- “Striking the Fire Out of the Rock”: Gnostic Theology in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
There is no such thing as life without bloodshed.—Cormac McCarthy1
The powerful, disturbing and above all enigmatic nature of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West springs not so much from the novel’s graphic portrayal of violence as from the problematic role that such violence plays within the larger context of McCarthy’s work. Unlike certain genres of popular literature that portray violence purely for its own sake, Blood Meridian does not read like some gratuitous foray into blood-fuelled carnage and mayhem. Quite simply, McCarthy’s writing is far too complex, too charged with esoteric symbols, mystical insights and passages of intense, poetic defamiliarization for Blood Meridian to be dismissed as a piece of postmodern gorenography.2 Critical opinion concerning McCarthy’s work tends to divide into two camps: namely, that of the nihilists, who agree with Vereen M. Bell’s statement that McCarthy’s novels “are as innocent of theme and ethical reference as they are of plot”; and that of the moralists who, like Edwin T. Arnold, argue that the novels contain “moral parables” and “a conviction that is essentially religious.” However, both camps agree that McCarthy’s work exhibits strains of mysticism; Bell concedes that despite some nihilistic tendencies, “there can be no doubt that McCarthy is a genuine—if somehow secular—mystic,” while Arnold suspects that although McCarthy “makes compelling use of western Christian symbology [. . .] his own belief system embraces a larger and more pantheistic view.”3 So is Blood Meridian a nihilistic portrayal of the human condition, or is there redemption to be found among all that carnage and destruction? How are we to reconcile the novel’s seemingly senseless brutality with its use of Christian symbology and profound mystical insights?4
Perhaps the answer lies in McCarthy’s inclusion of an excerpt from the works of the seventeenth-century mystic, Jacob Boehme, among the epigraphs to Blood Meridian: [End Page 72]
It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.5
Boehme6 possessed a heretical, Gnostic brand of mysticism, which enabled him see the world as we are made to see it in Blood Meridian. Gnosticism is characterized by a deeply pessimistic world-view, a preoccupation with evil, mystical insights, and reinterpretations of Judeo-Christian mythologies—all of which can be found throughout Cormac McCarthy’s novels.7 The problem of evil, which is absolutely central to Gnostic thought, is not only “a pervasive theme” in McCarthy’s novels, but “perhaps the issue of human existence that he is most interested in confronting in his fiction.”8 Leo Daugherty recognises the Gnostic vision in Blood Meridian in his perceptive essay “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy.” Daugherty points out that while “most thoughtful people have looked at the world they lived in and asked, How did evil get into it?, the Gnostics have looked at the world and asked, How did good get into it?” He goes on to explain that for the Gnostics “evil was simply everything that is, with the exception of the bits of spirit emprisoned here,” asserting that what the Gnostics saw is precisely “what we see in the world of Blood Meridian.”9
According to Gnostic theology, the entire manifest cosmos was created by a hostile (or at best, ignorant) force of darkness and is thus a hideous aberration. This force of darkness usually takes the form of a creator-God known as the demiurge (William Blake’s ‘Nobodaddy’), identified as Yahweh of the Old Testament. The demiurge rules over all that he has created, sometimes with the assistance of evil angels known as archons, while the real or alien God remains wholly transcendent and removed from the created world. Some Gnostic texts claim that the demiurge is merely ignorant and genuinely believes that he is the only God, while...