The Question of Blood Meridian

February 10, 2011

(This is something I wrote at the beginning of the semester explaining why I chose Blood Meridian for my senior novel project.)

In spring of junior year, I took two classes focusing on specific novelists: one on Herman Melville and one on William Faulkner. By the end of the semester, I knew that I would have loved to do Moby-Dick or The Sound and the Fury for Senior Novel, but, of course, having already studied those novels, it would have been almost cheating to do so. Instead, I began considering what aspects of these novels appealed to me, eventually settling on three characteristics which I would insist be present in any other novel I might consider:

  1. An eccentric prose style. I wanted prose that overflowed with a “meaning” which could not quite be grasped (e.g. Melville’s Biblical cadences or Faulkner’s page-long sentences).
  2. Complex structural properties. I wanted a disorderly novel that could not be fully understood, but which could be placed in some order through quantifiable schemata (e.g. the nine gams, three mates, and five-act structure, or the parallels with the Passion week).
  3. The philosophical located above the social. I wanted a novel that had the power to bring the reader himself into (and, perhaps, out of) a spiritual crisis, and which would consider the social only in terms of that crisis (e.g. Melville’s Ishmael, Faulkner’s Quentin).

Given these requirements, several candidates came to mind. I first considered James Joyce’s Dubliners, which had the experimental style, the progression through various points of view, and the cityscape as soulscape. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, too, had a style much like Melville’s, a 24-chapter epic structure, and an exploration of American religion through one man’s sin. But I ultimately turned against both, for much the same reason, I think: they were too tame. Both were stylistically excellent, but not stylistically violent; both had interesting structures, but neither seemed complex, needing to be sorted out; both seemed focused on the political, even if they did have spiritual aspects. The deciding factor, though, was that both stayed too much “in the drawing room,” one might say, finding their life mainly in conversations, avoiding the harsh physicality of Melville and Faulkner’s worlds.

I eventually read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and immediately knew I had found my novel. Its style is a mix of the Faulknerian and the Biblical. Its structure, a failed epic, with 23 chapters and a bizarre one-page epilogue, and consciously Melvillean, explicitly paralleling Moby-Dick. Its content, apocalyptic, a world of violence and despair seen through the eyes of one man—the kid—who stands for all of us, with a secondary focus on the specifically American sin of the rape of the West under the banner of Manifest Destiny. One might say I fell in love with McCarthy because he is to the West what Faulkner was to the South or Melville to the Northeast—if “love” is the right word. I find it strange to love Blood Meridian, for I am not sure it is a novel anyone should really enjoy. Perhaps this is the true reason I have chosen it—that in a way, I hate it, or, rather I hate its violence, and cannot explain it, but neither can I dismiss it. I think about it constantly, two aspects in particular:

  1. Judge Holden: Is he Death incarnate? Why is he a scientist? Is rational inquiry an inherently destructive act, an act of war upon the world, ultimately unjustifiable? And if McCarthy believes this, what does he see as the role of reason in human life?
  2. The man digging holes: Is he the artist? Why does he appear so briefly and vatically? If rational inquiry is unethical, is art a valid alternative? And how can this be the message of Blood Meridian when the novel itself is so grotesque, so senselessly violent, as to make the very act of writing it seem a perversity?

Movie Review: Inception

August 26, 2010

In 16 words: Inception is a good movie slightly worsened by its belief that it is a great movie.

It could have been a great movie. It is certainly a good movie. Well constructed, interesting premise, a good puzzle-box. It could have been a great movie, if it had used its material wisely; but that would have required wanting to communicate something beyond befuddlement. I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m not really going to talk about the plot of the movie, but only about a few of the characters and some general themes. Thus, the rest of this post shouldn’t have any spoilers in it.

The movie has two themes. The first it did a good job with, but did not emphasize nearly enough. The second, it reduced one understanding of the issue to a thirty-second monologue, and showed the other through a twist in the final scene that was  simultaneously predictable, frustrating, and meaningless. These two themes (and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say this) are, (1) the nature of “inception,” i.e. “inspiration, and art’s role in it, and (2) the impossibility of knowing for sure whether this world is the “real” one.

The first of these themes is meta-artistic. Basically, the movie views art as sub-creation, and explores how powerful it is, how an imaginary world can be created, and how that world can impart an idea without the audience consciously realizing it. I found this aspect of the movie quite interesting, but underdeveloped. It really only shows up in the first half, and is then dropped in favor of the second theme, when they ought to have run concurrently throughout.

