“The true shape in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of such truth. To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title 'love of knowing' and be actual knowing - that is what I have set myself to do.” – (The Phenomenology of Spirit, G.W.F. Hegel)
Our eyes, washed clean of belief,
Lift incredulous to their fearsome crowns of bolts, trusses,
struts, nuts, insulators, and such
Barnacles as compose
These weathered encrustations of electrical debris -
Each a Gorgon's head, which, seized right,
Could stun us to stone. – (‘Telephone Poles’, John Updike)
“Today I got Kierkegaard's Buch des Richters (Book of the Judge) As I suspected, his case, despite essential differences, is very similar to mine. At least he is on the same side of the world. He validates me, as would a friend.” - (Franz Kafka)
— On Cormac McCarthy’s point of view for his work as an author —
In what follows I argue that Kierkegaard, by way of Walter Lowrie’s magnificent biography-cum-translation of Kierkegaard’s works, was a guiding text for Cormac McCarthy as he brought both Blood Meridian and Suttree into being, and that the strong evidence for this has either been overlooked, or misunderstood, in all the studies of McCarthy and this groundbreaking novel that have followed since. This lacuna has been widened considerably by the failure to recognise that the ‘Spirit’ of Hegel haunts Blood Meridian.
All the passages quoted from Cormac McCarthy’s works below are quoted directly as published and without emendation.
In chapter fourteen of Blood Meridian, the following are listed – 19th Century Style – as some of the themes for the coming chapter. These refer to the dapper and dainty, yet vast, profane and wicked judge:
An herbalist – The judge collects specimens – The point of view for his work as a scientist.
Anyone who takes more than a passing interest in Søren Kierkegaard will recognise this Kierkegaard clue in an instant. It will strike them like a divine thunderbolt as it did this author. Those fortunate souls will tell you that one of Kierkegaard’s most important works is his The Point of View for my Work as an Author.
Most of the material for Kierkegaard’s posthumously published ‘Point of View’ book came from his private journal entries from 1846 onwards, but especially the 1849 entries which was the year he compiled the book. Though in the end, and after much self-torture – he decided to leave the book to posterity. More importantly for our purposes, Kierkegaard pondered a different title for a book version of his journals from this period: – ‘The Book of the Judge’ – referred to in the Kafka quote above, in its German language manifestation and discussed below.
We now know that as Cormac McCarthy imagined the extraordinary figure of the judge in Blood Meridian into being, he consulted Walter Lowrie’s two-volume biography of Kierkegaard extensively as part of his background research and therefore almost certainly read Walter Lowrie’s very detailed account of the genesis and content of Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View and its alter ego of The Book of the Judge. In fact, the Book of the Judge is deemed so important by Lowrie that he mentions it on the second page of his introduction, in the context of Dr Hermann Gottsched’s publication of Kierkegaard’s journals, with that very title so as to fulfil Kierkegaard’s clear wish:
Gottsched laboured alone, a stranger in Denmark, to bring the five last volumes to completion. Later he published in German a small book of selections from the Journals, entitling it, as S. K. had proposed: The Book of the Judge.
The key thing here is – and regardless for the moment as to whether McCarthy read Lowrie’s Kierkegaard biography from cover to cover – on the second page of the book McCarthy is confronted with the title – The Book of the Judge. McCarthy then went on to write a novel that was another ‘Book of the Judge’, but this time from the ‘Point of View’ of a profane, scientific doppelganger of Kierkegaard.
Can these, what we might call reverse or colliding Kierkegaard confluences be nothing more than coincidence? I doubt it, knowing McCarthy’s exacting care for detail. And, as we shall see, there are a lot more Kierkegaard confluences where these came from.
It has always struck me that more should have been made of this obvious and ‘primary’ connection between Blood Meridian and Kierkegaard’s deeply confessional, but also society-challenging work. The Mephistophelian judge’s ‘point of view’ as headlined in chapter fourteen of Blood Meridian is a verbatim reference to Kierkegaard’s work. McCarthy has even used exactly the same rather awkward construction as translated to English by Walter Lowrie: – ‘point of view for’. Some Kierkegaard translators have subsequently changed this to ‘point of view of’, as I would do.
But for the sake of the science, as it were, let us hesitate before agreeing that this is a very significant ‘pointer’. McCarthy was well capable of throwing in a quote or line into his forensically glossed works just because he liked the sound of them Or, magpie-like, grabbing the shine of these things. So we need to be sure that this blatant Kierkegaard reference has far more than just a ring and sheen to it. That he is engaging with Kierkegaard at a profound level.
One further immediate and crucial clue comes in the fact that the judge is directly described as a “scientist”. The point of view for his work as a scientist. The concept at the heart of Kierkegard’s ‘Point of View’ book finds Kierkegaard stressing that he was a religious author from start to finish. That is, that his work and worldview were not inspired, provoked or enthused by scientific, logical deduction, though he did, in general, give an ethics-based science its due. Kierkegaard was as interested in science – and good at it – as McCarthy was.
One of the examples Kierkegaard sometimes uses to illustrate his attitude to science is the doctor sitting by a sickbed. The doctor is indeed a scientist, but he (usually ‘he’ back then) is ministering to an ailing human being. So human relationships and contingency intervene, as does the idea of the highest good. Right there at the sickbed, the doctor-scientist can make a leap and become a new (existential) form of himself because of what transpires. As can the patient, even at the point of death. Human death is not death. A dead life is death. A life dead to life is death – the real sickness unto death for Kierkegaard. The scientist doctor cannot – with his science alone – rescue the patient from a dead life. Something more powerful than science is required. Something transcendent and therefore absurd to science. This is Kierkegaard’s point of view. He argues against the Hegelian notion that existence can be made a science.
In McCarthy’s Suttree, which McCarthy wrote more or less simultaneously with Blood Meridian, the narrator, who is the elusive soul of the eponymous Suttree and the living ghosts that we all are, declares that: – “death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory.” Was there ever a more Kierkegaardian sentiment expressed in all of fiction? It is a brilliant formulation of Kierkegaard’s idea of existential Repetition. And note well this word “dread” and what I argue below are its links to the word Schrack, as invoked by the German mystic Jacob Böhme, more properly; I think, Schreck or what he calls a Flagrat – a flash, or sunburst, but in my interpretation a fright – Schreck, cognate with Danish skræk. A scare or fright. Dread opens the vista to transcendence. McCarthy interpreter Michael Lynn Crews, whom we discuss below, very perceptively describes McCarthy’s view of our human fate as pilgrims on a life journey that will take us through hell at some point.
In the parable – as Kierkegaard reminds us in A Sickness unto Death – Lazarus is enlivened to a true life and immortality, though he will still die a human death, as we all do. Medicine is a logical science. The lived human life and death are paradoxes. Logic is not messy, contingent life which we live (recollect) forwards and understand backwards. We are sovereign individuals, yet at the same time all of our people. Our divine essence lies in love and our certain sense of that, both in ourselves and for and by the other. A graveyard of the dead is alive life. Such was Kierkegaard’s essential point of view. He is one of the few to take us beyond Socrates. For he saw in Christ’s passion and mercy how each human being could be set truly free. Socrates could only bring us to that place where we can begin knowing ourselves. Christ’s love brought us back to divinity and to the divine self. Divine relations.
But as both Kierkegaard and McCarthy saw, in our fractured modern world, the way back to the good takes us through the gates of hell if we are to forgive and be forgiven. We are still bound by tragedy as in ancient times but have abandoned the gods. All that is left is the now nameless dread. We are desperate for love and a sense of spiritual mercy (forgiveness) as the only way back. By definition, science alone cannot do mercy and love (clemency is McCarthy’s gloss in Blood Meridian). And here lies the challenge to the judge of Blood Meridian and he makes this clear. How to kill clemency. Suttree, meanwhile walks the haunted confines of the once grand house, that is the house of humanity, crying: “Gods and fathers what has happened here. Good friends where is there clemency?”
The judge’s ‘Point of View’
Kierkegaard begins his ‘Point of View’ book with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth (see above in the German) where Prince Henry says: “for in every thing the purpose must weigh with the folly.” In Suttree just before a man is shot to death, the narrator says: “In the act is wedded the interior man and the man as seen.” This is a good summation of McCarthy’s approach as a whole. The verbose and permanently hectoring judge of Blood Meridian is an exception in his fiction – a realm in which all is otherwise foregrounded in what we do rather than emote in torrents of words. Our actions. What we enact and set in train. Human weakness, conscience, doubt, brutishness, stupidity and folly, intervene in all human transactions. The sudden inexplicable twists and leaps of life. It is for this very reason that human life cannot fulfil Hegel’s scientific dialectic of resolution. Certain things are simply never to be resolved opposites. Or we may shrink back from the realm of reason – the imperious towers of law, logic and state. As the stasis of logic cannot salvage desperate hope.
Where our key life decisions are concerned, rather than our inner conflicts being mediated and resolved within a scientific process, we must decide, in an act of desperation or extreme emotion, to leap, carried only by faith, or some great conviction of hope. McCarthy’s Muse aroused and provoked his natural hang to the irrational, doubt ridden and contrary in men. Blood Meridian’s cocksure scientist judge, on the other hand, has no such doubts, concerns or tribulations. We will explore below the judge’s domineering views as a scientist. This glimpse will suffice for now:
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
Granted that there is not the same demonic intent, but is this not, in essence, the spirit, of Hegel’s haughty ambition in the quote at the start of this essay from his famous work The Phenomenology of Spirit? That all things must be – can be – discovered and known by we humans? That human reason can in fact know everything?
In his moving and heartfelt Loves Works – inexplicably translated as Works of Love most often (when it is love that is doing the work) – Kierkegaard paraphrases Paul’s teaching that knowledge inflates our self-importance, whilst love strengthens our souls. The self-important, all knowing, judge is a horrific shapeshifter. He represents the endgame of untrammelled and religion-less, love-less, allegedly neutral, science. He was, and is, there existing in all of time waiting for it. Just like the spirit of war he espouses. It is the very thing Kierkegaard warned of in the sense that we, as humans, can make a choice from the depths of the unfathomable realm of freedom and love which impels us to choose, or we can turn away from that choice.
There is no system for this. We cannot learn it from a book. We can step back from choosing for the good, or we can venture out into depths of seventy thousand fathoms with only faith in love as our lifebelt. This is the direct challenge to Blood Meridian’s judge from Kierkegaard reproduced in a text read by Cormac McCarthy:
“A logical system is possible; but a system of existence is impossible.”
Though very difficult to obtain or achieve, and never guaranteed, for Kierkegaard, just as for McCarthy, our innate sense of, and urgent need of, love and all this implies, our subjective freedom of conscience, will and action – and the self reflections and aspirations, or despair, wedded to these – are the human attributes that separate us from beasts. Another solely human attribute is the gift of language with which we express (or self reflect on) these emotions. A linguistic expression of our striving to be human. It is also our prison. Always we strive to better express and also get beyond language. Get before it. Or after it. This is the basis of art, which preceded language anyway. McCarthy was involved in an endless search for words that could better say what he wanted to say. What he wanted to paint better in words.
In 2017, McCarthy published an essay based on the dream-state discovery by August Kekulé of the benzene molecule’s structure. As McCarthy explains, whilst asleep, the mythological Ouroboros or self-eating ring-serpent came to Kekulé in a dream when he was attempting to solve this problem and he woke to realise that he had dreamed a ring. The molecule is a ring. His unconscious thought processes, in other words, had solved, or rather helped to solve, the problem.
One of the images that comes readily to my mind with this dream-story about a serpent is the ancient Nordic image of the self-eating snake – also found in many other cultures of course. Not just a symbol of the cyclical nature of time, but also the two ends as the divine and earthly in humankind. In the classic Norse myth, Odin throws the serpent Jörmungandr into the sea, wherein it grew so large it begins to gorge on itself. Perhaps, as with the Kekulé dream, the Ouroboros is actually a symbolisation of the way our unconscious does in fact deal with problems that surround our waking lives, by joining them with our conscious side so that they become ‘in the round’ and digested? McCarthy would probably answer that proposition by pointing out that we no more can know how our unconscious works than we can know how we ended up being the only talking animal on the planet. There are other things we can add to this list and some of these will emerge in what follows, but let us add love and hatred as two opposing propensities. McCarthy does not explore the question of conscience or love in his Kelkulé essay (more’s the pity) yet conscience and love, or their enemies, are crucial currents in his works. Love and hatred. The realm of the human.
Be all that as it may, for now, what McCarthy wishes to say – and he is right – is that we cannot explain how we humans, and only we humans, came to speak and that speech was not a biologically founded progression. Somehow, we got an Ur-language that rapidly spread. Song, rhyme, warnings and games are my own best guess at how it spread so quickly. McCarthy describes the unconscious as a “machine” for operating an animal. This is a rare loose word from him. ‘Attribute’ or ‘propensity’ would be better words, as he accepts that art preceded language and therefore so did metaphor, along with the unconscious.
Both Kierkegaard and McCarthy believe that we aspire to ‘soul’ as we constantly struggle with sin and the examination of conscience implicit in free will and self reflection. This is an important concept, because soul is both within us and without us, to invoke the George Harrison song. This is not dualism – a soul-body split. For Kierkegaard we eternally have the urging possibility within us of being closer to ‘soul’ and thereby to the God-love. For McCarthy there is ultimately only One Soul, an Ur-Soul. “It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul”, as Suttree has it at a moment of deep reflection. Both Kierkegaard and McCarthy have been influenced by the German mystic Jacob Böhme in these considerations. What they are wrestling with is our temporal state as human beings within our undoubted sense and grasp of (longing for?) the eternal. For love. Or just peace perhaps?
Much has been written about the influence of Jakob Böhme in Cormac McCarthy’s works and life-view but there seems to be no awareness of Böhme’s influence on Kierkegaard. Conversely, and rather perversely, the major Kierkegaard critics have shown scant interest in Cormac McCarthy and this intriguing Böhme/Kierkegaard/McCarthy trinity. It is therefore very much worth our while to look at an 1847 reference to Böhme (and Goethe) by Kierkegaard in his private journals.
The Böhme quote (in the margin) and Kierkegaard’s journal entry are shown below as seen in the Barfod and Gottsched edition of Kierkegaard’s journals or Nachlass (late 1860s to 18981) in which he states that there is no rush with anything but he must be as frugal and detailed with time. As diligent as a beggar with a shilling. There is not space here to explore the text below at any length but Kierkegaard’s praise for the quote from Böhme essentially hails those who both view the temporal as the eternal and the eternal as the temporal, whilst the quote from Goethe praises those who do not just unite art and science in their life-task but also patience and a quiet spirit. This sounds very like the ring of existence to me.
For ease of understanding I will reproduce the above quote from Jacob Böhme in text form, which Kierkegaard precedes by saying: “An excellent adage from Jacob
Boehme (who wrote in German, of course):
Wem Zeit ist wie Ewigkeit,
Und Ewigkeit wie Zeit,
Der ist befreit
Von allem Streit.
(He for whom time is as eternity and eternity as time, is free from all strife.)
The text of Kierkegaard’s journal entry, above the two quotes invokes the paradox of diligent yet keen patience practised within the awareness of an eternal God. The vast, eternal vision of an artist painstakingly achieved. Moment by moment. It could almost be a manifesto for McCarthy’s approach to writing. Such is the human artist’s aspiration to soul. Urgent yet wise. Steadfast. Determined. Brave. Hemingway apparently said that there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
However, both Kierkegaard and McCarthy also believe that we can collapse back to the bestial. Choose the darkness to invoke Böhme. Or perhaps allow it to rise up and consume us. Just like the judge of Blood Meridian, it is there waiting for us. Waiting to drive us away from our life-task of self-fulfilment. To stop us being artists. Sin is not a question of ‘bad thoughts’ or shifting views of immorality but unfreedom. If freedom exists, as it clearly does, well then unfreedom exists. But the choice to be unfree. To choose the dark. That is sin. (This is what Kierkegaard means with his misunderstood word ‘disobedience’.) Something malevolent always lurks. Ready to be invoked. These attributes are, therefore, also the founts of our modern age dread, now that we are unmoored from belief in soul, the gods, or the Trinity, or the divinity, and a settled world vision. Cut off from, faith. Any faith. Cut off from love.
The judge is the Geist of the modern age. His muted antagonist, the kid, eventually comes to fight for humanity. Or rather, if not to fight, then to live quietly, wonder at man’s self-brutalization and savagery to fellow man and beast, and then finally to refuse consent to the judge’s writ and fiat. Refuse to submit to his merciless and remorseless dialectic.
