Science Versus Nature in Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian

Happy Harry Professor Bob English 102 3/20/04 Science Versus Nature in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian Few modern writers have generated the attention of Cormac McCarthy - Science Versus Nature in Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian introduction. His straightforward, southern writing imitates William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, whom he is often compared to (“Cormac McCarthy” par. 1). Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island, but moved to Knoxville, Tennessee at the age of four (“Cormac McCarthy” par. 1) and the language and culture of the Appalachian people figure prominently in all of his writing.

He attended high school in Knoxville, and for a few years he attended the University of Tennessee. His education was interrupted by four years of military service in the Air Force, but then he returned to the University in 1957 (“Cormac McCarthy” par. 1). His talent for creative writing became apparent to his professors, who encouraged him to “develop his ability” (“Cormac McCarthy” par. 1). In 1960, he left the University to pursue a career as a novelist, even though he hadn’t finished his degree.

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Diane Cox, a professor at the University of South Carolina writes, “it seems true that McCarthy had not long planned to be a novelist, but rather had embraced his career gradually as his talent became evident to him and to his teachers during his college years” (“Cormac McCarthy” par. 1). On a ship to Europe, McCarthy met his future wife, an English singer by the name of Anne De Lisle (“Cormac McCarthy” par. 1). They have lived in several locations, including Tennessee; Asheville, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; and Texas (“Cormac McCarthy” par.

1). During the years of 1965 to 1999, McCarthy published eight novels. He has won numerous grants and awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim, and the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. Like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, McCarthy’s novels “have in common… a rustic and sometimes dark humor, intense characters, and violent plots; McCarthy shares as well their development of universal themes within

a highly particularized fictional world, their seriousness of vision, and their vigorous exploitation of the English language” (“Cormac McCarthy” par. 1). McCarthy writes in a straightforward manner about the violent and difficult lives of southerners. Guy Davenport, in his New York Times book review, wrote, “nor does McCarthy waste a single word on his character’s thoughts. With total objectivity he describes what they do and records their speech. Such discipline comes not only from mastery over words but from an understanding wise enough and compassionate enough to dare tell so abysmally dark a story” (qtd.

in Arnold and Luce 3). Davenport is correct in noting that McCarthy’s stories are usually dark. In Outer Dark, McCarthy chronicles the story of a brother and sister who have had a child together. The main character, Culla, immediately buries the baby. This is the prelude to a dark journey through Appalachia at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Child of God, McCarthy portrays a “dispassionate examination of a man driven by isolation and loneliness to murder and necrophilia” (qtd. in Arnold and Luce 3).

One critic wrote, “The carefully cold, sour diction of this book – whose hostility toward the reader surpasses that even of the world of Lester Ballad – does not often let us see beyond its nasty ‘writing’ into moments we can see for themselves, rendered. And such moments, authentic though they feel, do not much help a novel so lacking in human momentum or point” (qtd. in Arnold and Luce 3). Many readers feel the same when encountering a McCarthy novel; it is usually a painful and somewhat shocking experience.

But many others have praised his work as a “postmodern achievement that has achieved universality” (qtd. in Arnold and Luce 3). In 1992, McCormack began his “Border Trilogy” with the publication of All the Pretty Horses, the first of three books that follow the exploits of young Texas rancher John Grady Cole. This book earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award and continued the same style of writing McCarthy had set forth in his earlier work. Blood Meridian is written in McCarthy’s usual style.

He uses no quotation marks to set off dialogue, and he often doesn’t capitalize words. He switches from Spanish to English in certain parts of the story, without giving the English reader any explanation of what’s said in Spanish. The result is an authentic and eerie tone throughout the book. The book follows the exploits of “the kid. ” McCarthy never capitalizes the name and never gives him any other name throughout. In the beginning, the kid leaves an alcoholic father in Tennessee and migrates west.

He is involved in a series of bar fights and does small odd jobs to support himself. In a town in New Mexico, he meets Judge Holden for the first time, after the Judge enters the tent of a revival preacher and claims that he “had sexual congress with a ten year old girl who had come to him in trust” (6). This incites the crowd to draw guns and take after the preacher. Moments later, the kid is in a bar where Judge Holden admits he made up everything, and that he’d never seen or heard of the preacher before. This is the first instance of Judge Holden’s absolute evil.

In the same town, later that night, the kid meets Toadvine. Both are walking on a plank trying to keep their boots from getting dirty, and neither will give way to other one. A knife fight ensues between them, and a bystander ends up knocking both of them out with a club. The next morning they wake up beside each other in the mud and become friends. They walk into the saloon where the kid had seen Judge Holden the night before and they go upstairs to rob a man together. Before leaving, they set the saloon on fire.

At this point, the kid once again travels alone, until he ends up in a Texas town where he is recruited to join Captain ________ on a non-government sanctioned war into Mexico. He joins the band, and they traveled into Mexico where they are eventually attacked by a band of Comanche Indians. Nearly everyone in the party is killed and scalped, but the kid and a few others escape, only to be captured and put into a Mexican prison. In the prison, the kid once again meets up with Toadvine. They are released from prison when Judge Holden rides into town with a band of Indian hunters.

