Cormac McCarthy’s Unbaptized Masterpiece – Christ and Pop Tradition

Warning: This article references scenes of extreme violence that some readers may find distressing. 

The late Cormac McCarthy’s magnum opus, Blood Meridian, presents a stark challenge to Christians convinced that redemptive elements are necessary to a great work of art. In McCarthy’s novel, violence occupies a place of ontological priority. Blood Meridian also confronts us with one of the most frightening figures in literature, Judge Holden—a malevolent being who displays all the vitality of a god. The ultimate triumph of this monster by the story’s end confirms that this is a world in which goodness is the anomaly—not evil. 

Redemptive Efforts

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a supreme artistic achievement that is resolutely pagan.

If “evil be thou my good” is the precept of Milton’s Satan, it would seem that McCarthy has crafted a world that perfectly embodies this infernal aim. But as we shall see, Satan doesn’t really fit into the world of Blood Meridian. In fact, it is a story almost entirely at odds with the Christian vision of reality. So how do we as Christian readers respond to such a defiant masterpiece?

Conversion is central to Christianity, and the impulse to carry it into all facets of life runs deep. In the cultural arena, two metaphors serve to capture this endeavor—namely, baptism and plundering. Confronted by the Christian vision at the heart of George McDonald’s Phantastes, C.S. Lewis described the event as nothing less than a baptism of his imagination.

He is far from alone. Many formerly hostile critics of the church have changed their tune when a deeply Christian vision is part of the natural outworking of a supreme artistic achievement. Voices from the past like George Herbert and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and contemporary voices like Frederick Buechner and Marilynne Robinson, continue this sacred tradition.    

The second metaphor is decidedly less hospitable. The plundering in question finds its source in Exodus 3:21-22 and 12:35-36. Though these scenes involve a literal plundering of Egyptian treasures on the part of the ancient Israelites, a number of church fathers, including Origen and Augustine of Hippo, found in this event a paradigm example of how Christians glean insights from the wider world. In the words of Herman Bavinck, “It behooves the Christians to enrich their temple with the vessels of the Egyptians and to adorn the crown of Christ, their king, with the pearls brought up from the sea of paganism.” Theologically adroit voices continue to champion this reading today. 

Wrenched from its native context, however, the phrase has an undeniably mercenary ring to it. The word plunder sits uncomfortably close to pillage, and both call to mind scenes of war and destruction. It does make a certain kind of sense if we think of Paul quoting from pagan poets in Acts 17, or if we hear a pastor reference Game of Thrones in a sermon. It sounds downright bizarre, however, when we apply it to everyday affairs. Would we describe a trip to a non-Christian dentist as “plundering the Egyptians”? While learning from those outside the church is a salutary and necessary pursuit, plundering their treasures falls well short of honoring them as neighbors. 

On the other hand, notice that the baptism metaphor only works when it’s applied to a genuinely Christian work of art. To be clear, I believe there are works of art that offer a Christian vision in spite of their author’s own convictions. One such example would be Albert Camus’ The Plague, which makes the case that an authentic human life is characterized by self-sacrifice. An avowed atheist, Camus’ moral insights transcended his philosophical outlook. 

But what do we do when we encounter a consummate artist whose work is thoroughly pagan? Phantastes may have baptized Lewis’s imagination, but most would agree that any attempt on the part of Christians to “baptize” something like Ovid’s Metamorphoses would be anachronistic at best, downright dishonest at worst. Here’s where a phrase like “redeem the culture” takes on an ominous tone. The effort to Christianize firmly non-Christian works is tantamount to assimilation—not baptism. 

Though few would seek to “redeem” Ovid by imposing a Gospel spin on his work, the temptation is greater when we encounter a contemporary artist of major stature. In this sense, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a supreme artistic achievement that is resolutely pagan. The temptation to “convert” it is directly proportional to its sublime artistic status.

Uncanny Violence

When it comes to the central characters in the story, it’s not so much that they’re absorbed by their preternatural landscape as that they’re of a general piece with its hostile nature

Unfolding on the Texas-Mexico borderlands of 1849-50, the story follows the exploits of a gang of scalphunters pursuing a campaign of unremitting mayhem and slaughter. In this war-torn region, scalps came to be seen as a kind of bloody insurance policy against attacks from certain native American tribes. Naturally, this trade attracted not only soldiers and members of law enforcement, but also ruthless criminals who had found a way to make bloodshed as profitable as it was legal.

Each member of Blood Meridian’s gang is based on a historical figure, and though their expedition’s savage bloodshed may seem excessive, all of it is taken from firsthand accounts. Before we read McCarthy’s first sentence, one of his epigraphs has already warned us of the centrality of violence to humanity. It’s an excerpt from the June 1982 edition of the Yuma Daily Sun, relaying the findings of two paleoanthropologists doing field work in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. Their findings include a 300,000 year-old skull that appears to have been scalped. The events in Blood Meridian are part of a grim, timeless tradition.   

