Cormac McCarthy's Brutal Allegories of the American EmpireRoundup
tags: violence, literature, fiction, American West, Herman Melville, westerns, borderlands, Cormac McCarthy
Greg Grandin, a Nation editorial board member, is the Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History at Yale University and author of The End of the Myth, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
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.
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.