Rhode Island College
Lacking the Article Itself: Representation and History in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian
The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.
Blood Meridian is a Western, but it is a Western in which we would rather not believe. McCarthy's nightmare world of death and destruction reflects little of what we have come to accept as the violence of the West. In Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, when Harmonica shoots down Frank, we know that Frank has warranted his own death. When the Virginian hangs his best friend--and cattle thief--Steve, we remember that all cattle rustlers must die, regardless as to their friendships with the righteous members of a community. In the traditional Western, those upon whom such justice is served do not get scalped or sodomized, roasted or skewer. They are merely put away, out of the picture; the righteous cleanly amputate the dishonorable from society. In Lonesome Dove (1985), Larry McMurtry's romance of an 1880s cattle drive published the same year as Blood Meridian, his cowboys constantly confront death as they travel from the relative civilization of Lonesome Dove (and a borderland tamed by Texas Rangers) toward the Montana frontier: death by snakes, death from exposure, death from Indians, death by hanging. But McMurtry carefully controls the mishaps of these cowboys in his narrative; unexpected, yet acceptable, death defines McMurtry's West. Jane Tompkins writes: "To go west, as far west as you can go, west of everything, is to die"(24). After young Sean O'Brien, the first casualty of the trail in Lonesome Dove, is killed by snakes, Gus McCrae pronounces over the grave, "Dust to dust [. . .] Lets the rest of us go on to Montana" (McMurtry 307). Death is a legitimate, tolerable, and rationalized part of the Western landscape.
Death in Blood Meridian, however, is different. McCarthy depicts death as neither honorable nor narratively tragic. In doing so, McCarthy's Blood Meridian breaks the boundaries of the Western as a genre. But he does not challenge these limits by merely flipping Western conventions on their head; Blood Meridian is not an anti-Western critical or self-reflective of the genre. Death in McCarthy's West is not accepted as part of some collective job, as it is shouldered by McMurtry's cowboys, but rather, death becomes merely fate, more often than not, bathed in gore. Quoting Tompkins again, "Often, death makes a sudden momentary appearance [. . .] as if to put us on notice that life is what is at stake here, and nothing less" (24). In Tompkins's analysis death brings a heightened awareness of life. For McCarthy also, life is itself at stake in the West, but nothing more. Violence on this frontier is merely carnage, without any rejuvenating or civilizing component; McCarthy's characters establish nothing through their bloodletting, except possibly the guarantee of their own destruction.
But Blood Meridian tells not only of murder and ruin, but also of history and the ways that we represent history, how we make stories stand in for actions. As history is a narrative of what was, of temporal moments in the past strung together with some narrative coherence, Blood Meridian is a novel about representation, both within its narrative and in the construction of the novel itself. Unveiling the violence of Manifest Destiny, McCarthy presents us a kind of memory or a history we believed long masked. He serves to us this return of the repressed, but without any displacement; we do not need to read behind the blood to see genocide and destruction. Primarily, Blood Meridian reveals the world as we have categorized, inventoried, and commodified it, leaving us only remnants of earthly things that demand a space in a nexus of exchange, whether that be goods, knowledge, or life itself. Initially, McCarthy unveils the historical repression of the violence of Manifest Destiny and nineteenth-century (if not also twentieth) American racial superiority by cobbling together his fictional nightmare with pieces of verifiable history. At issue, both within the novel and for the novel itself, is precisely the nature of authenticity and its connection to the "real" world of blood and stone and light.
As a text, McCarthy builds Blood Meridian out of bits and pieces of obscure historical data that carry little relation to the grander picture of "standard" Western progress or morality. While Larry McMurtry retains some basic historical references in Lonesome Dove, invoking correct place-names, geography, and general historical figures and events, McCarthy focuses on the minutia of historical verity. Blood Meridian is hyper-real. Ironically, the meticulousness of McCarthy’s research and his use of archaic but historically appropriate language defamiliarizes much of the novel. While Lonesome Dove seems engagingly familiar to most readers because McMurtry patterned his story around conventions and language that appear transparent to an American collective frontier sensibility, McCarthy's novel seems alien and distant in both its language and narrative. Yet, as John Sepich in Notes on Blood Meridian and others have shown, Blood Meridian is more closely based on verifiable historical figures, events, and language than the seemingly more believable Lonesome Dove.