The Judge convinces the authorities to release the kid and Toadvine in order to join the band. From here, the kid rides with the group as they hunt for Indian scalps, for which the Mexican government pays them handsomely. The band of hunters is led by a half-crazed man named Joel Glanton, and although Judge Holden appears to be the second in command, he is closely consulted every time the group makes a move. They first ride to an Apache village nestled by a lake in Mexico. The band viciously attacks this peaceful village.

Before they attack, Glanton instructs the hunters to not shoot the women and children so that they may save ammunition (155). So the women and children are beat with clubs instead. The scene is grisly, and the violence is almost overwhelming to the reader. McCarthy writes, When Glanton and his chiefs swung back through the village people were running out under the horses’ hooves and the horses were plunging and some of the men were moving on foot among the huts with torches and dragging the victims out, slathered and dripping with blood, hacking at the dying and decapitating those that knelt for mercy.

There were in the camp a number of Mexican slaves and these ran forth calling out in spanish and were brained or shot and one of the Delawares {Indians that were a member of Glanton’s band} emerged from the smoke with a naked infant dangling in each hand and squatted at a ring of midden stones and swung them by the heels each in turn and bashed their heads against the stones so that the brains burst forth through the fontanel in a bloody spew and humans on fire came shrieking forth like berserkers and the riders hacked them down with their enormous knives….

(156) Although this is one of the more violent scenes, this type of graphic, indiscriminate violence occurs throughout the book. After this massacre, the group rides throughout Mexico and parts of Texas, sometimes attacking innocent Mexicans and scalping them, since their scalps could pass as Indian scalps as well. They stay in a series of towns where they disrupt the local life by drinking and frequenting houses of prostitution. Eventually, their reputation becomes known and the Mexican government refuses to sanction them anymore.

The group is eventually caught off guard by a band of Yuma Indians, and many of them are killed, including Glanton. However, the kid escapes. And he wonders the west as a guide and trapper until, after becoming somewhat of an old man, he once again meets the Judge in a bar in California. The Judge hasn’t changed in physical appearance, and later in the night, the Judge surprises the kid in an outhouse. The last time the reader sees the kid, he is being wrapped in the arms of the Judge. Presumably, the Judge has killed him. In his essay Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy, Leo Daughtery argues that Gnostic thought is central in the novel.

Daughtery claims that Whereas most thoughtful people have looked at the world and asked, How did evil get into it? , the Gnostics have looked at their world and asked, How did good get into it?… They saw it (evil) as something so big that evil is not really an applicable term – because it is too small. For them, evil is something that simply is, with the exception of bits of spirit imprisoned here and there. And what they saw is what we see in the world of Blood Meridian. (162) Daughtery’s essay is an interesting take on the novel. But I think that one reads into the novel whatever philosophies one is familiar with.

In Daughtery’s case, he is very knowledgeable about Gnostic philosophy. Although Daughtery presents an interesting viewpoint with which to view the novel, I think that what is at issue in the novel is more simple and universal. I believe Blood Meridian chronicles the battle between scientific, rational thought and the spiritual, more natural instincts of man. I believe this is the case because of the characterization of Judge Holden, the characterization of the kid, and the historical setting of the novel. In the novel, Judge Holden is first described as “an enormous man…

He was bald as a stone and he had no trace of a beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them. He was close on to seven feet in height” (6). In this first description, a reader can see in the Judge elements of a more “evolved” human being. Since the estimated beginnings of human evolution, two major characteristics have marked our changes – we have become less hairy, and we have become larger. The Judge is a man who never has any hair on his body, and he is the size of Shaquille O’Neal, a modern center in the NBA. These two traits demonstrate that the Jude is a more highly evolved human being.

Tobin, an ex-priest who ends up riding with the scalp hunters, explains to the kid the Judge’s mastery of nearly all knowledge and skills. He says, You wouldn’t think to look at him that he could outdance the devil himself now would ye?… And fiddle. He’s the greatest fiddler I ever heard and that’s an end on it. The greatest. He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer. He’s been all over the world. Him and the governor they sat up till breakfast and it was Paris this and London that in five languages, you’d have give something to heard them. The governor’s a learned man himself he is, but the Judge…

(123) Tobin also tells the kid how the band of scalp hunters first met up with him. They were being chased by a gang of Comanche’s across the Texas desert. They had run out of ammunition when they found the Judge waiting for them in the middle of nowhere. After a secret discussion between the Judge and Glanton, the Judge shows the men how to make an explosive powder out of guano (bat feces) (125 – 132). These examples reveal how the Judge possesses all human knowledge and skill. In addition, the Judge, like a true scientist, is continually chronicling all plants and birds in a notebook that he owns.