The kid is ‘K’. K for Kierkegaard. For Kafka. The Kid K of Mcarthy’s lineage with Billy the Kid – Henry McCarty, or William Bonner, both sides of Irish stock – Billy the Kid. Small and wiry like the kid. Like all of us now, he is an orphan in this world. Tough. Violent. Lethal with a gun. And sensitive. Such are humanity’s myriad contradictions. Perhaps silent witness and muted revolt are all we have left? Silence is very difficult for a fiction writer to evince and maintain but McCarthy manages that miracle with the kid.
Silence and the obligation to be quiet, and also the oppression of silence and quiet as seen by aesthete types, say, are major themes for Kierkegaard also. Perhaps only artists can save us from a collapse back to bestiality now? Louise Glück’s idea of bearing austere but profound testimony. The new apostles stand between us and the smiling judge. We will come to that through the prism of Kierkegaard’s full presence in Blood Meridian to which we will turn now.
The judge’s battle cry
As a theme, the judge’s specifically counter-Kierkegaard ‘point of view’ is completely absent from the large-scale investigations into Cormac McCarthy in general and Blood Meridian in particular. Likewise, the possibility that the kid as a character is at least partly inspired by Kierkegaard himself is never mentioned. The essential problem is that few people in the English-speaking world read Kierkegaard to any great depth, outside of a phalanx of mostly non religiously minded academics. Thus, there is no Kierkegard anchorage that they can readily discern in McCarthy’s works.
However, leaving aside all the general, and often vague, linkages made between McCarthy and Kierkegaard – with Böhme and Nicholas (Nikolai) Berdyaev as, what we might call, supporting acts – and thanks to Michael Lynn Crews and his highly detailed 2017 investigation of McCarthy’s literary sources for most of his works Books are made of Books – a quote from McCarthy himself – we can be absolutely sure that Cormac McCarthy read at least one book about Kierkegaard prior to the publication of Blood Meridian in 1985, and even if it was possibly only one book, McCarthy made an inspired choice with Walter Lowrie’s magisterial two volume Kierkegaard biography. I wonder aloud who alerted him to Lowrie?
By referencing McCarthy’s extensive research notes and manuscript annotations, Lynn Crews does, to a limited extent, highlight the importance of Kierkegaard as an influence on, primarily, Blood Meridian. But this is in terms of background concepts such as father and son conflict and the tautologies of personal dilemmas – to shoot or not to shoot. Either way you will regret it, as Kierkegaard would have said. Kierkegaard’s deeper Hegelian context to these tautologies as laid out in `the ‘Diapsalmata’ section of his Either/Or – that these ‘contraries’ were ridiculously made the touchstones of progress and of life itself – is missed. (We bear in mind that in logic, a tautology is a statement that is true by dint of its logical form.)
Given his important work in highlighting Kierkegaard’s impact on Blood Meridian it is a shame that Lynn Crews misses the crucial ‘point of view’ Kierkegaard reference in the published Blood Meridian text itself. In his book, he does refer to the ‘point of view’ line for the judge, but fails to link it to Kierkegaard. The fact is, however, that our understanding of Cormac McCarthy must be amended with this ‘Point of View’ reference and other conclusive evidence I recount here.
Everything points to McCarthy having read Lowrie’s Kierkegaard very closely. If this is true, we need to be clear, not just about Walter Lowrie’s deep grasp of Kierkegaard’s thinking and dogmatics, but also the vast extent of his own theological and philosophical wisdom. Lowrie has been rather maligned by some modern Kierkegaard experts, allegedly for being too close to his subject. But he knew his Kierkegaard inwardly. As evidence of this, we need only consult his Kierkegaard terms glossary at the very end of his biography. In terms of the concise form in which it is presented, at least, this glossary has never been bettered in the English language. Moreover, if McCarthy read this glossary, as he almost certainly did, he will have gained a very quick but for all that profound insight into the core tenets of Kierkegard’s thinking. Add to this, the very extensive synopses of all Kierkegaard’s works, which is also provided by Lowrie in an appendix to his book, and we can see how it provides a fundamental grasp of Kierkegaard as thinker, theologian and author even before Lowrie’s biography is read in full. Thus we add this to the Book of the Judge idea and the ‘Point of View’ reference in Blood Merid.
Where Lowrie’s Kierkegaard glossary is concerned, even the short resumé list of Kierkegaardian opposites that Lowrie provides at the beginning was grist to McCarthy’s subjective and agonistic mill. His grand vision of a world in a constant ferment of possibilities, temptations, dreams and nightmares, also. Look at the scientific terms on the left as posited against, what we might call Kierkegaard’s freedom-seeking existential terms on the right:
Objectivity - Subjectivity, inwardness, pathos.
Immanence - Transcendence.
Necessity - Freedom.
Actuality - Possibility.
‘The System’ - Paradox.
Speculation - Existence.
Mediation - ‘The leap’
Anyone who is aware of the background to the above ‘contraries’ as Lowrie calls them, will see the link, but for those who are not, they represent the essential argument between Hegel and Kierkegaard specifically and Kierkegaard’s conflict with the prevailing deadening Geist generally in his age. To the left we have essentially static and conceptual positions. To the right we have the swirl and flux of the lived life.
Hegel is discussed in more detail below, but he essentially (after Aristotle) moved God into the rational (the divine gift of reason as he saw it) and conceived the process of dialectical reasoning out of negative and positive positions as arriving at state of resolution via mediation between the two positions – they ended up “in repose”, as Lowrie puts it, before moving on again to the next resolution of conflict. In other words, God – actually the Trinity in Hegel’s terms – is made a mechanism of the mind (wherever that is) and the Holy Spirit reduced to the role of a social mechanic working for the Prussian State and its King – as did Hegel for which services he was awarded the Order of the Red Eagle. All Hegel’s work was for Prussia’s glory, Germany’s destiny, and that of white bourgeois Europe. All in the name of an abstract idea of human consciousness that was not centred in our actions, in life, but some processes in our heads – anathema to Cormac McCarthy. Our religious conscience, meanwhile, is reduced to a relic from a time of immature longing. Nothing more than a defunct appendix.
As is plain from Lowrie’s glossary alone – and a researching author will always go to the table of contents, index and any glossary first – Hegel’s didactic, though trailblazing, social engineering was anathema to Kierkegaard, also. As Lowrie points out in the glossary, human dialectics for Kierkegaard invoked the etymology of that word as ‘dialogue.’ That is, two stated positions that were in constant flux, to and fro. The OED gives the ancient Greek root of the word dialectic as: – “… ἡ διαλεκτική the dialectic art, the art of discussion or debate.” It is an art, not a science. This has always sounded like real life to me. It also sounds very McCarthian, too. So let us look at what Lowrie says in his glossary definition of Kierkegaard’s famous existential ‘leap of faith’ in the context of this dispute about what dialectic reasoning actually does and can or can not bring about (the use of capital letters is part of Lowrie’s index referencing across his book):
“The Leap” (Springet). It is by this metaphor that S. K. expresses his passionaterepudiation of the smooth transition Hegel sought to effect by means of MEDIATION. S. K. protests that there is no real MOVEMENT in logic, no genuine becoming, and that in EXISTENCE every movement which effects a real change is a ‘leap’, an act of FREEDOM. This applies especially to faith, which is not attained by continuous and gradual approximations but by a resolution of the will, in ‘the Instant’.
Imagine Cormac McCarthy reading the above manna to his existential ponderings. Hegel argues that the becoming resides in the whole – expressed in the state, its laws and moral code – with the subject as a happily resolved part of that paradigm, but he does thereby leave himself open to the charge of diminishing the individual and glorifying the edifice (the temporal, legal Prussian State in his case). All hail the edifice that lifts us and sustains us.
Kierkegaard, therefore, was not only way ahead of his time in terms of warning of an overweening “system” that claims and accrues all knowledge to itself, just as Blood Meridian’s judge does, he also insisted that contradiction and paradox are inherent in existence. This would be a lightbulb moment for Cormac McCarthy. As it was for Jacob Böhme long before both of them.
Cormac McCarthy was particularly taken with the Gnostic Jacob Böhme’s idea of the cold fires of Unground, from which the flames of the good emanate because there cannot be ‘nothing.’ Always always there is a hunger for something. Rather like a metaphysical and metaphorical flower that ever seeks a warming sun, there is a primordial will to be free. It is the sun of being emerging from the imploding dark star. Freedom resides in darkness but hungers for light. We have already seen that Kierkegaard was highly interested in Böhme – in fact he had a modest library of his works.
The issues surrounding the Germanic root of ‘ground’ are crucial to understanding the interplay or rather interaction between a metaphysical and earthly ground. This is lost in the modern English rendition of the word. In its various forms, the Germanic, ‘grund-e-n’ is to ponder, or establish, decide or prove. It is highly active and lends itself perfectly to imagining the mystical realm of Ur-being or what Böhme calls the supersensual.
The ground of being as opposed to nothing must be love, but as we know, or rather grasp and intuit, love is groundless. It is pre-ground. It must be God. It is through love that we, as temporal beings, can know the eternal in time and time in the eternal, as the Kierkegaard quote above demonstrates. Love is offended by void. The cold void, conversely, hates the warmth of love. Though these are my own outworkings of grund/ground, I am grateful to Dr Greg Marcar for clarifying my own thoughts by way of his excellent 2022 essay on the relationship between Böhme and Kierkegaard – ‘The Quiet Lake and the Hidden Spring: Locating the Ground in Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.’
For his part, Michael Lynn Crews is brilliant in his account of how Böhme influenced McCarthy and stresses the importance of Nicholas (Nikolai) Berdyaev’s introductory essay (‘Unground and Freedom’) to Böhme’s work Six Theosophic Points. Lynn Crews centres on a vital word in this debate – ‘meontic’ (meonic), literally ‘not nothing’. This is, as I would interpret it, the nothing that is pregnant with possibility. It is a key but under researched, or forgotten in modern times, aspect of Kierkegaard’s idea of the possible residing in the nothing. Adam pondered the possible – the grounds of original sin, long before Eve plucked the apple. And the only serpent was the serpent within. It is a thing we cannot understand in logic, but can grasp. It must be God and the fact that we can turn away from God, as I grasp and grapple with this unfathomable thing called the possible. Or an expression of God that permeates everything in existence – Evil and Good. God is the ‘not nothing’ that is offended by the cold fires of a void. The self-perpetuating force that seeks to expose to light all that is hidden, She is the womb of all existence impregnated with the possible. Lynn Crews terms her “the cosmic womb.” The matrix. The formless source offended by cold void that carries both the fire of wrath and the pregnant fire of love. Or as Böhme puts it:
The dark world is therefore the ground and origin of the light-world; and the terrible evil must be a cause of the good, and all is God’s
Is this not redolent of Christ coming to us as a sword and viewed as our enemy? That he would illuminate the dark of our lives? The Bible says somewhere that if anyone were to attempt a painting of God, this would have to be a flaming fire of love that filled both heaven and earth. Böhme stresses the potent and fertile nature of Salitter (saltpetre – salt of rock). A matrix of forces (matrix as in womb again) interacting and animating other things. Though he was fascinated by it, Hegel called this theory barbarous. In fact, it sounds to modern ears very like the scientific Big Bang and an innate power of love reacting against the void. It fires our imagination much more readily because we know instinctively that nothing can come from nothing. This celestial Salitter substance is illuminating, fertilising and also explosive in its stinking earthly manifestation. The judge of the Blood Meridian creating the bullets from the bare earth evokes this.
We imagine so easily how Cormac McCarthy was so fired by these striking metaphors and alchemic workings. The danger. Incandescence. Yearning for growth. Questioning. Reacting. Suttree’s life-risking descent into the She-Mother’s pit is decisive. Hugely transgressive with its gerontophilia and reckless search for meaning and how far we can go with the possible. Truly we are at the Unground and the innate desire to test and challenge it. Kierkegaard’s leap across the chasm of what is possible is more profound than even he realised.
Though all this is obviously my own interpretation, when I first read Lynn Crews’s account of Böhme and read Berdyaev’s Unground essay, three words came to me: ‘meontic’ (as already stated), ‘invenire’ and ‘prevenient.’ They all imply what is impending and finding what is not there. The basis of all artistic creation. In the context of ‘invenire’, George Steiner says that Kierkegaard imagined a new Antigone for the modern age who had not been there before in his account of her in Either/Or. Unlike in the days of Ancient Greece, nobody knows or must know her secret. She now carries the burden of existence in her atomised modern self. She is an entirely new myth.
Unfortunately, Lynn Crews does not take his Böhme/Berdyaev investigation to its ultimate ground, which finds Berdyaev signalling a rejection of the Hegelian idea that the spirit resides, or can reside, in the objective (conceptual). Individual freedom cannot be realised within social structures such as temporal states or cultures. In the context of ‘Theogony’ – the origin of God, or gods – we read words from Berdyaev in this essay that must surely have resonated with Cormac McCarthy. Berdyaev says:
But “theogony” does not mean that God had a beginning and was born in time; Boehme did not mean as did Fichte and Hegel, that God is born within a temporal process, but that God’s interior and eternal life manifests itself under the form of a dynamic process, of tragedy within eternity, of battle against the darkness of Non-Being.
Lynn Crews’s intuition is correct in raising Berdyaev, but we can go much further. Berdyaev went beyond even Kierkegaard in his assertion of human freedom and one feels that his arguments were embraced by McCarthy, likewise. It seems clear to me that McCarthy knew far more of Kierkegaard and Berdyaev, and Nietzsche for that matter, then we have ascertained so far.
With Kierkegaard, Nicholas Berdyaev and Bohme, we are at the very core of McCarthy’s philosophy. For what does McCarthy do? In opposition to the judge, he writes from the core of existence and not about the core of existence. He does not seek to record in a knowledge ledger. He must sing life. Create new life. He writes of reality, not about it. He creates new myth from his own subjective inspiration. Look at what Berdyaev says in The Destiny of Man regarding Hegel’s – and before him Descartes’s – severance of knowledge from the flux of existential reality:
The severance between knowledge and reality is the fatal result of rationalism which has not been thought out to the end. It denies that the act of knowing is an existential act. But if reality stands over against knowledge, there can be no inner connection between the two, and knowledge does not form part of reality. Hence, knowledge is not something, but is about something.
What we know in our hearts, as that key existential phrase interestingly has it, we know before any objective knowledge about it. And this is why w are torn asunder in this age of knowledge 24/7. Knowledge devoid of heart or soul. We are the tragic subjects of an existence in which two great forces struggle for hegemony – the light and the dark. The reference to Eastern Daoist myths is unmistakable.
How could all these alarm bells about Hegel from authors who were favoured by McCarthy be missed in McCarthy criticism? Clearly, the judge is an expression of non-being. Of infernal nothing. Of a form of life that is dead to life and seeks to extinguish it. We are tragic because, though only human, we still persist in existing. Kierkegaard said that we are not animals precisely because we are extremely interested in the question of our own existence. He stresses the vast movement in that single word – inter-est. Between being. On the way to being. Not just an interest in existing but helping others to exist once we get past selfishness. As Walter Lowrie points out, Hegel’s suzerain (note this word) reason wants to say that this is all suspicious nonsense and absurd – yes! Kierkegaard would have cried, as would Camus, another fierce critic of Hegel and supreme German idealism’s effacing of the individual, who was also of great interest to McCarthy.
The very thought that Cormac McCarthy grappled with these counter Hegel lines and then Walter Lowrie’s concise yet game changing anti-Hegel Kierkegaard glossary excites me greatly and here is why: it is not because McCarthy became a ‘follower’ of Kierkegaard, and anyway Kierkegaard rejected the very notion of having followers, rather in the manner that McCarthy refused to do interviews or join the literati circuit. No, it is because McCarthy grounded all his works in real life. In the personal. In dialogue. In physical manifestation and in action. In a character that decides to make a life changing stand. Or do something life-changingly and inexplicably stupid, or sinful. We wince as we realise that Suttree is once more going to descends into that of alcoholic miasma and self-destruction. Would avert our eyes as the young man decides to enter the barbarous lair. In tragedy, there is no repose. There is no Hegelian World Spirit moving us ever closer to a white European Prussian idea of bourgeois perfection. Life is tragic, and cannot be remedied by logic, only by the heroic.
McCarthy’s narrators invariably act as a latter-day Greek chorus to the grimly actual and profound rather than abstract inner life of his characters. In the terror of the possible when acted out, be that bad or good – usually bad. The figure of Socrates strikes me very forcibly in this and through the prism of Kierkegaard’s preference for Socrates over Augustine himself with regard to the sovereign individual’s search for truth. Socrates was a ‘gadfly’. A Provocateur. McCarthy is this, too. A sword of light in the darkness.
