Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Books that have changed my life, #2

In a recent post, I posted about Faulkner's Go Down, Moses as a book that has definitely been important in my life. Today, in honor of Cormac McCarthy's 72nd birthday, and hoping that readers haven't yet gotten tired of my yammering about him of late, I'd like to list (again) 1985's Blood Meridian as a book that has changed my life.
To call this book a "Western" is true only insofar as it is set in "the West." But traditional Westerns mythologize: Good and Evil, though not always color-coded via the hats the men wear, are easy enough to identify; the Indians, are either vicious savages or noble savages, but inevitably they are enemies of settlement, which is a Good; etc. McCarthy dispenses immediately with all that. His chosen setting, the borderlands of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico just after the Mexican War, when the Mexican government is paying bounty hunters for the scalps of Indians, by itself sets us not just in a historically-verifiable West, but one in which, as you read, you'd be hard-pressed to find ANY definitive sign of Virtue, period, much less the traditional Western's version of that. McCarthy writes about the West as though Bret Harte had never existed, like Stephen Crane might have if he had read Faulkner and had a belief in God that just might be losing a wrestling match with Nietzsche--in other words, as though Flannery O' Connor's Misfit had decided to take up writing after shooting the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
Just read (aloud) these opening paragraphs of chapter 1:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.
The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her 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. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.
At fourteen he runs away. He will not see again the freezing kitchenhouse in the predawn dark. The firewood, the washpots. He wanders west as far as Memphis, a solitary migrant upon that flat and pastoral landscape. Blacks in the fields, lank and stooped, their fingers spiderlike among the bolls of cotton. A shadowed agony in the garden. Against the sun's declining figures moving in the slower dusk across a paper skyline. A lone dark husbandman pursuing mule and harrow down the rainblown bottomland toward night. (3-4)

I was working on my doctorate when I first read those lines, and though I'm sure I had better things to do at the time when I picked it up in Rice's bookstore and started reading, they suddenly became considerably less important. I don't know what McCarthy's voice actually sounds like, but I knew, as I read, that the "voice" I was hearing in my head sure wasn't mine. This language, as I read and read and read, took possession of my mind as no one else's writing, not even Faulkner's, had. And not just while I was reading, either: even today, though I've not read Blood Meridian for some years, I'll find myself suddenly thinking about those opening lines. It is, as I said a few posts ago, the most haunting novel I've ever read. And reading him has caused me to have higher expectations of writers I've read since then than might otherwise have been the case.
I think it's also important to me because of the time I first read it: it taught me two very important things about Beauty. The first thing was that it reminded me that I could still perceive it and let it be a significant consideration while reading. Grad school has been known to kill, or at least severely wound, many a student's aesthetic appreciation of a work in favor of more theoretical concerns, a sort of reading driven more by the search for confirmation of an argument, or a reading in service to a theory, than by, you know, the Pleasure in/of Language. As I read, I had pen in hand and underlined, as, thanks to grad school, I seem fated to do whenever I read now, but what I underlined were phrases that would just stop me dead and I'd have to ponder them for a while. Absolutely breathtaking language, simultaneously lyrical and muscular; "neo-Biblical," I seem to recall a reviewer describing it as.
The second lesson was that violence could be, paradoxically, beautiful. I do not seek out violence in art; there are times when it seems present, especially in film, for its own sake. Blood Meridian is spectacularly, unrelentingly violent, but it doesn't become fetishized, as some people--lesser writers in particular--seem to think. Ridley Scott has been chosen to direct the film version and a script is in production, but he has said he doesn't want it to be "too" violent. If it's at all faithful to the novel, though, it'd easily earn an NC-17 rating. The novel's world is a violent place, part of its metaphysics. It is not for the squeamish, as Vereen Bell writes in his early study of McCarthy. By the time one of the characters gets around to declaring, "War is god," that conclusion seems inevitable, no matter how much the reader may argue that it just isn't true. But somehow, McCarthy makes you look, and makes it clear that the violence--of the sort where no one, no matter his/her age or gender or race, is spared--is in service to his larger arguments about human beings, and not an end in itself. And that--the successful execution of an artist's intentions--is Beauty.
Anything else I could say here would either repeat what I've already said or begin to rob the curious reader of something of the pleasure I felt when I picked up this novel, knowing nothing more about it than its name, and started reading. But I do hope I have at least made you curious.

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1 comment:

Raminagrobis said...

Great entry. You certainly have piqued my interest, which is just as well, since Blood Meridian happens to be next in my reading pile (I bought it just the other day). I'll let you know how I find it.

Your comments about grad school struck a chord with me, too.