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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

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a

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: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00111610309595324

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Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 “Everything a Hunter and Everything Hunted”: Schopenhauer and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian DWIGHT EDDINS T 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. the scholarly commentary on this novel has tended to be of a wider philosophical and religious FALL 2003. 45. and Pynchon-to take four prominent examples-all destabilize and unsettle to construct an enhanced reality. 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. NO. The onto-epistemological problematic of this drama becomes most explicit and intense in Blood Meridian. Partly in response to that. By the same token. Faulkner. VOL. it may problematize the ways in which we construct reality or else problematize the very modes of being by which we define that reality. push ontological questions far enough and they tip over into epistemological questions-the sequence is not linear and unidirectional. 1 25 . Joyce. Their subversion can be either epistemological or ontological or both. Mann. 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. In practice. ( 1 1 ) From the beginning. Cormac McCarthy has been a master practitioner of this calculated estrangement. where at times an alien order of being seems to impinge on quotidian reality. as Brian McHale notes. but bidirectional and reversible.

the animal savagery. . the “antimetaphysical bias” of McCarthy’s novels up through Blood Meridian. It is important to note as a starting point that McCarthy’s onto-epistemological subversions are woven into his fictions with such ingenious subtlety that the narrative retains its base in a prevailing realism. 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 novel’s prevailing vision. First. these novels answer more or less to the letter if not the spirit of the criteria set forth by J. says Stern. 54). Unchecked by moral or social proprieties. or between empirical description and speculative reflection” (152). Stern in On Realism. .] what it implicitly denies is that in this world there is more than one reality.” the questionable “whatness. and he convincingly places these phenomena in a tradition that stretches from Stephen Crane through James Dickey. This vision of a primordial reality demonstrates. puts unusual strains upon “realism” as a category. I would like to add Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy to this mix. for Vereen Bell. 126). as well as their apish inarticulateness. Barclay Owens devotes a whole chapter of his recent book on McCarthy’s Western novels to presenting Blond Meridian as the apotheosis of the American naturalistic tradition. a bias that “binds” the reader to a purely “phenomenal world’ with “no first principles. [. The primordial forcefulness of McCarthy’s vision in Blood Meridian. however. P. Owens emphasizes the unbridled Darwinian competitiveness. and that this denial is in need of proof’ (31. .” of Judge Holden (125. they are not explored but transformed into the psychology of characters: realism doesn’t ask whether the world is real. . no foundational truth” (2. “are erected on firm ground which reveals no epistemological cracks. and. “Ontology is not his [the realistic novelist’s] business” (1 12). 26 CRITIQUE . however. Steven Shaviro notes how the “incessant fluid displacement” of the novel’s prose upsets “our usual distinctions between subjective and objective. Realistic fictions. Both Leo Daughtery and Rick Wallach invoke the dualistic ontology and the arcane epistemology of ancient Gnosticism to explain the ubiquitous evil of the novel’s world and the uncertainty of what Wallach calls the “in vivo ontic status. Tracing the first of these vectors. But Wallach ends up figuring the judge in Derridean terms as “the dance of writing’s simultaneous creation and effacement of meaning” (134). Eschewing both the overt epistemological constructivism of Faulkner and Joyce and the overt ontological constructivism of Barth and Pynchon. again. 9). an apologia for bringing a dualistic metaphysic to bear on a writer more generally regarded as the practitioner of a sternly monistic realism. between literal and figurative. bursting with apocalyptic violence of every imaginable (and unimaginable) variety. and [.Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 scope than that on McCarthy’s other novels. Several studies bear directly on this problem.] when such cracks appear. and the grotesquerie of the novel’s protagonists. the book’s driven narrative strains downward into the rawest physicalities of literary naturalism and upward-I argue-toward a metaphysical limbo beyond physical limitations.

