A Judge, A Kid, and “War Is God”

      “Those who do not learn history,” the philosopher George Santayana is said to have quipped, “are condemned to repeat it.” In the world today, with its 24/7 news cycle and instantaneous delivery of   it is easy to be obsessed with present problems and future worries looming on the horizon. That may be one reason why many people don’t want to return or read for the first time the classics of literature, because these works are thoroughly grounded in the past. I followed the same belief and had little appetite for books published beyond the past five to ten years, especially those with a steep root in history. But the contemporary reader can make sense of the present and avoid making the mistakes of the past by dusting off a historical classic like Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West.

         All the Hollywood romanticized glory of the American West is absent in Blood Meridian. The protagonist, a runaway teenager in the 1840s, is known simply as “the kid.” In the borderlands region of the fledgling U.S. Southwest and the ungoverned parts of northern Mexico, the kid teams up with a group of American soldiers hired to slaughter Native Americans in the region, particularly Apaches and Comanches. As they roam the deserts and plains of Texas and Chihuahua, this group wreaks brutal violence (described with extreme graphic language), adopting a genocidal policy towards Native Americans and Mexicans.

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Easily the most interesting–and disturbing–of these scalp-hunters is the antagonistic Judge Holden. McCarthy describes him as being huge, completely hairless, and seemingly omniscient. A cultured sophisticate, the Judge often speculates on religion and the point of human existence, qualities one would probably not expect in a typical Western character. Yet the Judge also takes the violence that has come to define the Old West to the extreme of “war is god” and ends up pursuing the kid in Blood Meridian‘s final third with the intent to murder him.

         By no means is Blood Meridian an easy read–although the point of classics isn’t to be. McCarthy employs gut-churning, visceral sentences to depict the incredible violence of the scalp-hunters and their Native American foes. In addition, deep, dense language–almost every sentence seems to have a allegory or symbolic meaning behind it–and sprawling descriptions will force readers to slow down and exert an unusual amount of concentration for a novel. But those who do choose to read Blood Meridian will find that it provides a context of their own lives: that violence, as the Judge holds, may be an unpreventable human condition governing all our actions, that the past is hardly what popular perceptions make of it, and that finding meaning in the middle of random, cluttered, often sad or horrible events holds true for the 1840s scalp-hunter and the 21st century reader trying to make sense of the world and its seeming insanity.  

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