Blood Meridian: McCarthy’s Transcendence of the Western

To be encased within a genre is to hold to a set of conventions and deliver on the observer’s expectations. These expectations are developed by consumption of materials which predate and inform the work in question. Paradoxically, it is often the works which break with the conventions of the genre, to which most works are happily constrained, that are considered the greatest examples of the genre. The Western genre is no different, stifled by the constraints of the time period and the need to be morally-simplistic in a deeply morally complex time and place, the genre is codified and uniform. Yet it is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy that stands head and shoulders above its peers, and it does so by violating the expectations of the Western genre while maintaining the aesthetic of the genre in a formally superior style.

In an interview with AV Club revered critic Harold Bloom was given the following question: “When you called it ‘the ultimate Western’, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?” to which Bloom replies “No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition.” Here Bloom claims that Blood Meridian is the Western to end all Westerns. McCarthy, Bloom claims, created a work which does everything a Western can do, and yet in doing so Blood Meridian often does what Westerns almost never do. Blood Meridian expresses the Western genre completely, yet in exceeding expectations it also defies expectations.

The most prominent expectation that is violated throughout Blood Meridian is the morality of the text. Morality is such an important factor in so many Westerns that it is often color coded throughout texts and films. This color-coding is so consistent, so unified that it is often referred to by critics and fans as the dichotomy between white hats and black hats, where white hats are most often worn by the “good guys” and black hats are worn by the “Bad guys.” Native Americans are either “bad” or are not considered from a sufficiently complex moral interpretation.

In Blood Meridian the idea of a simple moral dichotomy is entirely cast aside. No character throughout the text acts as a moral backbone for the reader to lean against as a way of understanding what is right or wrong, rather the reader is presented with a cast of characters who behave ambiguously or abhorrently. The reader is taken from one perverse act of grotesque violence to the next, at first shocking the reader until eventually numbing the reader, and while the actions displayed in the text are often repulsive no characters seems morally appalled or decide to take action against violence except when it is in self-defense.

A commonly used agent of morality is the figure of the sheriff. In the standard tradition of the Western the sheriff maintains order, protects the citizenry, and bring swift punishment to wrongdoers. In chapter 16 we are presented with a character similar to the sheriff archetype in the form of Lieutenant Couts. Black Jackson murders a bartender named Owens in the garrison that Couts watches over. When Couts confronts Glanton and his gang we are presented with a very standard scene in Westerns. Under normal circumstances the sheriff would confront the wrongdoer (and of course this would more often than not be from the sheriff’s perspective than from the accused’s) and the wrongdoer would either admit to the crime after a brief confrontation or deny it, sparking another confrontation. In Blood Meridian, a book soaked in confrontation, we see something fascinating and completely different. Glanton denies Couts’ accusations directly to his face, then the judge appears and grants further support to Glanton’s denial, stunning Couts into giving up his pursuit of Glanton. The sheriff is not merely bested in combat, he fails to even stand up for the law that he is entrusted to uphold. In the face of such cunning, amoral lawlessness he is rendered impotent. Justice is not served.

Another theme reliably witnessed in the Western genre is the outnumbered cowboy(s) facing off against hordes of Native Americans. The implication here is that a cowboy (or a small group of cowboys,) equipped with technologically superior weaponry, is such a superior fighter that he is equal to a small army of Native Americans. The fate of the lone gunman always ends positively, either he bests the horde by himself or he dies “honorably,” his death depicted in slow motion while sad music plays. In the case of the death of a lone gunman it is often to buy time for another group of “good guys” to make an escape or perform a time-consuming though life-saving task. Blood Meridian very cleverly subverts this theme.

In chapter 13 Glanton and the gang enter into a shootout with a group of Mexicans, massacring most of them almost immediately. As the gang mounts their horses they encounter a badly wounded Mexican captain standing his ground against them with a few men behind him. The scene plays out accordingly: “The Mexican captain was bleeding from a gunshot wound in the chest add he stood in the stirrups to receive the charge with his sabre. Glanton shot him through the head and shoved him from his horse with his foot and shot down in succession three men behind him.”(McCarthy 192) So we see that in the world of Blood Meridian heroism is not rewarded by survival, which is not new to the Western, but it is not rewarded with valor or honor either. The killing of the Mexican captain is quick and uneventful. His bravery is totally meaningless in the face of the onslaught.

