account of less intensely provocative realism, and yet the high status of Cormac McCarthy and Blood Meridian seems untouched. I wonder why. I could be factually wrong, I am not certain.

Finishing Blood Meridian for the first time, I feel the excitement and charm largely derives from the timeless appeal of the entourage. Despite the horrific and sometimes wanton cruelty and violence of the Glanton gang, one cannot help but find them impressive and inspiring, at times.

Every man wants an entourage with whom he can wander the mountains and desert, simply marauding, accountable to no laws or institutions, in the proverbial state of nature, despite constant fatal threats and unspeakable discomfort and hardship.

Cormac McCarthy as a younger man

This lust for unlimited domination of the earth and all of its life forms is the definition of unethical and uncivilized, but that's one reason why Blood Meridian hits so hard—for that lust is nonetheless deep in all men and through the Glanton gang we get to experience it.

What starts as an obscure tale of loathsome violence, so grotesque that it's nearly boring, eventually finishes as a heady parasocial bond that one almost wishes was real life. In this subtle change of mindset, which sneaks up on the reader, I think one learns something about the evil present in oneself, but also something not altogether unwholesome about the abiding call to militant adventure—a need that is so completely atrophied in modernity that it would be invisible if it were not for the existence of a novel like this one.

Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy.

Feel free to reply here in the community, if you’re a member. Any and all comments about the book are welcome (Open Thread on Blood Meridian).