Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reading group: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

Doug suggested this novel because, he said somewhat provocatively, he thought it was time we had a 'boys' book'.

In fact, it's a novel that sets out to subvert the conventions of the Western. It's based on real-life events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s and follows the fortunes of 'the kid', a fourteen-year-old boy who joins the infamous Glanton gang charged with running down Indians for their scalps but ultimately killing all in their way and turning in the end on each other.

Doug said he loved the novel, most especially for its stunning descriptions of the landscape, conveyed in a lyrical prose involving evocative verbal innovations/archaisms which we had already appreciated when we read McCarthy's The Road. He felt odd about this, however, loving the beauty of these descriptions, when at the same time the violence enacted by the gang and others was so graphically depicted and in such a sustained way. As for McCormac's message about the violence, he thought that, unlike that of conventional Westerns, it was that all parties were guilty of it, indigenous peoples and Europeans. (The book also subverts more recent views of the Indians as innocent and peaceful victims.) He was bowled over by McCormac's invention of the character of the white-gang member called the judge, a kind of superhuman being, huge and hairless and cultivated among illiterates yet the personification of violence. Doug reiterated that he felt odd about loving the lyrical aspect of the book, yet added only half-ironically that he'd have joined the Glanton gang, indicating, I think, that for him the book did not after all entirely succeed in subverting the boys'-wishfulfiment of traditional Westerns.

I said that while I'd had problems with the disjunction between the psyches of the characters and the descriptions of the landscape in Annie Proulx's Postcards (which we discussed last time), I felt that here the disjunction was authorially intentional and very interesting. I thought that what McCormac was consciously doing was placing the human figures and their violence as part of that landscape, no less a part of it than the animals and the geographic elements. Ann strongly agreed. Human violence, as a result, is an elemental force against which human morality and cultivation are impotent, and the judge is a kind of totem of this. He is supremely accomplished in all the human arts and civilised systems: he knows the law and legalese (hence his moniker) and several languages. He can play musical instruments and dance and draw beautifully; he knows Darwinian theory. But every natural thing he draws he must afterwards mutilate or erase. Nothing exists, he explains at one point, unless he owns it. Once he possesses them by drawing them, he can obliterate natural objects or the artefacts of ancient civiliations. Through the figure of the judge, even the human systems of cultivation are exposed as immoral and violent. The kid, as the motherless and illiterate son of a schoolmaster descended into drunkenness, is himself an icon of the precariousness of civilisation, and John said it was interesting that the novel began with echoes of David Copperfield, and then totally subverted that novel's theme of the making of a moral conscience. The kid is indeed the one member of the Glanton gang who tries, on several occasions, to act morally and to save others, but as the judge points out to him at the end of the novel, his apparently moral choices end in disaster, with death.  The most moving and symbolic instance is when, years after the Glanton gang has dispersed, or rather imploded, and he is travelling alone, the kid comes upon a massacred wagon train with just one old woman remaining, sitting upright in the sand. He kneels in front of her and delivers a long speech about how she must come with him, he will take her to safety, before she keels over, revealed as a mummified husk. Ann, Doug and Trevor agreed that this was a very moving moment. Ann said it had occurred to her that the judge represented all the seemingly cultivated dictators of our contemporary world who nevertheless indulge in barbarous practices, and I thought that was a very interesting point.

Trevor then spoke about some of the moments he'd found particularly vivid, such as when the Glanton gang are first invited as conquering heroes by the governor of a town to an elegant dinner, and end up trashing everything. Meanwhile, at some time during the discussion, Clare had said that she hadn't liked the novel at all, had hated the violence and had been unable to continue with it. Up to this point Jenny, a criminologist, hadn't spoken at all, and now she said that she too hated the book. She said that what she really objected to was the utter lack of engagement with the subjective experience of violence from the victims' point of view: the fear, and the loss, the psychological damage which is far, far worse than the physical violence.

I said that that was a feeling that I'd had too as I read the book. In fact, I had found the book a very difficult read, and the only way I'd managed to get it read was to set myself a certain number of pages to read each day and stick to it.  But when I got to the end I decided that that perspective - the emotional experience of the victim - was one that the author had deliberately eschewed, along with all interiority, in order to make his political point about the elemental nature of violence. Ann agreed: she said that she had found it difficult to read too; she had had to skip over the violence, and had wanted to dwell on the landscape descriptions but had found herself pushed on by the next (violent) episode, but when she got to the end, she'd had the same experience as me: she found the book an interesting political and artistic experiment.

For Jenny, though, this just didn't justify the omission. In any case, she said, historically at the time there were authorities sending people out to these frontiers to colonise the West, authorities who thus had a moral responsibility but were turning a blind eye, and this was a dimension totally overlooked by the book. I think she felt that fundamentally the book had abdicated a moral responsibility of literature, and in the end I and, I think, others were unsure...

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
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