gnosticism and mccarthy’s blood meridian

The (in)famous and gnomic epilogue of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in The West: 

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. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly inthe light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again. 

Leo Daugherty’s essay is one of the best explications of the Gnostic underpinning of Blood Meridian, since, unlike so much of the so-called critical exegesis of the novel, it manages to account for the presence of the epilogue in an inclusive way, both structurally and thematically.  

Gravers False and True:
Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy

Leo Daugherty 

I want to argue here that gnostic thought is central to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I will go about this by discussing four of its characters—the judge, the kid, the graver and the mysterious man of the epilogue—and the particular sort of world they inhabit. I am aware at the outset of the difficulties involved in establishing a relationship between any two things (in this case Blood Meridian and Gnostic thought) when some readers may have a working knowledge of only one of them (in this case, I hope, the novel). While it is impossible to provide more than an introductory sketch of Gnosticism here, I believe that its dualistic core can be simply and briefly shown, and that it can then be understood well enough to make clear its connections with McCarthy’s book. 

I. The Gnostics 

No one knows exactly how or when Gnosticism originated, but it is generally agreed that it came about as yet another answer to the question, How is it that the world is experienced as so very evil and that so many people’s central response to it is alienation? The Gnostic answer took two basic forms, the Syrian-Egyptian and the Iranian, the latter of which probably stemmed from Zoroastrianism and found its principal exponent in Mani (215277 AD). Because Blood Meridian exemplifies the latter, I will use it almost exclusively here. 1

In the beginning, there was a “pleroma,” a condition of perfection and thus of literal plenitude, in the divine realm. This realm was made up of God and the lesser divinities, themselves called aeons. Then, somehow, this unity was sundered, either from within or without. In the Iranian version it was riven from without, by some sort of opposing “dark force.” (This presupposes, as Hans Jonas has noted, some yet more primal dualism [“Gnosticism” 338].) In the words of one scholar of this (Manichean) version: “All existing things derive from one of these two: the infinite light of spiritual goodness or the bottomless darkness of evil matter, coexistent and totally opposed to each other” (Greenlees 167). A state of affairs ensued which is termed the “crisis in the pleroma,” one result of which was the “falling” or “sinking” of some of the aeons, including (in Mani’s system) “primal man.” Of these, some became the archons (lords), who took charge of the various lower realms. The characteristics most typically found in them are judgment and jealousy, and their “creative” energies are spent in satisfying their “ambition, vanity, and lust for dominion” (Jonas 338).

One of the archons’ works was the creation of the world. A second was the creation of man, who would contain some of the original divine substance. Their motive for making human beings is unclear, but Jonas argues convincingly that it was either simple envy and ambition, or the more calculating “[motive] of entrapping divine substance in their lower world by the lure of a seemingly congenial receptacle [the body] that will then become its most secure bond” (339). As Robert Grant has noted, “The Gnostic, like the Platonist, regarded his body as a tomb” (327). To him, it is this, then, that is the imago Dei of Genesis, and in Manicheanism the imago is that of the original fallen “primal man.” Yet the spirit within humans is not from the archons. Rather, it is from the great original god of the pleroma, and it is imprisoned in humans by the archons—in Mani’s version through a violent victory of the archons over the real, good god of the pleroma—and the result, on the earth, is obviously a state of affairs in which the good and the light are eternally trapped inside the evil and the dark.

The spirit imprisoned within matter is called pneuma—the “spark of the alien divine,” in the familiar Gnostic phrase—and its presence naturally causes some humans to feel alienated, although they are for the most part comatose. The spirit within is, however, capable of learning, and the alienation it feels is its clue that there is indeed something to be learned. In the various Gnostic systems, knowledge is the key to extrication. It is thus a central task of the archons to prevent the human acquisition of liberational knowledge at all costs. To this end, they have established heimarmene—Fate—which is, in Jonas’s words, a “tyrannical world rule [which] is morally the law of justice, as exemplified in the Mosaic law” (“Gnosticism” 339).

