Josh's Reviews > Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
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's review
Sep 12, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: blood-meridian
Recommended for: NOT the faint of heart
Read in April, 1995

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is unquestionably the most violent novel I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the best.

For those who would consider that a turn-off, I offer this caveat:
For the overwhelming majority of fiction that involves a lot of violence, the violence itself is an act of masturbation representing either the author’s dark impulse or, perhaps worse, pandering to the reader’s similar revenge fantasies (this might explain why the majority of Blood Meridian fans I know personally are men, where as the majority of those who’ve told me they were unable to finish it are women).

Don’t get me wrong, the violence in Blood Meridian is gratuitous. It’s both mentally and emotionally exhausting, even in a day and age where television and movies have numbed us to such things. But unlike, say, the movie 300, the violence serves a purpose – in fact the gratuitousness itself serves a purpose. Like how the long, drawn out bulk of Moby Dick exists to make the reader feel the numbingly eventless life of a whaling vessel before it reaches its climactic destination (McCarthy is frequently compared to Melville, btw), Blood Meridian exists to break the reader’s spirit. Like the mercenaries the narrative follows, the nonstop onslaught of cruelty after cruelty makes us jaded. The story brings us to what we think is a peak of inhumanity that seems impossible to exceed, and just as we stop to lick our wounds, an even more perverse cruelty emerges. The bile that reaches the tip of our tongue at reading of a tree strewn with dead infants hung by their jaws at the beginning of the book (a scene often sited to me as the point many readers stop) becomes almost a casual passiveness when a character is beheaded later on. We become one of these dead-eyed cowboys riding into town covered head-to-toe in dried blood and gristle.

The story is based on My Confession, the questionably authentic autobiography of Civil War Commander Samuel Chamberlain, which recounts his youth with the notorious Glanton Gang – a group of American mercenaries hired by the Mexican government to slaughter Native Americans. Whether or not Chamberlain’s tale is true only adds to the mythic quality – exemplified by the character of Judge Holden.

Blood Meridian is really The Judge’s story. He is larger than life. Over seven feet tall, corpulent, hairless, albino, described as having an infant-like face and preternaturally intelligent. He is a murderer, child killer, pedophile and genocidal sociopath. But the question that plagues anyone who reads the book is – who is he really?

The easiest conclusion is that he is the devil, or some other demon. His joyous evil and fiddle-playing are enough clues to come to that, but more controversial (and less popular) is the idea that he is actually the wrathful God of an uncaring universe. He’s called THE Judge, after all.

He spends a great deal of time illustrating new discoveries – be it an Indian vase or petroglyph – only to destroy it when finished. It’s commented that he seems intent on “cataloging all creation”. When a fellow mercenary asks why he does it, he smiles and cryptically replies “That which exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.”

The fact that the book is rife with biblical imagery implies that he is more than a mere symbol of man’s inhumanity to man (which is not to say that the devil isn’t), but when the book ends ( SPOILER ALERT ) and our protagonist’s body is found shoved into a commode, the townsfolk stand staring into the darkened doorway of the latrine, eerily mirroring the apostles staring into empty crypt after the resurrection. But here, there is no ascension; no salvation offered. Only the Judge, who dances to the closing lines, “He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."
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01/31/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-37 of 37) (37 new)

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message 1: by Alyssa (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:55PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alyssa Capo Nice review.
The judge is both god and devil. He's an amalgam of priest, philosopher, devil, Buddha. There IS no salvation in McCarthy's world, in his vision of our world. I believe the novel sends an ominous message: that all the lies of salvation, of hope, of promise (e.g. The American Dream) we tell ourselves and our children simply help us sleep better at night. The hero stories keep spiritual hunger and violence at bay. They are another "opiat for the masses".

Brendan Hughes Perhaps the judge could also be the unstoppable "progress" of the white man across the new world in particular. First of all, he is a big white man, literally as white as one can be. He knows all the laws, but they are disregarded whenever they do not suit his purposes at the time. Native culture fascinates him, but that is all that it does for him. Once he has a drawing to keep in his book, he destroys the articles that he finds.

Just a thought.

message 3: by Josh (last edited Aug 23, 2008 12:14AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Josh Not a bad thought, either. But ultimately, what's the difference in a metaphor for "man's inhumanity to man" and "white man's inhumanity to man".

In fact, what better example?

