Old paper on Blood Meridian. Thoughts?

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  • 23 Nov 2012 at 7:00 pm #2458

    Anonymous

    This is a paper I wrote last year.  Just wondering  if anyone would be interested in giving me their thoughts.

     

    Blood Meridian is a story rife with sacrificial qualities.  Though this paper is not of the length to sufficiently argue that the core of the book is what René Girard calls the “sacrificial crisis,” this paper will begin the work of looking at the sacrificial nature of the novel’s structure.

    Always in the background of Blood Meridian is the historical setting, the Mexican War, a war for borders and a melting pot of cultures, order and disorder, and unchecked violence.  The Mexican War is a crucial backdrop to a sacrificial understanding of the text, as all-out-indiscriminate war, as it is poetically rendered in Blood Meridian, constitutes a sacrificial crisis, in which war does not contaminate warriors alone but simply anyone who lives.   As Rene Girard states in Violence and the Sacred when discussing Greek tragedy, “it is not the differences but the loss of them that gives rise to violence and chaos” (51).

    In addition to the Mexican war playing a structural and thematic role in the novel, the epigraphs from Paul Valéry and The Yuma Daily Sun are critical foregrounds that seem to cast a more explicit light on what I argue is the novel’s purpose, which is to expose what Girard calls the “hidden violence of the sacrificial crisis” which “eventually succeeds in destroying distinctions,” and constitutes “a crisis affecting the cultural order” (49).   Just as Girard notes how “with the passage of time the terror inspired by the original crisis fades from memory” (285), the epigraph from Valéry, which states, “Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint…Finally, you fear blood more and more.  Blood and time” (1), seems to be pointedly reminding the modern reader not to forget the mechanisms by which cultural order is thrown into chaos as well as restored to stasis, which is the sacrificial crisis, and the selection and killing of a surrogate victim, all of which find their origin in religion.  The surrogate victim is that being, or group, which is elected to be responsible for the violence that threatens a communities’ cultural stability, and the killing of the surrogate victim is the means “by which men expel from their consciousness the truth about their violent nature” (Girard, 82-3).  McCarthy is clearly not interested in expelling this truth.

    An interesting note about McCarthy’s allusion to Valéry’s passage is that it is taken from Valéry’s book History and Politics, and is a passage from a dialogue between a fictional Chinese man to a fictional Valéry (cited in Sepich, Notes on Blood Meridian, 110-11).  Of course, the Chinese man is not really a Chinese man, and Valéry is and is not really Valéry.  The Chinese man is Valéry, and the fictional Valéry is his European readership, as well as himself.  Using a Chinese man, a foreigner, though one who also speaks English, fulfills the requirements of a surrogate victim, as he represents a “double” (Girard, 271-2).  As a foreigner the Chinese man exists outside the community and its cultural order, and is therefore a foreign object within the body of the community.  However, seeing as how he clearly speaks English very well, he has access to and an understanding of the symbols, the words, this community depends on in order to create and maintain the signification of differences which retain order.  He therefore exists exterior to the community and has access to its interiority, fulfilling the qualifications of the sacrificial substitute, an exterior force, from outside the community, that exposes the community to the sacred, the violence within itself which is identical to the violence of its past and seems to be the foretelling of its future.

    This represents a tendency to use the foreigner as a sacrificial substitute, reflected early on in Blood Meridian as the Kid wanders violently through the south: “They fight…All races, All breeds.  Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes.  Men from lands so far and queer that standing over them where they lie bleeding in the mud he feels mankind itself vindicated” (4).  I of course do not argue that foreign policy is a theme or focus in Blood Meridian, though I do argue that McCarthy seems to recognize the sacrificial relationship inherent in Western foreign policy, past and present, as a type among other types of sacrificial relationships, which govern our own relationships.

