Episode VI: The Poetics of Blood Meridian
A Breakdown of McCarthy's Singular Style
Cormac McCarthy is known for a particular brand of ultra-violence, for the philosophical musings of his characters, and for the savage beauty of his prose. I’d like to investigate the rhetorical and stylistic features of that savage prosody, thinking about the nuts and bolts of the master’s style.
We must have a few representative passages to work with. Let’s start with this gorgeous paragraph from the beginning of Chapter XI:
“They rode on into the mountains and their way took them through high pine forests, wind in the trees, lonely birdcalls. The shoeless mules slaloming through the dry grass and the pine needles. In the blue coulees on the north slopes, narrow tailings of old snow. They rode up switchbacks through a lonely aspen wood where the fallen leaves lay like golden disclets in the damp black trail. The leaves shifted in a million spangles down the pale corridors and Glanton took one and turned it like a tiny fan by its stem and held it and let it fall and its beauty was not lost on him. They rode through a narrow draw where the leaves were shingled up in ice and they crossed a high saddle at sunset where wild doves were rocketing down the wind and passing through the gap a few feet off the ground, veering wildly among the ponies and dropping off down into the blue gulf below. They rode on into a dark fir forest, the little spanish ponies sucking at the thin air, and just at dusk as Glanton’s horse was clambering over a fallen log a lean blond bear rose up out of the swale on the far side where it had been feeding and looked down at them with dim pig’s eyes.”
This passage has most of Cormac’s signature rhetorical moves. Let’s catalog and unpack them as we go.
Sentence Fragments: Cormac loves to use sentence fragments to present a series of images to the reader. With the second and third sentences of the above paragraph, Cormac provides snapshots of exactly what Glanton’s Gang riding “into the mountains” looks like. This is a filmic/cinematic technique and one of the reasons we see everything Cormac describes so vividly and clearly.
Neologisms: Cormac will sometimes create strange new words out of old familiar ones. Disclets—which I assume means “little discs”—is a fine example of this.
Polysyndeton: the deliberate use of conjunctions--"...and...and...and"--to slow up the prose rhythm and produce a solemn tone. "The leaves shifted in a million spangles down the pale corridors and Glanton took one and turned it like a tiny fan by its stem and held it and let it fall and its beauty was not lost on him.”
Polysyndeton is a rhetorical & narrative device of the King James Bible: "AND God said, 'Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, AND creeping thing, AND beast of the earth after his kind.’ AND it was so. AND God made the beast of the earth...'"
Unorthodox verbs: In this paragraph, mules have been “slaloming through the dry grass” and leaves are “shingled up in ice” and wild doves are “rocketing down the wind”—unusual (and evocative) use of verbs.
Unusual Metaphors to Describe Eyes: In Blood Meridian, eyes aren’t the window to the soul but rather portals to the Gnostic darkness inhabiting each character; Cormac loves to describe them. Interestingly, this bear that attacks Glanton isn’t the only being in the novel to have pig’s eyes: when the Judge visits the Kid’s dreams in Chapter XXII, Cormac describe Holden “peering down [at the Kid] with his small and lashless pig’s eyes” (322)
Let’s move on to the next paragraph in Chapter XI with Glanton, his gang, and the bear:
“Glanton’s horse reared and Glanton flattened himself along the horse’s shoulder and drew his pistol. One of the Delawares was next behind him and the horse he rode was falling backward and he was trying to turn it, beating it about the head with his balled fist, and the bear’s long muzzle swung toward them in stunned articulation, amazed beyond reckoning, some foul gobbet gangling from its jaws and its chops dyed red with blood. Glanton fired. The ball struck the bear in the chest and the beat leaned with a strange moan and seized the Delaware and lifted him from the horse. Glanton fired again into the thick ruff of fur forward of the bear’s shoulder as it turned and the man dangling from the bear’s jaws looked down at them cheek and jowl with the brute and one arm about its neck like some crazed defector in a gesture of defiant camaraderie. All through the woods a bedlam of shouts and the whack of men beating the screaming horses into submission. Glanton cocked the pistol a third time as the bear swung with the Indian dangling from from its mouth like a doll and passed over him in as sea of honey-colored hair smeared with blood and a reek of carrion and the rooty smell of the creature itself. The shot rose and rose, a small core of metal scurrying toward the distant beltways of matter grinding mutely to the west above them all. Several rifle shots rang out and the beast loped horribly into the forest with his hostage and was lost among the darkening trees.”
Strong Verbs: "Glanton's horse reared and Glanton flattened himself along the horse's shoulder and drew his pistol." Cormac's sentences are level-full of active voice: the characters act upon their world, deliberately, specifically, evocatively.
Short, Direct Adjectives: In the next sentence, the Delaware begins to beat his horse with a "balled fist" and the bear has a "long muzzle." Cormac evokes much with very little: we see the Delaware's fist as a ball; we see the length of the Grizzly's muzzle, etc.
Antique Diction: Perhaps the second-most Cormackian stylistic signature, in that sentence where the bear's muzzle is "amazed beyond reckoning,” “some foul gobbet [is] dangling from its jaws" (the gobbet doesn't hang; it dangles). Gobbet sounds like what it is; don't have to look it up. Cormac either finds a word from the period he's writing about (gobbet) or uses words we already know in an antique way (amazed beyond reckoning). The Narrator is not of the Reader's time & place; the Narrator is of the Characters' time & place.
The Two or Three-Word Sentence that Follows a 100-Word Sentence: Like a great blues guitarist, Cormac loves to follow long, legato phrases with short, staccato ones: “Glanton fired.” The novel is full of: “Glanton spat.” “Holden smiled.” “They watched.” And most popularly, “They rode on.”
The Weirdly Apt Simile: “…the man dangling from the bear’s jaws looked down at them cheek and jowl with the brute and one arm about its neck like some crazed defector in a gesture of defiant camaraderie.” The Reader sees it. The Reader will never be able to unsee it.
Bedlam: Find someone who loves you like Cormac loves bedlam. He appreciates many words for “madness” but bedlam is his crazy baby.
Cormac’s prose gets away from him occasionally—when the bear “passed over him in a sea of honeycolored hair” who is him? The Delaware? Glanton? It seems to be the latter, but how can that be? This is imprecise, but still lovely.
Beautiful Gibberish: “…the shot rose and rose, a small core of metal scurrying (?) toward the distant beltways of matter (?) grinding mutely (?) above them all.” This is pretty, but has nothing to do with the extraordinary sentences preceding it.
Missing from the two paragraphs I've pasted in above is the rhetorical device most readers associate with Cormac McCarthy: the Epic Simile. An epic simile is a comparison between two things many lines in length, and I nominate this example from the Comanche attack on Captain White’s war party in Chapter IV where the Comanches are described as being “like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone one of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools” (55).
Cormac’s prose influences in Blood Meridian are the King James Bible, Melville, Hemingway, and Joyce. After Suttree, Cormac managed to de-Faulknerize himself. The Appalachian novels are so heavily influenced by Faulkner that Cormac seems to have decided he needly to relocate 1,477 miles from Knoxville to El Paso.
This was Cormac’s first stylistic (r)evolution.
Over his career, he will make four of these, total.