Humans are comprised of flesh, souland spirit. Of these, the first two are from the archons and the third is from the original, good god. This god has nothing to do with the world the archons made, and is in fact as alien to it as the spirit of humankind. But he feels something akin to incompleteness, and he is thus moved to “call his spirit home.” He does this by means of messengers, who go into the world with the “call of revelation.” This revelation is the ”facts of the case—”the knowledge necessary to enable humans to overcome the world and return to their true home with him. God’s revelational messenger “penetrates the barriers of the [lower spheres, including the world], outwits the archons, awakens the spirit from its earthly slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge from without” (340). These salvational Gnostic envoys—those in possession of gnosis—called (and still call) themselves “pneumatics.” Their work necessarily entails assuming “the lot of incarnation and cosmic exile”; moreover, in Mani’s system, the revelator is “in a sense identical with those he calls—the once-lost parts of his divine self[thus giving rise] to the moving idea of the ‘saved savior’ (salvator salvandus)” (340).

Manichean Gnosticism is easily confused with nihilism, as the latter is commonly understood. The reason is that the Gnostic god, being totally not of this world, generates no nomos, no law, for either nature or human activity. The law, instead, is the law of the archons, and justice is theirs as well. And so is vengeancethe “vengeance that is mine.” God’s only activity with respect to matter is his attempt, via his suffering-servant pneumatic messengers, to rescue the spirit within humans—the truth of them—out of matter. So, while Jonas is right in arguing that Gnostic “acosmism” makes for the worldly appearance of nihilism, the mere fact that the Gnostic god has a rescuing function makes Gnosticism and nihilism differ importantly (Jonas, Gnostic 332). In Gnosticism, because of this difference, there is conflict and drama. Its human drama takes place within and is a microcosm of its larger cosmic drama which pits spirit against matter, light against darkness and the alien god (and the alien pneumatic spirit within sleeping humankind) against the archons. It is precisely a war. For humans, it is a war against the archons’ heimarmene, but this is merely part of the larger war in which the fate of the original god is the primal stake. Mani taught that the cosmic drama amounts to “a war with changing fortunes [in which] the divine fate, of which man’s fate is a part and the world an unwilled byproduct, is explained in terms of captivity and liberation ” (Jonas, “Gnosticism” 341). And in his teachings, the primal man, the ”knightly male figure, the warrior, assumes the role of the exposed and suffering part of divinity” (341).

With respect to this warrior-knight, Wilhelm Bousset, who was perhaps the most esteemed nineteenth-century authority on Gnosticism, held that he represents god in the form of a hero 

who makes war on, and is partly vanquished by, darkness. He descends into the darkness of the material world, and in so doing begins the great drama of the world’s development. From [god] are derived those portions of light existing and held prisoner in this lower world. And as he has raised himself again out of the material world, or has been set free so shall also the members of the primal man, the portions of light still imprisoned in matter, be set free. (156)

The practicing Gnostics naturally saw themselves as such heroes, as such messengers of god or “primal men.” And in this fact, Bousset concludes, is to be found the obvious meaning of the primal man figure in some Gnostic strains, including Mani’s; for it provides a simple (and self-serving) answer to the question, “How did the portions of light to be found in the lower world, among which certainly belong the souls of [us] Gnostics, enter into it?” (156).

So, whereas most thoughtful people have looked at the world they lived in and asked, How did evil get into it?, the Gnostics looked at the world and asked, How did good get into it? This was of course a very sensible question, and remains so. After all, the Satan of Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Church and the Protestant Reformation is a strikingly domesticated, manageable, partitioned-off personification of evil as the Gnostics saw evil. They saw it as something so big that “evil” is not really an applicable term—because it is too small. For them, evil was simply everything that is, with the exception of the bits of spirit emprisoned here. And what they saw is what we see in the world of Blood Meridian.