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

To add to what you said above, one of the epigraphs notes that a 300,000 year old skull was found in Africa that showed "evidence of being scalped." This, of course, suggests that McCarthy means us to consider the violent impulses of humanity, not just the cruelty and genocide that the white race has perpetrated.

However, I think that one of the reasons this book reminds us of Moby Dick is the absence of women. Being at sea and being at war are two situations in which women have historically not been present. The huge, white Judge, like the massive white whale, is more a mythical figure than a human character. They represent the nihilistic void that is a deeply seductive aspect of war. The pure indifference, the absence of commitment to past or future, the moment-to-moment life of the void translates to a kind of power. And the Judge is very persuasive in his argument that the void is the only kind of power that exists. If we choose to look away from what he tells us to ignore, and if we accept his policy of murdering the vulnerable to mean that there is no other correct relationship to vulnerability, then we are in his thrall.

However, the Kid is not in his thrall, and that should give us pause. Although he participates in the meaningless murderous rampage, like many men who go to war, the Kid resists the Judge, and he knows it; after all, the Judge says to the Kid, "There's a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. Do you think I could not know? You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen." Why does the Kid's death and lack of miraculous ascension mean that there is no salvation--that "man's inhumanity to man" is the final sentence we can pronounce on humanity? The Judge speaks more words than any other person in the book, but the Kid lives in silence. I think that the silence of the book is significant--the silence of the Kid, the silence of victims, the silence of women and the vulnerable. It "speaks" to other worlds and bigger meanings that the Judge refuses to allow, but continue nevertheless--even without his consent.

Jill I don't have anything of great value to add to this discussion. Just wanted to be counted as one of the women out there in literary land who did finish the book. I thought it was incredible. I'm in no great hurry to read it again (and I can't say that I enjoyed the experience), but I thought it was brilliant.

Josh The more I've thought about it, the more my comment "the majority of those who’ve told me they were unable to finish it are women" comes off as sexist. My intent was not to imply that women readers are somehow weak or incapable of finishing this kind of gruesome fiction, as much I was trying to highlight men's enthusiasm for it. So, sorry to anyone who may have interpreted it that way.

Not that that's what you were saying , Jill. I just felt like clarifying. Glad you were able to get through it with your sanity!

Alex /The judge is both god and devil. He's an amalgam of priest, philosopher, devil, Buddha./
Which God are you talking about? He is nothing like the Christian God, more like a 'Prophet of destruction'. Also I dont see any resemblance with Buddha, except maybe the chinese 'laughing Buddha' because he is fat and bald. Buddha seperated himself from this world, where as the judge revells in the
blood and shit of it.

\I believe the novel sends an ominous message: that all the lies of salvation, of hope, of promise (e.g. The American Dream) we tell ourselves and our children simply help us sleep better at night. The hero stories keep spiritual hunger and violence at bay. They are another "opiat for the masses". \

Not true the novel ends with a hint of hope, the lone man crossing the countryside digging post holes or what ever, and striking a spark from the rocky ground. This spark is a sign of hope. Where there is hope there is love and God.
And the Kid is somewhat of an anti hero, despite his horrible deeds, he still has some slimmer of good in him. And though it is probable that the judge killed him, nobody can be sure what actually happened to him. So there is still some hope that he survived and who knows, maybe went on to give some spark of hope back to the world.

Nostromo Like Aaron said below - a "cartoonish exercise in violence." There is nothing redeeming about this book. Its boring and juvenile. Even the violence becomes staid and ridiculous. Some have related this book to Moby Dick. This is farcical. Moby Dick is a captivating tale with indelible and brilliant scenes. I can't wait to forget this inane book.

Magnifico Giganticus It occurred to me just before the end of the book that perhaps the judge is an element of all things human. He is the quiet voice in our heads that we do not hear but whose words we still receive in our thoughts. I hate to put it in such terms as it does this work no justice but the only thing I might say that would convey what I mean is that he is maybe akin to the id. But of course he is much more than that and that is partially why I don't like using such a pedestrian term. Maybe he is the human psyche whole and fractured? Hell, I don't know. I just thought I'd offer what I was thinking.

