Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West: landscape is an American term.
The fog sinks lower; a haze. I am stock-still, between the fields. Mopeds with young farmers are rattling past. Further to the right, towards the horizon, many cars because the soccer match is still in progress. I hear the ravens, but a denial is building up inside me. By all means do not glance upwards! Don’t look at them, don’t lift your gaze from the paper! No, don’t. Let them go, those ravens! I won’t look up there now! A glove in the field, soaking wet, and cold water lying in the tractor tracks. The teenagers on their mopeds are moving towards death in synchronized motion. I think of unharvested turnips but, by God, there are no unharvested turnips around.
-Werner Herzog, Of Walking in Ice: Munich – Paris 23 November – 14 December 1974
The above passage is from Werner Herzog’s “Of Walking in Ice” which is the journal he kept during his walk from Munich to Paris from the 23rd of November to the 14th of December in 1974. The writing at the beginning of his journal is fragmented and disordered through the first few days of his journey. Though the more he walks through the landscape the more his sanity appears to return. The trials and hardships of the journey are what draws him out of his emotional turmoil and brings him back to a more composed reality. Each step across the German and French countryside is a step out of madness.
Landscape in European terms is one in which the wild has been tamed. One that has been culled of all madness. One that can, in turn, calm mankind. It is a place of rest and relaxation. It is a location of sublime highs and placid pastoral lows. One that is comfortable and comforting and never to be feared. All that was untamed has been stamped out and made to fit within aesthetic conventions. The image of Nature forced to fit within the view of the painter became landscape. “The works of Claude Lorrain, which were regarded during the eighteenth century as the acme of landscape painting, do not show Nature as it is, but beautified, harmonized, and idealized. If we classify Nature according to aesthetic points of view, we call it landscape.” (1)
In this view landscape is still, it is stagnant. It is doped up on its own perfection and not allowed to move, much like hair under a thick blanket of Aqua-net. This is the complete opposite to how landscape is for Cormac McCarthy. It is madness, it is wind and rain and heat and cold and sweat and blood and death and selfish and screaming and silence and evisceration all in equal portions wrapped up in a messy package of life. These are such distinct opposite views of landscape because McCarthy is speaking of an American landscape. One that is a frontier, one that is not tamed in an aesthetic way, one in which Nature still exists with a capital N. Landscape which includes man and is not separate from man. A landscape where form follows function, where there is no false beauty, where there are no gilded edges and lace curtains. It is about efficiency and survival. It is a world in which beauty is not one that is constructed and polished but one that exists and to discover it amongst the harsh ugly reality is worth more than anything that can be made.
In Blood Meridian McCarthy slips these moments into the narrative and the startling visceral beauty within the descriptions are such that they cannot be forgotten. When reading these moments they leap off the page and become images that play in the minds eye.
the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and sliver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites and all its forms grouping below and racing in the stone arroyos like the imbreachment of some ultimate alchemic work decocted from out of the secret dark of the earths heart. (2)
This slowly moving moment is beauty that we are not preconditioned to enjoy. And perhaps just because of this the moment will not let go and fall into the background. It dwarfs without being large and it invokes the infinite without occupying it. It has an emptiness that is so full it is practically brimming with mass. Like the deserts, which are the primary landscape in which the book is set, there is so much that exists below the surface it is pregnant with anticipation. It is truly disconcerting as this moment which has so much to it is one that lives in silence. No human chatter interrupts the violence. There is no dialogue, only description. If this scene was in a film it would be a silent moment. Not even the sound of the hooves of the riders that forced the mules off that cliff would be heard. Just the silent bodies of the pack animals plummeting off of and into the rocks below. The vibrant splashes of color and light would be all the sound needed to fill the scene.
Silence or the lack of human dialogue is one of the ways in which it could be seen that humanity is not separate from the landscape for McCarthy. The complete lack of quotation marks in the book keeps the dialogue from being special or separate from the rest of the actions. In this way perhaps disassociation from the prescribed emotional response to the described action is the wrong way to look at it. Hyper connectivity is likely a better term. The distinct separation from all understood normative cultural morals is perhaps indicating that in this narrative, in this location, there is no culture. Or at least there is no culture that has ever been known before. That culture is being constructed and formed, it is wholly malleable and plastic, but the structures that are forming it are unfamiliar and unclear hence the beauty that we are not conditioned to find pleasurable.