The basic premise of the movie is, shared dreaming is possible, and a certain class of criminal is often hired by evil corporations to go into rivals’ dreams and steal their ideas; oneiric corporate espionage. The main character, one of these thieves, is hired for a special job – not to steal an idea, but to plant one. To do so, he assembles a team of such dream-thieves, who have positions with names like “forger,” “chemist,” and “architect.” The architect is the one who actually creates the dream-world, and she must dream it in precise detail, enough to trick the target into thinking it is real, and must tailor it to fit the intended dream-scenario that will allow the implantation of the idea.

I say “she” because the main character, while he used to be a amazing architect, can no longer build, and must hire someone who has never been an architect before, never done anything illegal before, but has the potential to be a brilliant dream-builder. He selects a young female student for the task, and this woman becomes basically the embodiment of this meta-artistic theme. She is the brilliant young artist who is slightly wary of what her mentor intends to do, who is unsure of the morality of her artistic endeavor, who is unsure of the sanity of her mentor, but who is entranced by it, and must make art; art becomes her life.

On the other end of the spectrum is the main character’s wife, who was once a dream-weaver just like the young student, but who lost herself in the dreams and ended up dead. (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoilers.) This gives us an interesting set of characters to explore: the two female characters, representing art’s possibilities and its dangers, bracketing the main character, who was also once an artist, but who is simultaneously afraid to be a true artist and willing to use his art to lie, cheat, and steal in order to support himself. So far, so good.

But – in the second half of the movie, the meta-dramatic theme goes away, and the movie shifts to being about whether or not there is an objective reality. This, I think, was a mistake. The two themes are related, in that the ability to lose oneself  in a fictional world and believe it more important than the real world is indeed one of the dangers of art. But the movie did a quite poor job of integrating them. It allowed the epistemological uncertainty to dominate, and ignored the ethical uncertainty – and by doing so, it made itself unable to say anything substantial.

The problem is, the question “how can we tell a fake world from the real world?” has, when it comes down to it, only one answer: we can’t. There’s no way to be sure. And because it has only one, simple answer, it’s not that interesting a question. The more interesting question, which the movie almost asked, was, what makes the real world more real than an imagined world? What ethical obligations do we have to the worlds we imagine? And are those obligations in conflict with our ethical obligations in the real world? This should have been the theme of the movie. But it wasn’t, and it suffered for it – not only thematically, but personally.

The thing is, Christopher Nolan doesn’t do realism. He’s like Melville in this; his movies have one or two characters struggling with some Idea, a few more characters who can represent aspects of that idea, and the rest of the characters are one-dimensional, there just to fill in the plot holes. (Think about it: this applies to Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight… basically every Nolan film I’ve seen.) But Inception has no clear plan for the Idea he wants to work with, and so his characters fail as incarnations of ideas. This forces us to notice how really unrealistic so many of his characters are, and how the movie is really just an excuse to construct an elaborate plot involving multiple levels of dream, and we start to realize that there’s no greatness here, only cleverness…

And so we are left in the end, saying that Inception is just a clever movie, when if it had tackled its themes better it could have been great. If it had been content with being just clever, it might not have been that much better as a movie, and would have been thematically less interesting (so I probably wouldn’t be talking about it here), but it would certainly have been less… awkwardly constructed.

Curtains, Pasteboard Masks

May 16, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ahab’s “pasteboard masks.” In chapter 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” Ahab describes to Starbuck why he must kill the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.”

(Moby-Dick 140, Norton Critical Edition)

The physical world is a pasteboard mask put up over the spiritual world, the world of meaning, and what tortures Ahab is that he cannot know what is in that world, because all his knowledge comes from this one. It’s a question of epistemology, really. It’s like Saussure’s “sign=signifier/signified” equation – Ahab continually senses the signifier, the physical world, slipping over and covering up the signified, the spiritual dimension of reality, leaving him unable to perceive it directly.

And Ahab’s solution is to punch through – to find what lies beyond. But what really fascinates me about this is that finding out what lies beyond is the same thing as fixing what lies beyond. The relationship between signifier and signified is, after all, arbitrary, and forever shifting. I like to think of it (and I believe I read I came across this metaphor in Derrida, but I can’t find a quotation; in any case, Derrida certainly talks constantly about slipping and covering over) as a piece of paper lying on top of a desk. The paper is the physical world and the desk the spiritual. At one moment, a given point on the page may be over a given point on the desk, but trying to actually look at that part of the desk will require moving the piece of paper, at which point the two points are no longer lined up; that point on the page is now over a different point on the desk. There is no fixed relationship between the two. Ahab doesn’t just want to see what lies beyond, then, for what lies beyond is always changing. He want to find a way to fix what lies beyond in place – even if he fixes it at nothingness. He would rather have nothing than not know what he has.

