The Hermit in BM

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  • 02 Oct 2014 at 12:27 am #5958


    Hi all,

    I recently posted on the “Othello and BM” thread about something Iago says that echoes the hermit’s “when God made man the devil was at his elbow.” This got me thinking about the hermit scene, which I just went back and reread quite closely. I have a number of observations to make and questions to pose:

    (All page references are to the Vintage 25th Anniversary edition.)

    Very broadly, is there any reason why we should trust the hermit? Is it at all conceivable that he be truthful or “good”? Everything about that scene just seems so sinister, especially with the “nigger’s heart” (16, 19), his offering rotting food to the kid, and his trying to get into bed with the kid. (Btw: That *is* what’s going on in that scene, right? I’ve always read that as the hermit trying to rape the kid. But if that were really the case, why does he run away when the kid wakes up? Might he be doing something else, something that he can only do with the kid asleep? But what could that be? Does it have anything to do with the fact that the kid is dreaming (“like a dreaming dog”)?)

    Next, I should point out, I’ve argued elsewhere that I see the judge as “in control” of many events in the novel. I realize this may not be a widely accepted idea, but I think it’s interesting to read the hermit scene with that in mind: First, other people have noted that the judge may want to sodomize the kid. And while I don’t particularly hold to that idea, it would potentially have resonance with the hermit. Second, the hermit and the judge echo each other: The hermit’s “A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with” (20) becomes the judge’s “[E]xistence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.” (256) Is it possible that the hermit *is* the judge? Is he one of the judge’s “henchmen” (assuming he has them, which I’m sure he does)?

    With this in mind, I’d like to go through this scene rather carefully:

    The hermit is first called “an old anchorite” (17). “Anchorite” clearly has religious connotations, as opposed to “hermit”, which is commonly used secularly despite the history of the term. What religion could possibly be intended? Is he a follower of the judge? Even the description “A rough wind was blowing and his rags flapped about him” (17) recalls, almost verbatim, the judge’s “woolen benjamin” (132) when he gives the gang “a address” in Tobin’s story: “[T]he wind was flappin the judge’s old benjamin about him” (136). It also recalls the judge at Yuma when Glanton returns from San Diego: “[The judge] was wrapped in a mantle of freeflowing cloth beneath which he was naked.” (284) And in this last scene the judge also is described by a word with religious connotations: He is called a “great balden archimandrite.”

    Also, the use of wind in this scene is very interesting. Wind in BM always reminds me of the “dark wind” Meursault talks about over and over in the second part of The Stranger. It levels everything, it erases everything. It is the passage of time and the destruction, the elision that entails. It is very prominently used in many scenes involving the judge: the two listed above, the one in Chapter 9 when he’s “declaiming in the old epic mode” (124) (which line, by the way, I’ve never understood… What exactly is the judge doing there? Speaking? Singing? Yelling? Chanting? And what is he saying? What is that line meant to evoke? Homer? Virgil? It makes no sense to me.), the whole of Chapters 20 and 21, et al. Wind always seems the symbolic representation of the inexorable march towards nothingness that all things take. It is *never* a good sign.

    The description of the hermit’s eyes “redrimmed as if locked in their cages with hot wires” (17) is fascinating. First, because it evokes what Richard and I were talking about on Peter’s “The Judge’s Insomnia” thread, about mankind being kept asleep, kept from realizing the “spiritual truth” [Richard’s words] that’s out there. Second, observe the grammar: His eyes are locked in *their* cages *with* hot wires. As if all men’s eyes naturally are locked in such cages (surely “cages” here denotatively means “eye sockets”… equally surely, that is not the only thing McCarthy has in mind) and in particular, the hermit’s are so locked with hot wires. All men have their vision locked in place so as to not see things that the “jailor” (the judge?) wants them to not see.

    Interesting, though, that despite what I just said about the hermit, he has “[a] small fire” (17) built inside his hut. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I usually view fire in McCarthy as the essence of that “spiritual truth” mentioned above, the goodness inherent in men. And it seems to be so used here, for when the kid leaves the hut to go retrieve his saddle, he runs into his mule which “had been standing looking in at the fire.” (18) (Animals frequently are drawn towards fire in the novel, especially when it is given that symbolic association.) The hut being built of “mud” and “smell[ing] of earth” is more in line with what I’d expect. Similarly with that the hermit is “nested away in the sod” (17). These associations of the hermit with earth seem right to me. I can’t make anything of the fire, unless it’s purely functional. But in that case, why have the mule looking in at it?

    The water the kid drinks tastes “sulphurous”. Very telling.