Of course, McCarthy wrote astounding descriptions of nature, desert wastes, geological strata, polluted yet very grand rivers, caves urban or mountainous. But there is clear provocation there. Always movement. On earth as there is in his heavens – the real meaning of dialectic when it moves our souls. All that swirl and drag that is in the world. A deep-thinking young man, gazing at the burning stars in the shimmering vault above. The tide of sudden events that defy all logic, precisely because they seem to have been foretold aeons before. The sheer mess of life and how it must be continually lived forwards and learned backwards. But the point is, that the question of becoming something is a human being’s alone. The natural world is not subject to self-doubt and worries about sin (selfishness) and death. The terror of being faced with a choice. The trauma of innate scenario. The inter-est. No shooting star can match the coruscating, entirely illogical fire of first love.
If you want a classic example of existential writing in McCarthy’s works, as opposed to coldly logical and distancing inner life fiction, take this from Suttree – a scene in which Suttree’s mother unexpectedly comes to visit him in prison. He sees her and wants to turn back to his cell (how profound) but the guard pushes him on:
… Please dont start crying, he said.
See the hand that nursed the serpent. The fine hasped pipes of her fingerbones. The skin bewenned and speckled. The veins are milkblue and bulby. A thin gold ring set with diamonds. That raised the once child’s heart of her to agonies of passion before I was. Here is the anguish of mortality. Hopes wrecked, love sundered. See the mother sorrowing. How everything that I was warned of’s come to pass.
Note how third person becomes first person here and that we must reread these lines to grasp the distorted expression of person and syntax. We are made to work. We and McCarthy are just as tortured as the characters in this drama. Note the muted but hyper-expressive symbolism, also. The ageing process so graphically drawn in a painting rather than attempts at precise description. There are agonies of passion and the anguish in simply being mortal on almost every page of Cormac McCarthy, though there is a lot of humour there as well.
I see McCarthy reading Kierkegaard and grasping his truly existential ‘Point of View’ instinctively. He is fired with this idea of ‘Judge. From various sources, as we shall see. Then he is presented with The Book of the Judge in Lowrie and is gripped. So much so that he ironized this term and made it the judge’s rational, scientific battle cry. Thus, was born the point of view of this dread scientist. We are grateful to Jacob Böhme and Walter Lowrie. Grateful to Nicholas Berdyaev. Grateful to Cormac McCarthy. Grateful to Michael Lynn Crews.
Only love can conquer the judge
Understandably, much has been made of the fact that McCarthy chose to introduce Blood Meridian with, amongst others, an (abbreviated) quote from Jacob Böhme’s Six Theosophic Points telling us that death and dying are the very life of the darkness. But the section in Böhme following on from the quote is just as instructive and it invokes the judge’s constant jauntiness. He is never faint-hearted and indulges his wrath. But he fears a great adversary – “the light”, which is his misery and dread. In fact it is our own selves who elevate him and give him credence because faced with the stern might of the eternal light that he has rejected (I paraphrase). He is nothing more than a glorified juggler. A prancer:
He would be lord therein, and yet is but a juggler with the fierceness; although he must act according to the property. And this is also a wonder before the stern might of eternity.
For the judge, who is Lucifer – and to invoke the Mennonite’s warnings near the start of Blood Meridian – war is not man’s natural pursuit in order to conquer our despair, it is the only remedy the judge has for his despair. Lucifer has made his choice to shun the light and then must continually suborn others to his cause so as to justify his fall from grace. He is Macbeth writ large in the cosmos. This ‘real’ objective World Spirit governing humanity is a sinister comedy. It is another direct reference to Kierkegaard and his ridiculing of Hegel’s ersatz and comical tautologies. This same Kierkegaard who was the prophet bar none of modern-day despair. Why else would McCarthy’s Muse conjure a judge who sought to counter Kierkegaard’s view of despair by invoking his own bar-room general ‘Point of View’ remedy and its drums of war with which he baits the kid?
You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar which bonds?
All this underpins a constant theme in McCarthy’s oeuvre – our atavistic and utterly ridiculous banging blood human drive to self-extinction. Human shapes emerging through shrouds of mist “like the last survivors of Armageddon” (The Orchard Keeper) are a constant motif in McCarthy’s works. A theme that is counterpoised by the solemn need of his characters to engage, explore and create beyond themselves. To love. To step into that Antigone space of existential, choice. The leap rather than an orderly transition. John Grady Cole’s love for the indigenous Mexican prostitute is inexplicable in logic. But since when did love do logic? Since when did Tragedy do logic? It is in this human maelstrom that our conscience resides. What English language writer nowadays engages in such deep ponderings of the soul and haunting eschatology, which are – crucially – expressed in extremes of physicality? Actions, words and physical symbols – material phenomena – rather than inner narrative and abstract dialectical reasoning?
All this underpins a constant theme in McCarthy’s oeuvre – our atavistic and utterly ridiculous banging blood human drive to self-extinction. Human shapes emerging through shrouds of mist “like the last survivors of Armageddon” (The Orchard Keeper) are a constant motif in McCarthy’s works. A theme that is counterpoised by the solemn need of his characters to engage, explore and create beyond themselves. To love. To step into that Antigone space of existential, choice. The leap rather than an orderly transition. John Grady Cole’s love for the indigenous Mexican prostitute is inexplicable in logic. But since when did love do logic? Since when did Tragedy do logic? It is in this human maelstrom that our conscience resides. What English language writer nowadays engages in such deep ponderings of the soul and haunting eschatology, which are – crucially – expressed in extremes of physicality? Actions, words and physical symbols – material phenomena – rather than inner narrative and abstract dialectical reasoning?
And what is the alternative to the judge’s ‘false flag’ invocation of our most basic murderous instincts as humans? That is McCarthy’s constant challenge, both to himself and his readers. And no more than Kierkegaard, McCarthy has no ready answers. Nor is providing clear answers the role of a non-didactic author like him. However, his empathy for the lives of those we now call ‘challenged’ people is clear. The social protest element in McCarthy’s works is another feature that is often overlooked in a welter of overtheorizing. I too stand guilty as charged. For there is a seething anger there. A criticism of racism and a defence of the poor and the despised. The message of Christ. That is, McCarthy’s deep love of human beings. At our most basic level of individual human validity – that we are more than just savage beasts, that we reflect on our own existence and coming death, that we have a soul and a sense of eternity. That we seek love and ineffable love seeks us.
In Suttree there is a tender but mostly overlooked moment when Suttree regards his new prison inmate. A pathetic creature altogether. A permanently prepubescent, bony, craving, unlovable, ferreting rodent by the name of Gene Harrogate – the “city mouse” or “city rat”. The passage could be from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot:
Suttree looked up at the boy’s eyes. Bright with a kind of animal cognizance, with incipient good will. Well, he said. It’s getting rough out there, isnt it?
The beauty of Kierkegaard is that – unlike the over-subjective Berdyaev one could argue – via his own sufferings and vison of hope, his incredible psychological insights into the human condition (which have never been bettered – even by Dostoevsky), he points to a path of possibility that can help lead us out of this modern-day labyrinth of tortured questions and despair, our fear of the other also, which is why Walter Lowrie’s Kierkegaard biography is such a seminal influence for McCarthy. Whether or not we choose that path, or can find our way back or forward to it, is the stuff of proper fiction. McCarthian fiction.
Walter Lowrie’s Kierkegaard biography was first published in 1938 and then reprinted in the 1960s with additional material. Other abridged versions have followed. McCarthy availed of the original 1938 version according to Lynn Crews. And as we already seen in its green cover above, Lowrie also published a stand-alone version of Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’, the first edition of which came out in 1939. It is without doubt the best Kierkegaard work for those who want a short but deeply engaging overview of Kierkegaard the man, the thinker and his works. To emphasise the importance of this ‘Point of View’ work, Kierkegaard looked far beyond his usual audience, made up of priests, bishops, theologians and, largely, the educated citizens of Copenhagen. In the title page, he called this book a direct report to history. This book, then was – unusually – to be in his own name and for the world to hear. It was meant for posterity’s record.
Michael Lynn Crews tells us that McCarthy made several key references to Kierkegaard in his large-scale notes and jottings for Blood Meridian (this was in the same period he was writing Suttree also), but though these notes cite several different Kierkegaard works, they all refer to Lowrie’s translation extracts from these works in his biography. Kierkegaard’s works do not separately feature in the bibliography of Lynn Crews’s book and there is just one work by Lowrie (his Kierkegaard biography). Yet, rather confusingly, to my mind, Walter Lowrie does not feature in the book’s subject index in which Kierkegaard takes his place, despite the fact McCarthy is clearly consulting Lowrie’s exegetics as well as Kierkegaard’s writings. It would be exciting to discover that McCarthy had also read the individual Kierkegaard works referred to by Lowrie and by extension Lynn Crews – Fear and Trembling (see further below) and Point of View itself, for example. Perhaps future research will unearth such precious facts.
Lowrie’s translation extracts were and are precious jewels in the English-speaking Kierkegaard world and Lynn Crews has done a great service to McCarthy criticism in his forensic examination of McCarthy’s research notes, particularly where Kierkegaard is concerned. However, and as already suggested, Kierkegaard is not given the overtly prominent position he deserves in Lynn Crew’s book. Not even in his chapter on Blood Meridian. A deserved prominence that is not confined to the important points we have discussed so far regarding Hegel, ‘scientism’ and logic vis-à-vis faith and clemency for example. Again, this demonstrates that Lynn Crews was not fully aware of the implications of his Kierkegaard discoveries, because McCarthy’s Kierkegaard notes prove beyond any remaining doubt that Kierkegaard is central to Blood Meridian. Far more central than any other author, I would argue.
Following Lynn Crew’s reference sequence of the McCarthy’s notes for Lowrie/Kierkegaard, we come first to the judge’s terrifying warning to the kid (now the man) in the final orgiastic bar scene that his soul may be required of him that very night. This of course is an invocation of Luke 12:20. But let us look at where Kierkegaard refers to this in his own ‘Book of the Judge’ (his private journals). The version below is from the Barfod and Gottsched editions of the Kierkegaard Nachlass, which were the first ever published as a collection, as noted, in the late 1860s and then onwards until 1881 (a period that saw Gottsched eventually take full charge due to Barfod’s ill health – a happy event at least for German literati like Kafka – as we have seen, as Gottsched went on to publish Buch des Richters in his native Germany):
he above is the earliest ever published version of this remarkable passage from Kierkegaard’s journals, an account (a set of imagined and interlinked scenarios), so anguish ridden and near to his heart that Kierkegaard subsequently attempted to obliterate the passage from the record. Kierkegaard historians have debated ever since whether the whole passage or parts of it should be published. Some do and some don’t. Lowrie did. Here is Lowrie’s translation of the above text that so grabbed McCarthy’s attention:
Then he goes to his berth. It is no great library he has with him, yet he has a Bible. He opens it, and strangely enough he opens it just at the text: This night thy soul shall be required of thee. Strange!
The first scenario in Kierkegaard’s Nachlass from which this Luke reference comes is a large passenger ship – the largest imaginable Kierkegaard says, interestingly. (We are close to Science Fiction.) He clearly means the ship of society. A passenger will subsequently also be referred to. A passenger who seeks to warn the captain that this massive vessel is heading into a terrible storm, which is only discernible by a strong point of light, or ‘speck’, in the far distance. The passenger is clearly Kierkegaard. In Blood Meridian, it is also the kid. It is Cormac McCarthy’s terror writ large. Oblivious to the heightened tension on the ship’s bridge and out on deck where there are things to be lashed and lifeboats readied, the other passengers are revelling with no little frenzy in the ballroom salon. Brecht and the Weimar Republic come readily to mind. Younger readers may immediately think Titanic in the modern idiom.
In the first parable of these three interlinked scenarios, two of which refer to the monster cruise liner, the seasoned captain and crew initiate the requisite, emergency watch procedures – they will be on high alert all night. They are a competent crew overseen by a first-class ship’s master. This captain goes down to his quarters for a moment and reaches for a Bible – one of the few books he possesses. He opens the Bible at a random place and is presented with the very passage from Luke that carries the warning to the rich farmer of his soul being required that very night. As per Böhme and Kierkegaard, one must not only love eternity but also each precious moment of eternity in God’s love and in faith. One must ever be watchful. The rich farmer believes that with all his abundance he can indulge, postpone and negotiate with – ‘mediate’ to use a Hegelian term – this urgent, existential truth. Put eternity off for another day. But a reckoning awaits us all at any and every moment, as every poor and challenged person knows. And God said to the rich man:
You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own all the things you have prepared?
This is the very phrase the judge uses in such a sinister fashion in that gripping final barroom scene in which the shooting of the dancing bear unleashes the final depravities. A Grand Guignol presentation. A macabre Breughel painting that has come alive before our amazed eyes. It is true that the captain’s Bible in Kierkegaard’s parable and the warning of imminent human and social destruction therein has inspired McCarthy to juxtapose the judge and the kid, as Lynn Crews points out. But Lynn Crews is too restrictive here as elsewhere with regard to Kierkegaard, concentrating instead mainly on the personal relationship between the judge and the kid:
These references identify an important source of inspiration for McCarthy’s depiction of the relationship between the kid and the judge.
This downplays the clear political anger on display in both scenes, for both Kierkegaard and McCarthy, and indeed for Jesus. Woe to those who are selfish and decadent as the destruction of society looms. A Socio-psychological nightmare also. The judge being more in the manner of Francis Bacon’s corrupt and screaming Popes. The moral collapse of man in which even, or especially, the supposedly religious defile their calling. We are the heart of the Kierkegaardian nightmare. Lucifer triumphant. The judge in his true realm and all revealed there and we praying the kid will just leave the bar forthwith:
I got to go.
The judge looked aggrieved. Go? he said.
He nodded. He reached and took hold of his hat where it lay on the bar but he not take it up and he did not move.
What man would not be a dancer if he could, said the judge. It's a great thing, the dance.
The woman was kneeling and had her arm around the little girl. The candles sputtered and the great hairy mound of the bear dead in its crinoline lay like some monster slain in the commission of unnatural acts. The judge poured the tumbler full where it stood empty alongside the hat and nudged it forward.
Drink up, he said. Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of thee.
He looked at the glass. The judge smiled and gestured with the bottle. He took up
the glass and drank.
Lynn Crews is correct to say that the captain and passenger – judge and kid dichotomy relates to Kierkegaard’s previously respectful but increasingly fractious relationship with Bishop (and state primate) Jacob Peter Mynster. But it is not just a father son relationship. In his heart of hearts, as revealed in these private notes, Kierkegaard sometimes goes as far as regarding Mynster as a hypocrite and someone who resorted to the conjuring illusions and deceit – Øjenforblindelse he says in the deleted journal entry – a hint of ‘blindfolding’ and a phrase that goes right back to the trickster Loki of Nordic myth. Kierkegaard says that Mynster engaged not just in politics but in politicking and currying favour with what is now called the mainstream media. Here is this startling attack from the Nachlass as it was published by Barfod and Gottsched. The stir it caused must have been enormous:
Lowrie does not reproduce this character assassination of Mynster by Kierkegaard in his book, but even without it, we are left in no doubt in the book as a whole that Kierkegaard felt that Mynster had abandoned his calling and succumbed to worldliness. It was for this very reason that when the new primate of Denmark, H L. Martensen, described the recently deceased Mynster as an authentic Christian witness to the truth, Kierkegaard initiated his famous attack on the established church.
We need to bear in mind that Martensen was something of a theological superstar in bourgeois Europe and a dedicated follower of Hegel, despite his earlier admiration for Jakob Böhme. Fuel enough, therefore, for Kierkegaard’s incandescent rage. The fact that Lowrie headlined this whole section as ‘Loading the Gun’ – a legend that sits atop every verso (left side) page of the section – must have made a deep impression on McCarthy, bearing in mind that Lowrie correctly explains that Kierkegaard declined to fire his gun at Mynster whilst he was still alive. Michael Lynn Crews does not refer to this headline in Lowrie’s book.
We know of course, and Lynn Crews stresses this, that the sharpshooter kid passed up a chance to kill the judge in the desert. McCarthy made a specific note for this Kierkegaard motif in his manuscript notes. It is this refusal or inability to shoot that fascinates McCarthy. What is the kid’s “fatal weakness” McCarthy asks in another note to the text. As Lynn Crews rightly says, this is a fascinating insight into an author’s imaginings and outworkings as he brings a masterpiece to fruition. And Lynn Crews is once again highly perceptive in noting that the thing the kid cannot do is to go down the path of the judge’s apocalyptic violence.
But the kid is doing far more than just declining to shoot. He is making a lifechanging choice to embark on a different, religious path and he becomes a ‘preacher’ of sorts. And there are other things the kid cannot do. For not only is the kid unable to speak out, he cannot get people to follow his quiet example. The inability to speak is a central theme in Blood Meridian. The kid is clearly an almost silent counterpart to the verbose judge. And by the end, the only thing he can do is to bear silent witness even unto the final sacrifice in a depraved and corrupted world in which the revellers will not listen. This is the moral of these passages from Lowrie that have such bearing for Blood Meridian.
