mccarthy’s prose came from this typewriter—”as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife”

“No Country for Old Typewriters: A Well-Used One Heads to Auction”

By Patricia Cohen

November 30, 2009

Cormac McCarthy has written more than a dozen novels, several screenplays, two plays, two short stories, countless drafts, letters and more — and nearly every one of them was tapped out on a portable Olivetti manual typewriter he bought in a Knoxville, Tenn., pawnshop around 1963 for $50.

Lately this dependable machine has been showing irrevocable signs of age. So after his friend and colleague John Miller offered to buy him another, Mr. McCarthy agreed to auction off his Olivetti Lettera 32 and donate the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit interdisciplinary scientific research organization with which both men are affiliated.

“He found another one just like this,” a portable Olivetti that looks practically brand new, Mr. McCarthy said from his home in New Mexico. “I think he paid $11, and the shipping was about $19.95.”

Mr. McCarthy, 76, has won a wagon-full of honors including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called genius grant. Books like “Blood Meridian,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Crossing” have propelled him to the top ranks of American fiction writers.

Even nonreaders are familiar with his storytelling since his two most recently published novels, “No Country for Old Men” and the 2007 Pulitzer winner “The Road,” have been made into movies. (“No Country” won best picture and three other Oscars last year.)

Christie’s, which plans to auction the machine on Friday, estimated that it would fetch between $15,000 and $20,000. Mr. McCarthy wrote an authentication letter — typed on the Olivetti, of course — that states:

“It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose. … I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence I would put thisat about five million words over a period of 50 years.”

Speaking from his home in Santa Fe, Mr. McCarthy said he mistakenly thought that the typewriter was bought in 1958; it was actually a few years later. He had a Royal previously, but before he went off to Europe in the early 1960s, he said, “I tried to find the smallest, lightest typewriter I could find.”

Mr. McCarthy is known for being taciturn, particularly about his writing. He came to realize that not only his working method but even his tools are puzzling to a younger generation.

He remembers one summer when some graduate students were visiting the Santa Fe Institute. “I was in my office clacking away,” he said. “One student peered in and said: ‘Excuse me. What is that?’ ”

“I don’t have some method of working,” he said, adding that he often works on different projects simultaneously. A few years ago, when he was in Ireland, “I worked all day on four different projects,” he said. “I worked two hours on each. I got a lot done, but that’s not usual.”

Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer who is handling the auction for Mr. McCarthy, said: “When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.”

The institute is in a rambling house built in the 1950s that sits on a hill overlooking Santa Fe. “It’s been under not-so-benign neglect,” Mr. McCarthy said.

He is working to help upgrade parts of the house, like the library. It turns out that architecture is one of the many odd jobs that Mr. McCarthy said he had had in his life.

He joined the institute at the invitation of its founder, the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, whom he met at a MacArthur Foundation meeting years ago. “It’s just a great place,” said Mr. McCarthy, whose primary responsibilities at the institute are eating lunch and taking afternoon tea.

He still has a house in Texas. If he had his druthers, he would live there now, except “they wouldn’t move the institute.”

—from the New York Times

from cormac mccarthy’s play-as-novel, the sunset limited

Cormac McCarthy

The Sunset Limited


This is a room in a tenement building in a black ghetto in New York City. There is a kitchen with a stove and a large refrigerator. A door to the outer hallway and another presumably to a bedroom. The hallway door is fitted with a bizarre collection of locks and bars. There is a cheap Formica table in the room and two chrome and plastic chairs. There is a drawer in the table. On the table is a Bible and a newspaper. A pair of glasses. A pad and pencil. A large black man is sitting in one chair (stage right) and in the other a middle aged white man dressed in running pants and athletic shoes. He wears a T shirt and the jacket, which matches the pants, hangs on the chair behind him.



BLACK. So what am I supposed to do with you, Professor?

WHITE. Why are you supposed to do anything?

BLACK. I done told you. This ain’t none of my doin. I left out of here this mornin to go to work you wasn’t no part of my plans at all. But here you is.

