The Chihuahuan Desert
I discussed evil before in a post from a couple of years ago. I'm not sure I've changed my mind all that much, but I've been thinking about that subject again, this time in the context of a novel that I finished recently, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, a horrifically violent book that does not have much of a plot, but is strangely riveting. For anyone with a sense of decency and sensitivity (most people), this is not an easy book to read. There are horrific massacres of women and children. There is one vivid scene of a small tree outside a massacred Mexican village adorned with the corpses of infants like some horrible Christmas tree. Two men die together by hanging from their Achilles' tendons head down into a raging fire. The plot line is a series of murders and massacres and counter-massacres. We have an idea of what the outcome will be, so there's not much in the way of dramatic tension in the action of the book. The drama is interior, about what all this mayhem means (or doesn't mean) and what claims it makes upon the main characters, and on us.
I'm not writing a critical essay on this novel (far greater minds than mine have written such essays far beyond my poor abilities). I want to use this novel as a starting point for thinking about the subject that is at its heart, evil.
Blood Meridian is based on an actual event in history, the raids of the Glanton gang in the areas around the Mexican borderlands; mostly south Texas, Chihuahua, Sonora, Arizona, and California. They took place in 1849 to 1850, shortly after the conclusion of the Mexican American War from 1846 to 1848. John Joel Glanton was a veteran of that war, and a man who already had a long criminal record before the war. He put together a troop of 39 men and went into business as a scalp hunter for the state government of Chihuahua (over the objections of the governor). They made a handsome profit turning in Comanche scalps until 1850 when they began supplementing their dwindling Comanche scalp supply with the scalps of Mexican tenant farmers and peaceable Indians. The Chihuahuan government put a bounty on Glanton and his gang driving them into neighboring Sonora where they went to work for that state's government hunting Apache scalps. It soon became clear to the Sonorans that Glanton and his men were nothing more than a band of murderers for profit and drove them into Arizona where the US government had a price on Glanton's head. In Arizona, the Glanton gang seized control of a ferry crossing the Gila river. They robbed and murdered both settlers and Indians using the ferry. A band of Yuma Indians raided the ferry and killed and scalped Glanton and most of his men.
As violent as the novel is, perhaps it is only a slight exaggeration of the violence of that place and time.
McCarthy bases much of his story on the one first hand account of the Glanton gang, Samuel Chamberlain's My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue, a largely self-serving and unreliable source. Blood Meridian sticks fairly closely to the narrative of events and the characters Chamberlain describes. McCarthy's tale revolves mostly around 2 characters. The first is an anonymous runaway orphan known only as "The Kid." The novel begins with the Kid leaving a broken home at age 14. Most of the events of the novel take place when the Kid is 19. The novel ends when the Kid is a man in his 40s (McCarthy abruptly begins calling him The Man at this point). Though young, the Kid is hardly an innocent. When he joins Glanton's gang in San Antonio, he's already committed a number of assaults and murders. Even so, the Kid is a kind of protagonist in the novel. Though a cutthroat and a murderer himself, he is the most determined holdout against the power and influence of the other main character, Judge Holden.
Judge Holden may, or may not, be a historical character. So far, the only known record of his existence is Chamberlain's account. According to Chamberlain, Holden was from Texas and was Glanton's second in command. He was a first rate shot and remarkably well read in all kinds of science and history. Chamberlain also describes him as unusually large; tall and rotund, and completely hairless. He describes Holden as a cold sadistic killer. McCarthy remains faithful to this description of Holden, but the Judge dominates the central portion of the novel. McCarthy gradually makes it clear that the Judge is a more than mortal figure. The Judge seems to have some kind of hold on Glanton and his men, and they come to depend on him for success and eventually for survival. From the beginning, the Judge himself makes it clear that he is a liar, and eventually betrays Glanton and kills off many of the remaining gang. Some critics see the Judge as the devil. Others see him as a personification of war. McCarthy has made no public commentary on this novel, and rightly so. Whoever and whatever the Judge is, he's a kind of immortal being of evil, whether a spiritual being or one conjured up by human hearts remains unexplained.
McCarthy fills the novel with vivid imagery and with all kinds of religious allusions. Among the most memorable is the Kid's nighttime encounter with a lone burning tree struck by lightning in the middle of a winter desert. As he approaches the burning tree, he sees all kinds of poison creatures, snakes, gila monsters, spiders, crowding around the flames for warmth. This is clearly a reference to Moses and the Burning Bush. Christian imagery plays a large but entirely impotent role in the novel. Churches are usually found deserted and in ruins, and in 2 cases, filled with corpses; people who crowded into a village church as a last refuge from massacre by Comanches or by Glanton's men.
Landscape plays a major role in this novel as more than just a backdrop to human events. The deserts and mountains of the Southwest and northern Mexico are spectacular, alien, and hostile in the novel. We encounter desert lightning, skies full of stars, meteor showers, high snow-bound mountain peaks, flat featureless salt plains, and volcanic landscapes paved with glassy obsidian. McCarthy describes this terrain as explicitly hellish.
On the day that followed they crossed a lake of gypsum so fine the ponies left no track upon it. The riders wore masks of boneblack smeared about their eyes and some had blacked the eyes of their horses. The sun reflected off the pan burned the undersides of their faces and shadow of horse and rider alike were painted upon the fine white powder in purest indigo. Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augered the earth and some said they'd heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what? And if the dried and blackened shell of him is found among the sands by travelers to come yet who can discover the engine of his ruin?