    Why does the hermit “beat his palm with one fist and dart his eyes about” when the kid asks about watering his mule? And then when the kid asks for a second bucket to use, the hermit yells at him and “[claps] the heels of his clenched fists together at his chest.” (17) What the hell is he doing?

    When the hermit tells the kid where the well is, he says “I caint go.” (17) Can that possibly be true? Mustn’t he get his own water from that well? I’d rather believe that he wants the kid out there alone. But why? Nothing happens to him out there.

    When the kid comes back, the hermit “appeared darkly in the door” and tells him “Just stay with me” (18). Umm… what? Creepy. This definitely adds to the “rape-y” vibe I get from his hopping into bed with the kid later on.

    He tells the kid “It’s fixin to storm.” The kid responds “You reckon?”, to which the hermit says “I reckon and I reckon right.” (18) This has clear undertones of the hermit having some kind of supernatural foreknowledge. Sure, maybe he’s old and he can feel it in his knees, maybe he’s seen many such storms and can tell that, given current conditions, it never doesn’t storm. But with all this sinister stuff going on, it’s hard to not hear something of the sort in his answer. Especially since, as I believe I established in the “The End of BM: A Reading” thread (sufficiently so for myself, at least), the judge is supernatural. That’s the hole in the dike. Once one supernatural element is allowed in, it is at least feasible for other things to be so.

    The hermit says “I take it ye lost your way”, to which the kid replies “No, I went right to it.” (19) This kind of Shakespearean doublespeak is fantastic. And when the hermit clarifies what he means (although certainly he intended multiple things in that question), the kid says “Yes… We got off the road someways or another”, to which the hermit responds “Knowed ye did.” You bet your ass he knows. There’s something so not right with this guy. He’s been waiting for the kid to show up, hasn’t he? And when the kid asks “How long you been out here?”, “[t]he old man didnt answer.” Uh-oh.

    Also, the kid’s statement that he is “off the road” must be important. More such doublespeak. He just unintentionally admitted the evil he’s allowed to creep into his life.

    When the hermit pulls out the heart, he “cradled it in his palm as if he’d weigh it.” (19) I dunno, but to me this has potent reverberations with Ma’at and the Weighing of the Heart in Egyptian mythology. Note that Ma’at weighed the heart on “scales of justice”, making her a “judge” of sorts. This also links the hermit with the judge. Also, there’s no way that a man who keeps a human heart among his “possibles” is a good man, right? Does this have any resonance with the kid buying back the scapular in Chapter 22?

    The “Women, whiskey, money, and niggers” (19) line is very interesting. This is the one line that makes him sound like he cares at all about the state of the world. “Women” and “niggers” aside, if the hermit truly were linked with the judge, whiskey and money are not things he would bemoan. (Even women, if by “[w]omen” you do not understand females, but sex. Sex, booze, and money are surely goods the judge trades in.) This is the one line that gives me pause in my interpretation. I surely don’t think it makes him into a “good” guy. But it is odd to me that he would care at all about whether the world is “destroy[ed]”. Maybe there’s something else going on here? He soon says “God made this world, but he didnt make it to suit everbody, did he?” (20) This recalls “[t]hat man hatless” (343) at the very end of the novel, who “complain[s]… that men will not do as he wishes them to. Have never done, never will do”, whose “life is so balked about by difficulty and become so altered of its intended architecture that he is little more than a walking hovel hardly fit to house the human spirit at all.” He seems to be lamenting a world where men do not act as he wishes them to. I’m not really sure what to make of this. Might the hermit have gotten sick of living in a world full of sex, booze, and money (and, as he himself admits, “niggers”) and decided to go into hermitry? What do we make of him if that is indeed the case? This complicates things.

    Then there’s the rotting rabbit stew: There are two ways to view this, I suppose. Either it is completely perverse and he is trying to pass off rot as food (a cute little mind game I wouldn’t put past the judge), or he is rather generous and is sharing the little food he has with a stranger. I have trouble seeing it the latter way, but I understand that someone could. I just don’t think it fits in with the rest of the scene.

    Now: Here comes the part of the scene I really don’t feel I have a handle on. I’m going to collect my thoughts here, but it will be rambling at times:

    The hermit repeats “Lost ye way in the dark” (20) for seemingly no reason. When he first said this line on page 19, it seems that he intended it in a navigational sense, whereas the kid took it in a moral sense. Here, his next line is “The way of the transgressor is hard.” So now he’s picked up the moral sense. (Although I suspect he had both in mind before.) But what does it mean? It seems that “way” here means something akin to, say, “path of righteousness” in “Lost ye way in the dark” and “path through life” in “The way of the transgressor is hard.” So the kid has lost his “way”, and the “way” of the transgressor is hard. Is the sense something like “It seems to me that you are a sinner”? And is he also saying that sinners have “hard” lives? Could he be referring to himself, to his own life? Also, is this sentiment (that the lives of sinners are “hard”) at all true in the novel?

