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Learning from Art: Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" as a Critique of Divine Determinism

Author(s): Dennis Sansom


Source: Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring, 2007), pp. 1-19
Published by: University of Illinois Press
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Learning from Art: Cormac McCarthy's Blood


Meridian as a Critique of Divine Determinism
DENNIS SANSOM
Art's Critique of Philosophy
We usually think the critic's role belongs to philosophy. That is, to understand art's essential characteristics and why and how we appreciate art, we
need a philosophical explanation. Though our tastes for art are unique and
personal, we typically think that to understand art we must first explain it.
For example, Plato thought he could explain art as an emotional inspiration
for people, at best, or, at worse, a distortion of intelligible truths; therefore,
according to Plato, art should be dismissed or censored in a society seeking
social justice derived from the idea of justice. Aristotle understood art to be
the imitation of nature; as an imitation, it needs clarification according to the
purposes of nature, and philosophy clarifies these purposes. In either case,
art needs to be critiqued by philosophy. It is customary to hear philosophical
critics lecture on art rather than artists lecture on philosophy.
But can art critique philosophy? Is it possible for art to provide a scrutiny of philosophy that perhaps a particular philosophy cannot give itself?
I think art can provide this critique by using a feature that some philosophers have thought to be art's limitation to clear reasoning-the imagination. Though philosophers like John Dewey recognize the importance and
influence of imagination on our moral and aesthetical orientation to the
world of experience, typically Thomas Hobbes's view of imagination prevails in the empiricist-leaning philosophers (for instance, David Hume and
Bertrand Russell): the imagination is about image recollection and hence
necessary for connecting our ideas to empirical experiences. But for this latter approach, the imagination does not inform us about the world; rather it
only bridges experience to abstract ideas. What is important, then, is proper
understanding. For this approach, the main question is, Can we explain
the world based upon our clearest account of the role of understanding?
Dennis Sansom is Professorand Chairof the Departmentof Philosophy at Samford
University.His professionalinterestsinclude the foundationof ethics, medical ethics,
and the relationshipbetween art and philosophy.In 2004 he published "Tolstoyand
the MoralInstructionsof Death"in Philosophy and Literature.
JournalofAestheticEducation,Vol.41, No. 1, Spring2007
@2007Boardof Trusteesof the Universityof Illinois

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Whether this account relies upon a psychological model of the brain's workings, a scientific model of successful theory formation, or a logical model
reflective of truth relation possibilities, we need philosophy to clarify how
we gain knowledge, even in art.
Yet, this approach shortchanges analysis. Psychology, empirical science,
and logic are not the only ways to analyze an idea. If a philosophy pretends
to explain our experience of the world, then the philosophy opens itself to
this question: Is the idea worth holding to be true according to our experiences of the world? A philosophical claim may be logically consistent, based
upon generalizations of experience, and be coherent with acceptable views
of God, the self, or morality, but if we envision the claim lived out within
our experience of the world, would we want to accept it? Is it the kind of
life we would want? It takes imagination to answer these questions, and the
artist through her or his unique technique and representation can test the
existential worth of an idea.
Hobbes's description of the imagination represents only one way to explain it. Imagination is more than an act of memory and recollection. It is
also reconstruction. John Dewey's definition highlights this role: "An imaginative experience is what happens when varied materials of sense quality,
emotion, and meaning come together in a union that marks a new birth
in the world."' Imagination is always an interpretation of what the world
could look like. It not only mirrors but heightens experience to focus on
a certain viewpoint about the possible meaning of life. By doing this, the
imagination enables us to explore whether certain ideas are worth keeping.
That is, if we could picture living this way, would we want to live it?
Because imagination occupies a central role in artistic creativity, art provides a useful means of analyzing philosophical claims about the world.
Though a philosopher may be able to present an idea that is logically consistent, clear in its categories of quantity, quality, being, modality, and so
on, explicit in all its assumptions, and even "clear and distinct," when the
idea is imagined in life situations, it can lose its attractiveness for living. It
can seem absurd to our normal moral experiences. The artistic imaginative
rendering of an idea can show that some understandable ideas that philosophers have offered are perhaps not worth keeping.
Not all art pretends to critique philosophy, but several famous instances
are evident. Voltaire's Candide shows the absurdity of Leibniz's optimism.
Leibniz's philosophical idea of God's infinite wisdom and power and of a
sufficient rational explanation for all events gave him good logical reasons
to conclude that of all the possible worlds that could have been this is the
best. It took Voltaire's imagination to show that such an idea cannot satisfactorily explain the human experience of suffering and inexplicable differences among the differing peoples of the world. Professor Pangloss's refrain
after each senseless act and painful experience that "this is the best of all

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Blood Meridian, a Critiqueof Determinism

