Printer Friendly

A "bloody dark pastryman": Cormac McCarthy's recipe for gunpowder and historical fiction in 'Blood Meridian.'

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy's TALE OF A ROUGH GANG, bounty-hunting scalps in the mid-nineteenth-century American Southwest, contains a remarkable character named Judge Holden. Judge Holden's importance in the novel is far greater than his actual position as one of this band of renegades and desperadoes under the command of the historical "Captain" John Joel Glanton.(1) The gang's first meeting with Holden, in a story told by an ex-priest turned scalper named Ben Tobin, is fascinating.(2) Tobin opens with Glanton's decimated gang in flight, retreating ahead of several score Apaches, on the run because out of black powder for their guns. The Apaches trail them "ridin four and six abreast and there was no short supply of them and they were in no hurry" (p. 126). "Every man jack of us knew that in that godforsook land somewhere was a draw or a cul-desac (sic) of perhaps just a pile of rocks and there we'd be driven to a stand with those empty guns." On a solitary rock jutting from the desert floor sat Holden, "smilin as we rode up. Like he'd been expectin us" (p. 125).(3)

Tobin's story shows Glanton leading the Indians briefly away from Holden, giving Holden time to gather gunpowder ingredients (saltpetre, charcoal, sulfur), with Holden then mixing them, wetted and hurriedly dried, for use in the scalpers' guns. He saves the gang from certain death. I propose here to take a close look at Tobin's story. Such an examination will clarify the implications of several important inter-textual references in Blood Meridian; add insight into McCarthy's transmutation of source material into his own remarkable prose; shed light on the protagonist (a teen-aged runaway known only as "the kid"); and, most importantly, help determine the complex function of Holden in the book.(4)

In Tobin's story McCarthy apparently incorporates information derived from folk sources gathered in a "Powder, Flint, and Balls" article in Foxfire 5.(5) Of the nine pages Carl Darden contributes to this article, the segment presented below would seem to establish Darden as McCarthy's primary source:

"Then the ingredients can be mixed with a small amount of water so the mixture

comes out with biscuit-dough consistency. Usually when I mix the ingredients,

I add just enough stale urine to make the batch bunch about like biscuit dough.

The urine, substituted for water, gives the powder more oxygen and higher performance.

"Flowers of sulfur is ideal for gun powder, and it can be bought in most drug

stores in four-ounce bottles or pound cans.

"It can also be found in pure deposits around volcanoes, and in early times,

because it was found where molten lava issued from the earth, the sulfur condensed

around the rims of the volcanoes was called brimstone. (p. 246)

In these paragraphs are the Judge's call for the men's urine in Blood Meridian (pp. 131-132),(6) the story's "pure flowers of sulfur" phrase (p. 131) and its "brimstone" (pp. 131, 134), and, in Darden's repeated "biscuit dough" simile, a beginning point for Tobin's characterization of the Judge as a "bloody dark pastryman" mixing the wetted gunpowder into "a foul black dough, a devil's batter" (p. 132).(7)

Another point linking McCarthy and Darden comes out of the Judge's choice of "alder charcoal" for his gunpowder. Both Darden (p. 247) and Jim Moran (p. 253), another contributor to the Foxfire 5 article, mention willow as a standard charcoal source. And McCarthy's charcoal is burned at a stream where willow trees are present (p. 128). But McCarthy's choice of alder, I think, firmly links him to Darden through Darden's chatty note that:

By the way, just yesterday I took time out and made a batch of powder, and this

time, when I mixed the ingredients, I added homemade alder charcoal instead of

redwood and improved the powder's performance 100 per cent. (p. 248)(8)

To make his saltpetre, the Judge "leached out the guano with creekwater and woodash" (p. 128), within two days. Carol A. Hill, a third contributor to "Powder, Flint, and Balls," describes a process for refining saltpetre that resembles Holden's and takes an unspecified but apparently relatively brief time (pp. 253-256).(9) Her contribution mentions "woodashes," and a white "precipitate," and the term "nitre" (p. 256), items which occur in McCarthy (pp. 127-128, 131). Her account also notes that the liquid matter in the leaching process is at one stage called "Mother liquor" or "|beer'," terms perhaps related to McCarthy's mention of the Judge and Delaware Indians appearing to be drunk after the leaching process (perhaps on fumes) "but on what none could surmise" (p. 128). Hill's account, then, was apparently used directly by McCarthy, who for obvious exigencies of time in this episode omits Hill's observation that "The nitrate crystals thus obtained had to be further refined and purified" before the substance was suitable for mixing into gunpowder (p. 256).

McCarthy may well have added the detail of shooting into the volcano out of his reading of Frederick Ober's nineteenth-century account of ascending the Mexican volcano Popocatepetl. Ober writes that when he had reached its rim he "rose exultingly" and:

discharged the six chambers of my revolver into the air, creating such a concussion

in the crater that great stones rattled down its perpendicular sides, and the reverberations

nearly deafened us. From "crag to crag" leaped the volumes of sound, like

peals of thunder, and finally died away in receding murmurs, as though retreating

farther and farther into the entrails of old Tlaloc, the god of storms, whose brow

I now stood upon, at a height of nearly eighteen thousand feet above the sea.(10) Glanton's two and Holden's ten shots into the novel's volcanic crater may well be taken by the advancing Indians as the "merciful" deaths of the trapped gang members (murders and suicides), a response to fate common enough in men facing torture if captured. Holden's false cry "All dead save me" to the Indians below (p. 134), after he has made his gunpowder, lethally illustrates one of Blood Meridian's minor themes, McCarthy's exploration of advantages gained by deception.