the sheer opacity of being with which McCarthy’s elemental realm presents us. This ground he characterizes as der Wille-the FALL 2003. helium omniurn. pushing us beyond the naturalistic realm. how Schopenhauer’s meditation on “the observable life of animals. . much and long suffering.” for instance. Bell. in Kantian terms. could just as well apply to the observable life of the Glanton gang: [W]e see only momentary gratification. Bell suggests that those passages in which we might suspect McCarthy of being more metaphysical.Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 Bell is certainly correct in denying the presence of any doctrinaire ideology behind McCarthy’s narrations. pressure. I. toward a knowledge of origins before a bicameral brain enabled us-or compelled us-to begin to sort things out” (2).] to resist abstraction on purpose and to move instead toward some more primal epistemology. VOL. They keep a dreamlike. I hope it will be clear. that serves as the basis for Schopenhauer’s metaphysic. as a prephilosophical starting point.” function to “keep us from subsiding into a merely naturalistic perceptual realm. and it is this antinomy. we are experiencing a quasitranscendental pressure that at least calls into question that realm’s monistic claim to be the only realm and opens the door to some sort of dualistic possibility. of unmediated things-in-themselves. underscoring their intimatory function at the expense of their referential function” (121. is in the service of presenting Schopenhauer’s philosophy as an explicatory parallel for Blood Meridian. in a sense. need. Incessant and often gratuitous warfare without quarter. almost symbolist. 45. Consider. perhaps undiscoverable. (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. fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants. P. not as an abominable extreme. alive in the text. away from the realm of apparitional phenomena in the direction of the noumenal. But to move away from our brain’s “sorting-out” process is to move. his occasional “labored and latinate” flights of prose poetry with their “high ratio of metaphor. From a different angle. 122). argue that an “antimetaphysical bias” is itself a metaphysical position in the more general sense of that word and that the resistance to signification. effects an onto-epistemological destabilizing that hints at the mysterious working of principles and truths yet undiscovered.” J. 1 27 . mules and puppies slaughtered on a whim-the indiscriminate and endlessly repetitive carnage seems to belong to the ground of being itself. want. . however. not of presenting McCarthy as a belated Idealist philosopher. But if intimations of meaning exceed the physical evidence. or meaningfulness. admits as much when he points out that the novels “appear [. NO. and anxiety. pressure of meaning. constant struggle. and this goer on in saecula seculorum. All of this. everything a hunter and everything hunted. babies spiked on thornbushes. 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. or until once again the crust of the planet breaks. suitably modified. shrieking and howling. as for Schopenhauer in fact it does.

provisional. 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. devoid of order.Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 Will. despite popular misconceptions of his idealism. pale with dust. a blind vortex of creation and destruction without goals. This dynamic permeates the novel. the primal will that is its underlying reality.]. deny the reality of our experienced world. But McCarthy’s 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. a fevered dream. 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). It is as though the phenomenon is wavering between an illusory concreteness and an actual insubstantiality. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture. It is a mindless. 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. we cannot have direct knowledge of it except through our intuitions of its working within us. In the context I am seeking to establish here. We are reminded here of the verdict of Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden on the world: it is “a hat trick in a medicine show. the event-insofar as it represents and points back toward the noumenon. Glanton and his men appear as “ordained agents of the actual [. Although Schopenhauer does not. . including ourselves. primal. The coupling of Hindu and Greek mythology here-“avatars” and 28 CRITIQUE . anonymous in the crenellated heat. . (109) It is instructive to read this as a drama of the will’s materialization and dematerialization. ceaseless striving of energies. Like beings evoked out of the absolute rock and set at no remove from their own loomings” (172). Because we are forced to view its phenomena. Spectre horsemen. under the categories of space and time. “apparitional” describes the phenomenon-the person. a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue or precedent” (245). the landscape.