This reading is buttressed by McCarthy’s use of the next twist that Kierkegaard adds in these short parables by imagining instead that the captain, rather than securing his vessel, joins in with the revellers. Not only does he become a dancer like the judge, nobody intervenes to stop him. Society itself has collapsed to the void. What do we do when those in whom we place our trust abandon their posts? The ship’s master, the Pope and his haughty clerics, the scientist who has become suzerain in our times? We are back to our doctor-scientist at the patient’s bedside. And there is more, as Lynn Crews explains, because there is a ‘final’ Kierkegaard parable in which a young army officer can win the war and make himself a national and military legend by directing his battery of canons to a place in the enemy lines that would turn the battle decisively. The problem is that this young officer’s own general is also in the firing line and the officer decides that his ethical values take precedence over his military duty. He will not scalp his friend and mentor. As we have seen, he will not shoot. Thus, we seem to have come to a satisfactory conclusion about these parables and their link to Blood Meridian. Except that we have not. They do not end there.
It is understandable that Lynn Crews describes the young ‘disarmed’ officer story as the last parable, but in fact Kierkegaard does not conclude this parable section at the place where Lowrie stops his translation. There is a final section with yet another short parable and a ‘moral of the tale’ finale. And this final section asserts and confirms an overall theme for these passages that, as I argue it, is underemphasised by Lynn Crews. For the last parable holds another reference to the passenger on this ship who tried to warn the second, dissolute captain of the impending doom and dragged him from the Bacchanal. Twice. The first time the captain is humorously dismissive. The second time he deals roughly with this latter-day Cassandra. The passenger is left in crisis. As we are in crisis right now.
Here then is the very core of the passage not shown by Lowrie in which Kierkegaard directly refers to Mynster as his “general” just prior to the quote below and provides a new ‘lantern’ parable (with my translation-adaptation below it):
It is dark, and there is danger. Someone comes hurrying. He is
willingness and devotion personified and, as he quite rightly should, he holds a lantern aloft. But it soon becomes clear that the people he wants to help do not seek illumination. For if there is light, they cannot avoid being seen – and this they will shun more than anything.
The focus has now clearly shifted. This has nothing to do with any captain or judge or religious primate for that matter. It is about us. All of us. The clear underlying judgement from these passages as a whole is that we must not use the judge’s evil methods – not even to murder the judge. For this is impossible anyway: the cold fires of evil will always be there. We must also be willing to reveal ourselves to the light and take the ethical (religious) consequences. The inescapable and dreadful conclusion is that we must forgive even the base monster both those without and within – and find ways to deal with sin in a way that does not lead to our own corruption.
Rather than there being an inextricable bond between the judge and the kid, as Lynn Crews avers, the kid breaks any bond they had decisively. The Kierkegaardian and truly Christian moral to be derived from the kid’s actions are that the kid’s quiet but steadfast denial of the judge’s hegemony vanquishes him. The kid does this by offering up his very life in that putrid jakes just as Christ the Redeemer did. But nobody is listening. The djinn of the cold fires knows that he must kill clemency. He also knows that if we do not hearken to the kid. If we do not listen. If we do not embrace the warm light of love. We are doomed. Hence the judge’s joy at the zenith of the bloody evening-tide of humanity, as he prances with delight, bows to the ladies, doffs his hat, and celebrates the death of clemency.
His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
The pall of silence from humanity without. The kid is speechless and the people made deaf with their own cacophony of nonsense. It is clear to me that whether read in the original Danish or in Lowrie’s translation of these fascinating passages that, firstly: the hedonistic devil-may-care party going on in the ship’s salon, heedless and uncaring of the coming prefect storm, is a theological, social, political and psychological metaphor for the collapse of existence – starkly and grippingly retold at the end of Blood Meridian; and secondly: that the judge/captain reference goes far beyond the stewardship of Bishop Mynster and refers to society’s embracing of corruption and decadence.
Put simply, the ghastly denouement of Blood Meridian is a homage to Kierkegaard’s vision. A vision so terrible and unbearable for Kierkegaard that he sought to obliterate it from his soul and the record of posterity. Why then has Kierkegaard’s central importance for Blood Meridian in particular and Cormac McCarthy in general been so unreported?
Given my deep, mostly private, engagement with both Kierkegaard and Cormac McCarthy over decades, readers can imagine how enthralled I was as this narrative unfolded, in particular after reading Michael Lynn Crews’s superb book. (A superbly composed and argued book that houses a wonderful display of erudition.) This enthrallment led me to delve further into what might be called Cormac McCarthy’s overall life-view and the issues that moved him in a fundamental way. Poverty, injustice and racism are clearly there as is a keen environmental concern. The drug trade and its corruption of all things obviously became more important to him as time progressed. The Road is a direct continuum to the triumph of the Blood Meridian.
But in essence, I wanted to explore what exactly it is that makes Cormac McCarthy a, decidedly non-denominational, religious writer and how he offers a possible paradigm for the central role of the artist in the future. The question of sin (unfreedom and the choice to be unfree) is paramount. My worry is that genuine religious authors and artists will increasingly be subject to censorship, either of a ‘soft’ or more blatant and heavy-handed form. The literati have become a constituency that writes about existentialism rather than being existential. The literati seek to shun the existential lantern and are increasingly impatient of its writers.
It should be noted that many thinkers and religious described Kierkegaard’s demands as extreme and indeed inhuman. It is impossible to renounce the world they said. His reply to that was to demand that at least then people should be honest and admit they do not live the principles they espouse. Moreover, he asked, from where will people receive guidance, if our judges are hypocrites? The answer can only be religious authors like him. Only artists can save us.
The human blood meridian of conscience
Outer Dark – possibly McCarthy’s greatest, most profound work
One of the greatest insights that Kierkegaard bestowed to us is that no human being can vanquish sin on his or her own. With my background steeped in both Irish Catholicism and socialist politics, when my self-described atheist friends – and some of them are very dear friends and comrades – hear me speak of sin and religion, they throw their arms out and stare at me in bewilderment. For them, the idea of there being a God is ridiculous. And as for ‘sin’ – most of them, and especially in an Irish context think of sin (when they are aware that they are thinking of it all) has something to do with furtive and forbidding confessional boxes and the infliction of guilt rather than the lifting of guilt. The scandal of clerical sexual abuse has, understandably, only heightened their bewilderment. But the question of human conscience has nothing to do with either church or state, much as those institutions have tried to usurp this primordial gift. If your conscience speaks to you, which it surely must if you are human, then sin and transgression and one’s self-reflection on one’s behaviour and treatment of others is axiomatic. Ergo the possibility of sin exists regardless of any religious belief. If that is the case, then we must find ways to be lifted from self-doubt and a guilty or brutalised conscience.
As we noted briefly above, for Kierkegaard, sin and ultimately despair, is a disorder of the spirit that begins in the realm of the denied possible. It can be an abandonment of hope, a refusal to hope, decision to transgress, and then a building feeling à la Macbeth who decides to do what he fears most – ‘Dread’ is the outrage of the possible. Of the scenario. So that we must sin afresh. Sin and be damned. Sin to feel alive. A perversion of our true selves and a flight from them. Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It is a denial or turning away from the good and a plunging into despair. Dread flees from a nameless thing born out of recrimination and alienation that must – perversely – be enacted.
Outer Dark refers memorably to that realm of sin and transgression. That ‘outer dark’ for McCarthy is both the dark physical world beyond the porch, the primordial Red Riding Hood forest, and then the primordial forest of recrimination and regret, attempts at justification or amnesia, at the sinful deed. It is also, in McCarthy’s context, the realm of a declining genus – the once pioneering, expansionist Anglo-Saxon settlers whose seed is now degenerate, resentful and bitter. Dark and shrivelled fruits. Bitter to taste and memory. It is in this realm that a bearded judge and his gang appears -anticipating the bald judge demon to come. A judge called forth from the outer dark by guilty conscience and yet terribly real and terrifying for all that. What an achievement by McCarthy.
Kierkegaard showed that the power of sin – base selfishness, an avoidance of the other and a collapse to bestial motivations – can only be lifted by a power that is greater than this gripping beast, elemental force for malice that is powered by our own inner torments and wilful collapse as the only way we see to survive. The abandonment of any and every rule is exhilarating. But the moment we have a modicum of peace. the dread returns anew. This is the sickness unto death, which only humans can suffer. Our undeniable, elemental need to confess calls out to us. All of Dostoevsky revolves around these points. The modern-day equivalent is the 12 step AA programme of renunciation for addicts. They need to admit their weakness and must embrace the help of a higher power. A might far greater than them and their addiction. Greater even than their need for the drug that is killing them. Only faith and not reason can bring us there. For Kierkegaard, the opposite of sin is not goodness, but genuine faith. We are human. Therefore, we sin. Faith is the higher power. The alternative is to embrace the blood meridian. Embrace the judge. As Joel Glanton and his gang did.
Regardless of what arrangements we make for social solidarity (and these remain vital), no atomised individual in modern day isolation can break free of despair and the judge’s cynical bestiality without some grand spiritual vision of mercy and grace. And this must emerge, in the first instance, as Kierkegaard rightly argues, from an individual choice for – a faith in – Summum Bonum – the ultimate or highest good.
Ironically and absurdly, our reluctance to do so. Our reluctance to believe that this outrageous paradox of other-forgiveness and forgiveness of ourselves by way of being ‘lifted’ is even possible, brings us to the very vertigo-ledge of faith. Hegel accepts this, but says that it is at that very point that our divine powers of reason step up and carry us across to logical synthesis. He clearly underestimated the ills of capitalism as Marx pointed out. His lifelong knowledge ledger is his own despair.
In this context, I was struck by something else that Jacob Böhme states in the second point of his Six Theosophic Points, which refers to the mixed tree of evil and good:
That which in the dark world is a pang, is in the light-world a pleasing delight; and what in the dark is a stinging and enmity, is in the light an uplifting joy. And that which in the dark is a fear, terror and trembling, is in the light a shout of joy, a ringing forth and singing. And that could not be, if originally there were no such fervent, austere source.
That lantern of light again. The dark for Böhme writing in 1620 posits a “fear (and terror) and trembling.” It is a directly Kierkegaardian phrase but written at the very inception of modern times (presumably after Paul). Again, this is the idea of Schrack or terror, fright (a sudden explosion of light also). Truly this terror and primordial dark suddenly illuminated with dreadful eruptions of light is grist to McCarthy’s existential mill. Suttree is to be found running across swathes of virgin forest, away from his own self and the idea that he might be forgiven, paradoxically embracing the “improbable succour” he believes is denied him and from which he is fleeing. Across the abyss he finally leaps. For there is a sorrow for which there is neither name nor human help. And it is in that final recognition and only in that final recognition that grace and mercy arise. All of humanity knows this truth. It is the place of clemency which the judge cannot scalp. This is the heart of Kierkegaard’s point and human reason alone cannot lift us across that chasm. We need faith. We need Christ’s love and the love that is groundless, because it precedes all things.
For me, Kierkegaard is far more present in Cormac McCarthy, who has no agenda other than sounding the depths of the human condition than any Kierkegaard book I have ever read, and I have read possibly hundreds at this stage. There must be few souls who can listen to Rinthy Holme in Outer Dark and follow her desperate odyssey for her incestual child – her pathetic ‘chap’ – without feeling that they too bleed from her emaciated but panging breasts. Be that tears of salt or milk or blood. Or all of them. How is that possible? How do we do and how did we learn metaphor and this wounding grief that no animal can feel? Though episodic, and perhaps precisely because of that, Outer Dark is in my view McCarthy’s greatest novel. It reaches the level of the incest ridden Antigone myth and is breathtaking. As we have noted, its huge judge is, of course, a dread herald of Blood Meridian’s judge. The harbinger of guilt and haunting retribution at our own foul deeds:
And in the glare of the torches nothing of his face visible but the eyes like black agates, nothing of his beard or the suit he wore gloss enough to catch the light and nothing about his hulking dusty figure other than its size to offer why these townsmen should follow him along the road this night.
With Outer Dark, McCarthy is as deep in the soul of humanity as Kierkegaard in his own version of that ancient Antigone myth in Either/Or. The hanging question of where Redemption is to be found in this waking nightmare? McCarthy is every bit as much a religious author in the non-denominational sense as his fellow heretic Kierkegaard, who pointed out in his ‘Point of View’ that:
Every religious writer, or speaker, or teacher, who absents himself from danger and is not present where it is, and where Evil has its stronghold, is a deceiver.
This challenge, indeed this inexorable call, for artists – for Kierkegaard, true or ‘genuine’ artists – that they must grapple with the most dangerous of subjects, to the extremes of their abilities and to the point of placing their health, wellbeing or safety in danger, puts me in mind of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and his extraordinary vision of the artist (interestingly depicted as an ordinary shepherd) biting the head of the Eternal Recurrence serpent that seeks to gorge his throat to death. The powerful image of the serpent dominating our subconscious once again. This ‘vision and riddle’ challenge is recounted to sailors, whom Zarathustra praises as souls who will take risks, venture out to the very heart of danger.
We will come to discuss my great mentor John Berger and the question of genuine, existential art of the type created by Cormac McCarthy and asserted by Kierkegaard in the above quote, but let us note in passing what John Berger said, or rather asked about talented artists. In this case, Berger was referencing Jackson Pollack and his question was how far a talented artist can exempt his or her self from the real, ‘dangerous’ reality around them – the decadence of their own cultural environs in which art was turned into a commodity as Pollack was. Highly perceptively, Berger says that Pollack was painting not out of his liberation but his despair. If you want an example of a similarly gifted painter who bravely chose to leap beyond that despair, look no further than the Danish painter Asger Jorn. The same Asger Jorn who, through bouts of severe poverty and ill-health, fully engaged with the issues of his day but never preached in his mature art. The same Asger Jorn who said that art is pre-logical and the innate reflex of our attitude to life.
Who or what is the judge?
In his posthumously published ‘Point of View’ work, as laid out in Lowrie’s biography, Kierkegaard is revealed as a sensitive, artistic genius plagued by melancholy and a father (Michael Kierkegaard) who, though loving, knew nothing, or perhaps turned away from, the idea of mercy and grace – the miracles Kierkegaard finally embraced. Michael Kierkegaard’s apparent abandonment of faith caused a deep crisis in his son’s life. This record of an utterly human struggle to artistic – existential – selfhood and how others are best helped on that journey (that all that can be done is to enliven them to their own possibilities – come hither to me Lazarus), is the very opposite of the diabolically self-assured judge in Blood Meridian and his arrogant point of view as stated in chapter fourteen in which he claims to be a suzerain.
It is for all the above reasons and other compelling evidence still to be considered that I came to see Cormac McCarthy’s judge character in Blood Meridian as inspired into creation as a demonic doppelgänger and counterpoint to Kierkegaard’s own judge concepts, not least the ethical ‘judge’ who also occupies a major place in the Lowrie biography. This is Judge William, or Assessor Wilhelm (or Vilhelm) as he is in the Danish, and not quite a judge in the usual way it is understood. But then neither is the judge of Blood Meridian in which the kid asks – what he is a judge of?
The expriest turned and looked at the kid. And that was the judge the first ever I saw him. Aye. He's a thing to study.
The lad looked at Tobin. What's he a judge of? he said.
Kierkegaard’s Judge William is an entirely human entity, to the point of being occasionally plodding and tedious, who states clearly that all of us must make an ‘absolute’ (life changing) choice for the good as part of asserting our own human validity as sovereign individuals who aspire to happy union with the God of Love. Blood Meridian’s judge, by stark contrast, comes from nowhere and disappears into nowhere. Or he – in McCarthy’s fiery imagery:
… like a great ponderous djinn stepped through the fire and the flame delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element.
Blood Meridian’s judge is not human. He is never injured in battle. He cannot be shot to death and even invites people to try. He engenders war from without. He can even magic bullets from the detritus of the earth – an astonishing chapter that. The projectiles coming from the stinking earthly counterpart to Böhme’s celestial Salitter. Always this judge seeks to smother and defile the good. He himself cannot be scalped as he is completely hairless. Children disappear in his environs. These he will defile and scalp after dandling them on his knee. Innocent men are denounced by him and shot and hacked to death because of these denouncements, though he actually never knew the person so defamed. Mob hysteria again. Such is the nature of this un-thinking. The cold fires of the Unground. The judge is a djinn of the baleful fire from which he emerges. An incarnation of war. He is our reverse mirror choice for evil. The gaze into the mirror at the very stroke of darkest midnight as our nameless dread rises. The blood meridian. A judge for the wicked set against a judge for the good. Just as Kierkegaard’s Judge William describes that fateful choice in Either/Or. This is how Walter Lowrie describes the existential importance of actively choosing the good in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, as it would have been read by Cormac McCarthy:
Judge William, in the second part of Either/Or, insists that the real choice, the genuine either/or, is not a choice between this and that …The essential either/or is the question whether one will choose to make this choice —that is, to choose between the evil and the good.
