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Critique: Studies in
Contemporary Fiction
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Everything a Hunter
and Everything Hunted:
Schopenhauer and Cormac
McCarthy's Blood Meridian
Dwight Eddins

The University of Alabama , Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Published online: 26 Mar 2010.

To cite this article: Dwight Eddins (2003) Everything a Hunter and Everything
Hunted: Schopenhauer and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian , Critique: Studies in
Contemporary Fiction, 45:1, 25-33, DOI: 10.1080/00111610309595324
To link to this article:


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Everything a Hunter and

Everything Hunted: Schopenhauer and
Cormac McCarthys Blood Meridian


he great novelists of modern times have tended to be those whose visions

estrange us from our familiar world to bring us back to it with unique
new perspectives and an expanded sense of the human domain. Joyce,
Faulkner, Mann, and Pynchon-to take four prominent examples-all destabilize and unsettle to construct an enhanced reality. Their subversion can be either
epistemological or ontological or both; it may problematize the ways in which
we construct reality or else problematize the very modes of being by which we
define that reality. In practice, as Brian McHale notes, these two problematics
tend to blur into each other:
[Ilntractable epistemological uncertainty becomes at a certain point ontological plurality or instability: push epistemological questions far enough
and they tip over into ontological questions. By the same token, push ontological questions far enough and they tip over into epistemological questions-the sequence is not linear and unidirectional, but bidirectional and
reversible. ( 1 1 )

From the beginning, Cormac McCarthy has been a master practitioner of this
calculated estrangement. He dramatizes the seemingly inhuman extremes of the
human condition amid the seemingly unnatural presentness of natural landscapes
even as he questions the very possibility of reconciling these discrepancies into a
coherent picture. The onto-epistemological problematic of this drama becomes
most explicit and intense in Blood Meridian, where at times an alien order of being
seems to impinge on quotidian reality. Partly in response to that, the scholarly
commentary on this novel has tended to be of a wider philosophical and religious
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scope than that on McCarthys other novels. Several studies bear directly on this
problem. Steven Shaviro notes how the incessant fluid displacement of the
novels prose upsets our usual distinctions between subjective and objective,
between literal and figurative, or between empirical description and speculative
reflection (152). Both Leo Daughtery and Rick Wallach invoke the dualistic
ontology and the arcane epistemology of ancient Gnosticism to explain the ubiquitous evil of the novels world and the uncertainty of what Wallach calls the in
vivo ontic status, the questionable whatness, of Judge Holden (125, 126). But
Wallach ends up figuring the judge in Derridean terms as the dance of writings
simultaneous creation and effacement of meaning (134).
I would like to add Arthur Schopenhauers philosophy to this mix, not only
because the categories and dynamics of his system provide some illuminating
paradigms but also because his basic world view has such affinity with the
novels prevailing vision. First, however, an apologia for bringing a dualistic
metaphysic to bear on a writer more generally regarded as the practitioner of a
sternly monistic realism. It is important to note as a starting point that
McCarthys onto-epistemological subversions are woven into his fictions with
such ingenious subtlety that the narrative retains its base in a prevailing realism. Eschewing both the overt epistemological constructivism of Faulkner and
Joyce and the overt ontological constructivism of Barth and Pynchon, these
novels answer more or less to the letter if not the spirit of the criteria set forth
by J. P. Stern in On Realism. Realistic fictions, says Stern, are erected on firm
ground which reveals no epistemological cracks, and [. . .] when such cracks
appear, they are not explored but transformed into the psychology of characters: realism doesnt ask whether the world is real. [. . .] what it implicitly
denies is that in this world there is more than one reality, and that this denial is
in need of proof (31, 54); and, again, Ontology is not his [the realistic novelists] business (1 12).
The primordial forcefulness of McCarthys vision in Blood Meridian, however,
puts unusual strains upon realism as a category. Unchecked by moral or social
proprieties, bursting with apocalyptic violence of every imaginable (and unimaginable) variety, the books driven narrative strains downward into the rawest physicalities of literary naturalism and upward-I argue-toward a metaphysical
limbo beyond physical limitations. Tracing the first of these vectors, Barclay
Owens devotes a whole chapter of his recent book on McCarthys Western novels
to presenting Blond Meridian as the apotheosis of the American naturalistic tradition. Owens emphasizes the unbridled Darwinian competitiveness, the animal
savagery, and the grotesquerie of the novels protagonists, as well as their apish
inarticulateness; and he convincingly places these phenomena in a tradition that
stretches from Stephen Crane through James Dickey. This vision of a primordial
reality demonstrates, for Vereen Bell, the antimetaphysical bias of McCarthys
novels up through Blood Meridian, a bias that binds the reader to a purely phenomenal world with no first principles, no foundational truth (2, 9).


