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)
That the devil himself is loose upon the earth, orchestrating constant war, is the novel’s theme, and as the gang sits around a fire one night, the judge proclaims the sanctity of war and its eternal nature:
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.’ (ibid:248)

photo by Michel Mayerle
When asked why war endures, the judge replies that it is ‘because young men love it and old men love it in them’ (ibid:249). War, he states is the ultimate game, a way for men to prove their skill and their superiority over other men.  ‘War’, he tells them finally, ‘is god’ (ibid). It is a bleak assertion – that lust for violence is an innate characteristic of man, a driving force which precludes any hope for redemption or true moral enlightenment.  In this world, we are all condemned.
Jay Ellis, however, offers a more optimistic reading by suggesting that the ‘meridian’ in the title represents a point in time where the constant and indiscriminate violence of ‘pure war’ is finally brought under control (2006:85), becoming a demarcation between the lawlessness of the Old West and the advent of a new social order.  The novel’s cryptic epilogue can be seen as a representation of that meridian on the landscape:
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground.  He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. (McCarthy 1985:337)

That the man ‘progressing over the plain’ is digging postholes for a barbed wire fence is the most common interpretation of this passage[2], illustrating that the introduction of barbed wire in the 1870s marked a turning point in the landscape and history of the West.  Barbed wire proved an effective means of protecting and confining cattle, and its proliferation brought an end to free-roaming stock herds in the final decades of the nineteenth century.  The open space across which the Glanton gang moves without impediment is, in the epilogue, reined-in by the approach of civilisation.  Ellis (2006) suggests that this image shows that the anarchic freedom and moral vacuum of the unfenced West comes to an end at the novel’s close, but I would argue that the novel itself indicates otherwise.
By the end of Blood Meridian, the Glanton gang are themselves destroyed, with the judge as the last survivor.  The final paragraph switches into present tense as the judge dances naked in a barroom full of revellers. He is ‘huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant’ (ibid:335), and as he dances, the narrator repeats the judge’s claim:
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. (ibid)

The final lines of the novel are portentous.  The judge is the immortal embodiment of evil, and as long as he and human beings – war’s ‘ultimate practitioner’ (ibid:248) – come together, violence will continue to exist. 
photo by Jason Conlon
       The landscape in Blood Meridian is unquestionably hellish.  It smoulders in the heat of underground coal fires which have been ‘burning there a thousand years’ (ibid:138) and has ‘rocks [that] would cook the flesh from your hand’ (ibid).  It is a world where leather-winged bats fly through the evening dusk like ‘dark satanic hummingbirds’ (ibid:148) and ‘the western sky [is] the color of blood’ (ibid:152).  Though it has an outwardly hostile appearance, however, nowhere does the landscape instigate violence: it is a passive witness to the actions of the Glanton gang rather than a participant, and unlike the landscape in Postcards, The Virginian and O Pioneers!, there is no sense of it as a sentient or intelligent force.  In Blood Meridian, the characters are possessed of and possessed by a great evil, and this evil skews perceptions of the world.  The land is perceived as hostile because those who move across it are hostile, yet its inaction within the narrative suggests that it is not, itself, malign. 
Author David Vann describes McCarthy’s representations of landscape in Blood Meridian not just as a reflection of the evil of his characters, but as a ‘portrait of us’ (2009), a representation of blame within our own internal landscapes.  Blood Meridian, he says ‘focuses on our greatest shames’ including the genocide of Native Americans, and the near eradication of the buffalo (ibid).  Written in the light of these historic atrocities, as well as atrocities from more recent times, McCarthy’s novel rejects the confidence and optimism of Wister and Cather and expresses our modern anxieties and uncertainty about our place in the world.  
photo by Steven Ritts

In Western literature, landscape serves a variety of functions: it can literally ground a story within a physical environment, providing depth to historical content and authentic, meaningful detail for the creation of a vivid and specific sense of place; it can reflect the personality of characters and the overall tone of a novel, adding layers of meaning; and it can influence characters’ actions by helping or hindering their progress.  Landscape can be active or inactive; malign or benign.  It can be an independent character in its own right, and the driving force within the plot.
       The belief that Native Americans are, by virtue of ancestry alone, connected to the land in a spiritual sense which goes beyond any relationship which Euro-Americans can experience, is widely asserted by Native and non-Native writers and critics alike.  By claiming that early white writers portrayed the land as a hostile force, Proulx upholds this received notion and refers to a literary tradition which I argue does not exist.
In Postcards, ‘Hellhole’, and throughout Proulx’s body of work, landscape is a sentient force with agency and intelligence.  She depicts the natural world as a god-like being, capable of offering redemption and exacting revenge.  Wister and Cather wrote of the healing powers of nature a century ago, but of all the texts discussed in this chapter, it is only in Proulx’s work that we find landscape portrayed as a deliberately aggressive force, actively opposing those who interfere with it. 
       Wister and Cather wrote with optimism about a new land, and used landscape to reflect the reader’s desire for a positive and prosperous relationship with the earth.  They had confidence in the frontier and in the future of the United States.  In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, that confidence is shaken.  Threats of warfare, terrorism and ecological disaster trouble us daily.  As we contemplate the likelihood of our long-term survival, our perceptions of the earth are distorted and reshaped with new contours, colours and textures.  The literary landscapes we imagine today are reflections of our deepest anxieties and fears.
[1] In 1971, the court martial of US Army officers brought to public attention the mass rape and murder of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai during the height of the Vietnam War; in 1973, the American-backed coup in Chile led to the assassination of Socialist president Salvador Allende, and the torture and murder of thousands of his supporters; from 1980, US Armed Forces began supplying arms to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua while ignoring reports of human rights abuses by the rebels; and CIA-trained ‘death squads’ carried out numerous massacres in El Salvador, killing an estimated 63,000 civilians during the 1980s and early 1990s (Blum, 1995).
[2] Ellis reports that Harold Bloom dismissed the suggestion that the figure is driving a posthole digger into the ground, and quotes Bloom’s response when Peter Josyph made this claim:  ‘No, no, no, that's a very bad interpretation. That two-handed implement is, as I say, doing one thing and one thing only: it is striking fire which has been put into the rock, clearly a Promethean motif, and he is clearly contrasted with creatures who are either goulish [sic] human beings, if they are human beings, or already are, in fact, shades, looking for bones for whatever nourishment that might bring about.... I cannot see that as any kind of allegory of anything that has happened to the American West’ (Ellis, 1997:90).

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