It is true that McCarthy researched a (possibly) real life scalphunter gang member who went by the nickname at least of ‘Judge Holden’ (though he had other names apparently, as does Old Nick as McCarthy will have observed). As far as I can see, McCarthy’s only human source for this judge was a memoir – My Confession – by a gang member, Samuel Chamberlain, who may, because of his sometime expressions of regret and remorse, be part of the inspiration for the kid character in Blood Meridian. Certainly, the judge sees the kid as someone who would not be suborned to his foul cause. But all this simply adds fire to McCarthy’s imagining of the concept of judge. There are corrupt judges and judges of conscience. The judge haunting, or provoked, from our conscience. From whence does he come?
Little has been made of the fact that Outer Dark features several judges. There is a boastful squire, a squalid tinker who presumes to judge the life of a young woman, and then most distressing of all, as we have seen, the sinister judge of the shadowy triune – the bearded one, who quietly interrogates incest-begetter, Culla Holme:
What are you? Holme muttered.
He said it again, sullenly.
The bearded one smiled. Ah, he said. Now. We’ve heard that before, ain’t we?
You ain’t nothin to me.
But the man didn’t seem to hear. He nodded as if spoken by other voices. He didn’t look at Holme.
You never did say what you done with your sister.
I never done nothin with her.
Where’s she at?
I don’t know. She run off.
You done told that.
It ain’t nothin to you.
I’ll be the judge of that.
This of course is Culla’s conscience at work. (We bear in mind that Cormac McCarthy has a son called ‘Cullen’ from his first marriage.) The central forces at play here are self-reflection and the drag of conscience that sets us apart from beasts but then reveals and confronts us with our own bestiality or guilt. Let me repeat that Outer Dark is an astounding novel. It manages to make the beasts of our haunted imaginations ferociously real. And Cormac McCarthy ‘s ‘point ‘– always his point – is that regardless of whether you we human beings, know anything of religion, we cannot escape our own self and your own reflection on that self. Nor can the religious author. What are you? What have you done? And what have you failed to do? to paraphrase the Liturgy.
There is no escape for us from judgement. No escape either from what Kierkegaard called Slægten – the lineage – our ancestors who thrum in our very bones and synapses and leave their lasting hereditary marks across all human time. No escape from our imaginations and a need to put form on chaos. No escape, therefore, from the other, even if we kill them. No escape from the need to get beyond pain. The aspiration for something higher. A keynote for Nietzsche, of course.
In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard says that human angst and despair (the sickness, the refusal of faith) is a prerequisite for grace. The proof of soul because we do not suffer death with it. Nor is dread only contracted once. It is there all the time and cannot be healed by any doctor. Socrates said more or less the same thing. Certainly in the sense that no other human being can set us truly free. The highest good – the greatest happiness comes from a divine source to which we clearly have access. Have we come much further than these arguments since? Reading McCarthy, one feels that we have regressed and he would drag us back to the future by enabling us to recollect forwards in time.
It is we humans who fire Blood Meridian’s judge into human form and give him his horrific power and human agency. The banishment of love and empathy. The worship and appliance of scientific extermination to the exclusion of all other considerations. In one of the countless horrible scenes in Blood Meridian the judge inspects the cranium of the brother to an imbecile. A scene very well recounted by Michael Lynn Crews. A collapse backwards into racist eugenics and atavistic, bestial attrition. The judge’s language is mesmerising here. If we allow it to be. If we allow him to blindfold and gag us with his scientific riddling and stentorian invocations. Actually, ridiculous and tabloid Red-Top material if we step back and fully consider it. If we refuse it as the kid finally did.
And here, again, is McCarthy’s own true ‘point of view’ emerging by way of a Kierkegaardian-type ironizing of the judge and our enslavement to his charade. Witness the expriest character’s reference to the proliferation of lunacy in the world and his sardonic view of the judge. For example, in this adjacent dialogue below, he ridicules the judge and makes him more akin to a snake oil merchant. Once again, on discovery of a massive dinosaur bone, the judge pronounces on ancient history and the nature of men to a gullible audience
At all desert watering places there are bones but the judge that evening carried to the fire one such as none there had ever seen before, a great femur from some beast long extinct that he'd found weathered out of a bluff and that he now sat measuring with the tailor's tape he carried and sketching into his log. [..] The judge had been holding the femur upright in order to better illustrate its analogies to the prevalent bones of the country about and he let it fall in the sand and closed his book.
There is no mystery to it, he said.
The recruits blinked dully.
Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.
He rose and moved away into the darkness beyond the fire. Aye, said the expriest watching, his pipe cold in his teeth. And no mystery. As if he were no mystery himself, the bloody old hoodwinker.
The judge’s evil is not just the barbarity that is latent in all of existence made manifest, it is the spirit of barbarity when it assumes the shape of human authority and becomes worshipped. The question of authority looms large in Blood Meridian. As it does in Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’. Who speaks? Who has the right to speak? ‘Who judges here?’ – Jesus is said to have asked of Pontius Pilate. And what if silence is the only option left to us? Or what if we are so culturally impoverished, we can no longer speak? Another aspect to the kid that has largely been unexplored. Even though it starkly illumines Cormac McCarthy’s own very richness and sophistication of language. A literary and linguistic dexterity and depth that challenges the literary Geist of our present times. Who now writes like this in English in the West? Which fiction prize winners treat of the agony of existence and the corrupting of souls as deeply as this? Knausgaard is a perfect expression of our present-day angst and self-introspection – I mean a solipsistic, obsession with self with no wider engagement. Jon Fosse, it seems to me, comes closer to McCarthy, but again he does not write in English and whilst his wonderful prose meditations quietly assert the dignity of the human soul, they do not carry the inherent anger of social protest that is ever seething in McCarthy.
Would Cormac McCarthy stand a chance of being published today if he were an unknown just starting out, with his religious iconography and invocation of devils, his use of the blunt language of plain folk in all its prejudice and ignorance? A prejudice the reader understands and places in context but is now increasingly policed by privileged and gated censors much less sophisticated than the readers they are policing.
According to Michael Lynn Crews, and via Lowrie’s translation extracts as we have discussed, Cormac McCarthy consulted one of Kierkegaard’s most soul-searching works – Fear and Trembling – in his research for Blood Meridian. In particular, McCarthy was drawn to the ancient father and son legend of Abraham and Isaac. What is not clear is whether McCarthy also read Kierkegaard’s (as Johannes de silentio) astonishing eulogy to Abraham in Fear and Trembling. Though it is referred to in Lowrie, it does not feature as a translation. It does of course appear in Lowrie’s separate 1941 translation of Fear and Trembling itself – this contains an introduction by George Steiner in the 1994 edition. I would simply entitle the Abraham panegyric or eulogy as: ‘In Praise of Abraham’. This short preamble by Joannes de Silentio – the Silent One – to the Abraham text proper (here in my own translation) would stand just as well as a McCarthian premonition of Blood Meridian:
IN PRAISE OF ABRAHAM
If we humans had no eternal consciousness. If at the foundation of everything there were only a wildly seething power which, writhing with obscure passions, engendered everything that is great and everything of no consequence. If a voracious bottomless void lay in hiding beneath all things – what then would life be but despair? If it were thus. If there were no sacred bond between human beings that held them together. If each generation rose and fell like the generations of leaves. If one generation replaced the other like birdsong in the forest. If the human race passed through the world as ships traverse the seas. Like a desert wind. A barren and thoughtless event. If an eternal oblivion reigned over our world, ever lurking hungrily for its prey, and there were no power strong enough to rescue us from that abyss – how desolate and comfortless life would then be! But for that very reason, it is not so. As God created man and woman, so too He fashioned the hero and the poet or orator. The poet cannot do what the first among us can accomplish. He can only admire, love and celebrate the hero. […] This is the poet’s achievement, his or her humble work. Their faithful service in the halls of the hero
Who or what can this pall of eternal oblivion reigning over our world that ever lurks hungrily for its prey be other than the blood meridian judge?
Probably the greatest interpreter of Kierkegaard who has ever lived – Danish author and thinker Johannes Sløk, who is barely known outside of Denmark – has described this Abraham eulogy as the basis for all of Kierkegaard’s thinking. Sløk says this in his brilliant Kierkegaard – humanismens tænker (Kierkegaard – humanism’s thinker). Overall, across his huge and definitive lifelong study of Kierkegaard, Johannes Sløk stresses Kierkegaard’s concern that people are living fake lives in comparison to the exhilarating, life enhancing fulfilment they could be enjoying as authentic human beings, who no longer have fear or dread. Not even of death itself, which is seen as the existence continuum it is.
Suttree carries one of the few direct statements to his readers from McCarthy in which he declares: “… nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.” We must not quail before the Devil or dread, for there is a greater light. But there is a shadow side to this bright light – light always casts shadow – where Kierkegaard’s thinking and authorship are concerned and Sløk in Kierkegaard – humanisms tænker shows Kierkegaard’s terror at the void he so lyrically yet starkly paints in the scenarios above. It is Cormac McCarthy’s terror also. Look again at the macabre, prancing judge scene, in particular the final pass in which the judge celebrates his desecration of the kid. Read it again and feel McCarthy’s own Fear and Trembling.
Once again inspired by Jacob Böhme, McCarthy sees there is terror and there is a salvation from terror. McCarthy acknowledges the writhing malicious force that pulses and burns its cold light of fire across all of existence and seeks out characters cold-scorched and illuminated by its dread light. Seeks the story of their collapse. Life as profound tragedy, or heroic resistance or both. Put simply, if there is no love, there must be murderous chaos. In human terms, if this is true, it must mean that war is indeed our natural state as Blood Meridian’s judge insists. But whilst the religious poet does indeed face into evil, he or she searches, ever searches, for the tragic heroic. So it is that McCarthy embraces the smiling judge in the jakes and by doing so destroys him.
It is with Fear and Trembling and the story of Abraham that we fully arrive at another philosophical terrain traversed by Cormac McCarthy and Kierkegaard. This is a land of parched desert and an elusive oasis. It speaks of the absurdity of faith posed against the apparently undeniable truth of science; the ancient shadow of familial traumas; the passage of time and mankind’s fate within that (are there in fact any heroes?), and then and most importantly for our purposes the question of the poets who record the feats of the hero.
Now here is the essence of the authorship question as expressed by Kierkegaard in ‘Point of View’. We have already seen that Kierkegaard describes authors who shrink back from confronting evil as deceivers. But how then does the religious, or we might say an epic or tragic author, confront evil and place her or himself in the very midst of that maelstrom? Certainly not by writing from the point of view of characters or a narrator who is any better than the perpetrators. Certainly not by a Deus ex Machina intervention of a hero character. No. Such rare religious writers in the modern age simply steadfastly hold their gaze constant at the evil before us. What the religious writer asks is – is this you? Is this us? Is this me?
In key passages of Blood Meridian, the ever-smiling judge demands that the kid look at him or listen to him. Look at him. Don’t turn your gaze away. Look at yourself. Is this you? This is the only way that ancient catharsis can be achieved in our day, in which we the readers of the ‘horror of it’ must be the active participant and the chorus. We do not sit as a unified and culturally cohered group in the Theatron, ready to be shocked and appalled once more by the power of Fate in a story we already know and share. We the fragmented modern audience and the atomized main character or characters no longer carry the whole of culture, all the stories of the Antigone, Oedipus or Odysseus line in our consciousness and it is up to us, each and every person to interpret the story anew. The kid, or Rinthy Holme or Billy Parham are either embraced or abandoned by us. For they have no lineage that we know of. And neither do we. Or rather we do, but have abandoned that lineage. It is in this crucial sense that McCarthy instinctively picks up Kierkegaard’s mantle of indirect communication. An approach discussed at length in ‘Point of View and explained by Walter Lowrie here:
For S. K. would not lecture, and he insisted upon using indirect communication. Imitating the reserve of Socrates, he proposed to teach merely by ‘making people take notice'—of the existence of God, or other prime factors of existence, and especially of the fact of their own existence.
We begin to perceive the role of modern poets who refuse to deceive their audience and rather hold up the blood meridian mirror and invite us to look at ourselves. Enliven us to soul. Louise Glück does the same thing in poetry. False sincerity is the worst authorial sin. We see what Kierkegaard meant when he said that he could not publish his book of judgement – his private journals – whilst he was alive because people would then assume he was speaking ex-cathedra. As if he was supreme to others and knew better than them. For he claimed no authority, sought no followers and – though he predicted it – would have scorned the rise of a secular ‘thought camp’ endowed with his name. He was a ‘judge’ in an entirely different and modernist sense. It is more Louise Glück’s idea of bearing witness. Of providing frank, unadorned testimony. This is the guiding spirit of Cormac McCarthy.
The reflective author instinctively embellishes and enlarges the most profound evils like spiritual and physical rape (the arch-Seducer) or bestial violence, with the result that we feel the author is a very part of it. Even glorying in it. What happens then is that we, the shocked and appalled readers, are forced to decide what we think, not just of the poet, but also of the horrors thrown into our faces. We will leave aside the fact that this approach does not tend to sell many books, and neither did McCarthy for decades. In this new hall of cracked moral mirrors we are all judging each other. With his silent gaze and pondering heart, the kid in Blood Meridian is the other judge in this gripping fable. He is judge of the judge and we have no stronger witness for that than the judge himself in that mesmerising scene in the prison where the judge appears from nowhere.
The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.
What the judge of shadows is battling here is the bright judge that resides eternally in human conscience. It is also here where clemency for others must reside. Is there anything less scientific than this? The double reflection author does not preach this. He or she simply says – judge for yourself. (Kierkegaard wrote a whole book with this title.). What the kid is battling is the collapse of faith, of belief in anything, and the great draw that the judge’s apparently suzerain authority exudes. We can see the father son relationship referred to by Lynn Crews. Indeed how the judge is a parody of the Great Father of all Fathers. However, a little noticed fact about Fear and Trembling, this famous book of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac, is that Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio places Isaac’s age at the time of the planned sacrifice at the highly unlikely figure of thirty years. Actually, Kierkegaard’s age when he published the book. There is no basis for this in the Bible and it is undoubtedly Kierkegaard signalling that he felt sacrificed by his melancholic father who, unlike Abraham, had lost his faith. McCarthy’s intuition is that modern authority has sacrificed its children on the altar of war and false coinage.
By all accounts, McCarthy had a strained relationship with his father and his establishment views. What to do when figures of authority turn to the bad? Or even turn to evil? Blood Meridian is a challenge to the prevailing corrupted authority and its hordes of acolytes. Indeed, the judge in Blood Meridian alludes to his fatherly guise in that same forbidding scene at the jail. A scene that prefigures the Stygian finale to Blood Meridian and holds the reader breathless in its thrall of menace. We are approaching the dark heart of the meridian. The mythical yet ultra-real, slaverous and heart-rending horror of Beowulf, another key text for McCarthy. At the jail, the judge speaks to the kid in the way that a god-demon would speak – Don’t you know that I’d have loved you like a son? But then the judge berates him. A devil coaxing and reprimanding.
You're the one that's crazy, said the kid.
The judge smiled. No, he said. It was never me. But why lurk there in the shadows?
Come here where we can talk, you and me.
The kid stood against the far wall. Hardly more than a shadow himself.
Come up, said the judge. Come up, for I've yet more to tell you.
He looked down the hallway. Don’t be afraid, he said. I'll speak softly. It's not for the world's ears but for yours only. Let me see you. Don’t you know that I'd have loved you like a son?
He reached through the bars. Come here, he said. Let me touch you.
The kid stood with his back to the wall.
Come here if you're not afraid, whispered the judge.
I aint afraid of you.
Look at this crucial passage again. Quite apart from its strong tincture of paedophilia and its Dostoevskian tension, we have heard the judge himself describing the kid as a judge. Just as crucially the Faustian shape-changer that is Judge Holden denounces the kid for his crime of conscience – “You sat in judgement on your own deeds.” I do not feel it is too wild a notion to state that Blood Meridian is Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Point of View’ work. His book of dogmatics. And Kierkegaard is at the heart of it. Inspired by Kierkegaard, McCarthy’s urge is to sing out the diabolical judge’s ‘point of view’ in chapter fourteen and its demand for the mastery of Mother Nature and all of knowledge. In Suttree the poet-chorus sings:
The sound of morning traffic upon the bridge beat with the dull echo of a dream in his cavern and the ragman would have wanted a sager soul than his to read in their endless advent auguries of things to come, the specter of mechanical proliferation and universal blight.
