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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paul ricoeur on narrative, identity and robert musil


The lesson that narrativity also has its unsettling cases is taught to perfection in contemporary plays and novels. To begin with, these cases can be described as fictions of the loss of identity. With Robert Musil, for example, The Man without Qualities — or more precisely, without properties (ohne Eingenschaften) — becomes ultimately nonidentifiable in a world, it is said, of qualities (or properties) without men. The anchor of the proper noun becomes ridiculous to the point of being superfluous. The nonidentifiable becomes the unnameable. To see more clearly the philosophical issues in this eclipse of the identity of the character, it is important to note that, as the narrative approaches the point of annihilation of the character, the novel also loses its own properly narrative qualities … To the loss of the identity of the character thus corresponds the loss of configuration of the narrative … these unsettling cases of narrativity can be reinterpreted as exposing selfhood by taking away the support of sameness.

—from Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992



maurice blanchot on writing in one’s (live) journal!

 “the recourse to the journal indicates

that he who writes doesn’t want to

break with contentment”


recourse to the “journal”

It is perhaps striking that from the moment the work becomes the search for art, from the moment it becomes literature, the writer increasingly feels the need to maintain a relation to himself. His feeling is one of extreme repugnance at losing his grasp upon himself in the interests of that neutral force, formless and bereft of any destiny, which is behind everything that gets written. This repugnance, or apprehension, is revealed by the concern, characteristic of so many authors, to compose what they call their “journal.” Such a preoccupation is far removed from the complacent attitudes usually described as Romantic. The journal is not essentially confessional; it is not one’s own story. It is a memorial. What must the writer remember? Himself: who he is when he isn’t writing, when he lives daily life, when he is alive and true, not dying and bereft of truth. But the tool he uses in order to recollect himself is, strangely, the very element of forgetfulness: writing. That is why, however, the truth of the journal lies not in the interesting, literary remarks to be found there, but in the insignificant details which attach it to daily reality. The journal represents the series of reference points which a writer establishes in order to keep track of himself when he begins to suspect the dangerous metamorphosis to which he is exposed. It is a route that remains viable; it is something like a watchman’s walkway upon ramparts: parallel to, overlooking, and sometimes skirting around the other path — the one where to stray is the endless task. Here true things are still spoken of. Here, whoever speaks retains his name and speaks in this name, and the dates he notes down belong in a shared time where what happens really happens. The journal — this book which is apparently altogether solitary — is often written out of fear and anguish at the solitude which comes to the writer on account of the work.


The recourse to the journal indicates that he who writes doesn’t want to break with contentment. He doesn’t want to interrupt the propriety of days which really are days and which really follow one upon the other. The journal roots the movement of writing in time, in the humble succession of days whose dates preserve this routine. Perhaps what is written there is already nothing but insincerity; perhaps it is said without regard for truth. But it is said in the security of the event. It belongs to occupations, incidents, the affairs of the world — to our active present. This continuity is nil and insignificant, but at least it is irreversible. It is a pursuit that goes beyond itself toward tomorrow, and proceeds there definitively.


The journal indicates that already the writer is no longer capable of belonging to time through the ordinary certainty of action, through the shared concerns of common tasks, of an occupation, through the simplicity of intimate speech, the force of unreflecting habit. He is no longer truly historical; but he doesn’t want to waste time either, and since he doesn’t know anymore how to do anything but write, at least he writes in response to his everyday history and in accord with the preoccupations of daily life. It happens that writers who keep a journal are the most literary of all, but perhaps this is precisely because they avoid, thus, the extreme of literature, if literature is ultimately the fascinating realm of time’s absence.


The Space of Literature (ペーパーバック) 




martin amis on updike’s prose

The master’s voice

John Updike’s late stories are not his best, but they are a lesson in love.


By Martin Amis


The Guardian, Saturday 4 July 2009


The following wedge of prose has two things wrong with it: one big thing and one little thing – one infelicity and one howler. Read it with attention. If you can spot both,then you have what is called a literary ear.


… Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land.


The minor flaw is the proximity of prior and prime. This gives us a dissonant rime riche on the first syllable; and the two words, besides, are etymological half-siblings, and should never be left alone together without many intercessionary chaperones. And the major flaw? The first sentence ends with the words “his land”; and so, with a resonant clunk, does the second. Mere quibbles, some may say. But we are addressing ourselves to John Updike, who was perhaps the greatest virtuoso stylist since Nabokov – who, in his turn, was perhaps the greatest virtuoso stylist since Joyce.


So, the portrait of the artist as an old man: this is a murky and glutinous vista (and one of increasingly urgent interest to the present reviewer, who is closing in on 60). My broad impression is that writers, as they age, lose energy (inspiration, musicality, imagistic serendipity) but gain in craft (the knack of knowing what goes where). Medical science has granted us a new phenomenon: the octogenarian novel. And one thinks, with respect, of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein and Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest; yet no one would seriously compare these books to Humboldt’s Gift and Harlot’s Ghost. Updike was 76 when he died. And for many years he suffered from partial deafness. I don’t know (perhaps nobody knows) whether the two afflictions are connected, but the fact is that Updike, in My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, is in the process of losing his ear.