possible worlds" shows that Leibniz's philosophical idea needed a critique


from the imagination. Though Leibniz's optimism and theodicy have a logical appeal, Voltaire's artistic imagination shows how absurd the idea is in
relation to real human affairs.
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World gives a similar critique to the utopian idea of a classless society. Marx's philosophical idea of the material
dialectic moving human history toward a time of justice in a classless society has a systematic persuasiveness. For instance, if all human affairs are
socioeconomically conditioned, and the capital owners exploit and alienate
the workers and even themselves to make a profit, causing social injustice
and suffering, then the owner class needs elimination so that justice and
human fulfillment can materialize in a classless society. The exploitation
and alienation of the workers create the reaction of the workers against
the capital class and propel human history toward an elimination of social
classes and injustices. The idea is simple and direct but absurd to human
experience. Huxley's imaginative rendering of a classless society in which
everyone is happy and fulfilled because they are infantile in their individual
responsibilities and drugged from life's uncertainties with hedonism shows
that utopianism diminishes human dignity and individuality. The idea,
which pretends to offer a way to reach human fulfillment by eroding the
moral worth of being a unique individual, is shown to be absurd to our life
experiences.
The artist's imagination, especially in literature, pictures what can happen. Aristotle may be right in saying that art imposes an ideational form
upon matter, but art can also indicate whether an ideational form should be
imposed upon matter. In keeping with Aristotle's terminology, the actuality
of the idea may pervert or hinder the potentiality of the matter. Some ideas
do not fulfill the potentiality of the human experience and they should be
rejected, though they are logical, systematic, and clear. Some philosophical ideas cannot stand the test of the imagination. How does the artistic
imagination test an idea?
The artistic imagination is not just a fanciful thought experiment or a
mirror of experience. In the Critique of Judgement Kant argued that artistic
imagination has a creative effect, not just a reproductive one. It enables us
to imagine what the pure reason of science and the practical reason of moral
universalizeability cannot enable us to know. As fruitful for knowledge as
science and morality may be, they are limited to what is experienced in the
senses, synthesized by a priori categories, or universalized to a dutiful necessity. Because science and morality are restricted in what they can know
by their own modes of reasoning (that is, pure and practical), they lack a
creative ability to envision a different world. But art can envision a world
in which the free individual can harmonize in will and action with nature's
purpose. Art's judgment, according to Kant, gives us a new critique of the

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human experience: Do our ideas really mix with our experience of purpose
in nature? Art can imagine a purpose to life, which science and morality
cannot explain by their modes of reasoning.
Dewey said art has a "totalizing" function. Literary imagination in particular pictures a wholeness of experience determined by a sense of purpose
that performs the integrating effect. It is a way of experiencing a purpose
within the exigencies and uncertainties of life. Aristotle helps us again in
understanding this point. In Poetics (in particular books VII-XI) he talks
about plot being the essential feature of a tragedy because it gives wholeness to the story. A movement of action in the characters occurs from the
beginning, which does not necessarily follow anything, through the middle,
which follows the preceding action and moves the story to more effects, and
the end, which naturally follows the preceding and has nothing following
it. The particular genius of the artist, in this case literary, comes through by
enabling us to identify with this movement because through pity and/or
catharsis we experience a similar story in our lives.
Literary imagination offers a way to test an idea by picturing in life situations the movement of an idea (in Aristotle's sense). Once we artistically
render a philosophical idea into a narrative plot in which we can imagine
ourselves experiencing its movement guided by its teleology, would we
want it? Albert William Levi explains that this type of critique represents
one of art's great educational contributions to society: "When we perceive
the arts as 'humanities' it is crucial that we interpret them as a demand that
we pause, and in their light, reexamine our own realities, values, and dedications, for the arts not only present life concretely, stimulate the imagination,
and integrate the different cultural elements of a society or of an epoch, they
also present models for our imitation or rejection, visions and aspirations
which mutely solicit our critical response."2 Ideas need to be tested, and art
provides a way to evaluate the life value of some philosophical claims about
the way the world is or should be. As useful and needful to our understanding as psychology, science, and logic may be, a complete analysis requires
an artistic critique as well. By using the artistic imagination in this way, we
gain another means of advancing our analytical ability to evaluate an idea.
I believe Cormac McCarthy's 1985 novel BloodMeridian can be read as an
artistic critique of a philosophical-theological idea. The novel shows what
we can narratively imagine to be the lived experienced of an idea-a teleology of God's implacable will and human history, especially as it involves
violence and war. Though the novel does not use the phrase, we can call it
the "Theo-Determinist" philosophy of human destiny. It is simple, direct,
and clear (similar to Leibniz's optimism): (1) because God is absolutely sovereign over everything, God is the omni-causal agent of everything; and
(2) every action thus reflects God's holy will. Of course, religious believers within Theo-Determinism may relate affectionately and sincerely to the

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Blood Meridian, a Critiqueof Determinism

God of this idea, but there is an absurdity to Theo-Determinism. If we examine only the idea's consistency and comprehensiveness, we may be compelled to assent, but when we try to envision a life defined by it, we become
repulsed. McCarthy's literary imagination reveals why we should reject it,
and as was the case in Candide and Brave New World, and now with Blood
Meridian, we have an artistic imagination critiquing a philosophical-theological idea. The following examines aspects of McCarthy's novel to show
how a literary critique reveals the failure of an idea in terms of how the idea
could possibly be lived.
Nihilism and Divine Determinism in Cormac McCarthy's BloodMeridian
I believe McCarthy's Blood Meridian shows the absurdity of the idea of the
divine determinism of human history. The novel depicts a history in which
there is no moral difference between nihilism and divine determinism. In
such a history, we would have to say that war is as holy as the love of the
neighbor because each is equally caused by God.
We can read Blood Meridian in several ways: as a story of the Manifest
Destiny of the United States, of the conflict between cultures, of humanity's
propensity toward violence, and of great fictional writing. It is an artistic
analysis of the Theo-Deterministic claim and shows that the claim, though
appealing to some, is repulsive in real life. The novel's plot puts the reader
in a quandary of beliefs throughout by forcing the reader to accept a paradox that we intuitively never want to admit-in moral terms, there is no
difference between nihilism and divine sovereign determinism, for each is
beyond good and evil. Whether we believe the world is completely devoid
of any trans-subjective moral standards or whether God determines all actions by the power of the divine will, in either case, our moral judgments are
without any real meaning beyond the use of them. One can read the novel
as an imaginative, artistic critique, which uses a tale of a roaming band of
ruthless scalp hunters fighting equally ruthless adversaries to highlight the
disturbing moral consequences of the idea of Theo-Determinism.
BloodMeridian is terrifying on two levels. First, it may be the most violent
novel ever written. The amount and intensity of cruelty throughout the book
shocks the reader. The book makes one wince. Second, it depicts in terms of
a dramatic plot just how terrifying God is if God is the sovereign determiner
of all events. References to inevitability, absolute destiny, and God's eternal
plan interlace the novel's story of a group of scalpers in Mexico during the
1860s, named after their leader John Joel Glanton (who has actual historical roots),3 as they move from one bloody episode to the next. In the midst
of these horrendous events dances (and indeed he dances throughout) the
seven-foot-tall, hairless, albino, sinister, pedophiliac "judge" (small case in
the book), a member of the mercenary gang of scalpers. Etched on his rifle is

