On Blood Meridian

Sean Lewis

Cormac McCarthy is renowned for the violence of his works, his minimalist approach to punctuation (some would say hatred of) and his intensely Faulknerian writing style. With Blood Meridian, he earns fervent praise from critics, with Harold Bloom declaring it the ultimate Western. It has even joined the sacred ranks of The Great American Novel. Bloom elucidates in an interview with AV Club:

AVC: When you called it “the ultimate Western”, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?

HB: No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition. And in the sense that it serves as an extension of the pastoral tradition, it provides an interesting and ironic contrast with American Pastoral by my friend Philip Roth.

Such laudatory comments do not go unwarranted. The book is an entrancing, merciless descent into savagery. It is loosely based on the real-life Glanton gang, a horde of scalp hunters led by Texas Ranger John Joel Glanton. They travel the stark Mexican borderlands, murdering and scalping countless Native Americans for bounty and entertainment during the dark times following the Mexican-American War (1849-1850). The first few chapters leave no doubt that Blood Meridian is gruesome, with excruciating scenes of trees hung with dead babies, the massacring and scalping of innocent women and children, deserts bathed with blood.

We follow the Kid, who joins the gang in their destruction and in so encounters John Glanton, the very picture of a bloodthirsty bounty hunter and the intimidating, ominous figure of Judge Holden. In many ways, Judge Holden stands as one of the best villains of modern fiction. A hairless man of gargantuan bulk, he is eloquent, speaking on the nature of man, war and the law at the campfire before his fellow murderers. He behaves bizarrely, from striding around naked, to documenting artifacts and promptly destroying them, asserting that:

Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He appears a strange, all-knowing, almost supernatural spectre. After the gang comes upon Anasazi ruins, he is the sole character who understands and holds respect for this relic of an ancient Mexican civilisation.

For whoever makes 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 scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.

This comment amplifies the wickedness of the judge, for he knowingly participates in the destruction of Mexican civilisation whilst other men desecrate out of hatred and greed bred of ignorance. The Judge is the living embodiment of the naked, undeniable human instinct for destruction. He is the very agent of war. He preaches:

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.

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.

The kid’s travels span the height of the gang’s victories, the riotous revelry which wrecks the towns they pass through, to the ultimate fall of Glanton and the demise of the gang. The kid does not come away unscathed. He is pursued by the judge for being “mutinous”, and he is accompanied by an ex-priest who cautions the Kid against the judge, whom he deems to be the devil itself. The kid evades the judge, but encounters him years later. The bleak conclusion is vague, in McCarthy’s characteristic style, but it is clear that the kid, who represents the wavering flame of morality, eventually succumbs.

McCarthy’s skill with prose is nearly beyond compare. What stands out the most are the landscapes described in Blood Meridian. It will not make for easy reading, but it frames the brutality of the story perfectly. Oftentimes I was transported to stark deserts and salt plains, parched and dusty, beneath painfully clear night skies and bright stars. The landscape is essential to the narrative. As McCarthy puts it:

The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.

And his talent goes beyond this. Read this beautiful paragraph from the opening chapter.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her bosom the creature who would carry her off. the father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. he can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.

There are scholars who see Blood Meridian as an anti-western work due to the manner in which “McCarthy’s narrative diverges from the traditional mythology of American westward movement […] Unlike traditional westerns, McCarthy’s novel makes “visible those violent episodes that accompanied the fight over land” (Eaton 157), and reveals a different kind of violence: the violence of cultural amnesia. After all, the problem with southwestern mythology is not only that the “myth was easier to swallow than the reality” (Eaton 157), but that the American national identity was grounded in a willed forgetting of the violence of these events.” (Shawn Mark Jasinski) In simpler terms, McCarthy exposes the brutality and violence of America’s expansion, one that has been glossed over in Western fiction and American history.

Others see it as a universal statement on the prevalence of conflict and mankind’s predisposition towards violence, any time, anywhere, amongst all peoples. No man, white, black or Mexican is innocent of violence in Blood Meridian. An old hermit warns in the book:

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but When god made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything.

I am more inclined to agree with the second camp; certainly, McCarthy framed it in that historical context but he is too brilliant an author to have meant it to be a simple statement on American expansionism and wilful blindness towards the darker sides of its history. Blood Meridian, as Bloom says, is too grand for that. I have to agree with Caryn James (NYT) who observes:

Blood Meridian makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.

McCarthy

Blood Meridian reigns as one of the best novels I have encountered. The last paragraph burns, even now, upon my memory. 
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling all at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
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On Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski’s poems hit you like a punch to the gut and dredge up emotions buried deep, deep down with your fears. His poems are often gritty, bitter and dark. The shadows of his childhood and human failures are unflinchingly presented to the reader. The honesty and realism that runs through his poems, however, are what draw you back and back again. No other modern poet manages to peel back the facade of humanity to reveal the dirt that clings to us all, yet finds that, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.” He doesn’t want your pity, he acknowledges that everything is just a messy, dirty, chaotic affair; his final message is that life sucks, but you get to live it on your own terms and there is beauty in that.  