II. The Archon and His World 

Early in Blood Meridian, the reader comes upon this passage: “The survivors slept with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a namelessness wheeling in the night” (46). Anareta was believed in the Renaissance to be “the planet which destroys life,” and “violent deaths are caused” when the “malifics” have agents in “the anaretic place” (OED entry, “anareta”). Because McCarthy has not placed a comma after “pilgrims,” it is likely that his simile includes the entire remainder of the phrase; yet it is easily possible to read the passage as if a comma were present, thus producing the reading: this is Anareta. Either way, the implication is clearly that our own Earth is Anaretic. And in Blood Meridian, the Earth is the judge’s.

Even so, on our own evil planet Judge Holden’s power is not yet complete, since his will is not yet fulfilled in its passion for total domination. He is working, as he implies to Toadvine, to become a full “suzerain”one who “rules even where there are other rulers,” whose authority “countermands local judgements” (198). Yet this was also necessarily true of the Gnostic archons, just as it was true of the Old Testament Yahweh, whom they saw as evil. And, like those archons, Holden also possesses all the other characteristics of Yahweh as the Gnostics saw him: he is jealous, he is vengeful, he is wrathful, he is powerful and—most centrally—he possesses, and is possessed by, a will. And he is enraged by any existence or any act outside that will. At one point, he places his hands on the ground, looks at Toadvine, and speaks:
This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation. (199) 
In Holden, the stressed archonic element is of course judgment. Yet, like Yahweh, he judges things simply according to the binary criterion of their being inside or outside his will. In one of the passages most crucial to an adequate understanding of Blood Meridian, he tells David Brown, “Every child knows that play is nobler than work,” that “Men are born for games” and that “all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all” (249). We are reminded here of the novel’s epigraph from Jacob Boehme: “It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.” Indeed, war is the ultimate cause of unity, involving as it does the “testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will [i.e., war itself] which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (249).

And it is the warrior judge’s work to achieve dominion—to be the realized territorial archon of this Anaretic planet—through becoming the totalizing victor in all conflicts, real and perceptual, involving his will. The corollary is to show no mercy to those others whose wills have led them to be outside one’s own: as Holden tells the kid late in the novel, “There’s a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen” (299). And because the kid has shown them mercy, the judge must not show him any—and does not. Ultimately, a person serves the god of war, as Holden tells Tobin, in order to be “no godserver but a god himself” (250).

III. The Name of the Gun

The Earth is the judge’s, and, when he names his gun, the judge makes ironic comment upon the fact that not only is the earth his, but also that it is an anti-pastoral, anti-Arcadian world. The gun’s name is Et in Arcadia Ego (125).

This is a familiar late Renaissance proverb, dating back at least to Schidoni (c. 1600). It was a commonplace memorial inscription for tombs and representations of tombs, it was scrawled as graffiti under pictures of skulls, and it was conventionally employed by painters such as Poussin and Reynolds as a verbal/visual icon. It means, “Even in Arcadia there am I [Death].” The more interesting, least sentimentalizing pastoral poets had stressed this all along, of course, and had accordingly positioned death prominently in their Arcadias—Marguerite of Navarre in her Heptameron, as well as Shakespeare in Love’s Labors Lost, for example, and most importantly Sidney in the seminal Arcadia.

Blood Meridian centers upon what can be reasonably thought of as a fraternity of male shepherds who kill the sheep entrusted to them. One of the shepherds is the kid, who feels the “spark of the alien divine” within him through the call of what seems to be conscience. He thus “awakens” a bit, attaining in the process a will outside the will of his murdering shepherdic subculture and the archon who runs it. The kid reminds us here of Huckleberry Finn, who, in the crucial act of saving his friend Jim from slaveholder justice, similarly defies the will of a pernicious subculture, but who is judged only by his own cultural conscience, saying to himself at the novel’s turning point, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” Both these boys are a little bit awakened by the spark of the divine, and both extend acts of fraternal mercy when they are “not supposed to.” In the Mark Twain world, Huck gets away with it; in the McCarthy world, the kid is killed by the judge for it in an outhouse. The kid has “awakened,” but he is not progressed sufficiently in wisdom much beyond mere awakening and thus has no chance at survival, much less at the victory of Gnostic liberation.