Gunpowder made in a moment of conflict, and Indians hesitating at sounds associated with volcanoes, can lead McCarthy's reader into yet another analogous historical tale. The disquieting sound of a volcano is heard in a story of Aztec Indians several hundred years before Glanton's time in the area of Mexico City. Hernan Cortes's expedition in the New World, a small force confronting the whole of Aztec Mexico, ran out of powder in the middle of the challenge,(11) as would Glanton. Bat dung for saltpetre is easy enough to find, given mountains and caves. Charcoal takes little technological sophistication to make. But the sulfur necessary for gunpowder has to be in place, is geological, mineral. The sulfur Cortes found in Mexico, at a volcano and which went into his gunpowder, is credited as the first such discovery and manufacture in the New World.(12) Cortes's men made descents by rope into a rumbling crater (coincidentally, that of the volcano Popocatepetl, which Ober would later climb) to retrieve it. Cortes describes in a letter the dangers of the descents for sulfur "which is deposited by the smoke," "a most evil thing."(13) In an account contemporary with these exploits, Cervantes de Salazar remarks that the Aztecs thought the rumblings of the volcano to be the spirits of the Indians' evil kings, in a kind of Christian-like sulfurous hell reserved only for those wicked few.(14) The Indians marvelled at the intrepidity of the Spaniards.(15) The Conquistadors' energy, which the Indians "envied" in the Cronica account of Cortes's men, is akin to that of the Judge in Tobin's account.(16) He is able, with his powder, to direct the volcano to rumble.

Within Tobin's story, Holden's gift of gunpowder to Glanton has overtones of Mephistopheles' gifts to Faust.(17) Tobin says to the kid, of their leaders' first meeting on the desert, "They've a secret commerce. Some terrible covenant. You mind. You'll see I'm right" (p. 126). Glanton, then, as Holden provides him with new powder, may be found joined in a Satanic pact. References to the Judge as a "sootysouled rascal" and "the devil" in this scene (pp. 124, 125) aptly describe one who can control the rumblings of such a place as the Indians' volcano hell. As gunpowder is one of the Devil's more significant gifts to man,(18) and as McCarthy adds this detail to Tobin's story, a reading of the leaders' "covenant" as, indeed, a Devil-compact is affirmed.

A Faust analog in Tobin's story is historically appropriate. Though the secularization of Mexico's Catholic properties formally dates to the mid-1850s, in the mid-1830s the "liberal reformers who chipped away at the Church's underpinnings managed only to weaken it in central Mexico, but they helped bring about its collapse on the frontier."(19) Only in places like Chihuahua City, in Nacori, and particularly in the isolated mountain town of Jesus Maria, is the presence of the Catholic Church in Blood Meridian shown in its traditional strength.(20) The frontier is, literally, a Godless place. And it is in this landscape that Glanton and Holden make their "covenant." Freemasons, Rudwin notes, have at times been subjected to accusations of Devil worship (p. 168), a thought associating Glanton, in what I have shown elsewhere to be a strongly Masonic environment, with the taint of such activity.(21) Glanton, late in the book, has access, gazing into his night's fire, to portents (p. 243). Yet, again, in his pride, McCarthy tells us, Glanton holds himself to be sufficient and complete,(22) with a clarity and intention earlier ascribed to the gang as a whole (p. 119). He is, indeed, the sort of man willing to promise his soul for more powder.

Satan's intellect identifies him, in Christian thought. In Blood Meridian Tobin muses, as he tells the kid of the Judge and gunpowder, "what do you reckon it was in them mountains that we set out for? And how did he come to know of it? How to find it? How to put it to use?" (p. 126). Holden's intellectual insight marks him, for Tobin, here, and elsewhere in the book, as well. Holden can give an "extemporaneous lecture in geology" (p. 116), a "short disquisition on the history and architecture" of an old Spanish mission (p. 224), go over "points of law" and "latin terms of jurisprudence," citing "cases civil and martial," quoting "Coke and Blackstone, Anaximander, Thales" (p. 239; see also pp. 127, 173, 198, 251). His breadth of knowledge is astonishing, and is beyond credulity, almost, except that Chamberlain's historical Judge Holden is himself "another Admirable Crichton" (pp. 271-272) whose learnedness McCarthy does not appear to overstate. McCarthy, in fact, appears only to emphasize Holden's intellectualized detachment, only accentuating Chamberlain's notice of Holden's "face destitute of . . . all expression" (p. 271).

Holden's coldness and his pride, are, in fact, also flaws in the otherwise magnificent creation which is Satan. Out of such pride Holden sketches for his own records a "footpiece from a suit of armor hammered out in a shop in Toledo three centuries before, a small steel tapadero frail and shelled with rot," and, as his interest in the piece is satisfied, he "crushed it into a ball of foil and pitched it into the fire" (p. 140). Holden cannot pack along all he inventories of the past in his travels.(23) He may discard the footpiece as a practical matter; but, then, the gang finds it practical "mercy" to kill its own wounded who cannot travel (pp. 205-209). Such coldness is always at the fore, in the novel, though its intellectualization is the Judge's province. It is McCarthy's Holden who is, for me, implied in Blood Meridian's epigraph from Paul Valery.(24)

Though Satan is traditionally represented as lean, the man Holden may be literally as evil as he is fat.(25) Judge Holden, as legal counsel to the gang (p. 237), practices one of the Devil's favorite professions (Rudwin, p. 52). An introductory quotation of Jacob Boehme involves a reference to Satan which I take to anticipate the Judge.(26) Reverend Green instinctively recognizes Holden: "This is him. The devil. Here he stands" p. 7), for Green the Slanderer, the Prince of Lies.

