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Cormac McCarthy has seldom, if ever, shied away from the use of violence, graphically-portrayed, as a means of defining humanity. His novels invariably include numerous, detailed descriptions of violent and dehumanizing acts perpetrated against his characters, often by some surrealistically philosophical villain. In perhaps his most well-known novel, No Country for Old Men, that villainous creation took the person of Anton Chigurh. In Blood Meridian, a Western set in 1840, it is Judge Holden, as with Chigurh the personification of pure evil. Like Chigurh, Holden is philosophical: a philosophical, cold-blooded killer. These characters do not, however, enjoy a monopoly on violence. Blood Meridian is full of violent characters, including its main protagonist, “the kid.” If anybody in this novel represents the lighter side morality, it is “the kid.” How could a fourteen year old boy not be virtuous? McCarthy provides an answer in the novel’s opening:
“The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence.”
With that description of a child, McCarthy alerts the reader to the moral ambivalence that lies ahead. The “Old West” he depicts is a nonstop continuum of violence, by whites, by Indians, and by Mexicans. The characters in Blood Meridian are uniformly inured to the violence that defines both the region and the era. In contemplating the connection between violence and morality, then one need not anticipate the arrival of the virtuous pacifist, but rather the violent man whose methods are intended to serve the less-than-evil. In a telling passage in his novel, McCarthy describes Judge Holden, the African American known only as “the black,” and Doc Irving carrying on an unlikely discussion regarding morality and war, the ultimate manifestation of mankind’s penchant for violence:
“The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.
The judge smiled, his face shining with grease. What right man would have it any other way? he said.
The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there's many a bloody tale of war inside it.
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be.”
By citing the Bible, McCarthy upends conventional notions of the relationship of morality to violence. It makes no sense to condemn violence, because it is such an inherent part of human nature. For McCarthy, violence is the great equalizer between good and evil.
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