Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tirade: A Response to Harold Bloom and Leo Daugherty

Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian"

  

By: Jay

     Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is considered by many critics to be one of the best novels of the last century, ranked by many with Moby Dick and Absalom! Absalom!, while some have called McCarthy the heir apparent to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.  Blood Meridian is certainly not your average book, and as such, many find it difficult and inaccessible.  As Harold Bloom notes, it is a modern great, and in may respects resembles Homer or Dante.   However, Blood Meridian is also more than a novel: it is a statement about many things, the most crucial of which is McCarthy’s gnostic tirade against life as it is.

     Critic Leo Daugherty’s thesis is thus only partially correct: that the novel is a “gnostic tragedy,” and this is precisely what endows the novel with its elevated style and inaccessibility.  Daugherty’s thesis is too weak: to those steeped in the theological discourse of the early patristic period, including the polemical tracts of the early fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyon, it is quite clear that Blood Meridian is brimming with gnostic themes and ideas on virtually every page, and is fact is a gnostic polemical tirade.  Daugherty is correct about it being gnostic. However, there are many elements he misses and misinterprets.  My purpose is to respond to his statements, as well to Bloom’s claim that it is incorrect to see the Judge as a gnostic figure or archon, but rather that he should be cast as more of an enigma. Bloom claims:

     The citations and references to the work of Jacob Böhme, who is, after all, a very specific type of Kabbalistic Gnostic… I think you would have to say that they’re something of an evasion of the themes in Blood Meridian. McCarthy knows exactly what Gnosticism is, and he could have made Judge Holden into an explicitly Gnostic figure if he’d wanted to. He wants to keep Judge Holden completely inexplicable. Saying that he is a sort of Gnostic demiurge is too facile for McCarthy’s portrayal of him.[1]

     From the outset, we have the admission from Bloom that McCarthy is certainly working with gnostic themes, exemplified in the epigraph from Jacob Bohme, the Renaissance Neo-platonic mystic.  However, Bloom claims that the Judge is not a specifically gnostic figure, yet the constant and consistent presentation of the Judge is that of the biblical Creator God.   Why Bloom thinks an arcane, syncretistic mythical religious system’s presentation of the Judge as an evil demiurge is too “facile” is not explained, other than that the Judge is supposed to be inexplicable.  However, the gnostic schemes, for all their touting of “gnosis,” or knowledge, are not rationalistic, per se.  They do not offer a complete explanation of all mysteries, and in fact bear much similarity to the ancient mystery religions.  In fact, most of the critics surveyed in secondary literature readily admit the “hermetic” and “occultic” and “gnostic” ideas, yet pass over them for more mundane political and historical assessments of the work as a whole. 

     The Judge as the central functioning character in the narrative can certainly be seen as more than the gnostic demiurge, such as the often mentioned representation of American Imperialism or the Nietzschean “overman,” but these ideas are all subsumed in the overarching presentation of the Judge as the embodiment of the Creator God of the Mosaic Law and prophets.   In fact, there are gnostic ideas present in Nietzsche’s works, as well, and the “overman” himself can be seen as a kind of “saved savior.” 

     Daugherty comments:

These salvational Gnostic envoys—those in possession of gnosis—called (and still call) themselves “pneumatics.” Their work necessarily entails assuming “the lot of incarnation and cosmic exile”; moreover, in Mani’s system, the revelator is “in a sense identical with those he calls—the once-lost parts of his divine self [thus giving rise] to the moving idea of the ‘saved savior’ (salvator salvandus).[2]

 

The Judge, of course, is not a savior figure, but an evil demiurge in possession of this world’s knowledge, bent on theological voluntarism—the belief that God’s moral law is purely volitional.  In other words, there is no reason for right to be what it is, other than divine volition.  Had God so willed, evil and good might have been reversed.  The only factor involved in this decision is the divine will, often seen as arbitrary. 