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Bell is certainly correct in denying the presence of any doctrinaire ideology

behind McCarthys narrations. I, however, argue that an antimetaphysical bias
is itself a metaphysical position in the more general sense of that word and that
the resistance to signification, the sheer opacity of being with which McCarthys
elemental realm presents us, effects an onto-epistemological destabilizing that
hints at the mysterious working of principles and truths yet undiscovered, perhaps undiscoverable. Bell, in a sense, admits as much when he points out that the
novels appear [. . .] to resist abstraction on purpose and to move instead toward
some more primal epistemology, toward a knowledge of origins before a bicameral brain enabled us-or compelled us-to begin to sort things out (2). But to
move away from our brains sorting-out process is to move, in Kantian terms,
away from the realm of apparitional phenomena in the direction of the noumenal, of unmediated things-in-themselves; and it is this antinomy, suitably modified, that serves as the basis for Schopenhauers metaphysic.
From a different angle, Bell suggests that those passages in which we might suspect McCarthy of being more metaphysical, his occasional labored and latinate
flights of prose poetry with their high ratio of metaphor, function to keep us
from subsiding into a merely naturalistic perceptual realm. They keep a dreamlike,
almost symbolist, pressure of meaning, or meaningfulness, alive in the text. J. P.
Stem glosses this swerve away from the middle distance of realism toward symbolism as one in which the author allows the meaning to exceed the concrete
details, underscoring their intimatory function at the expense of their referential
function (121, 122). But if intimations of meaning exceed the physical evidence,
pushing us beyond the naturalistic realm, we are experiencing a quasitranscendental pressure that at least calls into question that realms monistic claim to be the
only realm and opens the door to some sort of dualistic possibility.
All of this, I hope it will be clear, is in the service of presenting Schopenhauers
philosophy as an explicatory parallel for Blood Meridian, not of presenting
McCarthy as a belated Idealist philosopher. Consider, as a prephilosophical starting point, how Schopenhauers meditation on the observable life of animals, for
instance, could just as well apply to the observable life of the Glanton gang:
[W]e see only momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by
wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, helium omniurn, everything a hunter and everything hunted, pressure, want, need, and anxiety,
shrieking and howling; and this goer on in saecula seculorum, or until once
again the crust of the planet breaks. (World 2: 354)

The parallel is significant because both the novel and the philosophy represent
this state of things as the prevailing nature of existence, not as an abominable
extreme. Incessant and often gratuitous warfare without quarter, babies spiked on
thornbushes, mules and puppies slaughtered on a whim-the indiscriminate and
endlessly repetitive carnage seems to belong to the ground of being itself, as for
Schopenhauer in fact it does. This ground he characterizes as der Wille-the
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Will. It is a mindless, ceaseless striving of energies, a blind vortex of creation and

destruction without goals. Because we are forced to view its phenomena, including ourselves, under the categories of space and time, we cannot have direct
knowledge of it except through our intuitions of its working within us. Although
Schopenhauer does not, despite popular misconceptions of his idealism, deny the
reality of our experienced world, he conceives of that world as an apparitional
representation of the Will-apparitional in the sense of being a mere appearance determined by space and time. We are reminded here of the verdict of Blood
Meridians Judge Holden on the world: it is a hat trick in a medicine show. a
fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue or
precedent (245).
In the context I am seeking to establish here, apparitional describes the phenomenon-the person, the landscape, the event-insofar as it represents and
points back toward the noumenon, the primal will that is its underlying reality. It
is as though the phenomenon is wavering between an illusory concreteness and
an actual insubstantiality. Cormac McCarthy introduces just such an ontological
ambiguity into Blood Meridian to suggest a mysterious order of being of which
the personae are emanations and a quasitranscendental agenda of some sort
behind the pattern of events. This dynamic permeates the novel. Glanton and his
men appear as ordained agents of the actual [. . .]. Spectre horsemen, pale with
dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at
venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings evoked out of the
absolute rock and set at no remove from their own loomings (172). At night
amid sourceless summer lightning, they watch halfwild horses trotting in
those bluish strobes like horses called forth quivering from the abyss and in the
day they look out on the secular aloes blooming like phantasmagoria in a fever
land (163). But McCarthys virtuoso set piece in this vein is a description of the
attacking Apaches who become fodder for a wild metamorphic rhapsody that
captures the protean energies of the will itself in all their cosmic menace:
They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again
and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like
burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was
not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered
and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in
lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in
the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and
inverted and the horses legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high
thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense
and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the
cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the
world below. (109)

It is instructive to read this as a drama of the wills materialization and dematerialization. The coupling of Hindu and Greek mythology here-avatars and