    The epigraph from The Yuma Daily Sun reports an anthropological finding in northern Ethiopia discovered in 1982, which states that “re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped” (1).   Here McCarthy references historical fact, something akin to the “original act of violence” (26) that induced the cycle of the sacrificial crisis and the surrogate victim.  Here McCarthy quite explicitly points to ancient history and then begins his story in 1847, a mere 138 years prior to publication of Blood Meridian.  The intention here is clear.  If spontaneous and undifferentiated violence, represented by scalping, continues to occur or simply rears its head again 300,000 years later in the Mexican War, what makes the modern world believe that 138 years makes such a huge difference between humanity then and now?   The sacrificial mechanisms used to hide the violent means of retaining our cultural order may today take on different forms, some perhaps more subtle, but what is hidden is still violence, and what is mitigated is the fear of violent outbreak and that fear itself being the catalyst for that same violent outbreak.

    Perhaps one of the most interesting and bizarre examples of the presence of the sacred, and thus the threat of a sacrificial crisis, is the character of Judge Holden.  The reader’s first exposure to the Judge is at Revered Green’s tent revival, where the Judge walks in to the crowded tent from the rain and accuses Revered Green of illiteracy, bestiality, child rape,  being wanted by the law in four states, and finally of being an impostor priest.  The crowd turns into a mob and general violence ensues (6-8).  Afterwards the Judge meets some of the men who were in the crowd, where the Judge confesses that he had “never even heard” of Reverend Green, and the men begin to laugh and are described as “mud effigies” (9).  Effigies are pregnant with sacrificial qualities and commonly represent saints as well criminals, political figures, or any figure that encompasses a violent mixture of emotions within a community.  The mixture of both symbolically “good” and “bad” figures possible when describing these men, only recently separated from the lynch mob, as “effigies” indicates the presence of the sacred and the breakdown of differences.  That the men are all described as mud effigies, meaning they all look alike, also points to the loss of differences.  This is the loss of difference between good and bad, where prohibitions that keep order are lost, where “must not” becomes “must.”

    The Judge incites violence.  In his first visitation in the text he simply appears in the middle of a sermon and the reverend “stop[s] his sermon altogether” (6).  The Judge’s presence is sudden and mysterious, and we learn it is also capricious and malicious, much in the way that Girard describes Dionysus: “the god who wanders from place to place, engendering violence and crime with the artfulness of a satanic seducer” (Girard, 132).  His ability to suddenly appear is commented on later, when the reader learns how the Judge joined the Glanton Gang while they were on the run from the Apache, as if it were a magic trick: “There he set on a rock in the middle of the greatest desert you’d ever want to see.  Just perched on this rock like a man waitin for a coach” (Blood Meridian, 132).  Just like Dionysus he seems to wander from place to place inciting violence, but as well he receives praise, as the men, after laughing at the Judge’s malicious joke on the reverend also buy him drink (9).

    Rather than claiming that the Judge is an allusion to Dionysus, the aim is to see the Judge as a metaphor for Girard’s “spontaneous violence,” which threatens to tear down communities.  When the Judge accuses the reverend of multiple depravities, a mob forms, and unanimity is attained against the outsider, the one who was reverend and ultimate sinner, the “surrogate victim,” is cast out or killed (Girard, 68-88).  The Reverend Green is never mentioned again, and has been “expelled” from the narrative’s consciousness.  One can look at the sacrificial structure already suggested in the epigraph from Paul Valéry, and simply substitute the foreigner for Reverend Green and find that the same basic sacrificial structure is evident.

    The Reverend Green episode also displays what Girard calls “the essential process – the arbitrary choice of the victim” (132).  The Judge had “never even heard” of Reverend Green, and yet ended up sending a mob after him on whimsy alone.  However, as is seen in the round of laughter and drinks, the Judge’s violent impulse creates unanimity, though brief, as well, since the men are then described as mud effigies, signifying the loss of differences.  Again the effigy simile has the potential to conflate both “good” and “bad” symbols, or what amounts to “desymbolism” (Girard, 65) exposing the community once again to the danger of the sacred.  In this way the Judge has symbolically initiated the narrative’s cycle of violence.

    Other “sacrificial” qualities of the Judge are comments to his skills and the Judge’s own speeches.  One of the characters, Tobin the ex-priest, says “God the man is a dancer, you’ll not take that away from him” (130).  The Judge himself likens dance to war: “As war becomes dishonored…those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance…and thereby will the dance become a false dance” (349).  The dance is a ritual, which in some cases, as Girard says, reenacts the “original experience,” or, original act of violence which the ritual is intended to imitate, and in its imitation, ward off.  In any case, the dance is a ritual with ordered steps and imitations, and mastering the dance masters the original act of violence which induced the sacrificial crisis.

