Blood Meridian, Chapter Seventeen: “[M]ore things exist without our knowledge than with it.”

National Geographic Picture- dunce academy blood meridian book review mccarthyINTRODUCTION

There are chapters where things happen and there are chapters where things are said.  I love them all, but especially love the chapters where the judge holds court.  And this one is a doozy.

Un Barril de Whiskey?

The group rides out at dusk, and the corporal at the gatehouse makes a half-hearted effort to stop them (remember what Jackson did to Owens?  There is also a little girl missing).  Anything bad that has happened in the days the Glanton gang has been in Tucson is rightly attributable to them, and this corporal knows it, and is probably under orders to forbid anyone from leaving.  He calls after them again as they pass, and David Brown (a member of the group, but I can’t remember who) turns and aims his rifle in the sentry’s direction.  The sentry wisely ducks behind the parapet and does not make any further effort to stop them.  We learn that David Brown is leaving his brother behind here in Tucson “for what would prove forever.” (p. 242).  I don’t think we ever know why he left him or who is brother was.  But this “what would prove forever” is ominous.

This was a minor detail, but did you notice how the imbecile has been lashed in his cage “as if for a sea journey”? (p. 241).  There have been several sea/ocean references to the surrounding landscape.  Also, any lashing/sea tale will always make me think of Odysseus and the Sirens.  That may be a bit of a stretch.  Or maybe I just like Sirens.

Remember the deal with Mangas and the Apaches?  They are supposed to be bringing them a full barrel of whiskey, and the indians are eager to have it.  They have a whiskey barrel all right, but they emptied it the night before.  They have jerry-rigged the barrel so it now holds a smaller internal container with perhaps three quarts of whiskey, and the rest is filled with water.  Just enough, I would think, to really piss these indians off, especially since they are first taking full payment for the whiskey.  At the exchange, Glanton pays little attention to the proceedings, but then seems eager to get going once the money has been paid (further lending to my theory that Glanton is becoming increasingly greedy as things progress).  The indian chiefs exchange dark looks, as if they have some inkling that something may be amiss.  But they let them go.  The thinking seems to be that the indians won’t follow them at night.  We’ll see.  The judge seems pleased by all of this.

I talked a few posts ago about numbers, as in the numbers in Glanton’s group.  We learn at the very beginning of this chapter that they now ride twenty-one men and a dog and the “idiot” in the cart.  5 of these are new recruits, who will no doubt rue the day.  It is unclear whether this number includes the “idiot’s” brother, but the group is more or less at 21.

Glanton Waxes Contemplative

In a brief but significant segment of the chapter, the group has passed through some especially rough terrain full of cacti, and they are camped out for the night.  Glanton looks at the group, most of them sleeping, and ponders on how much has changed, how many have died, including all the Delawares.  “All about him his men were sleeping, but much was changed.  So many gone, defected, or dead.” (p. 243).  As he looks into the fire, he thinks, and I can’t articulate his thoughts any better than McCarthy does (obviously), so will include the entire paragraph here:

He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him.  He would live to look upon the the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour.  Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease.  He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

p. 243.  I know that was long, but so good, and offers some fascinating insights into Glanton’s views on fate and destiny and chance and agency.  I couldn’t add anything.

Another interesting little point here.  Across from Glanton at the fire sits the “vast abhorrence” of the judge.  (Id.).  Is this a commentary on Glanton’s changing attitude towards the judge, is the judge just always vast and abhorrent.  The judge is shirtless (he seems to favor nakedness) and writing in his journal again.  The desert wolves are yapping again, one group calling to another.  Loved this line about the fire made from the cactus: “The bones of cholla that glowed there in their incandescent basketry pulsed like burning holothurians in the phosphorous dark of the sea’s deep.” (Id.).  The idiot has been drawn close to the fire, and watches it tirelessly.  The kid watches the judge.

Two days later, they encounter a raggedy group of Mexican soldiers under Colonel Garcia.  They are tired and filthy and starving, indistinguishable from the indians themselves for dress and wildness.  Glanton’s group wants nothing to do with them.  No compassion.  And it seems the country and all its inhabitants are dead to them.

The Judge Pontificates

The group camps again, and there is a fire, and some fascinating imagery regarding their fire, and the moon, and Mars, and the possibility of men on other planets on pages 244-245.  Whenever they talk about the moon or other celestial bodies, the Judge becomes interested in speaking.  I liked the fire, and how it is described as “contain[ing] within it something of men themselves,” and how each fire is all fires, the first and the last. (p. 244).  Fire is alive, an elemental force.  I liked the moon too, and how there is a false one, and there were once maybe two (according to the expriest), but God snuffed one out, and would snuff out the other if He could (the moon being a source/cause of evil?).