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the name Et In Arcadia Ego ("Even in Arcadia [that is, a rural place of peace
and simplicity] there I am, Death").4 No one knows his origins, or why he
speaks many languages, or how he knows to make gunpowder out of sulfur
and urine, and no one sees him sleep. But everyone knows what he stands
for-"War is God," he proclaims.5
Who is the judge? In drawing parallels with Melville's Moby Dick, Harold Bloom says: "I think that McCarthy is warning his reader that the Judge
[sic] is Moby Dick rather than Ahab. As another white enigma, the albino
Judge like the albino whale, cannot be slain."6 Though carnal, primeval, and
relentless like the whale, McCarthy does not pretend that the judge is God.
The novel displays him as God's prophet.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my
knowledge exists without my consent.
He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked.
He nodded toward the specimens he'd collected. These anonymous
creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the
smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock
out of men's knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when
the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked
before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.
What's a suzerain?
A keeper. A keeper or overlord.
Why not say keeper then?
Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where
there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.
Toadvine spat.
The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are
pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine
nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.
(198-99)
The judge keeps a ledger of his zoological and botanical findings. When
he sees an unknown animal or plant, he records and then kills it. Its value
lies not in its autonomy and integrity but in being under the judge's control.
Killing the animals and plants is not peripheral to their place in the world.
To die is life's real goal, and life's highest expression is the war of humans
against humans: "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" (249). And the
judge is a ruthless, calculating, and sovereign killing animal. He epitomizes
a world's purpose that has war as its divine will.
We do not find an explicit explanation in the book for the novel's title.
Yet the title (Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West) pictorially
expresses the tale's theme of preordained cruelty. A meridian is both a circle

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Blood Meridian, a Critiqueof Determinism

through the global poles and the highest point of a development. From
north to south, the highest expression of human evolution in the novel is the
bloodshed of war-hence blood meridian. War takes all the accomplishments
of culture and uses them not only to shed enormous amounts of blood but
also to justify war's mayhem. A blood meridian is war in all its forms and
its justifications, whether theological, national, or cultural; it is the pinnacle of a culture's success and dominance. War's level of violence decreases
the relative importance of all other societal achievements because once human conflict reaches the level of war, it becomes the ultimate expression of
human intention, success and defeat, and purpose.
The metaphysically highest justification for war is to claim God uses it
to work out a divine plan. And, consequently, if God as the all-powerful,
perfect being can determine war to be good, then people can also justify any
action as good. And, if war is divinely ordained, then moral categories become empty. If the destruction and terror of war are good by divine decree,
then what can be bad actions? If war is determined by God, then we are
indeed beyond good and evil. With such a theological-metaphysical system,
we do not have to worry about the difference between a just war and an
unjust one. In a blood meridian there is a metaphysical plan, but there are
no moral distinctions because if God ordains war based upon the authority
of God's will, then whether we think it is just or not makes no difference to
its place within the divine plan. Thus, we can say the novel's blood meridian is a world beyond good and evil, a moral nihilism, in which it is possible
that war is both the cruelest and most divine activity possible for humans.
Furthermore, the judge incarnates the blood meridian.
In 1878, after not seeing the "kid" for twenty-eight years, the judge rapes
and kills him in a foul outhouse in the Texas Panhandle town of Griffin.
Together they fought and scalped in Glanton's gang. They meet by chance
in a bar. Years earlier the kid had escaped the judge's murderous intent
toward him; he did not kill the judge when he had the opportunity. Avenging Yuma Indians near the Colorado River had split Glanton's head down
to the thrapple, burned his body, paraded his head on a paling, and roasted
the remaining gang. The kid and the ex-priest Tobin, another gang member,
fled the revenging Yumas, but they also ran from the judge, who had escaped the Yumas as well and now sought to kill the kid.
We would expect the judge and kid's reunion after twenty-eight years
to be at least cordial, for they did share the same destiny as scalpers, but
from the first we know the judge yearns to kill him. Why? Years earlier in a
Mexican prison the judge told the kid:
Dont [sic] be afraid, he said. I'll speak softly. It's not for the world's
ears but for yours only. Let me see you. Dont [sic] you know that I'd
have loved you like a son?