    The Reverend Green scene is also the first time the Kid, the story’s protagonist, meets the Judge.  From the first meeting a mimesis is already on display, as the earliest description of the Kid is his “taste for mindless violence” (3).  He is also described as having “big wrists, big hands…The child’s face is curiously untouched behind the scars, the eyes oddly innocent” (4).  Upon entering the revival tent the Judge is described: “His face was serene and strangely childlike.  His hands were small” (7).  Already the image of the “monstrous double,” the Judge, is beginning to rear its head.  Both the Judge and the Kid, prone to violence, possess this same innocent and childlike quality, and their physical features, the hands, are inversed.   The roles they play are also quickly inversed.  Whereas the kid watches as the Judge incites a mob, just a few pages later the Judge watches as the kid flees town after burning down a dramhouse (12-15).

    The kid unknowingly enters the dance with the Judge.  The theme of “the dance” is carried throughout the novel in alternating scenes that accumulate to build a powerful symbol of the Judge’s dance by the end of the novel.  At one point the gang of scalphunters are riding in the mountains and come across a bear “[raises] up” and looks “down at them with dim pig’s eyes” and kills one of their number, carrying off “their kinsman like some fabled storybook beast” (144-145).  Here the bear seems to simply raise up out of nowhere, attacks the party, and disappears into the forest with one of them, much like the Judge seems to simply appear.  As well the bear is described by the narrator in poetic language as a “fabled storybook beast,” as if the bear were meant to impart a lesson.  However the poetic language seems to obscure the lesson it is intended to impart, which may begin to come to light as associations accumulate.

    In the last third of the novel the scalphunter’s take over the Yuma ferry crossing and essentially rob ferry riders for all their worth.  The Yuma Indians retaliate, obliterating the gang and only a handful survive, including the kid and the Judge.  The Judge is convinced that the kid is responsible for the massacre, and pursues him in the desert.  At one point during the chase, the kid is hiding behind a small hill in the desert and watching the Judge pass, naked, with a parasol made of bone and hide.  The Judge passes twice and asks the kid why he hasn’t shot him yet, as if inviting recriprocal violence (303-16).  The kid does not shoot the judge, but flees to the nearest town, where he has a dream of the Judge, and the Judge is described as having “lashless pig’s eyes” (326).  Here the images begin to accumulate and begin to take on meaning.  Whereas the bear that spontaneously appeared, killed, and disappeared was described as having “pig’s eyes,” so is the Judge.  Whereas the bear essentially came out of hiding and killed, the kid does not, and lets the Judge, who would kill him, live.

    These images and structures find their conclusion in the final scenes, where 28 years after the Yuma ferry massacre the kid meets the Judge again in a bar.  In the bar is a dancing bear wearing a crinoline. The kid sees the Judge and then the bear is shot and lay “like some monster slain in the commission of unnatural acts” (345).  Soon after, the Judge is giving a speech on war and the dance, to which the kid replies, “Even a dumb animal can dance,” and the Judge retorts, “There is room on the stage for one beast and one beast alone.  All others are destined for a night that is eternal…Bears that dance, bears that don’t” (349).  Soon after, the Judge kills the kid in an outhouse.

    The figure of the bear, the spontaneous violence imaged as a force exterior to man, is associated with the Judge through the image of “pig’s eyes,” and is thus associated with the sacred.  The bear image is then reversed when the bear is shown gaudily dressed in a crinoline, dancing unnaturally.  The bear combines the judge and the kid into a comic symbolic image.  At one end of the spectrum the bear is the judge, that spontaneous violence.  At the other end, seeing as how the bear is comically dressed, mocking the image of the bear in the wilderness, the bear is also the kid, whose mercy for the Judge is seen as mockery and weakness, much like the model-disciple relation Girard describes as mimetic rivalry (174-75).  The conflation of the two is so charged with meaning that it becomes senseless, “begging for referents in any daylight world,” threatening chaos, and so it is killed (Blood Meridian, 343).

