Here we go.
Blood Meridian opens with these epigraphs, which set the tone for everything else to come:
Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time–Paul Valery
It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrow. 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–Jacob Boehme
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 reexamination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped–The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982
Now let’s take a look at the way each the chapter begins. The chapter’s table of contents. For chapter one we’ve got:
Childhood in Tennessee–Runs away–New Orleans–Fights–Is shot–To Galveston–Nacogdoches–The Reverend Green–Judge Holden–An affray–Toadvine–Burning of the hotel–Escape
Snippets for everything that happens in the chapter. What does this tell us? Well, for one, the chapter isn’t going to be full of surprises and cliffhangers.
There is a linear narrative taking place. This happens, then this happens, then this happens, etc, and then it’s chapter two. But there are a lot more words in the chapter besides the headings, of course.
So…what’s going on besides the events themselves?
Well, in this chapter we learn how to read Blood Meridian. We learn what it’s going to feel like to read it. Some of it’s awkward, some of it is beautiful, heinous acts are described casually and dispassionately, landscapes figure heavily, and we are made aware that we’re dealing with a world in which frontiers, both literal and figurative, are going to matter a great deal.
From the first page you’re thrown headlong into McCarthy’s odd style, and by the third paragraph you’re aware that a major character is someone who has a “taste for mindless violence.” More on that shortly.
So what’s the purpose of chapter one? Most simply, on a mechanical level, I think it’s simply to introduce us to the book’s two major characters, the Kid and The Judge, and to set their paths in motion.
Rather than describe the chapter’s scenes, I want to take a look at these two characters and see what their scenes tell us about them.
What do we know about The Kid?
- He was born in Tennessee during the Leonids meteor shower in 1833
- His mother died giving birth to him–he has no idea what her name was. This time around, that detail really jumped out at me. His dad, a professor, never talked to him about his mother at all? Never once mentioned her name?
- He has a sister but won’t ever see her again
- He comes from working class people
His people are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water…
- He is illiterate. Actually, let’s take a look at that whole passage:
He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.
I find that that line sums up this chapter and its themes better than any other. I take the line about “all history present in that visage,” right on the heels of the line about his taste/need for violence to mean that that violence really is the story of history. You can see it all right there, read on the face of this young brute kid who’s about to embark on some pretty hellish experiences.
Think again about the “mindless” aspect. What could be more idiotic than the confrontation that happens between the kid and the man on the stairs? More banal? It’s like they do these things simply because these are the things they do. The history of mankind?
Other than that, we basically learn that he moves around a lot, is not really at home anywhere, is capable of cruelty, etc. And that’s where I’ll leave it for the kid. Let’s talk about The Judge.
What do we know about the judge?
This is perhaps my favorite entrance in literary history. During a two-week rainstorm, a preacher preaches to a capacity crowd in a revival tent. Suddenly a giant enters the tent, strides to the podium, and informs the listeners that the preacher is wanted for an incident involving a young girl, and an incident involving congress with a goat (we are not given the age of the poor goat–sorry, trying to keep it light somehow!).
The crowd riots and turns on the poor sucker. Moments later when the kid enters the bar, The Judge is already there; he has paid for their drinks.
Someone enters and ask the Judge how he came to know anything about the preacher. Eventually he says:
I never laid eyes on the man before today. Never even heard of him.
Then they all laugh and drink. So basically he walked into the tent, told a lie that would get a man killed, and why? We don’t know yet, based on the text thus far, so I’m not going to pursue that yet.
Let’s do the list for The Judge:
- He smokes and wears his hat in the church tent
- He is hairless–bald on top, no eyebrows, lashes, or anything else that we can tell
- He’s enormous! 7 feet tall
- He has a sense of humor
- He is articulate
- He reminds me of Captain Ahab
My first question, as always, is What is he the judge of?
By the end of the chapter, we’ve already got a body count, The Kid is off to the next place, we don’t know what’s up with The Judge or what his plans are, and if you’re anything like me, you’re feeling slightly uneasy about what’s coming.
The book opens in a very specific spot in history, in a real location. What do we know about the history of the world so far in this book? Whatever it is, it’s all present in the visage of the kid, the kid with the temper and the capacity and need for terrible acts. Yikes.
One more line to consider. In the bar when they’re asking the judge how he knew the preacher, the men are described like this:
The men looked like mud effigies.
A definition of effigy:
A rough model of a particular person, damaged or destroyed as a protest or expression of anger. (Google’s infallible define feature!)
The thought of every man being an effigy sounds about right for what we’re going to be dealing with in this book. Think about the epigraphs, the Leonids, the history of mankind, and what we know about Toadvine and the Judge so far.
D2, you’re more writerly than me. Don’t deny it. I heard you use the word prosodist in casual conversation recently. I’m hoping you’ll spend some time talking about what you thought about McCarthy’s metaphors and use of language. I’m especially interested in the metaphors that are inexact. I wonder if it’s intentional. I’m going to wait until you’ve written your response before saying anything else, unless it is to respond to other reader’s comments. Respond however you like. No rush.
Good grief, I love this book.
Jump in, everyone. Thoughts? Questions? Ideas?