The demons of hell tempt men of all classes and callings, They do not distinguish

between prince and pauper, philosopher and fool. "It must not be thought,"

assures us Charles Baudelaire, "that the Devil tempts only men of genius. He doubtless

scorns imbeciles, but he does not disdain their assistance. Quite the contrary, he

founds great hopes on them." (Rudwin, p. 139) This last brings Holden's fool-companion James Robert Bell to mind. Tobin's remark in simile that the Judge has "ears like a fox" (p. 135), though used in context to stress acuteness of hearing, also) alludes to a similarity between the ears of a fox and the traditionally pointed ears of the Devil.(27) Holden's association with the Tarot card The Fool, because Holden is also cast as the Devil, recalls that the animal associated with The Fool in many decks is a cat, which is in turn traditionally associated with Satan (Rudwin, p. 41). Indeed, wolves and apes, animals imaginatively central to McCarthy's novel, are fabled animal shapes of the Arch-fiend (Rudwin, pp. 42-43).

Judge Holden embodies other characteristics that mark the modern conception of Satan:

In our own days, the Devil has turned human, all too human for most of us.

He no longer appears in the gala attire of tail, horns and cloven foot, with which

he used to grace the revels on the Blocksberg. "You fancied I was different, did you

not, Johannes?" Satan asks the little Dutch boy in Frederik van Eeden's novel De

kleine Johannes (1887). "That I had horns and a tail? That idea is out of date. No

one believes it now." The Devil now moves among men in their own likeness, but

"the kernel of the brute is in him still." His diabolical traits appear no longer in

his body, but in his face; you can see them there, though he does not mean you

should. (Rudwin, p. 49)

The Devil manifests himself to us now as a well-bred, cultivated man of the

world. In appearing among us, he generally borrows a tall handsome figure, surmounted

by delicate features, dresses well, is fastidious about his rings and linen,

travels post and stops at the best hotels. As he can boast of abundant means and

a handsome wardrobe, it is no wonder that he should everywhere be politely received.

In fact, as Voltaire has already said, he gets into very agreeable society. His brilliant

powers of conversation, his adroit flattery, courteous gallantry, and elegant,

though wayward, flights of imagination, soon render him the delight of the company

in every salon. (Rudwin, p. 52) Though Holden in Blood Meridian is in many instances notably underdressed and naked -- a state outside the reach of trends and clothing fashions, a universalizing touch on McCarthy's part -- yet McCarthy also pays more attention to the Judge's wardrobe than to any other character's. Even when Holden leaves his room at the ferry in a rush during the massacre, he at once provides himself with hat and parasol of his own devising from the desert's available materials (pp. 282, 297-298), and seems as interested in finding himself clothing in the desert as in acquiring a gun (pp. 282-283). Holden seems always as finely dressed as his bloody mission with the gang will allow.

The novel's closing paragraphs show the Judge as leader of a dance, fiddling, he claims, for eternity (pp. 334-335).(28) By comparison:

While the Devil plays all instruments equally well, lie seems to prefer the violin.

He was said in the Middle Ages to own a violin with which he could set whole

cities, grandparents and grandchildren, men and women, girls and boys, to dancing,

dancing until they fell dead from sheer exhaustion. (Rudwin, p. 256)(29) These and other bits of evidence point to Holden as fashioned by a mind by no means unaware of their analogs with what is understood of Satan.

In compacts, the Devil traditionally trades the satisfaction of verbalized wants and desires, for a set limit of time, in return for immortal souls. Glanton's "calculations concerning ... every duplicity" (p. 148), then, are limited, humanly derived calculations. Glanton does not -- only, perhaps, the Judge is able -- see clearly past the Yuma chiefs' outlandish costumes to the threat these men can pose to the gang (p. 255). If the Faust analog were neat and precise, Glanton would die in the novel at Holden's hand, torn asunder for his soul at an appointed time. But Glanton dies of a savage's axe-blow, his death not directly resulting from his pact with Holden. McCarthy accedes to claims of historical accuracy by depicting Glanton's end as it actually occurred. But the price the unnamed "kid," a historically flexible protagonist, pays for his association with Holden, when seen in light of a Faust analog, is rendered more directly to the Judge, as we will see.

Holden asserts that "Means and ends are of little moment" in a retrospective understanding of events, that they are "Idle speculations" (p. 306).(30) The testimonies of "witnesses" arriving "by a third and other path" (p. 153) arc basic, when available, to the prosecution of a case.(31) The circumstantial evidence of the kid's betrayal of the gang, his survival of their massacre, is addressed, I think, as Holden makes his technical legal point. "Men's memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not" (p. 330). Holden is, in fact, as reliable a witness of the kid's behavior as can be found in the book.(32) Holden has a valid points in the novel's version. The kid is responsible, beyond moral rights and wrongs, when, from the imagined perspective of those dead at the crossing, even a minor failure of support on the kid's part -- the kid's simple survival of the massacre, for instance -- may stand as weakness sufficient to warrant such a charge(33). Holden survives as witness to the kid's inability to share fully in the scalpers' war (pp. 306-307), echoing the historical Holden's accusation against Sam Chamberlain (p. 293), claiming that Sam's reserve allowed the Yumas' triumph.(34)