WHITE. It doesn’t mean anything. Everything that happens doesn’t mean something else.

BLACK. Mm hm. It don’t.

WHITE. No. It doesn’t.

BLACK. What’s it mean then?

WHITE. It doesn’t mean anything. You run into people and maybe some of them are in trouble or whatever but it doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for them.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. Anyway, people who are always looking out for perfect strangers are very often people who won’t look out for the ones they’re supposed to look out for. In my opinion. If you’re just doing what you’re supposed to then you don’t get to be a hero.

BLACK. And that would be me.

WHITE. I don’t know. Would it?

BLACK. Well, I can see how they might be some truth in that. But in this particular case I might say I sure didn’t know what sort of person I was supposed to be on the lookout for or what I was supposed to do when I found him. In this particular case they wasn’t but one thing to go by.

WHITE. And that was?

BLACK. That was that there he is standin there. And I can look at him and I can say: Well, he don’t look like my brother. But there he is. Maybe I better look again.

WHITE. And that’s what you did.

BLACK. Well, you was kindly hard to ignore. I got to say that your approach was pretty direct.

WHITE. I didn’t approach you. I didn’t even see you.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. I should go. I’m beginning to get on your nerves.

BLACK. No you ain’t. Don’t pay no attention to me. You seem like a sweet man, Professor. I reckon what I don’t understand is how come you to get yourself in such a fix.

WHITE. Yeah.

BLACK. Are you okay? Did you sleep last night?


BLACK. When did you decide that today was the day? Was they somethin special about it?

WHITE. No. Well. Today is my birthday. But I certainly don’t regard that as special.

BLACK. Well happy birthday, Professor.

WHITE. Thank you.

BLACK. So you seen your birthday was comin up and that seemed like the right day.

WHITE. Who knows? Maybe birthdays are dangerous. Like Christmas. Ornaments hanging from the trees, wreaths from the doors, and bodies from the steam pipes all over

BLACK. Mm. Don’t say much for Christmas, does it?

WHITE. Christmas is not what it used to be.

BLACK. I believe that to be a true statement. I surely do.

WHITE. I’ve got to go. (He gets up and takes his jacket off the back of the chair and lifts it over his shoulders and then puts his arms in the sleeves rather than putting his arms in first one at a time.)

BLACK. You always put your coat on like that?

WHITE. What’s wrong with the way I put my coat on?

BLACK. I didn’t say they was nothin wrong with it. I just wondered if that was your regular method.

WHITE. I don’t have a regular method. I just put it on.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. It’s what, effeminate?


WHITE. What?

BLACK. Nothin. I’m just settin here studyin the ways of professors.

WHITE. Yeah. Well, I’ve got to go. (The black gets up.)

BLACK. Well. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. Your coat?

BLACK. Yeah.

WHITE. Where are you going?

BLACK. Goin with you.

WHITE. What do you mean? Going with me where?

BLACK. Goin with you wherever you goin.

WHITE. No you’re not.

BLACK. Yeah I am.

WHITE. I’m going home.

BLACK. All right.

WHITE. All right? You’re not going home with me.

BLACK. Sure I am. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. You can’t go home with me.

BLACK. Why not?

WHITE. You can’t.

BLACK. What. You can go home with me but I can’t go home with you?

WHITE. No. I mean no, that’s not it. I just need to go home.

BLACK. You live in a apartment?


BLACK. What. They don’t let black folks in there?

WHITE. No. I mean of course they do. Look. No more jokes. I’ve got to go. I’m very tired.

BLACK. Well I just hope we don’t run into no hassle about you gettin me in there.

WHITE. You’re serious.

BLACK. Oh I think you know I’m serious.

WHITE. You can’t be serious.

BLACK. I’m as serious as a heart attack.

WHITE. Why are you doing this?

BLACK. Me? I ain’t got no choice in the matter.

WHITE. Of course you have a choice.

