Nihilism at the OK Corral: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

I grew up with The Story. We all know The Story, the Story of America. We might sum it up as follows. Fleeing from religious persecution, a band of hardy European colonists settled on the shores of the “New World” and eventually founded a great and noble nation. Because of their high ideals, the people of this fledgling country had a divine right to dispossess those few primitives living there before them and tame the savage wilderness by their westward expansion. And if there was some ethical ambiguity that they enslaved their workers, they soon proved their moral authority by fighting a Civil War on that cause and granting freedom to all. 

Over the last few decades, I came to view The Story as a cultural myth and propaganda. It is not that it is wholly wrong. But it does not reflect the complexities and more horrific aspects of American history, a history marred by casual racism and ruthless brutality. And I concluded that The Story needed to be challenged and fought with the truth. 

There is perhaps no more recognizable icon of The Story than the western. For over a hundred years, lonesome cowboys, gunslingers, and sheriffs have ridden through the pages of our novels and across the dreaming screens of our theaters. And regardless of the plot, the subtext of these works has always been to reinforce The Story. They celebrate our rugged pioneer spirit in bringing civilization to the vast, untamed territories we now call the United States. 

Therefore no genre seems more uniquely positioned to offer a critique of The Story than the western. Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian is often characterized as just such a work, an anti-western designed to “savagely explode the American dream of manifest destiny of racial domination.”1 However, I feel a careful examination of the text calls such a reading into question. 

Inspired by historical events,2 the novel traces the exploits of mercenary Indian fighter John Joel Glanton and his crew in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States during the mid-nineteenth century. The protagonist is a raw recruit known only as “The Kid” who joins Glanton’s gang in order to escape prison.

Blood Meridian is powerfully written. McCarthy’s baroque prose sings and paints the landscapes of the region with a beauty that possesses few if any rivals. In one passage, he writes, “The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn, and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning.”3

In another place, the novelist perfectly captures the terrible grandeur of a mountain storm. “All to the north, the rain had dragged black tendrils down from the thunderclouds like tracings of lampblack fallen in a beaker, and in the night, they could hear the drum of rain miles away on the prairie. They ascended through a rocky pass, and lightning shaped out the distant shivering mountains, and lightning rang the stones about, and tufts of blue fire clung to the horses like incandescent elementals that would not be driven off.”4

However, all this natural beauty forms a backdrop for endless scenes of mindless violence and terrible carnage. We might assume that such a contrast is deliberate, a choice to force us to reconsider The Story. But several elements mitigate against such a reading. Native peoples are portrayed as just as drunken and vicious as their European counterparts and often perpetrate much of the violence in the tale. And Glanton’s gang of misfits is racially diverse, including an African American and a troupe of Delaware trackers. Moreover, the novel includes many statements on the nature of evil and fate. It seems that McCarthy’s themes run deeper and Blood Meridian appears not so much an indictment of Western expansion but of humanity and perhaps the universe itself. 

A vile old hermit that the Kid encounters early on is the first to sound this theme. “It’s a mystery. A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he don’t want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It’s not the heart of a creature bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man, the devil was at his elbow. 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.”5

The tale that follows embodies this judgment. After joining an abortive illegal military expedition into Mexico, the Kid finds himself languishing in a Mexican jail. He is liberated by Glanton, who has contracted with the Mexican government to fight the Indians who raid their settlements. Glanton’s gang begins by savagely executing a solitary old squaw in a public square and then goes on to slaughter first warlike Apaches, then pacific tribes, and eventually turn on their Mexican employers. Having exchanged the profession of hired killers for their vocation as simple outlaws, the group heads north to take over a ferry on the Colorado river, robbing all who pass by on their way to California. Finally, a local uprising destroys this pirate’s dream, and Glanton’s body is mutilated in various unspeakable ways.

Such a summary may lead us to view Blood Meridian as a morality tale. After all, the bad guys get their comeuppance in the end. But it is far from certain that this is the novelist’s intent. A curious feature of McCarthy’s approach to this material is the complete lack of interior monologue, which flattens the narrative into a kind of literary cinemascape. We have no access to any of the character’s thoughts and no real insight into why they behave as they do. Do they have regrets? Moments of conscience? Only the storyteller knows, and he has preferred to keep his secrets. 

Instead, his characters seem to act as automatons that are fated to play out their hideous parts, machines of evil set to run for a thousand years. When preparing to massacre a band of peaceful Tigua Indians, the writer tells us, “On the eve of that day they crouched about the fire where it hissed in a softly falling rain, and they ran balls and cut patches as if the fate of the aborigines had been cast into shape by some other agency altogether. As if such destinies were prefigured in the very rock for those with eyes to read.”6

In another place, McCarthy sounds the same theme. “Deployed upon that plain, they moved in a constant elision, ordained agents of the actual dividing out the world which they encountered. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed.”7

Blood Meridian then appears as a dark photo negative of the human condition where all the color values are fatalistically reversed. No character more thoroughly embodies this savage indictment than the narcissistic Judge Holden. Erudite, gigantic, hairless, inhumanly strong, and often weirdly naked, the Judge seems to represent McCarthy’s view of humanity as an amoral apex predator. 

In one of his bizarre, rambling diatribes that dominate the last third of the book, Holden tells us, “Men are born for games. But all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, and all…Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.”8

I am sure that the novelist does not wish to convince us that this Thrasymachan perspective is good, but the unrelieved gloom of the text leads us to the suspicion that McCarthy views this as simply the truth of the human condition. There are no good characters in Blood Meridian, and the few kindly acts recorded in its pages are swept away in its maelstrom of senseless cruelty. A macabre lyrical passage toward the end apotheosizes the Judge into a kind of eternal principle. “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.”9

Blood Meridian represents a tremendous stylistic achievement comparable only to the works of Melville in American letters. However, its central characters and themes have more in common with the nihilism we find in the works of Louis Ferdinand Celine than the tragic greatness of Moby Dick. Its cinematic treatment of violence cannot offer the reader any catharsis of terror or pity, only fear in a handful of dust. 

The art of literature is many things to many people. But it has always had the potential to ennoble and enrich our lives. Perhaps a Judge and the specter of war will always be with us. But a Prince Myshkin will always be at our elbows as well to show us the path to the good. And a Mr. Pickwick to make us laugh. And an Atticus Finch to teach us about justice and courage. 

Perhaps one day, a novelist or playwright will come to challenge The Story. To show us not only the horrors of the past but to help us redeem the tremendous potential that lies in this land we call America. For the human heart is as rich and variegated as any landscape we find portrayed in the pages of Blood Meridian. And someday beautiful flowers may grow up where once there flourished weeds. 

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1. Shaviro, Steven, A Reading of Blood Meridian, Southern Quarterly 30 p. 111-112

2. Donoghue, Denis, Reading Blood Meridian, Sewanee Review. Volume 105. Number 3. Summer 1997. p.405

3. McCarthy, Cormac, Blood Meridian, Vintage International, p.91

4. McCarthy, p.196

5. McCarthy, p.22

6. McCarthy, p.183

7. McCarthy, p.181

8. McCarthy, p.262

9. McCarthy, p.354

Nihilism at the OK Corral. Copyright 2022, Jonathan Golding. All Rights Reserved. 

Artwork: Photo Credit: Serpeblu. Wild West Sheriff. All Rights Reserved.

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