Even so, it would be a gross understatement to call Blood Meridian a “pastoral tragedy,” or even to term it “anti-pastoral.” The point of the gun’s name is not that because of its appearance in the landscape, or by synechdoche the judge’s appearance, death has been introduced into an idyllic Arcadia: the entire novel makes clear (primarily through the judge, who continuously emphasizes the point in his preachments) that the human world is, and has always been, a world of killing. This is surely the point of the book’s third epigraph, a quote provided by McCarthy from a 1982 news release: “Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.” Rather, I would argue that the name suggests the judge’s awareness of, and his enthusiastic endorsement of, the reality that the world has been a place of murder ever since the first victorious taking of a human life by another human. The judge’s name Et in Arcadia Ego stands not for his gun and not for himself, but rather for murderous humankind on this very real killing planet.

Blood Meridian is a study of power relations within what, to the habituated expectations of our “received culture,” ought by all rights to have been a pastoral setting. But McCarthy’s long-meditated observations, coupled with his reading of the relevant southwestern history, have led him to other conclusions, and he extrapolates from what he knows of the Glanton gang’s exploits to make a narrative about a world-program seemingly set up by something like a gnostic grand demiurge and enjoyed by him as proprietor, with earthly power being that of judgment sprung from will (the judge’s judgment, the judge’s will, both perhaps signifying the author’s as-above-so-below—and vice-versa—notions), untempered by mercy and wisdom: this is Yahweh’s programmatic power (as the Gnostics saw it), exercised by his archonic overseer. A good “alien” god exists somewhere, as is always the case in Gnosticism, and he is the god of the epilogue who put the fire in the earth and part of himself in the souls of humans, including the kid—to which we will return. But: with respect to these southwestern doings on this southwestern set, so what?2


IV. The False Graver

Midway through Blood Meridian the kid asks Tobin, the ex-priest, the obvious and paramount question about Judge Holden: “What’s he a judge of?” The ex-priest cautions the kid to be quiet: “Hush now. The man will hear ye” (135).


The question goes unanswered for a long time, and when it finally is Answered—in the kid’s feverish dream—it comes in a passage which is at once the most difficult in the book and yet absolutely necessary to understanding it adequately:

The judge smiled. The fool was no longer there but another man and this other man he [the kid] could never see in his entirety but he seemed an artisan and a worker in metal. The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a coldforger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile from men’s fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of his becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie [the judge, as explained in the previous paragraph] current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end. (310)

On first reading, the passage seems impenetrably perverse. It is clearly outside the judge’s will for the forger to succeed in contriving a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter, whereas it appears to us as more likely that this would be the judge’s will. And it is clearly outside his will for the night to end, for the dawn to come, and this too has to strike us as odd, since the dawn being spoken of is one in which the engraver’s counterfeit coin, which he quite reasonably believes the judge wishes him to succeed at producing, would “pass”—with the judge thereby presumably profiting. But the judge keeps judging its likeness of him inadequate. The reason is that the judge doesn’t want a victory based on any currency (even his own counterfeit currency) in any “marketplace.” The point is that he is a warrior—one who wants only war and the continuous night of war—in opposition not only to “true coinage” but to any coinage involving him. The “markets where men barter” exist, of course, but the judge believes them derivative, not primary—derivative of the war culture, which is the true culture upon which the markets (themselves only arenas for decadent symbolic war games) depend. (This view is presented in small in the brief picture of the “sutler” presented early in the novel [44]. A sutler is a peddlar to an army, following along behind it, in McCarthy’s image, like any debased and predatory camp-follower: a predator upon predators.)

Yet it is to the judge’s advantage to foster the delusion that he wishes to create a new civilizational order, because this is a goal toward which he can encourage people to work at their various professions and trades people like this graver. “Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.” Yes: because if he ever judges his own likeness “passable,” thus allowing the transformation of war (which for him is god, as we know) into the merely symbolic, “civilized” competition of money-based conflict, he loses, there being little or no blood, and therefore no ultimately unifying victory, in symbolic warfare.

