Thoughts on Blood Meridian

July 23, 2010

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

It’s also an amazing book. It’s like Moby-Dick, but more nihilistic, with whaling replaced by scalp-hunting, and Moby-Dick made a member of Ahab’s crew (i.e. Glanton’s gang) in the form of Judge Holden. The Judge is perhaps the most disturbing example of the sublime ever; a giant of a man, hairless, and pure white, he kills for pleasure and desires to possess all knowledge in the universe so that he can control (and destroy) the universe. To that end carries around a notebook in which he makes detailed scientific observations before destroying the things he is observing. He may be a pedophile. He claims that “War is god.” He seems some sort of Gnostic deity, though he cannot be traced back to any “atavistic egg.” Perhaps he represents Death. He is a skilled dancer.

I have a hard time saying more than this about the novel. This is partially because it’s so overwhelming on a first reading – it’s like Moby-Dick in this regard as well – that I am completely aware that I do not understand it, at all. The Judge is by far the most fascinating character, but the rest of the gang are interesting as well — the captain, the expriest, Toadvine, the Delawares (are they like Fedallah and his men?), the kid himself, who never receives a name. One gets the feeling each of them can be examined individually in much the same way as Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, and Ishmael. But I have not done so yet.

I did wonder, while reading the book, whether or not Cormac McCarthy is capable of describing anything as being red without comparing it to fire or blood. It’s an effective descriptive technique, but every once in a while I sat back and said, really? Again? The sunset is bloodred. Is it ever any other color?

I’ve also read recently that there are plans to make it into a movie. Now, three of McCarthy’s books have already been filmed – All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old  Men, and The Road – but those are children’s books compared to Blood Meridian. It would be completely impossible to show all the violence described in the book without getting an NC-17 rating. And omitting the violence somewhat defeats the point. So, to say the least, I’m skeptical, though I’m willing to give it a chance.

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

Numbering AIs

June 22, 2010

I’ve been watching Stargate: SG-1 recently, and came across something interesting halfway through season 6 (episode 12: “Natural Selection”). One of the enemy races in the Stargate universe is the “replicators,” who are basically self-replicating machines with artificial intelligence that look like legos and re-arrange themselves to form various useful shapes, often insect-like in appearance. In this episode, for assorted reasons, the replicators have created humanoid variants – still machines, mind you, but to every appearance human. And they’re numbered. There are six of them, though they’re making more; the first one is “first,” the second “second,” and so on.

What does this remind me of? Battlestar Galactica, of course. BSG has the humanoid Cylons, who go by the order in which they were created – “number one,” “number two,” etc. But wait, it gets better. In SG1, “first” is a dignified old man who is also ruthless and completely devoted to what his programming tells him to do, replicate. It’s only a later model, “fifth,” who has emotions (which has good and bad consequences). In BSG, “number one” is a dignified old man who claims to be an atheist and whose only desire is to take over the universe and eliminate all traces of his humanity. Many of the other models end up siding with the humans, but “number one” is devoted to the machine cause till the end.

I’m wondering if this was coincidence, or if the writers of BSG took a bit of inspiration from SG1; the SG1 episode came out in 2002, and the BSG miniseries was in 2003, so it’s possible. But there also seems to be just a natural impulse to make number one in a set of numbered characters be evil, and to make artificial intelligences not get names, and thus go by the order of their creation. I’m thinking of the movie 9 (not a very good movie, sadly), which has nine ragdoll-robots that go by “1,” “2,” etc. In it, “1” isn’t exactly evil (since the ragdolls are the good guys), but he is the least sympathetic character, in theory (I actually liked him more than some of the other ones), and he’s an obvious stand-in for dogmatic religion.

I wonder if TvTropes.org has anything to say about this. I didn’t see anything on the BSG page.


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!”

Book Review: Martin the Warrior

March 17, 2008

Over Spring Break (15th till the 25th), among other things, I plan to read several books – Phantastes (by George MacDonald), the Poetic Eddas (a collection of Old Norse poetry – translated, of course, I don’t know Old Norse), and (yet another) book about Tolkien. This in addition to my assigned reading for school of two books of Paradise Lost and one book of the Nicomachean Ethics, and to all of the other stuff I plan on accomplishing this week. I should be rather busy.

So, of course, as soon as I got home Friday night I immediately decided to pick up another book. It was Martin the Warrior, by Brian Jacques – one of the Redwall series. A children’s book, but one of my favorite, and I had been talking a few weeks ago about Redwall with some people, so I decided to re-read it. It only took five hours or so, if that.

Now, the books undoubtedly have their flaws. As this xkcd strip points out, the morality is not particularly complex (bad guy bad! good guy good! why? uh…). The writing isn’t brilliant. As the series went on (it’s reached eighteen books now, I think), it got rather repetitive – the same plots recycled over and over. But Martin the Warrior was one of the better Redwall books – along with the original Redwall, Mossflower, Outcast of Redwall, and Mattimeo (or so I’ve heard – I’m not a big fan of Mattimeo, myself, but it’s certainly better than, say, The Long Patrol), and perhaps a few others.

There are a few reasons to like it. For one, it has (somewhat strong, as a friend of mine pointed out) echoes of the Iliad, especially with how Felldoh, mimicking Patroclus, goes out to fight Badrang, dies through treachery, and is avenged by Martin. I also like how the book raises the question of what it is to be a warrior, and whether it is good to be one. It actually does it in a surprisingly well-thought-out way. Finally, and related to both of these, I like how Jacques is (at least in this book) not afraid to let major characters die, in tragic ways.

First of all, Felldoh dies – perhaps slightly predictable, since Jacques often has the most bloodwrath-ful warriors (mostly badgers) perish in battle. But this time, his death is not in sacrifice to save the main character. Really, his death seriously harms the efforts of the good guys. He starts the battle too early by charging up and attacking Badrang alone, which forces his friends to chase after him and try to save them, but then they get caught by the much larger bad guy army. You can interpret him as being redeemed in the end by taking so many bad guys with him before he dies – but, in the end, is he really? I don’t know. Jacques doesn’t usually leave moral ambiguities like this unanswered. I thank him for leaving this one open.

Then, unexpectedly, Rose dies. The first time I read it, I didn’t realize immediately that she was dead – she is killed by Badrang almost in passing. He’s trying to escape, he sees the hedgehog, who is curled up in his way; he pokes at the hedgehog with the sword. Then he runs past him, sees the mole, who tries to hit him with a ladle; he pushes the mole out of the way. Then this mousemaid runs up and tries to stop him; he graps the mousemaid and throws her against a wall. Then the duel between him and Martin begins. Oh, and by the way, the mousemaid died from hitting her head like that. Martin doesn’t even notice until after he defeats Badrang, but the mousemaid he swore to protect – who he was in love with – was killed. He failed, and now his victory has been made bitter.

This was much more emotionally powerful, I thought and think, than any other death in the Redwall series. Warriors in the series often die in battle – but they die as heroes, taking down enemies, and their deaths accomplish something. Rose’s death just seems so pointless and wasteful. And the emotional connection between Rose and Martin actually seemed real, so it felt like Martin actually lost something when she died. Jacques has tried to do stuff like that in a few different books – The Bellmaker springs to mind, where one of the pair of buddies whose names I can’t remember dies and the other lives and ends up being the one telling the story – but it usually seems forced. Here it worked.

And it underscores something that I think is crucial to understanding good literature (literature about war – any kind of war, so long as it might involve death – especially). People have to die, and the reader has to care about their death. In all of my favorite books that involve some sort of armed struggle, major characters die, and those deaths are a large part of what make me like the books – even if the fact that, in the sub-created world, they are dead, deeply saddens me. Piccadilly from the Deptford Mice trilogy, Gollum and Frodo (who didn’t die, but suffered a truly horrible fate, which I think makes any catalog of tragic endings for individual characters in the midst of happy endings overall) from the Lord of the Rings, a whole host of characters from the Silmarillion… their deaths improve the books they are in. Even Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I have great problems with the Harry Potter series, but one thing J.K. Rowling did right was let Dumbledore die. (I wish she had had the guts to have someone important die in the seventh book – a few people died, sure, but none major. I suppose some people cared deeply about Lupin and Mad-Eye Moody, but I never did, really. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with how the books completely failed to make any emotional connection with me. Anyway, this would be another essay entirely, so I’ll stop now.)

Imagine a Martin the Warrior without Rose dying, or a Lord of the Rings without Gollum dying or Frodo going off into the West, or a Romeo and Juliet with the couple living happily ever after. This may seem somewhat of a stretch, but I think they would be like a Resurrection without a Crucifixion. Don’t think this comparison blasphemous – the life of Christ is, as Tolkien said, the one true myth that other myths (and stories in general, I would add) all echo, to one degree or another.

I’ll end with a quote from the final chapter of the Silmarillion – after the Valar have returned, defeated Morgoth, and saved what was still left to be saved. In other words, after the happy ending. As happy as it could be, given the circumstances.

Here ends The Valaquenta. If it has passed from the high and beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred; and if any change shall come and the Marring be amended, Manwë and Varda may know; but they have not revealed it, and it is not declared in the dooms of Mandos.


Villainy

February 24, 2008

I find that often, when I come across what I consider a good story – but especially when I watch a good movie – the villain will make a much greater impression on me than the protagonist. I can think of several examples off the top of my head:

  • The Operative from Serenity. His cold rationalism awed me at the same time as it kind of scared me. (Incidentally, I just finished watching the series Firefly that Serenity was based on.)

      The Operative: I’m sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?
      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: I don’t murder children.
      The Operative: I do. If I have to.
      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
      The Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?
      The Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm. I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

  • Anton Chigurh (the sociopath) from No Country for Old Men. Determinism taken to its logical conclusions.

    The coin got here the same way I did.

  • The King of Qin from Hero. He represented law, order, and empire; really, the protagonist was just his foil, not the other way around.

    In the Kingdom of Qin was a ruthless ruler. He had a vision – To unite the land.

What all of these have in common, you’ll notice, is that they have a philosophy. They’re not purely bad people. Their ideals are, however, the opposite of the ideals of the protagonists of those stories, and so there is conflict.

It’s also interesting how they always seem to have very rational philosophies, while the protagonists have more emotionally based ideas. For example, the Operative pretty clearly thinks the ends justify the means, and he goes from there; Mal Reynolds just doesn’t like being told what to do. He has his own code of honor, but it’s hard to comprehend, and I don’t think even he really understands it. He just goes by what his guts tell him to.

Now, as always, I’m going to tie this in with the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

As many people have noted, the villains in the Lord of the Rings are not particularly… complex. They’re Big Bad Evil and must be stopped for that reason, but they don’t seem to have a philosophy, at least not one that is explored particularly – they’re just evil.

Tolkien did this intentionally. In a way, he agreed with Socrates (in Plato’s Republic) when he said that bad guys should only be talked about, not shown. He didn’t want ‘interesting’ villains. He thought it tempted to reader towards sin. (He didn’t mind conflicted good guys who might turn to bad – see, Frodo, Gollum, Denethor. So people who say the Lord of the Rings isn’t morally complex are, well, foolish.)

Now, this works for what Tolkien wrote. In both the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. The big bad guys there are not human. One is a fallen maiar, the other a fallen valar – in other words, fallen angels. Demons. They cannot repent, they’re simply evil. They define evil, really. They do have philosophies – the philosophy of Satan, pure and simple. As such, there’s nothing to be gained (Tolkien thought) from exploring their characters. If you do, you end up with something like Milton’s Paradise Lost, which, great literature as it may be, I kind of don’t like the concept of. Satan should not be presented as a man.

But with the movies Serenity, No Country for Old Men, and Hero (and I could list more), I think having interesting villains is necessary – because the villain is not a demon, but a human. He can change. And since he’s human, not demon, what he believes isn’t necessarily, unquestionably wrong. We have to confront the philosophies of our enemies, not just destroy them because they’re the bad guys and we’re the good guys.

So I’m going to say that having interesting villains like the Operative, Anton Chigurh, and the King of Qin is a good, not an evil. It doesn’t make for bad literature. Amazing, yes, I am actually… disagreeing with Tolkien! Actually, I don’t think I am. I think his claims about not having sympathetic villains really only apply to the ultimate bad guy – Satan. After all, every other kind of villain is, really, more like a tragic hero, just with the story told from a different perspective.


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