Blood Meridian, Chapter One: “All History Present In That Visage”

cormac-mccarthy

Cormac McCarthy...Mr. Chipper!

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

Cheery, yes?

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?

 

 

31 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter One: “All History Present In That Visage”

  1. Just some general comments on his writing to start. His writing is sparse. At first, I did not get or appreciate this. But after reading some more of his works, it is starting to make sense. His writing has an atmosphere, I’m not sure how he does it. But the mood is set, and he gives you just enough, and you are left to fill in the blanks. This contrasts sharply with a lot of modern writers (I will here name no names) who seem to have no confidence in their audience. They tell you what they want you to see/think/feel in excruciating detail, then they tell you again, to make sure that you got it exactly. Then they tell you again. I hate it. You will find none of that here.

    You mentioned the landscapes. Somehow, his descriptions of the landscape are both bleak and beautiful. I am personally biased, loving this particular part of the country. But he captures the raw, rugged feel that this area must have had at the time, without any of the euphemistic, romanticized, spaghetti-western sweetness many writers attribute to it.

    I appreciated that you gave me just the slightest overview, letting me basically read it fresh. Without really knowing what I was to be looking for, this is what stood out to me theme-wise:

    -The Judge is going to be important. The preacher he accuses refers to him as “The devil.” I think this is probably true on some level, but too easy. And I like how that scene pits revival-type religion against evil/the devil, and shows that, in a lot of instances, they aren’t that far apart. I don’t know if I’m reading into that, but that was the take-away feeling I got from that whole scene. I liked the scene. It was brutal, but also funny. And while the preacher may not have been guilty of those particular sins, we are all guilty of something, which McCarthy doesn’t spell out, at least not yet, but that’s where my mind went. There is a feeling already of “everybody gets what’s coming to them, and it’s coming for everybody.” Like justice. Violence is justice, like we all deserve violence. Justice without mercy I could see to be what the Judge is going to deliver. But maybe I am getting ahead of myself. That he beats them to the bar after the tent incident stood out. I also noticed your mud effigies line. I hadn’t taken it as far as you did, but your take certainly seems plausible.

    – The Kid- I could see how, big picture, he represents all of us. Prone to violence. Ignorant. Maybe not everyone can identify with this, but I can see it. McCarthy taps into something primal, and maybe only male, but I felt most in tune with this part of myself when I was about the Kid’s age. Angry for no reason, violence made a lot of sense. It entertained and excited me. I wanted to fight. Not that I would go about traumatizing innocents, but there were plenty of people around that seemed to feel exactly the way I did, and were ready to have it out. In this book, McCarthy has created a whole world like that: raw, violent, archaic, terrible. But still fascinating and exciting.

  2. I also like the headings. It gives you an overview, and kind of tells you what is going to happen, so that you don’t get caught up in worrying about what is going to happen. It lets you focus on the details of the happening, and not just the what.

  3. I think violence is the one common denominator of man. Or that is what he is saying. No matter how ignorant, no matter how established or poor or transient, everyone has a relationship to violence. Like there is something fundamentally human about unthinking, mindless violence.

  4. Are we reading the same chapter? I guess we are, but I did not get 10% of what you got. I guess it got lost in translation. I am still trying to get acquainted with what you call the McCarthy atmosphere but that’s only D1’s fault, since he stated (very clearly) that the BM sessions would start in OCTOBER. I’ll try to read some more tonight.

  5. Well, I feel like I’m in for a ride to a place I don’t really want to go, but I have to.

    I agree that the writing is sparse, but am amazed at how much can be said in so few words.

    Hoping that there are some cuddly kittens and tulips in the chapters ahead.

  6. No tulips so far in my reading, but I did just re-read the scene where the Kid meets Toadvine (D1- is this going to be a character going forward? I am 3 Chapters in, and no sign yet). Kid leaves the bar and is walking on boards set out because it has been raining for weeks and there is mud everywhere. I assume it’s narrow. He’s going towards the outhouse, and this guy (Toadvine?) is coming in the other direction. Clearly, someone is going to have to step off into the mud. The other guy tells him to move, and with no other provocation, or even any segue we read “[t]he kid was not going to do that and he saw no use in discussing it. He kicked the man in the jaw.” Whoa! The fight instantly gets brutal, almost deadly, all for the modern-day equivalent of a shoulder bump in passing on the sidewalk.

    The other guy seems wild, like an animal, muttering and slobbering and circling and repeating “kill, kill.”

    Then yet another guy appears, trudging through the mud, I presume. He is carrying a huge shellalegh (club) and swings at the kid, but only because he reaches him first (this wasn’t even his fight; who is this guy?). The kid goes face down into the mud, and would have died, but is saved by…who? Is this Toadvine? Is this the same guy he was fighting before? Why did he save him?

