Monthly Archives: January 2012

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian as a reactionary horror novel

In the previous post, VMP discussed Alden Bell’s novel The Reapers are the Angels and its unique, and indeed beautifully written and imagined, engagement with the zombie genre.  Those who are already familiar with that novel will be aware that critics have been comparing it to Southern Gothic literature in style and tone, quite often to the contemporary Southern Gothic novelist, Cormac McCarthy.

Although there are definitely similarities between Bell and McCarthy – the polished and oft-times poetic prose style, for example, where dialogue lacks quotation and thus merges with the overall narration – Alden Bell’s novel tends to reveal, due to its genre proximity, the reactionary nature of McCarthy’s novels.  Whereas Bell uses the same subject matter (violence, civilization in chaos, a threatening American landscape) to reveal a world where humans, stripped of the confines of American civilization, are ultimately humane, McCarthy begins from a Hobbesian position: inter-human violence is innate, human beings are individualized appetites that are generally incapable of anything but viciousness, civilization is the result of this ur-violence which is only worse once the confines of modern civilization vanish – “man is a wolf to man.”

One only need to make the most obvious comparison between Cormac McCarthy and Alden Bell to understand the difference: The Road to The Reapers are the Angels.  Both deal with post-apocalyptic landscapes (desperate cannibals in McCarthy’s novel versus mindless zombies in Bell’s), both involve protagonists on a journey in an attempt to survive (a father and his son in The Road, a teenaged girl and a mentally challenged adult in The Reapers), and both imagine what violent America would look like when American capitalism collapses.  But whereas Bell imagines that humans, no longer influenced by the exchange economy and capitalist expansion, would eventually begin to renew the semblance of disalienated relationships (and that the only living people who are monstrous are those who remember the days before the apocalypse and cannot abandon what is clearly an irrational way of seeing the world), McCarthy’s world is a Hobbesian state of nature.

Comparing Reapers and Road is probably too easy because of the convention of apocalypse.  Really, the McCarthy book that is most comparable to Bell’s novel is the revisionist western Blood Meridian.  There is a post apocalyptic tone to Blood Meridian, the old west as armageddon; the protagonist is a teenager who is trying to make sense of the world; the sinister antagonist, “the Judge”, is like  supernatural and motivationless version of Bell’s antagonist, Moses.

Probably McCarthy’s greatest novel, and beloved by so many American lit fans, Blood Meridian also demonstrates McCarthy’s commitment to a reactionary politics.  In a review I wrote of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs on my other blog, I argued that “that which annexes the horrific from reality” is a reactionary trope:

“Here the horrific happens outside of law and the normative structures/institutions of society […] The solution is always a return to the status quo.  Serial killers stalking the fringes of society are more horrific than the soldiers mandated by this same society to bomb children and torture insurgents.”

Of course, McCarthy is a little more nihilistic in his examination of the horrific undertones of American society.  He often seems to be saying that both civilization and the lack of civilization are equally horrific (so no solving the problem with “more law”), but that this is always and eternally how it must be because we are just violent creatures who would be quite happy slaughtering one another.  At the same time, however, the world of Blood Meridian, which takes place at those points in nineteenth century America where the state is week and filibusters are scalping and slaughtering people into submission, is clearly more horrific than the more “civilized” violence of the cities.

(I am of the opinion that Blood Meridian is a horror novel, rather than a western, because it seems more concerned with “horrific possibility”.  After having reread the novel about a year ago, I was pretty much convinced that I was reading a surreal horror novel, and feel that if it is to be genre-ized in any way, at least to make sense of its concerns, it should be compared to genre of horror rather than, as is most common, the genre of the western.  There are points in the novel that read like a slasher story, sometimes even a ghost story, and the supernatural characterization of the malevolent “Judge” definitely forces the novel outside of the “old west” conventions.  )

Blood Meridian begins with an epigram about how “scalping” was discovered in cro-magnon society, thus initiating the novel with the argument that humans, since the dawn of time (a typical first year university student ploy), have been murderous little creatures.  And the Judge, who often feels like a symbolic stand-in of human nature, tends to wax eloquent about the eternally violent nature of humanity.  Even worse is the equalizing of violence between the colonizer and the colonized: yes, it is true that the settler protagonists are depicted as serial killers, but so are the natives – in fact, though the violent acts of colonizers and colonized are treated as equally abhorrent (itself a problem because it disappears the first act of colonial violence) – at least the settlers have the narrative voice to explain and think through their murderousness.  The native characters, arriving like forces of nature like Alden Bell’s zombies, are generally apparitions on the horizon, gibbering ghost-like creatures.  No wonder numerous critics liked Blood Meridian‘s take on the western and celebrated the fact that both “cowboys and indians” were depicted as “equally bad”… we should know by now that equalizing the violent acts between the oppressor and the oppressed is a hallmark of liberal colonial racism.