    Then there’s the whole “God made this world” line. Is he still talking about “the transgressor” here? It certainly comes on the heels of that line. Is he saying that the world was not made to accommodate sinners? Is that for whom the world was not made? Or is it that those for whom the world was not made *become* sinners? Neither seems right to me, but I can’t quite pin down why. And those are the only readings I can see that reasonably follow from what he just said. Otherwise we must view it as a complete non sequitur. Is he then simply bemoaning his life? Is he simply saying God made this world, but he didn’t make it to suit *me*? (This is where the link to “[t]hat man hatless” came in above. But see the following paragraph.)

    Taking a different approach, and totally contradicting everything I’ve said: Is it possible that the hermit actually is a religious anchorite? Is he seeing that the kid has evil in him, has “lost his way”, and advising him to get back *on* the road? He could be saying “You’ve lost your way. And those who are so lost have hard lives.” In which case the “God made this world” line becomes more of an exhortation, like “The world is not to every man’s liking, but we have no choice but to go along with it.” This seems so out of keeping with the rest of the scene, but at least it’s locally consistent. And he does seem to defend such an idea when he tells the kid “But where does a man come by his notions? What world’s he seen that he liked better?” This may be a further exhortation to go suppress his own vision for the world in lieu of the way God made it.

    Another approach: It might could be that all these seeming questions are actually statements, perhaps a bit of mockery: “Lost ye way in the dark” could be “You sure are lost, aren’t you?” “The way of the transgressor is hard” would then be “Life must be hard for someone like you/people like us.” “God made this world…” then becomes “This world surely wasn’t made for someone like you/people like us.”

    Then there’s a brief digression where the kid is talking about how the world could be better, and the hermit finally says “It’s a mystery. A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with.” This seems to be getting back to his original question: “Where does a man come by his notions.” So I view the intervening lines as a digression, and here the hermit’s getting back on track.

    This whole next paragraph is opaque to me. It seems he starts by saying how a man can never understand where he “come[s] by his notions.” Then he says “He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it.” No clue what this means. So you cannot know your mind, and you can know your heart, but it’s best to not? What is this mind-heart split referring to? Is it thoughts vs. feelings? (Is this relevant to what you were talking about, Richard? Do you have a take on this?) Also, does this contain any real advice to the kid? That is, if you can’t know your mind and shouldn’t inspect your heart, then what *should* you do? Is he just screwing with the kid? Is there a way to make this sensible?

    “You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.” This is the line that echoes Iago, as I mentioned on the “Othello and BM” thread. It seems he’s explaining why man’s heart “aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it.” But what does that mean? Is he saying that God and the devil are one and the same? That they’re friends? They work together? Is it totally metaphorical, that all men, no matter how “good”, have a fair bit of evil in them?

    He goes on to call man “[a] creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.” Again, completely opaque. What is the machine? Is it “evil”? Is it “civilization”? (He *is* a hermit, after all. And some elements of the novel seem to tie into the idea of the decline of western civilization, the Valery epigraph in particular.) I truly have no clue here.

    “Drygulch” is slang meaning to murder, assault, ambush. I’m not really sure what a “drygulch phantom” is. Is it an evil spirit lying in ambush?

    Why is it that “in his sleep [the kid] struggled and muttered like a dreaming dog” (21)? This is another dream scene for the kid, it seems, but one we are not privy to. Is this relevant? (See my comment above on the hermit running away when the kid awakes.)

    And finally, I already mentioned above about the hermit hopping into bed with the kid. I see it as “rape-y”, but I’m surely open to other suggestions.

    Anyone have something to add?


    02 Oct 2014 at 8:13 am #5961


    Hi Ed

    A few thoughts: I never saw it as rape-y. Creepy, sure, but not necessarily
    menacing. It seems to me the hermit saw something in the kid, or was trying
    to see at least.

    I don’t buy the idea that the hermit is the judge. But there is this feeling,
    especially when he looks at the sleeping kid, that he can somehow sense/see
    what’s yet to come. I don’t mean he knows exactly what is going to happen,
    but that he sees something in the kid that foreshadows disaster.