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He reached through the bars. Come here, he said. Let me touch
you.
The kid stood with his back to the wall.
Come here if you are not afraid, whispered the judge.
I aint [sic] afraid of you.
The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You
came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You
put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you
broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned
it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and
you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is
nothing but antic clay. (306-7)

And when they meet again, the judge in King James language says to the
kid: "Drink up, he said. Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of
thee" (327). Why is the kid's soul required and why is the judge his Judge?
In a world governed by the implacable will of a God who determines war
as well as life, any form of pacifism or moral questioning of war has to be
eliminated. The judge knows that the kid, though an expert killer himself, is
not totally committed to the war against the Indians. He does not praise the
Manifest Destiny of American culture over the Southwest Amerindians. He
does not see the resolute will of God in the destruction of innocent Yumas
and Mexicans. The kid subconsciously keeps part of his soul's passion away
from the destruction of war. The judge, being the power of not only death
but of God in such a violent world, cannot endure such heresy. Because he
thinks he should resist even in his modest way the mayhem and slaughter
of the blood meridian, the kid is a heretic. The book's title symbolically depicts a world ordered by a God who uses war to work his will. At the zenith
of the day, human lives have to be spent to work out the morally inscrutable
mystery of a sovereign will. It does not matter whether it is the raping, castrating, disemboweling, and scalping by the Comanches of the kid's first
gang of filibusters, or the senseless and deceptive killings and scalpings of
the Apaches by the Glanton gang, or the butchered seven or eight babies
hung up through their jaws on mesquite hooks by the Apaches, or the busting of the Mexican babies' heads by the Delaware Indians, or the massacre
of Glanton's gang by the Yuma. Everyone is violent. The heinous Glanton
gang is no worse or better than those they scalp. War is the common denominator among all people. It serves God's purpose, and since war is the
most extreme form of human cruelty and it can be used by a Sovereign Lord
to move providence, then war is the meridian of God's sovereign ways in
the world, the activity where heaven and earth meet. Such a view of God
and providence is terrifying to our moral sensitivities.
In the world of Blood Meridian, the kid blasphemes and thus has to be
dominated, like the bugs the judge puts in his ledger. According to Kenneth
Millard:

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Blood Meridian, a Critique of Determinism

[The judge] too is subordinate to the larger forces of the text, forces to
which he is alert and which he alone seeks to understand himself in
the context of: "Our animosities were formed and waiting before ever
we two met" (307). The judge understands the larger parameters of
the violent struggles of blood meridian and his project of putting everything in his book is part of his will to power which necessitates the
subordination of the kid. This is all part of the ritual of the dance that
the judge expounds as he laments the passing of the old West and the
"sanctity of blood" that it consisted of (331).
In the blood meridian there cannot be a place for doubting providence, and
the judge is the blood meridian's grand inquisitor.
We do not know from where the judge comes or to where he goes. He
never sleeps, and he knows scientific and historical facts that his fellow riders only blink at incredulously. He is unreal in a normal world, but in the
blood meridian he is the epitome of what is real-that is, the holiness of
war. Hence the judge is an imaginative picturing of a world defined by divine omni-causal determinism. He also shows how absurd such an idea is
and why it should be rejected.
After the judge rapes and murders the kid,8 he is seen dancing naked
on the bar surrounded by drunken admirers and lustful whores. It is not
the first time the judge dances. Years earlier he adopted a homeless Mexican boy and plays with him for several days. In the night he rapes the boy,
breaks his neck, and hangs him visibly from a pole. As they ride out, the
gang sees the judge dancing, silhouetted on a rock ledge, naked, as though
in an ecstatic frenzy. The judge's dance is not only an expression of spontaneous joy. It is the embodiment of a blood meridian. It is the outburst
of a soul caught up in the divine will who wields war and cruelty to effect an intransigent will. John Emil Sepich says the same thing: "The world
McCarthy's Judge defines is a world of inflexible outcome. The exercise of
will cannot overcome 'destined ends."'9 Thus the judge's dance is not an act
of gratitude toward a benevolent deity but the bloodlust of a shaman who
worships a God that uses cruelty as easily and purposively as compassion.
McCarthy's use of dance parallels the dance of Zarathustra in Friedrich
Nietzsche's Thus SpakeZarathustra:
Into your eyes I looked recently, O life: I saw gold blinking in your
night-eye; my heart stopped in delight: a golden boat I saw blinking
on nocturnal waters, a golden rocking-boat, sinking, drinking, and
winking again. At my foot, frantic to dance, you cast a glance, a laughing, questioning, melting rocking-glance:... My heels twitched, then
my toes hearkened to understand you, and rose: for the dancer has
his ears in his toes.... I dance after you, I follow wherever your traces
linger. Where are you? Give me your hand! Or only one finger.10
Zarathustra kills God and affirms life. He owns his destiny and leaves
behind good and evil. He faces the stillest hour of total despair (in what

