Apologia pro Vita Kurtzii 2 : Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Crédits photographiques : Mike Hettwer.
“It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.”
Jacob Böhme, quoted by Cormac McCarthy in an epigraph to Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (Introduction by Harold Bloom, New York, Modern Library, 2001).
“As for the characteristics of this ‘Race of Darkness,’ they are not clearly defined. Its presence is universal, in ‘every part of the world […], in the entire world […], everywhere […], both here and there.”
Saint Augustine, Contra Fortunatum, 21 (The Latin text reads: “in omni mundo […] in toto mundo […] ubique […] utrobique”).
“Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.”
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, p. 172.
Traduction de mon article sur Méridien de sang due à l'amabilité de Douglas Robertson.
Let us continue our descent. It will be salutary if it is followed by a re-ascent towards the light, as uncertain as the latter now seems to us, in this place where the damned groan. But for the moment, I beseech you, let us descend, softly says to me the strange cicerone with angular features before stepping under the immense porch, his thin hand, with index finger extended, indicating the absolutely darkened entrance.
I am finishing my reading of the fifth novel of this devil (he obviously could be nothing but that) McCarthy, Blood Meridian, first published in 1985. It is quite simply prodigious, and I am rather stunned that after the epic Suttree, whose composition cost its author some twenty years of work, the American novelist managed to achieve such a degree of concentration: there is not a line in this dark book that does not seem to live of its own, absolute necessity, not a line (even though I am of course reading a translation, hence, a priori, a text less dense than the original) of this novel that does not seem to me engorged with some powerfully corrosive juice.
A number of British and American critics regard this novel as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in American literature. They are not completely mistaken (all the same, they have a short memory: Absalom, Absalom! and Moby-Dick, both moreover admired by McCarthy, immediately preclude any such pretension, which is obviously not shared by the novelist), but rather than amusing themselves, rather unsuccessfully, as they have been doing, picking through this book in search of the remnants of some sort of Gnostic religion, they would do better to recall that another writer has already ventured into these demonic lands, and returned enduringly marked by his dangerous expedition. That writer is named Joseph Conrad, and I doubt that McCarthy, an enormously wide-ranging reader, is unaware of the tale of Marlowe’s meeting with Kurtz in the depths of the jungle.
For Judge Holden, a giant albino hailing from a reality more fantastical than, as they say, actually historical (thus he never hesitates to affirm that he is nothing, going so far as to add this so typically Ouinean statement: “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery”, p. 252) is less some grotesque incarnation of the devil or of an archon desirous of extending the scope of his superhuman power to the entire earth than one of the sterile sons of Kurtz, perhaps the most accomplished, apart from the example of Monsieur Ouine. The points of convergence between these two characters are innumerable; I shall mention only a few of them. The same inexhaustible thirst for knowledge seems to extend to all scientific domains: like Kurtz, Holden is the most successful product of old Europe, but with the difference that he seems not to disdain its favors. Still more than Kurtz (and once again like Ouine, and like Valéry’s Monsieur Teste), Holden develops the totalitarian temptation of an absolute science, which with its rhizomes would encompass the narrowest crannies of the universe, such that the latter seems destined to cease to elude the voracious surveillance of the judge, a consummate surveyor, if I may put it that way: “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. 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” (p. 198). Did not Teste’s wife assert to him that in his presence she felt like a fly caught in a trap (probably a recollection of a memorable tirade in Shakespeare: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods…)? Did not Jambe-de-Laine confide to young Steeny that nothing, absolutely nothing, escaped Ouine’s ever-wakeful vigilance? Thus, the notebook scrupulously kept by Judge Holden, a notebook in which he records his discoveries of all of the bizarre bones and rocks that have caught his discerning geologist’s eye, resembles the total and absolute book dreamt of by Teste, master of all destinies, even the most minuscule ones: “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” (p. 141).