This piece would have gone unwritten if its subject were still alive. In the last three decades I have published about 15,000 words of more or less unqualified praise of John Updike, and his achievement remains immortal. The most astonishing page in the new collection is the one headed “Books by John Updike”: 62 volumes, many of them enormously long. His productivity was preternatural: it made you think of a berserk IVF pregnancy, or a physiological condition (pressure on the cortex?), or – more realistically, given his Depression-shadowed childhood – a Protestant work ethic taken to the point of outright fanaticism. My Father’s Tears is Updike’s last book, and perhaps his least distinguished. But it ends, all the same, with the glimmer, the thwarted promise, of a happier ending.


Readers must now prepare themselves for quotation, and a blizzard of false quantities – by which I mean those rhymes and chimes and inadvertent repetitions, those toe-stubs, those excrescences and asperities that all writers hope to expunge from their work (or at least radically minimise: you never get them all). Updike’s prose, that fantastic engine of euphony, of first-echelon perception, and of a wit both vicious and all-forgiving, has in this book lost its compass. Formerly, you used to reread Updike’s sentences in a spirit of incredulous admiration. Here, too often, you reread them wondering a) what they mean, or b) why they’re there, or c) how they survived composition, routine reappraisal, and proof-checking without causing a spasm of horrified self-correction.


ants make mounds like coffee grounds …
polished bright by sliding anthracite …
my bride became allied in my mind …
except for her bust, abruptly outthrust …


This quatrain is not an example of Updike’s light verse; the lines consist of four separate examples of wantonly careless prose. Similarly: “alone on a lonely afternoon”, “Lee’s way of getting away from her”, ” his rough-and-tumble, roughly equal matches with women”, and “a soft round arm wrapped around her face”. One sentence contains “walking” and “sidewalk”; another contains “knowing” and “knew”; another contains “year”, “yearbook”, and “year”.


“For what is more intimate even than sex but death?” Well, you know what he means (after a moment or two), but shouldn’t that “but” be another “than” (which, I agree, wouldn’t be any good either). “Fleischer had attained, in private, to licking her feet.” Attained? And we surely don’t need to be told that Fleischer isn’t licking her feet in public. Or take this (from the title story) as an example of a sentence that audibly whimpers for a return to the drawing board: “He was taller than I, though I was not short, and I realised, his hand warm in mine while he tried to smile, that he had a different perspective than I.”


This isn’t much of a realisation; and by the time you get to the repeated “than I”, the one-letter first-person pronoun (which chimes with “realised” and “mine” and “tried” and “smile”) is as hypnotically conspicuous as, say, “antidisestablishmentarianism”. Let us end these painful quotes with what may be the most indolent period ever committed to paper by a major pen (and one so easy to fix: change the first “fall” to “autumn”, or change the second “fall” to “drop”): “The grapes make a mess on the bricks in the fall; nobody ever thinks to pick them up when they fall.” The most ridiculous thing about this sentence, somehow, is its stately semi-colon.


Considered as mere narratives, the stories are as quietly inconclusive as Updike’s stories usually are; but now, denuded of a vibrant verbal surface, they sometimes seem to be neither here nor there – products of nothing more than professional habit. Then, too, you notice a loss of organisational control and, in one case, a loss of any sense of propriety. This is “Varieties of Religious Experience”, which concerns itself with September 11. First we get a strongish eyewitness account of the falling towers; then Mohammed Atta ordering his fourth scotch in a Floridan gogo bar; then an executive in the North Tower minutes after impact; then United 93 and the passengers’ (weirdly telescoped) revolt. This story appeared in November 2002: fatally premature, and fatally unearned. Death, elsewhere appropriately seen as infinitely mysterious, august and royal – as “the distinguished thing”, in Henry James’s last words – is treated here without decorum and without taste.


I said earlier that My Father’s Tears contains the rumour of a happier ending. These stories are presented in chronological order, and after a while the reader feels a disquieting suspense. How far will the degeneration advance? Will the last few pages be unadorned gibberish? This doesn’t happen; and the lost trust in the author begins to be partly restored. The prose takes on solidity and balance; Updike, here, is attempting less, and successfully evokes the “inner dwindling”, the ever-narrower horizon imposed by time. This perhaps would have been Updike’s very last phase. And the reader closes the book with a restive sadness that death has deprived us of it.


“The Full Glass”, the final story, seems to me to be quietly innovative, like the ending of “The Walk with Elizanne” (where the literary imagination boldly rescues a failing memory). VS Pritchett, on his 90th birthday, said to me in an interview: “As one gets older one becomes very boring and long-winded to oneself. One’s thoughts are long-winded, whereas before they were really rather nice and agitated. The story is a form of travel … Travelling through minds and situations which reveal their strangeness to you. Old age kills travel.”

I suggest without irony that Updike’s last challenge might have been to turn long-windedness into art – and to make boredom interesting.


