Writing Seeing: Blood Meridian (1)

Imperative statements instruct, demanding immediate action, and thereby make gestures towards an instructor who stands as the source of the words on the page. When Blood Meridian bursts into being by latching onto a nameless boy, “pale and thin” and “wear[ing] a thin and ragged linen shirt,” the description that enables the reader to begin to perceive the boy is rendered subordinate to the instruction for the reader to simply perceive. “See the child” is the brusque demand with which the novel opens. “See the child,” it begins. “He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.” From where, from what, from whom, does that demand originate? What disembodied consciousness owns that imperative voice? What is this perceiving wraith, this unseen seer of other things, which must itself have seen the child in order to now instruct others to see?

The year is 1849 and the boy is restless. Although he has only just entered his teens, “in him broods already a taste for mindless violence” and so he drifts westward to fall in with men who feed his hunger for bloodshed. In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, in the wake of the Mexican-American War, the boy, “the kid,” finds a place in a posse charged with confronting the Indian raiders whose havoc has unleashed anarchy across the border settlements. The posse is led by John Joel Glanton, formerly a captain in the U.S. Army, and his remit is to claim bounty from the Governor of Chihuahua upon surrender of the scalps of slaughtered “heathen.” In time, however, the men of his posse come to see little difference between the scalps they are officially sanctioned to take and those of the settlers who dwell in the deserts far beyond civilisation. They begin attacking innocents in numbers that exceed belief but then, when their actions are brought to light at last, the predators find themselves preyed upon and blaze a trail of unspeakable carnage further west to California. Their journey ends in disaster. There are only two survivors, one of whom is the kid, and the novel comes to a close with his death at the hands of the other. So goes the story of Blood Meridian. Spectacularly cruel and sensationally violent, it is otherwise simple, straightforward, and slight. Surprisingly little actually happens as one page gives way to the next, and what happens happens largely without depth or complexity and without any sense of moment or meaning.

In Blood Meridian, then, the tale is overshadowed both by the voice in which it is told and by the nature of the consciousness that this voice implies. For this consciousness, of course, the very act of seeing becomes a significant preoccupation as it recurrently remarks on who among a crowd of people is watching the movements of others and how the observed appear to observers and which of them are or are not able to see this or that aspect of the world they inhabit. But how does the seer itself see this world and how does it use words to force readers to see? The issue of sight is, in this novel, inextricably bound to the issue of language insofar as the persona of the seer is manifest through not only the observations it makes of the world but also the selection and sequencing of the words it uses to make them. The qualities of its language have long attracted critical interest. Among its more remarkable features are what Dana Phillips calls “a strange equanimity of tone, strange because of the virtuosity with which [it] details what seems unspeakable and what once it has been spoken requires no further comment,” and the fluctuations of focalisation by which, as Steven Shaviro points out, the seer races forth and then retreats, “from the concrete to the abstract and back again,” and thereby “observes a fractal symmetry of scale, describing without hierarchical distinction and with the same attentive complexity the most minute phenomena and the most cosmic.” So how do these qualities play out on the page to create and impart its axis of vision?

On one level, the seer makes note of worldly detail with a vocabulary so expansive and recondite that it affords an almost irreducible precision of taxonomy, affixing to various aspects of the world names so specific as to lack synonyms. A hanged man is labelled a “parricide,” murdered by his own children. A club or cudgel wielded as a weapon is identified as a “shellalegh,” an Irish walking stick with a knob at one end. An old hermit is labelled an “anchorite,” a man whose sense of duty to God has driven him into reclusion, while a haggard old woman is a “beldam” and a stagecoach is a “diligence” and a horse’s hooves are not merely “bound” but are “spanceled” to where the beast casts its shadow across the ground. And even when the seer seems to lack a word as specific as those above, it observes worldly details with similar specificity but by way of descriptions of only slightly greater length. A quiver made of leather, for instance, is specifically made from ocelot skin, and a street bazaar whose attractions include a nest of snakes behind wooden bars is said to showcase a series of “stout willow cages clogged with vipers.” When it operates on a more abstract level, however, the seer forsakes this close observation of worldly detail in order to survey a more expansive scene with minimal attention to its finer elements. “[T]hey were very small and they moved very slowly in the immensity of that landscape,” it says of Glanton’s men when it adopts a sphere of sight so broad as to make them miniscule, and later it hovers above them to watch them “sketching on the plain below a blue cameo of such dream pilgrims clanking north.” “The earth fell away on every side equally in its arcature,” the seer notes as it rears up over the heads of these hopeless men, “and by these limits were they circumscribed and of them were they locus.”

Zooming in and zooming out, retreating from a concentrated deepening of vision to radically expand the horizon of its purview, the seer’s omniscient gaze appears to oscillate between a circumspective atomic particularisation of that which comprises the world and an existential totalisation of the world itself. More impressively, though, the seer is able to fix its gaze upon a plurality of spatial and temporal positions all at once. “In the predawn light,” it notes as it follows the kid through the desert, “he made his way out upon a promontory and there received first of any creature in that country the warmth of the sun’s ascending.” Beyond exclusively observing the movements of the kid, then, it simultaneously observes every other sentient being around him without regard for how or where each may be concealed. Later, too, as it follows the movements of Glanton’s posse, it notes that Glanton’s men “did not know that they were set forth in that company in the place of three men slain in the desert,” and it easily traverses both space and time when it observes one man alone, fleeing the desert on foot, as he strikes out “beyond where four hundred miles to the east were the wife and child that he would not see again.” It repeatedly makes a point of its ability to see what cannot be seen by the characters it details, such as when it observes two men whose futures are read with tarot cards and focuses on the one card “that they would not see come to light,” and it likewise looks into the future with offhand references to “the scene to come” or to events that will occur “[w]ithin a week” or “before the month [is] out.” In one instance, it even stands motionless in space to watch a succession of torturous days cluster together into a single moment. Finding some horses dead in the desert, “parched beasts [that] died with their necks stretched in agony,” it remarks on how their open mouths now leave them “howling after the endless tandem suns that passed above them.”

Continued in the following post.