Another way of saying the same thing is that, just as the ascetic Gnostics thought it the wisest course not to “play the game” of the creator and his archons (Jonas, “Gnosticism” 341), so this archon will not play the (to him, “safe”) money-changing game of marketplace humans as a means to defeating, dominating and destroying them. For him, all human coinage is counterfeit, and any victories won with it would just be meaningless counterfeit victories—solving, settling and signifying nothing.

It is helpful here to remember an earlier passage in which the judge debates a “Tennessean named Webster.” In that passage the judge makes the familiar argument that many people in many cultures intuitively know that accurate portraiture “chain[s] the man to his own likeness,” thus weakening him and perhaps killing him. The judge himself obsessively draws likenesses from nature, he says, in order to “expunge them from the memory of man.” Webster counters that “no man can put all the world in a book,” no matter what his goals for trying to do so might be—”No more than everything drawed in a book is so.” “My book or some other book,” answers the judge: “Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world” (14041). The word to notice here is exchange. The judge refuses to be tabernacled in any other man. He refuses to be part of the exchange system.


What is the judge judge of? He is judge of all attempts—including those of patronage-seekers—to place him within that system, and he thus judges all attempts inadequate. It is not merely that he positions himself outside all tabernacles filled with “money-changers”; rather, it is that he positions himself outside all temples, period—to stand beyond that “outermost edge of the world” of which he speaks to Webster.3

V. The Man of the Epilogue










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. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of a sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

When I first read Blood Meridian, I took the walking, digging, fire-striking man of its epilogue as somehow standing for the judge as some manner of (Nietzschean? evil Promethean?) culture-making force, with the mass of humanity blindly following along after him in a linear interpretation which a little “close reading” shortly caused me to abandon. My attempts at reinterpreting itwith the help of others—then led to my first glimpses of what I am arguing here to be the novel’s Gnostic, and perhaps even specifically Manichean, features. I now believe that Blood Meridian exemplifies the rare coupling of Gnostic “ideology” with the “affect” of Hellenistic tragedy by means of its depiction of how power works in the making and erasing of culture, and of what the human condition amounts to when a person opposes that power and thence gets introduced to fate.

The epilogue pictures a brutal contrast between a man who is very much alive and a host of other people who are effectively (or perhaps even actually) dead, and the picture it paints is one based directly on the sort of machine of which the watch or clock is the most familiar example. This is what the words “escapement” and “pallet” refer to. And the idea is that the alive digger and the dead wanderers are all moving in the way that such a machine moves. The wanderers move “haltingly” because they are “cogs in the wheel,” it is suggested, groping forward in tick-tock fashion, just as the digger goes forward in the pursuit of his continuance in tick-tock fashion himself (digging and walking, digging and walking), even though they have no holes to dig or fire to strike. The idea appears to be that the vast majority of people, moving one by one through space (and presumably time), cross this track, this “evidence,” of fire struck out of the earth, but that these people go neither backward to try to trace its source nor forward to follow its lead. They just stumble over it—and either fail to notice it at all or experience a dull moment of bemusement or puzzlement because of it. (And, as we are talking about a writer and his book here—and an uncommonly erudite writer at that—it is worth noting that the other prominent use of the escapement device is in the typewriter, where, activated by the struck keys, it controls the horizontal movement of the carriage.)