Bluebird

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

(Yes, Charles, we do, thanks to you) 

Cause and Effect

the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
why anybody
would ever want to
get away
from
them

To the Foxes

don’t feel sorry for me.
I am a competent,
satisfied human being.

be sorry for the others
who
fidget
complain

who
constantly
rearrange their
lives
like
furniture.

juggling mates
and
attitudes

their
confusion is
constant

and it will
touch
whoever they
deal with.

beware of them:
one of their
key words is
“love.”

and beware those who
only take
instructions from their
God

for they have
failed completely to live their own
lives.

don’t feel sorry for me
because I am alone

for even
at the most terrible
moments
humor
is my
companion.

I am a dog walking
backwards

I am a broken
banjo

I am a telephone wire
strung up in
Toledo, Ohio

I am a man
eating a meal
this night
in the month of
September.

put your sympathy
aside.
they say
water held up
Christ:
to come
through
you better be
nearly as
lucky.

How is Your Heart? 

during my worst times
on the park benches
in the jails
or living with
whores
I always had this certain
contentment-
I wouldn’t call it
happiness-
it was more of an inner
balance
that settled for
whatever was occuring
and it helped in the
factories
and when relationships
went wrong
with the
girls.
it helped
through the
wars and the
hangovers
the backalley fights
the
hospitals.
to awaken in a cheap room
in a strange city and
pull up the shade-
this was the craziest kind of
contentment

and to walk across the floor
to an old dresser with a
cracked mirror-
see myself, ugly,
grinning at it all.
what matters most is
how well you
walk through the
fire.

Say what you will about Bukowski, his women, his booze, his bitterness. But he certainly wrung the most out of life and died beholden to no one but himself. Listen to Atticus Finch describe Mrs Dubose and decide for yourself. 

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”

Begin anew each day

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

On Arches National Park and Edward Abbey

I love Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Documenting his three seasons as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Southeastern Utah, it is a passionate and oftentimes angry love letter to Nature and the desert. The NYT described it as such: “A passionately felt, deeply poetic book. It has philosophy. It has humor. It has its share of nerve-tingling adventures…set down in a lean, racing prose, in a close-knit style of power and beauty.”

I own a physical copy and flipping through it now, I find lovely passages:

Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.

Suddenly it comes, the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks, on the canyon walls and through the windows in the sandstone fins. We greet each other, sun and I, across the black void of ninety-three million miles. The snow glitters between us, acres of diamonds almost painful to look at.

I read Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s thesis on the desert and freedom, after my visit to Arches National Park. How I wish I could have had his book on hand while travelling amongst the cliffrose and juniper, the burnished rocks and soft sands. Here are a couple of photos from that trip (I will upload more in future). I believe the bottom is Landscape Arch.

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On Stanley Kubrick and the meaning of life

“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

I recently watched Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I finished my last day of lessons for the semester, met up with my brother and we caught the IMAX showing of Interstellar, which was mindblowing. But that is for another day. Afterwards we bought trays of sushi and discussed gravitational time dilation, the cheesiness of love as a “quantifiable” force. That night, through googling Interstellar I learnt that Nolan had been heavily inspired by 2001. I’d heard of Kubrick’s work: the massively violent A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut etc. but I’d never been moved to watch any.

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Watching 2001 was a strange, awe-inspiring experience. Rather than what Hollywood expected, Kubrick gave us a massively artistic work that would not be out of place in some avant-garde museum or arthouse cinema. From the first act of the dawn of mankind, the iconic transition from the bone to the spaceship, the haunting end, it is a painstakingly crafted film. Though filmed in 1968, its influence on modern space films is evident: Star Wars, Sunshine, Interstellar, Aliens. Kubrick was incredibly visionary. Artificial intelligence, robots going bad, distrust of technology and TPTB, aliens (and NOT little green men or crude monsters, but sleek, menacing black slabs). The maddening, dizzying techno wormhole at the end, with mysterious shapes resembles an LSD trip. How insane it must have seemed in the confines of a neighbourhood cinema in 1968. Some might call it a boring, tedious film, but its purpose is not entertainment; it is to provoke thought, it is Kubrick’s thesis on our place in the universe and our future. This is him throwing down the gauntlet.

I might do a full review on 2001 someday, but my mind is still unsettled. I went to sleep afraid of waking up to a black monolith standing over my bed.

Stanley Kubrick was an insightful man. His interviews are a joy to read. While I am writing this, I am listening to a 1966 audio interview of him, which can be heard here. My favourite interview has to be the 1968 Playboy Interview, courtesy of Brainpickings which featured some extracts in an article. They are reproduced below and are infinitely inspiring, much like Carl Sagan’s words.

Playboy: Thanks to those special effects, 2001 is undoubtedly the most graphic depiction of space flight in the history of films — and yet you have admitted that you yourself refuse to fly, even in a commercial jet liner. Why?

