Blood Meridian as critique of Determinism

Learning from Art: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood
Meridian as a Critique of Divine Determinism

by Dennis Sansom

[after examples of Voltaire's Candide critiquing Leibniz's optimism, Huxley's Brave New World critiquing Marxism]

The artist’s imagination, especially in literature, pictures what can happen. Aristotle may be right in saying that art imposes an ideational form upon matter, but art can also indicate whether an ideational form should be imposed upon matter. In keeping with Aristotle’s terminology, the actuality of the idea may pervert or hinder the potentiality of the matter. Some ideas do not fulfill the potentiality of the human experience and they should be rejected, though they are logical, systematic, and clear. Some philosophical ideas cannot stand the test of the imagination. How does the artistic imagination test an idea?

The artistic imagination is not just a fanciful thought experiment or a mirror of experience. In the Critique of Judgement Kant argued that artistic imagination has a creative effect, not just a reproductive one. It enables us to imagine what the pure reason of science and the practical reason of moral universalizeability cannot enable us to know. As fruitful for knowledge as science and morality may be, they are limited to what is experienced in the senses, synthesized by a priori categories, or universalized to a dutiful necessity. Because science and morality are restricted in what they can know by their own modes of reasoning (that is, pure and practical), they lack a creative ability to envision a different world.

Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian can be read as an artistic critique of a philosophical-theological idea. The novel shows what we can narratively imagine to be the lived experienced of an idea—a teleology of God’s implacable will and human history, especially as it involves violence and war. Though the novel does not use the phrase, we can call it the “Theo-Determinist” philosophy of human destiny. It is simple, direct, and clear (similar to Leibniz’s optimism): (1) because God is absolutely sovereign over everything, God is the omni-causal agent of everything; and (2) every action thus reflects God’s holy will. Of course, religious believers within Theo-Determinism may relate affectionately and sincerely to the God of this idea, but there is an absurdity to Theo-Determinism. If we examine only the idea’s consistency and comprehensiveness, we may be compelled to assent, but when we try to envision a life defined by it, we become repulsed. McCarthy’s literary imagination reveals why we should reject it, and as was the case in Candide and Brave New World, and now with Blood Meridian, we have an artistic imagination critiquing a philosophical-theological idea.

The novel’s plot puts the reader in a quandary of beliefs throughout by forcing the reader to accept a paradox that we intuitively never want to admit—in moral terms, there is no difference between nihilism and divine sovereign determinism, for each is beyond good and evil.

The removal of these shackles unleashes instinctive energies of human will, and thus Zarathustra dances. He dances because he is a nihilist.

McCarthy’s Blood Meridian shows that in terms of moral distinctions and moral accountability, the moral difference between divine determinism and moral nihilism is a difference without a real distinction because in terms of how we would evaluate life, metaphysical determinism requires moral nihilism.

We do not understand the contradiction’s poignancy by only examining the logic of Theo-Determinism because according to its logic, if God is sovereign and determines everything, and God is holy, then all human affairs reflect God’s holy will. There is no contradiction. But by imagining the idea put into a narrative about the judge, the scalpings, the kid, and the senseless acts of cruelty, all supposedly determined by God, as McCarthy does in Blood Meridian, we see the moral absurdity of the logic of Theo-Determinism.

If God is the omni-causal agency of this world, then moral distinctions are not only irrelevant but an obstacle to the “dance”.

On a rise at the western edge of the playa they passed a crude wooden cross where Maricopas had crucified an Apache. The mummied corpse hung from the crosstree with its mouth gaped in a raw hole, a thing of leather and bone scoured by the pumice winds off the lake and the pale tree of the ribs showing through the scraps of hide that hung from the breast. They rode on. The horses trudged sullenly the alien ground and the round earth rolled beneath them silently milling the greater void wherein they were contained. In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. . . . [N]othing more luminous than another . . . all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships. (247)

The judge laughs, because the card confirms his suspicions of the kid. Card readers interpret the Cuatro de Copas (the Four of Cups) in several ways. The card depicts a man sitting underneath a tree, contemplating three cups while oblivious to a fourth cup offered to him. Is the reclining man indecisive, conflicted, unaware, or doubtful? He contemplates and weighs what he sees. The picture indicates an intense inner struggle, for whatever reason. The kid, in turn, is internally struggling with the blood meridian, while all along participating in its war. He is incongruent with the blood meridian’s force of life and death. Like the Four of Cups, his subjectivity is out of sync with the objectivity of the blood meridian. His internally troubled state is the first step toward finally rejecting the blood meridian. His eventual break begins in his contemplation of human cruelty. It is because we have the subjective experience of contemplating moral obligations that we know we do not live in a world controlled by an intractable divine will.

Throughout the novel, we witness mayhem and death but we never hear anyone cry or show pain. It is as though there is no subjectivity in the blood meridian, and indeed the inner world of contemplation, emotional conflicts, pain, and sorrow are incoherent in a world completely determined to be what it is. [- This book now seems to be so contra-Humean (ie. without a psychological account of sympathy) that it verges too far into fiction; but this is one of the points that Sansom makes about art critiquing philosophy anyway. Also, Hume's account is perhaps impossible in a Theo-deterministic world, I should think about this.] [a second note on this: perhaps we need to assume that every character (besides the kid?) signs on with the Theo-determinist doctrine. In this way, perhaps, violence would no longer elicit emotional responses (contra-Hume). But this makes little sense because Hume holds that it is by the very nature of human psychology that we have specific responses to violence, save the case of the sociopath.]

Wittgenstein's "Big Book" though experiment"
“Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment.”
Written on June 17, 2009