The natural question to ask is, What is the connection between the man of the epilogue and the main narrative body of Blood Meridian? To this I have two answers. The first is a fairly obvious corrective to my initial feeling that the man somehow represents the judge, while the second is a reflection upon the significance of the first for studies of McCarthy. The first is that the man provides a “structural” element which is absolutely necessary to the novel’s Gnostic world-view, but which is nowhere to be found in the characters who figure in its primary story: he is the revealer or “revelator” of the divine, working to free spirit from matter—the pneumatic (albeit corporeal) messenger, in possession of gnosis, who is in service to the good “alien god.” This reading is, I think, clearly supported (if not indeed mandated) by the imagery of his striking and freeing bits of fire, imprisoned in the earth, which come from God; by the fact of his solitary, ascetic and superior nature and work (set in clear opposition to other people’s nature and work, themselves the “sleepers” of Manichean thought); and by the Gnostic context provided by the novel proper, which not only implies his existence but mandates his eventual appearance. The “continuance” of which the digging man is in “pursuit” is the ongoing work of making his way back to the good, alien god—and of freeing and revealing imprisoned bits of holy fire in the evil world of the archons and all their sleeping inmates as he goes.

 My secondanswer is more provisional. Even so, it will likely strike a good many readers as curious, irrelevant, outright wrong or all of the above. I think McCarthy may be showing us in the epilogue, in parable form, his reading of himself as writer—particularly in opposition to others. I think he goes so far as to make of himself a “presence” at the end—he has always been, after all, something of a Stendhalian editorialist as a narrator—affirming among other things that he is a particular, rare sort of “supply-side” producer of very serious stories: a solitary obsessive who, in his alienation from this Anareta world, this killing planet, and in his fidelity to the real god, has a “can do no other” (because Called) purpose, and who cares not a whit for the “market.” (“Selling a book is the job of the publisher,” the reclusive author said in the mid-1980s, in response to questions about his unwillingness to do the usual interviews and promotional work [Morrow 52].) If there were a “god of this world,” such a sense of artistic purpose might be usefully termed mithectic, with the artist doing his part to help his god out—to make the sun come up for the tribe by sitting and facing east every morning, for example, because it has been given to him as his calling to do this as the work of his life. But when there is no “god of this world,” the artist-as-solitary obsessive is truly solitary and thus truly obsessive throughout his sentence here.

If this is so, then McCarthy has carried the romantic conception of the artist-as-creator/progenitor (itself derived from strains in the Italian Renaissance, in part Neoplatonist) to a new apotheosis based on an opposing premise. In McCarthy, the idea of the world-creating artist retains much of the romantic one—particularly its notion of the stance of the artist on earth—but everything is changed by virtue of the fact that this artist reflects and serves neither the Old Testament Yahweh nor some other good god of this world. Rather, he is inextricably bound to, and reflective of, the good “alien god” who did not make the world, is not in charge of it and is no part of it—except for the “spark of original divinity” residing in people, waiting to be awakened (by the Call) and then nurtured to the most of those persons’ capacities. I think this has been a logical step for artists since Nietzsche—whom McCarthy has certainly read and read well—although Nietzsche, no Gnostic, would not have approved of the theology. And if I am right, it would actually be an understatement to call McCarthy an “elitist” for having taken it, because he has actually gone about as far as Nietzsche himself went while he still had a grip and that was a ways.

All of which is just to say: The man in the epilogue, as he moves over the landscape digging holes and striking his God’s free in them, is the exact antithesis of the false “graver” of the kid’s dream who seeks the judge’s favor through a different sort of line-drawing. And just as the judge (although unbeknownst to the graver) does not want to “pass” in the civilized world, but wants only war, victory and then more war in the unending night of fallen matter, so the man of the epilogue cares nothing for playing and winning in the judge’s world (for to win is to lose there just as much as to lose is to lose), but wants only the “pursuit of his continuance” in the service of what he takes to be the good and right way to go. Neither the man nor the judge will enter the exchange system.

VI. Gnostic Tragedy and Enchantment

Finally, how could it be so exhilarating and so obviously good for us to read such an excessive, doom-obsessed, bone-chilling novel of blood? How could such a thing be so oddly exuberant and elicit such a pleasurable response? The answer, I think, directly demonstrates how, on the level of what we used to so unembarrassedly call the “human condition,” Gnosticism is not really so far from Hellenism (to which it has often been opposed) after all. I think Blood Meridian elicits the same human responses as Greek tragedy, the reason being that its archon, Holden, plays the same role as the original untamed Fates (in The Oresteia, most notably), who judge and avenge, or who sometimes just do whatever they want. In the Western tradition, they have been steadily domesticated—from Fates to Eumenides to Fortune to Chance to Lady Luck. But if Fates stay Fates, then the just-doing-one’s-best, divine-spark protagonist has got to lose, through no fault of his or her own, and it has always been bizarrely energizing, bracing, “cathartic” and joy-producing to feel the delirious pity and fear when the protagonist takes his or her heroic bloodbath at the end—to read it and weep.