BLACK. No I ain’t.

WHITE. Who appointed you my guardian angel?

BLACK. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. Answer the question.

BLACK. You know who appointed me. I didn’t ask for you to leap into my arms down in the subway this mornin.

WHITE. I didn’t leap into your arms.

BLACK. You didn’t?

WHITE. No. I didn’t.

BLACK. Well how did you get there then? (The professor stands with his head lowered. He looks at the chair and then turns and goes and sits down in it.) What. Now we ain’t gain?

WHITE. Do you really think that Jesus is in this room?

BLACK. No. I don’t think he’s in this room.

WHITE. You don’t?

BLACK. I know he’s in this room. (The professor folds his hands at the table and lowers his head. The black pulls out the other chair and sits again.) It’s the way you put it, Professor. Be like me askin you do you think you got your coat on. You see what I’m sayin?

WHITE. It’s not the same thing. It’s a matter of agreement. If you and I say that I have my coat on and Cecil says that I’m naked and I have green skin and a tail then we might want to think about where we should put Cecil so that he won’t hurt himself


BLACK. Who’s Cecil?

WHITE. He’s not anybody. He’s just a hypothetical … There’s not any Cecil. He’s just a person I made up to illustrate a point.

BLACK. Made up.



WHITE. We’re not going to get into this again are we? It’s not the same thing. The fact that I made Cecil up.

BLACK. But you did make him up.


BLACK. And his view of things don’t count.

WHITE. No. That’s why I made him up. I could have changed it around. I could have made you the one that didn’t think I was wearing a coat.

BLACK. And was green and all that shit you said.


BLACK. But you didn’t.


BLACK. You loaded it off on Cecil.


BLACK. But Cecil can’t defend hisself cause the fact that he ain’t in agreement with everybody else makes his word no good. I mean aside from the fact that you made him up and he’s green and everthing.

WHITE. He’s not the one who’s green. I am. Where is this going?

BLACK. I’m just tryin to find out about Cecil.

WHITE. I don’t think so. Can you see Jesus?

BLACK. No. I can’t see him.

WHITE. But you talk to him.

BLACK. I don’t miss a day.

WHITE. And he talks to you.

BLACK. He has talked to me. Yes.

WHITE. Do you hear him? Like out loud?

BLACK. Not out loud. I don’t hear a voice. Idon’t hear my own, for that matter. But I have heard him.

WHITE. Well why couldn’t Jesus just be in your head?

BLACK. He is in my head.

WHITE. Well I don’t understand what it is that you’re trying to tell me.

BLACK. I know you don’t, honey. Look. The first thing you got to understand is that I ain’t got a original thought in my head. If it ain’t got the lingerin scent of divinity to it then I ain’t interested.

WHITE. The lingering scent of divinity.

BLACK. Yeah. You like that?

WHITE. It’s not bad.

BLACK. I heard it on the radio. Black preacher. But the point is I done tried it the other way. And I don’t mean chippied, neither. Runnin blindfold through the woods with the bit tween your teeth. Oh man. Didn’t I try it though. If you can find a soul that give it a better shot than me I’d like to meet him. I surely would. And what do you reckon it got me?

WHITE. I don’t know. What did it get you?

BLACK. Death in life. That’s what it got me.

WHITE. Death in life.

BLACK. Yeah. Walkin around death. Too dead to even know enough to lay down.

WHITE. I see.

BLACK. I don’t think so. But let me ask you this question.

WHITE. All right.

BLACK. Have you ever read this book?

WHITE. I’ve read parts of it. I’ve read in it

BLACK. Have you ever read it?

WHITE. I read the Book of Job.

BLACK. Have. You. Ever. Read. It.


BLACK. But you is read a lot of books.


BLACK. How many would you say you read?

WHITE. I’ve no idea.

BLACK. Ball park.

WHITE. I don’t know. Two a week maybe. A hundred a year. For close to forty years. (The black takes up his pencil and licks it and falls to squinting at his pad, adding numbers laboriously, his tongue in the corner of his mouth, one hand on his head.) Forty times a hundred is four thousand.