     It’s important here to explain the general gnostic system.  Note that for the early Christian heresy of gnosticism, its central mythos revolves around the biblical Creator God being identified with what the Christian scheme historically calls the devil.  It is Jehovah who is the real Satan, pictured as a lesser archon that has imprisoned man in the tomb of his flesh, at the behest of his arbitrary and prideful will.  To the gnostics, this deity was a vengeful, warrior deity that represented the Jews and their Mosaic Law.  The presentation of Jesus, then, had to be one of a gnostic liberator, and not an incarnate “son of God.”  Daugherty elucidates this notion as follows:

Even so, on our own evil planet Judge Holden’s power is not yet complete, since his will is not yet fulfilled in its passion for total domination. He is working, as he implies to Toadvine, to become a full “suzerain”one who “rules even where there are other rulers,” whose authority “countermands local judgments” (198). Yet this was also necessarily true of the Gnostic archons, just as it was true of the Old Testament Yahweh, whom they saw as evil. And, like those archons, Holden also possesses all the other characteristics of Yahweh as the Gnostics saw him: he is jealous, he is vengeful, he is wrathful, he is powerful and—most centrally—he possesses, and is possessed by, a will. And he is enraged by any existence or any act outside that will. At one point, he places his hands on the ground, looks at Toadvine, and speaks:

This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation. (199)

In Holden, the stressed archonic element is of course judgment. Yet, like Yahweh, he judges things simply according to the binary criterion of their being inside or outside his will.[3]

     In the gnostic scheme, generally viewed as dualistic, matter is evil, and represents the domain of the evil Creator God, the demiurge, who imprisons man in order to keep him from “awakening” to his true divine self, represented by the divine “sparks” that remain in him from before his previous fall from the heavenly realm into an earthly imprisoned birth.  Resurrection, here, becomes one of inner awakening to these forces, and the subsequent quest for gnosis, or knowledge, that will lead one back to the heavenly realm of the Pleroma, where the deus absconditus, the absent but “good god” exists.  Resurrection has nothing to do with a fleshly, bodily regeneration or ascension.  The absent “good god,” in fact, has nothing to do with the evil realm of base matter, identified as the kingdom of darkness. 

     In many respects, the gnostic scheme bears striking similarities to Zoroastrianism and Hellenic strands of thought, and was most certainly influenced by them, as well as obvious Jewish and Christian doctrines.[4]  It should be said that the “devil” in the gnostic view is the liberator of man, since in the Garden of Eden in Genesis, he offered man apotheosis through “knowledge,” in rejection of Jehovah’s Law.[5]  In other words, the roles in the redemptive process of man are reversed in the gnostic traditions.  Jesus is a liberator who fights the “evil” Jehovah and the Jews, and brings the gnostic “elect” to redemption through uniting men to sophia, or divine wisdom, representative of the “divine feminine.” 

     The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains: 

 

According to Gnostic mythology (in general) We, humanity, are existing in this realm because a member of the transcendent godhead, Sophia (Wisdom), desired to actualize her innate potential for creativity without the approval of her partner or divine consort. Her hubris, in this regard, stood forth as raw materiality, and her desire, which was for the mysterious ineffable Father, manifested itself as Ialdabaoth, the Demiurge, that renegade principle of generation and corruption which, by its unalterable necessity, brings all beings to life, for a brief moment, and then to death for eternity. However, since even the Pleroma itself is not, according to the Gnostics, exempt from desire or passion, there must come into play a salvific event or savior—that is, Christ, the Logos, the “messenger,” etc.—who descends to the material realm for the purpose of negating all passion, and raising the innocent human “sparks” (which fell from Sophia) back up to the Pleroma (cf. Apocryphon of John [Codex II] 9:25-25:14 ff.).[6] 

The gnostics thus viewed Jehovah as “Ialdabaoth.”  The sought for redemption involves a mystical awakening of the divine spark to know one’s true self, and true destiny, to be “gods,” as the Serpent claimed in Genesis 3:5. 

     In Blood Meridian, one sees a barren wasteland desert that is the setting for the Judge and the Glanton Gang’s escapades.  A desert, in fact, reminds one of the Exodus wanderings the Jews faced when they were cast out of Egypt for bringing the curses upon Pharaoh and his empire.  In similar fashion, the Judge and his gang are destined to wander the earth in the manifest destiny of early America.  This is a harsh land that kills in seemingly chaotic and random acts of violence from natural forces, as well as human.  McCarthy seems, in fact, to identify the human as part of that brutal natural realm.  