Age waters the writer down. The most terrible fate of all is to lose the ability to impart life to your creations (your creations, in other words, are dead on arrival). Other novelists simply fall out of love with the reader; this was true of James, and also of Joyce (who never much cared for the reader in the first place: what he cared for was words). Not so with Updike, even in these loose and straitened pages. As you might see on a signpost in his beloved American countryside (while approaching some stoical little township), the stories here are “Thickly Settled”. Updike’s creations live, and authorial love is what sustains them. He put it very plainly in his memoir, Self-Consciousness: “Imitation is praise. Description expresses love.” That love, at least, never began to weaken.






céline’s prose style explained, plus more from normance . . .

. . . Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel. 


. . . Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar: 


Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines. 


—just then—




—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican. 

Compare to Céline’s:

I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!

Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante’s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.

. . . Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narratorof Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.

…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them… 


—from Steve Finbow, “Roaring Up from the Depths”

Cover Image


Ferdinand versus Jules “the jerk-off artist”:

— Hey, Jules! Hey, Jules!

He could at least answer!

— You try calling him!

He gestures to us to leave him alone… he’s sulking… brooding…

— Leave me the fuck alone!

I can hear him clearly… between two tremendous bombs… a moment of calm… he wants a drink! Ah, a drink?… he’s outta luck!

The whole garden is flaming, all the shrubs…

It’s amazing that he doesn’t catch on fire, and his gondola and platform with him! considering the waves of sparks!

— Hey bozo, in the cart! jump! weirdo!

He called me a Kraut, a spy! a traitor! I can talk trash as well! all the names in the book!

— Faggot! hey, faggot!

— Please, Ferdinand! Take it easy!…

Always trying to calm me down! me, so tolerant and fair!… me, who he’d offended horribly! and publicly! and intentionally!…

— I hope your Jules roasts, the pig! the sub-pig! you were in on it together? tell me you were! admit it!

— No, Louis, calm down! Of course not!

— I hope that bozo of yours roasts! your fondler! I’d like to see him glazed in the flames all right! he’s poised for it! right into the pot!

Vrrouum! vrroum!

You’re probably finding me monotonous… I’m imitating the ruckus… what can I do? that’s how it is, period!… twenty squads fly over us, seething…

Ah! the windmill is leaning! and us! our whole building!… a powerful puff of air!… up above, Jules pitches against the rail, I think he’s going to crash through… no! he slams into it and ricochets off to the other side… he was thirsty, the gondolier now it must be a bit worse! he must have no tongue left!… it’s a dry wind from Levallois! even in our room, we’re baking in this heat!… especially our eyes! our eyes! our eyelids won’t close!… I’m not making it up!… the people who were there will tell you: an eruption! fifty… a hundred bomb craters spurting into the sky!… and not just in the sky, all around! and the windmill still isn’t burning! you want proof: Jules in all his glory on his skates! look how he maneuvers! and pivots! swerves! but he doesn’t break the barrier!… no! no!…

— Nut-job! Lunatic!

I howl at him!

He’s really taking a ride! his little platform is swaying, pitching, rolling and he’s still riding it in his gondola! from one railing to the other!… and in a hell of a wind! it’s blowing in from the Renault factory! from the west, a real oven! tornado after tornado! I’m not making any of this up! all the outskirts are an eruption… not just one little neighborhood!… the factories are torching!… the clown in his crate catches it all… right in the face! he’s a lot more exposed to the wind than we are… the whole windmill is leaning into the wind!… the whole frame… and the big strut and the ladder!… him up there, he rolls with the swells, pitching, then he shoots off again! if the platform really tips, that joker’s going to take a dive! in the lilacs! in the fire-and-phosphorous lilacs! jeez , he catches the railing! pivots! and off again! ah, he’s the acrobat of the elements! if he were overcome with rage, he’d fling himself off!… all the same I’m insulting him good and plenty! he tacks straight up against the swell… seems to me… I think… really!… they played a trick on him bringing him up there… or did he ask his pals to bring him? isn’t that the question?… there are strange forces at work, frequency waves, and more!… nothing would surprise me seeing how Jules behaves! the way he hangs onto his traffic light… acrobat artiste!

— Jump, you vampire!

There’s a little lull… the windmill straightens up… but the wind starts up again from the other side, towards Dufayel… a terrible aftershock!… this quake, I think this is it!

Sail, ship’s pup

The wind is up

I sing to him… he doesn’t give a fuck!… he throws himself against the other rail! his torso, face and nose are lit up… he’s all you see above Paris… naturally, being so high in the air! take a look at all the sparks hitting him! gust after gust!… even for us in our room, what swarms pouring in the window! crackling over us! we should have caught on fire too! we’re as lucky as Jules!

— I’m thirsty, Lili!… aren’t you thirsty?

She doesn’t answer… I shake her… I pick her up in my arms…

Aren’t you thirsty, Lili?

All she’s watching is Jules!… her eyes are glued to him! Jules up there, doing acrobatics with the bombs! I yell at him!

— Go on, chickie! dive!

It’s true, he’s stalling, the jerkoff artist!… I’m spurring him on!… he takes off at a zigzag, starts over! what a scene!… he’s never gonna break the rail!… and it’s flimsy too…


read more from Normance:

at long last: céline’s last novel, normance, now translated into english!


