In today’s Counterpunch—my favorite online and print publication—there’s a tribute to Cormac McCarthy, my least favorite novelist, by a Texas attorney named Carl E. Kandutsch who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University. Often set in Texas and the old west, McCarthy’s novels leave me with the impression that they are a mosh-up of overwrought Faulknerian or Melvillian prose and the Warner brother’s Roadrunner cartoons.
I first became—how should I put it?—obsessed with McCarthy after seeing “No Country for Old Men” in 2007. When the most likable character, a blue-collar worker who has absconded with the drug money found at the site of a shootout that left the dealers killed, is killed off himself long before the end of the flick only to leave a sheriff played by Tommie Lee Jones to blather on about the state of the world, I turned to my wife and said, “What the hell? Is this the way this stupid movie ends?”
That led me to an examination of the Cormac McCarthy fan’s website (http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/), where I saw his 1985 “Blood Meridian” described as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”
Since I guess I am one of those people who subscribes to the “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization”, I had problems with McCarthy’s novel even before I read it.
Kandutsch’s tribute references “Blood Meridian”, a novel most pro-McCarthy critics regard as his finest and liken to “Moby Dick”. With respect to the “politically correct” question, Kandutsch states:
There are no “noble savages” in these novels, and the Indians described in Blood Meridian are every bit as brutal, rapacious and blood-thirsty as the lawless gang of gringos who patrol the border badlands destroying villages in search of Indian scalps to sell for bounties offered by the Texas and Mexican governments.
Before I turn to the Comanche “noble savage” topic, I want to say something about McCarthy’s style. In the interests of transparency, I have to admit that I can’t stand overwriting so that probably disqualifies me as an objective critic of McCarthy to begin with. The late Nora Ephron, a wise and witty critic of male foibles and a pellucid prose stylist, had these words on McCarthy in the New Yorker magazine as related in a bedtime chat she was having with an unidentified man:
She opened the book and started reading from the end.
He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.
As the best example of what I find troubling about both McCarthy’s writing and his politics, there’s no better example than this passage from “Blood Meridian” that describes a Comanche band returning from a raid on a Texas village as if it was a Walpurgisnacht procession:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Wow, that’s all one sentence! Back in 1977 when I was working for Salomon Brothers, the programmers took a workshop on writing memos that was better than any writer’s workshop class I ever took at Bard or NYU. We learned to avoid the passive voice, number one (you’ll rarely see them in my articles.) The next thing was to understand the Gunning Fog Index that rated prose on the basis of readability, including the average number of words in a sentence, etc. Running the passage above against a Gunning Fog Index calculator (http://gunning-fog-index.com/fog.cgi) returned a rather feverish reading of 102.2. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunning_fog_index) states that texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12 and those for universal audience require an index of less than 8.
Turning to the substance of the passage, a careful reader with a tolerance for high Gunning Factor Indices might wonder what Comanche Indians were doing wearing stovepipe hats, an umbrella, white stockings, a bloodstained wedding veil, etc. As McCarthy was reported to have read extensively on the historical background of the Comanche Indian wars celebrated in films like “The Searchers”, you would have to believe that he was not making this up. In fact there was such a procession of weirdly dressed Indians with a telltale sign of a recent massacre of whites (bloodstained wedding veil) in Texas history.
This was a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in the aforementioned sinister costume party.
However, what McCarthy leaves out is the incident that led to the raid. While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.
McCarthy is not interested in this part of the story since it would interfere with the Hobbesian vision of his novel. Without mentioning the philosopher who is always pitted against the “novel savage” vision of Rousseau, Kandutsch seems to get that it is his philosophy that guides McCarthy’s narrative: “Others have attacked his allegedly reactionary moral and political stance, based on little more than his commitment to pessimism and his evident distaste for modern urban life.” Yup.
In “Blood Meridian”, the most repugnant character among a host of vile bodies is “The Judge”, the leader of a band of bounty hunters trading Comanche scalps for dollars who is based on the historical figure John Joel Glanton. The Judge muses:
These things are known to all the world. The world is construed out of blood and nothing else but blood. Death is the condition of existence and life is but an emanation thereof. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood. Before man was, war waited for him. The idea that man can be understood is an illusion.
Now McCarthy is a pretty smart guy even if he cant write worth a lick (that’s a McCarthy parody italicized there.) This notion of perpetual bloodlust is one I am very familiar with after having seen numerous accounts debunking the “noble savage” myth from one sociobiologist or another over the years, starting with Jared Diamond. McCarthy seems to be aware of their legacy from the appearance of the epigraph to “Blood Meridian”:
“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”
The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982
You see, war must be in our genes based on the evidence of scalping 300,000 years ago.
It turns out that the primary resource for “Blood Meridian” was T. R. Fehrenbach’s “Comanches: the Destruction of a People”. Fehrenbach, who is considered the dean of Texas history writing, died on December 1, 2013. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study was likely the inspiration for the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War”. These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who was determined to prove that there was no “noble savage” even if it was necessary leave out those aspects of Texas history that undermined his fictionalized sociobiology.