    The kid however is not spared.  The Judge kills him in an outhouse and the reader never sees the kid’s death, which is appropriate, since the sacrifice is intended to “expel” the sacred from memory, thus restoring order to the community.  This appears to have been achieved, as the very last scene entails the Judge dancing with everyone in the bar, and even leading the rhythm of the dance with a fiddle (353).

    The sacrificial elements of Blood Meridian seem apparent and have not come anywhere near to being exhausted in this paper.  Though a sacrificial reading should not be read into the story, Blood Meridian lends itself in an obvious way to a sacrificial reading when taken into consideration, again, the backdrop to the story, the Mexican War.   Blood Meridian is driven by change.  Changes in borders, the sovereignty of nations, and even changes in social status, as the child becomes the kid and the kid becomes the man.  As Girard notes, “wherever there is a potential for dangerous change, the remedy lies in ritual” (284).  As villainous as the Judge seems, in light of the sacrificial, he would also seem to be something of a priest, maintaining the rituals required to retard the violence inherent in change.


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    24 Nov 2012 at 3:47 am #2460

    Markus W.
    Member

    Hello Adam,

    your paper is right at the center of one of the major issues I’ve looked at in my M.A. Thesis and am working on in my dissertation. In many ways, I think it’s spot on. I’ve been having a huge crush on Girardian thought for about two years now, and while it’s easy to become absorbed by it and start seeing mimetic crises everywhere, I still think it provides a powerful frame of explanatory tools that lends itself extremely well to much of McCarthy’s fiction. This is true specifically in Child of God, as Gary Ciuba has so convincingly argued, but I really think you can find mimetic violence and sacrificial structures in many of McCarthy’s works. This may be in part due to the fact that the ‘raw materials’ their dealing with (violence, cultural decline, essential human nature, hidden murders etc, Oedipal structures etc.) are the same, but the conclusions they draw are often remarkably similar as well.

    Reading Girard’s latest, “Battling to the End” (which I found rather difficult despite having read “Deceit, Desire and the Novel,” “Violence and the Sacred”, “Things Hidden…” and “The Scapegoat”), I get the feeling that McCarthy may actually have been ahead of Girard in the sense that he saw much earlier the processes of history, that is, the international trend to extremes that Girard has adopted from Clausewitz, as well as the incapability/unwillingness of man to renounce violence completely despite the combined revelation and demystification of the sacrificial structure that Girard attributes to Jesus Christ. Girard, recently seems to have lost hope that revelation is enough, and there’s a strong sense that, as McCarthy says “we’ll do ourselves in.” He reads the apocalyptic tales in the Bible as saying that it’s not actually God who’ll bring about the end of the world, but man himself, and that (original) Christianity as formulated in the Gospels foresaw its own failure. This is well in tune with with the overturning of religion, man’s strongest protection against his own violence (except for the unfortunate scapegoat, of course), that we see enacted in Blood Meridian by the judge, who’s very much a figure of the sacred.

    And is it not exactly also what we find in the unread Bible that the kid carries with him? I think the kid’s (incomplete) renunciation of the  judge, can be read in terms of mimetic rivalry, and is why the judge kills the kid: he wanted the kid to fully embrace him as his mimetic model, and the kid’s renunciation is an affront to this. However, the kid’s death by the judge’s hands is brought about precisely after the kid has killed Elrod, and has thus failed to completely renounce violence without reservations, which Girard extends to even the right to defend yourself! If the kid and the judge to some extent stand for humanity, the judge embodying the principle of the sacred and thus of boundless violence, this is much more significant than if the kid had not defended himself and been killed by Elrod (of course, it is anyway given what has gone before).

    Another breakdown of orders is exemplified with that of the economic constraints that quickly cease to keep the Glanton gangs exploits in check. And regarding the Mexican War, I seem to recall a quote by Richard Slotkin (another favorite of McCarthy scholars) where he said that Mexico was in effect ‘scapegoated’ for American sins, becoming a dark mirror of America.

    In any case, I’m quite convinced that McCarthy and Girard think much alike about these fundamental matters, and that this relation has not nearly been exhausted. Reading them both back to back is not particularly hope-inspiring, though. For a long time, last year, I had this very strong sense that the end of humanity is not only inevitable, but imminent.

    Have you published that paper? I think I could use it for my dissertation.

