Blood Meridian: Excessive Violence and Its Implications on the Human Condition
Among other things, the world is a violent place. All we have to do is turn on the news or watch the latest horror film or play certain video games. Even football is considered a violent sport, on and off the field. The violence around us is very real. There are car bombings, massacres, and beheadings happening in various parts of the world, and people are being gunned down by the police sworn to protect us. Violence is all around us and is ingrained in our society. The news always seems to be reporting on some violent events; local stations and papers always hone in on the crimes happening right in our own communities. TV shows like Criminal Minds and Stalker are known to be hyper-violent and disturbing, although many others like C.S.I. also have their gory moments. Shows like this have a tendency to not only depict violent content but to normalize it. Scenes of torture and death are a common occurrence in the media, and we’re running the risk of becoming desensitized to it. In the many discussions there have been regarding the violence in the media and our society, books with violent content aren’t referenced nearly as frequently as TV shows, video games, and movies, though Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West might compete with them in terms of the disturbing and bloody imagery found in its pages.
The novel takes place mainly in the western United States and Mexico during the mid-nineteenth century. Throughout the story, numerous scalpings are depicted in subtle but graphic detail. In tandem with countless descriptions of wounds and blood, the reader encounters a man who is burnt alive, a man with no ears, and plenty of people who wear necklaces made from body parts. There are references to rape, and children are killed and go missing throughout the narrative. One of the most horrifying scenes in the book describes a bush with the corpses of dead babies impaled upon it:
“These small victims, seven or eight of them, had holes punched in their underjaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky. Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being.” (McCarthy 60)
What many readers might try to do with Blood Meridian is rationalize the death, destruction, and chaos that pervades the novel. Readers often interpret symbols and themes in the hope that there is a larger picture to be seen. We might wonder if humans are attracted to violence or have an innate propensity to engage in such acts. The high volume of graphic situations on television and in movies and video games seems to suggest that violence is a staple of human nature.
But are humans really violent creatures? Is it ingrained in our nature or a learned trait? Or is violence something we seek to understand in order to eliminate it? We can use Blood Meridian as a case study of extreme violence. Examining the historical context of the book, as well as two prominent characters, we can explore the effect of violence on the human condition.
The novel primarily follows a character known as the Kid who spends the majority of the story traveling with the Glanton Gang. While Blood Meridian is a work of fiction, the Glanton Gang actually existed. They were infamous in the American southwest in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Led by John Joel Glanton, a soldier and mercenary, the gang was contracted by the Mexican authorities to hunt hostile Indians. However, Glanton and his men also killed and scalped peaceful Indians as well as Mexicans, in order to collect their payment. Once the authorities discovered what they were doing, the Mexican state of Chihuahua put a bounty on their heads.
The characters in the novel, though fictionalized, are based on real people. Glanton himself is the most obvious character with historical basis. However, the mysterious and terrifying Judge Holden (to be discussed in greater detail) is also based on a real person of the same name. He traveled with Glanton, and his fictionalized counterpart appears to share many of the same traits: he is intelligent, physically large, and ruthless.
The novel also touches on a few other staples of American history, such as the near extinction of the bison in the American west and the presence of religious revivals. One of the first scenes in the novel takes place at a revival where the Kid first encounters the sinister Judge Holden. At the end of the novel, many years have passed and the Kid (no longer a kid), travels through Texas where the plains are littered with bones of the deceased bison. He also encounters an old hunter who reminisces of a time when the plains were crowded with thousands of bison.
The violence, emptiness, and lawlessness seen in the novel have historical grounding, which perhaps makes the violence more striking than if Blood Meridian was a work of pure fiction. The characters that commit and witness atrocious acts of violence are in part based on people who did and saw those terrible things as well. Considering that the human race has a history of engaging in war, destruction, and conflict, it seems that humans have an innate inclination toward violence.
However, throughout the novel, there are small pockets of kindness and morality that attempt to offset the bleak violence. The Kid walks into the religious revival where the reverend is speaking about Jesus’ willingness to follow the faithful “even unto the end of the road” and through hell (McCarthy 6). While the message the reverend delivers seems to be uplifting, the sermon is quickly marred by Judge Holden who insinuates that the reverend is an imposter who raped a young girl and a goat (McCarthy 7). The crowd at the revival are incited to attack the reverend.