Blood Meridian, then, problematizes both literature as historical documentation and history as literary text. By threading together various and disparate accounts of filibusters and scalp hunters, McCarthy crosses the lines that delineate these two often ideologically opposing arenas of fiction and history. McCarthy creates a world where fictional and historical characters and (events) share the stage without any apparent centralizing or determined logic. But Blood Meridian is not a historical romance centered on a few historically derived main characters whose biographies are enhanced through the actions and associations of minor fictional characters. Instead McCarthy weaves fiction and history: he builds certain major fictional events in the narrative out of pieces of minor historical artifacts and strings certain major historical events together with his fiction. McCarthy pays painstaking attention to detail in the production of this novel so that not only are many of his characters, both those central and peripheral, historically verifiable, but many of their attributes and actions come directly from historical accounts. Many of the kid's fellow scalp hunters, the ex-priest Tobin, Marcus Webster, David Brown, and John Jackson appear in historical accounts of travels with the scalp hunter Glanton. The "Prussian jew named Speyer" who sells Glanton four dozen U.S. Army Colt Dragoons (McCarthy 82), was a noted gun-runner and supplier to Mexico. The Yuma Chief Pablo, who Glanton meets at the Yuma encampment below the ferry (McCarthy 254-55), was once seen, as McCarthy depicts him, adorned with green goggles (1)
Of the two characters who figure most prominently in the narrative, John Joel Glanton and Judge Holden, the former is a relatively well-known and well-documented historical figure (ex-Ranger, Mexican War veteran, Indian fighter, and scalp hunter), while references to the latter seem to be limited to a singular historical source. According to John Sepich, who extensively researched McCarthy’s sources for Blood Meridian, the only mention of a Judge Holden in any historical document is in General Samuel Chamberlain's memoir, My Confession. John Sepich has undertaken extensive historical archeology in an attempt to map McCarthy’s references and has unearthed but this single reference to any Judge Holden, though Sepich acknowledges that other larger-than-life figures from other narratives of early Texas and the Mexican-American War, especially John Russell Bartlett’s 1856 Personal Narrative, might have provided for additional--if fuzzier--appearances of Holden in the historical record. Glanton, on the other hand, appears in numerous other sources attesting to his employment as a scalp hunter for certain Mexican state governments and his takeover of the Yuma ferry on the Colorado River (2). With these two figures in particular, McCarthy weaves the distinctly historical with the predominately fictional.
In My Confession, Chamberlain recollects his military life in Northern Mexico just after the end of the Mexican War and his following desertion and meeting up with Glanton’s scalp-hunting expedition. Chamberlain’s memoir is exaggerated and romantic, painting him the hero in literally every chapter. Even so, this memoir provides a significant source for placing a number of McCarthy's characters and events within a textual framework. My Confession also mirrors the temporal and geographic structure of the narrative of Blood Meridian. Chamberlain’s memoir, like Blood Meridian, begins in the East with his departure from home at fifteen, followed by an aimless wandering through northern Mexico, first as a U.S. Cavalryman and then as a deserter to that company. My Confession ends (rather abruptly) just a few days after Chamberlain escapes from the Yuma ferry massacre on the Colorado River (2). Billy Carr, who furnished a deposition on the Yuma ferry massacre, may have been Chamberlain under an assumed name as Chamberlain was wanted for desertion. Nonetheless, if McCarthy used My Confession as a main source for Blood Meridian, he brought to Chamberlain's account numerous other events and characters from both the historical record and his imagination.