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Nietzsche calls the "doctrine of the eternal recurrence") and learns to dance
to the moment of life he has.
Though Nietzsche's Zarathustra has many levels (pilgrim, social critic,
atheist, and tester of spirits), his dance is his freedom as a fully self-conscious person in a world without providence and God and in which only
he can make meaning. Until he rejects God, providence, categories of good
and evil, and even reason, he is enslaved to heteronormative forces. To be
a real adult (or as Nietzsche would say, a reborn "Child"), he must proclaim the death of God and all related beliefs that rest on religious faith (for
example, even concepts of grammar and truth, so thinks Nietzsche). The
removal of these shackles unleashes instinctive energies of human will, and
thus Zarathustra dances. He dances because he is a nihilist.
But the blood meridian is not a metaphysical nihilism, and the judge's
dance in it is not the dance of human freedom opposing God's sovereignty.
Certainly, the world of the blood meridian is lawless, and the distinction between good and bad is irrelevant. Kindness has no more effect in the lives of
people than terror. The judge acts without compunction or regret. He seems
to make his own laws of behavior just as he does his own metaphysical interpretations of divine purpose and human destinies. His freedom, though,
is only apparent, as may be the apparent metaphysical nihilism in the blood
meridian. Divine destiny rules every human interaction, whether small or
great, and the greatest of all human actions-that is, that which possesses
human destiny once it is unleashed-is war. There is a metaphysical purpose
to everything.
In a blood meridian war is the instrument used by God to work out an
implacable will and plan, a will that shows human autonomy and hence human moral responsibility are merely nominal at best and illusory at worse.
The blood meridian is nihilistic, but it is a nihilism resulting from the dictates of a Sovereign Lord controlling human lives. McCarthy's Blood Meridian shows that in terms of moral distinctions and moral accountability, the
moral difference between divine determinism and moral nihilism is a difference without a real distinction because in terms of how we would evaluate
life, metaphysical determinism requires moral nihilism.
We may think that the connection of moral nihilism and divine determinism contradicts itself-that is, a world with a divine sovereign determining human affairs is ontologically different than a nihilistic world. This
is true as far as the existence of a supreme being is concerned, but it is not
true as far as moral judgments and human affairs are concerned. The nihilism of the blood meridian is not a metaphysical nihilism because God is the
ultimate foundation and determiner of reality. The world has a plan, but
because God ordains war with the same purpose as God ordains life, then
the nihilism is a moral nihilism. The world is beyond the moral distinction
between good and evil. In a morally nihilistic world the horrors done by
the Glanton gang are no different than the horrors done by the Comanches

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Blood Meridian, a Critique of Determinism

11

and Apaches. In a divinely determined world in which God is the omnicausal agent of all actions and things, the differing horrors play the same
important role within the divine will and plan. In a morally nihilistic world,
the judge metaphysically understands the world better than other people
because he is his own master, recording life in his ledger and conquering the
heretical kid. In a divinely determined world in which there is no real human autonomy, the judge's rape, torture, slaughter, murder, and diabolical
deviousness are no more innately evil that the kid's reluctance to rejoice in
the death of Indians and Mexicans, and his rejection of the divinity of war
is an indication of a morally bad conscience. Neither is really free to do otherwise. In the blood meridian there may be a Supreme Being dictating the
world's events, but the world is void of moral meaning. If war is God, then
not only are we beyond good and evil, but God is also beyond good and
evil. Divine sovereignty spills over into moral nihilism and back again in
a blood meridian. It takes a literary imagination like McCarthy's to picture
this strange looping.
Socrates once posed a question to Euthryphro, as recorded in Plato's
Euthryphro:
If that which is holy is the same as that which is loved by the gods
and that which is holy is loved because it is holy, then that which is
loved by the gods would have been loved because it is loved by the
gods; but if what is loved by the gods is loved by them because it is
loved by them, then that which is holy would have been holy because
it is loved by them. But now you see that the reverse is the case, and
that they are quite different from one another. The one is loved because it is initially worthy of love, the other is worthy of love because
it is initially loved.11
We can call this the Socratic dilemma. In option A, if x, y, and z are inherently holy, then holiness is a moral feature separate from God. In option B, if
x, y, and z are holy only because God determines them to be holy, then God
can declare them unholy as well. With option A, by separating the concept
of holiness from God's reality, we are led to a theological incoherence. We
can be holy, that is godlike, separate from God. But if holiness is godlike,
then God, who by definition would be holy, must make x, y, and z holy; but
this is what option A rejects.
With option B, by equating holiness with whatever God dictates and
determines, we are led to a moral incoherence. God may declare x, y, and
z to be unholy although he had previously declared them to be holy, but
we cannot know what inherent features x, y, and z may have that would
indicate their holiness. We cannot make consistent moral claims. Due to this
limitation, we never know whether something is truly holy or not because
God may have declared it one way or another, and we do not know the
declaration.

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12

Sansom

Thus the Socratic dilemma means that in trying to relate holiness to God,
we are left with either theological incoherence or moral incoherence. The
story of McCarthy's BloodMeridian rules out taking option A (that is, we can
separate holiness from God) because one of the book's themes is that all life
is determined by God, even war, and thus we can and should declare that
"war is holy." In a blood meridian we know the reality of God in the realities we experience. There is no mystery to God because nothing happens
mysteriously. All is divinely determined. God's will is coherent in the fated
destiny of every living thing. There is no theological incoherence.
But because the blood meridian affirms option B, we are left with a profound moral incoherence about the fated destiny of every living thing. Because God dictates all things, even the savagery of war, then war and peace
are not morally different. We may prefer peace, but if the holy God determines each to be equally part of the divine plan, we cannot discern a fundamental moral difference between peace and war. If ethical reflection cannot
ascertain consistent moral principles by which to guide and judge our lives,
then it is incoherent to apply the concept of holiness to human affairs and
also to divine affairs. In the blood meridian we do not know what holiness
means. It is whatever happens according to the divine dictates, and we are
left affirming opposites (war and peace) to be both holy.
Consequently, because we do not understand the concept of holiness,
it would not make any sense to apply the concept of holiness to God. It
would be incoherent to equate God and God's deterministic plan with holiness because we do not understand the meaning of holiness. In fact, in the
blood meridian to say God is holy is actually a simple tautology--God is
God. We would need to understand holiness separate from God to be able
to predicate holiness to God, but this is what the blood meridian rejects.
The blood meridian's major premise-divine determinism and holiness are
inseparable-leads us to moral incoherence about holiness, which prevents
us from meaningfully applying the concept of holiness to human affairs
as well as divine affairs. This consequently leads us to see the vapidity of
equating divine determinism with holiness. The conclusion contradicts the
major premise.
We do not understand the contradiction's poignancy by only examining
the logic of Theo-Determinism because according to its logic, if God is sovereign and determines everything, and God is holy, then all human affairs
reflect God's holy will. There is no contradiction. But by imagining the idea
put into a narrative about the judge, the scalpings, the kid, and the senseless acts of cruelty, all supposedly determined by God, as McCarthy does in
BloodMeridian,we see the moral absurdity of the logic of Theo-Determinism.
Denis Donoghue rightly observes that one of the most glaring features
of the Blood Meridian is McCarthy's refusal to pass moral judgment on
anything: "But the main difficulty of the book..,. is McCarthy's apparent