But to condemn and execute the kid, as the Judge does, on these grounds seems wild, unjustified, the act of a madman.(35) The Judge may in fact believe that as a result of Glanton's pact the men have also been surrendered to Holden's will, since a "covenant," a carefully chosen word on McCarthy's part, is inheritable both in Devil-compacts (Rudwin, p. 175), and in law (as a "contract" is not) (Black [Covenant: Real], p. 437). The kid is bound to Holden, then, even though the covenant was Glanton's, and Toadvine, as agent, "guaranteed" the kid's performance (p. 79). As the explication of McCarthy's French sentence can be found to demonstrate, a reading of the novel based on law and therefore upon strictly abided covenant is not inappropriate.(36) Since Glanton is not mangled by Holden in the satisfaction of covenant terms, I perceive the kid's death as, in its manner, clearly touched by these elements,(37) confirming Tobin's otherwise enigmatic remark to the kid that "You'll see I'm right" (p. 126) that Glanton and Holden have a "terrible covenant." Only in the scene of the kid's death in Blood Meridian is such foreshadowing justified.(38)

As McCarthy couches his gunpowder-gift story as a Faust analog, he also subtly varies the pattern. He does not bring Holden and the kid together at Fort Griffin in Texas until twenty-eight years after the massacre.(39) Twenty-four years is the usual limit for a Devil-compact (Rudwin, p. 174).(40) Still, as McCarthy's choice of the year 1878 allows scenes in Fort Griffin (a final shipping depot at the end of the buffalo era), and his story can by virtue of this variation be found to signalize the historical closing of the Indian "menace" in Texas and the beginnings of barbed-wire fencing of range land into ranches, he may perhaps be forgiven this minor re-structuring of the legend.(41)

Although McCarthy's allusive expansion of Judge Holden links him to the Devil, emphasizing his ubiquity, his endlessly resurrected intellect, it is important to remember that, though Holden claims lie will dance a leader for eternity (p. 335), McCarthy does not present this analogy in the manner of an allegory. Holden is, rather, literally, "A man intoxicated" by his own intelligence, one who "believes his own thoughts are legal decisions" (Valery, "The Yalu," p. 373). McCarthy remains true to his historical sources for his novel and yet organizes the material, unwinding threads in its maze, into the world of historical romance. McCarthy makes a fine distinction in Holden between historical authenticity, a mortal Holden, and the wildness, the romance, the immortality, of the evil, which is continuously apparent in McCarthy's character. The novelist is, after all, the McCarthy who has references to historical people and situations -- Van Diemen's Land, Sloat, the Anasazi -- to involve in his story the world beyond its temporal and geographic limits. As the Aztecs fell to the Spaniards' guns, so, too, the buffalo, and hence the Native Americans, fell to the white hunters' guns. One senses a powerful universality in the novel. For McCarthy to deepen a sense of diabolical ubiquity in the magnificent yet monstrous Judge Holden could not be more appropriate.(42) [C] 1993 by John Emil Sepich (1) Selected historical material is presented in my article "|What kind of indians was them?: Some Historical Sources in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian." Thomas D. Young, Jr., includes good historical Glanton information in the thirty-page "Appendix C" of "Cormac McCarthy and the Geology of Being," Diss., Miami University (Ohio), 1990. (2) Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (New York: Random House, 1985), pp. 125-135. (3) In Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1937), the Devil "Scratch" declares to Daniel Webster, as the question of the Devil's standing in that story's case is considered, that he is as old in America as the earliest of adventurers (p. 39). (4) Even Samuel Chamberlain (My Confession [New York: Harper, 1956]), who knew the man "|Judge' Holden of Texas" on whom so much of McCarthy's character is based, was perplexed by his Holden, declaring that "Who or what he was no one knew" (p. 271). In Chamberlain is the only historical mention of Holden (pp. 271-297). (5) Carl Darden, Carol A. Hill, and Jim Moran, "Powder, Flint, and Balls," Foxfire 5, ed. Eliot Wigginton (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1979). (6) In A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (Cambridge: Heffer, 1960),J. R. Partington describes the use of urine when refining saltpetre for black powder (p. 319). The Judge's mixing of the three components wetted in urine does not match his process. Echoes of Ahab's bloody quenching of the harpoons, though, are present in the Judge's call for it. (7) Darden's contribution to Foxfire 5 also, in other parts, likens one aspect of a technique for refining saltpetre to the activity of yeast in "bread dough" (p. 247), and likens the state of ground charcoal for gunpowder to that of a "flourlike fineness" (p. 248). (8) One problem with McCarthy and Darden on gunpowder, though, arises out of the measures of the three ingredients for the powder. Darden writes of "seventy-five parts saltpeter finely ground, fifteen parts charcoal, and ten parts sulfur" (p. 246). Reducing these numbers by five, the resulting proportions are 15:3:2. Yet, McCarthy's amounts are "about eight pounds of pure crystal saltpetre," "about three pounds of fine alder charcoal" (p. 128), and "about two pounds" of "pure flowers of sulfur" (p. 131). His proportions are 8:3:2, or a mixture with about half the amount of saltpetre Darden recommends. (9) Darden describes a process for the refining of manure into saltpetre involving water and ashes (through which the leached liquid drains off), and of the drying of that liquid by evaporation in the sun (p. 247). This process resembles Holden's, but the Judge spent two days at his task and Darden's process takes ten months to "let it sit" before the liquid is ready to be drained off. (10) Frederick A. Ober, Travels in Mexico, and Life Among the Mexicans (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1885), p. 390. (11) Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521, trans. A. P. Maudsla (New York: Farrar, 1956), p. 327. (12) Diccionario Porrua: De Historia, Biografia y Geografia de Mexico. Reprint. 3rd ed., Mexico, 1971, p. 1389. (13) Hernan Cortes, Hernan Cortes Letters from Mexico, ed. and trans. Anthony Pagden (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 279, 325. This story is also told in Robert A. Wilson, Mexico and Its Religion; With Incidents of Travel in That Country During Parts of the Years 1851-52-53-54 (New York: Harper, 1855), p. 110. (14) D. Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, Cronica de la Nueva Espana (Madrid: The Hispanic Society of America, 1914), pp. 260-261. (15) William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru (New York: Modern Library), p. 285. Ober's sustained references to Prescott (pp. 315, 398, 476, etc.) may form the link between those histories and McCarthy's conflation of allusions in Blood Meridian's gunpowder scene. McCarthy's use of Ober's work is explored in my Notes on "Blood Meridian" (Louisville, Kentucky: Bellarmine College Press 1993). (16) In John T. Hughes's diary, Doniphan's Expedition: Containing an Account of the Conquest of New Mexico (Rpt.; New York: Arno, 1973), Captain Reid of the United States "Army of the West" during the Mexican War is said to have confounded the New Mexicans with his "Anglo-Saxon energy [which] knows no bounds" (pp. 63-64). (17) Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Fredson Bowers, vol. 2, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). Faust's traditional avocation is astrology.

