Blood Meridian, Chapter Twelve, Part I: “[F]or what could be said to occur unobserved?”

night desert moonThis chapter begins with the band of scalp-hunters traveling stealthily, only by night, and going to great lengths to cover any tracks (using clay to cover any indication of nail marks in their horses’ hooves, “bur[ying] their stool like cats,” even spitting their tobacco into pouches).  It is unclear whether this is purely done because they do not want their quarry (here, the Gileños) to know they are coming, or because they fear someone (something?) tracking them.  It almost seems like the behavior of the hunted, more than the hunters.  Everyone seems to be haunted in this country.

They cross “del Norte” again (and again, in Mexico the Rio Grande is known as the Rio Bravo del Norte), and ride south “into a land more hostile yet.”  (p. 152).  If that’s not ominous, I don’t know what is.  As is the concept that “of living thing there was none.” (Id.).  That’s about to become even more true.

I am struck here, and throughout the book, by McCarthy’s use of simile, particularly as preceded by the term “like.”  There are three great examples in the beginning of this chapter, describing the group “[l]ike a patrol condemned to ride out some ancient curse” (p. 151 in my version), “like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them” (p. 152), “like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote” (p. 152).  Point of vocabulary interest- “antecedent” means both “a preceding event, condition, or cause” but also, according to Merriam Webster’s, “the significant events, conditions, and traits of ones earlier life.”  It would be difficult to read this book and not, at some point, ask yourself “why?”  Why all the senseless violence?  Why are these men so wild and ruthless and angry?  This is an interesting consideration.  If the purpose is “antecedent” to them, then it has nothing to do with choice or even anything that has happened to them in their lives.  It is “antecedent” to them, these men were born to violence.  Is this fate?  Destiny?  More to come shortly on these latter questions.  But look for these “like” similes.  They are everywhere, particularly as describing the group.

The men are further described as “[a] thing surmised from the blackness by the creak of leather and the chink of metal.” (p. 151).  There is a lot of twisted “creation” imagery, primordial allusions, but with no hint of Judeo-Christian influence.  As a group, they are something other than the sum of their individual parts, evil, and monstrous, and mysterious.  (see p. 152)

They kill their pack animals (for food? for speed?).  As seems to be the case throughout much of their wandering in the wilderness, there is a thunderstorm in the distance.  Light and dark imagery, and the contrast between light and darkness, plays a central role in this chapter.

I always look out for blood imagery as well, where here the “western sky was the color of blood.” (p. 152).  More literal blood is coming.

The storm finally catches up with them, and a “plague of hail” starts falling on them, mysteriously out of a “faultless” sky.  (p. 152).  The hail leaps “like small lucent eggs concocted alchemically out of the desert darkness.” (Id.).  Creation out of darkness; bible imagery, but with a dark twist.

There is a play on the concept of three or thirds in these first three pages.  The first is here with each man and his horse being a first aspect, their combined shadow being a second aspect, and the “rearing” form, dancing with each flash of lightning, being a third.  This calls into question the various levels of perception and existence.  The men are dark, their shadows darker, but under the right circumstances, there is a third aspect that is wilder and darker still.  Which is the most “real”?  The most significant?

The second play on thirds comes in the exchange between the expriest and the judge following the discovery of the slaughtered argonauts.  The expriest questions whether the fact of the slaughter might evidence “the hand of a cynical god [note the “g” in god is in lower case] conducting with what austerity and what mock surprise so lethal a congruence.” (p. 153).  The expriest goes on to suggest that the “posting of witnesses by a third and other path altogether might also be called in evidence as appearing to beggar chance.” (p. 153).  What I believe the priest is suggesting is that the fact that the group has come upon this scene is somehow yet further proof of “god,” or at the very least the fact that their discovery of the slaughtered argonauts “beggars” (i.e. defies, exceeds the resources or abilities of) chance.  In other words, it is not coincidental, but meant to happen.  Destined.  But the judge is having none.  The judge suggests that “in this was expressed the very nature of the witness and that this proximity was no third thing but rather the prime, for what could be said to occur unobserved?” (p. 153).  This is a fundamental philosophical question.  What is more “real” or “important” than the world we can observe?  The witness of the dead argonauts is not some “third thing” for the group, but the prime thing, at least as far as they are concerned.  Earlier in this same paragraph we read the powerful: “Notions of chance and fate are the preoccupation of men engaged in rash undertakings.” Is Glanton’s band “engaged in rash undertakings”?  Yes, but are they preoccupied in notions of chance and fate?  The expriest seems to be, the judge not.  There is nothing rash about his approach, which would make his participation in the violence both better and worse.

Going back to the argonauts (we’ve touched on this before, but “argonauts” in this context is most likely “gold seekers;” as we will see later in this very chapter, this is 1849, after all), toward the morning following the storm, they see fires on the horizon.  At first you wonder if this is the Gileños (who they are following), the Apaches (who we suspect, and later confirm, are following them), or someone else.  The Delawares go to scope it out, and discover the argonauts. Or what’s left of them.

