Exploring the Favorites is a series of posts on this blog which will explore my favorite pieces of media, from books, films, games, music, etc. It’s not meant to be a review of criticism, but simply state how I connected with the work on a personal level. Be warned that there will be spoilers. This week, we’re focusing on Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
“Violence in art doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s the great thing about it. When I create a monster character, the covers of the book are like the bars of a cage. He can’t harm you, but you can look at him. You can look at this monster and admire its severity and horror, but it doesn’t mean you secretly want violence. It’s not a subconscious cry for violence, it’s actually the opposite, it’s how we control it.” – Martin Amis
The reason that I love Blood Meridian is its prose. It’s as beautiful as the best poetry, and yet dark as the heart of an abyss. It is, at the same time, the most beautiful and the ugliest piece of art I have experienced in my life. Its Biblical prose can be gentle and epic at the same time, capturing all the beauties of English language from the soft melancholy of Dickinson to the cosmic sublimity of Milton, and yet he uses those beautiful words to describe something ugly; scenes of mutilation, genocide, infant corpses, and long speeches indicting humanity as a whole.
Do we love works like Blood Meridian in spite of their ugliness or because of it? Do we love — for example — Lolita in spite of its pedophilia theme, or Crime and Punishment in spite of its murderous protagonist, or American Psycho in spite of its vile, possibly serial killer hero?
Well, as it turns out, I’m not a huge fan of either Lolita or American Psycho. The latter is a novel you can see was written out of hate and righteous indignation, and the first is too transparent in its mockery. Both, are morality tales. Both are anxious to allow their readers a moral “out”: yeah, we are reading a novel about this subject; but it’s clearly a condemnation, not a confirmation.
Yet, I find the idea of reading a novel just to find out that pedophilia, serial murder, and banal consumerism are bad to be utterly tedious and uninspired. I learned those things from my parents when I was two.
The reason that I love Blood Meridian is how ruthlessly it forbids the reader to distance herself from the monster in the cage. Of how utterly inhumane the prose remains, of how there is no moralistic escape from the atrocities on the page. The monster in the cage is not the dark face of humanity but humanity itself — it is more a mirror than a cage. The Judge is not an abnormality, he is God, and Satan, and Humanity. The book refuses to condemn either mass murder to the Judge’s murderous philosophy, and forces the reader to stare at it without protective embrace of the moralist writer/parent.
Because we, as consumers of literature, need to stare at the monster and see ourselves in it. To understand it. Literature is the only safe place to do so. I cannot commit mass murder, for I am a decent human being. I cannot read actual histories with this attitude, because there are real tragedies and real victims involved. It is only in literature where the monster is truly encased in a cage, and can be looked at, studied, and understood. To waste this incredible opportunity to moralize is a waste of time.
And yet, wouldn’t it be equally vexing and boring if you had to consume darkness without any beauty? This is where the beautiful prose comes in. I would never be able to enjoy Blood Meridian if it were written in pedestrian prose — no one enjoys reading a catalog of atrocities. Yet, I enjoy this blood entrenched book, this emotional terrorism of mind, because it is so, so beautiful.
What makes this book one of my favorites is this paradox. The ugliest subject matter and the most beautiful style, capturing humanity’s greatest vices while the book itself is one of its greatest achievements. I read, horrified and appalled, and yet impressed and transfixed at the virtuosity of Cormac McCarthy.
Darkness will never be beautiful. But it can be transformed into something beautiful within the pages of the novel, and that is altogether a wonderful accomplishment of humanity. And that is a much more worthy way of killing our monsters than moral platitudes.