And this lines up nicely with the constant mention of Ahab as self-crucified. Because the image of crucifixion, specifically of using nails to pierce the victim’s hands and feet, involves both striking through the physical body, that is, the pasteboard mask, and fixing the physical body in place using the very holes struck through it. In crucifying himself, Ahab attempts to transcend his physical body and to fix his own meaning (a rather gnostic quest, it seems to me). But in doing so he is destroyed.

So I’ve been thinking along these lines for the last several weeks, and wondering how it applies to the Christian understanding of Christ. Is Ahab, the exemplar protagonist-villain-as-anti-Christ in literature, actually like Christ in the nature of his crucifixion? Does that nailing involve a similar fixing of signifier to signified? Is the crucifixion like God taking a hammer and nail and pound his son into the physical world and out the other side, fixing it to – what, himself?

I wasn’t really sure how orthodox this explanation of the image of crucifixion was, but then in one of the readings for Mass today, I came across this:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, ‘ by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, ‘ and since we have a great priest over the house of God, ‘ let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

(Hebrews 10:19-22, RSV)

That was good timing, I think. In this passage, St. Paul says that Christ has through his death and resurrection opened up a path through his flesh – the curtain, the pasteboard mask – which we must follow if we are to enter the sanctuary – the area of fixed meaning.

So that’s interesting. But this all leaves me slightly confused; because if God needed to nail signifier and signified together through the crucifixion in order to fix meaning, doesn’t that mean the Crucifixion (and the Incarnation as well – but, in this understanding, they seem roughly equivalent, since God entering the world is the same as God nailing through it) was necessary from the beginning of creation? In what sense, then, was it caused by the Fall?

I have three thoughts on the matter. The first, is that the Fall can be considered akin to the first sliding of the piece of paper across the table. Before it, the world was perfect, but fragile; aligned correctly, but unfixed. After it, God “realized” that he needed to nail it down. It doesn’t fit, of course, to say that God “realized” it; but the basic idea is that Creation occurred in two steps, the first, the laying down of the piece of paper, the second, the nailing in. And the nailing in occurred immediately after the laying down, but because the nail was placed in time, we perceive it as occurring billions of years after the creation of the universe.

My second thought is that I need to re-read what Gerard Manley Hopkins had to say about the matter. Because, as I recall, he talked a lot about the connection between creation and the Incarnation, and his idea of “instress” and “inscape” seems somehow related to all of this, though I’m not quite sure how, honestly. I don’t have an amazing conceptual grasp of GMH’s theology, though what I know of it, I find quite fascinating.

My third thought is that perhaps the reason the image doesn’t really fit with the gap between Creation and Fall – and in fact seems to imply that they were the same thing (which sounds like heresy) – is that any imagistic way of understanding theology is inherently flawed, and only useful in a limited context. This may well be the case. But then again, it may not.

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!”

Homelesness and Uprootedness

May 8, 2010

Unsurprisingly, given that this semester I’m taking one course about the works of Herman Melville and another about those of William Faulkner, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about “America” as a culture distinct from that of Europe. America’s relationship to its cultural heritage is, to put it nicely, ambiguous. Now, I don’t have a grand theory of America to propound here, but I do have two concepts that I think are important to understanding how America understands itself.

First, I want to discuss “transcendental homelessness,” a term Georg Lukacs invents in his Theory of the Novel and defines as “the urge to be at home everywhere.” My professor used this term often to describe Melville, and I think it applies well to America as a whole (incidentally, Melville seems to me in many ways the quintessential American author). Americans are transcendentally homeless, because they want everywhere to be like America. Compare this to the concept of “American exceptionalism” that we hear so much about. “Exceptionalism” means that America believes it is somehow special, the culmination of history, but I think it is more the case that America has a hard time coming to terms with itself as a specific place in a specific time, preferring to see itself as an incarnation of a universal ideal to which all other countries ought to aspire. I am reminded of Melville’s constant references to Anacharsis Cloots, a participant in the French Revolution who said that the Revolution had to apply not only to France, but to all the world.