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Blood Meridian, a Critique of Determinism

13

refusal to adjudicate; or rather, his refusal to allow an immediate judgment


to be elicited by any deed. The narrative style-'neuter austerity'-makes
ethical judgment seem naive to itself and therefore willing to be subsumed
in ostensibly larger considerations."12 The larger consideration is that in a
world in which there is no real moral difference between the horrors of human affairs and the eternal decree, ethical judgments are out of place. They
are naive, the result of those who think the deliberating agent is actually
free from any metaphysical force dictating the grand scheme of all events
into a plan ordained from the foundations of the world. In the blood meridian only the inexperienced and unseasoned, like the kid, suppose a moral
conscience should cause our repulsion to the slaughter of children and other
innocents. Only the naive think there is holiness and that we can will it. The
judge refutes such naivete, and his proto-Neitzschean dance, which comes
from the energy of living in a world beyond good and evil, is the eradication
of any theodicy concern. We do not have to ask how there can be a holy God
and evil because we do not have to believe in holiness.
When we begin to imagine a world as McCarthy has narrated, we find
this conclusion to be intolerable. For God to will holiness, the link between
divine sovereignty and moral nihilism must be broken and the blood meridian refuted. God and the world cannot be beyond good and evil if we are to
have any coherent sense of God willing holiness and humans actually doing holiness. If the blood meridian's wedding of moral nihilism and divine
determinism is wrong, then a moral difference exists between the scalpers,
Indians, innocent babies, and murdered Mexicans. If we are faced with the
realities of good and evil, then the judge is fundamentally different than the
boy he rapes and kills. The kid's guilty conscience requires that God does
not dictate it. If God determines the kid to wince at the senseless slaughter of Indians, then moral nihilism reigns in the world under the banner of
the implacable, ineluctable, irresistible but amoral will of God. If God is the
omni-causal agency of this world, then moral distinctions are not only irrelevant but an obstacle to the "dance" (that is, the celebration of living beyond
good and evil). In the blood meridian, "We all end up like the kid, violated
and smothered in the shithouse; but how can we dare to attach a unique
significance even to this? For we are granted no marks of distinction, no
special dispensation, but only the ever-renewed immanence of the dance,
embodied in the grotesquely pirouetting figure of the judge," says Steven
Shaviro.13
And if we do not end up like the kid, we end up in the blood meridian
dispassionate and despaired observers of a cruel world, realizing that we
cannot change its ineluctable forces of hostility and brutality. This fatalism
permeates the blood meridian, and the novel graphically depicts it in many
ways but none clearer than in the following event:

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14

Sansom
On a rise at the western edge of the playa they passed a crude wooden cross where Maricopas had crucified an Apache. The mummied
corpse hung from the crosstree with its mouth gaped in a raw hole,
a thing of leather and bone scoured by the pumice winds off the lake
and the pale tree of the ribs showing through the scraps of hide that
hung from the breast. They rode on. The horses trudged sullenly the
alien ground and the round earth rolled beneath them silently milling
the greater void wherein they were contained. In the neuter austerity
[emphasis added] of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a
strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of
grass could put forth claim to precedence .... [N]othing more luminous than another ... all preference is made whimsical and a man
and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships. (247)

If we think that God ordains everything, even war, then a "neuter austerity"
deadens our sensitivity to the suffering of the innocent, the horror of human
evil, and we lose the ability to be shocked by moral atrocities. In losing the
ability to be shocked by senseless suffering, we fail to recognize the unevenness of moral choices, that there is a moral difference between a blade of
grass and a person. But in a blood meridian we cannot find ethical reasons,
which would be indicative of a moral teleology, to denounce the hanging of
an Apache on a Christian symbol of redemption because, in fact, we know
that the unguessed kinship of all life is God's implacable and inscrutable
will.
However, if there are choices for moral realities, which are good and evil,
then all is not divinely determined. God acts in holy ways and we can make
moral choices only if holiness and good and evil deeds are understandable
to us, without relying upon the sovereign will of God determining that we
make the moral choices. This conclusion does not require us to postulate
that moral realities are unrelated to God. It is conceivable that God could be
intimately involved with human affairs (for example, as with mysticism or
God as the ground of being itself) and people still make real moral choices.
In such a case, we would need to rethink sovereignty in a way that distinguishes it from determinism. That may be conceivable, but what is not
conceivable is to claim that we are moral and hence morally responsible
because it was determined by God to be that way.
We could ask what difference it makes to how we live intentionally and
critically in the world whether we believe everything is dictated by God
or that people choose moral realities themselves. In each case there are the
same wars, judges, and struggles against death and misery. A perplexing
episode in BloodMeridian suggests an answer. Near the Casas Grandes River the scalpers meet a juggler who uses tarot cards to reveal a certain gang
member's fate.
[The kid] took one. He'd not seen such cards before, yet the one he
held seemed familiar to him. He turned it upside down and regarded
it and he turned it back.