I love the Judge’s monologues through this section.  About how the truth about the world is that anything is possible, and it’s all just a trick or “migratory tentshow.”  That the universe is no narrow thing, and that attempting to understand it all is naive and vain at once: “For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.” (p. 245).  Very profound considerations on man’s place in the universe and the weight man puts on his own intellect and powers of perception.

Brown calls it “more of your craziness” to the Judge.  The Judge performs a magic trick with a coin, throwing it away but having it come back to him.  This isn’t the first magic he performs, nor is it the first time he smiles, both indicators that the reader should pay attention.  The message is that everything is a trick.  Life is a trick.

The next morning some men look for the coin, convinced it was really thrown away.  They don’t find it.  Glanton’s dog takes to walking alongside the idiot in the cage.  Glanton doesn’t like this much, and goes back to throttle him.

They pass through a strange land where iron will not rust or tin tarnish. (p. 246).  Where would this be, and why?  It has a strange effect, because as they pass through this area, they pass horses and cattle, long dead, but strangely preserved, at least their trappings.  More sea imagery, the dead and eroding cattle like “primitive boats upturned.” (Id.).

Beautiful, desolate imagery through this section.  They ride on.

They come upon an Apache crucified by the Maricopas, and long dead. (p. 247).  They neither stop nor even pause.  They ride on.

I thought there was a really interesting little paragraph on the bottom of p. 247, talking about the “neuter austerity” of the land, and how nothing in it is noteworthy or distinguishable from anything else.  I think this too has implications regarding the novels outlook on man, and how no man is special, or any different or better than anyone else.  Or maybe that everything is a part of everything else: man, animal, wind, sand, fire.  All part of a greater whole.  But it feels like the intended message is that man within that context is not as unique or special as he often likes to think he is.

They trudge on, “noctambulants,” as if moved not by their volition.  They are described as “fugitives,” the land “alien.”  Everything becomes the same shade of gray.  “Even the judge grew silent and speculative.” (p. 248). That’s saying something.

The Judge Speaks of War

They camp again.  The judge, fittingly and vividly, cracks open the shinbone of an antelope and drinks the hot marrow.  What an image!  Members of the group suggest that war and violence are spoken ill of in the bible.  The Judge says that war endures, that man was made for war, that it was waiting for him before he was, that war will always be the way.  War, it seems, is the only thing. War is god. Everything is contained therein.  Man, even the world, is made for violence.  (See pp. 248-249).  This ties back in to the theory of games and chance.  War is the ultimate game.  The Judge is talking about how men, even boys, love war, and it is frightening because it is true.  The men call him crazy again.  The judge only smiles.  And then he offers a real zinger:

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.  Historical law subverts it at every turn.  A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test…Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right.  In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural. p. 250

What a speech!  What a worldview!  Can you imagine hearing this guy speak?  Shirtless, sweating, hairless, raving in the firelight, but oh so eloquently and convincingly.

He looks for disputants, but finds none.  He calls out the expriest, who calls him blasphemous, but says little more.  “Men of god and men of war have strange affinities,” offers Holden. (p. 250). Indeed.  Oh, and I love the closing question from the Judge to Tobin: “Ah Priest…What could I ask of you that you’ve not already given?” p. 251.  A priest with this group, along for this ride.  The expriest is basically proving all of the judge’s points just by being there and being who he is.


The next day they travel more through this lava-land, “like the remnants of some dim legion scrabbling up out of a land accursed.” (p. 251).  The land is compared numerous times to being hell-like: “They crossed a cinderland of caked slurry and volcanic ash imponderable as the burnedout floor of hell.” (Id.).  I love the “lone albino ridge” they can see in the distance, “like the back of some pale seabeast surfaced among the dark archipelagos.” (Id.).  There is a lot of ocean imagery throughout, which is strange given that this is a desert.  I am also reading Moby Dick right now, so there are some overlapping parallels.  Maybe.  Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it (always a possibility).

They finally find much-needed water.  They drink and water the horses.  The Judge finds a bone from something extinct (a dinosaur, perhaps?), and sets about measuring and recording it, talking about paleontology with those of the group who will listen (primarily the new recruits).  I love how it says he would “amplify their questions for them.” (p. 251).  Like Socrates (but alas, with no apparent Platos or Aristotles in his teaching pool).

The idiot yearns for the flames.  Glanton’s dog feels compelled to watch over him.  What does any of that mean?  Is there some deeper symbolic significance beyond what is apparent?

The judge drops the bone with no explanation as to what it is or where it came from.  “The mystery is that there is no mystery,” he offers. (p. 252).  The expriest is not convinced: “As if he were no mystery himself, the bloody old hoodwinker.” (Id.).  Them’s fighting words!