    Markus

     


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    • This reply was modified 5 years, 2 months ago by  Markus W..
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    • This reply was modified 5 years, 2 months ago by  Markus W..
    24 Nov 2012 at 4:00 am #2461

    Markus W.
    Member

    @All

    Hello Everyone,

    I’ve been thinking about actively joining this forum for some time now, but despite my efforts, I could not find a  thread to introduce myself properly (maybe that’d be an idea for newcomers such as myself?). I’m not sure whether that’s the rule here, and it feels slightly awkward, but I think if I want to chime in, I should have the courtesy to write a few words first, given that there already seems to be a close-knit online community of Cormackians assembled here.

    I am Markus, currently working as an instructor at the University of Paderborn (a dark and desolate place in Eastern North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany ;-))  and writing my dissertation on Cormac McCarthy, whose books have had a firm grasp on me ever since reading “Child of God” in a course with Geoff Hamilton at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say ‘hi’ and that I’m happy to be a part of this forum. I’ve read through some of the threads already and I there’s a whole bunch of great insights and ideas to be found, so I’m happy to be a part of it.

    Best,

    Markus


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    24 Nov 2012 at 8:11 am #2462

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    Markus – no rules, my friend. Just show up. Welcome to the forum.


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    24 Nov 2012 at 9:14 am #2464

    Markus W.
    Member

    Thanks Rick! Glad to have finally made it.


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    24 Nov 2012 at 11:38 am #2479

    Richard L.
    Member

    Good ideas, Adam.  Thanks for posting that.


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    24 Nov 2012 at 12:28 pm #2480

    Anonymous

    Hi Markus,

    Thank you for your response!  This is an undergrad paper I wrote last year, so I’m not sure where I could publish it.  Anyway, good luck in your MA program and I look forward to reading your work on Child of God!


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    24 Nov 2012 at 6:20 pm #2484

    Markus W.
    Member

    Heya Adam,

    you’re welcome – thank you for sharing your ideas! Currently, I’m actually working on The Orchard Keeper, and I hope to have a rough draft of that chapter ready by the end of the year. I’ve already worked on Child of God quite a bit, actually just taught it in a course of mine. While rationally, I’ll have to admit that other works of McCarthy are perhaps superior in scope, depth, ambition or aesthetic merit, I have a very soft spot for that novel in particular, and it’s one of my favorites. There’s just so much humanity in LB, and such great humor throughout the book. Anyway, from a Girardian point of view, I think Gary Ciuba provided an excellent analysis in Desire, Violence & Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction.


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    24 Nov 2012 at 11:15 pm #2485

    cantona
    Member

    Markus

    “However, the kid’s death by the judge’s hands is brought about precisely after the kid has killed Elrod, and has thus failed to completely renounce violence without reservations, which Girard extends to even the right to defend yourself”!

    Good stuff! I think this also applies to those archetypes of self-defence – the father in ‘The Road’ and Sheriff Bell in NCFOM.


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    25 Nov 2012 at 6:20 am #2487

    Markus W.
    Member

    “Good stuff! I think this also applies to those archetypes of self-defence – the father in ‘The Road’ and Sheriff Bell in NCFOM.”

    Thanks Cantona. I think you’re right. Also, I think that the boy-messiah in the The Road represents the most potent expression of the renunciation of violence, and, despite his clear maturation, perhaps even that principle of self-defense, the giving up of which goes so very much against human survivalist instincts. The former is apparent in how he wants to treat the thief in comparison to his father whose moral in that moment is very much the perfectly mimetic Old Testament model of an eye for an eye. The latter, perhaps, is glimpsed in the moment when he actually offers the veteran at the end his gun – his only means of defending himself. That the veteran declines to take it is perhaps the most obvious sign that his intentions are indeed honest and that, while clearly experienced in the ways of violence, he is in control of it instead of being controlled by it. In a sense that to me seems much in tune of the choices Girard presents in Battling to the End, the boy is the most clear antidote to the judge one can find in McCarthy’s fiction.

    Whereas the judge’s logic can only lead to total annihilation, the boy’s is the one that offers a chance for humanity, the veteran perhaps presenting a guarded middle-way. Unfortunately, as a race, we seem to tend more towards the judge, though less consciously and honestly so…


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