Blood Meridian

blood meridianToday’s adapter, Bill Monahan, is the writer of many produced screenplays, including The Gambler, and The Departed. He is a great writer, and his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is well worth your time in reading.

This paragraph is the very last time I will say anything about Bill Monahan in this review. Not because his work in this script is unworthy. I will not mention him anymore because Mr. Cormac McCarthy [the author of the source material] is rapidly becoming my thematic nemesis. I’ve now reviewed, No Country for Old Men, The Counselor, and Blood Meridian. In addition to this I have read Mr. McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses. Mr. McCarthy is challenging my view of the world, he is challenging my view of the world cogently, and he needs to be addressed—or I have to change my view of the world.

I lost my review of The Counselor, but I still remember my thematic summary in spite of the fact it’s been over a year since I wrote it. I interpreted the theme of that story to be:

Humans are irredeemable animals.

I hated that theme. In fact, I summed up my thoughts about this theme with the following:

Fuck you, Mr. McCarthy.

I told Mr. McCarthy to fuck off because I believed then [and still believe now] that this theme is self-refuting. A story necessarily has meaning. I believe this is an ontological element of storytelling which no human can overcome. It is logically impossible for a writer to write a story WITHOUT a meaning. The point of Mr. McCarthy’s Counselor opposed my first principle of storytelling. He is saying that NO STORIES have meaning because it is impossible for humans to learn. For Mr. McCarthy, humans exist in an ethically entropic universe. For Mr. McCarthy:

Human behavior tends toward absolute evil.

Just like in our physical world, there can be pockets of ethical “order” [what we recognize as goodness] but overall, the ethical universe will eventually die a goodness death which exactly mirrors the heat death of our physical universe.

I was right then, and I am still right now, that holding this belief about the ethical universe is self-refuting for a writer. Writers exist to tell stories. Stories must be heard by an audience to fulfill their function. If humans are irredeemable animals, then telling a story is irredeemable vanity.

ELLIS
You can’t stop what’s comin. Ain’t
all waitin’ on you.

The two men look at each other. Ellis shakes his head.

ELLIS
…That’s vanity.

If Ellis is to be believed, this scene from No Country for Old Men implies that opposing the evil in the world is done from Vanity. This is not a new idea. Eliot used it in his Murder in the Cathedral:

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.

What is new is the conclusion. McCarthy bears witness to the state of the world but concludes that action is a moral evil [it’s vain]. I deny this to the core of my being. If this is true then fiction should have ended when Plato wrote his Gorgias. If McCarthy is right, then Callicles was right. End of Story. If McCarthy is right then:

Fuck you Mr. McCarthy.

Look, McCarthy is a linguistic genius. The point of genius [and I’m about to give a highly ontological intuition about genius and ethics which I can’t yet support] is to be Creative. The point of Creativity is to reconfigure mistakes so that they become solutions. Genius ought to [and this is, also, an ethical proposition] be used to solve problems. The Greatest Treason, then, is to possess genius and not solve problems. McCarthy’s ethical statement about the irredeemability of humans is ethically foul. Not only that, it is fascinatingly Vain. He has displayed a generational type of talent and has used this gift for no End.

Am I being teleological here? I don’t think so. I am just unable to make the argument, yet. I draw consolation from the fact that, in spite of the miraculous attempts made by philosophers from Plato to Rawls, no one else has completed the argument yet either. My intuitions are correct, I know this to be true the same way I know 2+2=4. I just can’t line up the inferences. Based on the fact that I will continue to try, this is what I have to say to Mr. McCarthy:

Fuck you, Mr. McCarthy.

On to Blood Meridian…

All of McCarthy’s works [that I’ve been exposed to] have two things in common. An uncommonly competent “protagonist” who exists in a seriously evil world. Opposed to this character is an even more uncommonly competent “antagonist” who is the reason the world is so seriously evil. McCarthy is a genius because he makes you root for his “protagonist” even when their choices get very close to being evil things in themselves.

There are two immediate things that stand out to me about this narrative setup. The first is that, in McCarthy’s work, the protagonist is slightly weaker than the antagonist. The second is that this weakness derives from the protagonist’s unwillingness to embrace the ethical truths about humans which the antagonist represents. In McCarthy’s work, normal goodness is a human weakness.

