The Fascination of Cruelty

I recently re-read Blood Meridian and fell under its spell again—but this time I read it as a symphony. A very dark symphony, its stark matter lushly rendered, filled with thrilling minor chords and powered by a relentless vision. I absorbed the book not as facts or history or reality, but as a work of human imagination—probably about as close to reality as Beethoven’s symphonies are to whatever inspired them.

Life reduced to survival, and the depravity engendered by those ruthless necessities, are fascinating ideas for those of us in our armchairs to contemplate. Certainly McCarthy was fascinated by them, and seemed to feel that only they were worth the pain of art, and his rich creative exertion seems to mock our smugness and comfort. He claimed to recognize only literature that deals with issues of life and death, dismissing Henry James and Proust. I can’t agree with him there—I think there is only you, a pencil, and paper, and everything is fair game—including artists on whom nothing is lost. I know that after finishing Blood Meridian this time the last thing I wanted was something else like it. Some Dagwood and Blondie maybe.

This is not to say it isn’t important to be reminded, with some regularity, of the true nature of our DNA.

I know everybody from Aristotle to Stephen King has weighed in on our fascination with the horrific, and mostly the explanations revolve around our recognition of these inclinations in ourselves, with some kind of vicarious thing going on. Like sports are supposed to stand in for war, our fictional monsters are supposed to free us from being the monsters ourselves.

Great—except, I’m sorry, but the monsters are us.

I hate cruelty. I really do. To the point of nausea. But I’m also drawn to it like crystal meth.

First of all, we have to admit we wouldn’t be where we are today without the depravity within us. And of course it’s only “depravity” from a perspective in respite from it. People point out, for example, the injustice of stealing Native Americans’ land. Where? On land stolen from Native Americans. Which they now “own.” Everything we have of any value is because somebody at some point fought for it, and died for it and because of it. I have no intention of letting go of the ideal of the value of human life, or the sublimity of spiritual quest—I think these things are a part of human nature and perhaps our evolutionary destiny, but they certainly didn’t come first. Human nature is the product of millions of years of evolution and isn’t going anywhere.

Blood Meridian is very realistic. McCarthy delivers the landscape, the cold, the desolation, he paints picture after picture, he depicts human beings as unsentimentally as it is possible to do—living without law or refuge beyond the gaze of God in an environment where only force and cruelty have any effect, and there is no compensation or redemption. He researched Glanton and his scalphunting gang and read Samuel Chamberlain’s memoirs and knows his topography and textbook Spanish and has the best ear for dialect of any writer today.  But the book is pure invention. I mean, it’s a book. That, not its subject matter, or its Faulknerian rhetoric that only he can get away with, is its greatness. The load he puts on your mind through the extraordinary exertion of his own.

And of course there’s The Judge. Like Anton Chigurh he flirts with the supernatural. But what is supernatural but a matter of magnitude? Of evil, we say, but more likely something beyond good and evil. The ending of Blood Meridian is perfect because of its mystery and its leaving the dirty work to the reader. We don’t know what happened in the jakes, but we heed the advice of the man not to go in there, and have been given plenty of ways to guess. I’m sorry, but I’m not at liberty to discuss some of the things I have imagined. McCarthy gave us the depravities of Glanton’s psychopaths, and those of the Comanches—delivering a mortal wound to someone and sodomizing them as they die, slicing off the bottoms of people’s feet and leaving them in the desert, people flayed alive, the massacres, the baby tree—but he leaves that one for us. Whatever it was, it got the Judge dancing.

Genghis Khan is fascinating. And I wish I was sure which was stronger—my horror at his titanic cruelty and violence, or my attraction to it. He was a bad man. Ew! God, I wish I were him. Wait a minute! I’m not supposed to say that. I take it back. I don’t really want to slaughter whole towns for their refusal to surrender, or for their agreeing to for that matter—he killed them all—or boil people alive, or kill a mother’s children in front of her just to savor her agony, or pour molten silver into the eyes and ears of people I don’t like, or use human shields, or claim I was sent by God. I really don’t. Something in me just needs to know about it. He killed millions. And found it gratifying. What’s that like? You can have the monsters. Give me people, cruel with passion and glee, because they enjoy it.

No, I’m not one of them.

Unless the world destroys everything I love, slams every door in my face, and leaves me to die.

Then I make no promises.

December 10, 2018

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