This May, PEL’s Not School Fiction Group read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men (which PEL covered) and The Road. Blood Meridian is a dark masterpiece set in 1849 where a runaway kid joins a gang of scalp-hunters led by the Judge, a philosophizing warmonger. The Judge’s views on existence come out in several stories and fire-side conversations about witness, will, and war, though if you want to hear him, there is plenty of violence between his sermons which makes the book notoriously hard to read. Not gratuitous violence, though, as Harold Bloom says, “The violence is the book. The Judge is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate.”
Here, the kid sees the Judge enter a city in Mexico:
They saw one day a pack of vicious looking humans mounted on unshod Indian ponies riding half drunk through the streets, bearded, barbarous, clad in the skins of animals stitched up with thews and armed with weapons of every description, revolvers of enormous weight and bowie knives the size of claymores and short two barreled rifles with bores you could stick your thumbs in and the trappings of their horses fashioned out of human skin and their bridles woven up from human hair and decorated with human teeth and the riders wearing scapulars or necklaces of dried and blackened human ears and the horses raw looking and wild in the eye and their teeth bared like feral dogs riding also in the company a number of half naked savages reeling in the saddle, dangerous, filthy, brutal, the whole like a visitation from some heathen land where they and others like them fed on human flesh. Foremost among them, outsized and childlike with his naked face, rode the judge.
The judge’s presence demands attention from the beginning of the novel, with him seven feet tall and three hundred thirty pounds and also completely hairless. Though he is an impressive killer, the Judge is charismatic and a genius with science, law, history, drawing, magic and dancing. Here an ex-priest riding with the Glanton Gang tells the kid about the Judge’s skillful mastery.
That great hairless thing. You wouldn’t think to look at him that he could outdance the devil himself would ye? God the man is a dancer… 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 and 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… oh it may be the Lord’s way of showin how little store he sets by the learned.
The Judge’s intellect can cause a man to sweat under his reasoning and turn popular belief inside out with truths and lies. In conversation the judge seems to make serious philosophical claims, which are unbelievable to many in the gang but unrefuted. Here is the judge on war:
Judge: 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 mans hand or that man at his… This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate… 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 ones 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 god.
Davy: You’re crazy… at last.
The judge smiles.
What’s the judge saying? Is being a warrior consistent with his philosophy? What does he see in children? These are some of the questions I have but, to avoid spoilers, I’ll just save them for the Not School Fiction Group conversation. Blood Meridian is as beautiful as it is terrifying and the quality of McCarthy’s universe in detail, description and, yes–even though the word only appears once in the novel–feeling, make this book worth reading. Here in this last passage, a desert landscape is witnessed by the gang with the kid and the judge.
That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses’ trappings and the wagon wheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and the beards of the men. All night sheet lightning 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.
Yale Lecture Video with Professor Hungerford on Blood Meridian:
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