Jan 17

Blood Meridian

Red in tooth and claw: social Darwinism at workBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
by Cormac McCarthy

So an interesting coincidence happened with regard to this book here. I was reading the reviews by people on Goodreads for this one, split between those who think it is the greatest novel ever written and pretty stupid, gratuitous, undisciplined, and pointless (and pointlessly violent, naturally), but I couldn’t figure out how to express the way I feel about “Blood Meridian” myself. Then, this fine morning, I was surfing the web like only someone avoiding doing more important things can do, when I stumbled on the wikipedia page of one Peckinpah, Sam, a film director from many generations ago and therefore completely irrelevant to anything in existence today. The bio of this obscure popular culture personality stated, in part, the following:

Many critics see his worldview as a misanthropic, Hobbesian view of nature as essentially evil and savage. Peckinpah himself stated the opposite. He saw violence as the product of human society, and not of nature. It is the result of men’s competition with each other over power and domination, and their inability to negotiate this competition without resorting to brutality. Peckinpah also used violence as a means to achieve catharsis, believing his audience would be purged of violence by witnessing it explicitly on screen (one of the major inspirations for his violent sequences in The Wild Bunch). Peckinpah later admitted that this idea was mistaken, and that audiences had come to enjoy the violence in his films rather than be horrified by it, something that deeply troubled him later in his career.

I am not a superstitious person, except when I am, but these coincidences do seem to happen to me with regularity. I don’t know how to understand them and don’t usually try. Anyway, the man’s attitude towards violence vis-a-vis human society (it is produced by society rather than thwarted by it), and violence vis-a-vis art (it is pornography rather than a means to catharsis), reflects perfectly my own. I think it doesn’t take too much effort to see that this is true, and only copious amounts of propaganda can turn what should be obvious to anyone into its opposite. So, the right volume of propaganda can turn Hobbes’ “nasty/brutish/short” line describing life before civilization into something self-evident. Conversely, the truly harrowing amount of violence perpetrated by men on one another today is somehow not seen as proof that the notion of civilization as something that restrains men from violence is pure bullshit.

The truth regarding the relationship of civilization to violence should be obvious to anyone. But that’s not what Cormac McCarthy seems to be talking about in Blood Meridian. But, then, what is he talking about in “Blood Meridian”? The problem is, I don’t know, and nobody seems to know, judging from the reviews. And yet, not being able to tell what a certain work is about is in no way an obstacle to being judged a masterpiece by a great many people today. This needs explaining.

I come from a visual art background, so I’ll talk about the visual arts to illustrate my point. It’s pretty much the same in literature, though– just substitute James Joyce for Marcel Duschamp, and you’ll have it right. For most of human history, someone looking at a work of art would find that their notion of what it is they are seeing would agree with that of the artist. This only changed in the modern era, in a period dubbed “modernism” in the arts. At this point, artists started to make pictures which had increasingly less to do with the world we live in. Eventually, modernism gave rise to two complimentary ideas, the notion of “art for art’s sake,” meaning that art by definition has no purpose; and the notion that form and content in a work of art are separate. The second notion means that what is depicted in a picture and the way the artist went about doing the depicting (the medium, the technique, the circumstances of the art-making) are separate things to be judged separately. So on the one hand, we have artists dragging found objects into museums and galleries, and on the other, canvases painted a solid color and sanded down: the first is an example of content without form, and the second of form without content, according to the modernists.

When the people reviewing “Blood Meridian” say that they don’t know what the book is about, exactly, but the beauty of the language makes it worthwhile to read, the assumption is that the work of art need not be about anything, the author’s technique is in itself enough to make it a meaningful experience for the audience. But surely, that can’t be the case: when Kafka wrote accident reports for the insurance company he worked for, he consciously worked to make them literary. But no matter how beautifully these were rendered (by one of the most revered stylists of modern literature, no less), no one wants to read them. Somehow, this is more obvious with literature than with the visual arts, where artists and critics have been pulling wool over everyone’s eyes for over half a century.

But what if “Blood Meridian” is about violence? Many reviewers suggest this to be what the book is all about. Is that the case here? To remove the violence to a bygone time period negates the notion that McCarthy is trying to bring us face to face with the violence the human race can perpetrate. In any case, what would be the point of such a thing, when we all know full well just how violent our race can be? Violence, being (along with sex) one of the main ways people are sold stuff today, needs to be handled carefully in a work of art, otherwise it quickly devolves into the art equivalent of sugar and fat, empty calories that taste good. Does McCarthy investigate the meaning of violence in our culture? The way it is used to sell us stuff? Something else about it? How? Otherwise, I don’t see how this is different from the art-school student who mistakes hanging up a poster of a serial killer (for example) for a “discussion of violence and its representations in contemporary culture,” as their artists’ statement will pithily state.