Here is literal blood imagery, and it is pretty gruesome.  Spilled viscera, “naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts,” and most haunting of all the images of the dead, recognizable as men by their beards, but bearing “strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out their grinning mouths.” (pp. 152-153).  This last image will stay with you and keep you up at night.  Glanton’s men do not seem especially shocked or disturbed by any of this, however, taking advantage of the existing fires from the burning wagons to make food and coffee, and lying down to sleep among the dead.  Strange that this would feel safer, but I guess marauding groups in the distance would figure all damage had already been done, all loot already made off with.

I thought it was interesting that the tracks of those who had killed the argonauts, leaving the scene, were identified as those of “murderers.”  Also interesting, and there is no explanation for how this is known, but the killers of the argonauts “were white men who preyed on travelers in that wilderness and disguised their work to be that of savages.” (p. 153).  Particularly disturbing given the intensity and ferocity.

Two mornings later the Delawares return from their scouting, and they have found the Gileños less than 4 hours to the south, camped around a shallow lake, and there are many of them, including women and children.  The impending encounter will not end well for the indians.

[For those who are new to the discussion, we began a thorough, chapter-by-chapter analysis of Blood Meridian several months ago.  We made it up through Chapter 14.  In the interim, due to the press of life and given some technical difficulties, some posts (including Chapter 12) were lost, and others were never completed.  But we are picking it up now, and fervently proceeding through the end.  Hope to have the second half of Chapter 12 up today, Chapter 14 up soon, and the remaining chapters as quickly as I can re-read, re-analyze, and get my thoughts to paper.  Excited to be back in the saddle, and look forward to discussions with all of you].

azimuth- 1. an arc of the horizon measured between a fixed point (as true north) and the vertical circle passing through the center of an object, usu. in astronomy and navigation clockwise from the north point through 360 degrees

gibbous- more than half but less than fully illuminated from the point of view of an observer. Used of phases of the moon or the planets.  Having a hump.

spancel- a noosed rope with which to hobble an animal, especially a horse or cow.

enfilade- gunfire directed from a flanking position along the length of an enemy battle line

hacendado- the owner or proprietor of a hacienda

niggard- archaic term for “niggardly.”

niggardly- provided in meanly limited supply

arcature-(Architecture) a set of blind arches attached to the wall of a building as decoration

lucent- glowing with light; marked by clarity or translucence.

armature- an organ or structure (as teeth or thorns) for offense or defense

firmament- The vault or expanse of the heavens; the sky.

starsprent- having a hard time finding a solid definition for “starsprent.”  Webster’s defines “sprent” as archaic for “sprinkled over.”  “Star-sprinkled” would make sense in the context on p. 154

laggard- lagging or tending to lag; dilatory

fontanel- a bodily hollow or pit; a membrane-covered opening in bone or between bones; specifically any of the spaces closed by membranous structures between the uncompleted angles of the parietal bones and the neighboring bones of a fetal or young skull.

5 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter Twelve, Part I: “[F]or what could be said to occur unobserved?”

  1. Great initial summary D2. Happy to see that the torch for this project has been properly picked back up.

    I won’t add too much to your analysis, as I read this chapter a couple weeks ago, but I will slow down my reading a bit to sync it up with future posts(?). Or at least, note what I am reading to be brought up again.

    In this case, I did quickly skim the chapter for sentence gems. Unfortunately, you’ve already poached one: “Notions of chance and fate are the preoccupation of men engaged in rash undertakings”. That line gives me goose bumps.

    Other ones that I enjoyed immensely are, 1: “The riders squatted at the fires and boiled water and drank coffee and roasted meat and lay down to sleep among the dead”, 2: “Did you learn to whisper in a sawmill?” That was just much needed humor in my POV, 3: and to steal your thunder perhaps, haha, the last line of the chapter is exquisite, ” Small boys ran among the hooves and the victors in their gory rags smiled through the filth and the dust and the caked blood as they bore on poles and the desiccated heads of the enemy through that fantasy of music and flowers”.

    Question I might ask you though, or anyone else reading this, what are your thoughts on McCarthy’s lack of quote marks? I found it extremely annoying at first, but it does force the reader to pay very close attention to dialogue, and the general writing. You can’t skim it.

    I’ve looked it up before, and read that it’s just a stylish quirk of his.

    • I find that you really can’t skim Blood Meridian at all. Blink through a paragraph and you might miss a whole nation being annihilated. I had not really noticed the lack of quotation marks, but had noticed other stylistic quirks, like missing apostrophes on conjunctions in dialogue, such as “cant” and “dont.” These are more glaring in the speech of Glanton and others in his group, though with the judge it seems grammar and punctuation is more proper. A subtle way of indicating that he is more intelligent? I “dont” know.

  2. I SO appreciated this thoughtful write up. I had been scratching my head about the judge and the ex-priest’s exchange over the Argonauts and this helped immensely. Rich, enteral lung observations. Thank you!

  3. I feel your pain, Chaz. Autocorrect can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s great when it works in your favor, but intensely frustrating when it incessantly changes what you are trying to say, especially into something nonsensical. It’s like “you’re not smarter than me, you stupid machine.” At least not yet.

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