Moons, Coins, Men . . . The Language of Cormac McCarthy

As with most things, I came upon Cormac McCarthy late. The film No Country for Old Men drew me to the novel of the same name. I found the story and the writing strange and compelling. Same with The Road. But a friend suggested Blood Meridian, so I started into it. As I read, I felt a mixture of frustration, illiteracy, awe, and confusion. The language is nothing like I’ve known. Written pre-computer, it’s filled with GRE words, 1850’s rhetoric, and a blend of Old Testament and William Faulkner mixed in for fun. The critics call the novel McCarthy’s masterpiece, and there’s no doubt that it is an artistic achievement to marvel at.

I read what others thought of the novel, and was encouraged by, of all people, Harold Bloom, the famed Yale literary critic, to keep reading. Bloom gave up 60 pages in at first, but went back and reread it until “the third time, it went off like a shot. I went straight through it and was exhilarated” (see “Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian”). As I continued to read, I became more engaged. I wanted to know what happened to this band of “scalpers” as they traversed the Southwest landscape of the Mexican-U.S. border to earn their livelihood.

If you’ve not read Cormac McCarthy, the following passage, a dazzling set piece from Blood Meridian, no doubt offers a taste of what he’s capable of:

[…] They made camp on a low bench of land where walls of dry aggregate marked an old river course and they struck up a fire about which they sat in silence, the eyes of the dog and of the idiot and certain other men glowing red as coals in their heads where they turned. The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be. By and by the judge rose and moved away on some obscure mission and after a while someone asked the expriest if it were true that at one time there had been two moons in the sky and the expriest eyed the false moon above them and said that it may well have been so. But certainly the wise high God in his dismay at the proliferation of lunacy on this earth must have wetted a thumb and leaned down out of the abyss and pinched it hissing into extinction. And could he find some alter means by which the birds could mend their path in the darkness he might have done with this one too.

The question was then put to whether there were on Mars or other planets in the void men or creatures like them and at this the judge who had returned to the fire stood half naked and sweating spoke and said that there were not [….]

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.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order with it is not constrained by any latitude of its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

Brown spat into the fire. That’s some more of your craziness, he said.

The judge smiled. He placed the palms of his hands upon his chest and breathed in the night air and he stepped closer and squatted and held up one hand. He turned that hand and there was a gold coin between his fingers.
Where is the coin, Davy?

I’ll notify you where to put the coin.

The judge swung his hand and the coin winked overhead in the firelight. It must have been fastened to some subtle lead, horsehair perhaps, for it circled the fire and returned to the judge and he caught it in his hand and smiled.
The arc of the circling bodies is determined by the length of their tether, said the judge. Moons, coins, men. His hands moved as if he were pulling something from one fist in a series of elongations. Watch the coin, Davy, he said.

He flung it and it cut an arc through the firelight and was gone in the darkness beyond. They watched the night where it had vanished and they watched the judge and in their watching some the one some the other they were a common witness.

The coin, Davy, the coin, whispered the judge. He sat erect and raised his hand and smiled around.

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