Judge Holden, the most significant character in Blood Meridian besides the kid, appears only in the last twenty-five pages of Chamberlain's memoir. McCarthy takes Chamberlain’s few descriptions of Holden and expands them to create the grotesque and mythic Judge Holden of the novel. Chamberlain describes Judge Holden:
The second in command [. . .] was a man of gigantic size called ‘Judge’ Holden of Texas. [. . .] He stood six feet six in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow face destitute of hair and all expression. His desires was blood and women. [. . .] Holden was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico; he conversed with all in their own language, spoke in several Indian lingos, at a fandango would take the Harp or Guitar from the hands of the musicians and charm all with his wonderful performance, and out-waltz any poblano of the ball. He was ‘plum centre’ with rifle or revolver, a daring horseman, acquainted with the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, great in Geology and Mineralogy, in short another Admirable Crichton, and with all an arrant coward. (Chamberlain 271-72)
McCarthy’s Holden assumes all these characteristics, except cowardice; he is fat (twenty-four stone), hairless, and hawkeyed, a musician, dancer, politician, lawyer, and naturalist. Echoing Chamberlain, the ex-priest Tobin discusses Holden with the kid:
That great hairless thing. You wouldnt think to look at him that he could outdance the devil himself now would ye? [. . .] And fiddle. He’s the greatest fiddler I ever heard and that’s an end on it. The greatest. He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer. He’s been all over the world. Him and the governor [Trias of Chihuahua] they sat up till breakfast and it was Paris this and London that in five languages, you’d have give something to of heard them. (McCarthy 123)
Chamberlain’s Holden steps directly from the imagination of this Mexican War veteran into McCarthy’s novel. Given the grandiose and bombastic tone of My Confession, Holden himself already enters the life of Blood Meridian as fictionalized through Chamberlain’s memories. McCarthy takes Holden out of the self-aggrandizing tales of My Confession and cements him in his nightmarish recreation of history.
Reading Blood Meridian and My Confession simultaneously, we see a creation of Judge Holden emerge that reflects its mirrored images in either text. In Blood Meridian, Holden first appears at Reverend Green’s itinerant church-tent in Nacogdoches: "an enormous man dressed in an oilcloth slicker [. . .]. He was bald as a stone and he had no trace of beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them either. He was close to seven feet in height and he stood smoking a cigar even in this nomadic house of God" (McCarthy 6). Holden publicly accuses Reverend Green of fraud, of "violating" an eleven year-old girl in another state, and of being "run out of Fort Smith Arkansas for having congress with a goat" (McCarthy 7). In Chamberlain’s narrative, Holden appears to be guilty of at least one of these heinous crimes: "before we left Fronteras a little girl of ten years was found in the chapperal [sic], foully violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed [Holden] as the ravisher" (Chamberlain 271). McCarthy's Reverend Green howls to his congregation, "This is him [. . .] This is him. The devil. Here he stands" (McCarthy 7), possibly declaiming that Holden is indeed Beelzebub, or, quite carnally, that Holden--and not Reverend Green--ought be indicted for the Fronteras assault. McCarthy’s Reverend Green responds to the Holden of My Confession; fiction and history overlap and construct each other, with the judge at the center. In fact, though Reverend Green remains accused of the sordid homicide, that act attributed to Chamberlain’s Judge Holden, it is McCarthy’s perverse syndic who later kills, if not also violates, a twelve-year old "Mexican or halfbreed boy" left alone in an abandoned presidio (McCarthy 116) and a "strange dark child" spared from Glanton’s raid on the Gileños encampment (McCarthy 160). The attacks made by both Holdens prefigure, of course, the kid’s fate in the outhouse behind the bar. Be he Lucifer or terrestrial murderer, slipping out of Reverend Green’s tent during the melee following Holden’s accusations, the kid finds "The bald man was already at the bar when they entered" (McCarthy 7).
The kid later recounts this incident to Tobin, who replies, "Every man in the company claims to have encountered that sootysouled rascal in some other place" (McCarthy 124), effectively calling into question the validity of the kid's story and simultaneously giving credence to a seeming omnipresence of the judge. Growing out of Chamberlain's narrative and embellished by McCarthy, Judge Holden begins to take control of the world of Blood Meridian, dragging all of it under his jurisdiction.
Judge Holden is a judge, though of what we do not yet know. But Holden is also a scientist, an Enlightenment doctor of philosophy. He represents the ideological skeleton of a new imperialist scientific world order sprouting from Enlightenment rationality and the firm establishment of capitalist principles as transcendent in American and European cultures. In fact, Rick Wallach argues that the "real" Judge Holden of Chamberlain’s narrative proclaims the "imposition of the scientific vision over the supplanted Christian one. [. . .] [where] the new exegesis is no longer typology but a function of the empirical eye" ("Sam Chamberlain's Judge" 13). As he travels with the scalp hunters, the judge collects, sketches, and catalogues numerous natural and historical finds. Through this scientific ordering, Holden attempts to control the world around him. Collection and categorization allow him power over his surroundings through a scientific reproduction of nature and history. In the judge’s thinking, representation is tantamount to ownership. Enlightenment ideals of science that rationalize and compartmentalize the world drive the judge’s endless cataloging of natural phenomena.
