Friday, 14 October 2011

New Visions of the Old West: Blood Meridian as a reflection of anxiety

This section carries on from Perception, Character and Mood

photo by Brian Lary

During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States military took part in a series of engagements which many Americans found morally questionable[1], shaking the previously firm belief that America was a force for good in the world.  The rise of the Red Power movement and its close associate, the American Indian Movement, and publication of books such as Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) also encouraged the dominant American culture to question the treatment of the nation’s first inhabitants.  Growing environmental concerns, and Cold War anxieties added to the uncertainty which many Americans felt.  At the same time, American writers began to challenge received notions of Western American history, and the revised literary mythologies they created reflected the nation’s mood by offering new perceptions (Lewis, 2003) of a West without heroes.  Most notable of these anti-westerns is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). 
       Dan Moos describes Blood Meridian, with its scenes of unremitting violence and moral depravity, as a Western in which we would rather not believe’ ([no date];23).  Set in the final days of the Old West period of American history, Blood Meridian recreates the exploits of the Glanton gang, a group of scalp-hunting mercenaries hired to remove Indians from the Southwest.  Based on historical events, the novel explores the nature of evil and man’s seemingly inherent penchant for violence.  As a reflection of that violence, the landscape against which the action is set is ‘wholly without [the] nurturing abilities’ (Holmberg 2009:172) shown in the novels previously discussed:
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 wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men.  All night sheetlightning 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 on some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.  (47)

Holmberg describes the setting of Blood Meridian as ‘a pre-lapsarian world’ and ‘a land of light, dark, and formlessness’ (2009:172), without even the concept of morality or justice.  The West McCarthy portrays is a churning, chaotic void where ‘death seem[s] the most prevalent feature of the landscape’ (McCarthy 1985:47) and even the elements appear to be at war. 
The novel follows the sixteen-year-old boy known only as ‘the kid’ who, after surviving a barbarous attack by a Comanche war party, joins the Glanton gang’s bloody venture.  Accompanied by the mysterious Judge Holden, a demonic and apparently omnipresent figure, the gang’s exploits become increasingly violent as they progress westward through an increasingly hellish landscape:
They crossed the malpais afoot, leading the horses upon a lakebed of lava all cracked and reddish black like a pan of dried blood, threading those badlands of dark amber glass like the remnants of some dim legion scrabbling up out of a land accursed…They crossed a cinderland of caked slurry and volcanic ash imponderable as the burnedout floor of hell… (ibid:251)

Monday, 3 October 2011

Perception, Character and Mood: Landscape as a Reflection

In ‘Dangerous Ground,’ Annie Proulx contends that early writers considered western landscapes to be ‘hostile’ and that ‘[a]lmost never did the protagonist display any sense of belonging to or understanding of the country through which he journeyed, nor did he try to learn much about it’ (Proulx 2008:15).  While this may be true of the adversarial adventure stories featured in the later dime novels, Proulx’s statement is far too generalised and she offers no specific examples to support this claim. 
In her own work, Proulx uses landscape to explore the psychology of her characters.  External landscape reflects the internal contours and depth of vision her characters possess and, as a driving force within the plot, landscape controls their movements and influences what they can and cannot do.  Her characters are frequently outsiders, alienated in some way from the society around them, and rootless either by choice or coercion.  It is clear, however, that landscape is more than simply a mirror, reflecting and reinforcing her characters’ struggles.  The open spaces which dominate her writing have a pensive quality, arid and remote, yet geologically and historically complex, and mood, plot, action and theme are all influenced by the shape and behaviour of the land.