The necessity to account for astrological items in Blood Meridian arises, for me, as the unavoidable result of an investigation into the simile McCarthy chooses in order to characterize Captain White's troop, filibustering south into Mexico, sleeping with "their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of planet Anareta" (p. 46). First, no astronomical object named "Anareta" exists. Then, citations in the Oxford English Dictionary (current through the late nineteenth century) of the word "Anareta" are not in any cases references to literary works. "Anareta," too, is not found in usual Science Fiction references, such as The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, The World Book Encyclopedia, The Encyc of Science Fiction, The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, The Science Fiction Reference Book, The Reader's Guide to Twentieth Century Science Fiction, Magill's Survey of Science Fiction, The Dictionary of Imaginary Place. Only in the OED's references to the word's presence in texts on genethlialogical astrology, the "charting of nativities," horoscopes based on birth times and planetary and star charts, does there appear a path toward explication.

A look at Fred Gettings' Dictionary of Astrology (London: Routledge, 1985) appears, unfortunately, rather than to clarify, further to complicate matters. He does not define "Anareta," but refers inquiries on it to his definitions of "Anaretic" and "Anaretic Places" (p. 12). Under "Anaretic" he notes that the term is "derived from the Greek, meaning |destroyer,' and [is] applied to the planet or degree which is for one reason or another regarded as the destroyer of life in a particular chart." Which planet is the Anaretic in a natal chart, he writes, is calculated by "complex" rules on the basis of the positions of the known planets and certain fixed stars at the moment of a person's birth. "Anaretic Places" are "the degrees in a horoscope figure" occupied by any of a number of planets. The astrologer's "problem," Gettings writes, "besides establishing the identity of the anaretic place, is one of "determining also not only how, but when, it will bring death."

Insurmountable in literal terms without recourse to a literary source-text, the reader's problem is to account for McCarthy's simile involving several people, the whole of the filibustering troop, as if on a planet which does not literally exist, vet which does exist for each person individually, and whose influence is shed in a particular fashion over each individual's life on earth. Only, I think, if the reader's emphasis on McCarthy's reference stresses the "pilgrim" aspect of the simile (an astrological Anareta included to symbolically foreshadow the devastation awaiting the filibuster), does the simile stand scrutiny. (18) Maximillian Rudwin. The Devil in Legend and Literature (Chicago: Open Court, 1931), p. 251. (19) David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), p. 82. (20) The desiccated woman the kid finds kneeling in the rocks above the scene of a massacre of Mexican penitentes (p. 315) bears, for me, a distinct resemblance to the Virgin Mary. The stars and "quartermoons" of her costume, in some distinction to the "halfmoons" of the novel's Gypsies' costumes (p. 89), resemble elements associated with Mary in Revelations 12:1, and in the painted depiction of Mary's appearance as the Mexican "Our Lady of Guadalupe." The "provenance" of the "stars and quartermoons" the old woman wears is said to be unknown to the kid. As the kid at this time carried a Bible with him, "not a word of which he could read" (p. 312), I find these pieces of the book interlocked.

In pre-Reformation Faust tales a last-minute plea to the Virgin for her intercession in the breaking of a Devil-compact is successful (Rudwin, pp. 178-179) With the rise of Protestant thought Mary's status, her power, is re-defined in such a way that her intercession is not available to overthrow such bonds. In Blood Meridian McCarthy underscores Divine unresponsiveness to human pleas (pp. 60, 146, 330). The absolute dryness of the old woman, and the massacre of devouts in the presence of her husk, then, may well relate to the historical withdrawal of Mexico from the profound influence of Catholicism. As well, her presence in the novel adds insight into the thoroughness, the complexity, of McCarthy's development of his Faust analog within the context of his historical setting. (21) McCarthy's enhancement of his character Judge Holden with images and allusions drawn from the Qabalistic Tarot and Masonic symbolism is explored in my essay "The Dance of History in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian," Southern Literary Journal, 24 (Fall 1991), 16-31, reprinted as a chapter in my Notes on "Blood Meridian." (22) In Luste (one of Valery's two Faust plays, with The Only One), a Student character remarks that, "It's all two clear that every cause is a lost cause, that defeat in the end is no more immaterial or less glorious than victory": Paul Valery, Luste, in Plays, trans. David Paul and Robert Fitzgerald, Vol. 3 of 15 of The Collected Valery (New York: Pantheon, 1960), p. 123. The Only One is contained in the same volume of The Collected Valery. (23) "Scratch" is Mephistopheles with a collecting box (Benet, pp. 25-26, 36), not far removed from Holden. (24) The Paul Valery sentences McCarthy quotes as front material to his novel are from Valery's essay "The Yalu," noted by him as having been "written during the first Sino-Japanese war," and are among the words spoken to a European Valery persona by a Chinese companion regarding differences perceived between Eastern and Western views of order and disorder. See Paul Valery, "The Yalu," in History and Politics, trans. Denise Folliot and Jackson Matthews, Vol. 10 of 15 of The Collected Valery (New York: Pantheon, 1956). A sense of the range of ideas included in the statement of the Eastern (Chinese) perception of the West, ideas which McCarthy explores in his novel, may be suggested in the following passages excerpted from the long paragraph ending in McCarthy's chosen introductory quotation: "In your land, power can do nothing. Your politics consists in changes of heart; it leads to general revolution, and then to reaction against revolution, which is another revolution." "For you, intelligence is not one thing among many. You neither prepare nor provide for it, nor protect nor repress nor direct it; you worship it as if it were an omnipotent beast. Every day it devours everything. It would like to put an end to a new state of society every evening. A man intoxicated on it believes his own thoughts are legal decisions." "You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time" (p. 373). (25) Patrick Cullen makes distinctions relevant to a fat Holden. See Patrick Cullen, Infernal Triad: The Flesh, the World, and the Devil in Spenser and Milton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. xxxii. On Holden's soul are the infernal triad of sins: succumbing to temptations of the Flesh, out of his corpulence (signifying intemperance, in analog to Falstaff in Henry V), and in his molesting and murder of innocent children (pp. 116-118, 164, 275). He also succumbs to temptations of the World, carrying a bag of gold coins into the desert after the massacre (p. 283, see also p. 125), and to temptations of the Devil, in his wild "suzerain" pride (p. 198), as he declares, indicating the earth as a whole, that "This is my claim." "In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation" (p. 199).