At one point, Toadvine asks him what “his purpose in all this is” (198). The Judge responds, Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent… These anonymous creatures… may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain (overlord) of the earth… This is my claim… And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life…

In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation… The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos. (198 –199) Earlier in the novel, when they are camped near the ruins of the Anasazi, the Judge explains, “Whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with barely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe” (146). All of these quotes demonstrate that the Judge represents human knowledge.

Science is the attempt of mankind to impose order upon chaos, to classify and examine the nature of our existence. And few people would argue that scientific thought and human knowledge have drastically altered our world. We have become, in many senses, “suzerains” of the earth. McCarthy never explains what the Judge is a “judge” of, but it seems clear that he is judging existence itself. While the Judge represents scientific knowledge, the kid represents human instinct and spirituality. McCarthy never explains the kid’s inner thoughts.

The reader is simply taken along on the kid’s adventures. But even the fact that “the kid” does not even have a name alludes to his status as an “everyman. ” The kid partakes in violence just like the rest of the characters in the novel. But his violent acts are often motivated by passion or survival, rather than the attempt to gain power or status. His fight with the bartender who wouldn’t serve him a drink is an example. He is angry that after doing some work for him, he has been cheated out of his drink (53). His violence is more like that of animals – inspired by rage or necessity.

In that sense, the kid is more representative of human instinct. The kid is also representative of the spirituality of man. Despite his penchant for violence, the kid is also the only one to show acts of kindness in the story. An example of this is when he is the only one of the band who will pull the arrow out of Davy Brown’s leg (133). Also, like devout holy men of most religions, the kid is also free from material possessions. He has only rags and a mule before he meets up with Glanton and the Judge, and after the group disbands, he is also poor.

All of his scalping hasn’t raised him to positions of power or prestige in the world, even though the rest of them have amassed stolen gold and jewels. At the end of the novel, the kid and the Judge try to kill one another in the desert. And then, finally, the kid is “swallowed up” by the Judge in the end. The kid opens the door to an outhouse when he sees “the Judge seated upon the closet. He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him” (333).

The final battle at the end of the novel serves as a metaphor for the struggle that has happened throughout. In the end, the spirituality and instinct of man, represented by the kid, is engulfed by human knowledge and scientific progress, represented by the Judge. The historical setting of this novel also demonstrates that the battle between human instinct and spirituality and scientific thought is taking place. Joseph Emil Sepich discusses the historical parallels and information that McCarthy used in the writing of his novels. He writes,

Because McCarthy’s story unfolds in a relatively forgotten mid-nineteenth century some thirty years in advance of cowboys, trail drives and railheads in the Southwest, and because his protagonist aligns himself, for better or worse, with professional scalphunters, a glance at the historical record from which McCarthy draws for settings and characters in Blood Meridian can provide context needed for a reader’s appreciation of the novel, and can provide a glimpse not possible before of McCarthy at work translating ‘bare historical facts’ into something ‘rich and strange.

’ (Sepich 123) The western United States in the mid nineteenth century was beginning to be engulfed in the enormous changes brought on by industrialization. Sepich discusses how the historical west was the last place for a man to be “free,” despite the brutality and violence he often lived in (136). With “progress,” industrialization, improvements in transportation, etc, came a loss of man’s sense of freedom. Although the west used to be “wild,” it has still been romanticized in our movies and books as the last frontier where men could be tested by the elements and live in a direct relationship with nature.

Many authors have written about this “loss of innocence”, and McCarthy has followed that trend as well. Historically, the old west has been the time period where the battle between man’s spirituality and nature and the progress of science took place in full force. It makes it the perfect setting for the kid and the Judge, and it adds to the idea that the Judge represents mankind’s knowledge while the kid represents man’s spirituality and nature. If I had to suggest an improvement, I would suggest that some parts of the book be edited out.

Although McCarthy is a very powerful and descriptive writer, there are many scenes in the book where they are simply riding from one place to another. After awhile, these scenes, although beautifully written, become tedious and do not seem to advance the plot. Overall, I enjoyed the book because it was so haunting and eerie. It made me think about the harsh realities of life, an activity that is not pleasant, but, at the same time, it is instructive. It also gave me a better idea about what the “old west” was really like.

However, I could’ve done without some of the grisly scenes, which I have a feeling may stick in my mind for a long time. Works Cited Arnold, Edwin and Diane Luce. Introduction. Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Eds. Edwin Arnold and Diane Luce. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 1 – 15. “Cormac McCarthy. ” Contemporary Authors. Gale. Horry-Georgetown Technical College Lib. 15 March 2003 <http://galenet. galegroup. com/servlet/LitRC>. Daughtery, Leo. “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy.

” Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Eds. Edwin Arnold and Diane Luce. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 159 – 174. McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage International, 1985. Sepich, John Emil. “ ‘What kind of indians was them? ’: Some Historical Sources in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. ” Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Eds. Edwin Arnold and Diane Luce. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 123 -144.

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