8.31.2010

Ode to Jon Sealy

Friend Jon Sealy (2.0) has been telling me that I need to read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian ever since we expressed our shared love for Moby-Dick to each other for the first time some four or five years ago. I'm only sixty-something pages in, but that's a lot in such a book, so I'm going to follow Sealy's format and say a few words:

What it is:

The nearest thing I've ever read to this isn't Moby-Dick, which the book jacket compares it to, but Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. So far, it's soaked in the landscape. It's as much about the dirt as it is about the Kid who seems to stand in the place where a focalized protagonist should be. The only other McCarthy I've read is The Road, and it shares a theme: something about how fragile civilization--"our" kind in particular--is.

Why it's Interesting:

What strikes me so far is the bare/starkness of the narration. In this regard, it's almost an antithesis of Moby-Dick. In Blood Meridian, you get frightfully objective description like this, a scene where a bunch of American soldiers (loosely angling toward the Mexican-American War in 1850ish) are attacked by a band of marauding Native Americans:
...Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of boneflutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company and cut their ranks in two and then rising up again like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down with the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and bodies, ripping up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.
Holy Toledo. A sentence like that (yes, that's one sentence!) makes me see what Faulkner was trying to do. Aside from the thrilling images, the deftness of the language, what demands my attention is the absence of any narrative commentary. Nowhere in the first five chapters does the narrative voice descend to level judgment on any of the scenes he reports. Melville could never approach this kind of ruthless perspective. Melville, even in the guise of Ishmael, always offers readers a hand:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows - a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues - every stately or lovely emblazoning - the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge - pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino Whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
So the Moby-Dick comparison is baffling to me, except insofar as I am catching, in Blood Meridian, an early glimpse of the granduer of McCarthy's book.

Further Reading:

Like I said, Willa Cather's Southwest is comparable for its vividness. Possibly (for descriptive setting) also Carlos Castandeda's A Separate Reality. But the only other book I've read with such a studied narrative restraint is Camus' The Stranger, a book that asks readers to listen to the ravings of a madman ("Mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday...") from the very first page. Well, and maybe Dostoevsky. But that is some serious company. And remember: I'm only on page sixty-something!

2 comments:

Jon Sealy said...

Good to hear you're enjoying it, and thanks for the shout-out. I haven't read the Cather, so it's going to the top of my list.

I'm curious to hear occasional updates as you progress; I'll ponder the Moby-Dick connection, though for now I'd say it isn't so much style (as you note -- the styles are quite different) but rather Melville's and McCarthy's attempts to explain the unknowable, or to confront evil. Whether it's through the guise of Ishmael or through non-judging description, both books offer a rich, head-on look at evil (or nothingness, or indifference, or at least the possibility that nothing means anything -- call it what you will).

You probably haven't gotten to know the Judge too well yet, but there's also an echo between the Kid on the road with the Judge that resembles Ishmael and Ahab. Also, Melville's land versus sea is echoed by McCarthy's civilization versus the frontier.

Casey said...

Yeah, I'm loving it. That first scene where the Injuns scalped all the entire regiment was unbelievable to me. I hate thinking about evil, so I like that McCarthy drags me through it... I also enjoy his civilization v. the frontier theme. I pray to Jesus every night that I never have to live through a "Frontier" era in history, because, wow! I would be so unprepared!