     It is not by accident that the Judge and his gang are associated with all things fleshly and human—bodily functions, murder, rape and molestation, etc., to the extreme, where bodies are dismembered and infanticide is practiced.   The reason for this focus on the grotesque and gruesome is to hammer home the “evil” of this world, as McCarthy sees it.  The world is the Judge’s world, and his collection of Anasazi pottery, familiarity with geology, and love for drawing animals and other natural phenomena makes the association with him as the Creator God evident.  The Judge even proclaims himself a “suzerain” seeking total dominion of everything happening on earth not in accord with his will.   The biblical notion of the covenant in Exodus has often been compared to the “suzerain” treaties that autocratic rulers in the ancient near East drew up for their vassals and subjects.[7]     The kid, the nameless other central character locked, ultimately, in the primal struggle against the Judge calls to mind youth and inexperience.  The kid is like Adam in the Garden of Eden, and like man after the Fall.  The kid is, for a while, naked and eventually clothed by Captain White, the “Christian soldier” who is later killed by the Judge.   This theme of nakedness calls to mind the Genesis narrative’s presentation of man being unaware of his nudity prior to the Fall, and the subsequent feeling of shame (see Genesis 3).  The Judge, however, constantly displays himself as naked and feels no apparent shame.  His very arrival is a tale of a mysterious appearance on a rock in a sulfurous, hell-like area of the desert, where “cloven prints” were seen, likening him to the devil (in the gnostic scheme).[8]

     The kid thus fatally falls into this carnival or horrors at the behest of the Judge and his gang, gallivanting about the Tex-Mex border, subsisting as nothing more than an empty existence predicated on survival alone.   Eventually, however, he begins to find that there is a spark of the divine present.  In one scene, McCarthy illustrates this in the scene where they are naked by the fire, and the souls are visible as encircled by luminosity.[9]   The divine sparks of the deus absconditus thus appear and can be awakened.  Leo Daugherty explains:

 

The spirit imprisoned within matter is called pneuma—the “spark of the alien divine,” in the familiar Gnostic phrase—and its presence naturally causes some humans to feel alienated, although they are for the most part comatose. The spirit within is, however, capable of learning, and the alienation it feels is its clue that there is indeed something to be learned. In the various Gnostic systems, knowledge is the key to extrication. It is thus a central task of the archons to prevent the human acquisition of liberational knowledge at all costs. To this end, they have established heimarmene—Fate—which is, in Jonas’s words, a “tyrannical world rule [which] is morally the law of justice, as exemplified in the Mosaic law.”[10]

And the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

This process of re-integration with/in the godhead is one of the basic features of the Gnostic myth. The purpose of this re-integration (implicitly) is to establish a series of existents that are ontologically posterior to Sophia, and are the concrete embodiment of her “disruptive” desire—within the unified arena of the Pleroma. Indeed, if the Pleroma is really the Fullness, containing all things, it must contain the manifold principles of Wisdom’s longing. In this sense, we must not view Gnostic salvation as a simply one-sided affair. The divine “sparks” that fell from Sophia, during her “passion,” are un-integrated aspects of the godhead. We may say, then, that in the Hegelian sense the Gnostic Supreme God is seeking, eternally, His own actualization by way of full self-consciousness (cf. G.W.F. Hegel, History of Philosophy vol. 2, pp. 396-399).[11]

It is evident why the Kid leaves this world through the release of death at the end of the novel.  The Judge murders the Kid because the Judge has power of death, called the graver, who functions as his avenger.  In McCarthy’s portrayal it is an arbitrary, incoherent wreaking of vengeance—much like the fate that is apparent in the novel.  The Judge thus also embodies the cruel, blind force of deterministic fate that McCarthy envisions in the biblical doctrine of providence and divine sovereignty.  Further, it is the biblical God who enacts the punishment of death upon man for his sin of seeking to be like God in the Genesis narrative (Genesis 3:19).

     There is a kind of redemption of the Kid, after confession to the dead woman, which brings to mind the redemption through the divine feminine, yet there is no redemption in this life, aside from the awakened spark.  The divine feminine will only secure his transition to the release to the beyond, for which he is destined.   Because the Kid had mercy “on the heathen,” the Judge vows to destroy him.  And there is no doubt left to the reader that for McCarthy this world, the world of the novel, is one of darkness and perpetual night.

     The epigraph of Bohme reads: “It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.”[12]  This life is death and darkness, the power of “Ialdabaoth,” and is not to be cared for.  It is to be shunned, biding one’s time until the end, when death releases one from the prison of the flesh.  Until that time, one would do well to accept the fatalistic nihilism of the Judge, who sees “war as God.”[13]  War is God, because the judge is the biblical warrior God. 

