Blood Meridian, Chapter Two- “[W]hen God made man the devil was at his elbow.”

The kid starts Chapter 2 alone and on the road.  The solitude is heavy, as is the darkness that falls on this part of the country.  He begs and steals for survival, we pick up only in passing.  Like it is (1) not that important, and (2) perfectly normal.  He stays off “the king’s road for fear of citizenry” (love that sentence).

I am starting to see that light and color are important, as are their absence, though I don’t have enough context to comment on any big-picture significance.  Yet.  The kid looks like a scarecrow.  He sees smoke from a fire in the distance, where he is to meet the character that has stuck with me the most so far.

THE HERMIT

The hermit is described as an “anchorite,” which, as you will see in the vocabulary section below, is a recluse, but one who has secluded himself for religious reasons.  I love how McCarthy describes him as “half mad.”  That seems about right.  I know I’d go at least that crazy left that alone.  Smells stand out: earth, smoke, the water is sulfurous.  The kid’s boots.  The hermit, filthy himself, and living in squalor, refuses to drink after a mule.  Which, to me at least, was funny.  We all have our principles, I suppose.  The story, dark and grim, is laced with humor.  Somehow the fact that all the grim stuff is not being taken 100% seriously makes it more foreboding and malevolent.

The hermit has some nervous habits, like beating the heals of his hands together in front of his chest.  For me this was very visual; I could picture it perfectly.

A storm is coming; the kid is invited to stay.

The hermit asks the kid if there was a storm, if he drifted off the road, if thieves beset him.  You get the impression that this hermit is far from the beaten path, and that no one would find him unless they were lost.  Significantly, upon being asked, the kid “ponders.”  There is, as the discussion thus far has brought out, precious little pondering or thinking in the book.  By anyone.  Why does the kid ponder here?  Is he thinking how best to respond?  Is he thinking about how, as often as not, he has been the thief doing the besetting?

What is up with the heart?

Pay close attention to the imagery regarding the meal.  There is a pot sitting in the corner, unrefrigerated and off the heat, some type of wild rabbit stew, the rabbit floating in congealed grease, light blue mold covering it.  They heat this up and eat it.  And are grateful for it.

The discussion here is key.

Old Man: “The way of the world is hard.  God made this world, but he didn’t make it to suit everybody, did he?”

Kid:  “I don’t believe he much had me in mind.

Old Man: “Aye…But where does a man come by his notions.  What world’s he seen that he liked better?”

Kid: “I can think of better places and better ways.”

Old Man: “Can ye make it be?”

Kid: “No.”

So you see the religious nature of the hermit, such as it is.  And here they are, having this deeply philosophical/theological discussion, two of the most unlikely people in one of the most unlikely places.  The kid does not believe God had him in mind when he made the world, and the kid claims he can think of a better way.  But he can’t make it be.

And then, profoundly, the old man: “A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with.”  How can you know your mind but with your mind?  And how can a thing contemplate its own existence when its very existence is all that facilitates its contemplation?  A fascinating insight.  “He can know his heart, but he don’t want to.  Rightly so.  Best not to look in there.”  If not the heart and not the mind, then where?

And then perhaps the bleakest, most hopeless outlook on humanity I have ever read:

“[W]hen God made man the devil was at his elbow.  A creature that can do anything.  Make a machine.  And a machine to make the machine.  And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”

The kid goes to sleep.  He wakes up in the middle of the night, in almost total darkness, and the hermit is bent over him all but in his bed.  Creepy!!!  “What do you want?” the kid asks.  Without answering, the hermit crawls away, and in the morning he is gone.  The kid hits the road again.

So far, the only religious figures have been the preacher in the tent and this hermit.  Not exactly cast in a flattering light.  What is McCarthy saying about religion?

CATTLE HERDERS

The kid encounters the cattle herders.  They are kind, which stands out, as they are the first kind people in the book.  Is it because they are “themselves a ragged lot,” cross-breeds, free slaves, and indians?  They share their food and their fire, and in the morning have left him a knife and some food.

THE CANTINA

The kid makes it to a town and goes to a cantina.  I have been instructed to stop asking “why” regarding the seemingly senseless violence.  But the kid wants a drink, and doesn’t have any money.  In case you don’t speak Spanish, the exchange is basically him saying he wants a drink, and asking if he can do some work to get one.  No one speaks or understands English, except maybe an old man in the corner.  Everyone is looking at the kid.  The kid says he wants work.  Everyone laughs at him.  The kid asks/pantomimes to see if he can sweep to earn the drink.  The bar tender tells him it’s not dirty.  The kid, perhaps not understanding, or thinking he is still not being understood, becomes more emphatic in his desire to sweep.  The barman shrugs, not saying yes, but also not saying no.  Big mistake.