the revelation of the unmediated will. “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). stands staring into the macrocosmic vortex of being “out there past men’s knowing.” the hooves of the riders’ horses shape it into pulsating whorls “[als if the very sediment of things contained yet some residue of sentience. it is barren. 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). . It is hard. Its very nature is stone” (330).” and its combers lope “out of the night” (304). the cries of the disembodied souls break through “some misweave in the weft of things” in an impossible moment of transcendental horror. This antagonism shows itself. a menacing primacy that aligns it with the noumenal will.” writes McCarthy.” they exist as well in “an inner antagonism” that is also the very essence of the will. NO. the terminus of the evening redness in the west: the sea is “teething” on a reef as it heaves its “black hide. that monstrous hybrid of predation. its macrocosmic context is captured by the link between the path of Glanton’s marauding riders and “the movements of the earth itself. and humankind-exist in a unity that Schopenhauer calls “reciprocal adaptation and adjustment. in Schopenhauer’s words.” Both the notion of a quasiconsciousness present even at the mineral level and that of the ontological equality of nature’s phenomena fit nicely into Schopenhauer’s concept of a monistic. . Immediately afterward. which pervades the novel’s landscapes. more directly intuited. 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.Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 “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. Although all the grades of the will’s objectification-from forces like gravity and electromagnetism through minerals. McCarthy can see the world in a grain of sand. might appear as a chimera. 1 29 . ] .” This all-devouring. The scene of action and the object of this conflict is matter that they strive to wrest from one FALL 2003. This inspiriting. VOL. This notion that human violence is inextricable from. becomes epiphanic in the description of the sea at San Diego. This violence also has a microcosmic context suggestive of the will’s ubiquity and uniformity. gifted with what we might call a sixth sense. 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. plants.” The “cloudbanks stood above the mountains. A horse. Passing over a stretch of “alabaster sand. “seamless” force field has an absoluteness about it. but the reflection does not lead the latter to mystic optimism. even ordained by. and in the constant struggle of the phenomena of these natural forces with one another [. 45. animals. where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea. Like William Blake. “in the never-ending war of extermination of the individuals of these species. universal force field responsible for the status and the dynamism of all existence. More directly yet.

everything. before there were paths anywhere. acquires a force and a cosmic dimension that make the notion of will as the ground of being a natural corollary. Thus it is that Judge Holden.” in each of its phenomena: “Therefore. or at least control. and file in his own 30 CRITIQUE . since. the systematic crucifixions. “fights for the matter. . is the most complex incarnation and symbol of this metaphysical hubris. 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. killing birds and butterflies to collect them. as well as space and time. [. “whole and undivided. We also find him destroying artifacts of Indian and Spanish culture after he has made notes on them. as so often in the novel. he was complete at every hour. because “the whole of nature outside the knowing subject” exists “only in his representation. and organic phenomena. chemical. too. and would like to destroy whatever opposes him” (332). each striving to appear.” Glanton. the space. everyone wants everything for himself. Like the will. snatch the matter from one another” (World I: 1 4 6 4 7 ) . . This drive extends even to-especially to-mental appropriation. the ripping out of viscera and genitals. and the time of another. 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 prince of appropriators. analyze. physical. wanders the landscape drowning puppies. It is not simply human-on-human predation.Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 another. the pawn of fate intent on usurping the role of its manipulator. The wresting of space and time from other phenomena in acts of conscienceless appropriation is precisely the driving force of the novel’s violent excessesthe murder of infants. He feels compelled to search out. of course. Persistent matter must change the form. The judge. wants to possess. the union of which through the form ofcausality is really matter” (World 1: 161). the slicing of scalps from heads. with the aim of expunging them-along with the notes-“from the memory of man” (140). before there were men or suns to go upon them. (243) Individual willfulness here. Alllowing as he did that men’s 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 he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since.” says Schopenhauer. this megalomaniacal drive for sole proprietorship comes from the will being present. “Every grade of the will’s objectification. cracking open the shinbone of an antelope with an axe to watch the heated marrow drip on the stones. under the guidance of causality. unstinting belligerence deep in the essence of things. In Schopenhauerian terms. mechanical.