Death occurs frequently and with little fanfare throughout Blood Meridian. The text does not shy away from the most famous occurrence in the Western genre: shoot-outs. Many people are shot and killed throughout, but Blood Meridian shatters expectations with who is killed. In chapter 12 Glanton and his gang happen upon the Gileños and commences killing and scalping them. In the midst of the slaughter we see the following scene: “and one of the Delewares emerged from the smoke with a naked infant dangling in each hand and squatted at a ring of midden stones and swung them by the heels each in turn and bashed their heads against the stones so that the brains burst forth through the fontanel in a bloody spew.”(McCarthy 164) Later the judge is seen carrying a young Apache child that he cares for, other members of the gang feed the child and make the child laugh. Soon after the judge is found having killed and scalped the child, casually leaving its body to be discovered by Toadvine. While Toadvine takes offense to the killing of the child the statement is clear that children are no safer than anyone else.

In the Western genre and indeed in most fiction children are all but untouchable, but in this text we again see a clear subversion of expectations. This subversion illustrates two clear points, the first point is that no one is safe from destruction, the second point is that anyone is capable of an act of savage barbarism. The second point is itself a subversion of Western genre expectations as well. While we may be inclined, having been inundated with the conventions of the Western, to believe that the Native American is the one most likely to exhibit brutish, inhuman violence against infants, we soon find out that the judge, a white man, is capable of an even crueler premeditated murder. The playing field is leveled. Anyone can be a predator, and anyone can be prey. As was said by W.E.B. DuBois “After this the descent to Hell is easy. On the pale, white faces which the great billows whirl upward to my tower I see again and again, often and still more often, a writing of human hatred, a deep and passionate hatred, vast by the very vagueness of its expressions.”( DuBois 32) Only the writing is action itself, etched with cruelty into the very fabric of human society, no matter how sparse and dilapidated it may seem.

Perhaps the greatest subversion of the Western genre is Blood Meridian’s sense of what lies beyond the temporality and spaciality in which the Western takes place. Blood Meridian a begins with a series of quotes, the last of which, attributed to The Yuma Daily Sun, is as follows: “Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”(McCarthy I) The implications here are vast and haunting. I recall pausing after reading this passage, somehow struck by the implication of primordial brutality that almost seems inborn in humanity. As observed by Gareth Corwell in his piece Ambivalent National Epic: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, “the claim is clearly being made for the ‘exceptionalism’ of the circumstances: the passage implies that this is the last time in modernity that humans would be free to act, untrammeled by social constraint in a ‘wild and barbarous’ state of nature.”(Corwell 532) Here Corwell makes the claim that McCarthy’s usage of this eerie passage challenges the concept of American Exceptionalism by perhaps insisting that the only thing exceptional about America, and in particular the “wild west” is its exceptional brutality.

McCarthy evokes a sense of time much deeper than what is normally referenced in the Western. The Western is often concerned with its present time and space; America, right now in the days of the “wild west.” We often see an ironic reference to technology that is commonplace during the time of the production of the material, for example a character is shocked to see a car for the first time or something to this effect, but the Western rarely seems to demonstrate an awareness of what lies beyond or before the time that the characters inhabit. McCarthy uses this quote to make an implication about time and human nature far beyond the narrow scope of the Western. Further, McCarthy implies that what is exceptional about America and its frontier is its connection to a kind of proto-human brutality. What was most terrible about humanity was suppressed only to be revealed once more in the American landscape, unleashed in the form of a truly horrifying commodification of mutilated human body parts.