The last of Céline’s novels to be translated into English, this account of an air attack on Paris during World War II shows a hallucinatory, altered space in which human aggressions, appetites, and suspicion come boiling to the surface in preposterous dimensions. A frantic narrator, in search of complicity, relates the story of an apocalyptic ballet that leaves reason and order in shreds, as bombing turns Montmartre into an underworld teeming with dirty deeds, while our guide resists the inhumanity with animal desperation and robust hilarity. Céline animates the events with the exuberance and speed of his narrative style, fully developed and uninhibited, and fully his own. 


“By 1943, Céline’s only


was that the war had not been

destructive enough.”

Andrew Hussey, “Death Sentences” 

In the early hours of 21 April 1944, the combined might of the British and US air forces launched a series of raids on the northern edges of Paris. It was the first time the city had been bombed since the First World War. The assault went on for two days and the results were horrifying a convent destroyed, entire apartment blocks wrecked, more than 600 people killed, and the quarter of Montmartre drenched in sewage and blood. From the Allied point of view the raid was high-risk and possibly counterproductive: the Normandy landings were only months away and the bombing might have made an already volatile population even more pro-German. In fact, the raids infuriated ordinary Parisians, and gave Marshal Pétain reason to rail against the brutality of the Allied forces.


It is those deadly nights that are the background for Normance, here published in English for the first time and not really a novel, but rather a highly poeticised account of life at street level under the onslaught. There is no real story as such, but rather a nightmarish description of a group of neighbours in Paris  loosely based on Céline and his entourage  who find themselves bombed out on to the streets of the city and into a mini-apocalypse. They drink, argue, search for a lost cat, and look for shelter in the Métro and the local bar. The prevailing tone of delirium and ever-present danger makes this no easy read: Céline’s prose is elliptical and staccato, driven by the nerve-shredding tension of surviving a city under siege. Most crucially, the text is written with all the demonic and feverish logic of a hallucination. The effect is mesmerising; in a translation that is fluid, elegant and faithful to the original in both tone and meaning, Céline more than justifies his reputation as one of the best writers of French prose of the 2oth century, on a par with Proust and Camus.


This book is also both compelling and disturbing because it was written by and from the point of view of a virulently pro-Nazi anti-Semite. Céline became famous in the 1930s as the author of the bestselling Journey to the End of the Night, an account of Parisian lowlife that was praised by Gide, Trotsky and Orwell. By the end of the decade, Céline was notorious as the author of a series of “pamphlets” that called for the extinction of the Jewish race and argued for Hitler as the saviour of Europe. He welcomed the arrival of the German forces as “a necessary tonic”, writing: “If you really want to get rid of Jews then you need racism: and it must be total and inexorable. Like complete Pasteur sterilisation.”


By 1943, Céline’s only disappointment was that the war had not been destructive enough. Unsurprisingly, by the time he came to write Normance, he was one of the chief targets of the Resistance, which posted small black coffins to warn him that he was under sentence of death. When the war was over, Céline barely escaped a firing squad, retreating to his lair just outside Paris after a spell in prison, snarling and unrepentant, muttering still about Jewish conspiracies and the end of the world, his hatred clearly more pathological than political.


But this is precisely why it is essential to read hiswork. Normance uncovers the real emotional climate of Paris during the Occupation in all its ambiguous, terrible complexity. This is shocking only because the English-speaking countries have never taken seriously the deep reservoirs of poison that ate away at French political life in the 1930s. But the signs had already been there in the art of the period  in a generation that hated the French Republican tradition enough to betray it. By this logic, Céline is not only a great writer, but a prophet, one of the truest and most authentic literary voices of the French 20th century.


—from New Statesman, June 4, 2009


the opening of Céline’s Normance:  