Judge Holden presses plants, sketches archeological finds and petroglyphs, collects rare butterflies, shoots and stuffs birds; he can lecture on geology, ancient history, and the disappearance of the Anasazi. In 1849, the science of geology was still deeply embroiled in ideological struggles with Christian theology; Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology was only two decades old when the judge delivers his lectures. The judge’s knowledge of geology sets him apart intellectually and spiritually from the rest of his travelers. Scientific cataloging and categorization hold the ultimate power of representation, and Holden’s science accepts a one-to-one correlation between an article and its representation. The judge allows only his vision of the thing into his notebooks. If the object is inanimate, he must destroy it. If it is alive, he must destroy its animate qualities, its life. "The freedom of birds in an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos," he claims (McCarthy 199). The judge stuffs his captured birds and packs them away among his possessions. They become mere representations of life among the many others stuffed, pressed, or sketched in the judge’s catalog (3).
Within the judge’s science, the representation of an object validates its existence; only through representation can some object be comprehended and thus contained. But in his desire to catalog the world, the judge seeks to destroy that world. He draws potsherds, bone tools, and a sixteenth-century footpiece from a suit of armor he has found in the desert. After measuring and sketching these, he commits them to the fire "much satisfied with the world, as if his counsel had been sought at its creation" (McCarthy 140). In the Hueco Tanks, the judge wanders among the petroglyphs "copying out those certain ones into his book to take away with him," and before he leaves he obliterates one particular design (McCarthy 173). The judge maintains control over knowledge through the destruction of original sources, thus leaving the representation to stand for the original, or more so, leaving the representation to stand only for itself; the referent for the sketch must be merely the sketch itself, as the original is gone. (4)
The judge is an empiricist, believing only that which is in front of him and experientially verifiable. But the judge’s one-to-one correlation between the world of objects and the world of knowledge leads to his erasure of history and erasure of artifacts. Objects serve no purpose once they have been documented; once the judge catalogs any item in his notebooks, he physically destroys it. Representation must be accepted as the true article since only the abstraction proves the object’s original existence. The judge then creates his own epistemology by forcing representation to stand as truth, denying existence to anything that has found its way into his books.
The judge heralds a new age of science and truth, a world based on the data of rational, Enlightenment evaluation. But the judge’s new world does not operate on the level of the original article, but in a world built upon representation only. More precisely, he builds a world based on simulation as he has effectively destroyed all the originals: he builds an economy of signs. As the architect of this new system, Holden, now god-like, becomes precisely the epistemological dream of Enlightenment rationalism: "suzerain of the earth" (McCarthy 198).
Jean Baudrillard’s description of the operations of signs within postmodernism illuminates not only the possible nonreferentiality, but also the power of the judge’s representative economy:
[T]he age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials--worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs, a more ductile material than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalence . [. . .] It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have to be produced.
By erasing all originals, the judge invokes an economy of signs--an economy he generates long before the advent of Baudrillard’s vision of postmodernism or the late capitalism that spawned it; the judge’s world contains no vicissitudes to short-circuit his truth as his truth is drawn only in his notebooks. The judge alone, by engaging this power of reproduction, becomes the sole owner of knowledge, not his own in an individualistic sense, but of a singular collected knowledge that allows him to reproduce the world and ultimately command it:
The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation. (McCarthy 199)
The judge has not broken any signifier-signified chain, leaving signs dangling in a deconstructive pose searching for meaning, but rather he cleanly cleaves the earthly object from its representation and leaves the signifier in place as the sign itself. The judge’s dispensation is precisely the act of destroying the original, the autonomous object, in favor of its textual placement within his books and kitbag.
But the world upon which the judge lays his hands is not wholly rational or verifiable. The innumerable variations and orders of the natural world defy the judge’s Enlightenment aspirations to find the thread that holds this world together in some logical order. But the judge himself accepts that, like some epistemological Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the creation and acquisition of knowledge and its ordering must acknowledge the imprint of its keeper.
Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you will not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others. (McCarthy 245)
The judge finds this order in his notebooks, in his rationally constructed economy of representations. Rick Wallach, in "Judge Holden, Blood Meridian's Evil Archon," argues that "Holden’s defense of inscription often reads like a satire of deconstruction" (132). But more than satire, the judge’s undertaking begins to take on a life of its own; any satirical elements in the judge’s defense lose their power as the possible satire moves into the realm of destruction. The judge manufactures, rather than just rearranges, meaning. He knows that his world is merely an order of signs and that the "true" world lies evident in the referent, which Holden wishes "to expunge from the memory of man" (McCarthy 140) by placing their likeness in text. The verifiable referent’s existence blocks the completion of the judge’s grander scheme: "Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth" (McCarthy 198). The judge’s science demands the acquisition of knowledge, the textural inscription of the earth, regardless as to the means of its purchase.
To route out each last entity is the judge’s science. Placing these objects in his book forces them to stand naked before him. But the judge also recognizes the problems that this kind of sign production can present. After exploring a deserted mine and returning with ore samples, the judge "[holds] an extemporary lecture in geology" with some members of the gang. A number of them quote scripture "to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings" (McCarthy 116); the judge retorts:
Books lie, he said.
God dont lie.
No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.
He held up a chunk of rock.
He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things. (McCarthy 116)
For Judge Holden, the Bible is merely a false ordering of signs, and, in true Enlightenment fashion, he undertakes to set out a new and truer system of signs that has its origins not in faith but in the earth itself. To destroy history as he finds it, the judge builds a system that needs no referent, as the Bible needs no referent; the judge’s world, built out of the earth, will be written.
All books lie, including the judge’s, and Holden affirms this dislocating quality of texts. But the issue in books is not verity, but power. Holden understands the power of representation and its mutability and by constructing signs that carry an article beyond its physical existence, he can manipulate information as he pleases. With a dawning awareness of the judge’s desire to replace objects--flesh, rock, or metal--with an ordered system of constructed meaning, the scalp hunter Webster fears losing his life to the judge’s pen. He tells Holden:
Well you’ve been a draftsman somewheres and them pictures is like enough the things themselves. [. . .]
Well said, Marcus, spoke the judge.
But dont draw me, said Webster. For I dont want in your book.
My book or some other book said the judge. What is to be deviates no jot from the book wherein it’s writ. How could it? It would be a false book and a false book is no book at all. (McCarthy 140-41)
For the judge’s book truly to represent the world, it may deviate "no jot from the book wherein it's writ": the book and the world must be equivalents. But the judge still destroys the referent, leaving him only the residue of signification in his books. Books lie and a false book is no book at all. But the judge’s book is the world, "the stones and trees, the bones of things." His book cannot lie, for there is no world to use as reference; its circular logic of authenticity validates itself.
While Judge Holden builds his world by constructing an economy of signs, another economy of signs operates in Blood Meridian, one whose referents, like the judge’s, are rarely verifiable. This economy, though still semiotic in nature, drives the characters of Blood Meridian to their horrid deeds and places them within a commerce in human life based on the collecting of human scalps. The scalps brought in by Glanton and his gang represent victory in a genocidal war against the Apache and Comanche. But more than just symbols and proofs, the scalps operate as specie, as articles exchanged for other articles or for different monies in officially government-sanctioned slaughter: Trias, the governor of Chihuahua, pays Glanton one hundred dollars per scalp. Human blood, or at least what passes as proof of the extinction of a human life, operates as the medium of exchange in Trias’s war. The threat of the original is gone, proven though disembodied hair; the hair remains but a sign--a sign whose signified is precisely human life. (5)
For Glanton and his crew, scalps are specie, bloody human specie. Scalps evidence a commerce in death and, specifically, genocide as a commodity. But rules exist even in this market of genocide. Glanton’s greed eventually overcomes him: he brings to Trias numerous counterfeit scalps, leaving to the state of Chihuahua, at one hundred dollars a piece, the black hair of the citizens he was hired to protect. Glanton’s head is soon worth eight thousand pesos on the very same market in which he originally made his fortune.