Blood Meridian is not the exception which proves the rule. McCarthy gives us The Kid as “protagonist”. He is the most exceptional, most competent [borderline super-hero] character in the script—except for his bad luck in being matched against The Judge. It is almost nonsensical to rate absolute evil, but, if there is some sense in it, then The Judge is more absolutely evil than Anton Chigurgh. At least Chigurh was a Kantian. The Judge is just a hedonist. He makes Evil because it gives him pleasure. I will trace this through a few quotes. The first is from page 65:

THE JUDGE
If God meant to intervene in the
degeneracy of mankind, Father *
Tobin, he would have done so by *
now.

The discussion continues on the next page:

THE JUDGE *
I am here to show the world as it *
is. I am a mirror going down the *
road. I have no interest in *
anything but what is. I will tell *
what is. *
*
(he cuts THE KID) *
There’s a line, a demarcation made *
by murder. If you cross that line, *
your freedom is infinite. You *
become God. *

And then, from the next page:

THE JUDGE *
Not so. Everything I say is what a *
man in your position needs to *
hear. I’ve offered you the key to *
the kingdom, boy, and its name is *
murder. *

The argument for hedonism is summed up on page 72:

THE JUDGE *
*
Anything that exists without my *
knowledge exists without my *
consent. Once I have knowledge of *
it it has no further need of its *
preliminary existence. *

Clearly, this is a man who puts his own wants and desires over those of everyone else. He does not codify it, however, until page 92:

THE JUDGE
It’s like days of old, joven. Like
days of old. If you want a thing, *
take it.

If you want a thing, take it. Hedonism on a bumper sticker. The Judge believes the world is ethically entropic. He concludes that no actions contain moral weight. Rousseau’s state of nature is not something to be overcome, it is all powerful. The idea that humans should try to overcome it is the mistake that ruins the world. If you want a thing, take it.

The script justifies its ideas about ethical entropy by talking about “War”. In the scenes quoted above, Murder is used as an analogue for War. Me being me, I will outdo both the script and the source material by suggesting that Violence in all its forms, is the Argument For Evil. Remember that I make this suggestion in full cognizance of the fact that I think Violence in fiction captivates because it effects our brain in a primal way. We humans view violence as an act of magic, literally. Witnessing violence is equivalent to witnessing an object be in two different places at the same time. Violence makes children of us all. It defeats our reason. We cannot compute it.

Given those statements, it seems like I should be in agreement with McCarthy. Let me say that, I believe, Blood Meridian is a better representation of McCarthy’s philosophy than No Country for Old Men. Chigurgh is a step removed from the Argument For Evil because he is a Kantian. The Judge is a much better philosopher. Violence happens because of hedonism. THE RULE which undergirds, war, murder, and all violence is:

If you want a thing, take it.

That hedonism is the cause of violence, and by straightforward inference, the cause of evil is… correct. In addition to this [and going beyond Chigurgh], The Judge is miraculously adept at recognizing The Altruist’s Challenge to his philosophy. It is not for nothing that The Judge spends so much time talking about Our Collective Humanity. In point of fact, the reason I single McCarthy out as my ethical nemesis is because The Judge spends so much time talking about Our Collective Humanity. From page 55:

TOBIN
(very much the expriest)
If there is a collective soul you
hold the individual guilty?

The Kid is listening more intently for this answer.

THE JUDGE
Events happen. Deeds are done. But
once war begins, there is no *
individual doer of the deed.

This idea gets full expression on page 104:

CONTINUED: THE JUDGE(CONT’D)
(CONTINUED)
You alone were mutinous. You alone
reserved in your soul some corner
of clemency for the heathen.

THE JUDGE (CONT’D)
I told you. I spoke for you and
you alone. If war is not holy man
is nothing but antic clay. Come to *
me, as another savior said.

It is completed on page 107:

THE JUDGE (CONT’D)
You alone were mutinous. You broke *
with the body of which you were
pledged a part and poisoned it in
all its enterprise. It was
required of no man to give more
than he possessed. Only each was
called upon to empty his heart
into the common soul and one did *
not. We know who that was. You *
stood your ground as a man, but *
what ground was it?

I draw from this that Violence belongs to Collective Humanity. To be or not be violent is beyond our choice to make… as an individual. There are events, there are deeds, but once Violence begins, a hive mind takes over. We are violent in circumstances because we are violent in principle.

You can see why McCarthy has The Judge spend so much time arguing for his ideas in terms of War, rather than in the more specific terms of Violence. I believe that McCarthy did this because it’s impossible to make a specific argument from a general principle. It can be true that War is a Collective Impulse, while still also being true that an individual human commits an act of violence because s/he CHOSE to commit that act of violence. The Judge’s principle explains War, but it does nothing to make sense of localized violence. You can also see, from this discussion, that Chigurgh represents an upgrade over The Judge in terms of thematic completeness. The answer to the ethical problem presented is to Kantianize it. Chigurgh is no hedonist. He is a rule follower.