Telling it all after the fact . . . easier said than done! . . . much easier! . . . After all, you can still hear the echo . . . baboom! your head’s spinning . . . even seven years later . . . your mug . . . time’s nothing, memory’s what matters . . . that and all the world’s infernos . . . all the people we’ve lost . . . the sorrows . . . your pals scattered . . .the nice ones . . . the not-so-nice ones . . . the forgetful ones . . . the blades of the windmill . . . and the echo that’s still beating you down . . . it’ll still be there when they dump me in my grave! . . . Talk about a wind! . . . I’ve had it up to here! . . . the old belly, too! . . . kaboom! . . . I feel it . . . it sinks in . . . my bones quivering, right there in my bed . . . I won’t lose you, though! . . . I’ll catch up with you somewhere or other, down the line . . . that’s all you need! character! . . . rags in the wind! . . . that’s for sure . . . baboom! . . . I’m telling you, they brought me back up! . . . I was telling you they carried me back like Marlborough . . . you know? when they put him in the ground? . . . me, I was in the air . . . with four . . . five knights and ladies-in-waiting . . . Lili told me . . . all seven flights! . . . I’d fallen down the elevator shaft, ’cause the door was open . . . no! . . . further than that . . . I fell even further! . . . into the cellar! . . . Baroom! . . . calling out for Lili! . . . calling out for Bébert . . . calling out for everyone! . . . they’d gathered me up outside . . . the four knights and ladies, to take me back up to my place . . . it’s nothing new, all this baroom, baroom stuff! . . . been going on since ’14, to tell the truth . . . November ’14 . . . baroom! . . . I was thrown into the air by a shell, thrown! . . . lifted right up! . . . I mean a big one! a “107”! . . . on my mare, “Demolition”! in the rear-guard! . . . Saber shining! . . . talk about a wind! I was flying away! . . . just get a load of him! . . . it’s the memories that really unnerve me! . . . you’ll see . . . I’ll gather them all up! . . . I’ll fly away! . . . I won’t keep anything from you! . . . tattered rags of ’14 . . . of ’18 . . . ’35 . . . ’44 . . . I count . . . I recount! . . . I recapture it all! . . . like on the day when we used to count the linens to make sure nothing had gone missing! . . . like the notes on Jules’s bugle! . . . off you go! . . . tatters blowing this way! . . . tatters blowing that way! . . . underpants! . . . C sharp! . . . handkerchiefs! . . . I’ll unjumble it all for you! . . . you won’t believe my quick little hands . . . such deftness! . . . I’ll put it all back! . . . in perfect shape! . . . you’ll be delighted! . . . I’ll really do it right! . . . a piece here . . . a piece there! . . . Baroom! . . . a huge quake rocks the whole Goutte d’Or area! . . . Grandes-Carrières too! What am I saying? Out to Dufayel! . . . and even farther! higher up! my head’s spinning! Oh, and Sacré-Cœur! La Savoyarde, the great bell, the space gong! . . . you heard of it? the Butte

’s big alarm bell! . . . the house quaking! . . . so you can imagine, me, with my spinning head! . . . and they brought me back up! with good intentions! they told me! . . . home again! the building’s seven stories high! I should have told them: you’re hurting me! there were six of them . . . Ottavio, Charmoise . . . Mr. Vluve and Madame Gendron and Arlette . . . I’d fallen down the shaft . . . right onto the elevator car! . . . it’s a good thing the goddamn car was stopped on the sixth floor! . . . any lower and the fall would’ve killed me! . . . I’d only taken a twenty-foot dive! . . . could’ve broken every bone . . . cracked my skull open again!
. . . they asked me: You okay? “you okay” . . . very clever!
— No, I’m not! How’s Bébert?
That’s how I am, body and soul . . . my concern . . . my first thought: my cat.
— Forget about Bébert . . . what about you?
They were worried, especially Ottavio and Charmoise, they knew what bad shape I was in, first of all overworked as hell! and then, excuse me! whack! black and blue! cracks! bruises! . . . they could see! . . .

— No fractures, darling? anything fractured?

I’m a doctor, right? I am, yes! I couldn’t even open my eyes! . . . I’d fallen right on my eyebrows! . . . split the sockets right open! nothing else broken, though! No, just bleeding all over my face . . . especially at the temples . . . I was dripping everywhere . . . real beat up, you might say! . . . a little lower and I could’ve killed myself . . . say the car was on the first floor? . . . I’m telling you! . . . my luck! . . . but I’d had a hell of a blow to the head! . . . dizziness! pulsating! . . . I was throwing up because of it, in my bed! . . . fucking everything up! and I knew it! . . . too bad! courage first! . . . I sneak a peak out of one eye, I have a look around . . . the dresser’s not against the wall anymore . . . the little fucker’s waltzed off! . . . right out the door . . . gone dancing out onto the landing! . . . the building shaking like crazy! what an uproar! all the landings rattling!

— So, Lili? Lili? what happened? the dresser took off?

They’re all answering me at once . . . I can’t understand a thing . . . I’m still buzzing too much . . . there I am, flat on my bed . . . It’s not just the dresser . . . there’s other furniture doing a polka to the door . . . bumping into each other and stomping on each other’s feet! . . . it’s the bombing . . . she’s a frisky little one, our dresser! . . . here she is, coming back towards us down the hallway! . . .

So I was telling you, Ottavio, Charmoise, and Mr. & Mrs. Gendron carried me back to my bed…They found me on the sewer grate in front of Jules’s place . . . Arlette is making me some chamomile tea . . . Arlette, that’s Lili . . . she’s the most loving of loving souls, really! Arlette Lili . . . she has to try and keep her balance with that cup full of tea! . . . the hallway’s rolling . . . surging . . . from one end to the other . . . She better keep away from the dresser . . . but look, Lili’s agility incarnate!

— Some chamomile, Ferdinand? Some chamomile?

They all insist I drink something hot . . .

— What, Ferdinand? What?

I can’t tell if it’s the shock or what, but everybody seems even more stupefied than I am, all my pallbearer friends . . . all they can say is, What, Ferdinand? . . . what? . . . what? . . . I can hardly hear them . . . what? . . . what? what? And I’ve got some of my own noises to worry about . . . I already told you . . . like the bombs! boy, are they coming down! cluster after cluster! And then there’s not just that dresser shimmying in the hallway, there’s the rumble of the cannons and Lili with her cup . . . ping! ping! . . . it’s all settled, it’s over, no more alarms . . . but Jesus! the bombs! . . . they’ve got timers, a delay on them, apparently . . . Baboom! it’s really something! . . .