    The way he receives the kid and speaks to him makes me think that,
    perhaps, the hermit views the kid as validation to his view of the world
    (echoing what the kid says to Sproule: “I know your kind. What’s wrong with
    you is wrong all the way through you.”). Maybe something the hermit ran
    away from has come knocking at his door?

    “Ma’at and the Weighing of the Heart in Egyptian mythology”, I thought
    about that too, there may very well be something there. All in all he
    speaks very much in religious tones, so I think he might be a religious
    anchorite, or at least a man who has a stern religious view that’s in
    conflict with the ways of the world. What I mean is he didn’t necessarily
    make any vows to God and retreat to the wilderness, but rather grew tired
    of the conflict mentioned above and walked away.

    Also, he seems to have crossed the line to the side of craziness, to put
    it mildly. And I don’t think having a dried human heart among his possibles
    is even a question to him, not before or since he was an anchorite. It is
    simply his mentality that allows it to pass for a common thing. So in that
    respect I don’t view it as a connotation of anything sinister or evil. Just
    one more thing among many (like slavery, for example) that I myself would
    regard as insanity.

    And the rabbit stew. I think it falls to the circumstances the hermit lives in.
    It’s not the Hilton, ha ha.

    Thanks for the post. Fascinating as always.

    – Toni

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  Toni.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  Toni.
    02 Oct 2014 at 5:08 pm #5967


    Hi Toni,

    Thanks for the feedback. So, to clarify, do you think that the hermit is trying to help the kid? You said “he sees something in the kid that foreshadows disaster.” Do you think that his “The way of the transgressor is hard” and “God made this world…” are him trying to advise the kid? Get him back “on the road”? I mentioned this as a possibility above but have trouble believing it. For the time, I see a few too many parallels with the judge (the wind, the flapping rags, the judging (of the heart), the “A man’s at odds to know his mind” line) for me to not see him as evil. But I’ll try and keep that in mind.

    Thanks again,

    02 Oct 2014 at 8:46 pm #5970


    Another great posting, a pleasure to read. As for the question about what the hermit is doing when angered by the kid and he claps the heels of his fists against his chest, I’ve often pictured this moment or thought of this as possibly an allusion to the cartoon character Yosemite Sam, who also was easily angered and would make spastic movements like that while pissed off. It’s also something like the posture Sam would assume when he had his six-shooters out and up. “Ah hates rabbits.”

    02 Oct 2014 at 10:49 pm #5971

    Richard L.

    Re: The Hermit

    Just one of several tarot cards in BLOOD MERIDIAN.

    I think we’ve deconstructed that scene several times in this forum, but let’s do it again, one step at a time:

    “A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with.”

    That’s a great line, which I always thought was a transfiguration of Robert Penn Warren’s line in ALL THE KING’S MEN:

    “But how can the self make a new self when the selfness which it is, is the only substance from which the new self can be made?”

    Robert Penn Warren knew the answer and so Jack Burden, who asks the question, finds out at the climax of ALL THE KING’S MEN. McCarthy doesn’t tell us his answer but he lets us figure it out for ourselves if we closely read SUTTREE.

    03 Oct 2014 at 6:56 am #5972



    I don’t necessarily think the hermit is trying to help the kid.
    I have a feeling he knows very well he can’t. “The something” he
    sees in him is precisely that to me: something, I can’t name it.

    I don’t have a carved in stone opinion about the scene’s meaning
    or of the hermits intentions. The scene is very haunting (as is
    the whole novel), but I sense a certain weariness in the hermit
    and so do not view him as a menace. He appears to show signs of
    “desperation” with his nervous gestures, beating his chest etc.
    Maybe because he sees the kid is so terribly beyond help. He could
    see something worse than anything he walked away from in becoming
    an anchorite.

    All these parallels with the judge, might they also be a fore-
    shadowing of what’s to come?

    I can’t help thinking that with “the weighing of the heart” this
    scene is the kids entrance (as in egyptian myth the weighing is
    about entrance) to the world of serious carnage. It’s not long
    after this scene that he joins Captain White’s company and the
    magnitude of violence quickly grows from the level of a barroom
    brawl to mass murder.

    . . .as I said, I am not certain about these things, these are
    just the feelings I get. And how could one really be certain
    about any of this? That’s part of the charm, right? The whole
    book is an enigma that can’t be “solved” to a final end.

    Thanks again

    – Toni

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  Toni.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  Toni.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  Toni.
    03 Oct 2014 at 8:13 am #5976

    Richard L.

    The key to understanding this scene, and much of McCarthy, is to understand McCarthy’s mosaic trinity. McCarthy did not originate this trinity but inherited it from James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, James Jones, Walter Van Tilburg Clark and a few others, all of whom used it as well. McCarthy tells you again and again (and I’ve pointed it out in this forum again and again, but most people just do not grasp it).

    Id-dominated man, ego-dominated man, superego-dominated man.

    See the child. McCarthy is talking about states of consciousness but all most people read into it is a chronological age. Id-dominated men are narcissistic and child-like, animal men, prone to mindless violence.

    The Judge is a child. Everywhere he is described as looking like a giant infant, bald and pink with small extremities. Georg Guillemin noted this in his book, THE PASTORAL VISION OF CORMAC MCCARTHY, and I was delighted to see that Leslie Harper Worthington picked up on this, to a degree, in CORMAC MCCARTHY AND THE GHOST OF HUCK FINN.

    Scientists such as David Eagleman tell us that the prefrontal cortex develops in most people around age twenty or as they become socialized. That if a child were to be stranded on a desert island (or a hermit, say) his prefrontal cortex would never develop and he would remain always like a child. Psychopaths live among us whose prefrontal cortex never develops properly and they never become socialized, they never develop empathy, they never feel compassion.

    See the child. If he’s lucky, the child learns empathy through interaction with other people and becomes the father of the man. There is no free will without empathy.

    The hermit says, “A man is aught to know his own mind because his own mind is aught he has to know it with.” These are the words of the man stranded on an island, alone on the road. The perspective of a child who has not learned to identify himself with others. In the kid’s dream, he is the kid’s future if he does not veer from the path he is on. The black heart he carries might as well be a scalp.

    Chigurh is another child, id-dominated no matter how old or cunning or rich he becomes. Moss is an ego-dominated man, torn towards his id during the day and towards his superego at night. Bell is the superego-dominated man and NCFOM is Bell’s novel.

    Still don’t get it? That’s okay. Maybe you will when you’re as old as I am. If you’re lucky.

    03 Oct 2014 at 1:11 pm #5978


    Thanks for posting all that Richard. As I mentioned on that other thread, I have noticed you saying such things before, I just never understood what you were getting at.

    I can’t say that I agree with it entirely, but it’s very interesting food for thought. My main reservation is that I see McCarthy’s work as rather binary on the issue of empathy/free will/being “awake”. That is, I only see two categories: A person is either “awake” or he is not. I feel like these correspond to what you’ve termed “superego” and “id”/”ego”, respectively. I don’t see a huge distinction between the “id” and “ego” categories in McCarthy’s work. They both seem to constitute the “not awake” category. But I definitely agree that this *type* of split is extremely important in understanding much of his work. I’ll think more on what you said, let it rattle around the ol’ brain a while. Maybe I’ll eventually come around to your way of thinking on it, who knows?

    I think your comparison of the judge’s childlike attributes to “See the child” is EXTREMELY interesting. I never thought about that before. And I rather like your take on the hermit: Someone who’s never woken up (who believes it is impossible for one to know his own mind) and is advising the kid so. Like it a lot.

    Not so sure how I feel about what you said about Bell. I think it’s important that he gives up at the end. There’s something about that that troubles me, like he’s not really the “good” guy people make him out to be. A failure, of sorts. If you didn’t already, check out the thread “Double Bells/Double Bens” I started a month or so ago. I talked about just this item there.

    Many thanks, Richard. Very interesting as always.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  efscerbo.
    03 Oct 2014 at 1:30 pm #5980

    Richard L.

    I never said Bell was a good guy or right, I said he was dominated by his super-ego. I don’t think that McCarthy meant him to be seen as the right way to be, but only as the extreme opposite pole of Chigurh. The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

    The trinity in NCFOM is much like the trinity in Walter Van Tilburg’s THE TRACK OF THE CAT. There is an animal-man brother, a super-ego dominated brother, and a brother who is torn between the two poles. The gentle, super-ego dominated brother is the more likable of the three but also the weakest, the first to give up his life to the panther.

    03 Oct 2014 at 5:27 pm #5981


    After my first reading of Blood Meridian I thought about the events of the novel and the scene with the hermit was something that stirred me. Obviously there’s a lot to contemplate but it took a lot longer for me to fit him into my interpretation.

    Eventually I came to the conclusion that the Kid’s growth into the Man lead him to a fate similar to that of the hermit. He lives alone in the wilderness and when he finds himself entertaining the company of young men he shows off his own macabre trophies, in this case the necklace of ears instead of the “nigger’s heart.”

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