Kubrick: I suppose it comes down to a rather awesome awareness of mortality. Our ability, unlike the other animals, to conceptualize our own end creates tremendous psychic strains within us; whether we like to admit it or not, in each man’s chest a tiny ferret of fear at this ultimate knowledge gnaws away at his ego and his sense of purpose. We’re fortunate, in a way, that our body, and the fulfillment of its needs and functions, plays such an imperative role in our lives; this physical shell creates a buffer between us and the mind-paralyzing realization that only a few years of existence separate birth from death. If man really sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should be bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?

Those of us who are forced by their own sensibilities to view their lives in this perspective — who recognize that there is no purpose they can comprehend and that amidst a countless myriad of stars their existence goes unknown and unchronicled — can fall prey all too easily to the ultimate anomie….But even for those who lack the sensitivity to more than vaguely comprehend their transience and their triviality, this inchoate awareness robs life of meaning and purpose; it’s why ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,’ why so many of us find our lives as absent of meaning as our deaths.

The world’s religions, for all their parochialism, did supply a kind of consolation for this great ache; but as clergymen now pronounce the death of God and, to quote Arnold again, ‘the sea of faith’ recedes around the world with a ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,’ man has no crutch left on which to lean—and no hope, however irrational, to give purpose to his existence. This shattering recognition of our mortality is at the root of far more mental illness than I suspect even psychiatrists are aware.

This segment cuts to the ultimate question of why we should value life. And his last line (my favourite quote of his) inspires such hope (or the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words).

Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel it’s worth living?

Kubrick: The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism — and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong — and lucky — he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

On Reading The Remains of the Day

I read this book during my short-lived obsession with Downton Abbey (abandoned due to lack of time, make no mistake, it is an excellent series). The only book by Ishiguro I’d read before this was The Unconsoled, which was a confusing read that I didn’t finish, so I was a little apprehensive at the start.

This is the story of a butler, Stevens, and his experiences working at Darlington Hall for his old employer Lord Darlington and his new American employer Mr Farraday. Stevens goes on a road trip, of sorts, across England to meet an old colleague, the ex-housekeeper of Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton.

The subtlety of Ishiguro’s writing was very appealing. A friend and I were especially enamoured with how he described the English landscape:

The English landscape at its finest – such as I saw this morning – possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness.’

I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.

One could say the very same thing about Ishiguro’s prose. The narrative is carried out with a sense of restraint, a politeness and a sort of blandness; or what we would expect from a good butler like Stevens.

The book is also centred on the lofty ideals of “dignity” and “greatness”. Stevens mulls over what makes a truly “great butler”, and one of his criteria is the need for “dignity”. But what is “dignity”? He also goes on about how a good butler stays in form and only truly slips out of form when he is completely alone.

Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. . . . He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?

The importance of helping great men with their work is also central to Steven’s philosophy. He reflects on his years serving Lord Darlington, one of these “great men” and can’t help but question the “greatness” of his master. He doesn’t bring it up but the biggest questions underlying all of his reflections: Have I wasted my life as a butler, if I did not serve a great man? Have I wasted my life on this ideal of “greatness”? Was it all self-delusion? And: What could have been? (or what we now know as the midlife crisis)

Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.

The story was heartwrenching in its own way. I’ve spent a lot of time reading historicals and one never thinks about the butler. The grand lords and beautiful ladies are the main attraction, while the butler is this stodgy, dignified servant keeping their lives in order. But the butler does think, he does have a life apart from serving his master. At what point does his duty end and his own conscience and yes, dignity come to the fore? Should he serve and obey or question and follow his own morals and beliefs?

The book also touches on a far larger issue, whether the common man can be trusted to make decisions for himself and for the world, or if it should be left to men better informed,  i.e. the nobles. Ishiguro explores class differences and human dignity, with a great deal of subtlety.

What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.

TROD made me examine my pre-conceived notions of duty, dignity and the noble ideals man creates. Perhaps we might look to Mr Ishiguro himself for some insight. From the excellent New York Times review by Lawrence Graver:

In his first two novels, Mr. Ishiguro evoked a Japan struggling to rebuild and come to terms with a tarnished past. In ”The Remains of the Day,” he turns his eye on another myth-shrouded society, that of Britain in the last days of empire. Although each of his novels is set at an important historical moment, Mr. Ishiguro says he is more interested in examining the way people, and by extension societies, come to face truths about themselves.

Mr. Ishiguro said in a telephone interview from his home outside London that he tended to focus on elderly characters out of his own concern about how members of his generation would account for themselves in the years to come.

”I’m still a relatively young writer,” said Mr. Ishiguro, who was born in 1954, ”and I tend to write out of a projected fear of what would happen. To combat complacency, I suppose I’m always trying to remind myself in my writing that while we may be very pleased with ourselves, we may look back with a different perspective, and see we may have acted out of cowardice and failure of vision.

”What I’m interested in is not the actual fact that my characters have done things they later regret,” Mr. Ishiguro said. ”I’m interested in how they come to terms with it. On the one hand there is a need for honesty, on the other hand a need to deceive themselves – to preserve a sense of dignity, some sort of self-respect. What I want to suggest is that some sort of dignity and self-respect does come from that sort of honesty.”

Side note: Recently I have started making my way through The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and I thought what a perfect juxtaposition it made to TROD.

[This is a repost of an earlier review from my tumblr.]