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Blood Meridian, a Critiqueof Determinism

15

The juggler took the boy's hand in his own and turned the card so
he could see. Then he took the card and held it up.
Cuatro de copas, he called out....
The judge was laughing silently. (94)
The judge laughs, because the card confirms his suspicions of the kid. Card
readers interpret the Cuatro de Copas (the Four of Cups) in several ways.
The card depicts a man sitting underneath a tree, contemplating three cups
while oblivious to a fourth cup offered to him. Is the reclining man indecisive, conflicted, unaware, or doubtful? He contemplates and weighs what
he sees. The picture indicates an intense inner struggle, for whatever reason.
The kid, in turn, is internally struggling with the blood meridian, while all
along participating in its war. He is incongruent with the blood meridian's
force of life and death. Like the Four of Cups, his subjectivity is out of sync
with the objectivity of the blood meridian. His internally troubled state is
the first step toward finally rejecting the blood meridian. His eventual break
begins in his contemplation of human cruelty. It is because we have the subjective experience of contemplating moral obligations that we know we do
not live in a world controlled by an intractable divine will.
Throughout the novel, we witness mayhem and death but we never hear
anyone cry or show pain. It is as though there is no subjectivity in the blood
meridian, and indeed the inner world of contemplation, emotional conflicts,
pain, and sorrow are incoherent in a world completely determined to be
what it is. If every event and person are ordained to follow an immutable
law, then there is no subjective life. We may call something subjective, but it
is a vapid designation. People are born and die in blood meridian and they
may physically feel cuts and shots, but they cannot know compassion, wonder, sorrow, or regret. These interior states require an autonomous being
who has a subjective state in which one can contemplate, reflect, evaluate,
and judge the moral qualities of experience. Contemplation, reflection, evaluation, and judgment occur in the personal realm of the individual. They
cannot occur in a determined plan, whether natural or supernatural. The
personal realm, then, must be separate from the divine plan, and for there
to be moral realities about which we decide, this separation is required. In
knowing that moral choices are lively options for us because they present
obligations indicative of a teleological place in the world, we know that we
exist as individuals in contrast to a determined plan in which all things are
the same by fiat. We can be accountable and responsible to a divine plan,
but the plan cannot be the irresistible cause of our personal realm.
After displaying a prehistoric femur bone to the gang's new recruits, the
judge records it in his "ledger of life" and then says to them:
There is no mystery to it, he said.
The recruits blinked dully.
Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that
there is no mystery. (252)

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16

Sansom

The reason why there is no mystery is that everything is determined. We


may be ignorant in the blood meridian of why God causes the world to be
the way it is, but there is nothing ultimately inscrutable about it because
God is the omni-causal reality of everything, even the judge and war.
A mystery requires more than ignorance on our part. Ludwig Wittgenstein's "Big Book" thought experiment helps explain the nature of mystery:
"Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the
movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also
knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose
this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this would contain the whole
description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would
contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment."14 Even if we discover that all the facts in the Big Book are caused by God, we still cannot call
any of them moral realities. The compelling nature of moral choices affects
our personal realm, not the realm in which deterministic, causal explanations succeed. Within our deliberations about what is good or bad, right or
wrong, virtue or vice, we do not stop our investigations at natural or metaphysical causes, though these types of causes may be helpful in determining
where we are in the world of natural forces with our moral judgments. In
ethical reflection, we investigate ourselves as beings who have a personal
realm and moral agency. Morality is always self-reflecting, self-conscious,
and self-evaluating, and this cannot be put into a deterministic plan. There
is mystery in the world because moral judgments are made, but this cannot
be in blood meridian. This is why the judge rejects any mystery. There is
only the ineluctable and non-challengeable divine will.
Does a determined world look different than a world with moral mystery in it? Is a world filled with autonomous, moral beings, who can recognize and make moral choices, really different than the world of the blood
meridian? War exists in both; judges rape and kill in both. Are there clues
that would indicate a world of good and evil? If it were possible to look
at two worlds, each with the same activities but one with autonomous,
moral beings and the other following the dictates of an all-governing plan,
beyond good and evil, could we determine the difference? The posing of
the question gives the answer-in deliberating between the two worlds, we
are contemplating (like the figure in the Cuatro de Copas), hence showing
evidence that we cannot even envision a world without the personal realm.
Though the events are the same, the only world we can recognize is one in
which we make moral choices. We have to assume a moral world to recognize it, and that assumes we can recognize a moral choice. It is impossible for us to think our choice for a moral world is determined by a world
beyond good and evil. Contemplation requires a separation between our
agency to reflect and judge from that upon which we contemplate, but the
logic of determinism makes this separation metaphysically impossible. In

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Blood Meridian, a Critique of Determinism

