“Stars were falling across the sky myriad and random, speeding across brief vectors from their origins in night to their destinies in dust and nothingness”
– Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, pg. 347
Life floats by in a heartbeat. Ninety-three million miles from the sun, the Earth has orbited and rotated and danced its dance for nearly 4.5 billion years. And for most of that time, it has hosted life. There have been countless lives, falling across the sky like stars myriad and random, speeding across brief vectors from their origins in the night to their destinies in dust and nothingness, as Cormac McCarthy would say. It’s said that everything – including humans – is made of star stuff: sashaying and shimmering pieces of recycled life repurposed to conceive countless more dancers on the stage of existence. And somewhere along the way, life stumbled upon a method to speed up the death-and-rebirth cycle: violence.
Violence seems to have been around since the beginning of time, an outburst of adrenaline and survival instinct to ensure that next breath. Whether there’s an evil that drives violence is anybody’s guess, but what’s importance is our recognition of its existence. There’s a duality, and the cognizance of wickedness is important in the balance of life. This question of violence and evil is something author Cormac McCarthy examines in many of his books, but maybe the most closely in 1985’s Blood Meridian.
Blood Meridian follows two central characters, the Kid and Judge Holden, who both join a bloodthirsty cadre commissioned along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-1800s to retrieve the scalps of Native Americans by force. When all is said and done, the Judge and the Kid are the only two remaining survivors from the murderous group that sojourned town to town leaving behind a pile of carrion. In a sense, the pair seem to represent innocence and violence: the Kid, hardened like sun-dried clay from the dour and unforgiving necessities of survival, battling his conscious and better judgement through the blood-drenched malevolence he takes part in; and the Judge, austere, grandiloquent and God-like in his attempts to possess and control everything, taking a keen interest in the Kid as a counterweight to his pendulumic force.
The Judge is 7 feet tall in stature, hairless and nearly albino. He is charming, extremely nimble and speaks every language. He is also responsible for the disappearance of many children, the orchestration of chaos and the killing of people for no other reason than a laugh. The Judge is an exceedingly captivating villain who speaks with an eloquent grandeur, always explaining the motivations behind each of his appalling acts. It’s in these soliloquies that McCarthy digs away at the meaning and meaninglessness of violence.
In one conversation, a member of the cadre tells the Judge that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, according to the Bible. The Judge agrees, before the man says that war is considered an evil despite many tales of bloody combat existing in the Bible. To this, the Judge says, “It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”
Toward the end of the novel, after around 30 years have passed, the Kid and the Judge cross paths in a bar. The Kid is now an adult in his 40s, and the Judge seems to have not aged a day. While talking to the Kid, the Judge explains that within war, the honorable soldier is the one who becomes “excluded from the dance,” while it’s the man who has “offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart” that is the true dancer. Later on in the night, the Judge seems to (although it’s left intentionally ambiguous) kill and mutilate the Kid’s body in an outhouse stall before leading a naked cultish dance while incessantly chanting that he doesn’t sleep, he’ll never die and he’s a great favorite.
McCarthy doesn’t give the Judge the last word, though. In a one-page epilogue, the author details an unnamed man making holes in the ground for the “verification of a principle” and simply moving on. It seems that McCarthy is saying that despite the Judge’s shocking display of evil, it doesn’t matter. Life trudges on with or without the evil that inhabits it, as this macabre is the choice of the Earth’s inhabitants, and that’s all. There is no significance or destiny or higher power; things simply occur, with those containing the power to carry out maleficence doing so.
While McCarthy paints a stark and bloody mosaic of the meaninglessness behind power, New York rapper billy woods weaves astute yarns of the corruption those with power utilize to execute depravity. woods is known for his complex lyrics, intricate storytelling and sense of dark humor. On his second album of 2019, Terror Management, woods recounts tales of rising floods that expose hidden truths, a “brown Grinch” that has a premonition to “skip town before the town lynch” and a Christmas morning gorged with the dregs of a failed relationship and quickly guzzled liquor paid for in cash. woods is our dark-humored raconteur, stringing together acute tales like that of burnt Christmas bulbs on the roof of an abandoned house.
“World gettin’ warmer, we goin’ the other way,” he barks in a sonorous tone on album opener “Marlow.” “This ain’t the world you used to know / You ain’t notice cause it change slow / Gasoline rainbow,” he raps on “Dog Days,” before further expounding, “The metropolis hum and glow, the tent city grow / The punchline the whole joke / The whole thing a hoax.”
To billy woods, our world is one imbued with indifference, oppression and violence to which he’s become a numb and nimble sideline reporter. “The king of lies take any disguise,” he admits on “Blood Thinner.” This is just the way the world works; he’s no longer giving it the satisfaction of his surprise.
* * *
There are some fall mornings that start at 30 degrees and reach 80 only a few hours later. This October morning started at 50 and stayed at 50 all day. A squirrel nimbly darted across branches above me, floating across them like a ghost through realms of existence. He never did fall, yet I was scared the whole time he’d drop 50 feet and land in my lap.
I’m not sure if there’s a point to any of this, or to anything. There are children that die every day to terminal diseases and stray bullets and wars they never asked to be part of. There are people with the cruelest intentions and hate-filled hearts that brim with malice and live nearly a century on this Earth. There were hundreds of millions of dollars donated to Trump’s presidential inauguration, with each guest taking home $130,000 gift bags, a small cherry on top of a wildly extravagant party, while thousands of people drink indigestible brown water in Flint, Michigan, with no alternative. I type this comfortably in a university library from my place of economic and racial privilege and hope it can do some good while some starving soul with ribs poking from their chest like hands from between prison bars understands that my attempts at empathy do nothing for them; “Shorty can’t eat no book, what I told Ta-Nehisi Coates,” says billy woods. And I wonder if any of this matters.
People live and die every single day. Some are good, some are bad, some people think their moral compass matters, that there’s a code to live by. Maybe there is, and maybe that helps balance things out and create a universal equilibrium where the good evens out the bad, possibly even edges it out.
But why draw a line in the sand when every grain is the same and the sand is ubiquitous? Why even break the stick off the tree to draw the line in the first place, when a seemingly meaningless squirrel could’ve danced across that branch like a ghost floating through realms? You broke the stick because you had the power to do so. The squirrel never crossed your mind. Nor did the tree, who lived a long life with that extension of itself protruding with green and subsequent decay each turn of the seasons, and after you tore its oak arm away, grew ten back to replace the one.
The meaning is indiscernible; there is a cycle that repeats itself, a machine that cares not for life, or for me, or for you. Time mercilessly moves forward, marching like a war parade and slaughtering and scalping all in its path under the bleeding meridian of the fading skyline. Meaning comes after and as a result of experience. Maybe as you float through to another realm of existence, just as the squirrel capered across tree branches made from sticks before they were used to draw lines in a ubiquitous beach, you’ll begin to crack into the iron-curtain safe of meaning.
Until then, this is where we are, poking and prodding along as wars rage on against the dying light and the big business behind it all laughs with a smarmy grin. Not to say there’s not happiness in between the bookends—there always is. But a laugh is less noticeable than a wail.
“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.”
– Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, pg. 344