Cormac McCarthy’s Unforgiving Parables of American Empire

Cormac McCarthy’s Unforgiving Parables of American Empire

Cormac McCarthy’s Unforgiving Parables of American Empire

He demonstrated how the frontier wasn’t an incubator of democratic equality but a place of unrelenting pain, cruelty, and suffering.


It’s nice that Cormac McCarthy made it until the orca revolt, the recent boat attacks by killer whales off the Strait of Gibraltar. At least three ships have been sunk and many hobbled. McCarthy never would have written anything so schlocky in his fiction: His natural world may have been humbling—the closest thing to the divine found in his pages—yet it’s man who is the primary agent of violence in his fiction. But riotous whales do call to mind Melville, who cast a long shadow over McCarthy. Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s magnum opus, is arguably a Moby-Dick turned inside out. Three words, terse imperatives, open both novels: “Call me Ishmael”; “See the child.” And then one is plunged into an abyss of run-on sentences of compounding beauty. Of the two, McCarthy was the more exacting when it came to his prose. His writing is more tightly wound even when he’s letting his sentences and paragraphs unspool. Both novels, devoid of women (except for a few background prostitutes in Blood Meridian), tell of men hunting: a white whale in Melville’s book and Native Americans to scalp and kill in McCarthy’s.

Melville began Moby-Dick around the time Blood Meridian is set, in the violent, chaotic years after the United States annexed Texas and invaded Mexico, taking most of its northern territory and bringing its western border to the Pacific Ocean. Both novels trade on the metaphysics of nature, violence, commerce, war, and law. Both, in other words, are parables of the US empire. For McCarthy, like Melville, empire meant movement, an expectation of limitlessness, and both demonstrated a skill at describing men and animals moving through vastness, through landscapes without end.

McCarthy opened many of his books with western motion. Outer Dark: “They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge…”; Child of God: “They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments…”; All the Pretty Horses: “It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brake….”

But the movement in Blood Meridian is different. McCarthy knows that the United States made and unmade itself not on the water but within the borderlands it shared with Mexico. Unlike the Pequod, Blood Meridian’s scalping Glanton Gang turns in circles. Its men cross and recross the same desert sands; they pass the same bluffs, gullies, rivers, and creosote bushes. Victory over Mexico didn’t, at least for this group of killers, open the world. Rather, the vastness of the West closes in on them. They move east to west, then west to east, and as they do their savagery intensifies, taking on its own momentum detached from the economic logic of bounty hunting, less sadistic than naturalistic, as the men become almost indistinguishable from the landscape.

Published in late 1851, a few years before the Civil War, Moby-Dick anticipated the nation’s coming catastrophe. Yet the novel, despite its calamitous ending, is joyful, hinting at possible emotional emancipations, including the young Black cabin boy Pip’s ability to draw out Ahab’s “humanities” and the fantasies Ishmael has of setting up a marriage bed with the islander Queequeg. Who ain’t a slave? Melville asked. We all are!

A dispositional egalitarian, Melville wore his political anxieties on his sleeve. He wanted emancipation but feared that war against the slave states would destroy the Union. Above all, he was attached to the idea of America and presented whaling as reconciliation, a form of proto–social democracy and multiculturalism: “Yet now, federated along one keel, what a set these Isolatoes were!”—a delegation “from all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth.” Melville sits Ishmael, the book’s narrator, in a circle with other men. As they thrust their hands into a pot to press congealed sperm oil into liquid, Ishmael collapses into ecstatic deindividuation: “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me.”

McCarthy published Blood Meridian in 1985, when Ronald Reagan, after the horrors of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia, launched a new round of carnage in Central America, Afghanistan, Mozambique, and Angola. McCarthy mostly guarded his political opinions, though after 9/11 he seemed to have a rather conventional understanding of geopolitics and the United States’ role in the world; he accepted the fact that the War on Terror was a civilizational war.

Whatever his opinions, McCarthy is more unforgiving than Melville when it comes to writing about US empire. The relentless violence in Blood Meridian and his other books—the hacking of limbs, the dead babies, the castrated genitalia—leaves little to the imagination.

There’s an anti-humanism at play in McCarthy, often expressed in the one-dimensionality of his protagonists. In Moby-Dick, Ahab is “possessed by all the fallen angels.” He’s an archetype: Milton’s rebel hurling defiance at the vaults of heaven, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Lear. His vengeful rebellion against the natural order of things—not least forsaking his economic duty to his masters—can be interpreted in mythological terms, fate punishing his hubris. Yet Melville, anticipating Freud, rakes over his fears, anguishes, and desires, probing Ahab’s “darker, deeper part.” Ahab’s psyche ultimately remains impenetrable (as do all of ours) and his motives subject to debate, yet he’s a very human obsessive.

Not so with his counterpart in Blood Meridian. Judge Holden, or simply “the judge,” is a murderous, erudite, cultured, dancing polyglot and pedophile. He is a character built more from ideas than drives, a mash-up of Nietzsche and Spengler, pre-Freudian, more premise than person. When read with the novel’s setting in mind—as a story of men dispatched by Mexican and Texan officials to kill as many Indigenous people as possible to open the conquered territory to settlement—the judge’s endless speechifying elevates the violence of empire into ideology and weaves the gang’s cruelty into the fabric of existence. “War is the truest form of divination,” the judge intones. “It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of unity of existence. War is god.” Ahab, lost in his mind’s maze, would never say anything so declarative, so detached from his passions. Yet no Shakespearean doubt, no Freudian ambivalence clouds the judge’s certainty, no more than it would the work of the property surveyors who began to transfer Mexican and Native American land to US settlers.