17

truth, however, contemplation comes from the capacities of our personal


realm. We can identify a world that has a personal realm with wishes, intentions, and self-reflection because we have a personal realm ourselves, which
thereby settles the question. Yes, we can determine which world we live in,
and it is a world with good and evil, not a blood meridian. In fact, we cannot
recognize a world in which all is determined because such a world would
preclude the personal realm, which is a cognitive necessity to recognizing
that the world is beyond good and evil. We have to know good and evil to
conjecture a world beyond them. But such a world is not our world. Blood
Meridian forces us to admit that the Theo-Deteministic idea cannot actually
explain any imaginable world in which we could live.
But the Theo-Determinist adherent may have one last defense-a controlling sovereign God is needed to guarantee moral meaning in the world
and avoid moral and metaphysical nihilism. But in fact, as shown above, the
opposite occurs in the blood meridian. When God causes everything and
even war and the judge are instruments of the divine will, then the world
we live in is beyond good and evil. The rejection of the blood meridian does
not lessen the holiness of God. In fact, affirming determinism makes it impossible to claim God is holy. Also, the rejection does not throw humanity
into a moral void. Rather, to avoid a morally void world, we have to refute
determinism. If we want to believe in a holy God and real moral judgments
and live accordingly, then we have to dismiss Theo-Determinism. Vereen
Bell's point is similar:
To enter those worlds and move around them effectively we are required to surrender all Cartesian predispositions and rediscover
some primal state of consciousness prior to its becoming identified
with thinking only. There is a powerful pressure of meaning in McCarthy's novels, but the experience of signification does not translate into communicable abstractions of significance. In McCarthy's
world, existence seems both to precede and preclude essence, and it
paradoxically derives its importance from this fact alone. . . . Ethical categories do not rule in this environment, or even pertain. Moral
considerations seem not to affect outcomes; actions and events seem
determined wholly by capricious and incomprehensible fates.15
If ethical categories do not rule, then we cannot make sense of this world
or of a God who uses a blood meridian for divine purposes. Edwin Arnold
says, "The world is a wild place in McCarthy's fiction, and its God is a wild
and often savage and mostly unknowable God, but a God whose presence
certainly beckons."16 Yet, in blood meridian God does not beckon. God controls absolutely, and for us to postulate an all-controlling deity, we should
stop calling God holy and also stop thinking we have a personal realm. But
metaphysically denying our personal realm is incoherent. Furthermore, if
holiness means the moral quality of being godlike, then God cannot not be

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Sansom

18

holy. And if morality entails an obligation to do good, then we cannot not


have a personal realm and moral agency.
Conclusion
Therefore, the blood meridian is the moral contradiction, and McCarthy's
imaginative telling of the story shows the absurdity of the philosophical
idea behind the plot. In the world of human experience, people are indeed
guilty, the judge is diabolical, and war is hell. Scalping is wrong and killing babies is sinful. The argument that behind all human activity is an implacable divine will is actually not only incoherent but sinister itself. It is
incoherent because it takes a personal realm to make such a claim, and it is
sinister because it excuses the hell of war and human cruelty by saying they
are necessary parts of an overall divine plan. But to maintain that a holy
God ordains the brutality and viciousness of war and human cruelty is a
contradiction. God cannot be holy and also the cause, in whatever way, of
every human event, especially war. The blood meridian is an absurd form
of reasoning about God and human affairs, and one way to read McCarthy's
BloodMeridian is to see it as a novelistic thought experiment on a particular
idea about divine sovereignty, showing the logical absurdity and moral incoherence of the idea of the divine determinism of all human events, including war. McCarthy's literary imagination critiques the philosophical idea
of Theo-Determinism, revealing its unattractiveness. In this case for sure,
we can become better philosophers and theologians by learning from the
artist.

NOTES

1. John Dewey, Art as Experience


(New York:Minton,BalchandCompany,1934),267.

2. Albert William Levi and Ralph A. Smith, Art Education:A Critical Necessity: Dis-

Contextsof Understanding
(Urbanaand Chicago:Univerciplinesin Art Education:

sity of Illinois Press, 1991), 180.


3. See John Emil Sepich, "'What kind of Indians was them?' Some Historical Sources in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian," Southern Quarterly 30, no. 4 (Summer
1992): 93-110.
4. Leo Daugherty says this about the rifle's name: "I would argue that the name
suggests the judge's awareness of, and his enthusiastic endorsement of, the reality that the world has been a place of murder ever since the first victorious
taking of a human life by another human. The judge's name Et in Arcadia Ego
stands not for his gun and not for himself, but rather for murderous mankind on
this very real killing planet" ("Gravers False and True: BloodMeridian as Gnostic
Tragedy," Southern Quarterly 30, no. 4 [Summer 1992]: 127).
5. Cormac McCarthy, BloodMeridian (New York: Random House, 1985), 249. Hereafter, page references to quotes from BloodMeridian will be given parenthetically
in the text.
6. Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why (New York: Scribner, 2000), 259. Bloom
contends that McCarthy is one of the four best American writers.

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Blood Meridian, a Critique of Determinism

19

7. Kenneth Millard, Contemporary


AmericanFiction:An Introductionto American

Fiction since 1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 86.


Though the rape and murder are not explicitly detailed, they are suggested by
the text. Patrick W. Shaw agrees with this explanation of pages 333-35. See "The
Kid's Fate, the Judge's Guilt: Ramifications of Closure in Cormac McCarthy's
BloodMeridian," Southern LiteraryJournal 30, no. 1 (Fall 1997): 116-19.
9. John Emil Sepich, "The Dance of History in Cormac McCarthy's BloodMeridian,"
Southern LiteraryJournal24 (Fall 1991): 28.
10. Thus Spake Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New
York: Viking Press, 1968), 337.
8.

11. ChrisopherBiffle,A GuidedTourof Five Worksby Platowith CompleteTranslations


ofEuthyphro,
Apology,Crito,Phaedo(DeathScene),andAllegoryoftheCave(Mountain

View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1988), 17.


12. Denis Donoghue, The Practiceof Reading (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press,
1998), 267.
13. Steven Shaviro, "'The Very Life of Darkness': A Reading of Blood Meridian,"
Southern Quarterly 30, no. 4 (Summer 1992): 120.
14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Lecture on Ethics," in The WittgensteinReader,ed. Anthony
Kenny (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994), 290.
15. Vereen M. Bell, "The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy," Southern
LiteraryJournal 15 (Spring 1983): 31-32.
16. Edwin T. Arnold, "Blood and Grace: The Fiction of Cormac McCarthy,"
Commonweal,November 4, 1994, 15.

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