In looking at the time in which McCarthy is writing this narrative it is clear that he is rooted in a place that is also is some ways without culture. Normative constraints of society were falling about his ears. Modernism was dead. Video killed the radio star. The cold war was at its height and it was a material world. The very language around him was changing and this new culture, which was springing up around him, was growing out of the decimation of the previous one. Perhaps McCarthy started to see that disregard for the past and projection towards the horizon, or violence and death, were the defining characteristics of American history not the liberty and justice that were widely proscribed. Melville saw this and was disturbed by it. Yet nearly 100 years after Melville, McCarthy is seemingly unconcerned. It is just a fact. McCarthy is simply recording the failed utopia of the west as he sees it to be. The frantic rushing outward from the center has been confirmed by history and that history is concurrent with the present in which McCarthy himself resides. That man and nature have ceased to be separated by the known civility that existed elsewhere and they live in a tense, equal relationship on the frontier.
But the question remains how and why does the location of the narrative exist in an apparent vacuum of culture. Why is there no moral barometer that is guiding the hand of men, or at least the men in the narrative? What is it allowing them to be placed in the same brutal category of the landscapes in which they reside? The land that “swallowed them up” like the great blond bear which seized one of the Delaware scouts like a doll. Or the sentient hoses that “hid his face in the web of his dams flank” for fear of the luminosity of the men who were “beings so endarkened” . This lack of culture could be attributed to the consistent one directional movement of the narrative. There is little or no reflection only a consistent marching forward towards a distant horizon that cannot be seen. The men leaving only a path of death and destruction in their wake. Or it could be attributed to the vacuum that they themselves were creating through the shear amount of deaths they were plying upon the resident culture. They, like the harbingers of the apocalypse, were destroying the old and making way for the new. In the way a forest fire destroys the forest of old this band of men were the flash fire that was to bring new growth. But it was not a natural fire it was one set and whipped up by fury and fear. By greed and materialism. In a way similar to how a black hole operates. When a void needs to be filled the heaviest darkest matter falls first into the vacuum.
But if the men in Blood Meridian are the fire, the dark matter, what is creating them, what has created this place for them to fill? Perhaps it can be rerouted back to the idea that landscape is a tame and aesthetic place and for the West to fall within such an ideal it must be forced into it. Nature, capital, must be reduced to nature lowercase. If it is to be made safe it must first be perceived as dangerous and therefore must be beaten down and tamed into all submission. Man must rule over the landscape and place constrictions upon it. Though this is an impossibility particularly in the desert landscape which is one that resists all civility. It is a place that has a life and a language that is alien to the pastoral in which the civilized world is familiar. It has a harshness that grinds away on all good intentions and like the Colorado river has hollowed out the grand canyon it whittles away at all that are within it.
I should like to speak now of external space. The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space. In other words, we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be coloured with diverse shades of light, live inside a set of relations that delineate sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another (3)
It is something that must be accepted as a living breathing space. Though it is in all appearances, a place that can be tamed, the landscape of Blood Meridian is the same as that of the ocean. The men and their horses or mules are traveling across the sea that is the desert. They exist in a “place without a place ”(4) the small band of them are simply a ship sailing from port to port or village to village. Though there is one defining difference between the salt-water desert and that of the land-based desert. While men on the sea can reflect and muse on the past because they are in actuality traveling without moving, men on land must constantly be on alert and this does not allow them to live in any place other than the present. They do not have time to muse on the nature of the landscape or the hubris of man. So they exist without conscience, they live outside of morality and they are swept up in a wave of there own actions. When on the frontier the men which reside there are so far away from morals and the dominant culture they are existing without it. In a way similar to how men on the front lines of a war can allow themselves to do things that they would never do when they are home, as long as they do not turn their gaze back towards the center they can exist without the structure that is imposed their.
While the location-less location is one which is an unknown even by those that occupy it, it is a landscape nonetheless and one that has a dispassionate view of the trials of man. The sameness of the violence, which is contained within the narrative, is broken up by strange moments of observation. Gods eye views of the futility of men and the insignificance of them. Momentary blips of their struggles, which are erased quite easily.
all about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon in the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell to any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died (5)
This is one of these moments that Foucault is speaking of. These spaces that claw and gnaw upon us. These things that need not have been mentioned but since they are and in such a casual way since none of the character seem to notice them are seemingly asking for the reader to have empathy with the scene which is painted for them. These sympathetic insightful moments are perhaps the ones that can bring about the new culture that can fill the destruction of the old. A culture of the now. A present tense that has no history beyond a generation, and perhaps no future beyond the current one. For while we do not know who the narrator is or of whom he is speaking to we are the ones that are listening. We are hearing these descriptions, which are so visually full. The grotesque beauty and the sadness within the silence are perhaps heard only by us or are meant only for us.
Another scene that is pulled away from the relentless progression of the now and is existing in the abstract of silence is the one in which the Kid is on the rim of the plateau looking down on the clash between Glantons gang and the Sonoran Calvary.
The distant horsemen rode and parried and a faint drift of smoke passed over them and they moved on up the deepening shade of the valley floor leaving behind them the shapes of mortal men who had lost their lives in that place. He watched this pass below him mute and ordered and senseless until the warring horsemen were gone in the sudden rush of dark that fell over the desert. (6)
In this moment the Kid is exiled from the action because of physical distance between him and it. The kid is separated from the frontier. He is not at the edge. And though he is not at the center, he is closer to it then the men below him are. This can allow him to see the way in which the madness exists on the plain below and in this reflection he is standing side by side with the narrator or the same as the narrator. He is separated from the action and is allowed to regard the events objectively. The use of the word senseless in the above passage is an indicator that he has stepped back from the very edge and exists in the cultured landscape. He can pass judgment on the scene below him.
Distance becomes a strange individual in the narrative in this way. While physical distance is important surface distance has become flattened out. There is no separation between language and description and language is presented without translation. In a way the language is presented a just a description. This could be regarded as an anthropological take on the events that are unfolding but more likely this can be traced back to the unfamiliarity with the language of the novel. In the constant destruction of what has been termed culture previously this now cultureless void that has begun to exist on the edge. It is one that cannot be understood. The constant rolling forward is one thing that is consistent in the narrative. The distance from home, the distance to the next mountain range, the distance from the quarry, the distance between the pursers. While there is not a lot of conversation in this novel the space is a language unto itself
Though much of Blood Meridian falls within the prescripts of existing only in the Now once the kid reaches the pacific there is a stop, a death of sorts. The kid sees the consistent line he has followed continue to advance yet he is stopped at the shore. Again a colt and a horse appear, though this time it is the horse that can see “out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea”(7) It is the end of his bloody and violent youth. He is soon to be referred to as the man and no longer as the kid, and he will confess his deeds to the dried up husk of a woman he finds huddled in the rocks in the desert shrouded in a shawl woven with “the figures of stars and quarter moons and other insignia of a provenance unknown to him.” (8) And soon decay seeps in, he meets the buffalo hunter who tells him of the rotting meat that stretched for miles, of the “eight million carcasses” (9) , of mourning the loss of the buffalo. Regret. The man once more exists on a ship, a horse in the desert plains, though this time he is alone. But since he is solitary and he has looped back on his own passage through space he has time to reflect. The “creaking bone carts passed in the night like darkened ships” (10) he sees visions of himself in the young bone picker and kills him for he “wouldn’t have lived anyway” . The boy was then borne off by his fellows “off over the bonestrewn waste towards a naked horizon.” The man exists in the bones of the deeds of his life and he is passing through this physical manifestation of them. It is at this point he meet up with the judge. The “great shambling mutant” (11) of a man who had shadowed him from his landfall in Texas. The man that would end him. In a way the Judge is simply time catching up with the man. Time for the last destroyer of culture and language to be destroyed. The haunting specter of the history of the kid, now called man, had made his move and like the stars that the man observed “speeding along brief vectors from their origin in night to there destines in dust and nothingness.”(12) The kid met his end in the shit and piss strewn pit of the jakes.
In this there is order once again. Language has been allowed to catch up. Violence isn’t violent if it is Nature. And the man from the edge of culture is never welcome into the center. In the realization that the west can never be edged and bordered and fit within constraints, that it can only be killed and left to rot in its ocean of distance, the ones that were sent to reign it in must be removed to allow it to be the madness the rain and heat and cold and sweat and blood and death and selfish and screaming and silence and evisceration that it can only ever be. For the landscape in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one that where one finds oneself is where they are. There is no past and or future. There is only action reaction in a place with no markers and a road with no end. It is like the end scene from the Sophia Coppola film Somewhere (13). In this scene Stephen Dorff's character gets out of his incredibly expensive car on a road that has no visible end and just starts walking.
(1) Hans von Trotha, The English Garden: A Journey Through its History
(2) Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (New York: Vintage International, 1992), 195.
(3) Michel Foucault “Other Spaces” 1967 Utopias: Documents of Contemporary Art MIT Press Cambridge Massachusetts 2009 p62
(4) Foucault 68
(5) McCarthy 174
(6) McCarthy 213
(13) This film when I saw it I did not like it and I still don’t think I do like it even now but I keep thinking about it in relationship to Blood Meridian. And also the twin strippers doing wholly unenthusiastic yet perfectly precise routines to cliché music is at the same enthusiasm that I imagine some of the men had when they were scalping which is strange but I think there is a simile there nonetheless.