The kid diligently sweeps the whole bar.  Then goes back to the barman for the drink.  The barman first ignores him, then kind of shoos him away.  Bigger mistake.

The scene seems to be unraveling in slow motion, and it feels familiar, like your typical saloon brawl.  Only more menacing.  The kid calls out to the old man.  The old man does not respond.  “Esta borracho” the old man says, “he’s drunk.”  Who?  The barman?  The kid?  The old man says something in spanish (we don’t know what) to the men in the bar, then to the barman, then takes his hat and leaves.  Like he knows what’s coming.

Mayhem ensues.  No one steps in to stop it.  The kid is obviously upset about working for nothing.  And didn’t like being laughed at.  But this is crazy.

THE SACRISTY

Earlier, there is the image of the deathcart.  Pale.  The “faint miasma of carbolic.”  Death seems normal.  The kid seems unaffected.  The church is full of death, empty except for the pigeons and buzzards among the bones.  Bats on the ceiling of the domes.  Remains.  The buzzards are described as “enormous yardfowl.”  Like their presence is normal, everyday, not disturbing.  Is the church dead?  Is God dead?  The statue of the virgin with a headless child in her arms.

The mule is gone.  The kid goes out in search of it.  Finds it.  Kicks it halfheartedly.  Like he should kick it, but can’t get any enthusiastic motivation behind it.  Then enters the river “like some wholly wretched baptismal candidate.”

VOCABULARY:

Swale- A low or hollow place, esp. a marshy depression between ridges.

Anchorite- A religious recluse.

Hobbled-  1. To put a device around the legs of (a horse, for example) so as to hamper but not prevent movement.

2. To cause to limp.

3. To hamper the action or progress of; impede.

Tailorwise- as far as I can tell, sitting in a lotus or indian-style position, though I saw a reference to “foetus-like”

Bacca- an indehiscent fruit derived from a single ovary having one or many seeds within a fleshy wall or pericarp: e.g. grape; tomato; cranberry (though from the context, I wonder if it is slang for tobacco, or something else)

Osnaburg- coarse type of plain textile fabric

Miasma-1.  noxious exhalations from putrescent organic matter; poisonous effluvia or germs polluting the atmosphere. 2. a dangerous, foreboding, or deathlike influence or atmosphere.

Carbolic-  Pertaining to, or designating, an acid derived from coal tar and other sources; as, carbolic acid
Bung-starter-  a mallet for loosening or removing the bung of a cask.
Frizzen-  the pivoted metal upright of the action of a flintlock against which the flint strikes upon firing
Sacristy-  a room in a church where sacred vessels and vestments are kept and where the clergy vests
Purlieu-a : an outlying or adjacent district b plural : environs, neighborhood
2a : a frequently visited place : haunt b plural : confines, bounds
Awap- ???
QUESTIONS
Religion seems to play a prominent role in this chapter.  What is McCarthy saying about religion?  About God?
What do you think about what he is saying about man?  “A machine to make the machine”?  Evil?

6 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter Two- “[W]hen God made man the devil was at his elbow.”

  1. I dont know how I found you guys but the line by line analysis is amazing. This is one of my favorite books (if not my favorite) and something I think about a lot when I consider America’s total obsession with violence.

    • I’m so glad you did find us, Canice. Please jump in. We would love your insights. This is my first read through, so I am learning as I go. Feel free to share your thoughts. I’m thinking this book might become one of my favorites as well.

  2. Found you guys on twitter. People say funny things about BM on twitter so I have it as a saved search. It was probably a year and a half ago that I first read it. I remember not being able to get into Boardwalk Empire after reading Blood Meridian because the violence was so repugnant to me. It just seemed silly. It is a great show I am sure, but it is just stylized violence for the sake of violence. There is no violence as metaphor or violence as purification. And to that I would say, the Judge has won.

  3. I got caught up this morning. The hermit was definately an odd character. The bar fight seemed to happen in slow motion and was a bit surreal. I mean he really put a beat down on the bar tender for the sake of not giving him a drink.

    On the vocabulary, I took bacca to mean chewing tobbaco. I did a brief internet search for awap, and nobody seems to know for sure. Based on the context I would assume it to mean askew. Being very old doors in a run down place. I also found the word awap used in another book where they spoke of a door hanging awop on leather hinges. I would assume leather hinges wouldn’t hold a door very straight.

    I’m finding the definition look up feature on the Kindle very helpful for this book. It does pretty good, but there are some words where the blinking curser just stared back at me.

    • I thought “awap” must mean something like askew too, from the context. And agree about the “bacca.”

      Sounds like I need to get a Kindle. The dictionary back and forth is killing me!

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