The other concept I want to apply to America is “uprootedness.” I mean for this to stand in opposition to the idea of “rootlessness” that sees America as a complete tabula rasa, placing man anew in the state of nature (credit to Therese of Inklings, who talked about this earlier this week). If “rootlessness” means America is cut off completely from the Old World, and represents a new beginning, then “uprootedness” means that America is based in the Old World, but because it was transplanted to the New, continuity could not simply be taken for granted. Every continued tradition had to be consciously continued, and that consciousness implied a reevaluation and modification. Look, for example, at the American South (the focus of Faulkner’s work). Its traditional structure was an attempt to remain in continuity with the aristocratic Old World, but it was necessarily a conscious imitation, not an unconscious continuation; while it “died” with the Civil War, it had hardly existed before that. Or look at the attempts to create a “city on a hill” in Puritan New England, a subject Melville is interested in; it was in some ways a conscious break from the Old World, but in more important ways a continuation of certain Old World religious ideas.

These two concepts are complementary, I think; one deals with America in relation to the rest of the contemporary world, the other with America in relation to its heritage. And both of them involve not a separation of America from the rest of the world, but an uneasy connection, an ambiguous bond. What I find really fascinating is that both Melville and Faulkner lead me to this same thought. It’s perhaps the strongest common thread I can find running throughout America, both North and South.


Incidentally, these are the books we read in the two respective classes; I highly recommend everything on this list, but italics I use to indicate particular noteworthiness, and the most important work on each list I bold.


  • Moby-Dick
  • Pierre
  • The Piazza Tales: The Piazza, Bartleby, Benito Cereno, The Lightning-Rod Man, The Encantadas, The Bell-Tower
  • The Confidence-Man
  • assorted poetry (mostly from Battle-Pieces; particularly good are “The Conflict of Convictions” and “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”)
  • Billy Budd


  • The Unvanquished (not Faulkner’s best, but a particularly easy read)
  • Absalom, Absalom!
  • As I Lay Dying
  • The Hamlet
  • Go Down, Moses

Leviathan or Whale-God?

April 14, 2010

No, no, no, no, no. Just, no.

Here’s another person arguing for the reading of Moby-Dick where it is a sort of “anti-Bible,” heralding a new, post-Biblical, post-theological worldview. I find this reading simply perverse, and not true to the text. Unfortunately, it seems popular on both sides – with the Christians who dislike the book because they see it as atheist, and with the secularists who want to turn the book into another weapon against Christianity.

It’s true that the Whale at first appears to be an evil, impersonal force, the Leviathan, and Ahab to be justified in his quest to destroy it. But by the end of the novel Ahab is revealed as a demonic figure, and the Whale has been transformed, if not into the Christian God, at least into a benevolent one; perhaps that of the Old Testament. I don’t want to call Moby-Dick a Christian novel, because I couldn’t defend that claim and I’m not sure it’s true, but it has significant Christian themes running through it, and seriously, not parodically. And I really can’t see a way to read it as atheistic.

Melville does use Moby-Dick to create a new set of sacramental images – the whale, the doubloon, the tattooed cannibal – which he uses in place of those of Christianity, but even this, I think, is not a rejection of Christianity so much as an attempt to re-describe it (even if it is not entirely Christian in the end; like I said, Melville seems to me an agnostic). Actually, it reminds me more than anything of various imagery used by Tolkien in his writings on Middle-Earth. Consider the Silmarils, Galadriel’s phial of light, the rings of power, the sword that was broken. These are not Christian, but they’re not anti-Christian. Moreover, they help build a world that is compatible with Christianity but carries new meaning, and are able to do so I think partially because they are so new and startling in some ways, yet so old and deeply resonant in others.

It’s what literature is all about, really – finding new metaphors.

To Look Out Upon the Sea

March 27, 2010

(I will now offer a string of analogies, without explanation or defense, and then a pair of allegories written by two men much more intelligent than I am.)




Or, –to change the metaphor,–there are immense quarries of fine marble; but how to get it out; how to chisel it; how to construct any temple? Youth must wholly quit, then, the quarry, for awhile; and not only go forth, and get tools to use in the quarry, but must go and thoroughly study architecture. Now the quarry-discoverer is long before the stone-cutter, and the stone-cutter is long before the temple; for the temple is the crown of the world.
— Herman Melville, from Pierre

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their bulding material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, from “The Monsters and the Critics”


What is the meaning of all of this?

Put simply, I want to expound a theory of the nature of abstract intellectual endeavors, the liberal arts, broadly speaking. Hence my beginning with the Trivium – logic, grammar, rhetoric.

In this model, there are three possible activities, each of which is necessary in its own way:

The quarry-finder. This is the philosopher, the metaphysician. He chooses what stone to use; thus, he examines the nature of the stone, determines what the stone is. He tries to bridge the gap between us and the transcendent, tries to understand the meaning of words like God, Man, Good, True, Beautiful, Purpose, Form.