The same admirable capacity in Kurtz and Holden (but also in Ouine and Teste) to fascinate their listeners with a rhetorical endowment entirely given over to the forces of darkness: In the first pages of McCarthy’s novel, Holden, accusing a priest of pedophilia (Ouine, too, attempted to disgrace the deceased priest of his parish), almost caused his lynching by the congregation at the mass that he is celebrating before being interrupted by the judge who, without batting an eyelid, will admit a few hours later that he knew nothing about this man before entering his church. The same will to exterminate all of the brutes, according to Kurtz’s well-known phrase, written in the margins of one of his memoirs of the deplorable situation in the African colonies plundered for their superabundant horde of ivory. Consequently, the same fascination with the actions of a man who is capable of surpassing human limits: hence, Holden also seems to be a kind of recollection of Brando’s incarnation of Kurtz in Coppola’s film. He, too, having contemplated the horror with his own eyes, has brought back from his catabase a dark (and decidedly Nietzschean) form of knowledge that he will display on several occasions throughout the novel but never so clearly and precisely as in its last pages, where he declares to the now grown-up Kid: “I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?
You aint nothin.
You speak truer than you now. But I will tell you. Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance” (p. 331).
The same astonishing baldness, which is certainly no mere detail, as if Kurtz and Holden had been desirous, upon making contact with savagery, upon hearing the voices issuing from the greatest depths of the night, of casting off the last remnants of their humanity, symbolized by a hair that, in McCarthy’s novel, is systematically mistreated, even, most often, when it adorns the heads of Indians, scalped. There is always, in the apparition of a skull (and God knows there are a lot of them in McCarthy’s novel: smashed, reduced to ashes, scalped, as previously mentioned, deformed) some reminiscence of our most distant past.
This point is perhaps precisely the most obvious resemblance between the two books: Marlow’s journey to Kurtz, Conrad is unrelentingly insistent on this aspect of it, can only be an ascent to the (black) dawn of humanity. Judge Holden in his turn, on discovering the vestiges of an ancient and mysterious civilization, delivers to us his meditations on the degeneracy of humanity, which can be saved by power and war alone. These are his words (emphasis mine): “What is true of one man, said the judge, is true of many. The people who once lived here are called the Anasazi. The old ones. They quit these parts routed by drought or disease or by wandering bands of marauders, quit these parts ages since and of them there is no memory. They are rumors and ghosts in this land and they are much revered. The tools, the art, the building, these things stand in judgement on the latter races. Yet there is nothing for them to grapple with. The old ones are gone like phantoms and the savages wander these canyons to the sound of an ancient laughter. In their crude huts they crouch in darkness and listen to the fear seeping out of the rock. All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage. So. Here are the dead fathers. Their spirit is entombed in the stone. It lies upon the land with the same weight and the same ubiquity. For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides had joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us” (p. 146).
This plunge into the most distant past, recalled by the novelist by way of a certain privileged image combining the description of the landscape with the mention of some monster, showing through its dusty surface, recalled again by superb evocations of the elemental and impulsive power of fire (“The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins as exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be”, p. 244), this plunge into the past is a lesson for the present age, understood less as a playing field where men abandon themselves to their salutary (and, for the morale of the weak, scandalous) propensity for violence and war than as the profound certainty that from this present will be born, alas, a future dedicated to the extolment of the infirmity, the degradedness, the degeneracy of their primal instincts. Nietzsche again, but a practical Nietzsche, knifing his enemies with his own hands, steeped in and steaming with blood, in the prodigious melée where weapons clash. In his own way, Judge Holden is a strange and monstrous John the Baptist proclaiming the future ages of violence that he desires, war in his eyes being the supreme game, and in fine, God himself. “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons” (pp. 146-147).
In short, formally, Blood Meridian should be likened to the lacunary and elliptical structure of Monsieur Ouine and of Heart of Darkness. Is Ouine a pedophile? Was Kurtz present at some unimaginable pagan ceremony? Did Judge Holden kill (or rape or devour) the unnamed Kid in the last sentences of the novel? Of none of these things do we know anything, and it hardly matters anyway, since one must understand that for these three writers, evil resides less in the most consummate spectacle of horror than in the most subtle suggestion thereof, as Enrico Castelli recalled in an instant classic of a study on the demonic aesthetic.