Yet to call Blood Meridian historical fiction would be a stretch. For that matter, calling it a Western also doesn’t seem quite right. First, there is McCarthy’s phantasmagorical depiction of nature, which verges on cosmic horror in its alien majesty. Here is the “sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning.” And there, “sheetlightening quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.” (That last sentence calls to mind H.P. Lovecraft’s portentous phrase “non-Euclidean geometry.”) 

In this frightful wasteland, “hail leapt in the sand like small lucent eggs concocted alchemically out of the desert darkness,” and a hungry vampire bat flits out of that blackness to reveal a “wrinkled pug face, small and vicious, bare lips crimped in a horrible smile and teeth pale blue in the starlight.” 

When it comes to the central characters in the story, it’s not so much that they’re absorbed by their preternatural landscape as that they’re of a general piece with its hostile nature: “Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.”   

Broadly speaking, extreme violence can do one of two things; it can turn either cartoonish or uncanny. The violence in Blood Meridian is uncanny. We come across sentences like these: “The way narrowed through rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies.” The stunning nonchalance of McCarthy’s prose here only serves to underscore the atrocity at its center. 

And then this appalling description: “These small victims, seven, eight of them, had holes punched in their underjaws and were hung by their throats from the broken stobs of a mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky. Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being.” The horrifying perversity of these details is directly proportional to their severity. 

In McCarthy’s hands, the ample bloodshed frequently soars to titanic heights. Blood Meridian is filled with massacres that produce both shock and exhilaration in equal measure because of their virtuosic displays of stylized brutality. We are scandalized with bloodshed that is as appalling as it is gorgeous.  

Evil Triumphant

Whatever McCarthy’s own convictions, the gnosticism on display in his story represents a near perfect aesthetic match for the unbridled hostility of its world.

At the heart of this supremely dark novel is Judge Holden. An albino who stands at seven feet tall, weighs in at over 300 pounds, and has not one hair on his body, he has the look of “an enormous baby.” He is fluent in multiple languages, possesses a near-encyclopedic knowledge of every known subject, and is unsurpassed in his skills as a fiddle player and a dancer. His gun bears the name Et in Arcadia Ego, which translates to, “Even in Arcadia, there am I.” The “I” in question is death and the saying was a trope in the Renaissance, showing up everywhere from tombs to paintings, the indelible image being the rude intrusion of a skull on a pastoral scene.

Along with being a prolific murderer, Judge Holden is also a child killer and a sadist. By the novel’s end, it’s clear that he’s not human, having not aged in the span of 28 years. Most disturbingly, his supreme wickedness remains undefeated and indeed seems undefeatable. Blood Meridian ends with the perversely orchestrated murder of one of the judge’s former scalphunting gang members in an outhouse. Having dispatched his former colleague, Judge Holden proceeds to stomp out a raucous victory dance in a saloon: “He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” There is some ambiguity in the book’s final lines, since they appear to come from the silver-tongued judge himself, but all the evidence in the story is in his favor. 

A prodigy of unrivaled power and malice, what exactly is Judge Holden? It may be tempting to identify him with Satan, but his power clearly exceeds that of the devil. In Christianity, goodness is primary and the heart of reality is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Humanity occupies a place “a little lower than the angels” in God’s good world, and the enmity between God and Satan involves no competition worthy of the name.

Goodness is not primary in Judge Holden’s world, however. In Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s ragged band of pilgrims make their way across the wastes of the planet Anareta—a land of carnage in the grip of the malefics. McCarthy opens the novel with the birth of his protagonist, the kid, on the day of a famous meteor shower of 1833: “Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall.” As the novel progresses, it’s clear that this event plays a definitive role in the kid’s fate. The occult elements in Blood Meridian are not mere set pieces or atmospheric touches; they are central to the story. 

How do we make sense of the judge and the hostile world he’s determined to dominate? One of the more incisive treatments of McCarthy’s book comes from critic Leo Daugherty, who argued that Blood Meridian is in fact a gnostic vision, and that Judge Holden, for all his faustian deportment, is not a satanic figure, but is instead an archon—a fallen deity (aeon) seeking to rule the lower realm. 

Blood Meridian thus offers up a dualistic picture of reality wherein good and evil are at best coeval. 

Daughtery puts it well: “So, whereas most thoughtful people have looked at the world they lived in and asked, How did evil get into it?, the Gnostics looked at the world and asked, How did good get into it?” Darkness has the upper hand on Anareta-Earth in Blood Meridian, and the judge is making substantial progress toward being its ignominious ruler. Precious little light gets into McCarthy’s story. 

Whatever McCarthy’s own convictions, the gnosticism on display in his story represents a near perfect aesthetic match for the unbridled hostility of its world. In this sense, the apparent triumph of evil at the end honors the integrity of the narrative. 

How do Christians respond to a masterpiece so profoundly at odds with the Gospel? May I suggest that we begin by refusing to indulge the cultural omnivorousness so characteristic of our moment? Blood Meridian can’t be baptized; it cannot be Christianized. Does it have profound insights for those of us who follow Christ? Yes, but only if we have the honesty to recognize it as an exquisite outsider. We do a true pagan no honor by attempting to dress them in Christian garb, and in the end the only ones who are fooled by such an endeavor are us.