ad astra per alia porci


a million allusions which i cannot catch
January 5, 2011, 4:07 pm
Filed under: the arts | Tags: , , , ,

“The ugly fact is books are made out of books” – Cormac McCarthy

It is tremendously annoying and intriguing at the same time to read a book filled to the brim with allusions and references. Blood Meridian wears a myriad of influences on its sleeve; one sees Faulkner, Melville’s Moby Dick and the Bible all over the book.

The problem is, I have not read all these sources before. The closest I got to being well-acquainted with any of them is reading Moby Dick, cover to cover. And even though I have done that before, I cannot say that I can recollect the novel well enough to sustain a proper comparison between Blood Meridian and Melville’s masterpiece.

So my experience of reading Blood Meridian is that of encountering a very long series of inexplicable allusions and being constantly tugged by the niggling sense that there is a broader significance to events in the novel and that these events and the very writing style draw upon a much larger history and tradition. I constantly get the sense that there is an unseen depth to the novel to which I have no access given my lack of knowledge and experience of related literature.

Undoubtedly, this book is very special. McCarthy is clearly not seeking to replicate verbatim historical events in the Wild West, but rather he is seeking to recreate, and to express his message. McCarthy comments on the ineradicable depravity of men, but withholds judgment. The book reads like scripture, has the grand timelessness of epics, and displays moral complexity (without judgmental finality). It seems to comment on the very fabric of the universe, as would any other primary religious text. As a post-modern novel, Blood Meridian is also keenly aware (thought not explicit) about its place in the literary tradition, as well as the limits of artistic creation. It unashamedly borrows from other traditions and yet at the same time intends and seeks to locate itself in, comment on and contribute to the development of literary traditions.

Blood Meridianl gets its meaning from comparison. In particular, the novel has many parallels with Moby Dick. The judge Holden is an inscrutable, compelling and ultimately horrifying character, a sophisticated and intellectual counterpart to Melville’s Ahab. He knows and speaks in alien languages, understands the complexity of law and science and exudes erudite wisdom and insight. He also brutally murder others, pillages towns, cunningly and falsely frames others, engages with whores and possibly indulges in paedophilia. From my summary searches, readers tend to be captured by the figure of the judge, and it is easy to see why. Professor Hungerford in her lectures (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgyZ4ia25gg) suggests that judge Holden is a symbol of heroic evil, similar to Milton’s Satan. He has an allure that draws people to him, even though we can see just how morally repugnant he is, for he is eloquent and seems to be always in control, and yet he remains opaque to the reader who must guess what he stands for and what he thinks inside. It is initially puzzling to the reader why the judge is known as such since he is not a judge in the literal sense at all and instead his moral character is diametrically opposed to what we conventionally expect from a normal judge, but this curious inversion seems to lend weight to the idea that the world in Blood Meridian is poised on a knife’s edge, at the meridian, and the judge is the person who orchestrates and decides the flow of inevitable violence. The ironic naming of Holden as “the judge” contrasts with his lack of moral judgement on the depravity of all that goes around him and his active, self-conscious and self-gratifying participation in the propagation of violence and immorality.

However I am more fascinated by the figure of the kid, and how his character supports McCarthy’s (probable) message.

The kid is a poor and limited imitation of the wonderful Ishmael. The kid is flat and opaque, with no richness of moral interiority. He has no name. The reader gains little access to the kid’s inner thoughts and struggles for unlike Melville, McCarthy narrates in the third person and does not adopt the first person perspective from the position of the kid, and the only means of understanding his development (if any) is through his outward actions. However, his outward actions are decidedly cryptic and ambivalent; there are no instances where the kid unequivocally asserts a clear moral stance in his actions. Unlike in relation to the judge, I feels less compelled to understand what lies under the kid’s opaque exterior, for I get the sense that there is nothing underneath. The kid is like a puppet: he only has the outer resemblance of emotion and development. Towards the end of the

Judge Holden openly expresses his opinion that the kid is special, and alone and solely resists the corruption that overtook everyone. However this is deeply ironic for the kid hardly develops and one may even possibly construe the judge’s words as sarcasm. Sometime towards the end of the novel, the kid is described as “the man”. One would naturally expect some moral development or emotional maturity in the kid, but this is hardly evidenced in the novel. What we have is a crude caricature, a stillborn bilsdungroman, where the novel is uneasily crammed into the bildungsroman tradition when there is no material justifying it.

As if to make the point more emphatic, the kid’s final end is left ambivalent and open to interpretation. The reader is left to presume that the kid (now the man) went into the outhouse and was murdered in some gruesome way by presumably the judge, who later leaves to join the debauchery in the saloon and dance his eternal dance. The stark descriptive silence over the kid’s probable violent death greatly contrasts with the novel’s abundant willingness to depict explicitly and in almost virtuosic quality the rampant violence that pervades the novel. It seems almost as if McCarthy is literally erasing the kid from the novel, rendering mute the already scarcely audible voice of the kid. In doing so, McCarthy seems to be telling us that there is perhaps no means of understanding, confronting and subduing the evil that is innate in all men, and in the end moral evil reigns supreme and eternally. The judge dances his dance without end: “He never sleeps. He says he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favourite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

Given the richness and deliberate quality of the writing, I am sure Blood Meridian holds a great lot more than I perceive. I have not been impressed by much of the “modern” fiction (i.e. published in the 1900s) so far, so I am quite surprised to find such a gem. This is a book that I will revisit again once I have read the other books that it references.

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