Students of Gnosticism agree that its version of Fate (heimarmene) is central to its system, and scholars of literature know that it is not that unusual to find writers working with Gnostic materials. Yet I know of no writers in English save McCarthy who have seen the potential for human tragedy in those materials when Fate is placed front and center—as it must be if Gnosticism is to be Gnosticism—and who have then proceeded to make the tragedy. (This is why Blood Meridian is so much more powerful in its effect than either other Gnostic narratives or mere pastoral tragedies.) And, while it could be argued that the kid is no “tragic hero,” it seems clear enough that some tragic heroes do not really fill any formulaic bill, most notably Antigone; all that’s needed is a dumb kid possessed of a spark of the divine who’s outside the will of some Yahweh or other and meets his or her fate at said nemesis’ hands at the end. The peculiar thing, really, is that it strikes us Americans in the 1990s as so outlandishly shocking to find one of our writing countrymen not only refusing to water down the tragic vision, but embracing it with open arms.

McCarthy’s greatness lies most centrally and most obviously in the fact that, in “progressing over the plain,” he has become our finest living tragedian. And part of genuine tragic enchantment is the unrepressed gaity which both results from and then informs cosmic alienation in the greatest tragedians and their characters. In 1604 London, a long forgotten storyteller known only as “An. Sc., Gentleman,” implied that the secret of Hamlet’s fineness is that in Shakespeare “the comedian rides when the tragedian stands on tiptoe.” 4 There are precious few writers of whom one could say this, but one can say it of the writer of Blood Meridian. In major consequence of his mastery of the high tragedian’s art, Cormac McCarthy has become the best and most indispensable writer of English-language narrative in the second half of the century.


I owe many of this essay’s insights into Gnosticism, and particularly into the claim that Holden is an “archon,” to Lee Graham, who is completing her master’s thesis on McCarthy at the University of Washington, and I am also grateful to her for reading the paper through various drafts and giving me suggestions for revision. The essay originated as a series of letters to Edward Abse and Ginnie Daugherty, doctoral students respectively at the University of Virginia (anthropology) and The New School for Social Research (sociology), who had asked for my thoughts on the question “What’s the epilogue to Blood Meridian all about?” Some of the essay is unaltered text from those letters. For general and particular inspiration, I also want to thank McCarthy lovers Steven Shaviro of the University of Washington, Tom Maddox of The Evergreen State College, Robert L. Bergman, MD, and—last but not least—David Browne, who in circumstances not to be believed first introduced me to McCarthy.

1. The best short introduction to Gnostic thought is probably Jonas’s entry in Encyclopedia of Philosophy: two other useful, accessible starting places are provided by Bousset and Grant. Pagels has stirred renewed interest in Gnosticism during the last decade with her deservedly celebrated work, but Jonas’s Gnostic Religion remains the magisterial study—and is uncommonly readable for scholarship in esoteric thought. Giovanni Filoramo’s recent A History of Gnosticism (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990) is indispensable. Greenlees gives a clear, if perhaps too enthusiastic account of Manicheanism in the introduction to his edition of Mani. Excellent recent translations of several of the more important Gnostic gospels are provided by Meyer. Last, I am aware of no previous source which points out that the oldest mention of the Gnostic strain discussed in this essay may be Philolaus (by some classed as “Presocratic”), Fragment 13, for which see Wheelwright.