Too, Glanton "in all his pride" has been touched by the Devil's temptation (p. 148); Toadvine's emphasis on "country" (p. 285), and the gang's travel westward, in addition, have overtones of Worldly temptation (in contradistinction to Glanton, p. 263); and, the "dozen or more indian and Mexican girls, some little more than children" "detained" by the gang at the ferry crossing (p. 263), taken with the gang's generally drunken state, their hangovers making easier their massacre by the Yumas (p. 273), are temptations of the Flesh. (26) McCarthy's introductory Jacob Boehme quotation, taken from Boehme's Six Theosophic Points (Six Theosophic Points and Other Writings, trans. John Rolleston Earle [London: Constable, 1919], p. 92), occurs in a section of Boehme's exposition (Sixth point, section 13) which also includes references to the Devil Lucifer (p. 99) and the thought that "gentleness is the enmity of the wrath-power [Lucifer], and each is against the other" (pp. 94-95). An understanding of McCarthy's choice of a reference to such a text its Boehme's adds to the reader's insight regarding the Judge's murder of the kid following his accusation that the kid had shown the heathen "clemency."

The antithetical relationship this Boehme quotation describes is continued, as the kid's fundamental character is defined in astrological terms. His birth during the Leonids of 1833 would have been on about November 12. Consequently, the astrological sign under which he was born is Scorpio (October 23-November 21). Scorpio is ruled by the planet Mars, "a violent planet," and by Pluto, "the planet of secrecy." (See Christopher McIntosh, "Scorpio," in The World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 17 [Chicago: World Book, 19841). Leo, the constellation from which the night's meteors appeared to descend, is ruled by the sun and has among its characteristics generosity and kindness. (See McIntosh, "Leo," in The World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 12 [Chicago: World Book, 1984]).