. H]e is then filled with the feeling of the sublime” (World I: 201). the marvel of the human intellect is that it can detach itself from the will’s relentless imperatives occasionally and contemplate disinterestedly what he calls the “Ideas” of phenomena. it suggests a transcending of this transcendence. as pure. He says that he will never die” (335). endless flux” (World I: 164). the others remain subject to what Schopenhauer calls “the principle of sufficient reason”-an immediate concern with “the where.] quietly contemplate. . ironically. Only the judge among the riders actually occupies this detached aesthetic plateau vis-a-vis the unremitting violence of their existence. “forcibly tear himself from his will and its relations. . VOL. in Schopenhauer’s words. the character of the judge suggests the will’s transcendental status. In this light. . eternally one and the same” (‘‘Will’’ 247). 1 31 . says McCarthy. like the other riders. He is dancing. “at the shore of a void without terminus or origin. One remembers Thomas Hardy’s Father Time in Jude the Obscure-another Schopenhauerian spokesman-floating uneasily between childhood and symbolhood. . The judge. In its metaphysical dimension. But McCarthy’s risk succeeds more clearly. But he is. in his cosmic dimension. and [. 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. the feverish dream of the kid in San Diego has particular import: “Whatever his [the judge’s] antecedents he was something other than their sum. never grows old [. nor was there system to divide him back into his origins. the when. and] is in infancy what it is in old age. Compare this with Schopenhauer on the will: “[ t]he will never tires. a typical day at the office in Blood Meridian-he may. but in its human dimension. 199). For Schopenhauer. It is “[elternal becoming. on the other FALL 2003.” and that “nothing must be permitted to occur [. wavers between phenomenon and noumenon.Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 consciousness all seemingly autonomous phenomena. Even when these phenomena are particularly threatening to the human will of the contemplator-say. the judge. and the whither” of phenomena as they relate to one’s own will (World I: 178). 45. The quest for his history ends up. then. the why.” This transcendental absence of origins is matched by a projected absence of conclusion and of rest from restless motion in between: “He never sleeps. more clearly identified with the will.” 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. . NO. between embodiment and the primal force field that is embodied. . The judge. [. dancing. .] save by my dispensation” (198. will-less subject of knowing. partly because he knows when to apply negative capability and partly because the metaphysical dynamic underlying the novel’s world permits-as we have seen-of an ontological dialectic. for he would not go” (309-10). those very objects so terrible to the will. in keeping with his principle that “[wlhatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

as well as the reaction of a friend who judged that McCarthy was a literary genius and “also probably somewhat insane” (176). Daughtery. 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). Vereen. Finally. Many sophisticated readers surely alternate. THEUNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA TUSCALOOSA. El Paso: Texas Western Press. It then follows that El Paso is the epicenter of imaginative creation. Jackson: UP of Mississippi. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the Wesr. The problem is that the sublime detachment created by forcibly tearing away from the will’s 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. Sacred Violence: A Reader’s Companion to Cormac McCartliy.” Arnold and Luce 151-12. 1993. To be fair. . construes the perpetual warfare of existence alternately as an exhilarating game-“Men are born for games. .Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 hand. 32 CRITIQUE . Peter. . “Blood Music: Reading Blood Meridian. Edwin T. 1988. Perspectives on Cormac McCurthy. eds. just as the will itself does. 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. at least the first time through. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP.” Hall and Wallach 169-88. and Dianne Luce. To adopt the terms used by Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. New York: Ecco. even if the latter are imaginary in origin. between awe at the sumptuous prose and the haunting vignettes and visceral revulsion at the heinous atrocities unremittingly depicted in them. the static experience of art gives way to the kinetic experience of actualities. [. I suggest that Schopenhauer’s explanation of the dynamics involved in the experience of the sublime helps us understand the problematical aesthetic of Blood Meridian. 1995. Cormac. the matrix for a world of infinitely diverting-and threatening-representations. “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy. Hall. Wade and Rick Wdllach.. McCarthy. . It is amusing to speculate that McCarthy is the will in some literary modality. Leo. [ . this reaction represents an inverted tribute to McCarthy’s power to overwhelm our imaginations. eds. Josyph. Bell. The Achiewmenf of Cormac McCarth. 1986.] 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). In its way. ALABAMA WORKS CITED Arnold. Peter Josyph describes this bifurcated reaction on his own part. But it is also worth remembering that Nietzsche acknowledged Schopenhauer as the seminal influence in his own philosophical development and that Schopenhauer’s Wille is the clear precursor of the younger philosopher’s Wille zur Mucht.

1966. Owens. Stern. 2 vols. Postmodemist Fiction. Steven. Barclay. Nietzsche. New York: Viking. Brian. 1969. Trans. J. P. FALL 2003.” Hall and Wallach 125-36. The World as Will and Representation. Rick. “Judge Holden: Blood Meridian’s Evil Archon. Karl Hillebrand. Trans. Friedrich. New York: Dover. London: Routledge.”’ Arnold and Luce 143-56. Connac McCarthy’s Western Novels. Tucson: U of Arizona P. Shaviro. Payne. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. 1889. NO. On Realism. 45.” Tivo Essays by Arthur Schopenhauer. “The Will in Nature. . Arthur. Walter Kaufmann. 2000.Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 13:15 04 June 2014 McHale. E. J. London: George Bell. Mme. 1 33 . 1973. F. 1987. “‘The Very Life of the Darkness. Wallach. Schopenhauer. New York: Methuen. VOL.