Hold. dear readers. Cormac McCarthy’s idea of mechanical proliferation. It is very obviously McCarthy’s nightmare vision of where we are going as a human race. Where we have gone. The choice for evil that we have made. It is the Armageddon of McCarthy’s The Road. It is the sudden absence of “the godmade sun” and the blazing false dawn that heralds nuclear extinction in The Crossing. The flash of stencilled shadow on the walls of our collective retina, our scourged hearts and souls. It echoes Ondaatje’s The English Patient to come. It reverberates Kierkegaard’s declaration that the world, and especially the religious and spiritual world, was engaged in a flight from conscience. From the good. From Love. From any notion of mercy and grace. His warnings of the coming time of atavistic mob rule, also.
Fascism stalks all over Europe once more and in the USA the mob has stormed the centre of power itself in an attempt to overturn democracy.
This – now in full – is what the judge says in his ‘Point of View’ sermon to the roughneck, Toadvine, who has questioned the judge’s constant mapping and logging of all the flora, fauna, geology and terrain traversed by Blood Meridian’s scalphunter gang:
Toadvine sat watching him as he made his notations in the ledger, holding the book toward the fire for the light, and he asked him what was his purpose in all this.
The judge's quill ceased its scratching. He looked at Toadvine. Then he continued to write again.
Toadvine spat into the fire.
The judge wrote on and then he folded the ledger shut and laid it to one side and pressed his hands together and passed them down over his nose and mouth and placed them palm down on his knees.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he'd collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men's knowing. 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.
What's a suzerain?
A keeper. A keeper or overlord.
Why not say keeper then?
Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.
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.
Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everthing on this earth, he said.
The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.
I dont see what that has to do with catchin birds.
The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I'd have them all in zoos.
To fully grasp the import of this scene, we have to understand McCarthy’s underlying antipathy to the judge’s ‘Point of View’. Though fascinated by it, just as he is fascinated by the judge, he is completely against the over-mechanisation of the world and the destruction of individual liberty that goes with that voracious, relentless excavator. McCarthy’s father worked as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was busy developing this previously remote region in the name of ‘progress’. As McCarthy critics have described very well, much of McCarthy’s oeuvre is a lament for the destruction of wilderness and individuality in human ways. McCarthy’s heroes, or primary characters, are the misfits and rebels who naturally cleave to independence of thought and action. In this he very much invokes Emerson, Thoreau and Melville, of course. For Blood Meridian’s judge, on the other hand, everything must be exploited and there must be no subjective autonomy. There must be no religious superstition. We must all join the science. All hail ersatz ethic-less science.
In Blood Meridian, it is the scum of the earth, the outcasts, the dregs who challenge the judge. The branded and earless ‘Toadvine’. Then the disgraced ‘expriest’ who significantly describes the judge as a “hoodwinker.” And then there is the kid himself who is the judge’s potential nemesis. But Mcarthy’s point, and it is also Kierkegaard’s point, is that nobody has the language, the cultural armaments, let alone the faith, anymore with which to cap the inexorable blinding rays of value-free science. The inexorable devouring of the earth and all its secrets – and humans with them. The human drive to self extinction haunts all of McCarthy’s works. The God of Attrition has trumped the God of Empathy. The moral decline of the West is mirrored by its cultural and spiritual decline.
So what do we do? It seems that Kierkegaard and Cormac McCarthy have similar answers to that question, which is rather surprising given their apparently differing views on Christianity. But if we look closely at what McCarthy’s characters actually enact, we find a shared Kierkegaard/McCarthy vision that centres around the dignity of each sovereign individual and implicit within that is the freedom of the will to act. In other words, to imagine the possible, no matter how difficult it might look. This in turn must mean that there is some agency that seeks to nullify the human possible that aspires to ‘Soul’. This agency is obviously the judge. It is this malevolent judge who will snuff out our light and condemn us to living death. Kierkegaard and McCarthy both say that it is not final human death we should fear but being dead to life whilst our souls are both of human time and immortality, a feat no god can accomplish. See, even in nothingness stirs the possible. McCarthy’s characters are agents of the possible who constantly gauge their lives against their conscience.
Of course, within the possible lies the forbidden also. More than anything, we are beings of the scenario and permutation in all their endless possibilities. This surely is both the guarantee of our freedom – individual sovereign autonomy- but also the space in which temptation and transgression arises. This is the realm of conscience, therefore. Louise Glück whose recent passing we mourn at the moment captures this brilliantly in her essay on false (or forced) sincerity amongst poets. As the first amongst truth-witnesses Glück is highly germane to our McCarthian purpose here. For in her ‘Against Sincerity’ essay she asserts a difference between what she calls actuality and truth. This of course is an age-old dichotomy, but one that must be repeated for each age that rises then falls.
Hegel’s great fault was to attempt to place human truth – the lived human life – within global concepts such as the state, law and logic, all of which were supposedly vehicles of world progress. But these ‘statutes’ can never tell us how to live our lives. Subjective human truth is not rational reasoning. It is not even deliberate attempts at honesty or sincerity, for these are worked by reasoning that is looking for definitive proof. But there is no scientific proof for what we know in our hearts. The poet’s truth, as Glück brilliantly reveals, lies in what is hidden. This is what makes it so hard. The profoundest truths are unearthed not by a mechanical excavator – be that brain or digger – but by a spiritual process not even the poet can explain. The deepest truth, as McCarthy and Kierkegaard have revealed, lies in the realm of dread, or angst, or lies and half-lies, in strange occurrences that lie dormant waiting for their appearance on the stage. Only a decision to leap, from a sense of dread or shock at the vision that visits us and some conviction (faith) arising from this wonder and mystical awe that convinces us that something is true for us. Listen to Glück:
There is, unfortunately, no test for truth. That is, in part, why artists suffer. The love of truth is felt as chronic aspiration and chronic unease. If there is no test for truth, there is no possible security. The artist, alternating between anxiety and fierce conviction, must depend on the latter to compensate for the sacrifice of the sure. It is relatively easy to say that truth is the aim and heart of poetry, but harder to say how it is recognized or made. We know it first, as readers, by its result, by the sudden rush of wonder and awe and terror.
“Fierce conviction” can only be faith.
The ‘Point of View’ of Inexorable Scientism
I believe I have demonstrated sufficiently that Cormac McCarthy’s true debt to Kierkegaard has gone largely unreported. But this omission has a much wider significance, because it is compounded by apparent confusion over a number of other great thinkers, not least of those is Friedrich Nietzsche as we shall see shortly. And, as I have been building up to, in misunderstanding or undervaluing Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, amongst others, many otherwise highly perspicacious McCarthy commentators – there are too many of them to mention in full – have misunderstood McCarthy’s fascination and extreme discomfort with the figure of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who looms large and forbidding in Walter Lowrie’s biography of Kierkegaard.
For all Nietzsche’s arrogance, Hegel was far more of an Übermensch (if we follow the widespread distortion of that concept for a moment) than Nietzsche ever was. This would have been fine if Hegel had simply worked his inner Übermensch around his own path of self-discovery. Kierkegaard said that if Hegel had confined himself to applying his philosophy to his own life and actions it would have been a magnificent experiment. Applied to humanity as a whole, it becomes a monstrous comedy.
As is well known, there have been some famous attacks on Hegel by the likes of Karl Popper in his work The Open Society and its Enemies who was also scathing of Marx for the same determinist historicism reasons. But given that Hegel was the preeminent modern age prophet of rational entelechy, the idea that the potential form or function of a substance will be expressed in a final form – i.e. that it has an internal telos or mission – he was a major target of Popper’s critique. Critics of Popper have described his onslaught against Hegel as a caricature given that Hegel painted a, one might argue, enthralling vista of social cohesion, but an accurate caricature can often tell us more about a subject in a few deft strokes than a whole book.
Likewise, McCarthy’s remarkable portrayal of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian is undoubtedly a caricature of imperious scientism. But imperiousness is a cap that fits both Hegel and the ever smiling, arrogant judge very well. Abstract speculation in itself is harmless. People can think whatever it occurs to them to think and we all do just that. It is what we do with those thoughts when we seek to enact them in life that is the crucial issue. Nature’s innate drive towards form is entirely logical, in as much that it can be logged and calculated. It is a beautiful realm. Indeed, Cormac McCarthy’s scientist friend and confidante, Guy Davenport, wrote a fine book entitled Every Force Evolves a Form about form and precedence. But it is no use with regard to how we humans should live our lives. The personal is not just political. It is existential. The form-imperative is not, or should not be, a philosophy for social engineering and human existence and Cormac McCarthy was extremely aware of this problem. For a perfect example of how McCarthy could consider various strands of philosophy and then draw his own conclusions regardless of personal allegiances, look at where his Muse brings him in Suttree via his ponderings over form. This is in the remarkable scene where Suttree seeks out the voodoo witch figure that is Mother She. Abandon all reason, ye who enter here:
He saw a pool of oil on a steel drumhead that lay shirred with the pounding of machinery. He saw the blood in his eyelids where he lay in a field in a summer noon and he saw young boys in a pond, pale nates and small bald cods shriveled with the cold and he saw an idiot in a yard in a leather harness chained to a clothesline and it leaned and swayed drooling and looked out upon the alley with eyes that fed the most rudimentary brain and yet seemed possessed of news in the universe denied right forms, like perhaps the eyes of squid whose simian depths seem to harbor some horrible intelligence. All down past the hedges a gibbering and howling in a hoarse frog’s voice, word perhaps of things known raw, unshaped by the constructions of a mind obsessed with form.
The point here is that there is an intelligence – in both senses of that word as intellect and news – that goes beyond rational inference and deduction. And more importantly prefigures them. We know things long before science or psychiatry or the media explain them to us. If art is pre-logical, where did it come from? McCarthy is no irrationalist but he clearly sees the irrational as a sacred space. His interest in Carl Jung is well known, as is Jung’s interest in Jacob Böhme. Like clemency, the irrational is a human attribute that is anathema to Blood Meridian’s scientist judge. Our ‘obsession with form’ – with framing knowledge and insight – is our genius and also our curse. The corralling, mapping, enfolding actions and verbosity of the judge overwhelm us. The silence of the kid, who refuses to even face him, is inexplicable. It is preverbal resistance. It is human dignity restored.
Michael Lynn Crews’s discussion of Wyndham Lewis’s influence on McCarthy is one of the best sections of his book. He rightly states that McCarthy depicts the human individual as a tragic figure caught between a yearning for freedom and the inexorable homogenizing forces of the modern age. However, he misses an essential point regarding McCarthy’s defence of the irrational in that our subjective – we might say Kierkegaardian – selves source our authentic essence in that same allegedly irrational realm. The reason why he makes this mistake is that he misunderstands the arguments made by the likes of Wyndham Lewis against Time-philosophers like Bergson and Whitehead. This may be because Lynn Crews fails to spot that Wyndham Lewis also criticises Hegel – the Time-philosopher par excellence – who placed becoming in the services of the temporal state and society, whereas Kierkegaard, Berdyaev and Nietzsche, for example, placed becoming within the soul of the individual. Hegel and all the other Time-philosophers argue for a World-spirit rather than a subjective spirit, but Lynn Crews wrongly places McCarthy in their camp. Look:
The fragility of goodness is related to McCarthy’s tragic sense of the transience of all things. This melancholy preoccupation with transience, in the final analysis, puts him in the camp of Lewis’s despised “Time-philosophers.” McCarthy believes, like Bergson and Whitehead, and like Spengler, that the unstable flux of time carries all along with it, that process, rather than stasis—becoming, rather than being—constitutes the fundamental reality.
Lynn Crews is correct to say that becoming, rather than static being, constitutes the fundamental reality for Cormac McCarthy but that ‘becoming’ for McCarthy (and also our repeated failures to fully become), is situated within the soul of the individual and not as Hegel and his subsequent time-historicists argued in the world process as whole. In my view, McCarthy was alert to dangers of an argument that reduces the individual to nothing more than a conduit for carrying the march of history forward. Hegel called Napoleon “History on a Horse.” This is precisely the role of Judge Holden as he rode the West to destruction. That bald judge who says that man must subsume himself to the purpose of the group and that individual qualms (to invoke the Kierkegaardian kvaler of the Danish) are an affront to that group and the march of science.
In that same book Time and Western Man, which Lynn Crews correctly says is an important source for McCarthy, we read Wyndham Lewis describing Hegel’s philosophy as a repulsively technical one and why does he say this? It is because Hegel places reality (being) in the abstract – in concepts and what might eventually come – and not in the reality for the individual. I believe this mistaken reading of McCarthy is quite widespread, as evidenced by its being expressed by a brilliant McCarthian like Lynn Crews. This ‘wobble’ stems from faulty readings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. McCarthy is searching for and exploring ways in which we deal with, or don’t deal with, modern despair. As already noted, the judge of Blood Meridian states directly, as if in direct reply to Kierkegaard, that War is the way humans must deal with despair. But – and if I may put it as crudely as this – McCarthy does not see a final solution to anything, whereas the time-historicists essentially do. And we all know where final solutions lead.
The apologists for Hegel say that his vison saw a future framed within a communal whole that was informed by the spirit of wisdom. This is about as far from Cormac McCarthy’s vision as one could possibly go. McCarthy held no truck with the idea that permanent harmony could ever be established in this world. What he envisioned instead was the human soul’s struggling in the face of disharmony and trying to assert their eternal validity. (And not always succeeding as happens with most of us.) We see the suffering face of Christ surely? The compassion also. The way even the lowest of the low are given dignity. The tragic decision to embrace one’s fate, past, present and future. Amor Fati being a key Nietzschean concept. The same Nietzsche who was consulted by McCarthy and who criticised Hegel’s idea of existence having a goal. A telos. We must each forge our own goals in this now godless world.
Just as McCarthians have often missed the Kierkegaard influence and misunderstood Nietzsche, they have forgotten or overlooked Hegel. It is true that there are no records, at least not yet, of McCarthy having specifically read Hegel, nor Karl Popper for that matter, but a glance of all the sources mentioned in Books are Made of Books alone reveals a welter of authors who treat of Hegel in a significant and often questioning way. Not just Walter Lowrie and Wyndam Lewis, as we have seen, but also Camus, Joseph Brennan, and Nicholas Berdyaev, for example. However, as far as I know, very little of the modern Hegel debate sparked by Popper and so many others has found its way into McCarthy criticism, which for the purposes of this study is another lacuna because Popper placed Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’ at the heart of his defenestration of Hegel’s whole edifice. In his groundbreaking book, Popper specifically refers to Kierkegaard’s ‘Book of the Judge’ as a key anti-Hegelian text with its references to the Hegelian mind’s “infamous spirit of corruption.”
We forget that it was Hegel, not Nietzsche who first killed God and he did this as he raised the Prussian state to the status of a perfectible apogee of our social structures. With his gigantic Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse in three volumes from 1817 to almost Hegel’s death in 1831 – a highpoint for an already lofty German idealism, he sought to explain the whole of ‘reality’ and how human reason can know it. The intention of his grand, not to say ecstatic, vision of the fulfilment within his all-encompassing system laid out mankind’s destiny was far removed from the science of extermination that was to come, but Kierkegaard warned of the dangers of making (wo)man and religion nothing more than a cognition in a machine serving the state’s purpose. Kierkegaard was right. We see a fine, imposing edifice there, but also the emerging neo-Roman columns and lockstep dialectic that came with the massed rallies of historically necessary fascism. It is also fake. ersatz, hoodwinkery. Mass hysteria.
Of course, human logical deduction is a wondrous – not to say useful – capacity and the Holy Spirit now earthbound and moving amongst us, anointing and inspiring us to great works and a civic ethos, is a beautiful idea, but Hegel’s system ultimately depends to a fateful extent on the civically minded bourgeoise and their equally enlightened counterparts in the Church to carry his World Sprit forward. Marx pointed out that these power blocs, as the ruling classes, were just as infused with, and happy to enforce, the laws of production and exchange and pertaining cultural norms as any other power broker and would act accordingly in the Capitalist system. Therefore, they were not ever going to be an apogee of anything, except their own hegemony. Kierkegaard agreed in as much that he said Hegel’s system moves authentic religious ethics to the realm of temporal morals, law and state structures. Wither therefore human freedom? The undeniable momentum and direction of all this, described as historically necessary by Hegel, is to scalp miracle and metaphysical metaphor. Science as man’s ultimate destiny is a hoodwinkery to which we become slaves (again echoing Marx). Feel we must curry its favour. It is Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and our worship of the bomb come true. The judge’s perverted science has become the judge and arbiter of all and we have become its craven acolytes.