Admittedly sketchy (though, since the exact minute of the kid's birth is not identifiable, detailed presentations risk over-reaching), I think McCarthy's choice of a date for the kid's birth, as an astrologically appropriate time, can nevertheless be assessed based on these items. Born under the influence of violent Mars, McCarthy's kid has a "taste for mindless violence" (p. 3). "Secrets," also a part of the kid's astrological make-up under Scorpio, are made specific to the kid's heart, that part of the anatomy in Leo's provenance (See C. W. Roback, The Mysteries of Astrology, and the Wonders of Magic: [etc.] [Boston: C. W. Roback, 1854], p. 82), Holden's charge that the kid had "a flawed place in the fabric of [his] heart" (p. 299), even given the novelist's refusal to provide scenes to that effect, out of McCarthy's having set that birth in a mid-November during which a Leonid shower provides "generous" and "kind" characteristics. Leo, as a sun sign, also, may be taken as a contrast to the "lunar dome" of Holden's skull (p. 335; see also Edwin T. Arnold, "Naming, Knowing and Nothingness in McCarthy's Moral Parables," Southern Quarterly, 30 [Summer 1992], 44-46, for his discussion of the kid in Blood Meridian as uncommitted). (27) See Lucie Pfaff, The Devil in Thomas Mann's "Doktor Faustus" and Paul Valery's "Mon Faust" (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1975), p. 21; see also Valery, Luste, p. 23. (26) Heinrich Heine casts his "Doktor Faust" as a "Dance Poem" (Doktor Faust: A Dance Poem, ed. and trans. Basil Ashmore [London: Peter Nevill, 1952]). (29) There is a minor chord in music called "the Devil's chord." Also, the violinist Paganini was rumored to have derived his great skill through a pact with the Devil, as was the fine blues guitarist Robert Johnson, in Mississippi in the 1930s. (30) You can make out of events whatever you like in words, embroider them as you fancy. All the motives are fabricated . . . out of purest gossamer" (Valery, Luste, pp. 123-124). (31) For lack of such a neutral witness Black John Jackson's murder of Owens goes unpunished (p. 237). (32) Late in the book, and just before Holden kills the kid, the Judge says to him, "This night thy soul may be required of thee" (p. 327). Holden's words are a slight revision of the Biblical verse: "But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall these things be, which thou hast provided?" (Luke 12:20). Holden's "may" distinguishes his phrase from God's omniscient "shall." The prescience McCarthy has granted Holden regarding Tate's and Shelby's fates (p. 331) is continued in this phrase, a depth of understanding perhaps related to the Biblical thought that "there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light: and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops" (Luke 12:2-3). This thought appears to inform Holden's "so shall it be made known to the least of men" p. 307). (33) When Holden refers to the kid as "Young Blasarius" (p. 94) his words may be taken as both remembering the kid's participation in the burning of the hotel at Nacogdoches in the book's first chapter, the kid "an incendiary" (see "Blasarius" and "Incendiary" in Henry Campbell Black, Black's Law Dictionary, rev. 4th ed. [St. Paul, Minnesota: West, 19681), and as foreshadowing Holden's later charges that the kid had withheld himself from full commitment with the gang (p. 307, see also p. 173), the kid one who "excites factions, quarrels, or sedition" ("Incendiary," Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary [Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 1986]). McCarthy's choice of this "Blasarius" reference, I believe, also strengthens a reading of the novel in which the gang is associated with fire, an association perhaps linking them to the fires of the Christian Hell. The kid was born in "the year it rained fire," 1833, marked by the great Leonid shower in November (George F. Ruxton, Life in the Far West [rpt.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951], p. 8). The kid, in such a reading, as he joins Toadvine in the burning of the hotel, merits Holden's notice as he rides out of town (p. 14). This early, positive, association of the kid with fire may well exist as the basis for the Judge's remark to the kid that "Our animosities were formed and waiting before ever we two met. Yet even so you could have changed it all" (p. 307). (34) In Blood Meridian is a chapter sub-heading in German: "Sie mussen schlafen aber Ich muss tanzen" (p. 316). A translation would be: "You [singular, formal] must sleep [cf. "death"] but I have to dance." The sentence is appropriate to the scene with which it is positionally associated, relating to the final scene of the novel, the dancing of the Judge after the death of the kid. McCarthy's sentence is a revision of a line from the nineteenth-century poem "Hyazinthen" by Theodor Storm (in German Poetry from 1750 to 1900, ed. Robert M. Browning, trans. Herman Salinzer [New York: Continuum, 1984]), which, in the original, reads as "Ich mochte schlafen, aber du muss tanzen" (pp. 244-247). Storm's poem stands as a basic allusion both by its pattern and by direct quotation in Thomas Mann's Tonio Kroger (in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter [rpt.; New York: Vintage, 1936], pp. 88, 130). In both the poem and the novella (p. 132) the speakers hear music at a distance but find themselves unable to join with the dancers. McCarthy's inversion of Storm's line presumably links his understanding of Holden's sentiment on the subject of "the dance" with the Hans Hansen character of Mann's story, who can and does dance, rather than with the bourgeois Tonio Kroger, who is an artist-outsider literally looking through a window at life's dance in the novella (pp. 126-132). Blood Meridian's murderous "dances" with attacking Indians are linked to this novella's theme of the nondancing outsider in that the Judge, who can dance, overwhelms the kid whom he says has reservations about these bloody dances of war with the Indians. (35) Holden does in fact reveal that, but for his intervention, Glanton would have killed the kid much earlier for some unspecified act (p. 307). (36) When McCarthy includes in Blood Meridian the French sentence "Et de ceo se mettent en le pays" (p. 74) he takes a traditional phrase in the language of Law French to stand as chapter sub-heading for the scene of Glanton's gang's departure from Chihuahua: "And of this they put themselves upon country" (Black, p. 653). This literal translation, though accounting for the scene of departure generally, can nevertheless be expanded upon by viewing Black's explanation of a similar phrase. The entry alphabetically following the sentence cited above is the Latin "Et de hoc ponit se super patriam," translated "And of this he puts himself upon the country." This second sentence, similar to the first but for its singular rather than plural construction, is accompanied by the information that it is "The formal conclusion of a common-law plea in bar by way of traverse," and that further information is available in Blackstone's Commentaries (William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England [Oxford:

Clarendon, 1768; facsimile rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979], III, 313). The literal sense of the French can be somewhat expanded when the reader understands that by putting oneself "Upon the country" one is "thereby submitting . . . to the judgment of his peers" by the facing of a jury (Blackstone, III, 313; see also "Country" and "Pais" in Black, and Blackstone, IV [1769); rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979], 345-346). Of further assistance, I think, towards a more complete reading of McCarthy's choice of this sentence is Black's note on "Pleas of Traverse" that such a plea does not involve a denial of guilt or a declaration of innocence but rather "crosses over" or "traverses" such questions with a denial of a "material fact" in the allegations made against the defendant (pp. 1671-1672).