–Lili! Lili!

I call her.

— To hell with your cup!

I don’t want her to leave me! . . . I don’t want her to go back down to Jules’s place! We have enough water, we have enough milk! If not, we can do without it!

My eyes are gummed up, lined with blood, swollen shut . . . she kisses me, she kisses everything! blood, eyebrows, my split brow . . . my temples . . . she licks me oh so gently, that’s adoration for you . . . she really loves me . . .

You often get adoration like that when your life is slipping away . . . 





Ferdinand & Bébert

Ferdinand & Bébert












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harold bloom on the visionary in cormac mccarthy’s blood meridian and all the pretty horses

They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.



Bookseller Photo 


Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2010 than it was twenty-five years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian, much as I appreciate Don DeLillo’s Underworld; Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, Sabbath’s Theater, and American Pastoral; and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. McCarthy himself, in his Border Trilogy, commencing with the superb All the Pretty Horses, has not matched Blood Meridian, but it is the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.

My concern being the reader, I will begin by confessing that my first two attempts to read through Blood Meridian failed, because I flinched from the overwhelming carnage that McCarthy portrays. The violence begins on the novel’s second page, when the fifteen-year-old Kid is shot in the back and just below the heart, and continues almost with no respite until the end, thirty years later, when Judge Holden, the most frightening figure in all of American literature, murders the Kid in an outhouse. So appalling are the continuous massacres and mutilations of Blood Meridian that one could be reading a United Nations report on the horrors of Kosovo in 1999.

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence—its language, landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and convert goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s. When I teach the book, many of my students resist it initially (as I did, and as some of my friends continue to do). Television saturates us with actual as well as imagined violence, and I turn away, either in shock or in disgust. But I cannot turn away from Blood Meridian, now that I know how to read it, and why it has to be read. None of its carnage is gratuitous or redundant; it belonged to the Mexico–Texas borderlands in 1849–50, which is where and when most of the novel is set. I suppose one could call Blood Meridian a “historical novel,” since it chronicles the actual expedition of the Glanton gang, a murderous paramilitary force sent out both by Mexican and Texan authorities to murder and scalp as many Indians as possible. Yet it does not have the aura of historical fiction, since what it depicts seethes on, in the United States, and nearly everywhere else, well into the third millennium. Judge Holden, the prophet of war, is unlikely to be without honor in our years to come.

Even as you learn to endure the slaughter McCarthy describes, you become accustomed to the book’s high style, again as overtly Shakespearean as it is Faulknerian. There are passages of Melvillean-Faulknerian baroque richness and intensity in The Crying of Lot 49, and elsewhere in Pynchon, but we can never be sure that they are not parodistic. The prose of Blood Meridian soars, yet with its own economy, and its dialogue is always persuasive, particularly when the uncanny Judge Holden speaks (chapter 14): 

The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. 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.


Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everything on this earth, he said.


The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Judge Holden is the spiritual leader of Glanton’s filibusters, and McCarthy persuasively gives the self-styled judge a mythic status, appropriate for a deep Machiavelli whose “thread of order” recalls Iago’s magic web, in which Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio are caught. Though all of the more colorful and murderous raiders are vividly characterized for us, the killing-machine Glanton with the others, the novel turns always upon its two central figures, Judge Holden and the Kid. We first meet the Judge on page 6: an enormous man, bald as a stone, no trace of a beard, and eyes without either brows or lashes. A seven-foot-tall albino, he almost seems to have come from some other world, and we learn to wonder about the Judge, who never sleeps, dances and fiddles with extraordinary art and energy, rapes and murders little children of both sexes, and who says that he will never die. By the book’s close, I have come to believe that the Judge is immortal. And yet the Judge, while both more and less than human, is as individuated as Iago or Macbeth, and is quite at home in the Texan–Mexican borderlands where we watch him operate in 1849–50, and then find him again in 1878, not a day older after twenty-eight years, though the Kid, a sixteen-year-old at the start of Glanton’s foray, is forty-five when murdered by the Judge at the end.

McCarthy subtly shows us the long, slow development of the Kid from another mindless scalper of Indians to the courageous confronter of the Judge in their final debate in a saloon. But though the Kid’s moral maturation is heartening, his personality remains largely a cipher, as anonymous as his lack of a name. The three glories of the book are the Judge, the landscape, and (dreadful to say this) the slaughters, which are aesthetically distanced by McCarthy in a number of complex ways.