BLACK. (Almost laughing.) I’m just messin with you, Professor. Give me a number. Any number you like. And I’ll give you forty times it back.

WHITE. Twenty six.

BLACK. A thousand and forty.

WHITE. A hundred and eighteen.

BLACK. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty.

WHITE. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty.

BLACK. Yeah.

WHITE. The answer is the question.

BLACK. Say what?

WHITE. That’s your new number.

BLACK. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty?


BLACK. That’s a big number, Professor.

HITE. Yes it is.

BLACK. Do you know the answer?

WHITE. No. I don’t.

BLACK. It’s a hundred and eighty eight thousand and eight hundred. (They sit.)

WHITE. Let me have that. (The black slides the pad and pencil across the table. The professor does the figures and looks at them and looks at the black. He slides the pencil and paper back across the table and sits back.) How do you do that?

BLACK. Numbers is the black man’s friend. Butter and eggs. Crap table. You quick with numbers you can put the mojo on you brother. Confiscate the contents of his pocketbook. You get a lot of time to practice that shit in the jailhouse.

WHITE. I see.

BLACK. But let’s get back to all them books you done read. You think maybe you read four thousand books.

WHITE. Probably. Maybe more than that.

BLACK. But you ain’t read this one.

WHITE. No. Not the whole book. No.

BLACK. Why is that?

WHITE. I don’t know.

BLACK. What would you say is the best book that ever was wrote?

WHITE. I have no idea.

BLACK. Take a shot.

WHITE. There are a lot of good books.

BLACK. Well pick one.

WHITE. Maybe War and Peace.

BLACK. All right. You think that’s a better book than this one?

WHITE. I don’t know. They’re different kinds of books.

BLACK. This War and Peace book. That’s a book that somebody made up, right?

WHITE. Well, yes.

BLACK. So is that how it’s different from this book?

WHITE. Not really. In my view they’re both made up.

BLACK. Mm. Ain’t neither one of em true.

WHITE. Not in the historical sense. No.

BLACK. So what would be a true book?

WHITE. I suppose maybe a history book. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire might be one. At least the events would be actual events. They would be things that had happened.

BLACK. Mm hm. You think that book is as good a book as this book here?

WHITE. The Bible.

BLACK. The Bible.

WHITE. I don’t know. Gibbon is a cornerstone. It’s a major book.

BLACK. And a true book. Don’t forget that.

WHITE. And a true book. Yes.

BLACK. But is it as good a book.

WHITE. I don’t know. I don’t know as you can make a comparison. You’re talking about apples and pears.

BLACK. No we ain’t talkin bout no apples and pears, Professor. We talkin bout books. Is that Decline and Fall book as good a book as this book here. Answer the question.

WHITE. I might have to say no.

BLACK. It’s more true but it ain’t as good.

WHITE. If you like.

BLACK. It ain’t what I like. It’s what you said.

WHITE. All right. (The black lays the Bible back down on the table.)

BLACK. It used to say here on the cover fore it got wore off: The greatest book ever written. You think that might be true?

WHITE. It might.

BLACK. You read good books.

WHITE. I try to. Yes.

BLACK. But not the best book. Why is that?

WHITE. I need to go.

cormac mccarthy & w. b. yeats on artifice, nature and transcending our fallen world


“Sailing to Byzantium


THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


—William Butler Yeats


Wells stood on the bridge with the wind off the river tousling his thin and sandy hair.  He turned and leaned against the fence and raised the small cheap camera he carried and took a picture of nothing in particular and lowered the camera again. He was standing where Moss had stood four nights ago. He studied the blood on the walk. Where it trailed off to nothing he stopped and stood with his arms folded and his chin in his hand. He didnt bother to take a picture. There was no one watching. He looked downriver at the slow green water. He walked a dozen steps and came back. He stepped into the roadway and crossed to the other side. A truck passed.  