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chimeric-reminds us that the former term can refer to the appearance of a

deity in animal form and suggests that the ground of being, more directly intuited, might appear as a chimera, that monstrous hybrid of predation. More directly yet, the cries of the disembodied souls break through some misweave in the
weft of things in an impossible moment of transcendental horror, the revelation
of the unmediated will. This notion that human violence is inextricable from,
even ordained by, its macrocosmic context is captured by the link between the
path of Glantons marauding riders and the movements of the earth itself. The
cloudbanks stood above the mountains, writes McCarthy, like the dark warp
of the very firmament and the starsprent reaches of the galaxies hung in a vast
aura above the riders heads (1 53-54).
This violence also has a microcosmic context suggestive of the wills ubiquity and uniformity. Like William Blake, McCarthy can see the world in a grain of
sand, but the reflection does not lead the latter to mystic optimism. Passing over
a stretch of alabaster sand, the hooves of the riders horses shape it into pulsating whorls [als if the very sediment of things contained yet some residue of sentience. As if in the transit of those riders were a thing so profoundly terrible as to
register even to the utmost granulation of reality (247). Immediately afterward,
the riders pass through terrain characterized by a neuter austerity in which all
phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality so that a man and a rock
become endowed with unguessed kinships. Both the notion of a quasiconsciousness present even at the mineral level and that of the ontological equality
of natures phenomena fit nicely into Schopenhauers concept of a monistic, universal force field responsible for the status and the dynamism of all existence.
This inspiriting, which pervades the novels landscapes, becomes epiphanic in
the description of the sea at San Diego, the terminus of the evening redness in the
west: the sea is teething on a reef as it heaves its black hide, and its combers
lope out of the night (304). A horse, gifted with what we might call a sixth
sense, stands staring into the macrocosmic vortex of being out there past mens
knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through
the black and seamless sea. This all-devouring, seamless force field has an
absoluteness about it, a menacing primacy that aligns it with the noumenal will,
as does-in its own way-the desert the judge describes to the kid: This desert
upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but
it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone (330).
Although all the grades of the wills objectification-from forces like gravity
and electromagnetism through minerals, plants, animals, and humankind-exist
in a unity that Schopenhauer calls reciprocal adaptation and adjustment, they
exist as well in an inner antagonism that is also the very essence of the will.
This antagonism shows itself, in Schopenhauers words, in the never-ending war
of extermination of the individuals of these species, and in the constant struggle
of the phenomena of these natural forces with one another [. . . ] . The scene of
action and the object of this conflict is matter that they strive to wrest from one
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another. as well as space and time, the union of which through the form ofcausality is really matter (World 1: 161).
The wresting of space and time from other phenomena in acts of conscienceless appropriation is precisely the driving force of the novels violent excessesthe murder of infants, the slicing of scalps from heads, the ripping out of viscera
and genitals, the systematic crucifixions. That these excesses in their multiple
permutations and their frequency threaten to coalesce into some awful norm
within the world of the novel is yet another sign that that microcosm is predicated upon a ruthless, unstinting belligerence deep in the essence of things. It is not
simply human-on-human predation. Every grade of the wills objectification,
says Schopenhauer, fights for the matter, the space, and the time of another. Persistent matter must change the form, since, under the guidance of causality,
mechanical, physical, chemical, and organic phenomena, each striving to appear,
snatch the matter from one another (World I: 1 4 6 4 7 ) . Thus it is that Judge
Holden, the prince of appropriators, wanders the landscape drowning puppies,
killing birds and butterflies to collect them, cracking open the shinbone of an
antelope with an axe to watch the heated marrow drip on the stones. We also find
him destroying artifacts of Indian and Spanish culture after he has made notes on
them, with the aim of expunging them-along with the notes-from the memory of man (140). In Schopenhauerian terms, this megalomaniacal drive for sole
proprietorship comes from the will being present, whole and undivided, in each
of its phenomena: Therefore, everyone wants everything for himself, wants to
possess, or at least control, everything, and would like to destroy whatever
opposes him (332). This drive extends even to-especially to-mental appropriation, because the whole of nature outside the knowing subject exists only
in his representation.
Glanton, too, is driven by this bizarre ontological imperative deep in the
Schopenhauerian scheme of things: the part unwilling to acknowledge that it is
anything less than the whole, the pawn of fate intent on usurping the role of its
manipulator. Like the will,
he was complete at every hour. [. . . Alllowing as he did that mens destinies
are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in
the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written
in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and hed drive the
remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if hed ordered it all ages
since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to
go upon them. (243)

Individual willfulness here, as so often in the novel, acquires a force and a cosmic dimension that make the notion of will as the ground of being a natural
The judge, of course, is the most complex incarnation and symbol of this metaphysical hubris. He feels compelled to search out, analyze, and file in his own