Blood Meridian is a book deeply layered with subversions of genre expectations. Despite its subversions it is still seen by some as the greatest example of the Western. I believe that this is in part because of touches like the aforementioned quote. McCarthy makes powerful connections with the actions of the text to time and space beyond its confines, he operates within the genre while reaching far beyond its confines, both ascetically and thematically, achieving a kind of commentary impossible in the standard Western. In effect, McCarthy uses the Western to transcend the Western, and to say something about America and the human beings that walked and killed upon its soil.


McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or Evening Redness in the West. Random House, 1985

Bloom, Harold. Interview by Leonard Pierce. Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian. 15, Jun. 2009, Accessed 12 Mar. 2018

DuBois, W.E.B. Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. Shocken, 1969.

Lea Brandy. Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western. University of
California Press, 2012

Powell, Liz. “The Good, the Bad, and the American: Interrogating the Morality of the Western in
A History of Violence.” Cinema Journal, Fall 2011, Vol. 51, pp. 164-168.

Cornwall, Gareth. “Ambivalent National Epic: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.” Critique:
Studies in Contemporary Fiction
, 2015, Issue 5, Vol. 25, pp. 531-544.

The Human, the Animal, and Kafka

It is not unreasonable to claim that Franz Kafka is invested in the idea of a distinction between animals and humans. In fact, this may very well be a non-statement as one could say that most people are invested in this distinction. The difference between animals and humans is often at the heart of what is commonly referred to as civilization. What is more “human” is considered “civilized,” conversely what is more “animal” is considered “savage” or “uncivilized.” Our societies are shaped in part by these distinctions. But it is Kafka that first systematizes then dissolves the differences between animals and humans.

For the sake of mapping how Kafka systematizes then blurs the animal and the human in A Country Doctor I would like to first reference another work by Kafka which allows us to more simply see the scheme. In The Metamorphosis the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect. From the first sentence of the text we see a dissolving of the boundary between animal and human. It is implied that Samsa was formerly human, but now he is an insect. Where the boundary between human and animal is more extremely dissolved is in the fact that Samsa retains some of his humanity in his insect form, he can think and perceive like a human. In this sense Gregor Samsa literally embodies what Gilles Delleuze might refer to as a Becoming-Animal, the point at which the animal characteristics of a human are so exemplified or exaggerated as to present the figure as more animal than human. The transformation into an insect is therefore not complete. However, Samsa begins to lose the perceptive abilities of the human and accepts his insect-ness, passing through the barrier between animal and human into purely animal and when this occurs he is soon exterminated. In essence we see three states delineated: human, animal, and hybrid. From this simple example we can now approach the more complex schemes present in A Country Doctor.

The story of A Country Doctor concerns a doctor requested by a family to treat a wound on their son’s side only for the situation to collapse into a surreal attempt at diagnosis and treatment in which the doctor is stripped naked by the people of the town and forced to lay in bed with the young boy, after which the doctor makes his escape back to his place of residence. The main story itself has little to do with animals but they function throughout its length. When the doctor is alerted to the boy’s illness he prepares himself to venture to the house immediately only to find that his horse is missing. The doctor sends his servant girl, named Rosa, out to the town to see if someone could lend him one and only after she returns do they discover two horses in the doctor’s pig sty named Brother and Sister along with a groom only identified as the groom. The horses appear quite normal but the groom crawls about on all fours. When the groom sees the doctor’s servant girl he immediately attacks her and either bites or sucks upon her face, leaving a red mark. Rosa wisely escapes into the house.

The groom is identified as a human, he can talk, follow commands, and perform tasks, but his means of locomotion and inability to contain his base level urges situates him into the space between animal and human. The groom is inhuman while retaining his status as a human. Because the groom is so animal-like in his pursuit of sexual fulfillment the doctor worries about whether or not the groom will attack Rosa throughout the story. As has been pointed out by Margaret Church in KAFKA, A Country Doctor feels as though he has sacrificed Rosa to the “demonic groom” because “Those who would do good must often, ironically enough, utilize evil in order to accomplish their ends.” Here I would replace “demonic” with “animalistic.” As is commonly interpreted with works by Kafka, we can see a theme of guilt and self-revulsion running throughout the text in the character of the doctor.