     The Judge proclaims his desire to establish a “new order” and explains that his motley band of followers constitutes a new band of converts to perform his liturgics.[14]  The Judge even overshadows the money-forger, a common, classical anti-Jewish accusation that has direct associations with usury and economic warfare (though the Judge refuses to be involved directly in the marketplace, preferring rather to engage in direct war, implying a perverse need for blood).  McCarthy is making no bones about his desire to cast the biblical Creator God as the devil, and his people, Jews.[15]

He even leaves the “jew” nameless and lower cased on purpose, while capitalizing “Ham” and his descendants.[16]

     There is also an interesting aspect that Dagherty ignores, which is the Tarot scene.  A woman does a Tarot reading for the Glanton gang, and gives a dark portent.  The real reason this is relevant is due to the classical gnostic, occult associations related to the Tarot deck, including the idea of archetypes.[17]  Blood Meridian contains several characters that match up to the major arcana of the deck, and have obvious archetypal associations, such as the Fool, the Priest (or Hierophant), Priestess, Judge/Justice/Hanged Man, the Devil, Death, Fortune/Fate, The Hermit/Anchorite, all figure prominently in the story.  McCarthy is making clear that all the characters are themselves archetypal manifestations that arise from, and whose meaning must be sought outside, mainstream, orthodox religions.   The biblical deity forbids divination (Dt. 18), yet the Glanton Gang is not bound by any laws, save the Judge’s arbitrary will at a given moment.  McCarthy stresses this antinomian component often.

     In the conclusion of the novel, a mysterious epilogue appears where a man digs holes across the land.  This follows upon the Judge dancing after killing the kid, and celebrating that he will never sleep, dancing over and over.  The epilogue must be read in conjunction with this idea.  It reads:

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of a sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.[18]

The terminology refers to a watch, as Daugherty explains.[19]  The idea of a blind watchmaker so prominent in deistic theology fits well with this imagery.  The blind watchmaker is absent from his determined creation, the absent “good god,” and the demiurge evil deity remains in control.  McCarthy is the artist, the Promethean second man, who comes along and lights the fires of awakening for those who are the gnostic “elect.”  The Judge and his cohorts are determined by the march of history and its primal forces, and are a determined, enslaved lot. 

     The artist is the man who is truly free, for McCarthy, because he has seen through the ruse, and achieved gnostic apotheosis through creating his own fictional, literary world in this case.  This work, the plan of apotheosis through art, is done by the artist for the awakening of those other gnostic “elect” who will supposedly understand all the occult underpinnings and follow suit.  The Judge will continue the dance of cyclical, material history and its dialectical manifestation of eternal return, imprisoning souls until they confront him, and long for release to the realm of spirit, following their awakening.

     In conclusion, not only did Daugherty leave out some crucial elements that were missing in his thesis, his thesis was unfortunately too weak.  Blood Meridian is not merely a gnostic tragedy; it is a gnostic polemical piece intended on defending gnostic redemption as it was truly supposed to be—a flight from this world and it’s purported inherent evil, to the realm of spirit.  The only release to that realm is death, which frees one from the determinations of natural forces in this life.  The Judge is most certainly the biblical Creator, whose Law is viewed as a repressive corollary to the “laws of nature” and natural forces.   “Salvation” comes through the entire process of going beyond good and evil (supposedly), and then achieving release from this world of darkness.  There is nothing “facile” about this, as Bloom claimed, but rather, the entire piece is a sophisticated gnostic polemic the biblical tradition.  


[1] Pierce, Leonard.  “Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian.”  Online. Retrieved November, 2011.  http://www.avclub.com/articles/harold-bloom-on-blood-meridian,29214/

 

[2]    Daugherty, Leo.  “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy.” Retrieved Online.  November, 2011. http://peter-mclachlin.livejournal.com/115239.html

[3]    Ibid.

[4]    Ibid.  See also, Pagels, Elaine. “The Controversy Over Christ’s Resurrection” in The Gnostic Gospels (Random House: New York, 1989), 11-15.  Martin, Sean. The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics (England: JH Haynes & Co., 2006), 15-27. 

[5]    Pagels, Elaine.  Adam, Eve and the Serpent (Random House: New York, 1988), 69.

[6] Feiser, James. Gen. Editor.“Gnosticism.” Online.  http://www.iep.utm.edu. Retrieved November, 2011. http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic/

 

[7]    McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian (Random House: New York, 1985), 131-2.  On the suzerainty treaty, see Anderson, Bernhard. “The Old Testament” in The Oxford Guide to the Bible. Eds. Metzger and Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 84.

[8]    McCarthy, 135-8.

[9]    Ibid., 232.

[11]  IEP.utm.edu, “Gnosticism.”

[12]  McCarthy, I.

[13]  Ibid., 259-61.

