Notes on Blood Meridian

December 26, 2023

I just finished rereading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—a third read, after reading it twice about ten years ago. The first time was a bit of a drag, though apparently it stuck with me enough to come back again. The second left a big impression. This third read bowled me over, leaving me pondering fan theories and listening to podcast analyses—and taking the time to write down a few of the passages that make the book so remarkable.

The book is often framed as an “anti-Western” that critiques America’s violent westward expansion. I think that radically undersells it. You could read it as a critique of humanity itself, which hits closer to the mark. But mostly I read it as a portrait of the universe, which McCarthy paints as deterministic, violent, amoral, and strange. The book is about 80% exquisite nature writing by volume, capturing the landscape as the Glanton gang wanders the North American west. 10% is appalling violence, and 10% is philosophy, expounded by both the abstract narrator and McCarthy’s unforgettable antagonist, the Judge.

Given that the book’s material is the world itself, perhaps it’s no surprise that McCarthy spends so much time on lavish, hallucinatory descriptions of nature. Here’s the Glanton gang first passing from the desert into the mountains:

They rode on into the mountains and their way took them through high pine forests, wind in the trees, lonely birdcalls. The shoeless mules slaloming through the dry grass and pine needles. In the blue coulees on the north slopes narrow tailings of old snow. They rode up switchbacks through a lonely aspen wood where the fallen leaves lay like golden disclets in the damp black trail. The leaves shifted in a million spangles down the pale corridors and Glanton took one and turned it like a tiny fan by its stem and held it and let it fall and its perfection was not lost on him. They rode through a narrow draw where the leaves were shingled up in ice and they crossed a high saddle at sunset where wild doves were rocketing down the wind and passing through the gap a few feet off the ground, veering wildly among the ponies and dropping off down into the blue gulf below.

Here they are in the desert, riding by night to avoid the sun:

They moved on and the stars jostled and arced across the firmament and died beyond the inkblack mountains. They came to know the nightskies well. Western eyes that read more geometric constructions than those names given by the ancients. Tethered to the polestar they rode the Dipper round while Orion rose in the southwest like a great electric kite. The sand lay blue in the moonlight and the iron tires of the wagons rolled among the shapes of the riders in gleaming hoops that veered and wheeled woundedly and vaguely navigational like slender astrolabes and the polished shoes of the horses kept hasping up like a myriad of eyes winking across the desert floor. They watched storms out there so distant they could not be heard, the silent lightning flaring sheetwise and the thin black spine of the mountain chain fluttering and sucked away again in the dark. They saw wild horses racing on the plain, pounding their shadows down the night and leaving in the moonlight a vaporous dust like the palest stain of their passing.

Here they are taking in the whole panorama:

In the evening they came out upon a mesa that overlooked all the country to the north. The sun to the west lay in a holocaust where there rose a steady column of small desert bats and to the north along the trembling perimeter of the world dust was blowing down the void like the smoke of distant armies. The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.

Here they are traversing the mountains:

All to the north the rain had dragged black tendrils down from the thunderclouds like tracings of lampblack fallen in a beaker and in the night they could hear the drum of rain miles away on the prairie. They ascended through a rocky pass and lightning shaped out the distant shivering mountains and lightning ran the stones about and tufts of blue fire clung to the horses like incandescent elementals that would not be driven off. Soft smelterlights advanced upon the metal of the harness, lights ran blue and liquid on the barrels of the guns. …

They rode for days through the rain and they rode in rain and hail and rain again. In that gray storm light they crossed a flooded plain with the footed shapes of the horses reflected in the water among clouds and mountains and the riders slumped and rightly skeptic of the shimmering cities on the distant shore of that sea whereupon they trod miraculous. They climbed up through rolling grasslands where small birds shied away chittering down the wind and a buzzard labored up from among bones with wings that went whoop whoop whoop like a child’s toy swung on a string and in the long red sunset the sheets of water on the plain below them lay like tidepools of primal blood.

They rode through a highland meadow carpeted with wildflowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian and wild vines of blue morningglory and a vast plain of varied small blooms reaching onward like a gingham print to the farthest serried rimlands blue with haze and the adamantine ranges rising out of nothing like the backs of seabeasts in a devonian dawn. It was raining again and they rode slouched under slickers hacked from greasy halfcured hides and so cowled in these primitive skins before the gray and driving rain they looked like wardens of some dim sect sent forth to proselytize among the very beasts of the land. The country before them lay clouded and dark. They rode through the long twilight and the sun set and no moon rose and to the west the mountains shuddered again and again in clattering frames and burned to final darkness and the rain hissed in the blind night land.

And here is our protagonist, the Kid, fleeing through the mountains alone:

He walked all day through those wild uplands, eating handfuls of snow from the evergreen boughs as he went. He followed gametrails through the firs and in the evening he hiked along the rimrock where he could see the tilted desert to the southwest patched with shapes of snow that roughly reproduced the patterns of cloud cover already moved on to the south. Ice had frozen on the rock and the myriad of icicles among the conifers glistened blood red in the reflected light of the sunset spread across the prairie to the west. He sat with his back to the rock and felt the warmth of the sun on his face and watched it pool and flare and drain away dragging with it all that pink and rose and crimson sky. An icy wind sprang up and the junipers darkened suddenly against the snow and then there was just stillness and cold. …

It grew colder and the night lay long before him. He kept moving, following in the darkness the naked chines of rock blown bare of snow. The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling among the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven, a barren range of rock so enfolded in that gaudy house that stars lay awash at his feet and migratory spalls of burning matter crossed constantly about him on their chartless reckonings. In the predawn light he made his way out upon a promontory and there received first of any creature in that country the warmth of the sun’s ascending.

Blood Meridian is surely McCarthy’s peak as a prose stylist, with that hypnotic Old Testament cadence. An acquired taste to be sure—I think that’s why I found the first read such a drag—but if you develop a taste for it, you come to love it, like coffee or certain bitter liquors. In the hands of other writers, this would be purple prose, but McCarthy somehow goes through that to something like hyperpurple, a new color on a new spectrum.

I won’t excerpt the violence (it’s hard to read), but I will pick out a few passages that capture the book’s philosophy: deterministic, Nietzchean, gnostic. For the Judge, our fates cannot be avoided:

A man seeks his own destiny and no other, said the judge. Wil or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty.

“The desert upon which so many have been broken”: that’s McCarthy’s main character here. It’s a world without any teleological god moving the chess pieces, without any hidden variable that makes it all make sense—no reasons, only causes.

There is no mystery to it. The recruits blinked dully. Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.

Then there’s this extraordinary passage:

Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augered the earth and some said they’d heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what? And if the dried and blackened shell of him is found among the sands by travelers to come yet who can discover the engine of his ruin?

And if the world is without mystery (purely material, purely deterministic), that’s not to say it’s not profoundly strange. Quite the opposite: its lack of design, of explanation, is strange to the core. In the Judge’s words:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in another part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

In an unlikely juxtaposition, the book’s focus on nature and philosophy makes me think of the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

For Oliver, the message of the world may be harsh, but it’s humbling and beautiful. For McCarthy, it’s more than harsh—it’s sobering, terrible. But like Oliver, McCarthy sees the world over and over announcing humanity’s place in the family of things.

Blood Meridian is an odd book to love because I hesitate to recommend it to anyone. The violence is so pervasive and brutal, the themes so troubled and dark—and yet I do think it’s a masterpiece, and I come back to these passages again and again.