The stone-cutter. This is the mathematician, the logician. He cuts the stone into the proper shape for the architect; thus, he examines how the stones fit together, fitting them together in a puzzle. He is interested solely in structure, not in content; he does not care what words mean, only how they fit together. But it is he who shows how to rhyme, how to alliterate, how to construct parallelisms; he does not know what they mean, but he makes them possible.

The architect. This is the author. He chooses what the temple or tower will be like; he guides its construction throughout, from the quarrying to the stone-cutting to the placement of the final brick. He does it all with his final purpose in mind: to ascend the tower and look out upon the sea. And yet the temple is not his alone; it is the crown of the world.


A final thought. I have been speaking all along as if the building were the work of art, as if the artist occupied some ontologically distinct position from the rest of mankind. I don’t believe this to be true. The work of art is not the tower; it is merely the blueprint offered to the world. Each of us must be all of these, quarry-finder, stone-cutter, and architect, each building our own towers, hoping that they can look out upon the sea (which is the Beatific Vision).

Book Review: Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

March 22, 2010

Today I finished reading Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (which I think is a great title, incidentally) for my class on Herman Melville. Now, Pierre, published 1852, was the first novel Melville wrote after Moby-Dick, published 1851. It was also his first book not set on the ocean, but rather on land. And it was a complete failure, resulting in harsh criticism and financial disaster. Melville wrote only one more traditional novel, Israel Potter, and then moved on to short stories, a “masque,” poetry, and the novella Billy Budd.

Given all of this, I did not go into Pierre was particularly high expectations. But, while (unsurprisingly) Pierre does not rival Moby-Dick – nothing can rival Moby-Dick – it is a truly fantastic book. Now, do not mistake me – it has serious flaws, including over-the-top writing, unbelievable characters, and ambiguous morality. Really, almost everything the critics complained about when it came out was present (Dr. Cowan read us some of the contemporary reviews in class, and they were quite accurate).

But they also completely missed the point. Pierre is a brilliant examination of the nature of the self,  subjectivity, love and the other; ethics, ethical pride, and the Titanic man; the artist, artistic isolation, and artistic genius; and God and the problem of evil. It both builds directly on Melville’s own treatment of these themes in Moby-Dick and moves in an entirely new direction due to the movement from land to sea and the absence of a first-person narrator.

Here, for example, is a great excerpt from a chapter discussing the face of a Transcendentalist philosopher who is majestic but “non-benevolent”:

Did I not say before that that face was something separate, and apart; a face by itself? Now, any thing which is thus a thing by itself never responds to any other thing. If to affirm, be to expand one’s isolated self; and if to deny, be to contract one’s isolated self; then to respond is a suspension of all isolation.

Is this not the phenomenological definition of “love” that Jean-Luc Marion talks about in his Prolegomena to Charity? And Melville wrote this in 1852.

Something else I find striking is how similar Pierre is in many ways to some of the novels of Dostoevsky. I suppose this ought not to be surprising; I knew a year ago that Moby-Dick and Crime and Punishment had many interesting parallels, and I’ve mentioned before how a key facet of the philosophies of both Melville and Dostoevsky is that, in Melville’s words, “it’s a mutual, joint-stock world,” or, as Dostoevsky would say, “each is responsible for all.” But I didn’t expect such a similarity in action and tone, as well as of philosophical thought:

  • Like that of Crime and Punishment, Pierre‘s central character attempts to be Titanic, a over-man, by transcending society and paradoxically becoming completely moral by transgressing conventional morality;
  • Like The Idiot, Pierre is a drawing-room novel revolving around an idealistic young man who attempts to marry in order to “save” a girl, rather than truly out of love;
  • Like Demons, it is partially a parody of the extremes of philosophic thought when devoid of love (Transcendentalists in Melville, nihilists in Dostoevsky) and the moral hollowness of the society that allows/forces these figures to emerge;
  • Like The Brothers Karamazov, it involves conflict over the memory of a father figure and the nature of guilt;
  • Finally, like any good Dostoevsky novel, Pierre ends with an act of extreme violence that is apparently the only way, in a book like this, to bring about the terrifying denouement.

Of course, their styles are quite different – Melville is more given to description and internal thoughts (multiple chapters involve various characters’ faces and Pierre’s internal reactions to them) while Dostoevsky uses pages and pages of conversation/monologue to delineate character. But, for two authors who could not possibly have read each other or even known about each other, these seem to me fascinating similarities. Perhaps they are a start towards an understanding of the modern Christian existentialist novel (existentialist here used broadly, meaning focused on the self, not the world or society). What other authors, I wonder, are as concerned with these questions as Melville and Dostoevsky? I ought to find them and read them.


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