After watching the first episode of Heimat, the violence, blood, and death in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: or the Redness in the West probably seems simply atrocious. Is the thirst for violence just an innate quality or a product of the kid’s environment? On the very first page of Chapter 1, we learn the kid “already [has] a taste for mindless violence” (McCarthy, 3). This desire for “mindless violence” appears throughout the first six chapters, especially in the scene where we first meet the judge and the scene in the bar. McCarthy also includes graphic passages depicting death, such as the attack on the plane. What does this overabundance of violence do to the characters? And what does it do to us as the readers?
The scene with the judge interests me because of the “mindless violence” that occurs. The judge enters the tent where the reverend is speaking, and announces to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen I feel it my duty to inform you that the man…is an imposter…also wanted by the law…” (McCarthy, 6-7). The judge seems to want a reaction from the crowd, when he easily could have confronted the reverend after the sermon. He certainly gets a reaction: a man fired his pistol at the reverend and the tent was filled with “folk stumbling, folk trampled underfoot in the mud” (McCarthy, 7). Later at the bar, the revelation from the judge, “I never laid eyes on the man before today. Never even heard of him,” seems to shock the crowd into “a strange silence” (McCarthy, 8). It certainly shocked me! What shocked me even more, however, was what happened after the judge spoke: “Finally someone began to laugh…someone bought the judge a drink” (McCarthy, 8). I am not sure if this type of event is historically accurate, but its inclusion in Blood Meridian implies that people accepted these accusations – of a reverend, nonetheless – and acts of violence as unavoidable part of life.
One time we see the kid’s “taste for mindless violence” is in the bar at Bexar. The kid has no money to pay for a drink but offers to work for it. Anger builds in both the kid and the barman, perhaps due to the language barrier, until the barman produces a pistol from under the bar. There is nothing theatrical about the killing that follows, as one might expect after watching dramatic Westerns with suspenseful scenes. McCarthy’s words are certainly descriptive, but they do not overdramatize the killing; rather, they seem matter-of-fact. The kid simply “broke the right one over the man’s head…and he backhanded the second bottle across the barman’s skull and crammed the jagged remnant into his eye” (McCarthy, 25). McCarthy promptly moves on, spending no more time on the death, and neither does the kid. The kid “took another bottle and tucked it under his arm and walked out the door” (McCarthy, 26). Did the barman spur the kid into acts of violence, or the kid want a drink so badly that he was willing to kill for it?
If the killing in Bexar seems bad, the later scenes must appear horrific. Perhaps the aftermath of the attack on the plain in Chapter 4 best exemplifies this horrific violence. After sweeping through the group, the attackers “pass[ed] theirs blades about the skulls, snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies” (McCarthy, 54). The attackers even appear “so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs” (McCarthy, 55).
Is it possible to become desensitized from this much blood and gore? McCarthy’s writing seems to suggest so. Yes, he spends almost two pages describing the attack, but he focuses on the actions of people, the physical damage, and the flesh, rather than emotional descriptions. One example of this desensitization occurs when a Kentuckian describes a battle at Chihuahua. “The dames of the city…picnicked and watched the battle,” seeming to regard the death and war in front of them as entertainment (McCarthy, 76). They even “could hear the moans of the dying out on the plain,” yet they did nothing (McCarthy, 76).
As we continue reading Blood Meridian, we should pay attention to McCarthy’s descriptions of violence and death. What else do these acts of violence show us about the characters? About society at that time?