This market in Blood Meridian is war: here Glanton and Trias trade lives. But death, the absence of human life, is defined by the presence of scalps: as with the objects inventoried in Holden’s notebooks, the signs of human life exist only through its extinction. Scalps are the medium of exchange and human life the guarantor of the bill. Glanton’s gang knows no such decorum as might be found in standard shopkeeping or the haggling of the bazaar. They trade with firepower their own and other’s lives (and other’s scalps if the right color) to meet their needs. But Glanton and his bloody underlings are not merely bullies or thugs, rather the only commerce that seems rational to them is the commerce of blood. Meeting some buffalo hunters bound for the markets in Mesilla, "The Americans might have traded for some of the meat but they carried no tantamount goods and the disposition to exchange was foreign to them" (McCarthy 121). The Americans are not traders, but rather mercenaries, partisans hired by the state to fight a genocidal war.
Within the logic of Blood Meridian, particularly that of the judge, all markets are merely derivative of war. Judge Holden says: "War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner" (McCarthy 248). Not just a singular craft or trade, war is the primary human occupation as "all other trades are contained in war" (McCarthy 249). War is the marketplace in Blood Meridian.
But within a capitalist (and a Darwinian) framework, the marketplace itself may not be merely derivative of war, but truly a representation of that trade. Still, Judge Holden disdains this arena of trade as the stakes of the marketplace are merely second-order signs of war; shopkeeping draws no blood. Holden holds forth:
Men are born for games. [. . .] Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all. (McCarthy 249)
The market, as a game with stakes of money or capital goods, may "aspire to the conditions of war," but these stakes do not swallow all, as does war. With reference to McCarthy’s novels in general, Christine Chollier writes, "market economies [. . .] largely bypass the main characters who find themselves in a position where they have to resort to a lower form of market economies --barter, or any other simpler mode--or where they operate through gifts" (47). She argues that within in these "lower economies" lie social chaos and attempts at the "complete annihilation of trade" (46), favoring violence as the only medium of exchange for life’s necessities and pleasures. Blood Meridian, for Chollier, represents a moment in McCarthy's works where violence becomes "reestablished as the ultimate form of trade" (46). Ultimately, though, Blood Meridian represents not a world based on "lower economies" of exchange, but rather the basal economics of genocide: trading human lives for money and land. Glanton’s gang literally harvests scalps to sell on a market. They do not sell their labor, as a capitalist economy necessitates, but neither do they involve themselves in barter or gift exchange. As we have seen, "disposition to exchange was foreign to them." And in fact, Glanton’s relationship to the Mexican market of genocide falls apart with a warrant for his own head. Even so, he continues harvesting his hirsute goods though no more markets welcome his exchanges.
In Leo Daugherty’s reading of Blood Meridian in "Gravers False and True," the judge scorns the marketplace as a competitive arena because "he refuses to be a part of the exchange system" (165). In the kid’s fevered dream in San Diego, the judge appears overseeing a coldforger working the judge’s likeness in coin (McCarthy 310). But the judge constantly rejects the coldforger's work, a "coinage for a dawn that would not be" (McCarthy 310), thus holding daylight at bay. Daugherty reads this dream as the judge’s rejection of any specie-bound exchange for "all human coinage is counterfeit" (Daugherty 165). Daugherty writes that "the judge doesn’t want a victory based on any currency" (164) because the impulse for exchange folds war into the humdrum of the marketplace. But Daugherty limits himself to analyzing only the exchange of coins for goods. Glanton’s trade in death, driven by scalps, a commerce of signs, brings genocidal war directly into a market in which he exchanges his bloody goods for coins. This market, then, is the judge’s market, a market involving specie (gold and hair, counterfeit or not) where the trade practiced is war and the stakes of exchange are human life and blood. A counterfeit coin then is merely one without Death’s mint; any scrip holds representative value as long as blood seeps from its edges. Counterfeit currency, that which lies about its origins, however, may also draw blood: Glanton’s taking of Mexican scalps, counterfeit specie on the market within which he has agreed to operate, puts a price on his own head by those defining the nature of the specie exchanged. Exchange in Blood Meridian is not driven by "gravers false and true"--by authentic or counterfeit mediums. Rather, only blood defines exchange. Specie both false and true brings war and blood to the forefront of the market, though necessarily only through signs.