Don't miss the reference to the story of Job embedded in that paragraph. As always with these religious allusions in the novel, they are less inverted than rendered impotent. This is not the material world liberated from belief in God as in so much atheist polemic, but a world abandoned by God. There are also more than a few nods to Dante's Inferno in McCarthy's descriptions of landscape. To anyone like me who has traveled in the Southwest, McCarthy's writings about the landscape are not exaggerated, at least not by much. The landscape of the Sierra Madres, the Rockies, the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts really does have that kind of drama and sublimity. You really can see dry lightning and thunder at night in these deserts. The night sky really is full of stars and meteors. The lava fields really do look like the pavement in Dante's inferno. Most remarkable of all is that constant contrast of fire and ice; you really can see snow capped peaks from the hottest desert floor.
Dust devils on a salt flat, Alvord Desert, Oregon
Lava fields in northern Mexico
There are a number of dialogues involving the Judge and Glanton's men. The Judge is a very talkative man. The Kid by contrast is very reticent. There is one crucial dialogue in the 17th chapter in which the Judge justifies war and violence:
Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man's hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man's worth could there be? The enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
When some of the other cutthroats object that might does not necessarily make right, the Judge replies:
Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. A man falling dead in a duel is not thereby proven in error of his views. His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view. The willingness of the principals to forgo further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of historical absolute clearly indicates how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment are the divergences thereof. For the argument is indeed trivial, but not the separate wills thereby made manifest. Man's vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgments ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall be not, beggar all question of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, naturalKeep in mind that this a speech delivered to cutthroats by another cutthroat (albeit a more than mortal one). The Judge is a self-confessed liar who betrays all who come into contact with him. These men are all killers who wear ornaments of human hair, ears, and teeth, who the author regularly describes as foul and disgusting to look at and smell. They are hardly the noblest specimens of humanity, but quite the opposite. They are not soldiers, but murderers for profit.
The Judge may well accurately describe the way the world is, and how it works, but is that desirable? What kind of life have these men made for themselves spreading death and grief, adding to the terrible desolation of the desert? What the Judge describes may well be what we are born into, but is that what we truly want to dwell in or bring children into? I'm reminded of a remark by a zoologist (whose name I can't remember) who specialized in the behavior of apes. She said that she is always amazed when she takes a commercial flight from New York to Los Angeles, at how hard people confined to the small space of plane for 5 hours work to keep a measure of peace with their fellow passengers, what sacrifices of gratification they will bear for the peace and welfare of everyone else (I've noticed the same thing on very crowded subways). She says that a similar flight containing nothing but chimps would be a bloody chaos with maybe one or two mortally wounded survivors limping off the plane when it lands in Los Angeles.
One of the things that I've noticed that evil has in common with good is a remarkable selflessness. Human nature is fundamentally selfish, and we share that selfishness with all other life on earth. Just like chimps, sparrows, fish, trees, and bacteria we want to meet our needs, gratify our desires, and avoid pain. We usually do things for selfish reasons. In McCarthy's novel, Glanton and his men go through all kinds of suffering and hardship to do their destructive work. The Mexican villagers, the Indians, the settlers, the townspeople they encounter lead happier and more comfortable lives than they do (and longer lives). Glanton and his men have all sacrificed family ties, friendship, and happiness for... for what? For victory, or for a chance at victory, I suppose. Terrorists are as selfless as martyrs. For the sake of destroying as many people as they can, they will happily destroy themselves.
I've never been comfortable with the idea of a spiritual or metaphysical evil in the world. I don't really believe in the devil. I don't trust the supernatural, and unlike most American Evangelical Christians, I don't believe in Manicheanism. The war between good and evil is already decided ... by definition. However, evil is more than some kind of defect that can be corrected through education and better hygiene. Whatever evil is, it is that rot at the center of the universe that wills harm and destruction.
I don't believe in Fate or Karma. We DON'T always get what we deserve. Terrible things happen to undeserving people for no reason other than the fact that we are mortal and therefore vulnerable. We are free agents in this world, and so is everything else. I've never believed in a God who is the ultimate cause of everything that happens. God is not a puppeteer.
If I believe in Original Sin, it's not in the idea of God nursing an ancient grudge over a stolen apple, and demanding the bloody death of His own Son as satisfaction. I do believe in Original Sin in the sense that no one pulls themselves up into salvation by their own bootstraps. Even with the best of intentions, we always trip over ourselves on the way to the Celestial City, and we can't help but do so. Somewhere in the gap between God and everything else, between the mortal and immortal, between the provisional and categorical, is that will to destruction that is evil. It is something much more than the usual selfishness and fright of mortal beings. It is our mortal animal nature that saves us from absolute evil just as it prevents us from becoming absolutely good. Our basic animal selfishness keeps us from the temptation to push God off his throne and sit there ourselves (or to imagine that we are His sole agents and create franchise thrones for us to sit in).
I've said before that I am no believer in theodicy. We mortals are within our rights to complain and to rage against the Almighty. We mere mortals who can only see as far as our particular part of time and space must suffer His machinations. There is no reason to do so quietly. We are within our rights to demand that God explain Himself. He is within His rights to refuse. We suffer evil. God does not.
I could be wrong, but I think it was Karl Barth who said that in the Cross humankind is justified before God, and God is justified before humankind.
The Judge concludes a long speech to Glanton's men at night around a campfire amid the ancient pueblo ruins of Keet Seel near Monument Valley in what is now Arizona:
...If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is not the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower, and to die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of his achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.
The judge looked about him. He was sat before the fire naked save for his breeches and his hands rested palm down upon his knees. His eyes were empty slots. None among the company harbored any notion as to what this attitude implied, yet so like an icon was he in his sitting that they grew cautious and spoke with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.