When the doctor sets off for the family’s house in the carriage dragged by Brother and Sister he finds that they arrive almost instantly. This can be due to two possibilities: Either the doctor had completely forgotten how close the family’s house was or the horses are in possession of a kind of supernatural ability. There may be evidence for both which will be addressed later.

Throughout the examination of the young man the horses somehow escape from the apparatus that joins them to the carriage and insert their heads through windows in the patient’s room, examining the situation. The doctor seems to assign a kind of knowing agency to the horses. “‘I’ll go back right away,’ I think, as if the horses were ordering me to journey back.” While no one seems to find the presence of the horses unusual—and in fact no one aside from the doctor even seems to notice the horses—their presence seems almost imbued with a telepathic quality along with an inhuman ability to perceive.

The doctor initially finds nothing wrong with the allegedly sick young man and recommends he be pushed out of bed “with a shove,” but upon closer examination, aided by the whinnying of the two horses through the window, the doctor finds the wound that ails the young man. The doctor describes the whinnying of the horses and the ensuing discovery of the illness as “probably supposed to come from higher region in order to illuminate my examination—and now I found out that, yes indeed, the young man is ill.” Here the horses certainly exceed the limitations of the animal, yet they do not traverse the barrier between the animal and the human into the hybrid, rather they seem to veer off into their own region in which the animal seems to possess omniscience. The horses, Brother and Sister, seem to have an awareness of a system of knowledge that extends beyond human understanding, more interesting still they choose to impart this understanding to the doctor for the seemingly benevolent reasons.

When the doctor is stripped of his clothes to  the singing of a school children’s choir and placed naked in the bed with the sick young man the horses’ heads are said to “sway like shadows” in the windows. Here the horses appear weightless and spectral in the midst of the schism from what we would call “standard” Western medical practice. They make no sound and do not seem to telepathically transmit information to the doctor, but their movements could be a sign of anxiety. The swaying and shadow-like quality of the horses’ heads may also indicate a sort of fraying of reality as the story becomes increasingly hallucinatory, causing the horses’ corporeal beings to fade.

The horses, however, do not fade away. As the doctor decides to escape the increasingly bizarre visit the horses are found waiting patiently in the window. Again, as if to read the doctor’s mind one horse, who is not identified, steps aside from the window so that he may throw his things from the window to the carriage. The doctor jumps into the carriage, still nude, and orders the horses, who are now curiously reattached to the carriage, home. The doctor expects that the journey will be as fast as it previously was yet finds that the horses move slowly through the snow. In A Problem in Analysis: Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” Louis H. Leiter asserts that the horses are stripped of their virility as the doctor is stripped of their clothes, causing the carriage to move more slowly. It is here, with the horses stripped of virility and the doctor stripped nude that the story ends, with the doctor in despair, waiting to arrive at his home.

What the doctor expects to find when he arrives is nothing short of the antithesis of the horses and their actions. Throughout his examination the doctor lamented leaving the groom alone with the Rosa, imagining her as “his victim” most likely implying the act of rape. The groom, whose consciousness seems solely rooted in the bodily as opposed to the otherworldliness of the horses, is assumed by the doctor to have lost what little control he possessed over his lust for the Rosa, assaulting her with sexual violence. While we do not know if this is absolutely true, the doctor seems utterly convinced and the evidence from the only scene containing the groom would support his assumption.

Beyond the animal, the hybrid, and the human, a new center is established. The human becomes repositioned as the center of the scheme, the horses further away from the hybrid than the human, and the groom in between the human and the animal, the doctor, along with his fellow townspeople, somewhere in between, both confused and animal-like yet autonomous and thinking. The doctor can make guesses and even attempt to see far away into his home, yet it is the horses who supersede him in perceptive capabilities. On the other end of the spectrum, the doctor seems often unsure, confused, and not totally in control of himself or his situation, yet he is capable of operating in the world more coherently than the groom, who seems to behave almost slavishly to his sexual desires.