But I am guilty of an error: McCarthy, so far as I know, is not claiming that his book is a discussion of violence or anything else, it is the people who read him that have said as much. “Blood Meridian” is perhaps just a post-modern exercise to its writer, a meditation on language using the subject of violence as a guide for improvisation, a skeleton to weave his literary stylings around, so to speak. In such a case, it’s hard to see what would make so many people applaud McCarthy as a modern genius– surely one needs to accomplish something more than a lengthy literary improvisation with no content to be counted among the greats. But then again, it is all too easy to fool people today in every other way, I don’t know why literature should be any exception.

I haven’t even mentioned the content of the book– it’s here that Blood Meridian really stinks to high heaven. All other things remaining as they are, if this book wasn’t an invitation into a flawed and misleading view of history and human nature, it may not be such a stinker. So, just one example:

“War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

This quote was liked by 169 Goodreads readers. Only problem is, besides grating on the reader’s ear, this assertion is wrong. Perhaps you might argue that these are the words of a character and don’t represent the author’s views, but the rest of the book seems to support the view that this is, indeed, the thesis of the whole thing, all 351 pages of it. War seems to be the central character, to which all others are secondary and subservient, and it’s not in this position for the sake of criticism.

Whether writing about an apocalyptic future, as in “The Road,” or an apocalyptic past, as in “Blood Meridian,” Cormac McCarthy seems to capture the feel of life today. Perhaps that is why people are drawn to his books. Yet, not only do his books offer no answers to his readers, they potentially lead down some dead-wrong, dead-end paths, suggesting very harmful notions via the passing on of unexamined assumptions as well as in the general atmosphere of hopelessness pervading the action. Its hard to blame McCarthy for being hopeless, as it is only becoming more difficult to remain optimistic about mankind’s prospects. And yet, there are ways to be honest about what we (mankind) have done to the world and to ourselves while maintaining the possibility of fighting for something better.

Jan 17

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The average person would throw his freedom at the feet of the first person who would relieve him of it.

Erich Fromm would agree, though not for the same reasons.

Little need be said about a the plot and characters of a book as well known as this one. Much can and should be said about the historical context of the novel though, and about us, its readers, our ways and means, although I will likely as not fail at the task, being a stunted product of my time. Which is not to imply that our time is more stunted than another, and especially that of Dostoevsky, although the mid 19th century did have one big advantage over ours: the belief in progress as a force which will allow men to blossom.

Dostoevsky may be among the first to seriously doubt this notion. In this regard, it is significant that he comes from Russia, a peasant country with a long history of oppression and virtually no tradition of humanitarianism or liberalism of its own. Coming into contact with progressive western ideas of that sort, Dostoevsky doubted them based on his profound knowledge of people– Russian people. Unlike most progressives of his era, of which he was one in his youth, Dostoevsky came to the conclusion that the revolution will not find support among the masses; and he knew enough about the nature of power to understand that a revolution attempting to drag the peasants in its wake would simply turn out to be more of the same oppression. That pretty much leaves the conservative project of self-improvement as the only meaningful path an individual concerned with the plight of his/her species can pursue, paradoxical as that is.

Amazingly, we are in the same mess today we were in 150 years ago. The world is far from uniform: if you wonder what the “end of the world” will look like, you need look no further that certain parts of the Third World, and for a vision of what the liberal utopia of 19th century progressives looks like, by and large, check out Scandinavian welfare states, especially before the anti-immigrant reaction has started to settle in over the last decade. But the world as a whole is much the same colonial administration it was in 1850, getting more colonial by the minute. The options available to a conscientious individual are the same today as those available back then, meaning no meaningful option at all short of withdrawing from that one hopes to see changed. Such is our world.

The readers of Dostoevsky today will learn most from deciphering the context of his novels, seeing how the basic conditions of our lives haven’t changed all that much in the intervening century and a half, and are, as such, familiar to anyone who would bother to get their head out their ass. The verbose and challenging nature of a book like The Brothers Karamazov is a testament to a bygone era of verbal and critical virtuosity and involvement we have unfortunately lost along the way. For an English-language example of the same, see the Lincoln-Douglas debates: they are eloquent, complex, and challenging, and they were addressed to and expected to be understood by the average person of the time. Back when the main media of communication were verbal, everyone seems to have been able to follow complex arguments and appreciate beautiful turns of speech we have long given up in favor of visual sophistication, and interested enough in the issues of their day to do so. The main medium in use by a society has everything to do with the way a society conceives of and processes its world: see Neil Postman’s wonderful “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”
for a detailed explanation.

The way we choose to convey our thoughts has a major effect on the thoughts’ content, and the main medium used by a society will influence that society’s values in profound ways. It seems that some people are starting to wake up to this fact– I heard an NPR story yesterday suggesting that the language spoken by a society has an effect on the way the members of this society conceive of and relate to money, for example. I suspect that the culture of Dostoevsky’s day lent itself to the “utopian” spirit of the progressives’ program, just as our culture today lends itself to the mercantile emphasis of our times, as well as the naked manipulation of individuals done in the name of democracy and freedom the world over.