    What are the letters “HT” and lower “F” burned on his forehead?

    Who is Sidney, and what did he do?

    Why did the kid go with him? And why does the kid, without any provocation, or hesitation, kick the man repeatedly? And why does Toadvine call him “honey”?

    They burn the place to the ground, but for what? No apparent reason. Toadvine looks like a “great clay voodoo doll made animate.” Significance?

    The kid goes to get his mule. Doesn’t pay for it, and you get the sense paying for it was never high on his priority list. Heads off out of town.

    He and Toadvine part ways, apparently, without any mention.

    • “What are the letters “HT” and lower “F” burned on his forehead?” Stay tuned. If I remember correctly it’s for “thief.” It’s just a bad carving or brand, but unless I’m crazy, it says later that it was a punishment.

      “why does Toadvine call him “honey?”

      I read this as being an insult, similar to “princess.” Who knows?

      “Why did the kid go with him?” Why not? There haven’t been reasons for anything else he’s done, and that’s my answer to all of the “Why is he fighting random people?” question.

      I do agree that it’s unclear who the other man who jumps into the fight is. I think it’s just some random guy.

      • Makes sense re: honey.

        I guess it is silly to ask “why?” as to this particular act of violence where there has been no explanation for any of the others.

        The random guy fits with everything else I guess. It’s just crazy. Who would see two guys fighting and think “I don’t know what that’s about, but I am going to hit one of them over the head, just because”?

        • What that scene reminded me of was the brief mention of his time on the boat where he just goes downstairs each night to fight with the pirates. Really? Why go downstairs to fight with pirates?

          • Why not? Pirate fights are the best!

            (I thought it interesting how the pirates were from all over and he could never understand what they were saying. For me, this touches on America’s unique blend of undisputed melting pot cultural history and yet acute xenophobia).

          • Are they? It just stood out because it’s presented as if there were no other options. Like it wasn’t a decision to go down and fight, it was just the way it was. One more thing I wondered about this morning:

            I wonder if at some level there’s an implication that, because we never know what anyone is thinking, that maybe it’s just not supposed to matter. Maybe they’re not thinking. Back to “mindless.”

          • Are you speaking about the characters in the book or all of us as human beings? I know that I am constantly thinking, and constantly thinking about what other people are thinking. That matters to me. But does it matter to everyone? Are the characters in the book like us or unlike us? What are we supposed to understanding about their “mindlessness”? Do actions matter more than thoughts? In some circles, if you think something (in your heart), it is as if you have done it. Or just as bad. Which on some level is just completely ridiculous. Is McCarthy saying what you think is irrelevant, it’s just what you do? All thoughts tell you is “why.” Maybe “why” gives the whole process too much credit.

  7. I don’t read any other language well enough to attempt this book translated, but my gosh, I can’t imagine a translator doing it justice. I would be very interested to hear how things go from that perspective.

      • Well, we can talk about it more in coming chapter discussions. He still has it with the hermit, but when he signs up for the army, he doesn’t have it, and we never hear, really, where it went. Maybe it’s not important.

        • For me, one of the interesting things about the narration style is that you never hear what anyone is thinking. You only see what they do and what happens to them. In a different novel, the author might tell you every single thing that was happening as the kid mourned his lost–wherever it went–saddle. But here we just get him saying “Ain’t got one.” And that’s that. Does it really not say where it went? I seemed to remember some mention of him getting robbed, but maybe I’m imagining.

          • I think he says he was robbed, but it never covers it actually happening. You’re right about the lack of thought, things just happen. I actually have a “robbed” portion coming in Chapter 2. We can elaborate then.

  8. Haha, I looked at the number of comments on this post and was like “wow, this must be really popular,” but most of the comments are back and forth between dunce 1 and dunce 2.

    I’m thinking about joining in, but it scares me a little to find on Amazon that there are other books written just to explain this book.

    Also, you really need to put your Amazon affiliate link in here somewhere. If I’m going to buy a book you recommend, then I’d like to see you get the commission. 🙂

    • You’ll see that a lot, Eric, but it’s only because we are passionate about what we are reading/writing. We would more than welcome other insights/perspectives. And you have plenty of time to catch up. Chapter 2 just posted, and we will probably devote a day or so. And that’s just 27 pages in.

    • Quit laughing, Eric before you get dealt with!

      I did just get an amazon link up on my most recent post, thanks. You should give it a try. Ignore all the concordances. I’m mainly interested in writing about the experience of reading the book closely.

      I’ve known Spencer (d2) for a long time, and for better or worse, this is usually what our small talk look like. Nerds, but intense, engaged (not to each other) nerds.

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