The United States’ assault on Mexico, and the borderland violence that followed, produced a boom in wartime memoirs. There really was a scalping Judge Holden who led the factual Glanton Gang. Here’s how one of the gang members, Samuel Chamberlain, describes him in My Confession, written in the 1850s:

He stood six foot six in his moccasins, had a large, fleshy frame, a dull, tallow-colored face destitute of hair and all expression, always cool and collected. But when a quarrel took place and blood shed, his hog-like eyes would gleam with a sullen ferocity worthy of the countenance of a fiend…. Terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name in the Cherokee nation in Texas. And before we left Fronteras, a little girl of ten years was found in the chaparral foully violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed out him as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand. But though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime. He was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico.

Hairless, large, fleshy, with dull, tallowed skin: The judge is Marlon Brando’s Kurtz, an intertextual lineage that connects the horrors from the Mexican borderland to Southeast Asia. Apocalypse Now! premiered as McCarthy was writing Blood Meridian, with Chamberlain’s centuries-old description offering an uncanny model for both. The movie, its director Francis Coppola once said, is “not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam…. Little by little we went insane,” the “we” being both the film’s crew running wild in the Philippines (its production location) and the United States running wild in the world.

One could say the same about Blood Meridian: that it isn’t about the terror that followed the United States’ taking of northern Mexico. It is the terror, overwhelming the senses with suppurating images and inflamed language, forcing readers to touch the viscera, to feel the judge’s white-whale flesh, to be disgusted by his depravity as he rapes and murders children. And it is faithful to history, for the historical sources McCarthy based the book on are filled with grotesque scenes of, as one example, a regiment of Arkansas volunteers herding their victims into a cave and “yelling like fiends, while on the rocky floor lay over twenty Mexicans, dead and dying in pools of blood, while women and children were clinging to the knees of the murderers and shrieking for mercy.”

Blood Meridian is often described as an anti-western, an effort to desanctify Manifest Destiny. Still, the novel’s violence makes it hard to mark out where McCarthy’s pessimism ends and the judge’s philosophy begins. McCarthy, we can presume, based on his life and work, distrusted ideologies of progress and the self-regard of American exceptionalism, or what Melville called “vile liberty,” an idea of freedom based on extreme individualism with “reverence” for “naught”: not for nature and not for others. McCarthy too has the Glanton Gang harmonizing the individual and the group, echoing Melville when he writes that its men were “federated” in their work—not cheerily along a keel, but more like prisoners bound tight “with invisible wires of vigilance.” There’s no eros in Blood Meridian. Thanatos rules. Sex is rape, and rape is death.

Melville transmuted death into life in Moby-Dick. He has a coffin save Ishmael, the only survivor of the stoved Pequod. McCarthy, at the end of Blood Meridian, stands that coffin upright and turns it into an outhouse, the scene of a confusingly told finale in which the judge apparently rapes and murders the only character in the novel close to being moral, the kid. By book’s end, the violence, however faithful to real events, has become so omnipotent and omnipresent that it escapes the mundane motives that drive nations to wage war, to expand, to establish control over their hinterlands. The judge has become a supernatural demon, the avatar of a re-mythologized empire. Ahab, all too human, dies. The judge lives on: “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

Between the publication of Moby-Dick and that of Blood Meridian a lot happened to account for the bleakness of McCarthy’s moral landscape. “Mai Lai burns again and again in the map of my mind,” the Bangladeshi poet Shamsur Rahman wrote in 1971, a lament for the Nixon-and-Kissinger-enabled genocide then taking place in his own homeland. McCarthy continued to build on Blood Meridian’s themes in his subsequent border trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plains. Then, three years after the US invasion of Iraq, McCarthy published The Road. We don’t know the cause of the novel’s apocalypse, whether it was out-of-control technology, fossil fuels, nuclear war, or consumer waste that left only a handful of desperate humans alive. McCarthy doesn’t say, and he doesn’t have to. It’s any and all of those things, expressed in the novel’s disdain for the items capitalism left strewn along the side of the road, “things abandoned long ago by pilgrims enroute to their several and collective deaths.”

McCarthy demonstrated how the frontier wasn’t an incubator of democratic equality but a place of unrelenting pain, cruelty, and suffering. He rubbed away the veneer of Manifest Destiny, revealing US nationalism and empire to be nothing but the right of conquest updated for the democratic age. Let’s admire the wonder of his writing, even though to my ear it often sounded strained, its artifice apparent, unlike the manic, ramshackle Melville, who really did seem to be handpicked by the gods of old—by Milton, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, and others—to speak for them. McCarthy, though, knew how to name what has been, or will soon be, lost. The last paragraph of The Road, set on an earth stripped of its biomass, is a stunning summation of being and nothingness, of things that once had existed written about as if they still did:

Once there were brook trouts in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

We should, though, resist McCarthy’s punishing gnostic nihilism, and a pessimism that can only result in moral idiocy, in circle dances that go nowhere, like the Glanton Gang, where existence is original sin and the racial terror inherent in empire building, and the land grubbing that comes with it, is but part of the sublime.


Editor’s note: This article originally stated McCarthy died at age 93. He died at age 89.

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