The kid’s fevered dream provides him with the answer to the base question of the novel that the kid posed to Tobin earlier, "What's he a judge of?"(McCarthy 135). The kid sees the coldforger "contriving from cold slag brute in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end" (McCarthy 310). Daugherty sees this endless night as the refusal of Holden "to be part of the exchange system" (165). Holden remains the judge of any attempt to pass his likeness into that nexus, thus the night has no end. But rather than the judge withholding his approval as a guarantor of the specie, the judge must, given his long-standing project to subdue the earthly world through sign production, be the sole judge of any representative value. He alone decides what items may stand in for themselves and which ones must have stand-ins for their intrinsic value. Holden decides when the spared Gileño boy may be an Apache and when he will transform into a scalp. Holden may fear that war will lose its efficacy to the marketplace, but ultimately the trading of signs fuels war. The marketplace, especially with reference to Glanton’s collected scalps, remains not derivative of war, as Daugherty reads, but precisely war itself. The market of Blood Meridian, not unlike the market of global capitalism (if not all capitalism), has become slick with blood of the world's referents, a genocidal pit with sweaty brokers fighting for the value of ephemeral bills whose guarantees are no longer material, if even alive.
Within Blood Meridian, the natural world has a transcendent, yet unknowable, order: "existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others" (McCarthy 245). The Crossing (1994) echoes this same idea. Dianne Luce argues that, like the Judge Holden's semiotic rendering of the world, "the human capability for narrative [. . .] is our primary means of accessing and perhaps communicating the thing itself" (208). But for Luce, "the thing itself" to which McCarthy yearns to reach in his prose "carries connotations of truth, ultimate essence, the sacred heart of things [. . .] and [McCarthy] implies that humans access the thing itself only by transcending the obstacles posed by artifact, language, and physical sense" (208-209). But in Blood Meridian the thing itself disappears, crumpled in the fire or into dust. To transcend the obstacles is to find bits of carbon or scratched chert or, more likely, rotting bodies.
Judge Holden knows that power comes through one’s ability to make an order "like a string in a maze" that regulates information. The judge becomes the master of a discourse whose truth lies in the "stones and trees, the bones of things," but which once tabernacled in a text becomes transcendent in itself. Just as the market in scalps brings money to the partisans, the judge’s economics of rationalization and representation bring him power over the narrative of human society.
As the judge builds a world of signs from the obliterated natural world, McCarthy threads a narrative from few and fragmented historical documents concerning Glanton and his travels. The history of Blood Meridian is hyper-specific, given little to the broader historical gestures of other Western writers such as McMurtry. In McCarthy's stylization, Blood Meridian seems alien and distant in a genre based on familiarity and a collective unconscious about the West. Tompkins writes, "Half the pleasure of Westerns comes from this sense of familiarity, spliced with danger". But McCarthy’s fiction refuses any kind of familiarity. McCarthy’s bad guys are not merely black-hatted cowards who rustle cattle or shoot their opponents in the back. Instead they slaughter and mutilate innocent people. In McCarthy’s West, there are no white hats and no redemption. The carnage of the text and the various permutations of representations, both within the novel and the novel itself, effectively destroy any sense of acceptable order in the popular memory of a mythic frontier West.
McCarthy moves beyond writing revisionist history. While historians such as Patricia Nelson Limerick expose Western expansion as a "Legacy of Conquest," McCarthy uncovers the butchery of those rationalized imperialisms. Linking Blood Meridian to Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch might provide fruitful for comparisons of revisionary impulses within Westerns, but mainly only in terms of artistic style and possibly as statements about the visual culture of America post-Vietnam.(6) More importantly, though, we can read McCarthy’s narrative as a statement on the dangers of misrepresentation. Like the judge, we build histories that subscribe to our future desires. We dismiss the details of historical violence or blame atrocities on maniacal or ostracized individuals (Captain White, who, of course, ends up pickled). Robert L. Jarrett claims that McCarthy’s novel is "an attempt at a dramatic and ritualized experience of American history as it was lived. [. . .] and may more successfully express the bloody tragedy of Western history than any historian" (92-93). (7) By following the judge’s impulse to build a world of his own definition, we as readers become shocked when McCarthy’s act of unveiling "the thing itself" jars us from our own notebooks, kitbags, or portmanteaus. The scales hopefully fall from our eyes as we read Blood Meridian as "a catastrophic act of witness, embracing the real by tracing it in gore" (Shaviro 153).