Cormac McCarthy, No Country
for Old Men




Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and McCarthy’s

No Country for Old Men: Art and Artifice in the Novel


Steven Frye


McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men will certainly elicit much discussion, especially regarding the notable stylistic departure from his previous works. The new novel is lean, sparse, at times terse, arguably vivid and evocative in terms of language and scenes. Some readers may find merit and even innovation in this approach to narrative. Others may note a lack of the complexity, lyricism, and beauty we often associate with McCarthy’s prose. However, there is likely to be little disagreement that McCarthy’s latest novel is quite dissimilar to those that precede it. The reason for this departure may be simple. Perhaps McCarthy has run his artistic course, and No Country for Old Men (2005), sadly, represents the diminution of his artistic powers. Or it could be that the author’s motives are simply mercenary and careerist, insofar as we know that the novel was previously scheduled to be adapted into film. The first explanation seems implausible, since the shift in style is so studied, precise, and seemingly intentional, displaying still a strong sense of artistic control. The second motive partially explains, but only partially, since McCarthy’s storied willingness to remain reclusive and to leave promotion to others makes a complete sell-out seem unlikely. Historically, he has simply valued the integrity of his art too highly. I want to at least explore the possibility that his selection of the title is not incidental, that his use of the first line of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1983) bears in significant ways upon the meaning of the book. This poem contrasts the prosaic and sensual world of the here and now with the transcendent and timeless world of beauty in art, and the first line, “That is no country for old men,” refers to an artless world of impermanence and sensual pleasure. I want to posit, somewhat tentatively, that the title is at least one key to the stylistic departure that characterizes the novel and that perhaps, if the novel is read in the context of the title,we might  discover a motive behind its distinctiveness. The main narrative displays it seems (in contrast to the interior monologues of Sheriff Bell) a deliberate lack of artifice, or at least the appearance of such, and an intentional eschewing of the overtly lyrical and poetic qualities of the prose we associate with McCarthy. We might assume, then, given the themes and contrasts posited in “Sailing to Byzantium,” that McCarthy is toying with the idea that an overly aestheticized prose is a problematic way to characterize a commonplace, transient, death-strewn world. On the surface this might seem to be an argument against the aesthetic that defines his previous novels, but McCarthy is ever the experimentalist, testing new ideas and approaches to see how they work. His experiment with a less lyrical style may in fact be a deliberate attempt to bring this style into line with his world. Given the Yeats poem’s ultimate celebration of the fruits of artistic creation, we might also tease out some of the same contrasts in No Country for Old Men, which appear in the intimation of a realm outside the harsh country, and in a tonality of hope that is less present in his other works, especially in those preceding the Border Trilogy.

To explore these possibilities, we must first begin with the Yeats poem, in an attempt to clarify McCarthy’s motivation for borrowing the title from the first line. The poem begins,


Continue reading

“but which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.”

He squatted over the wolf miniature schnauzer and touched her fur. He
touched the cold and perfect teeth. The eye turned to the fire gave back no light and he closed it with his thumb and sat by her and put his hand upon her bloodied forehead and closed his own eyes that he could see her running in the mountains, running in the starlight where the grass was wet and the sun’s coming as yet had not undone the rich matrix of creatures passed in the night before her. Deer and bare and dove and groundvole all richly empaneled on the air for her delight, all nations of the possible world ordained by God of which she was one among and not separate from. Where she ran the cries of the coyotes clapped shut as if a door had closed upon them and all was fear and marvel. He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.