Let us return to that literally striking scene in Blood Meridian in which the wounded, anesthetized and raving kid sees the vast judge standing by his rough surgery pallet. This judge in fine clothing and behind him an artisan and coldforger. It is we who are the coldforgers here, indicted and self-exiled in our false lives as we hammer desperately at false coin in the pay of the malevolent djinn for whom science is just one more devious device. Yet science itself has neither explanation nor remedy for this same judge. The judge is the doctor scientist at the sickbed who has no love for the patient but wishes to measure his skull for the purposes of ridicule and dehumanization. Human science can no more comprehend this most desolate of primal matter – this judge demon – any more than it can understand a leap of faith. For there is no logical record, no system by which the human scientist can reckon this judge’s ‘commencing’ – “whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing. Science cannot fathom its own Ur-Provenance. Look:
In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.
In his (the kid’s PL) delirium he ransacked the linens of his pallet for arms but there were none. The judge smiled. The fool was no longer there but another man and this other man he could never see in his entirety but he seemed an artisan and a worker in metal. The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a coldforger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile from men's fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of his becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at 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.
The primal matter of malevolence – in its Judge Holden manifestation or otherwise – is unfathomable. McCarthy’s Muse quite clearly signals this. And his night does not end. There is no science of knowledge that can help us here. And as Kierkegaard asked – can science explain that God entered time as Christ? Of course not. It is as absurd as McCarthy’s “agony of trees.” It is as absurd and as true as this judge figure. What then can save us if Christ’s love is dead and science is shown to be exactly what it always was – an empirical device whose value depends entirely on who is wielding it? This device can neither reckon the judge nor protect our individual validity. God is dead, Hegel declared. Both Kierkegaard and McCarthy ask – now what? As did Nietzsche of course.
As Nietzsche has been mentioned several times now, it is a great pity that Lynn Crews’s philosophical and theological awareness, at least where Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are concerned, does not match his overall textual hermeneutic abilities. He wrongly and anachronistically links Nietzsche with fascism and racist eugenics and for these reasons links the merciless judge, not with Hegel, but with Nietzsche. For example
“The noxious bouquet of Fascism can be detected in Nietzsche’s rhetoric, as it can in the judge’s.”
Though it is true that Nietzsche was an “aristocratic radical” as Georg Brandes famously called him when he introduced him to wider Europe (as he did with Kierkegaard also), Nietzsche not only rejected antisemitism and German chauvinism, he broke with the man he had previously worshipped – Richard Wagner – over those very issues. It is true that Nietzsche had initially argued that a new culture-society could be built around supposedly classic German concepts of a folk as myth-bearers, invoking Wotan (Odin) and the Ring Cycle after Wagner. And also that – as quite an accomplished pianist and music love – Nietzsche retained his admiration for Wagner’s compositions, but he clearly broke with Wagner over the question of narrow nationalism and German militarism. This was very well known outside of Northern Europe as far back as the 1970s when the very useful biographical compendium to the arts, Brief Lives, could say the following:
“The two broke with each other, however, on Wagner’s establishing a chauvinistic, anti-Semitic cult at Bayreuth.”
Author Sue Prideaux, meanwhile, has more recently again demolished the Nietzsche as Nazi myth. Nietzsche also rejected Hegel’s central idea referred to above that mankind’s destiny would be realised by its spirit of inquiry – via logical reasoning – and the human fulfilment of world history via the World Spirit – as expressed in the Prussian State. Hindsight without context is always unfair but the problems with these ideas were obvious even in Hegel’s day. The goal that life on earth can be fully mastered and expressed in man’s suzerainty and control of existence, to paraphrase the judge, is Hegel’s. Nietzsche declared this aim to be downright ludicrous and comical. A perfect example of man exaggerating his own importance. He echoes Kierkegaard, though they would have disagreed about Socrates.
Nietzsche is clear that the human world neither has an ultimate purpose nor any final goal. As the excellent Danish Nietzsche researcher Mette Blok has pointed out, Nietzsche called this lack of meaning or purpose in the world – “die Unschuld des Werdens” – the world’s innocence. (I have almost finished translating her book on Nietzsche – Nietzsche as Educator.) Though he agreed with Hegel that man is a social being and that God was dead, what Nietzsche did was to say we hadn’t yet grasped the harrowing implications of this. Moreover, he was far more in tune with Kierkegaard when he said that every single individual had to personally reconcile themselves with life’s meaningless and the Eternal Recurrence that was the fundamental element in all existence and that they must do this with creativity – lebenskunst. That is, that every single person has the potential to live a ‘holy’ life if they grasp the essentially tragic nature of existence and become completely reconciled with this life and therefore transcend to a higher understanding. It is a yea-saying to your life, as it was, is now and will be. Is there not a religious character to this quasi-transcendental decision? It is this movement that is Nietzsche’s – famous or notorious, take your pick – ‘Will to Power.’
This is not an urge to become an oppressor but an urge to being reconciled to self-overcoming (after Spinoza) towards the highest thing we can be as super-humans. Rather than being a fully conscious, personal human will, it is an urge, a force of nature that the individual embraces on the way to being reconciled. All living things have this urge to full completion – fully reconciled natures. Not, for humans, as logical form fulfilment but as a tragi-heroic subjective transcendence of that form – now that we have no awareness of the divine. An oft forgotten point is that Nietzsche argued that we are creatures of worship – we like to worship. From whence this drive? Nor does our self-overcoming come, for humans, by being reconciled with the Polis or State alone.
This is obviously an attempt by Nietzsche to return us to the high cultural awareness of ancient Greece. It is in these senses of life as tragedy and personal dilemma, and also that primal forces are at play in existence that Cormac McCarthy reflects Nietzsche. The wicked judge who will expunge all notions of ‘clemency’ and personal transcendence has no Nietzschean traits whatsoever. Lynn Crews applies a human Will to Power – and a decision for evil – to the judge but how can this be when McCarthy has made clear that the judge is of primal matter? The judge is not taking personal decisions. He can no more stop murdering and corrupting than Don Juan can stop seducing. There is no existential choice made here. The judge simply is.
It surprises me that Lynn Crews holds such an antiquated view of Nietzsche. Walter Kaufmann demolished the Nietzsche/Nazi/Superman myth in the period just after the Second World War. In fact, where Kaufmann is concerned, Lynn Crews tells us that McCarthy read, or anyway quotes, amongst other Nietzsche books or texts in his research notes – The Gay Science and Twilight of the Gods, presumably both in Walter Kaufmann’s translations. Where Nietzsche’s The Gay Science is concerned, it is the 1974 Walter Kaufmann edition that Lynn Crews refers to in the bibliography, in which Kaufmann says the following in the introduction:
Hence he (Nietzsche – PL) goes out of his way in The Gay Science no less than in Beyond Good and Evil and The Antichrist to dissociate himself from every kind of proto-Nazism; and he does this scathingly. usually in sections that deal with the Germans; for example. sections 134, 149, and 377 of this book.
If Cormac McCarthy also read Twilight of the Idols, it would have almost certainly been in Kaufmann’s Portable Nietzsche (the edition source is not referenced in the Lynn Crews’s book), and if that is the case, he would have read Kaufmann’s famous demolition of the Nazi/fascist smear against Nietzsche, viz:
“ .. no other German writer of equal stature has been so thoroughly opposed to all proto-Nazism - which Nietzsche encountered in Wagner's ideological tracts, in his sister's husband, Bernhard Forster, and in various publications of his time. If some Nazi writers cited him nevertheless, it was at · the price of incredible misquotation and exegetical acrobatics.”
Put simply, if Cormac McCarthy read any Walter Kaufmann book about Nietzsche, he would have been left in no doubt that Nietzsche was neither a proto-Nazi nor a fascist. Lynn Crews seems unaware that Nietzsche did not call for man to master the world and enslave all the Untermenschen, but rather to bravely take mastery of his own life. His own destiny. (He usually said ‘he’, though he was less of a chauvinist than he is often portrayed, as Prideaux also shows.)
Michael Lynn Crews does in fact refer to Hegel in Books are Made of Books but as I have already pointed out fails to spot the Kierkegaard clue and takes a wrong turn over Nietzsche when linking him to the judge and Nazism. To be fair, it seems that most of the leading McCarthy critics see the judge as an expression of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, but again, this is to misunderstand Nietzsche and misunderstand the judge who is not a human being but a force of existence itself. There is only one leading McCarthy commentator that I know of who specifically links the judge with Hegel and that is Ty Hawkins who makes a telling point in his excellent book, Cormac McCarthy’s Philosophy when he argues that McCarthy’s underlying writerly impulse is to explode not just the prevailing dialectic:- “between modernist assumptions about progress and their shadow of postmodern scepticism,” but also the core of this false dialectic – as Kierkegaard argued – which stems from Hegel. There is never a happy arrival at any synthesis of life’s contradictions:
At the heart of this is McCarthy’s rejection of the Hegelian idea that such a thing as History exists. We already have seen Blood Meridian deconstruct the judge’s argument for the same.
Hawkins correctly identifies the judge character as an expression of Hegel’s state-historicism, as I would describe Hegel’s ‘history’, and Blood Meridian as a deconstruction of ‘Judge Hegel’ – this latter my own phrase again. Unfortunately, Hawkins does not mention Kierkegaard at all in his book. What I think Hawkins intuits is the tension in McCarthy between a classic literary disposition with regard to the construction of form – like many Irish people, McCarthy was a natural builder – and the cry for freedom, and the breaking of all normative bonds, that arose first with Romanticism (with a young Hegel to the fore) and then the full-blown modernism of Pound, Eliot and Joyce. As Hawkins noted, McCarthy’s innate classicism grated both against shallow notions of harmony, modernity and progress on the one hand and a faux destructivism on the other.
There is another McCarthy critic who comes close to marking Hegel as an important context for Blood Meridian’s judge – Vereen Bell was the first to attempt an exegesis of McCarthy’s works and underlying philosophy with his 1988 biography, which covers The Orchard Keeper (1965) through to Blood Meridian (1985). He has rarely been surpassed since. What Bell correctly insists is that McCarthy foregrounds the lived life before the world of ideas and abstractions. The dialectic in a novel like Suttree, he says, is: “not Hegelian.” Human life in the abstract does not have a specific goal. Rather, the lived life with all its conflicts and tragedies great or small is philosophically tragic and a novel like Suttree celebrates everyday heroes who struggle through these tragedies and try despite everything to help each other. That is the goa. Or we often try and often fail. Try to fail better. It is here where McCarthy’s ‘Point of View’ resides. It is perhaps because McCarthy’s works offer no ready-made solution to these ills in the way that, say, Jack London did (Socialism) or Dickens (liberal charity) that McCarthy critics have been slow to detect the muted rage at social injustice and racism that lies at the heart of McCarthy’s novels.
Thus, and as I have argued, despite not having any deliberate agenda of sincerity to invoke Louise Glück once again, there is an underlying Ur-Christian thread through McCarthy’s works that speaks of the poor as blessed – far more likely to help people, wise beyond their own ken and the bearers of ancient cultural tidings. A primordial intelligence. We find here the vision of Dostoevsky that sees the poor as the receptacle of Christ’s passion and understanding. Where the Christ figure himself is the pathetic ‘Saviour’ arraigned before the Grand Inquisitor who scorns Jesus’s choice for human freedom – and therefore trust in their clemency – over the worldly delights proffered as temptations by the Devil. Jesus, Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor says, does not understand base human nature and the Church does. And how does Christ answer him? He says nothing. He as silent as the kid. His only answer is to place a kiss on the Inquisitor’s bloodless lips. Is it perhaps the kid who embraces the judge in that jakes?
The conventional view of this gripping scene from The Brothers Karamazov is that the Grand Inquisitor is the bad guy, but this perhaps underplays how difficult it is to follow Christ’s example and take up his cross of suffering. It is a severe, almost inhuman demand. This is the reasonable charge that was thrown at Kierkegaard, as noted. Nicholas Berdyaev answers this problem by arguing that each individual must find their own way to carry the Cross and strive to follow Christ’s example. This seems to me to be more like Cormac McCarthy’s chosen path. Life is a struggle to hold on to love. Sutree and other McCarthy characters do indeed carry a cross of personal freedom and freedom for others and it is for this reason, I think, that in his brilliant preface Vereen Bell speaks of McCarthy’s profound moral seriousness and “humane cosmic stoicism.” And crucially, he points out from the very start of his book that McCarthy makes followers of Aristotle – the father of rationalism, who spoke of our rational souls – uneasy. This is a highly perceptive insight.
In setting out McCarthy’s guiding authorial ethos, Bell goes on to say something that, for our purposes here, can be seen as a direct riposte to and rejection of the judge’s all-encompassing scientism and Hegel’s assertion of a science of existence and a telos of reason:
… that absolute certainty is always a form of unfreedom; that an administered world is, for the individual, a deprived one; that ideas and systems, the pursuit of essences and of first principles, are as dangerous and as reifying as imposed social orders.
This could almost be a manifesto for Kierkegaard as well. Crucially, in the context of Blood Meridian’s judge, Vereen Bell writes that McCarthy kicks against our modern-day anthropocentrism, which argues that humans are the centre of existence:
What the judge says and he and his confederates act out eventually seems like an only slightly demented revival of Enlightenment philosophy, and the judge’s intellectual imperialism may be read finally as an instance of what happens if Enlightenment doctrine is pressed to its logical conclusion.
He is thus the Lucifer-Judge who presides imperiously, not merely over the American West but of Western rationality as a whole. This is not only the core of Clive James’s harangue against Hegel, which we will come to shortly, it is a key element of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel. We are left rueing once again the fact that another fine McCarthy critic didn’t know enough about Kierkegaard.
Another excellent McCarthy critic does come tantalisingly close to linking the cold-eyed judge to Hegel, or rather to Hegel’s Anglo Saxon World Spirit driven system, in the context of the judge’s invocation of war as the expansionist white man’s rapacious and anti-ecological natural habitat and life-arbiter. In his book, Cormac McCarthy, Robert L. Jarrett debates the judge’s possible “Hegelian teleology of the Spirit driving history or the mind’s apprehension of that history.” A brilliant summation. And quoting Vereen Bell’s important work, Jarrett correctly perceives the danger in the idea that mankind is little more than a vehicle for a historical world process, which is precisely the charge Kierkegaard lays at Hegel’s door.
However, and again because of this confusion over Nietzsche’s Will to Power concept – where it is wrongly perceived as being simply the human prerogative of an oppressive Übermensch – Jarrett ends up chiming with Lynn Crews’s position that the judge is expressing a Nietzschean will to dominate all things. It is indeed unfortunate that Nietzsche often wrote in quick, often scathing, harsh and merciless aphorisms that are easily lifted from their overall context and put to use by whatever protagonists that wished to appropriate them – his fascist leaning sister for example. Nietzsche was often his own worst enemy and his constant and savage attacks on morality meant he was branded as an immoralist. But as Mette Blok points out in her book, Nietzsche was not anti-morals per se, he just hated the hypocrisy of a society that lauded one thing and did quite another. Going back to that higher sense of tragic awareness that Nietzsche called for, we could call Nietzsche’s new moral code a higher wisdom infused with the sense of life’s essentially tragic nature.
By my reading, and ironically if true, this is very much Cormac McCarthy’s philosophical terrain. There are, then, more than just straws in the wind here indicating that the judge is the Hegelian, scientific march of human history when it reaches its exultant blood meridian and he is declared immortal and we raise him up on the pedestal of ultimate guru. There is an ecstatic, triumphant tone in Hegel – as if he has cracked the Code of Doom itself. Here come the Judge …
The thrust of my argument, then, is not only that key references to Kierkegaard have been missed or misunderstood by McCarthy critics, but also that the books Cormac McCarthy consulted for his research did refer to Hegel, some of them at length, and that his judge figure in Blood Meridian is an expression of a malignancy that arises from there and quickens McCarthy’s interest in a monster that was a scientific judge of all things. The judge is Hegel, expressed as an inexorable World Spirit of all consuming knowledge appropriation. He got this idea from Kierkegaard.
If what I have discerned about the presence of Hegel’s essentially secular and scientific system and thought is at least possible, there is even less reason to link the overweening and sinister judge figure with Friedrich Nietzsche. We saw right at the beginning that Hegel expressed the ambition that, through his gargantuan efforts, philosophy could become the science that explained everything. Blood Meridian’s Judge-Scientist expresses the same ambition and he is framed in a Kierkegaardian context. His ‘Point of View.’ Elsewhere in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel talks of the final conclusion to this process, when Spirit is made manifest within human reason it becomes “absolute knowing”. And he goes on to finish paragraph 798 (the emphasis is Hegel’s):
Spirit, manifesting or appearing in consciousness in this element, or what is the same thing, produced in it by consciousness, is Science.
Surely Cormac McCarthy saw his judge character taking greater shape in all this talk of absolute knowledge and consciousness itself becoming ‘Science’? He already had a scalphunter judge. He had a kid who was in some way beholden to the judge but broke away. And in this conflict writhes the blood meridian. As is raised above, what if bad people take command of the science? Man is literally made stone age. A specimen to be logged then scalped out of existence.
