Blood Meridan: McCarthy's Masterpiece Jul 22, 2007
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a novel that explores and comments on human nature through violence. Its rich and varied characters wend their way through episode after episode that both confirms and undermines the idea that violence and murder are the result of basic human nature. The book’s depiction of religion and the relations between characters, especially concerning the Judge, the ex-priest, and the Kid, hammers out a portrayal of violence that infiltrates reality. The perceptions created by the narrator and the characters concerning religion or the lack of religion affects the violence of the novel by contrasting it with accepted views of popular religion and by both providing and skewing justification of the characters’ actions.
There are several views of religion in this novel that serve to illuminate or justify violence. The story followed a band of fighting men who had come together to hunt Apaches for the bounty that the Mexican government had set upon the indians’ scalps. The hunt occurred deep in the heart of the desert, a place of sand, sun-bleached bones, and crumbling churches. It was a hard land that had bred hard men. The setting of this novel was a land that was continually trying to destroy all that resided in it. The harshness of the desert was accentuated by its apparent indifference. It killed, whether slowly or quickly, without discrimination. It appeared to be a truly lawless, Godless land, but I would argue that there was a religion to this land. The religion of this land was ancient, primal. It was a place where life was as death and only in killing another might one have seen that, by comparison, he was alive. The land itself was the God of this religion. Death was the communion, murder, the confirmation of faith. This brutal sensibility was not something that the scalp hunters verbally acknowledged (though the narrator reveals it in his descriptions), yet it was the reality that they met with in the harsh desert lands of Mexico.
In the few and far between towns of the story, there was small evidence of some sort of Christianity, but, out in the desert, it seemed that God did not hear his people. This was evidenced by the ruinous state of all churches mentioned in the novel with the exception of one, which was the scene of the final carnage of an Apache raid. On page 60, it describes the scene of the rape of the church and, through this scene, the narrator implies the notion that God and God’s people have no place in the wild desert. On page 175, the narrator details the view from the camp of the band on a hill overlooking a city. From the manner in which the narrator describes the scene and feelings of the men, one begins to see it as an opposing metaphor to God’s shining city on a hill.
“They sat like beings from an older age watching the distant lamps dim out one by one until the city on the plain had shrunk to a small core of light that might have been a burning tree or some solitary encampment of travelers or perhaps no ponderable fire at all.”
God’s shining city on the hill for all to see had fallen to the plains and dimmed and was finally completely extinguished by the violence, death, and indifference that prevails in the desert and undermines the promises of God. Without the deeply imbedded structure that an interconnected and well-organized society provides, there is no reliable system for justice or even order for Christianity to rest upon. McCarthy would seem to be suggesting through this that humans, when left to their own devices, are inherently violent and cruel without such societal safeguards. This is not to say that all people in the world of the novel are given over to aggression, in fact, the majority of people live within the cities or are journeying to the cities. They are simply trying to pass through the chaos to get to the comforts of society. The people who have given in to the instinct of war were the Apaches, Glanton’s men, and the Army (whose individual soldiers may or may not share the sentiment). To these groups, the land had become a sort of religion, in that they had washed themselves in the violence that was allowed them in that place. In other, more civilized lands, their actions would be met directly with custom-fitted rope neckties or other implements of justice. Instead, they followed the land and they made the blood of whomever they chose to run over it as was their right as disciples of the land.
Yet, despite their participation in the aforementioned brotherhood of earth, there were several other views expressed by various members of the band throughout the novel. There are men who argue with the judge by quoting the scriptures, an ex-priest, and the judge himself who has an interesting idea concerning what one ought to believe. Those Christian men of staunch faith that murdered and scalped enemies and innocents without discrimination or guilt referred to the Holy Scriptures when speaking to Judge about geology, taking a creationist stance on the origin and existence of the ore. They also prayed for rain on page 47, yet when this prayer was answered (the only time God seems to show any interest in these men), they did not praise or thank God in any way. From these events and others, it is inferred that their faith seems to be more of a superstitious nature than a holy one. They don’t really believe that their sins will be forgiven and that God is their salvation.
It may be allowed that the ex-priest, because of his past participation in the priesthood, was once a believer in God’s infinite mercy, but, for one reason or another, he had become disillusioned and found his way to an older, violent god of destruction and war in the desert. He whispers to the Kid after the Kid pulls an arrow out of Brown’s shoulder, “God will not love ye forever (162).” His use of God, in this case, is again more of a metaphor for luck than an implication of religious faith. The Judge comments on the ex-priest also, saying, “The priest also would be no godserver, but a god himself (250).” He would become a god through violence because violence rules all in the desert. The Judge then extrapolated, “Men of God and men of war have strange affinities (250).”
Both factions sought leadership and achieved an almost supernatural level of being the closer they came to their chosen deity, God or war respectively.
The most dramatic religious views came from the Judge. He seemed to be trying to achieve a level of godhood himself in his claim that, “Whatever exists, whatever in creation exists without my knowledge, exists without my consent.” He attempted to utilize his knowledge to raise him to the status of a god in comparison with all other things in the world. His use of Darwinian evolutionary theory and Nietzsche-like logic silences any argument against him and justifies his actions. War was his business as it was the business of the entire band, but for the Judge, “war is god” and his partaking in the experience of war allowed him to consent to its existence, which in his mind raised him above mankind. The Judge was portrayed as a rather demonic character. In the Gospel tent, when the Kid first saw him, the preacher called him “the devil” after being falsely accused by the Judge of having his way with an eleven-year-old girl. His knowledge of science and his silver-tongued speeches reinforced his devilishness because such things are often in direct opposition to organized religion, especially Darwinism versus Creationism.
Violence had a purging, vindicating effect in the novel. The reason the scalp hunters were even in Mexico, was that the Mexican government had an infestation problem. The Apaches were running rampant, raiding and pillaging wherever they wished and the people of Mexico did not particularly appreciate it. The Mexican government contracted Glanton’s party to kill the Apaches and bring back the scalps for payment. In this way, the government, the organization that was in charge o...