2. My rhetorical “So what?” could equally be asked by those who would maintain that Gnosticism is, or amounts to, nihilism. The difference is that Gnosticism is strongly redemptionist. And my reading of Blood Meridian—particularly its epilogue—causes me to conclude that it is redemptionist as well, in precisely the same way and for precisely the same reasons, and that those who consider McCarthy a nihilist are off the track, although it is not difficult to see how they got there.

3. McCarthy’s fascination with coin-makers and their connection with fate (through the images they fashion) continues. Edwin T. Arnold has been kind enough to point out—and to share with mea passage from an advance copy of All the Pretty Horses in which another young man in his teens, John Grady Cole, has related to him a parable of a coiner in circumstances which make it clear that the parable speaks centrally to both his present situation and his destiny. My inference is that McCarthy sees in coins and their makers compelling symbols of dualism and the difficulties (even the ambivalences) inherent in deriving unity from it: the authentic versus the counterfeit, the image on the slug versus the naked slug itself, the two sides of the coin, and of course—as in Blood Meridian-the symbolic (currency and coinage itself) versus the real (in thejudge’s sense).

4. An. Sc. was once thought by some to be Anthony Scoloker, but this is just a wild (and unlikely) guess. The quote comes from Daiphantus, or The Passions of Love A2. With further reference to McCarthy’s rare gift for combining tragedy with comedy: Bell points out that the author was originally named “Charles” and that his family renamed him “Cormac” for the fifteenth-century Irish king (xii). This king built Blarney Castle (c. 1446), but I have not noticed that anyone else has stumbled onto the fact that the true Blarney Stone there has for centuries had “Cormac McCarthy” inscribed upon it. ”Blarney” supposedly derives from the king’s gifts for cheerful, persuasive eloquence, although he was generally reckoned a “wise, melancholy man.”


Works Cited

Bell, Vereen M. The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988.

Bousset, Wilhelm. “Gnosticism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1911 ed.

Filoramo, Giovanni. A History of Gnosticism. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.

Grant, Robert M. “Gnosticism.” Dictionary of the History of Ideas. New York: Scribner’s, 1973.

Greenlees, Duncan, ed. The Gospel of the Prophet Mani. Madras, India: Adyar, 1956.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon, 1963.

Jonas, Hans. “Gnosticism.” Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Macmillan, 1972.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. 1985. New York: Ecco, 1986.

Meyer, Marvin W., ed. and trans. The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random, 1984.

Morrow, Mark. Images of the Southern Writer. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. 1979. New York: Vintage, 1981.

Sc., An. Daiphantus, or The Passions of Love. London: T.C. for William Cotton, 1604.

Wheelwright, Philip, ed. The Presocratics. London: Macmillan, 1966.

—from Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, Revised Edition, edited by Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, University Press of Mississippi (2000), pp. 159 – 174.






  1. […] more here: gnosticism and mccarthy’s blood meridian Tags: archons, blood, blood-meridian, epilogue, gnostic, gnosticism, gnostics, judge, life, night, […]

  2. I think an interesting comparison can be made between the epilogue in blood meridian and the prologue in’ the road’.

    The prologue of the road depicts a blind writhing underground dragon-like creature awakening and surviving under and through the destruction of the human world above.

    I don’t think either piece has a direct reference to the main text, but rather reinforces the point being made. The road emphasizes the natural world’s indifference to humans – the cave-dragon creature awakes as man fizzles out.

    Blood meridian emphasizes man’s blindness in pursuit of any goodness or peace or meaning in the world. The followers latch onto the sparks and holes left by the leader – perhaps the leader refers to the judge, perhaps to man’s own conceptions of meaning or goodness- but most importantly the leader himself is not going anywhere significant. The leader moves over a desert, blindly striking at rock creating a false direction for the men behind him to follow…. inventing a direction out of rock and molecules.

    • thanks for that, paul. let me think about the epilogue of blood meridian in light of what you said about the road

  3. thanks for your comment — and your twitter page is great. i went through your links and saw that david hare is on twitter!

  4. thanks for your comment — and your twitter page is great. i went through your links and saw that david hare is on twitter!

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