—from Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing


some of the history behind cormac mccarthy’s blood meridian: glimpses of the real-life judge holden

Samuel E. Chamberlain (1829 – 1908) was a soldier, painter, and author who travelled throughout the American Southwest and Mexico.  Chamberlain was a participant in the era’s Texas/Mexico border disputes and rode with the infamous Glanton gang, commanded by the truly frightening John Glanton. Chamberlain’s My Confession was a key source for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and is the only personal document written by a member of Glanton’s gang: 
The second in command, now left in charge of the camp, was a man of gigantic size called “Judge” Holden of Texas. Who or what he was no one knew but a cooler blooded villain never went unhung; he stood six feet six in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression. His desires was blood and women, and terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name, in the Cherokee nation and Texas; and before we left Frontreras a little girl of ten years was found in the chapperal, foully violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed him out as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand, but though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime. (271)




Holden was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico; he conversed with all in their own language, spoke in several Indian lingos, at a fandango would take the Harp or Guitar from the hands of the musicians and charm all with his wonderful performance, and out-waltz any poblana of the ball. He was “plum centre” with rifle or revolver, a daring horseman, acquainted with the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, great in Geology and Mineralogy, in short another Admirable Crichton, and with all an arrant coward. Not but that he possessed enough courage to fight Indians and Mexicans or anyone where he had the advantage in strength, skill and weapons, but where the combat would be equal, he would avoid it if possible. I hated him at first sight, and he knew it, yet nothing could be more gentle and kind than his deportment towards me; he would often seek conversation with me and speak of Massachusetts and to my astonishment I found he knew more about Boston than I did. (271–272)




He also was fluent regarding the ancient races of Indians that at a remote period covered the desert with fields of corn, wheat, barley and melons, and built large cities with canals bringing water from rivers hundreds of miles distant. To my question “how he knew all this,” this encyclopaedian Scalp Hunter replied, “Nature, these rocks, this little broken piece of clay (holding up a little fragment of painted pottery such are found all over the desert), the ruins scattered all over the land, tell me the story of the past.” (283–284)


 —from Samuel E. Chamberlain, My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue. New York: Harper, 1956. The excerpts above are cited in John Sepich’s Notes on Blood Meridian, University of Texas Press, (2008).


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


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harold bloom on the fading american dream and the deepening american nightmare


I might have thought the American Dream had ended, but the election of Barack Obama makes a difference. He invoked our national dream in his victory speech, an important citation though edged by the ill omens of financial and economic disaster both at home and abroad (I write on 20 November, 2008).


Like so many potent social myths, the American Dream is devoid of clear meanings, whether in journalistic accounts or in academic analyses. The major American writers who have engaged the dream—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—have been aware of this haziness and of attendant ironies. And yet they have affirmed, however ambivalently, that it must be possible to have a nation in which all of us are free to develop our singularities into health, prosperity, and some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement. Call this Emerson’s Party of Hope, whose current prophet and leader is the still untested President-Elect Obama.


Let us call the Other Side the American Nightmare, from Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville through T.S. Eliot and Faulkner onto our varied contemporaries such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. Between Faulkner and these came Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, and Ralph Ellison. Dreamers of nightmare realities and irrealities, these superb writers are not altogether in Emerson’s opposing camp, the Party of Memory because, except for Poe, Eliot and O’Connor, they shared the American freedom from dogma.


But they dwelled on our addiction to violence, endemic from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab through Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, and on our constant involuntary parodying of hopes for a more humane life.


What are we to believe about our nature and destiny in the sea of history that has engulfed so many other nations? We make terrible blunders, of which the Iraqi War and our current financial panic are merely the most recent, and only rarely can they be mitigated. Our American Dream always is likelier to bring forth another Jay Gatsby than a reborn Huck Finn. Our innocence is difficult to distinguish from ignorance, a problematical theme throughout the novels and stories of Henry James, our strongest novelist even as Walt Whitman remains our more-than-major poet. What Whitman discerned (in Emerson’s wake) was the American Adam, unfallen and dazzling as the sun. Is that national myth sustained by the extraordinary rise of Barack Obama?


Eight years from now we may be able to answer that question. A country without a monarch and a hereditary nobility must find its heroes in the American Presidency, an absurd ground for such a search ever since the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, almost a century and a half ago. Emerson’s Party of Hope trusts for a reversal, in the name of the American Dream.


—from The American Dream, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)