A “suzerain,” Cormac McCarthy taught me years ago, is a “keeper or overlord” (198). An evil thing, I gathered, somehow related to the making and collecting of pictures.
I’ve just begun a project sparked by my vague recollection of a scene in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It gave me occasion to reread the novel and follow that up with a little research on some of its imagery. (If you’re interested, John Sepich’s book Notes on Blood Meridian fleshes out a lot of McCarthy’s references, looking into the tarot tradition, the history of the Indian wars of the 1840s and archeological traces from the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon.)
Following the Glanton gang (a group of white men employed by the Chihuahua government to scalp Apaches) Blood Meridian takes the beautiful vistas, lawless honor and shoot-em-up conventions of American Westerns and reworks them into a cautionary tale about blind opportunism and the moral consequences of white men’s attempts to tame this continent. McCarthy uses biblical language to describe the American Southwest as a potent and beautiful hell. At one point the band of Indian killers makes their way up a volcano:
“Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through to the molten core of her. . . . and there’s men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoofprints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock?” (130).
In this scene the gang is following Judge Holden, a seven-foot, bald, muscular trouble maker who speaks five languages, shoots his rifle with amazing control, and plays a mean fiddle. In Holden and in the scenery, Satan’s presence seems unmistakable, yet it’s never quite proven through the many disgusting scenes of scalping, infanticide, and greasy, dusty, alcohol-fueled mayhem done in the name of manifest destiny. The judge carries around a book in which he sketches the images of people, ancient ruins, plants, and animals before he rubs out the originals. He says he’s in a personal battle against nature for dominion over this place. “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” (198). By drawing the images of his environment, he aims to control it.
In conversation around the campfire Holden spouts some hegemonic lunacy: “The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos” (199). McCarthy makes this sound scary instead of just stupid because he has this character say it, a superman both crazy and capable. And even scarier, next to this megalomania the judge often presents metaphysical ideas in some well folded packages:
“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning” (245).
Reading a passage like that in the middle of a novel, I just have to sit for a second and taste it before continuing. It’s so gritty and beautiful and possibly true. So, the judge says, without the embodied, social exploration and categorizing we’ve all practiced since coming out of the womb, our lives would seem like a crazy carnival without order, heading for knee-shaking and unknowable conclusions. I’m with him there. Life sometimes feels that way to me anyway. But I can’t follow his idea that anything is possible if I will it, can I? And is nature, or God, this amalgam of forces and laws, nothing but “a hat trick”?
Holden wants to purge his companions’ belief in the magic and mystery of the West, asserting his will over its resources and native people—and yet this passage does the opposite for me. The judge holds himself up as disinterested master, but sober and scientific this passage isn’t. His assertion reads to me like Tom Waits singing gravel-voiced about a drunken dream with a cadence and vocabulary that depends more on classical literature and religious philosophy than it does on experiment and deduction. It comes from a character, after all, who draws pictures in a book in effort to capture the world. Those pictures aren’t the real thing, as one character points out to him. Holden is a product of this “carnival.” He’s not beyond it.
As I finish reading the novel this time, Holden strikes me as much more human than he did last time, if still pretty Satanic. His drawing is one of many efforts to write or photograph or otherwise record our way toward mastery over our world. How much of the judge’s crazy project is in each painter’s daily practice? I have often shared the judge’s wish to no longer feel pressed upon by what’s outside my control, and I’m regularly reminded of what a fool’s errand it is to try to run the whole show. With that, though, the judge has me wondering just how different my painting project is from his.