CHIGURH
Let me ask you something. If the
rule you followed brought you to
this, of what use was the rule?

McCarthy papers over the error in The Judge’s inference from a collective result to an individualized application by having Chigurgh idolize Rule. The problem is that The Judge, while not offering a satisfactorily complete philosophy, does offer a reason for WHY someone would act to increase the disorder in our ethical system:

If you want a thing, take it.

The fact that this article can say that The Judge and Chigurgh are both better at philosophy than each other IS the error in McCarthy’s logic. Perhaps, he will take this as a challenge. Can he give a rational and an emotional reason for the ethical entropy he thinks is inevitable?

I can’t endorse any of the conclusions McCarthy reaches. From what I’ve read about the ending of the novel Blood Meridian, it concludes with an ambiguous victory for The Judge. This is opposed to the ending of the script—which allows The Kid to kill The Judge, physically. Ambiguity still reigns, however, as the script implies The Kid has become The Judge. [Unless, he didn’t.] The book ending is better because the Blood Meridian is The Judge’s Meridian… in the same way that No Country for Old Men is Anton Chigurgh’s Country.

Rating: Worth Reading

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2 responses to “Blood Meridian

  1. First of all: great stuff. You do your best critical work when you get your dander up and your views are being challenged directly by the material. And, I mean, that’s the argument for the work in itself, right? As Chigurh might argue, If you believe your rule is correct, but the rule falters under critical l argument…of what worth is the rule?

    To me this is a story that is trying to do what some other artforms do — this story is about aesthetics. What are the aesthetics of a human world that tends towards evil? What does that look like? It’s an illustration, an example, a diagnosis — but not a cure. Because there is no ‘making sense’ of a violence that is senseless.

    Now we have different points of view when it comes to violence.. I suppose, based on my taste in movies etc… that I ‘like’ violence, or that I at least find value in it as an entertainment, an action worth exploring. And Blood Meridian (a book I have read a half-dozen times) is probably the most powerful meditation on violence I have ever encountered. The violence in Blood meridian is uncharacteristic. It’s not used as a cheap metaphor or as a means of catharsis or transformation. The violence is the book. The Judge is the book. And like Moby Dick he is among the most monstrous creations in American literature. He is violence incarnate, an avatar for war for it’s own sake.

    I don’t think McCarthy was interested at this point in his career (the Road is the exception to his own rule) in moral judgements, any more then Melville was or Faulkner was earlier in his career. And because we’re robbed of the salve of psychologizing the violence, every arrow that hang’s out of a man’s neck, every person chopped in half and every dead baby is left to sort of fester in the reader’s belly and mind.

    For what it’s worth, I believe I heard or read Monahan mention somewhere that the key to understanding the text, or at least his key, is to realize that Glanton is the hero…which I do not agree with personally but that was his lens for the material, anyway.

  2. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but it is interesting that you bring Faulkner into this discussion. I’ve read every single one of his works from the sublime– Light in August, As I Lay Dying, to the borderline unreadable– A Fable, Pylon, and I get what you are saying. There is pervasive and irredeemable evil [as violence] in his work as well. My favorite line of Mr. Faulkner’s is the last line in Absalom, Absalom–

    I hate the South.

    His violence, his evil, I took to be cultural. Individuals were worthy but collective humanity, once institutionalized, was hideous. My nineteen year old Deep Southern-Raised Self IDOLIZED Mr. Faulkner for writing that line. It took back half my disappointment in the people who delivered all the Racist Jokes I endured without resisting, and those people holding KKK meetings a few miles from the house I grew up in. Faulkner convinced me that Cultural Evil was defeatable. And even though we haven’t won yet, I will always thank him for the favor he did me with his words.

    I should also say that I’m not opposed to violence in Art. Violence is a part of humans– to wall it off and not comprehend it would be as wrong as glorifying it. I don’t think McCarthy is wrong to show us what we are; I think he is wrong to be so Good at showing us our fault without reaching for a solution.

    McCarthy is not shocking for the sake of being shocking. He has a consistent [since No Country] explanation for the state of the world. This explanation is wildly disappointing for an unrelenting humanist like myself. I fault McCarthy because he is a much better Artist than the ethical system he has so far, consistently, delivered.

    As for Monahan’s interpretation, I read something similar somewhere myself when I was researching the review. Maybe, it was Bloom who said it? Like you, I disagree. The protagonist of the script I read [even though the script author denies it] is The Judge. Just like, the protagonist of No Country is Chigurgh.

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