[14]  Ibid., 129.

[15]  Ibid., 87.

[16]  Ibid., 87-9.

[17]  Ibid., 95-9.

[18]  Ibid., 351.

4 thoughts on “Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tirade: A Response to Harold Bloom and Leo Daugherty

  1. Interesting, I remember my brother reading Blood Meridian a year or two ago and he was pretty convinced that it was Gnostic in character. I remember him sighting the suzerain passage specifically. I started reading the book myself but ended up having to return it to the person I borrowed it from before I was able to get much beyond the first two or three chapters.
    Have you read McCarthy’s book The Road? I saw the movie and was convinced it was either an orthodox or Gnostic Christological allegory, I couldn’t decide which. I figured I’d have to read McCarthy’s book to get a better idea of the original intent. Given your reading of Blood Meridian, I’d say it’s more likely that The Road presents a Gnostic Christology, though I suppose it’s possible the screenwriter, Joe Penhall, altered this to an orthodox Christology for the film version.

  2. It’s super gnostic. A lot of people drop it after a few pages. I haven’t read the Road, but I remember your triadic analysis. I agree, probably more of a gnostic presentation.

  3. Hey man, this is all really interesting stuff. There are a few points, though, that you don’t touch on, and that I can’t seem to fit into this framework. First, why doesn’t the kid shoot the judge in the desert? Is it because he’s been “awakened” and has come to reject what the judge stands for? And that not shooting him is in fact his rejection of the judge? And why doesn’t the judge kill the kid in the desert? He clearly is able to. Is he only able to kill those who defy him? I’m not really sure.

    Furthermore, what role does Tobin play in that desert standoff scene?The fact that the scene takes place in the desert and that the judge passes before the kid three times makes me read it as modeled on the temptation of christ in the desert. But notice how every time Tobin tells the kid to shoot the judge, McCarthy writes that the expriest “hisses” his commands, much like the serpent in Genesis. This, combined with the fact that the judge always refers to Tobin as “Priest” makes me feel that he is in fact fully in league with the judge, even though he may not realize it. (That is, I don’t read the judge calling Tobin “Priest” as mockery; I read it as him calling Tobin what he is to him, namely, one of his “proselytes”. This is further demonstrated when the judge tells Tobin “What could I ask of you that you’ve not already given?”)

    And finally, what is it about the man shooting Elrod that seems to summon the judge back? Is it that the judge was somehow unable to get to the man all those years until he lapses back into violence? How does that fit in the Gnostic interpretation of the book?

    Anyway, I really like the essay. It’s all very interesting stuff, and I’m pretty sold on most of it, except I can’t seem to fit the above points into it. If you have any insight, I’d love to hear it.

    Thanks.

    • Hi, Ed.

      Firstly, the Judge himself tells you why the Kid doesn’t shoot him in the desert. It’s because the Kid doesn’t “have the heart of a common assassin.” The Kid obviously has some semblance of moral fiber, and as such he cannot shoot a man from an unseen vantage point.

      Secondly, the Judge doesn’t kill the Kid in the desert for two reasons: 1. Because he wasn’t exactly sure where the Kid was hiding and apparently didn’t feel it was worth a search. And 2. Because he sees something of himself in the Kid and felt that there was still a chance for the Kid to espouse his Machiavellian view of things (which the Judge himself also tells you, later on, when he visits the Kid in jail [“Don’t you know that I’d have loved you like a son?”] and later in the Fort Griffin scene [“The last of the true. The last of the true.”]). Obviously, the Judge’s killing of children is evidence that he doesn’t require defiance in order to kill.

      Thirdly, Tobin clearly is not in league with Holden. Quite the contrary, they are adversaries both spiritually and physically. But Tobin is a man who has forsaken morality, as evidenced by his chosen path in life, and because of his clerical background (along with his belief that the Judge was sent among the Glanton Gang as a curse) he knows that he himself is a lost soul. He now belongs to the Judge, as part of the Judge and Glanton’s “covenant,” which was a pact for the souls of the gang. But since the Kid never really “emptied his heart into the common,” the Judge did not yet have a claim on his soul.

      That’s why (fourthly) the killing of Elrod is significant. That was the moral line that the Man finally crossed and thereby rendered himself “fair game” to the Judge. Because even though he knew that Elrod would return, he didn’t break camp, and he also shot the boy in the dark, taking it upon himself to pronounce JUDGMENT (“You wouldn’t of lived anyway.”).

      I hope that helps.

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