Cholera Train

They come to the Colorado river, and there find a wagon train that has been overcome by cholera.  They are in rough shape (who isn’t, frankly, in this book?).  There are some Yuma indians in the group.  I don’t think we can tell what the origin of any other part of the group is.  Americans?  Immigrants?  They are called “pilgrims” (p. 253) for whatever that is worth.  Some of the Yuma women are beautiful.  Some show signs of syphilis.

There is a ferry taking people across the river.  It is run by a doctor from New York named Lincoln.  Glanton goes to introduce himself.  It seems Glanton wants to propose some kind of arrangement, and he brings him back to the camp.  Soon the doctor and the judge are in a secret discourse.  Uh oh!

Glanton and the judge, together with five others, ride into the Yuma camp (different from the pilgrim camp?  This part was confusing to me.  I’m assuming there were two groups: the pilgrim group, that had been joined, at least temporarily, by some Yumas for “companionship,” and a larger encampment of Yumas at some distance).  They are met by a delegation of the Yuma leaders, and the men have a hard time keeping their composure because the chiefs are wearing funny outfits consisting largely of women’s clothing.  Only the Judge is able to keep it together, recognizing (probably prophetically) that “things are seldom what they seem.” (p. 255) (i.e. just because this silly-looking guy is wearing a woman’s blouse doesn’t mean he wouldn’t murder you in your sleep and eat your liver).

The Judge greets the leader in Spanish.  The leader responds “Buenas tardes…De donde viene?” (p. 255).  The seems to be the initial inquiry of all Native American leaders in the book.  Are they trying to figure out where they have been to determine what their intentions are?  That would be my guess.  These Yumas probably wouldn’t be civil at all if they knew where Glanton’s group had been and what they’d been up to.  We’ll see what happens.

Stay tuned, and don’t forget to check out our next chapter review here at the dunce academy.


cooperage- a cooper’s work or products

cooper- a person who makes or repairs wooden casks or barrels

dogtown- the only definition I am familiar with is a prairie dog village, but I can’t tell for sure from the context on p. 242.  Any other thoughts?

saguaro- a tall columnar usually sparsely-branched cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) of dry areas of the southwestern United States and Mexico that bears white flowers and a scaly reddish edible fruit and that may attain a height of up to 50 feet (16 meters)

cholla- a cactus with a cylindrical stem, native to Mexico and the southwestern US.

jornada- a full day’s travel across a desert without a stop for taking on water.

portent- 1. An indication of something important or calamitous about to occur; an omen; 2. Prophetic or threatening significance; 3. Something amazing or marvelous; a prodigy.

urstone- having a hard time finding a definition.  No definition in the dictionaries at my disposal.  One site says the prefix “ur” is from the Old German and refers to “earliest, original.” Another site said “ur” means “3,” but I don’t understand how or why.  “Ur” in the dictionary refers to “Ur of the Chaldees,” a city ancient Sumer in South  Mesopotamia.  Not sure what McCarthy intended.  Need to do some more digging, unless anyone else knows anything else.  From the context, it is somewhere where fate or history would be written, perhaps a “book of life”-type analogy.

holothurians- sea cucumbers

importunate- persistent, especially to the point of annoyance or intrusion.

nacre- mother-of-pearl

eviscerate- to take out the entrails of :  disembowel; to deprive of vital content or force; to remove an organ from (a patient) or the contents of (an organ)

malabarista- from the Spanish, a juggler

quirted- hit with a riding rope

chamfering- in carpentry, cut away (a right-angled edge or corner) to make a symmetrical sloping edge.

scoria- a cindery, vesicular basaltic lava, typically having a frothy texture.

noctambulants- nightwalkers; sleepwalkers; walking at night (you can figure it out from its roots if you have any background in Romance languages, but it’s still an awesome word).

malpais- Southwest :  rough country underlain by dark especially basaltic lava :  badlands; Southwest :  basaltic lava

hoodwinker- one who deceives or swindles by deception.

shoal- shallows

dragoon- A member of a European military unit trained and armed to fight mounted or on foot; cavalrymen

shacto- some kind of coat produced by the Hudson Bay company???

deadman- an object buried in or secured to the ground for the purpose of providing anchorage or leverage.

dunnage- pieces of wood, matting, or similar material used to keep a cargo in position in a ship’s hold; informal- a person’s belongings, especially those brought on board ship.

scow- a wide-beamed sailing dinghy.

acequias-  a community-operated watercourse used in Spain and former Spanish colonies in the Americas for irrigation.

cassinette- a lightweight twilled trousering usually with cotton warp and wool filling.

priapic- of, relating to, or resembling a phallus; phallic

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