message 10: by Frank (new) - rated it 1 star

Frank Maccormack I agree with Magnifico's assessment, I found the Judge to be less symbolic of a mythological entity than of a psychological one. For me, the Judge was the embodiment of the human experience for as long as we have had consciousness: a volatile combination of intellect and selfishness, erratic behavior with both civil and brutal characteristics. He is mankind's feverish pursuit to understand everything in the world around it and its capacity for unspeakable violence to its fellow, motivations changing at the drop of a hat. He is what lurks in all of us, all the evils we have learned to suppress and all the lust for life we embrace, simultaneously. As well done as that character is, however, I still greatly dislike this book for so many reasons. It's a shame the story around the Judge isn't much more than Nostromo and Aaron said.

message 11: by Mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mark @Magnifico, yes, I think you are close to the mark: this evil is in us. Still we don't have to fall prey to it, or give its apostle 5 stars of reward. I don't think being sickened by the "most violent" earns respect. McCarthy is gratuitous. and I fault him for it. Admittedly, our seeming fascination proves his point. Fight back! Be human, and humane. We can aspire to more than this lowest denominator.

message 12: by Kate (last edited Jun 01, 2011 06:46PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kate I'm one of the females who couldn't finish it. I'm surprised that the Judge didn't say "Friend-o." Brilliant review; thanks, Josh.

Dlbates04 The violence is not gratuitous. It was awful in real life. The Comanches and Kiowas burned whites and other Indians just for fun. Thank God for the Walker Colt .44 pistol. It killed so rapidly the victims had no time to be tortured before they died.

Chris Gager Those aren't the closing lines. There's a sort of epilogue.

Chris Gager Author Maile Meloy(female) loves the book.

message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

I really like your review here. I agree with you completely on the fact that this book's violence has a purpose, unlike movies such as 300. The violence is dark and sometimes hard to even bear when reading. Reading about a man taking two babies by the legs and smashing their heads into the rocks, or when the company rides through a village with infants hanging from a tree through hooked jaws is gruesome, to say the least. Like you said, the onsaught of cruelty after cruelty makes us jaded, which is perfectly said. I also really like how you explained the Judge's character, and how the book really is a lot about him. Mccarthy portrays him in such a "creepy" way that makes me feel uncomfortable when reading about him, which is pure genius on McCarthy's behalf. He is this bald, albino, huge man that actually seems to enjoy murdering others, even when they are children. Like you also said though, who is he really? The Judge's character is mysterious and strange, which is really what makes him such an interesting character in the book.

Kathryn I had to read this. Breathtaking in his descriptions. I liken these characters to an act of nature that strikes out at random destroying everything. These people are acting out. I see people not just men as we are all "man" . Women are as capable of committing atrocities as men but it is not a position readily accepted. This behaviour is possible in every day and age. The group or "gang" mentality is ever present and it can take the unwary on a gruesome journey. I am of the opinion that the atrocities of war are similar in breadth and scope to what mccormack writes about. should he curb his pen? Consider again that history is written by the conquerers and read about history without the rose coloured glasses. Another gruesome tale is "three Day Road" but wonderful. Like this.

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

The killer inside me is just as disturbing.I didnt realized taht I have for some or other reason read books often depicting alll kinds of violence.Oh well, maybe its because men like all kinds of violence.Is that your point?guess you are smart as a kid.Violence is common ground in fiction the diference is when it gets to graphic paradise of gratuitous.sometimes is simply fiction.ITs more strong when its from reality.IT cralls down the spine with a stench stronger than fiction.but i guess i only read crap so I give it a five.Of course Im stupid to read what others sugest to me.the book is amazing but I dont read much.Im stupid.So its fun to see so many nice stupid people following my lines of thought.hahhahah

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

kate karp would love eraserhead and of course she must be a real fan of that irreversible by gaspar noe.rape is judge holden best hush little baby dont you cry Im gonna read books
till I die.A moby dick would suit kate crap or karp something like that.josh, gosh ..."holy mary mother of god"

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

josh, when you talk about Moby Dick...How Big do you mean?Usually when comparing sizes its actually small.Moby dick,I guess.Usually its small because small men diminish big men.I guess its not a siseble question but probably you dont like fiction.You rather have a psicological "anal isation" of what evil.grated your wish Ill give you A five small stars for your big five stars.Guess the whale emeges and submerges strongly tahn a male character but its subhuman qualities grant it a blessing rage to outcast fanatical idiots who want to destroy it.2Is only your leg Ahab, its not the whole body.the heart you gave out for less."

message 21: by Belinda (new)