For Blood Meridian's scene, then, if these several bits of information are included, McCarthy's chapter sub-heading not only notes the gang travelling into a literal "country," but also contains a reference to the gang's three new recruits, Toadvine, Grannyrat, and the kid, as having misrepresented their credentials to Glanton, when attempting to find a release from the prison in Chihuahua City. When Toadvine says, "dont let on like you aint no seasoned indiankiller cause I claimed we was three of the best" (p. 79) he traverses the "material facts" of things, while also showing his willingness to let the jury of experience, "in the country," prove or prove false their claims to Glanton's satisfaction. This understanding of this moment in the novel is not inconsistent with the balance of the novel, and does in fact strengthen the Judge's challenge to the kid in the book's final chapter that he had not lived up to some (otherwise unstated) responsibility to the gang. Toadvine represents to Grannyrat and the kid that he had said to Glanton that each of the three was a "guaranteed hand" (p. 79), a guarantee the non-performance of which cost Grannyrat his life early in the book (pp. 104-105, 112), and, apparently, the kid at its end. A somewhat formal link, given the legal phrasing in the appropriate sub-heading, had apparently been established between Glanton and the three men before they left with his gang on the book's first scalping expedition from Chihuahua City. (37) Roback's nineteenth-century book on astrology and magic contains a Faust tale (pp. 155-159) which depicts a particularly gruesome end for Faust: "the hall sprinkled with blood, the brains cleaving to the wall, for the devil had beaten him from one wall against another; in one corner lay his eyes, in another his teeth . . . ." In the yard "they found his body lying on the horse-dung, most monstrously torn, and fearful to behold, for his head and all his joints were dashed to pieces" (pp. 158-159). "O help us heaven, see, here are Faustus limbs,/All torne asunder by the hand of death" say Marlowe's characters, on finding his Faust (lines 1988-1989). "Such was the end which it was believed awaited the magicians who entered into a direct compact with the evil one" (Roback, p. 159). And "such" might well have been the kid's end, I believe, in this novel of "guaranteed" performance (p. 79) and "terrible" covenants (p. 126; see also Marlowe, lines 163-170, 239-241, 551.0.4-551.0.6, 584, 599). Heine's "Doktor Faust" concludes with Faust in the "wild embraces" of "hellish monsters," a gesture perhaps related to the Judge. who "rose up smiling and gathered [the kid] in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh" at the jakes, leading to the kid's death (p. 333). (38) In sum, McCarthy provides at least ten "signals" in Blood Meridian to suggest that Holden kills the kid as the result of something aside from the mad caprice of the Tarot card The Fool. As it presented in my "Dance of History" article, McCarthy's historical source for both his Holden character and for a kid character analog, Chamberlain's My Confession, displays a murderous tension between the men. McCarthy's association of the kid with the Four of Cups Tarot card, a card perceived to represent a dissatisfaction or an ambivalence, and which is explored in "Dance," as well, supports Holden's charge that the kid had withheld himself in part from the gang. Other markers also point to a division in the kid's make-up. McCarthy's designation of the kid's family as unsuccessful deceivers, "hewers of wood and drawers of water" (p. 7), is such a clue (Deuteronomy 29:11, Joshua 9:23). The "Young Blasarius" name Holden calls the kid has elements of factionalism associated with it, and can identify a probable rift between them. In astrological terms, the kid's birth during the Leonids of 1833 identifies a basically violent kid, vet with some inherent kindness.

Leo, which contributes the generous and kind elements to the kid's character, is a Sun sign, and as McCarthy identifies Holden's skull as a "lunar dome," still another "signal" of the novel's distinctions between the kid and the Judge becomes apparent. The novel's sentences quoted from Jacob Boehme mark a distinction between wrath and gentleness which is, again, a relevant "signal." McCarthy's use of Valery marks Holden's intellect as signalling a self-assurance I believe not necessarily defined only as madness, and so identifies a pride in Holden's character which may have contributed to the kid's death. Since McCarthy includes the revised line from Mann's Tonio Kroger, the kid is identified as an "outsider," an observer, lacking full commitment. And, finally, of what has yet been uncovered of Holden's relationship to the kid, Blood Meridian's analogs to Faust legends give an appropriateness to the kid's death, in Christian tradition and in law, as the completion of Glanton's "terrible covenant," lending a sense of closure to the book. (39) Too, as a mythological griffin has a lion's body, Fort Griffin may well be the kid's astrologic appropriate "Anaretic Place" out o his birth's association with a Leonid meteor shower. (40) See also Dorothy L. Sayers, The Devil to Pay: Being the Famous History of John Faustus the Conjurer of Wittenberg in Germany; how he sold his immortal soul to the Enemy of Mankind, and was served XXIV years by Mephistopheles, and obtained Helen of Troy to his paramour, with many other marvels; and how God dealt with him at last (London: Victor Gollancz, 1939), pp. 62, 95, etc. (41) The book's Epilogue, as I understand it, is on the literal level a description of the digging of post holes using a throw-down style of tool (p. 337) as a step toward the fencing of open range. The advance of such work is incremental. McCarthy characterizes the pause of a worker at a hole and his walk to the next spot in the metaphor of clockwork mechanisms, as "monitored with escapement and pallet." In the world of the analog clock face, the turn of the sweep hand shows these advances and pauses, and the hand's motion is circular and endless, much as are McCarthy's eternal cycles of dancers. In its allusive language this paragraph of Epilogue also contains reference to the novel's destructive dances of conflict and overthrow in McCarthy's choice of a rocky strata to underlie the dirt in which the post hole is cut. His phrase "fire in the hole," a literal result of contact between steel tool jaws and rock, is a call of warning (akin to the cry of "Timber" in logging) in the language of construction. In addition, "fire in the hole" is also a call warning of loose live hand grenades. With these words McCarthy links his literal description of post-hole digging to war's demolitions.

Leo Daugherty comments interestingly on Blood Meridian's Epilogue, and on the book's "planet Anareta" reference: Leo Daugherty, "Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy," Southern Quarterly, 30 (Summer 1992), 122-133. (42) I would like to thank Jerry Leath Mills, Sigrid Bergson, George B. Daniel, Alejandra Garcia Quintanilla del Reyes, Terry G. Harn, Kevin Hutt, Edward Montgomery, Clint Shaffer, William Wallace, Charles Waldrup, Mark Weinburd, Joseph Wittig, for their conversations with me regarding many elements of this article.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sepich, John Emil
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Previous Article:The invisible I: John Crowe Ransom's shadowy speaker.
Next Article:Fervor on Chapel Hill.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters