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Lacking the Article Itself: Representation

and History in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood

Dan Moos
The task of the translator consists in finding that intended
effect upon the language into which he is translating which
produces in it the echo of the original.
B. Walter Benjamin

lood Meridian is a Western, but it is a Western in which
we would rather not believe. McCarthy’s nightmare
world of death and destruction reflects little of what we
have come to accept as the violence of the West. In Sergio Leone’s Once
Upon a Time in the West, when Harmonica shoots down Frank, we know
that Frank has warranted his own death. When the Virginian hangs his best
friend—and cattle thief—Steve, we remember that all cattle rustlers must
die, regardless as to their friendships with the righteous members of a
community. In the traditional Western, those upon whom such justice is
served do not get scalped or sodomized, roasted or skewed. They are merely
put away, out of the picture; the righteous cleanly amputate the dishonorable
from society. In Lonesome Dove (1985), Larry McMurtry’s romance of an
1880s cattle drive published the same year as Blood Meridian, his cowboys
constantly confront death as they travel from the relative civilization of
Lonesome Dove (and a borderland tamed by Texas Rangers) toward the
Montana frontier: death by snakes, death from exposure, death from Indians,
death by hanging. But McMurtry carefully controls the mishaps of these
cowboys in his narrative; unexpected, yet acceptable, death defines
McMurtry’s West. Jane Tompkins writes: “To go west, as far west as you
can go, west of everything, is to die”(24). After young Sean O’Brien, the
first casualty of the trail in Lonesome Dove, is killed by snakes, Gus McCrae
pronounces over the grave, “Dust to dust. [. . .] Lets the rest of us go on to
Montana” (307). Death is a legitimate, tolerable, and rationalized part of the
Western landscape.
Death in Blood Meridian, however, is different. McCarthy depicts
death as neither honorable nor narratively tragic. In doing so, McCarthy’s
Blood Meridian breaks the boundaries of the Western as a genre. But he
does not challenge these limits by merely flipping Western conventions on
their head; Blood Meridian is not an anti-Western critical or self-reflective
of the genre. Death in McCarthy’s West is not accepted as part of some
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 23
collective job, as it is shouldered by McMurtry’s cowboys, but, rather, death
becomes merely fate, more often than not, bathed in gore. Quoting
Tompkins again, “Often, death makes a sudden momentary appearance [. . .]
as if to put us on notice that life is what is at stake here, and nothing less”
(24). In Tompkins’s analysis death brings a heightened awareness of life.
For McCarthy also, life is itself at stake in the West, but nothing more.
Violence on this frontier is merely carnage, without any rejuvenating or
civilizing component; McCarthy’s characters establish nothing through their
bloodletting, except possibly the guarantee of their own destruction.
But Blood Meridian tells not only of murder and ruin, but also of
history and the ways that we represent history, how we make stories stand in
for actions. As history is a narrative of what was, of temporal moments in
the past strung together with some narrative coherence, Blood Meridian is a
novel about representation, both within its narrative and in the construction
of the novel itself. Unveiling the violence of Manifest Destiny, McCarthy
presents us a kind of memory or a history we believed long masked. He
serves to us this return of the repressed, but without any displacement; we
do not need to read behind the blood to see genocide and destruction.
Primarily, Blood Meridian reveals the world as we have categorized, inven-
toried, and commodified it, leaving us only remnants of earthly things that
demand a space in a nexus of exchange, whether that be goods, knowledge,
or life itself. Initially, McCarthy unveils the historical repression of the
violence of Manifest Destiny and nineteenth-century (if not also twentieth)
American racial superiority by cobbling together his fictional nightmare
with pieces of verifiable history. At issue, both within the novel and for the
novel itself, is precisely the nature of authenticity and its connection to the
“real” world of blood and stone and light.
As a text, McCarthy builds Blood Meridian out of bits and pieces of
obscure historical data that carry little relation to the grander picture of
“standard” Western progress or morality. While Larry McMurtry retains
some basic historical references in Lonesome Dove, invoking correct place-
names, geography, and general historical figures and events, McCarthy
focuses on the minutia of historical verity. Blood Meridian is hyper-real.
Ironically, the meticulousness of McCarthy’s research and his use of archaic
but historically appropriate language defamiliarizes much of the novel.
While Lonesome Dove seems engagingly familiar to most readers because
McMurtry patterned his story around conventions and language that appear
transparent to an American collective frontier sensibility, McCarthy’s novel
seems alien and distant in both its language and narrative. Yet, as John
Sepich in Notes on Blood Meridian and others have shown, Blood Meridian
is more closely based on verifiable historical figures, events, and language
than the seemingly more believable Lonesome Dove.
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 24
Blood Meridian, then, problematizes both literature as historical
documentation and history as literary text. By threading together various
and disparate accounts of filibusters and scalp hunters, McCarthy crosses
the lines that delineate these two often ideologically opposing arenas of
fiction and history. McCarthy creates a world where fictional and historical
characters (and events) share the stage without any apparent centralizing or
determined logic. But Blood Meridian is not a historical romance centered
on a few historically derived main characters whose biographies are en-
hanced through the actions and associations of minor fictional characters.
Instead McCarthy weaves fiction and history: he builds certain major
fictional events in the narrative out of pieces of minor historical artifacts and
strings certain major historical events together with his fiction. McCarthy
pays painstaking attention to detail in the production of this novel so that
not only are many of his characters, both those central and peripheral,
historically verifiable, but many of their attributes and actions come directly
from historical accounts. Many of the kid’s fellow scalp hunters, the ex-
priest Tobin, Marcus Webster, David Brown, and John Jackson appear in
historical accounts of travels with the scalp hunter Glanton. The “Prussian
jew named Speyer” who sells Glanton four dozen U.S. Army Colt Dragoons
(BM 82), was a noted gun-runner and supplier to Mexico. The Yuma Chief
Pablo, whom Glanton meets at the Yuma encampment below the ferry (BM
254-55), was once seen, as McCarthy depicts him, adorned with green
Of the two characters who figure most prominently in the narrative,
John Joel Glanton and Judge Holden, the former is a relatively well-known
and well-documented historical figure (ex-Ranger, Mexican War veteran,
Indian fighter, and scalp hunter), while references to the latter seem to be
limited to a single historical source. According to John Sepich, who exten-
sively researched McCarthy’s sources for Blood Meridian, the only mention
of a Judge Holden in any historical document is in General Samuel
Chamberlain’s memoir, My Confession. John Sepich has undertaken exten-
sive historical archeology in an attempt to map McCarthy’s references and
has unearthed but this single reference to any Judge Holden, though Sepich
acknowledges that other larger-than-life figures from other narratives of
early Texas and the Mexican-American War, especially John Russell
Bartlett’s 1856 Personal Narrative, might have provided for additional—if
fuzzier—appearances of Holden in the historical record. Glanton, on the
other hand, appears in numerous other sources attesting to his employment
as a scalp hunter for certain Mexican state governments and his takeover of
the Yuma ferry on the Colorado River.2 With these two figures in particular,
McCarthy weaves the distinctly historical with the predominantly fictional.
In My Confession, Chamberlain recollects his military life in
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 25
northern Mexico just after the end of the Mexican War and his following
desertion and meeting up with Glanton’s scalp-hunting expedition.
Chamberlain’s memoir is exaggerated and romantic, painting him the hero
in literally every chapter. Even so, this memoir provides a significant source
for placing a number of McCarthy’s characters and events within a textual
framework. My Confession also mirrors the temporal and geographic
structure of the narrative of Blood Meridian. Chamberlain’s memoir, like
Blood Meridian, begins in the East with his departure from home at fifteen,
followed by an aimless wandering through northern Mexico, first as a U.S.
Cavalryman and then as a deserter to that company. My Confession ends
(rather abruptly) just a few days after Chamberlain escapes from the Yuma
ferry massacre on the Colorado River. Billy Carr, who furnished a deposi-
tion on the Yuma ferry massacre, may have been Chamberlain under an
assumed name as Chamberlain was wanted for desertion. Nonetheless, if
McCarthy used My Confession as a main source for Blood Meridian, he
brought to Chamberlain’s account numerous other events and characters
from both the historical record and his imagination.
Judge Holden, the most significant character in Blood Meridian
besides the kid, appears only in the last twenty-five pages of Chamberlain’s
memoir. McCarthy takes Chamberlain’s few descriptions of Holden and
expands them to create the grotesque and mythic Judge Holden of the novel.
Chamberlain describes Judge Holden:

The second in command [. . .] was a man of gigantic size

called ‘Judge’ Holden of Texas. [. . .] He stood six feet six
in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow face
destitute of hair and all expression. His desire was blood
and women. [. . .] Holden was by far the best educated man
in northern Mexico; he conversed with all in their own
language, spoke in several Indian lingos, at a fandango
would take the Harp or Guitar from the hands of the musi-
cians and charm all with his wonderful performance, and
out-waltz any poblano of the ball. He was ‘plum centre’
with rifle or revolver, a daring horseman, acquainted with
the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical
names, great in Geology and Mineralogy, in short another
Admirable Crichton, and with all an arrant coward. (271-

McCarthy’s Holden assumes all these characteristics, except cowardice; he

is fat (twenty-four stone), hairless, and hawkeyed, a musician, dancer,
politician, lawyer, and naturalist. Echoing Chamberlain, the ex-priest Tobin
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 26
discusses Holden with the kid:

That great hairless thing. You wouldnt think to look at him

that he could outdance the devil himself now would ye? [. .
.] And fiddle. He’s the greatest fiddler I ever heard and
that’s an end on it. The greatest. He can cut a trail, shoot a
rifle, ride a horse, track a deer. He’s been all over the world.
Him and the governor [Trias of Chihuahua] they sat up till
breakfast and it was Paris this and London that in five
languages, you’d have give something to of heard them.
(McCarthy 123)

Chamberlain’s Holden steps directly from the imagination of this Mexican

War veteran into McCarthy’s novel. Given the grandiose and bombastic tone
of My Confession, Holden himself already enters the life of Blood Meridian
as fictionalized through Chamberlain’s memories. McCarthy takes Holden
out of the self-aggrandizing tales of My Confession and cements him in his
nightmarish recreation of history.
Reading Blood Meridian and My Confession simultaneously, we see
a creation of Judge Holden emerge that reflects its mirrored images in either
text. In Blood Meridian, Holden first appears at Reverend Green’s itinerant
church-tent in Nacogdoches: “an enormous man dressed in an oilcloth
slicker [. . .]. He was bald as a stone and he had no trace of beard and he had
no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them either. He was close to seven feet in
height and he stood smoking a cigar even in this nomadic house of God” (6).
Holden publicly accuses Reverend Green of fraud, of “violating” an eleven-
year-old girl in another state, and of being “run out of Fort Smith Arkansas
for having congress with a goat” (7). In Chamberlain’s narrative, Holden
appears to be guilty of at least one of these heinous crimes: “before we left
Fronteras a little girl of ten years was found in the chapperal [sic], foully
violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed
[Holden] as the ravisher” (271). McCarthy’s Reverend Green howls to his
congregation, “This is him [. . .]. This is him. The devil. Here he stands” (7),
possibly declaiming that Holden is indeed Beelzebub, or, quite carnally, that
Holden—and not Reverend Green—ought be indicted for the Fronteras
assault. McCarthy’s Reverend Green responds to the Holden of My Confes-
sion; fiction and history overlap and construct each other, with the judge at
the center. In fact, though Reverend Green remains accused of the sordid
homicide, that act attributed to Chamberlain’s Judge Holden, it is
McCarthy’s perverse syndic who later kills, if not also violates, a twelve-
year-old “Mexican or halfbreed boy” left alone in an abandoned presidio
(116) and a “strange dark child” spared from Glanton’s raid on the Gileños
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 27
encampment (160). The attacks made by both Holdens prefigure, of course,
the kid’s fate in the outhouse behind the bar. Be he Lucifer or terrestrial
murderer, slipping out of Reverend Green’s tent during the melee following
Holden’s accusations, the kid finds “The bald man was already at the bar
when they entered” (BM 7).
The kid later recounts this incident to Tobin, who replies, “Every
man in the company claims to have encountered that sootysouled rascal in
some other place” (McCarthy 124), effectively calling into question the
validity of the kid’s story and simultaneously giving credence to a seeming
omnipresence of the judge. Growing out of Chamberlain’s narrative and
embellished by McCarthy, Judge Holden begins to take control of the world
of Blood Meridian, dragging all of it under his jurisdiction.
Judge Holden is a judge, though of what we do not yet know. But
Holden is also a scientist, an Enlightenment doctor of philosophy. He
represents the ideological skeleton of a new imperialist scientific world
order sprouting from Enlightenment rationality and the firm establishment
of capitalist principles as transcendent in American and European cultures.
In fact, Rick Wallach argues that the “real” Judge Holden of Chamberlain’s
narrative proclaims the “imposition of the scientific vision over the sup-
planted Christian one. [. . .] [where] the new exegesis is no longer typology
but a function of the empirical eye” (“Sam Chamberlain’s Judge” 13). As he
travels with the scalp hunters, the judge collects, sketches, and catalogs
numerous natural and historical finds. Through this scientific ordering,
Holden attempts to control the world around him. Collection and categoriza-
tion allow him power over his surroundings through a scientific reproduc-
tion of nature and history. In the judge’s thinking, representation is tanta-
mount to ownership. Enlightenment ideals of science that rationalize and
compartmentalize the world drive the judge’s endless cataloging of natural
Judge Holden presses plants, sketches archeological finds and
petroglyphs, collects rare butterflies, shoots and stuffs birds; he can lecture
on geology, ancient history, and the disappearance of the Anasazi. In 1849,
the science of geology was still deeply embroiled in ideological struggles
with Christian theology; Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology was only two
decades old when the judge delivers his lectures. The judge’s knowledge of
geology sets him apart intellectually and spiritually from the rest of his
travelers. Scientific cataloging and categorization hold the ultimate power of
representation, and Holden’s science accepts a one-to-one correlation
between an article and its representation. The judge allows only his vision
of the thing into his notebooks. If the object is inanimate, he must destroy it.
If it is alive, he must destroy its animate qualities, its life. “The freedom of
birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos,” he claims (BM 199). The
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 28
judge stuffs his captured birds and packs them away among his possessions.
They become mere representations of life among the many others stuffed,
pressed, or sketched in the judge’s catalog.3
Within the judge’s science, the representation of an object validates
its existence; only through representation can some object be comprehended
and thus contained. But in his desire to catalog the world, the judge seeks to
destroy that world. He draws potsherds, bone tools, and a sixteenth-century
footpiece from a suit of armor he has found in the desert. After measuring
and sketching these, he commits them to the fire “much satisfied with the
world, as if his counsel had been sought at its creation” (BM 140). In the
Hueco Tanks, the judge wanders among the petroglyphs “copying out those
certain ones into his book to take away with him,” and before he leaves, he
obliterates one particular design (BM 173). The judge maintains control over
knowledge through the destruction of original sources, thus leaving the
representation to stand for the original, or more so, leaving the representa-
tion to stand only for itself; the referent for the sketch must be merely the
sketch itself, as the original is gone.4
The judge is an empiricist, believing only that which is in front of
him and experientially verifiable. But the judge’s one-to-one correlation
between the world of objects and the world of knowledge leads to his
erasure of history and erasure of artifacts. Objects serve no purpose once
they have been documented; once the judge catalogs any item in his note-
books, he physically destroys it. Representation must be accepted as the true
article since only the abstraction proves the object’s original existence. The
judge then creates his own epistemology by forcing representation to stand
as truth, denying existence to anything that has found its way into his books.
The judge heralds a new age of science and truth, a world based on
the data of rational, Enlightenment evaluation. But the judge’s new world
does not operate on the level of the original article, but in a world built upon
representation only. More precisely, he builds a world based on simulation
as he has effectively destroyed all the originals: he builds an economy of
signs. As the architect of this new system, Holden, now god-like, becomes
precisely the epistemological dream of Enlightenment rationalism: “suzerain
of the earth” (McCarthy 198).
Jean Baudrillard’s description of the operations of signs within
postmodernism illuminates not only the possible nonreferentiality, but also
the power of the judge’s representative economy:

[T]he age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all

referentials—worse: by their artificial resurrection in
systems of signs, a more ductile material than meaning, in
that it lends itself to all systems of equivalence . [. . .] It is
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 29
no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor
even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs
of the real for the real itself, an operation to deter every real
process by its operational double, a metastable, program-
matic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the
signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never
again will the real have to be produced. (4)

By erasing all originals, the judge invokes an economy of signs—an

economy he generates long before the advent of Baudrillard’s vision of
postmodernism or the late capitalism that spawned it; the judge’s world
contains no vicissitudes to short-circuit his truth as his truth is drawn only in
his notebooks. The judge alone, by engaging this power of reproduction,
becomes the sole owner of knowledge, not his own in an individualistic
sense, but of a singular collected knowledge that allows him to reproduce
the world and ultimately command it:

The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his

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

The judge has not broken any signifier-signified chain, leaving signs dan-
gling in a deconstructive pose searching for meaning, but rather he cleanly
cleaves the earthly object from its representation and leaves the signifier in
place as the sign itself. The judge’s dispensation is precisely the act of
destroying the original, the autonomous object, in favor of its textual
placement within his books and kitbag.
But the world upon which the judge lays his hands is not wholly
rational or verifiable. The innumerable variations and orders of the natural
world defy the judge’s Enlightenment aspirations to find the thread that
holds this world together in some logical order. But the judge himself
accepts that, like some epistemological Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,
the creation and acquisition of knowledge and its ordering must acknowl-
edge the imprint of its keeper.

Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge

than with it and the order in creation which you see is that
which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that
you will not lose your way. For existence has its own order
and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 30
but a fact among others. (BM 245)

The judge finds this order in his notebooks, in his rationally constructed
economy of representations. Rick Wallach, in “Judge Holden, Blood
Meridian’s Evil Archon,” argues that “Holden’s defense of inscription often
reads like a satire of deconstruction” (132). But more than satire, the judge’s
undertaking begins to take on a life of its own; any satirical elements in the
judge’s defense lose their power as the possible satire moves into the realm
of destruction. The judge manufactures, rather than just rearranges, mean-
ing. He knows that his world is merely an order of signs and that the “true”
world lies evident in the referent, which Holden wishes “to expunge from
the memory of man” (BM 140) by placing their likeness in text. The verifi-
able referent’s existence blocks the completion of the judge’s grander
scheme: “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each
last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be
properly suzerain of the earth” (BM 198). The judge’s science demands the
acquisition of knowledge, the textual inscription of the earth, regardless as
to the means of its purchase.
To route out each last entity is the judge’s science. Placing these
objects in his book forces them to stand naked before him. But the judge
also recognizes the problems that this kind of sign production can present.
After exploring a deserted mine and returning with ore samples, the judge
“[holds] an extemporary lecture in geology” with some members of the
gang. A number of them quote scripture “to confound his ordering up of
eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings” (BM 116); the
judge retorts,

Books lie, he said.

God dont lie.
No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.
He held up a chunk of rock.
He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things. (BM 116)

For Judge Holden, the Bible is merely a false ordering of signs, and, in true
Enlightenment fashion, he undertakes to set out a new and truer system of
signs that has its origins not in faith but in the earth itself. To destroy history
as he finds it, the judge builds a system that needs no referent, as the Bible
needs no referent; the judge’s world, built out of the earth, will be written.
All books lie, including the judge’s, and Holden affirms this dislo-
cating quality of texts. But the issue in books is not verity, but power.
Holden understands the power of representation and its mutability, and by
constructing signs that carry an article beyond its physical existence, he can
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 31
manipulate information as he pleases. With a dawning awareness of the
judge’s desire to replace objects—flesh, rock, or metal—with an ordered
system of constructed meaning, the scalp hunter Webster fears losing his life
to the judge’s pen. He tells Holden,

Well you’ve been a draftsman somewheres and

them pictures is like enough the things themselves. [. . .]
Well said, Marcus, spoke the judge.
But dont draw me, said Webster. For I dont want in
your book.
My book or some other book said the judge. What
is to be deviates no jot from the book wherein it’s writ. How
could it? It would be a false book and a false book is no
book at all. (BM 140-41)

For the judge’s book truly to represent the world, it may deviate “no jot
from the book wherein it’s writ”: the book and the world must be equiva-
lents. But the judge still destroys the referent, leaving him only the residue
of signification in his books. Books lie and a false book is no book at all.
But the judge’s book is the world, “the stones and trees, the bones of
things.” His book cannot lie, for there is no world to use as reference; its
circular logic of authenticity validates itself.
While Judge Holden builds his world by constructing an economy
of signs, another economy of signs operates in Blood Meridian, one whose
referents, like the judge’s, are rarely verifiable. This economy, though still
semiotic in nature, drives the characters of Blood Meridian to their horrid
deeds and places them within a commerce in human life based on the
collecting of human scalps. The scalps brought in by Glanton and his gang
represent victory in a genocidal war against the Apache and Comanche. But
more than just symbols and proofs, the scalps operate as specie, as articles
exchanged for other articles or for different monies in officially govern-
ment-sanctioned slaughter: Trias, the governor of Chihuahua, pays Glanton
one hundred dollars per scalp. Human blood, or at least what passes as proof
of the extinction of a human life, operates as the medium of exchange in
Trias’s war. The threat of the original is gone, proven through disembodied
hair; the hair remains but a sign—a sign whose signified is precisely human
For Glanton and his crew, scalps are specie, bloody human specie.
Scalps evidence a commerce in death and, specifically, genocide as a
commodity. But rules exist even in this market of genocide. Glanton’s greed
eventually overcomes him: he brings to Trias numerous counterfeit scalps,
leaving to the state of Chihuahua, at one hundred dollars apiece, the black
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 32
hair of the citizens he was hired to protect. Glanton’s head is soon worth
eight thousand pesos on the very same market in which he originally made
his fortune.
This market in Blood Meridian is war: here Glanton and Trias trade
lives. But death, the absence of human life, is defined by the presence of
scalps: as with the objects inventoried in Holden’s notebooks, the signs of
human life exist only through its extinction. Scalps are the medium of
exchange and human life the guarantor of the bill. Glanton’s gang knows no
such decorum as might be found in standard shopkeeping or the haggling of
the bazaar. They trade with firepower their own and others’ lives (and
others’ scalps if the right color) to meet their needs. But Glanton and his
bloody underlings are not merely bullies or thugs; rather the only commerce
that seems rational to them is the commerce of blood. Meeting some buffalo
hunters bound for the markets in Mesilla, “The Americans might have
traded for some of the meat but they carried no tantamount goods and the
disposition to exchange was foreign to them” (BM 121). The Americans are
not traders, but rather mercenaries, partisans hired by the state to fight a
genocidal war.
Within the logic of Blood Meridian, particularly that of the judge,
all markets are merely derivative of war. Judge Holden says, “War endures.
As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man
was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitio-
ner” (BM 248). Not just a singular craft or trade, war is the primary human
occupation as “all other trades are contained in war” (BM 249). War is the
marketplace in Blood Meridian.
But within a capitalist (and a Darwinian) framework, the market-
place itself may not be merely derivative of war, but truly a representation
of that trade. Still, Judge Holden disdains this arena of trade as the stakes of
the marketplace are merely second-order signs of war; shopkeeping draws
no blood. Holden holds forth:

Men are born for games. [. . .] Games of chance require a

wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the
skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of
defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient
stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and
define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games
aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered
swallows up game, player, all. (BM 249)

The market, as a game with stakes of money or capital goods, may “aspire to
the conditions of war,” but these stakes do not swallow all, as does war.
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 33
With reference to McCarthy’s novels in general, Christine Chollier writes,
“Market economies [. . .] largely bypass the main characters who find
themselves in a position where they have to resort to a lower form of market
economies —barter, or any other simpler mode—or where they operate
through gifts” (47). She argues that within these “lower economies” lie
social chaos and attempts at the “complete annihilation of trade” (46),
favoring violence as the only medium of exchange for life’s necessities and
pleasures. Blood Meridian, for Chollier, represents a moment in McCarthy’s
works where violence becomes “reestablished as the ultimate form of trade”
(46). Ultimately, though, Blood Meridian represents not a world based on
“lower economies” of exchange, but rather the basal economics of genocide:
trading human lives for money and land. Glanton’s gang literally harvests
scalps to sell on a market. They do not sell their labor, as a capitalist
economy necessitates, but neither do they involve themselves in barter or
gift exchange. As we have seen, “disposition to exchange was foreign to
them.” And, in fact, Glanton’s relationship to the Mexican market of geno-
cide falls apart with a warrant for his own head. Even so, he continues
harvesting his hirsute goods though no more markets welcome his ex-
In Leo Daugherty’s reading of Blood Meridian in “Gravers False
and True,” the judge scorns the marketplace as a competitive arena because
“he refuses to be a part of the exchange system” (165). In the kid’s fevered
dream in San Diego, the judge appears overseeing a coldforger working the
judge’s likeness in coin (BM 310). But the judge constantly rejects the
coldforger’s work, a “coinage for a dawn that would not be” (McCarthy
310), thus holding daylight at bay. Daugherty reads this dream as the judge’s
rejection of any specie-bound exchange for “all human coinage is counter-
feit” (Daugherty 165). Daugherty writes that “the judge doesn’t want a
victory based on any currency” (164) because the impulse for exchange
folds war into the humdrum of the marketplace. But Daugherty limits
himself to analyzing only the exchange of coins for goods. Glanton’s trade
in death, driven by scalps, a commerce of signs, brings genocidal war
directly into a market in which he exchanges his bloody goods for coins.
This market, then, is the judge’s market, a market involving specie (gold and
hair, counterfeit or not) where the trade practiced is war and the stakes of
exchange are human life and blood. A counterfeit coin then is merely one
without Death’s mint; any scrip holds representative value as long as blood
seeps from its edges. Counterfeit currency, that which lies about its origins,
however, may also draw blood: Glanton’s taking of Mexican scalps, coun-
terfeit specie on the market within which he has agreed to operate, puts a
price on his own head by those defining the nature of the specie exchanged.
Exchange in Blood Meridian is not driven by “gravers false and true”—by
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 34
authentic or counterfeit mediums. Rather, only blood defines exchange.
Specie both false and true brings war and blood to the forefront of the
market, though necessarily only through signs.
The kid’s fevered dream provides him with the answer to the base
question of the novel that the kid posed to Tobin earlier, “What’s he a judge
of?”(BM 135). The kid sees the coldforger “contriving from cold slag brute
in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual
specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge
and the night does not end” (BM 310). Daugherty sees this endless night as
the refusal of Holden “to be part of the exchange system” (165). Holden
remains the judge of any attempt to pass his likeness into that nexus; thus
the night has no end. But rather than the judge withholding his approval as a
guarantor of the specie, the judge must, given his long-standing project to
subdue the earthly world through sign production, be the sole judge of any
representative value. He alone decides what items may stand in for them-
selves and which ones must have stand-ins for their intrinsic value. Holden
decides when the spared Gileño boy may be an Apache and when he will
transform into a scalp. Holden may fear that war will lose its efficacy to the
marketplace, but ultimately the trading of signs fuels war. The marketplace,
especially with reference to Glanton’s collected scalps, remains not deriva-
tive of war, as Daugherty reads, but precisely war itself. The market of
Blood Meridian, not unlike the market of global capitalism (if not all
capitalism), has become slick with blood of the world’s referents, a geno-
cidal pit with sweaty brokers fighting for the value of ephemeral bills whose
guarantees are no longer material, if even alive.
Within Blood Meridian, the natural world has a transcendent, yet
unknowable, order: “existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can
compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others” (BM 245). The
Crossing (1994) echoes this same idea. Dianne Luce argues that, like Judge
Holden’s semiotic rendering of the world, “the human capability for narra-
tive [. . .] is our primary means of accessing and perhaps communicating the
thing itself” (208). But for Luce, “the thing itself” to which McCarthy
yearns to reach in his prose “carries connotations of truth, ultimate essence,
the sacred heart of things [. . .] and [McCarthy] implies that humans access
the thing itself only by transcending the obstacles posed by artifact, lan-
guage, and physical sense” (208-09). But in Blood Meridian the thing itself
disappears, crumpled in the fire or into dust. To transcend the obstacles is to
find bits of carbon or scratched chert or, more likely, rotting bodies.
Judge Holden knows that power comes through one’s ability to
make an order “like a string in a maze” that regulates information. The
judge becomes the master of a discourse whose truth lies in the “stones and
trees, the bones of things,” but which once tabernacled in a text becomes
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 35
transcendent in itself. Just as the market in scalps brings money to the
partisans, the judge’s economics of rationalization and representation bring
him power over the narrative of human society.
As the judge builds a world of signs from the obliterated natural
world, McCarthy threads a narrative from few and fragmented historical
documents concerning Glanton and his travels. The history of Blood Merid-
ian is hyper-specific, given little to the broader historical gestures of other
Western writers such as McMurtry. In McCarthy’s stylization, Blood Merid-
ian seems alien and distant in a genre based on familiarity and a collective
unconscious about the West. Tompkins writes, “Half the pleasure of West-
erns comes from this sense of familiarity, spliced with danger” (25). But
McCarthy’s fiction refuses any kind of familiarity. McCarthy’s bad guys are
not merely black-hatted cowards who rustle cattle or shoot their opponents
in the back. Instead they slaughter and mutilate innocent people. In
McCarthy’s West, there are no white hats and no redemption. The carnage
of the text and the various permutations of representations, both within the
novel and the novel itself, effectively destroy any sense of acceptable order
in the popular memory of a mythic frontier West.
McCarthy moves beyond writing revisionist history. While histori-
ans such as Patricia Nelson Limerick expose Western expansion as a
“Legacy of Conquest,” McCarthy uncovers the butchery of those rational-
ized imperialisms. Linking Blood Meridian to Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch
might provide fruitful for comparisons of revisionary impulses within
Westerns, but mainly only in terms of artistic style and possibly as state-
ments about the visual culture of America post-Vietnam.6 More importantly,
though, we can read McCarthy’s narrative as a statement on the dangers of
misrepresentation. Like the judge, we build histories that subscribe to our
future desires. We dismiss the details of historical violence or blame atroci-
ties on maniacal or ostracized individuals (Captain White, who, of course,
ends up pickled). Robert L. Jarrett claims that McCarthy’s novel is “an
attempt at a dramatic and ritualized experience of American history as it was
lived. [. . .] and may more successfully express the bloody tragedy of
Western history than any historian” (92-93).7 By following the judge’s
impulse to build a world of his own definition, we as readers become
shocked when McCarthy’s act of unveiling “the thing itself” jars us from
our own notebooks, kitbags, or portmanteaus. The scales hopefully fall from
our eyes as we read Blood Meridian as “a catastrophic act of witness,
embracing the real by tracing it in gore” (Shaviro 153).
Ultimately, Blood Meridian is about exchange value and
commodification under both nineteenth-century imperialism and twentieth-
century late capitalism—our own official histories also available on some
intellectual market. The distinctions between that market and an arena of
The Cormac McCarthy Journal 36
war have grown fuzzy and indistinct. Dragging everything—goods, lives,
ideals, history, knowledge, and body parts—into markets fueled by Ameri-
can expansionist politics, Judge Holden bluntly tells Toadvine, as well as us,
“Everything’s for sale” (BM 282).


1. See John Sepich’s Notes on Blood Meridian. Though he sometimes

stretches the possibilities of connections, his work is invaluable for reading
Blood Meridian in any historical light. The references to the kid’s fellow
scalp hunters are numerous here; see especially William Carr’s deposition
on the Yuma ferry massacre, 132-35; (on Webster in particular, see also
Smith 48, 56); on Speyer see Sepich 42-43; on Chief Pablo, see Sepich 54.

2. See Sepich, especially 27-42. Chamberlain rode with Glanton’s gang after
his desertion and was present at the Yuma ferry takeover and subsequent
massacre; see Chamberlain 267-97.

3. The vehicle that literally holds the judge’s world is his portmanteau. It
holds both his sketches and his birds, and he seems never to be without it.
Upon first sighting of the judge, he has with him only a coat, his gun, and a
“canvas kitbag.” Walking through the desert after the ferry massacre, almost
nude and “bedraped with meat” he carries only a “small canvas satchel”
(BM 282).

4. For an extensive discussion of the judge’s ability to create and control his
world through the act of naming, see Joshua J. Masters, “‘Witness to the
Uttermost Edge of the World’: Judge Holden’s Textual Enterprise in Cormac
McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction
40.1 (Fall 1998): 25-37.

5. According to Smith, Chihuahua paid 17,896 pesos out of its treasury for
payment for scalps in 1849 (56). The prices paid to bounty hunters in
Chihuahua as of May 25, 1849 were: male warrior, 200 pesos with evidence
of death (scalps), 250 pesos if alive; women or children under fourteen, 150
pesos if alive. In Durango after July 5, 1849, “The government is empow-
ered to contract with national or foreign partisans who organize to fight the
barbarous Indians that invade the state and to pay them a remuneration of
200 pesos for each Indian whom they kill or apprehend.” See Smith 44-47
and his notes 7 and 10.

6. See Barcley Owens, Cormac McCarthy’s Western Novels, (Tucson:

The Cormac McCarthy Journal 37
University of Arizona Press), 2000. Owens argues that images from Viet-
nam, particularly the visual unveiling of the massacres at My Lai in 1969,
allow for the presentation of Blood Meridian’s violence. But more so,
Vietnam brought violence to the forefront of the American imagination so
that citizens might begin critiques of representation. Vietnam was a “thing in
itself.” McCarthy’s novel reflects that thing back into the American past.
See also Brady Harrison’s “‘That immense and bloodslaked waste’: Nega-
tion in Blood Meridian.” Southwestern American Literature 25.1 (Fall
1999): 35-42, for his analysis of the echoes of Vietnam in Blood Meridian.
He writes, “McCarthy implies that, a century after the atrocities of westward
expansion [. . .] Americans have not learned from history, have held onto,
without critical reflection, the vicious tradition of negation” (40).

7. In addition to Jarrett’s claims, Rick Wallach argues that Holden represents

the rupture of historical repression. Out of the political and psychological
gerrymandering of our past, Holden rises to confront us “in his daemonic
whiteness” (“Judge Holden” 138).


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