Belinda Thomas please give spoiler alert if you're going to give this much information about events in the book.

message 22: by Buck (new) - rated it 3 stars

Buck Ward I haven't read Blood Meridian yet. I plan to, based on it's Goodreads rating, but the beginning of your review is a little confusing.
I don't understand your use of the word 'gratuitous'. You say, "Don’t get me wrong, the violence in Blood Meridian is gratuitous." Did you mean to say that the violence is not gratuitous? I'd just as soon avoid the book if it is filled with gratuitous violence, that is, violence simply for the sake of having violence in the book. In your narrative, you seem to be saying that the violence is essentially germane to the story rather than being gratuitous.

message 23: by Josh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Josh Good point Buck. Perhaps poorly worded on my part.
The violence certainly serves the greater point, but to say the least it is overwhelming. It has to be, that's the whole thing.
I've seen a lot of bad reviews of this book. A lot of folks hate it. These people are entitled to their opinions, but I think that maybe they either didn't see what McCarthy was trying to say about the blood-lust inherent in the human condition, or perhaps the violence proved to be too much to them to make the point worth subjecting themselves to it.
Anyways, my point is if you blanch at the prospect of a lot of violence, maybe you should avoid it. However, if you're willing to read extremely graphic descriptions of violence (in marvelously rendered prose, btw) knowing that it serves a higher theme, I highly recommend it.

George Hamilton I recently finished this book. I cringed at times, but had to go on reading. I thought the violence probably demonstrated what it was really like to be in those badlands in the 1850s and was not gratuitous. I wasn't at my most receptive whilst reading it, so couldn't quite see the theme, but thanks to this brilliant review it is much clearer now.

Chris Gager Chris wrote: "Those aren't the closing lines. There's a sort of epilogue."

replying to myself... I'm not sure it was Maile Meloy but another female author in "The Week" magazine...

Chris Gager deleted user wrote: "I really like your review here. I agree with you completely on the fact that this book's violence has a purpose, unlike movies such as 300. The violence is dark and sometimes hard to even bear when..."
for women comitting atrocities see the movie "The Naked Prey"

Anthony  Corbo excellent review sir. Thank you. Not quite certain about the masturbation reference used for comparison in your point of view . I am sorry, LoL, I am not the sharpest knife in the block.

Mon67 just a quick note to say that i, as a woman, loved it. it's one of the best book I ever read. I agree with Harold Bloom who included it in the one of the few books of the 20th century which can define the western canon. And one more thing, i do think the book has hope in the end, like all McCarthy books, they are all terrible, but they all have a glimpse of hope for those who carry the fire, as he would put it.

Maria Sisk I adored it. It has become my bible. I am clearly a woman who loves violence and indeed slaughter and butcher my own sheep.

Marius Hancu Some might be interested in the questions, bookmarks and words collected here:
Blood Meridian: Reading with the AUE

Marius Hancu While reading Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy, you may want to see my questions related to it as answered in the alt.usage.english (AUE) Usenet newsgroup. My thanks to the participating AUE members. The focus of my questions was the language: rare words, funny or original expressions, special or strange constructs — as I saw them, from within my own idiosyncrasies.

Samuel Korb So I've read Blood Meridian five times now, and I consider it one of my all-time favorite books, if not my all-time favorite. However there is one sentence that always gets me: "Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end." I mean, it doesn't make sense grammatically, and it has been bugging since the first time I read it. Care to explain, good sir?

message 33: by Josh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Josh Oh, man, I remember that line. Personally I think it does make grammatical sense, it's just so hard on the eyes that it's difficult to parse. Let me see if I can ...

"Of this is the judge judge ... "

The bold is the judge's name, and the italics are his title. Basically, it says "The Judge is the judge of this (whatever the subject of the previous sentence was)." The rest is just poetic McCarthy-esque flourish.

Try reading it with this emphasis:

"of THIS is the judge JUDGE ..."

Does that make sense?

message 34: by Kay (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kay Well, hell, this kinda makes me want to read it again.

message 35: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Crandell Well done.

message 36: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne Prichard Thank you for this review. I stopped on page 175, fully expecting to pick up where I left off, because the writing is so incredible, but I just cannot. Too bleak, too terrible, too sad. I cannot do it. I do recommend Shadow Country, dealing with a similar topic, but with more character development and not so much scalping.

message 37: by Tim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tim Johnson Try American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis.

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