Ultimately, Blood Meridian is about exchange value and commodification under both nineteenth-century imperialism and twentieth-century late capitalism--our own official histories also available on some intellectual market. The distinctions between that market and an arena of war have grown fuzzy and indistinct. Dragging everything--goods, lives, ideals, history, knowledge, and body parts--into markets fueled by American expansionist politics, Judge Holden bluntly tells Toadvine, as well as ourselves, "Everything's for sale"(McCarthy 282).
1. See John Sepich’s Notes on Blood Meridian. Though he sometimes stretches the possibilities of connections, his work is invaluable for reading Blood Meridian in any historical light. The references to the kid’s fellow scalp hunters are numerous here, see especially William Carr’s deposition on the Yuma ferry massacre, 132-35 (on Webster in particular, see also Smith 48, 56); on Speyer see Sepich 42-43; on Chief Pablo, see Sepich 54.
2. See Sepich, especially 27-42. Chamberlain rode with Glanton’s gang after his desertion and was present at the Yuma ferry takeover and subsequent massacre; see Chamberlain 267-97.
3. The vehicle that literally holds the judge’s world is his portmanteau. It holds both his sketches and his birds, and he seems never to be without it. Upon first sighting of the judge, he has with him only a coat, his gun, and a "canvas kitbag." Walking through the desert after the ferry massacre, almost nude and "bedrapped with meat" he carries only a "small canvas satchel" (McCarthy 282).
4. For an extensive discussion of the judge’s ability to create and control his world through the act of naming, see Joshua J. Masters, "‘Witness to the Uttermost Edge of the World’: Judge Holden’s Textual Enterprise in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 40.1 (Fall 1998): 25-37.
5. According to Smith, Chihuahua paid 17,896 pesos out of its treasury for payment for scalps in 1849 (56). The prices paid to bounty hunters in Chihuahua as of May 25, 1849 were: male warrior, 200 pesos with evidence of death (scalps), 250 pesos if alive; women or children under fourteen, 150 pesos if alive. In Durango after July 5, 1849, "The government is empowered to contract with national or foreign partisans who organize to fight the barbarous Indians that invade the state and to pay them a remuneration of 200 pesos for each Indian whom they kill or apprehend." See Smith 44-47 and his notes 7 and 10.
6. See Barcley Owens, Cormac McCarthy's Western Novels (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000). Owens argues that images from Vietnam, particularly the visual unveiling of the massacres at My Lai in 1969, allow for the presentation of Blood Meridian’s violence. But more so, Vietnam brought violence to the forefront of the American imagination so that citizens might begin critiques of representation. Vietnam was a "thing in itself." McCarthy’s novel reflects that thing back into the American past. See also Brady Harrison’s "‘That immense and bloodslaked waste"’: Negation in Blood Meridian." Southwestern American Literature 25.1 (Fall 1999): 35-42, for his analysis of the echoes of Vietnam in Blood Meridian. He writes, "McCarthy implies that, a century after the atrocities of westward expansion [. . .] Americans have not learned from history, have held onto, without critical reflection, the vicious tradition of negation" (40).
7. In addition to Jarrett’s claims, Rick Wallach argues that Holden represents the rupture of historical repression. Out of the political and psychological gerrymandering of our past, Holden rises to confront us "in his daemonic whiteness" ("Judge Holden" 138).
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Sepich, John. Notes on Blood Meridian. Louisville: Bellarmine College Press, 1993.
Shaviro, Steven. "‘The Very Life of Darkness’: A Reading of Blood Meridian." Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Ed. Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1993. 143-56.
Smith, Ralph A. "Scalp Hunting: A Mexican Experiment in Warfare." Great Plains Journal 23 (1984): 41-81.
Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford U P, 1992.
Wallach, Rick. "Judge Holden, Blood Meridian’s Evil Archon." Sacred Violence: A Reader’s Companion to Cormac McCarthy. Ed. Wade Hall and Rick Wallach. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1995. 125-136.
_____. "Sam Chamberlain’s Judge Holden and the Iconography of Science in Mid-19th Century Nation-Building." Southwestern American Literature 23.1 (Fall 1997): 9-17.