Regarding the sexual in relation to the doctor and the groom we again see major distinctions. The servant girl, who would seem ripe for sexual fantasy for a servant-owning man of the time, is regarded affectionately yet asexually by the doctor, as though she were more of a daughter figure than the object of any sexual interest. As stated before, the groom is the antithesis of the doctor in this way, the groom almost seems driven by his sexual desire to act in certain ways. For Kafka a feverish need to reproduce appears revolting and dehumanizing, bodily without consideration for the mind, base. The groom moves about on all fours seemingly in search of a sexual victim to attack. The groom’s inability to resist his sexual thirst combined with his locomotion secures his position between the animal and the human. The horses also escape the gravitational pull of sexual desire, their coupling is that of siblings, and while a case of incest are not entirely out of the question the subject seems too complicated for an already complex text. Kafka could have portrayed the doubled horses as a mating pair but chose siblings, perhaps to further entrench an asexual quality to the horses which would further lend to their otherworldly qualities.

Kafka stresses the difference between the animal, the human, and the hybrid in The Metamorphosis, Jackals and Arabs, and other works, yet we occasionally see subversions of this compartmentalization. While most of the characters in A Country Doctor remain more or less static in their compartments the horses seem to move from the animal beyond the scheme into the supernatural; to the telepathic and omniscient. This fracturing of the scheme implies a system of existence that exists beyond the doctor’s—and by extension our—understanding.


Kafka, Franz. A Country Doctor. Translated by Ian Johnston, Rosings Digital Publications, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Church, Margaret. KAFKA, A Country Doctor. Explicator, Vol. 16, 1957.

Leiter, Louis H. A Problem in Analysis: Franz Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor.’  Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 16, pp.337-347. 1958


Insoluble Pancakes: Locating the Lynchian in The Third Policeman

When considering the works of David Lynch it is not uncommon to encounter the opinion—presented by very intelligent, observant critics—that Lynch’s work is without precedent. In an interview with Charlie Rose novelist David Foster Wallace described Blue Velvet (and by extension Lynchianism) as “a kind of surrealism” which lacks any real outside influence. “There’s a debt to Hitchcock somewhere but it is an entirely new and original kind of surrealism” which doesn’t “[come] out of a previous tradition” and that it is “completely David Lynch.”

To clarify what is meant when using the term “Lynchian” I again refer to David Foster Wallace. “Lynchian might be that the term ‘refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter.’” So the Lynchian is the banal juxtaposed with yet containing the disturbing while the disturbing also contains that banality. A real life example Wallace uses to concretize the point is that “Ted Bundy wasn't particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victims' various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughly Lynchian.”

Lynchianism is presented as a kind of surreal irony divorced from influence, but one cannot help but acknowledge the Lynchianism in works which predate his output, in particular The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. The novel, which is the final work produced by O’Brien, concerns an unnamed protagonist who kills a man for money only to find himself trapped in a police station by two highly eccentric policemen when he is unable to locate the box containing the money. The plot becomes more outrageous when the protagonist is presented with incomprehensible inventions created by Policeman MacCruiskeen as well as an infinitely productive underground world introduced by Sargent Pluck.

The Lynchian is encountered early in the novel and continues throughout. The first example that is easily identifiable is when the protagonist enters the recently murdered man’s house. The protagonist is told by his accomplice in murder that the box containing the money is hidden under a floorboard. When the protagonist enters the house to retrieve the box he is instead faced with the man that he had killed. The man’s body is injured in a way consistent with the murder, yet he is still alive.

Rather than panic, run away, attempt to re-kill the man, or any other behavior one might act out given the circumstance, the protagonist simply discusses the man’s tendency to state things in the negative. In other words, the improbable or seemingly supernatural event coincides with the mundane. The protagonist stays the night at the man’s house then leaves the next day for the police station as part of a scheme to deceive the officers into helping him recover the cash box.