Furthermore, McCarthy’s books are marked by an absence of female agency.  While it is true that the world of Blood Meridian is one where men controlled women like chattel – and while it is true that patriarchy does produce male agency – he tends to simply naturalize this reality.  If female agency is absent, and a critical novelist wants to comment progressively on this absent, then you don’t simply transform women into props for a male-based plot.  In McCarthy’s world women are generally objects, although sometimes speaking objects, and there is no sense that he is even aware of why he is excluding them in the first place.  (Look at No Country For Old Men, an obvious candidate for a Coen Brothers film, where the female voice is relegated to the end: a complaint, a question mark, a dewey-eyed addition to an obsession with the world of men.)

“War is god,” the Judge proclaims in Blood Meridian: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.”  These are reactionary pronouncements, the first Hobbesian and the second Nietzschean, that are more than simply the ravings of the novel’s central antagonist.  For the Judge is marked by the card of the Fool in an earlier Tarot reading – the card that is often meant to symbolize humanity – and he speaks within the context of an overall depiction of violence and horrific possibility, where from McCarthy’s chosen epigram about human violence to McCarthy’s later novels, his musings on human nature are given credence.  If McCarthy chose to make the Judge “evil” it is only because McCarthy, though accepting the reactionary view of reality, doesn’t like it: the author is, most probably, a nihilist.

It is interesting to compare the Judge’s philosophy about the meaning of life, about the role in nature for the children of god (“men are born for games” and “war is the ultimate game… [that forces] the unity of existence”), to the central antagonist of Bell’s novel, Moses Todd.  When he confronts the protagonist, Temple, at the end of the novel he argues that they are children of god who, despite living in a fearsome place, are called to vengeance and must follow this path of violence because it is their destiny.  And yet, unlike the Judge, Todd doesn’t entirely believe in his philosophy – in fact, he is trying to get Temple, who he has been trying to murder for most of the novel, to understand his motivations, his essential violence: “his eyes are filled with a kind of pleading, as though he needs her to understand him – as though the gun at her head were instead a hand held out in brotherhood. […] A fellowship of life that talks in a  language of death.”  And whereas the Judge is akin to a force of nature (one McCarthy despises but recognizes as universal), Moses Todd is simply a human being who, at the end, realizes the foolishness of his ethical creed.

While Blood Meridian‘s subject matter is interesting – the violence beneath nineteenth century settlerism, the fact that reality is horrific – it also fails to truly interrogate the nature of violence.  In the end, like most of McCarthy’s novels, it lapses into nihilistic reflections on reactionary platitudes.  Yes it is necessary to examine the violence beneath civilization, yes the violence and horror of exclusion can be progressive, but Blood Meridian (unlike, say, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 which deals with the same subject matter of violence in a far more thorough and insightful matter) skirts the surface of these questions.

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“The Reapers are the Angels” Seeing Beauty in a Zombie Apocalypse

If you want to tune out the latest Israeli siege on Gaza, yet you can’t quite justify totally ignoring the emotional pain. If you kind of want to get emo, but don’t want to change your fashion, read  “The Reapers are the Angels” by Alden Bell. Bell’s novel is set in an alternate America, one in which Zombies have taken over and there is a smattering of humans living as traveling vagabonds or hunkered down in buildings that are fortified against the ubiquitous zombie presence.

In a country where the dead outnumber the living, a teenager named Temple travels alone. She enjoys the sublime beauty of a sunset yet in the next paragraph she picks up a rock and bashes in the skull of a zombie. She has a steady gaze and a steady hand. She has morals, and a code that she lives by, even if the heart of her code is survival, she also knows how to love. Temple knows when to lie about her name and when to be charitable. She is the classic “Gambler” Kenny Rogers style: this woman knows ‘when to hold em’ and certainly knows ‘when to fold em, when to walk away, and when to run.’

The novel is a refreshingly thoughtful and sensitive one, that happens to be set in the zombie genre. I treasure George A. Romero’s seminal zombie film trilogy, with their timely social critiques aimed at racism, consumerism, and the military — the zombie genre, if it is going to survive off of anything other than fresh living brains, needs to be reconfigured.

Temple, the novel’s protagonist, is on a quest of sorts, but the main problem that plagues her is one of meaning and direction. Survival is okay, but why, how, and with what kind of ethics? Temple and the man who is hunting her both wonder what she will do after one of them kills the other. Where to go? How to determine your direction when there is no possibility of working for a living in the conventional sense. Family is gone. All of the world is overrun by the dead, who are lethal, yet quite predictable and almost banal for Temple who was born and raised after their ascendance. Unfortunately, the living are more terrible and just as dangerous as the dead. Although aimless, she connects to beauty when she sees it. On the first page of the novel it is noted:

“They came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time. And that was something she hadn’t seen before. A decade and a half, thereabouts, roaming the planet earth, and she’s never seen that before.”

Her enjoyment of beauty, of God, of quiet, of the sun and moon, of long long roads, of Niagara falls which she has never seen, beckons readers to see the world with new eyes. With awe and yearning, Alden’s novel sweeps you into a world where you can’t google electric fish or Niagara falls, but have to wait and hope that you might see something that will take your breath away.