The Kid escapes the revival, making no attempt to aid the reverend. The indifference shown by the Kid and others during the reverend’s assault prevails throughout the novel. Not long after, the Kid and a few others encounter the Judge, and the Judge admits that he’s never met the revered before, revealing that he lied about the reverend’s past and behavior.
Later in the novel, the Glanton gang travels with a man and his mentally handicapped brother, referred to in the text as the idiot or the fool. The idiot is kept in a cage and is naked and covered in his own feces. While at a ferry crossing, the women at the camp release the idiot from his cage and bathe him in the river. They burn his cage and dress him properly; however, at night, the idiot runs naked into the river and nearly drowns. He is saved by the Judge who later keeps the idiot like some sort of pet. Despite the act of good will by the women, the idiot reverts to his former stage. The few good acts that occur throughout the novel are overshadowed and perhaps even overpowered by the atmosphere of violence.
The plot and setting of the story is a fine mix of history and fiction, which gives the novel’s violence and hints of morality a unique flavor. Characters, fictional or real, must navigate the harsh and lawless land and determine for himself what his role in the story is.
Considered the main character, the Kid starts the story as boy of fourteen and ends as a hardened, middle-aged man. The novel begins with the Kid running away from his abusive father. Early on, the Kid establishes himself as a formidable fighter with the capacity to be incredibly violent. However, he never seems to attack unless provoked. He does not appear to be inherently violent but learns to be so once he’s on his own and has to defend himself.
Though the book begins and ends with the events surrounding the Kid, the perspective is largely omniscient. The Kid’s inner thoughts are never heard nor are his feelings expressed in a strong third-person way. When he becomes a part of a group, joining the renegade soldiers under Captain White who want to claim Mexican land for the United States or the Glanton Gang, he vanishes into the group. He kills and scalps like those around him.
The Kid is among those who encounter the tree of dead babies, but he has no reaction to it. Nobody seems to have a reaction to it. Nobody comments on its horror, nobody admits to feeling sad. Nobody says anything. This could be because the sight of dead babies is so terrible, there are no words for it, or there could be no reaction because everybody is indifferent to the violence around them.
However, the Kid distinguishes himself from the others with whom he travels by displaying a bit of a moral compass. He appears to tire of the violence after his ordeal with the Glanton Gang. When the Gang is scattered by an Indian raid, the Kid escapes with another member of the Gang named Tobin. The Kid and Tobin regroup with the Judge who tries to negotiate for their weapons and possessions. However, the Kid and Tobin leave and are pursued by the Judge. Tobin urges the Kid the kill the Judge. The Kid has three chances to do so, but only fires at the Judge once and misses. The Judge calls to the Kid, “I know too that you’ve not the heart of a common assassin. I’ve passed before your gunsights twice this hour and will pass a third time” (McCarthy 311). His reluctance to shoot the Judge signifies that he indeed has grown weary of the violent, outlaw lifestyle.
Additionally, once the Kid reaches California, he distances himself from the Glanton Gang and makes a life for himself. He continues to wander: “he worked at different trades. He had a bible that he’d found at the mining camps and he carried this book with him no word of which he could read” (McCarthy 325). The presence of the bible indicates that perhaps the Kid finds something peaceful to hold onto. However, he continues to witness plenty of violence, though not as an active participant:
He saw men killed with guns and knives and with ropes and he saw women fought over to the death whose value they themselves set at two dollars […] On that lonely coast where the steep rocks cradled a dark and muttersome sea he saw vultures at their soaring whose wingspan so dwarfed all lesser birds that the eagles shrieking underneath were more like terns or plovers […] he saw bears and lions turned loose in pits to fight wild bulls to the death and he was twice in the city of San Francisco and twice saw it burn. (McCarthy 325)
The violence around him is petty, and human life is worth very little. The majestic eagle is bested by the carrion-eating vulture in a symbolic, if obvious, way. Even the city, supposedly a feature of the “civilized” world, is populated by chaos and burns accordingly so.