What is the reader to make of the Judge? He is immortal as principle, as War Everlasting, but is he a person, or something other? McCarthy will not tell us, which is all the better, since the ambiguity is most stimulating. Melville’s Captain Ahab, though a Promethean demigod, is necessarily mortal, and perishes with the Pequod and all its crew, except for Ishmael. After he has killed the Kid, Blood Meridian’s Ishmael, Judge Holden is the last survivor of Glanton’s scalping crusade. Destroying the Native American nations of the Southwest is hardly analogous to the hunt to slay Moby-Dick, and yet McCarthy gives us some curious parallels between the two quests. The most striking is between Melville’s chapter 19, where a ragged prophet, who calls himself Elijah, warns Ishmael and Queequeg against sailing on the Pequod, and McCarthy’s chapter 4, where “an old disordered Mennonite” warns the Kid and his comrades not to join Captain Worth’s filibuster, a disaster that preludes the greater catastrophe of Glanton’s campaign.

McCarthy’s invocation of Moby-Dick, while impressive and suggestive, in itself does not do much to illuminate Judge Holden for us. Ahab has his preternatural aspects, including his harpooner Fedellah and Parsee whaleboat crew, and the captain’s conversion to their Zoroastrian faith. Elijah tells Ishmael touches of other Ahabian mysteries: a three-day trance off Cape Horn, slaying a Spaniard in front of a presumably Catholic altar in Santa Ysabel, and a wholly enigmatic spitting into a “silver calabash.” Yet all these are transparencies compared to the enigmas of Judge Holden, who seems to judge the entire earth, and whose name suggests a holding, presumably of sway over all he encounters. And yet, the Judge, unlike Ahab, is not wholly fictive; like Glanton, he is a historic filibuster or freebooter. McCarthy tells us most in the Kid’s dream visions of Judge Holden, towards the close of the novel (chapter 22): 

In that sleep and in sleep to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon

his commencing.

I think that McCarthy is warning his reader that the Judge is Moby-Dick rather than Ahab. As another white enigma, the albino Judge, like the albino whale, cannot be slain. Melville, a professed Gnostic, who believed that some “anarch hand or cosmic blunder” had divided us into two fallen sexes, gives us a Manichean quester in Ahab. McCarthy gives Judge Holden the powers and purposes of the bad angels or demiurges that the Gnostics called archons, but he tells us not to make such an identification (as the critic Leo Daugherty eloquently has). Any “system,” including the Gnostic one, will not divide the Judge back into his origins. The “ultimate atavistic egg” will not be found. What can the reader do with the haunting and terrifying Judge?

Let us begin by saying that Judge Holden, though his gladsome prophecy of eternal war is authentically universal, is first and foremost a Western American, no matter how cosmopolitan his background (he speaks all languages, knows all arts and sciences, and can perform magical, shamanistic metamorphoses). The Texan–Mexican border is a superb place for a war-god like the Judge to be. He carries a rifle, mounted in silver, with its name inscribed under the checkpiece: Et In Arcadia Ego. In the American Arcadia, death is also always there, incarnated in the Judge’s weapon, which never misses. If the American pastoral tradition essentially is the Western film, then the Judge incarnates that tradition, though he would require a director light-years beyond the late Sam Peckinpah, whose The Wild Bunch portrays mildness itself when compared to Glanton’s paramilitaries. I resort though, as before, to Iago, who transfers war from the camp and the field to every other locale, and is a pyromaniac setting everything and everyone ablaze with the flame of battle. The Judge might be Iago before Othello begins, when the war-god Othello was still worshipped by his “honest” color officer, his ancient or ensign. The Judge speaks with an authority that chills me even as Iago leaves me terrified: 

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will 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. 

If McCarthy does not want us to regard the Judge as a Gnostic archon or supernatural being, the reader may still feel that it hardly seems sufficient to designate Holden as a nineteenth-century Western American Iago. Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them: 

They entered the city haggard and filthy and reeking with the blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted. The scalps of the slain villagers were strung from the windows of the governor’s house and the partisans were paid out of the all but exhausted coffers and the Sociedad was disbanded and the bounty rescinded. Within a week of their quitting the city there would be a price of eight thousand pesos posted for Glanton’s head.

I break into this passage, partly to observe that from this point on the filibusters pursue the way down and out to an apocalyptic conclusion, but also to urge the reader to hear, and admire, the sublime sentence that follows directly, because we are at the visionary center of Blood Meridian. 

They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.

Since Cormac McCarthy’s language, like Melville’s and Faulkner’s, frequently is deliberately archaic, the meridian of the title probably means the zenith or noon position of the sun in the sky. Glanton, the Judge, the Kid, and their fellows are not described as “tragic”—their long-suffering horses are— and they are “infatuate” and half-mad (“fond”) because they have broken away from any semblance of order. McCarthy knows, as does the reader, that an “order” urging the destruction of the entire Native American population of the Southwest is an obscene idea of order, but he wants the reader to know also that the Glanton gang is now aware that they are unsponsored and free to run totally amok. The sentence I have just quoted has a morally ambiguous greatness to it, but that is the greatness of Blood Meridian, and indeed of Homer and of Shakespeare. McCarthy so contextualizes the sentence that the amazing contrast between its high gestures and the murderous thugs who evoke the splendor is not ironic but tragic. The tragedy is ours, as readers, and not the Glanton gang’s, since we are not going to mourn their demise except for the Kid’s, and even there our reaction will be equivocal.