Another Lynchian element of the meeting with the man is what occurs just before the meeting itself. The protagonist believes to find the cash box under the floorboard just as his match goes out. Blinded by darkness, the protagonist reaches into the space beneath the floor only to encounter a feeling he describes as “some change which came upon me in the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable.”(23) Looking up to find himself in the room with the man, sans the cash box. This interaction with a box which displaces or shifts reality deeply resembles a sequence in the film Mulholland Drive. In the film Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring) open a mysterious blue box which transforms the world in which the characters live, their roles change, and the film becomes even further divorced from what could be described as reality. In both the text and the film the changes are irreversible and are not considered any other way.

Along the way to the police station the protagonist encounters another Lynchian event. He meets a character named Martin Finnucane, a one-legged thief who spares the protagonist’s life on the basis that he too is missing a leg. In fact, Finnucane is in league with every one-legged man in the territory and their allegiance to one another is later proven to be quite significant. A trope common to Lynchianism is the image of the body deformed by injury, and since both characters had lost their limbs catastrophically their appearance is significant when considering them as Lynchian characters. The figure of the disabled person is very common throughout the corpus of Lynch. Fascinatingly, a character with a wooden leg appears in the film Wild at Heart, but figures that are blind, multiple amputees or congenitally deformed all make appearances. For The Third Policeman to contain such characters is only fitting.

Soon the protagonist makes his way to the police station, remarking that the building somehow looks “completely false and unconvincing.”(52) There he encounters Sargent Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen. What is most obviously Lynchian about the police station is that McCruiskeen uses his spare time to create objects which are entirely incomprehensible to the subjective apparatus of human perception. In particular he creates a set of nesting boxes that eventually become so small that they are invisible. MacCruiskeen is also in possession of a paint of a hue so unimaginable to the human mind that it drives others insane, though he somehow remains unaffected. This exhibition of unusual, unsettling materials yet again exists alongside the banal in the form of Sargent Pluck’s obsession with every aspect of bicycles and bicycling. It is worth mentioning that Sargent Pluck expounds a theory to the protagonist that when one rides a bicycle their atoms comingle so that the bike becomes more like the rider and vice versa. This theory has interesting parallels with the cinematic works of Shinya Tsukamoto which are also worth exploring.

Later on in the narrative Sargent Pluck acts as the ambassador of the Lynchian when he takes the protagonist down into an underground lair of seemingly endless dimensions in which anything can be created but from which nothing can be removed. In this series of rooms and hallways anything can be created, the implications of which are immediately evident to the reader, however because of the construction of the elevators nothing which is created in this realm can be brought back to the surface world. Time stands still, one cannot die of hunger or thirst, yet MacCruiskeen and Pluck spend much of their time talking about sweets or nonchalantly ambling about the complex, examining readouts. The incomprehensible and the disturbing are once again juxtaposed with the mundane.

The conclusion of the novel, as well as the accompanying letter from the author closes the circuit of Lynchianism. The protagonist had been in Hell since the beginning of the novel, and while many fantastic things reside in Hell, like MacCruiskeen’s unfathomable devices, or the underground lair, much of Hell is also concerned with the mundane and the banal. Hell is as much a spear so sharp it can prick your skin before it touches you as it is a ticket for riding a bicycle in the dark without a light. If Hell is the worst place imaginable than a Lynchian interpretation of Hell is a continuous cycle of the mundane and the horrifying, which is exactly where the protagonist is condemned to spend eternity.


O’Brien, Flann. The Third Policeman. Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.

Wallace, David Foster. “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” Premiere, Sept, 1996, Vol.10, p.90

Wallace, David Foster. Interview with Charlie Rose, Mar 27, 1996.

Wild At Heart. Directed by David Lynch. 1990.

Blue Velvet. Directed by David Lynch. 1986

The Elephant Man. Directed by David Lynch. 1980.

Lost Highway. Directed by David Lynch. 1997

Mulholland Drive. Directed by David Lynch, performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena   Harring 2001

Lynch, David. Catching the Big Fish. Tarcher, 2006.

O’Connor, Tom. “Disability and David Lynch’s ‘Disabled’ Body of Work.” Disability Studies Quarterly, Winter 2002, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 5-21.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. 1989.