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consciousness all seemingly autonomous phenomena, in keeping with his principle that [wlhatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my
consent, and that nothing must be permitted to occur [. . .] save by my dispensation (198, 199). This cosmic pretension represents a daring artistic risk for
Cormac McCarthy because his character must embody human limitations even
as he suggests a mysterious transcendence of them. One remembers Thomas
Hardys Father Time in Jude the Obscure-another
uneasily between childhood and symbolhood. But
McCarthys risk succeeds more clearly, partly because he knows when to apply
negative capability and partly because the metaphysical dynamic underlying the
novels world permits-as we have seen-of an ontological dialectic. The judge,
like the other riders, wavers between phenomenon and noumenon, between
embodiment and the primal force field that is embodied. But he is, in his cosmic
dimension, more clearly identified with the will.
In this light, the feverish dream of the kid in San Diego has particular import:
Whatever his [the judges] antecedents he was something other than their sum,
nor was there system to divide him back into his origins, for he would not go
(309-10). The quest for his history ends up, says McCarthy, at the shore of a
void without terminus or origin, while science examining the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will find no trace of any atavistic egg by
which to reckon his commencing. This transcendental absence of origins is
matched by a projected absence of conclusion and of rest from restless motion in
between: He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he
will never die (335). Compare this with Schopenhauer on the will: [ t]he will
never tires, never grows old [. . . and] is in infancy what it is in old age, eternally one and the same (Will 247). It is [elternal becoming, endless flux
(World I: 164).
In its metaphysical dimension, then, the character of the judge suggests the
wills transcendental status; but in its human dimension, ironically, it suggests a
transcending of this transcendence. For Schopenhauer, the marvel of the human
intellect is that it can detach itself from the wills relentless imperatives occasionally and contemplate disinterestedly what he calls the Ideas of phenomena. Even when these phenomena are particularly threatening to the human will
of the contemplator-say, a typical day at the office in Blood Meridian-he may,
in Schopenhauers words, forcibly tear himself from his will and its relations,
and [. . .] quietly contemplate, as pure, will-less subject of knowing, those very
objects so terrible to the will. [. . . H]e is then filled with the feeling of the sublime (World I: 201).
Only the judge among the riders actually occupies this detached aesthetic
plateau vis-a-vis the unremitting violence of their existence; the others remain
subject to what Schopenhauer calls the principle of sufficient reason-an
immediate concern with the where, the when, the why, and the whither of phenomena as they relate to ones own will (World I: 178). The judge, on the other
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hand, construes the perpetual warfare of existence alternately as an exhilarating

game-Men are born for games. [ . . . all1 games aspire to the condition of war
(249)-and as a dance enjoyed only by those who have delivered themselves
entire to the blood of war (331). To be fair, this is the point at which Schopenhauerian resignation to bellurn ornniurn shades over into Nietzschean celebration
in the spirit of Zarathustra: You should love peace as a means to new war-and
the short peace more than the long. [. . .] You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause (47).
But it is also worth remembering that Nietzsche acknowledged Schopenhauer as
the seminal influence in his own philosophical development and that Schopenhauers Wille is the clear precursor of the younger philosophers Wille zur Mucht.
Finally, I suggest that Schopenhauers explanation of the dynamics involved in
the experience of the sublime helps us understand the problematical aesthetic of
Blood Meridian. Many sophisticated readers surely alternate, at least the first
time through, between awe at the sumptuous prose and the haunting vignettes
and visceral revulsion at the heinous atrocities unremittingly depicted in them.
Peter Josyph describes this bifurcated reaction on his own part, as well as the
reaction of a friend who judged that McCarthy was a literary genius and also
probably somewhat insane (176). The problem is that the sublime detachment
created by forcibly tearing away from the wills pressures with the fear and
loathing they induce is sporadically reciprocated by the reattachment of those
pressures as the threat grows too formidable and immediate to transcend. To
adopt the terms used by Joyces Stephen Dedalus, the static experience of art
gives way to the kinetic experience of actualities, even if the latter are imaginary
in origin. In its way, this reaction represents an inverted tribute to McCarthys
power to overwhelm our imaginations, just as the will itself does. It is amusing
to speculate that McCarthy is the will in some literary modality. It then follows
that El Paso is the epicenter of imaginative creation, the matrix for a world of
infinitely diverting-and threatening-representations.

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Bell. Vereen. The Achiewmenf of Cormac McCarth;. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988.
Daughtery, Leo. Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy. Arnold and Luce
Hall. Wade and Rick Wdllach, eds. Sacred Violence: A Readers Companion to Cormac McCartliy.
El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1995.
Josyph. Peter. Blood Music: Reading Blood Meridian. Hall and Wallach 169-88.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the Wesr. New York: Ecco. 1986.



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McHale, Brian. Postmodemist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking, 1966.
Owens, Barclay. Connac McCarthys Western Novels. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2000.
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Hillebrand. London: George Bell, 1889.
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