In a scathing pen portrait of Hegel, that master of deadpan irony, Clive James, nailed the fact that Hegel took nature of the whole universe into consideration but left out human nature. (I paraphrase.) The very charge Kierkegaard lays at Hegel’s door. It bears stating that Walter Kaufmann defended Hegel from these charges just as much as he defended Nietzsche, but he is on far less secure ground here.
Clive James – a Germanophile – had a brilliant mind and a natural inclination to admire sophisticated thinkers. However, in his book Cultural Amnesia he describes Hegel’s iron system of dialectical logic as being housed in “towering systems of thought” and with his glorification of the Prussian state as the perfectible zenith of culture and scientific inquiry, had left the philosophical door open to Lebensraum fanatics looking for a system upon which to append their bloodlust and system of annihilation. Essentially the Ur-philosophy that underpins Blood Meridian. McCarthy’s nightmare of the pale judge expressing a mad Teutonic vison of ever proliferating war in which the rapacious Teutons themselves disintegrate. Look at this from the opening of Suttree (who is himself described as “the reprobate scion of doomed Saxon clans”) with its reference to Aryans:
… and beyond the country rolls away to the south and the mountains. Where hunters and woodcutters once slept in their boots by the dying light of their thousand fires and went on, old teutonic forebears with eyes incandesced by the visionary light of a massive rapacity, wave on wave of the violent and the insane, their brains stoked with spoorless analogues of all that was, lean aryans with their abrogate Semitic chapbook reenacting the dramas and parables herein and mindless and pale with a longing that nothing save dark’s total restitution could appease.
As Michael Lynn Crews has pointed out, McCarthy was very influenced by ideas surrounding the decline and degeneration of the West, Oswald Spengler looms large here. And lo and behold, in The Decline of the West, Spengler spends much time discussing Hegel’s view of history as the self-expansion of the world spirit, in which by the way – as Hegel makes clear – lesser beings from the dark continents are not even considered. Racism, and a sustained, understated opposition to it, is a key undercurrent in both Suttree and Blood Meridian, and also later works like Cities of the Plains.
The key word one feels is rapacity. What exactly is carrying Hegel’s World Spirit of destiny forwards to the completion of history? It can only be men, as the only possible earthly purveyors of Spirit, ideas and divine reason. White men. Teutons. Aryans, McCarthy calls them. But by the time these waves of men have reached the Wild West they are a spent force and their science and technology have brought them no nearer to happiness. (A theme Knausgaard is now exploring.) In fact, the reverse. We can understand why he was so confident, but Hegel was wrong to say that the World Spirit and human reason’s grasping of that spirit was man’s destiny – actually Germany’s destiny. We are not up to the job and will always need grace and clemency to intervene. Or to quote Clive James on Hegel and his adoption by the Nazi regime:
Unfortunately, their sleepwalk towards destiny fulfilled Hegel’s prediction of what the right people might one day do: he just hadn’t guessed that the wrong people would do it.
It seems to me that, with his antipodean contrariness and sense for the vernacular, his poet’s mindset and vast cultural passion also, Clive James unerringly worked his way to that same existential fault line in Hegel’s system as McCarthy did. Some lines from McCarthy’s Suttree always reveal that same chasm to me – something entirely soulless, arid, legalistic and distant haunts his world.
In my father’s last letter he said that the world is run by those willing to take the responsibility for the running of it. If it is life that you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and the impotent.
The above lines could be written by Hegel himself. The helpless and impotent in the streets referred to here are those who suffer from what Hegel called “unhappy consciousness.” His cure for this was reason and logic as the sufferer realises in his or her ponderings that this very same capacity for reason opens the vista of the historical process and marries their negative antithetical; hesitancy to the positive thesis of objective reality – the universal expressed as the Prussian state. And so we move on. Happily resolved in the scientific synthesis. We are simply bit parts in this process and, as we have seen, Kierkegaard says that there is actually no movement at all in Hegel’s system. Though both agree that doubt and self-doubt are crucial moments, Kierkegaard rightly argues that these do not remain in the logic of reasoning. If we move – transcend – it is a leap.
That psychological and spiritual movement resides in our awareness and terror of the possible. We are always on the move. That is, human beings are on the move. Nature is on the move. On the other hand, abstract concepts such as Logic, The State, the Law are fixed ideas. In all his torment, the eponymous Suttree protests. Don’t tell me who I am. I am me. Elsewhere in the novel, Suttree’s “subtle obsession with uniqueness” troubles all his dreams. This man who, like McCarthy himself, chose the ‘outer dark, rather than the bourgeois comforts that might have been available to him. To invoke Kierkegaard: only the wearer knows precisely where the shoe is pinching. There is scientific reason and there is subjective truth. Only an artist can envision the human pinch and reveal to all of us. Only artists can save us now.
Blood Meridian – the Book of the Judges
The Bible looms large in Blood Meridian as it does in many great works of art in the West and Cormac McCarthy does a very Biblical thing – in his creations, he turns people to stone. Just as in the Bible, men turned to stone is a constant motif for McCarthy. In Outer Dark, we meet travellers who could be “stone figures quarried from the architecture of an older time.” Provoked out of the absolute rock. There is neither past nor future for the elective marauders of Blood Meridian. They are a host of moving statues who, like an appalling horde emerging from some sheer rockface in a Greek fable, extinguish all that is behind and all that is ahead of them. All of human time is snuffed out in their expunging trail. A two hundred million year old “Gondwanaland” of the present is established by this gang, which can only invoke those cataclysmic times of vast rock fission, as its members have no future. Their hearts are turned to stone and their future light is extinguished just as quickly as their dread purpose enters it. They are the ghoulish outworkings of our worst despair. They cannot, and do not wish to, look forward to anything. Nor backwards. Another inversion of Kierkegaard, who, as we have seen, says in Lowrie that transcendence (via repetition of what was and will be) is “forward looking recollection.”
In Blood Meridian, all lineage, tribe, clan, sept, family, offspring, child, is scoured and scalped from the canvas. Wherever the Glanton gang travels, it extinguishes the past in its wake and ploughs on into the void it creates ahead of it. Make no mistake. This savage society is all of us in extremis and the judge is our ever-lurking Geist that rises constantly from the primordial unground of the cold void. Yet, in human terms, McCarthy’s riders of the Apocalypse go further still. For they are also mute. They are returned to the bare rock and cold fire of nothingness. Bereft of the human wherewithal of choice or voice.
As the great philosopher of making a human choice, Stanley Cavell, has pointed out, we humans are users of language. If we cannot speak – that is, choose not to speak to others, not to be of community – we are inhuman. Deciding to, or making efforts to speak, is a constant becoming. Just as we must decide again and again to be human. Not at any point does this gang speak as they scalp. The original purpose of scalping, of course, is to prevent the dead soul from returning to haunt the scalper.
The kid is only ever fluent with a gun but moves in silence. Still he breaks with them. Continually tries speech of a sort. Holds out for some vestige of humanity. The mute Bible seemingly a desperate token of this almost forlorn hope. Our forlorn hope. Who reads the Bible anymore? Blood Meridian’s savage canvas agitates and enlivens our dormant complacent souls in its scourging catharsis. A Biblical tale of a cursed and damned people. We cling on to we know no longer what. Hope? Deliverance from somewhere? Faith? The reader comes to see that faith – some kind of desperate leap – is the only hope against Judge Holden. The kid can’t speak. Still he offers himself up in silent protest. For all our sakes.
Who then is left to speak with genuine authority? With the voice of prophecy? I hope it is clear by now that the proclaimers of that desperate hope. The apostles for our age of self-inflected pestilence, degeneracy and despair are, and can only be, our poets and artists.
Cormac McCarthy is certainly one such prophet. In a landmark essay on authority – on being an authentic judge, proclaimer and witness – Stanley Cavell invoked Kierkegaard as a sort of John the Baptist to the apostles for the new age and harbinger of that race of visionaries who can light our path out of dark despair. We note that Cavell was another tacit Kierkegaard acolyte who consulted a Walter Lowrie translation when writing on Kierkegaard and that very subject of authority – Lowrie’s 1955 edition of On Authority and Revelation: The Book on Adler, or a Cycle of Ethico-Religious Essays. One of the keynotes of Cavell’s essay, from his famous book Must we mean what we say?, is that Kierkegaard distinguished between ‘premise’ authors and ‘genuine’ authors and Cavell’s exegesis (echoing Louise Glück) is central for our understanding of genuine (religious) authors like McCarthy. See:
I do not suppose Kierkegaard meant to suggest that a genuine author has to have, or claim, God’s authority for his work, but his description of the apostle’s position characterizes in detail the position I take the genuine modern artist to find himself in: he is pulled out of the ranks by a message which he must, on pain of loss of self, communicate; he is silent for a long period, until he finds his way to saying what it is he has to say (artistically speaking, this could be expressed by saying that while he may, as artists in former times have, begin and for a long time continue imitating the work of others, he knows that this is merely time-marking – if it is preparation, it is not artistic preparation – for he knows that there are no techniques at anyone’s disposal for saying what he has to say); he has no proof of his authority, or genuineness, other than his own work …
The people who now inscribe the Book of the Judge in our hearts and seek to lead us back to common humanity are artists, who follow Kierkegaard’s path when he said that our lives are not lived as a science but as an art. It is art that judges the judge. Look at what John Berger said after Thatcher’s defeat of the mining communities in Britain in the 1980s:
I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that often art has judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it
makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts, and honour.
Art will hold judgement, as I am doing here. Do you all see the Ur-Hamlet emerging once again here? The primordial tale of the fake fool exacting revenge on the upper class of usurpers. We see now how in Blood Meridian art judges the rapine and callousness of the age – with true justice. With Soul. Michael Lynn Crews writes insistingly and correctly that whilst Cormac McCarthy availed of many, often esoteric, words, expressions, turns of phrase and motifs sourced from other authors, his supreme artistry transmuted all these things into his own pure art. It was he, this supreme artist of both Eros and the Logos, Apollo and Dionysius, who spun this rough warp and weft to new gold. For this is what only artists can achieve in this age of cynicism. Or as Kenneth Clark put it so memorably in Landscape into Art: – “Facts become art through love, which unifies them and lifts them to a higher plane of reality.”
A problem arises in this process of course. Though the nature of that problem is different – or appears to be different – depending on whether you are the creating artist who achieves that higher plane with your art, or the critic who seeks to interpret that higher plane. The critic wants the artist to have an overall theory or ideology that can then be picked apart and analysed in digestible explanations or soundbites. The problem is that the apostle artist neither thinks nor creates in that way. The moment of full clarity and an overall God’s eye view comes, if it comes at all, at the moment of creative revelation. The artist must then work, Sisyphus like, to regain those heights anew. This is Louise Glück’s argument against sincerity. The artist does not have a programme or system, other than being true to their art and therefore themselves.
In Cormac McCarthy’s case, as we saw with his Kekulé essay, he was much exercised by the inability of words to capture the full reality of consciousness. Or rather, we might say to capture the conscious and unconscious processes that were clearly human attributes long before we became able to compose our thoughts in forms of words and to speak intelligibly to each in the way we do today. As with all great artists, there is a lot of mime, dumb show, and symbolism in McCarthy’s work. This not only demonstrates his view of words as being incapable of expressing all of existence – another denial of Hegel – but also his fascination with the irrational and the subconscious. If there are words in dreams they are only in our own minds and never constitute the full revelation.
Fired by his vast imagination, his supreme intellect, his – as I argue it – Catholic mysticism, and his fears of the relentless march of technology and knowledge for knowledge’s sake – the Pandora’s Box of ultimate Nature-Control – McCarthy envisions the Scientist Judge from Hell. Nothing answers this faux dominion of cacophony better than mute witness. It is for these very reasons the creating artist can only be a silent judge of testimony. Just as the kid is silent. In fact, the kid’s silence is the clinching factor in our consideration of Kierkegaard’s influence on Cormac McCarthy. It is yet another unreported factor. For with regard to Pastor Adler – see the Cavell reference above – who claimed that Jesus revealed Himself to him and gave him instruction, Kierkegaard’s proof that this didn’t happen is that Adler did not retreat into profound meditation and silence, but rather proceeded to publish a plethora of books, which sold very well thank you. A tabloid, premise artist personified.
This is where this short book came to me, An image of desolate and cursed peoples looking for guiding visions of hope. And I recalled this was the terrain of the ‘Judges’ in the Old Testament as retold in the Bible’s Book of Judges. A series of stories in which the People turn from God, are punished, and then delivered to their enemies. God then appoints a wise judge to lead the people back to righteousness. So the role of these judges was to save people and religious institutions from idolatry – corruption, self-aggrandizement and the worship of false gods. These judges were artists.
McCarthy himself is a judge. Just as Kierkegaard is and proclaims himself to be. Interestingly, in his freehand account of the Biblical tale, the Israeli author David Grossman portrays the most famous Biblical judge of all, Samson, as an artist seeking – perhaps – to forge his own individual path and therefore cutting across lineage, clan, tribe, race and possibly even destiny and God himself. He insisted on marrying and dying with the Palestinians (Philistine) in his own way. This resonates with Nicholas Berdyaev’s view that revelation comes from within us and via our own divine interpretation. We are in ourselves the house of God. Just in the way that Suttree tells the priest that his church is not the house of God. Did McCarthy read Berdyaev’s seminal The Meaning of the Creative Act? Here, Berdyaev posits the creative act as being integral to the Epoch of the Spirit. The era in which we find ourselves now. The era that calls on us to forge a new spiritual era by way of our own human propensity for revelation.
Only artists can now hold court over the all-prevailing cynicism that haunts our times. We search, therefore, for genuine artists. The kid is the extraordinary judge who was previously nothing more than a slave to the profane judge but whose inner humanity – his deep soul – called him forth to bear witness, even unto a death, which was no death because he made an absolute choice and chose absolutely his own eternal validity and therefore of all humankind. His almost certain death is simultaneously a work of art and a strike for freedom from a dead life.
There is a memorable quote from the character ‘Black’ in McCarthy’s 2008 two-character stage drama The Sunset Limited, a straightforwardly Kierkegaardian work McCarthy also called “a novel in dramatic form. The dramatic dialogue is Socratic in approach, except that there is even less of a firm conclusion between the arguments of the Christian ‘Black’ (a poor black man) and a suicidal ‘White’ (a white, middle-class man). Once again it is each individual observer who must decide the truth for themselves, as must the artist:
It aint as big a heresy as sayin that a man aint all that much different from a rock. Which is how your view looks to me.
It’s not my view. I believe in the primacy of the intellect.
Of course, and as per Louise Glück above, the work of art is autonomous. It creates its own sacred space. Goes beyond the artist creator. Suttree divests himself of all amulets and an ancient ‘godlet’ he had found in river silt. In the end he chose his simple heart as his talisman and this seems to be McCarthy’s own life-view. But Suttree, we knew by then, was the ‘son of Grace’ (metaphorically and because Grace is his mother). He is also ‘Buddy’ – a friend. A Buddy who continually seeks out the lonely and destitute to establish their welfare. Christ’s message that it is the poor, for all their faults and crimes, who truly share and comfort each other is emblazoned across almost every page of Suttree. Yet Christ, as the historical person Jesus of Nazareth, is only mentioned once in the whole of Suttree. McCarthy has no overt agenda, yet Cornelius Suttree is graven in our hearts, As he is for the half-sister of Gene Harrogate, who had heard reports of his kindness to her near-imbecile brother. This same stoic and ‘unchristian’ Suttree who has moments of such ecstatic lucidity that he embraces the whole “fidelity of this earth he inhabited” and bears it a “sudden love.”
The boy at the construction site near the forest who brings the water of life to Sutree on his Path of Truth (the passage to cosmic matter/heaven – all of life flashing before him in the miracle of elastic time and forgiveness embracing him) is the younger Suttree. He is John Grady Cole. Billy Parham. She is Rinthy Holme. He is Black he is White. He is the kid who beholds himself “in wells of smoking cobalt, twinned and dark and deep in child’s eyes, blue eyes with no bottoms like the sea.” A long sad train horn cries a lament across the hills for Suttree as he awaits his passage on a country road to eternity, as we all must. But see … also at the denouement is the Devil, ever seeking prey. Ravening for souls and he tires not. “Fly him and his hounds.”
The denouement of Suttree is an undeniable resurrection. He is waked, succoured, embraced finally, by a black transvestite. ‘Coloured’ youths helping to free the departing corpse-ambulance from river mud declare that “Old Suttree aint dead.”
Indeed, he is not. He is risen. Hosanna in the highest.
Praise Kierkegaard, who splintered Hegel’s creed
Upon the rock of Existential need,
Praise Barth, who told how saving Faith can flow
From Terror’s oscillating Yes and No
‘V. Conclusion’, John Updike
Completed All Hallowtide, 2023 – (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints Day All Souls Day)