As the Kid ages, he continues to display his moral fiber. At age of 28, the Kid finds an old woman in the mountains, while traveling in the mountains:
He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things and had been at war and endured hardships. He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her countrypeople who would welcome her and that she should join them for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die […] He reached into the little cove and touched her arm […] She was just a dried shell and she had been dead in that place for years. (McCarthy 328)
Despite the hardships he’s endured, he shows compassion towards the old woman. However, his act of kindness is too late to do any good, reinforcing the novel’s dynamic in which violence and chaos overpowers everything else.
The Kid’s acts of decency are still few and far between, especially when weighed against the violence in which he’s participated. Yet, the Kid’s indifference to what goes on around him places him between being the hero or villain of the narrative. He doesn’t pursue a particularly violent lifestyle once he splits from the Glanton Gang, but neither does he devote his time to helping the needy or seem to want to repent for his sins (nor does he seem to consider that he has actually sinned).
Near the end of the novel, the Kid becomes the Man, thirty years after his time with the Glanton gang. He is camping one night and is approached by a group of boys. The omniscient narrator remarks that “This country was filled with violent children orphaned by war” (McCarthy 335). The boys converse with the Man for a short while, but one of them, named Elrod, becomes aggressive, and the Man warns the others to keep Elrod away or he might kill him. In the night, Elrod tries to kill the Man, but the Man shoots first. Afterwards, the Man says, “You wouldn’t have lived anyway” (McCarthy 336), perhaps remarking on Elrod’s senseless aggression or the fact that the boy would have been another casualty at another point in time.
The Man kills in self-defense, even though he was defending himself from a preteen boy. The Man seems to be making the best out of a grim situation. He’s seen and done horrible things. He tries to avoid these things after he splits from the Glanton Gang, but it is not entirely possible to do so. The Man’s choice to resort to violence seems ingrained in him, not because it is inherent to his nature but rather because the world around him has shaped him to act in such a way. It is indeed a grim and bleak world, but while the Kid/Man tires of the violence, others, like the mysterious and terrifying Judge, embrace and encourage the world to remain as it is.
By far, Judge Holden is the most interesting and most terrifying character in the novel. He makes his first appearance in the revival scene: “He was bald as stone and he had no trace of beard and he had no brow to his eyes nor lashes to them. He was close on to seven feet in height and he stood smoking a cigar even in this nomadic house of God and he seemed to have removed his hat only to chase the rain from it for now he put it on again” (McCarthy 6).
His presence in the revival tent detracts from the message the reverend is trying to convey, even before he says a word. As soon as he accuses the reverend of assaulting a child and a goat, he becomes a sinister entity: “This is him, cried the reverend, sobbing. This is him. The devil. Here he stands” (McCarthy 7).
At first, it appears the reverend might actually be a pedophile; the reader can’t be sure. However, when the Judge admits that he has never met the reverend before, the reader is struck by how callous a man he is. But the reaction of the people who hear the Judge’s admission is even more startling: “There was a strange silence in the room […] Finally someone began to laugh. Then another. Soon they were all laughing together. Someone brought the judge a drink” (McCarthy 9).
So who is the Judge? What does he represent and of what is he the judge? Though he has his origins in a real person, he is much more than a ruthless killer. As demonstrated by his appearance at the revival, he is an agent of chaos and conflict. Additionally, throughout his travels, the Judge keeps a journal of the plants, animals, and various other things he encounters. One member of the Glanton gang asks what he keeps such a record, and he replies, “Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent” (McCarthy 207). He claim implies that he believes he is above all others, even God. Indeed, he also claims he is a suzerain, a ruler who rules over other rulers: “His authority countermands local judgment” (McCarthy 207).
The Judge also says that the art, occupation, and trade of war encompasses all other trades (McCarthy 260). War is suzerain to all else, and the Judge seems to be the flesh embodiment of this belief. A member of the gang counters that the bible counts war as an evil, but the Judge simply states, “It makes no difference what men think of war […] War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone” (McCarthy 259). War is something that encompasses mankind and is somehow beyond man, outside of man, acting upon him. According to the Judge, morals are an attack on war: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak” (McCarthy 261).
