Review of “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy

There’s nothing more difficult than reviewing really great books. At times, it’s difficult even to recognize them.

I think this is one of them.

The book is incredibly violent. It’s not violent in a Tarantino-esque way – in that it doesn’t celebrate and glorify violence. The violence in this book just is. It’s part of the despair.

The book follows a group of people who are hunting Indians in the old Southwest, but it’s really about one particular character, the Judge (who may be the devil, or not). By the end, his character seems to rise off every page in a fascinating and scary way.

(I can see how some sort tenured English professor could interpret this book to be about the oppression of the Indians. That’s certainly what I’d write about it, if I was still in school. I don’t think it’s about that, it’s much more interesting.)

The best way to review books this good is to quote a bit from them, so here goes (this is a mostly a long quote from the Judge):

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

. . .

All other trades are contained in that of war.

Is that why war endures?

No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.

That’s your notion.

The judge smiled. 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. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. 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, 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.

Brown studied the judge. You’re crazy Holden. Crazy at last.

The judge smiled.

Might does not make right, said living. 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 favor 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 forgo 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. For the argument is indeed trivial, but not so the separate wills thereby made manifest. Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and however much he comes to value his judgements ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.

16 Responses to Review of “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy

  1. ve says:

    This is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. It is stark reality with pretty lies stripped away.

    I don’t see this being about oppression of indians at all though. Many of the indians were equally blood thirsty, and the gang ended up being equal-opportunity pillagers when they took over the ferry and when they looted the Mexican town where they were greeted as heros. To me, the book was about the inherent savagery of humans and the absence of any real justice — people kill and are killed, and it has always been so.

    Like some others of McCarthy’s works, it is based loosely on actual events.

  2. Handle says:

    Two essential links (which I recommend between your first and second reading).

    1. Here’s a link to Leo Doherty’s “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy”

    I have a certain bias towards this interpretation, but even I’ll say it’s not nearly definitive, and many people argue against it. I think it ignores the obvious Nietzschean themes and McCarthy’s got nothing to say about it, but it’s a good way to establish a certain perspective about the novel. Plus it introduces Hans Jonas whom everyone should also read.

    2. And here is Bookdrum’s absolutely indispensable illustrated guide to those dozens of obscure Historic references – one wonders how much time McCarthy spent researching his masterpiece.

    Personally, I do not interpret Judge Holden as “The Devil”, but as a poly-semiotic – a combination of many symbolic devices. Definitely an Ubermench caricature, among other things. One of those things is clearly a representation of the period’s victory of Materialist Rationalism over Traditional Religion as captured by his antagonism towards Priest Tobin. The Judge is a immortal and keeps getting stronger, the Priest (an ex-Priest at that) finally disappears and is never seen again.

    In my experience, there is a massive gender split in those who say they really enjoyed and understood this book.

  3. So I take it this review is a meditation on the recent NSA spying revelations?

  4. Tarl says:

    I have only read The Road, which seemed pointless and depressing.

    • Handle says:

      Depressing, perhaps, but not pointless. And if you are willing to accept that it’s not pointless, then you would benefit from doing the work of trying to decipher the points. Not every point can be communicated to us effectively and movingly in a blunt, direct, and linear fashion. Great literature makes you go through the kind of experience and bewilderment that is required to stimulate insight.

      So, you should try and reread it. First, try this essay on a Disrupted Natural Revelation interpretation.

      Think about the environment more symbolically instead of the standard “post-apocalyptically”. It is perfectly bleak. No sun, no life, nothing “works the way it should”, no literary device works the way it normally does, there is no reason for any hope. And yet, in the midst of all that, despite it, there remains a glowing ember of love and courage and determined striving. The story is not about that love – but about what that light’s existence in that perfect darkness represents. Give it a shot, you may learn something from the effort.

      • Anonymous says:

        The Road is about hope, which seems so weird. But it is. The Child is that hope. Purity in the tarnished world,he carries ‘ the fire’. The world breaks the man, (as seen at the end with his treatment of the thief) but the boy keeps his hope, optimism and love.

  5. SOBL1 says:

    I loved BM after reading it a year ago. I believe BM is the book McCarthy spent his MacArthur Prize time studying and researching to write. BM wasn’t popular or cherished when it was first written. A college prof would have to play twister to make this about the Indians being oppressed considering how even handed the book is in portraying everyone as awful.

    The Judge is the straw that stirs the drink, but I loved the beautiful imagery and passages describing the setting. McCarthy’s words were eerily engaging despite the gruesome subject matter. Still, the Judge is easily one of the greatest fictional characters I have ever read. I tend to side with the ‘he is a devil or the devil’ argument. I’d argue he is a devil who can only be summoned to a land when intense evil is around. There are too many phrases and things he mentions that drip with the devil’s mythology or personality. His book, which he records what he doesn’t know, and he should know everything since the earth is his domain is a tip. It’s a book a person can spend hours discussing.

    It is not for the light stomached reader though as the first third or so of the book has a death, killing or corpse on every page. I recommend the book to everyone I know that still reads.

  6. Handle says:

    Oh, and speaking of books – Here’s Derb’s Latest. “From the Dissident Right”.

    Buying it is an even better way to support him than handing him cash – It incentivizes the production of future DEC content by him and others who see the numerical strength of interest.

  7. Scharlach says:

    Anyone who tries to argue that this book is about “oppression of Indians” is an idiot who is not a McCarthy fan because he has obviously not read any of the few precious interviews McCarthy has granted, in one of which he says this:

    “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy says philosophically. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

    The man should be the poet laureate of HBD and Neoreactionary thought.

  8. thrasymachus33308 says:

    I have read a few CM’s and the only one I like was “All the Pretty Horses”. Here’s the trouble with CM- he has the typical American view of Mexico as a place of great, mysterious, epic evil. Mexico is indeed an evil shithole but not in the way Americans think it is. My theory about Mexico is that it combines the worst aspects of North America and Latin American culture. The farther away you get in Latin America from the US, the nicer it is.

  9. Fearless says:

    Excellent review of a fantastic book. I read it last year and simply took everything at face value. The Judge as the Devil idea along with the other interpretations provide ample food for thought.

  10. […] Review of “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy – from foseti. see also this great set of “randoms” from mr. f. you should click […]

  11. […] Foseti on Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” Some interesting discussion in the comments. I read it about 20 years ago and was both impressed and kind of bored by it. Our own Blowhard, Esq. had some fun at McCarthy’s expense back here. […]

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