My passion for Blood Meridian is so fierce that I want to go on expounding it, but the courageous reader should now be (I hope) pretty well into the main movement of the book. I will confine myself here to the final encounter between the preternatural Judge Holden and the Kid, who had broken with the insane crusade twenty-eight years before, and now at middle age must confront the ageless Judge. Their dialogue is the finest achievement in this book of augmenting wonders, and may move the reader as nothing else in Blood Meridian does. I reread it perpetually and cannot persuade myself that I have come to the end of it.

The Judge and the Kid drink together, after the avenging Judge tells the Kid that this night his soul will be demanded of him. Knowing he is no match for the Judge, the Kid nevertheless defies Holden, with laconic replies playing against the Judge’s rolling grandiloquence. After demanding to know where their slain comrades are, the Judge asks: “And where is the fiddler and where the dance?” 

I guess you can tell me.


I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?


You aint nothin.

To have known Judge Holden, to have seen him in full operation, and to tell him that he is nothing, is heroic. “You speak truer than you know,” the Judge replies, and two pages later murders the Kid, most horribly. Blood Meridian, except for a one-paragraph epilogue, ends with the Judge triumphantly dancing and fiddling at once, and proclaiming that he never sleeps and he will never die. But McCarthy does not let Judge Holden have the last word. 

The strangest passage in Blood Meridian, the epilogue is set at dawn, where a nameless man progresses over a plain by means of holes that he makes in the rocky ground. Employing a two-handled implement, the man strikes “the fire out of the rock which God has put there.” Around the man are wanderers searching for bones, and he continues to strike fire in the holes, and then they move on. And that is all.

The subtitle of Blood Meridian is The Evening Redness in the West, which belongs to the Judge, last survivor of the Glanton gang. Perhaps all that the reader can surmise with some certainty is that the man striking fire in the rock at dawn is an opposing figure in regard to the evening redness in the West. The Judge never sleeps, and perhaps will never die, buta new Prometheus may be rising to go up against him.

All The Pretty Horses

If there is a pragmatic tradition of the American Sublime, then Cormac McCarthy’s fictions are its culmination. Moby-Dick and Faulkner’s major, early novels are McCarthy’s prime precursors. Melville’s Ahab fuses together Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists—Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth—and crosses them with a quest both Promethean and American. Even as Montaigne’s Plato became Emerson’s, so Melville’s Shakespeare becomes Cormac McCarthy’s. Though critics will go on associating McCarthy with Faulkner, who certainly affected McCarthy’s style in Suttree (1979), the visionary of Blood Meridian (1985) and The Border Trilogy (1992, 1994, 1998) has much less in common with Faulkner, and shares more profoundly in Melville’s debt to Shakespeare. 

Melville, by giving us Ahab and Ishmael, took care to distance the reader from Ahab, if not from his quest. McCarthy’s protagonists tend to be apostles of the will-to-identity, except for the Iago-like Judge Holden of Blood Meridian, who is the Will Incarnate. John Grady Cole, who survives in All the Pretty Horses only to be destroyed in Cities of the Plain, is replaced in The Crossing by Billy Parham, who is capable of learning what the heroic Grady Cole evades, the knowledge that Jehovah (Yahweh) holds in his very name: “Where that is I am not.” God will be present where and when he chooses to be present, and absent more often than present. 

The aesthetic achievement of All the Pretty Horses surpasses that of Cities of the Plain, if only because McCarthy is too deeply invested in John Grady Cole to let the young man (really still a boy) die with the proper distancing of authorial concern. No one will compose a rival to Blood Meridian, not even McCarthy, but All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing are of the eminence of Suttree. If I had to choose a narrative by McCarthy that could stand on its own in relation to Blood Meridian, it probably would be All the Pretty Horses. John Grady Cole quests for freedom, and discovers what neither Suttree nor Billy Parham needs to discover, which is that freedom in an American context is another name for solitude. The self’s freedom, for Cormac McCarthy, has no social aspect whatsoever.

I speak of McCarthy as visionary novelist, and not necessarily as a citizen of El Paso, Texas. Emerson identified freedom with power, only available at the crossing, in the shooting of a gulf, a darting to an aim. Since we care for Hamlet, even though he cares for none, we have to assume that Shakespeare also had a considerable investment in Hamlet. The richest aspect of All the Pretty Horses is that we learn to care strongly about the development of John Grady Cole, and perhaps we can surmise that Cormac McCarthy is also moved by this most sympathetic of his protagonists.

All the Pretty Horses was published seven years after Blood Meridian, and is set almost a full century later in history. John Grady Cole is about the same age as McCarthy would have been in 1948. There is no more an identification between McCarthy and the young Cole, who evidently will not live to see twenty, than there is between Shakespeare and Prince Hamlet. And yet the reverberation of an heroic poignance is clearly heard throughout All the Pretty Horses. It may be that McCarthy’s hard-won authorial detachment toward the Kid in Blood Meridian had cost the novelist too much, in the emotional register. Whether my surmise is accurate or not, the reader shares with McCarthy an affectionate stance toward the heroic youth at the center of All the Pretty Horses.

—from Cormac McCarthy, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)