It is by these principles that he judges everything and everyone. No one can escape violence, chaos, and death. When the Kid distinguishes himself from the other members of the Glanton Gang, he puts himself at odds with the Judge. After splitting from the group and escaping the Judge, the Kid finds himself in prison. The Judge arrives not long after and tells the Kid that he told the authorities that he (the Kid) was responsible for seizing the ferry and robbing and murdering the passengers. The Judge also says that he claimed the Kid was responsible for slaughtering the Yumas, which led to the retaliation massacre by the Indians (McCarthy 318-320).
It seems like the Judge is lying again, like he did when he accused the reverend of molesting a child and goat. And it is true that the Kid did not mastermind the seizure of the ferry, but it is also true that the Kid participated in the ferry-related chaos as well as numerous other massacres. The Kid’s continued denial to take responsibility prompts the Judge to say: “I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing by antic clay […] For it was required of no man to give more than he possessed nor was any man’s share compared to another’s. Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not” (McCarthy 319).
The Judge’s cryptic words are a sort of ruling: by not emptying “his heart into the common,” the Kid was not being true to the blood lust that bound him to the people with which he traveled. The Kid, through his reluctance to admit the extent of his participation, did not engage in the rules of war. These are the rules by which humankind should live and by which some do live.
The Judge’s past remains a mystery. No one know where he comes from, where he is going, or what his mission really is. To many, it seems as if he has always been there and always will be. At the end of the novel, the Man encounters the Judge, and it appears as if he hasn’t aged a day. He may perhaps be the physical embodiment of violence and lawlessness, a thing that seems to take root in the hearts of many if not all men. To him, violence is a way of life. It cannot be ignored, squelched, or overruled.
The Judge’s decrees are hard to swallow. Who wants to believe that humans are inherently violent? It probably isn’t true anyways. No child has been born bent on harming or destroying everything around him or her. The role of societal and environmental influences on the formation of a personality is great. The Kid wasn’t born eager to scalp or kill, but he learned from his abusive father and the rowdy, violent men around him that he would have to fight and be violent in order to survive.
Additionally, Blood Meridian is a work of fiction. The American West is no longer lawless and wild. Scalpings are very rare, if almost non-existent. The characters of the novel, though some are based on real people, are figments of the fictional world in which they exist. In our world, there are still pockets of violence all around us. We have all been exposed to it and made aware of it. News networks and papers often report on violent crimes: home invasions, murders, sexual assaults, carjackings, etc. It seems like there is an oversaturation of violence in the news. On one hand, we want to be aware of the crime around us so we can better defend against it. On the other, the media’s fascination with gore, blood, and death borders on the obsessive.
And yet, many people enjoy shows like Criminal Minds where the victims are placed in horrifying scenarios. The people who watch these shows aren’t necessarily sadists or violent offenders. Perhaps people watch because they know that the perpetrators of such heinous acts are usually caught. Maybe some people like feeling disgusted. Whatever the reason they have for watching and enjoying the show, the reasons vary with each person.
However, the influx of violent imagery may in fact lead people to become numb to the violence around them. If we are desensitized, we may become indifferent, like so many characters in the novel. The tree of dead babies elicited hardly a response to the men who saw it. If indifference to violence is allowed to proliferate, it will sweep through us unchecked like a cancer, and then where will we be?
Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that violence plays a role in our lives. We spend time trying to avoid it and combat it, but wars break out, and people are victims of violent crime. If the conditions are right, not only are we capable of becoming victims, but we are capable of committing these terrible acts ourselves.
The violence shown on the news, in TV shows, video games, and books are a reflection of our views on violence and its role in our lives. It is hard to say whether we introduced violence to our society because it is in our nature or whether society demanded that we act as such. Either way, it is a cycle that has the capability of breeding more violence, indifference, or peace and stability. How we respond to and interpret violence will affect the way we shape ourselves and our society.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage Books, 1985. Print.
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