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M elissa M iller, O P E N P U M P K IN , 1985. O il on linen, 18" x 28". Photo by Bill Kennedy. Courtesy Melissa Miller. W r it in g O n : B l o o d Me r id ia n a s D e v i s i o n a r y W e s t e r n J o n a t h a n P it t s We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer. — Emerson, “The Poet” The nervous, rocky West is intruding a new and continen­ tal element into the national mind, and we shall yet have an American genius. — Emerson, “The Young American” For the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships. — McCarthy, Blood Meridian So far there seem to be four sorts of readers of Blood Meridian. Roughly, there are the historical readers like John Sepich, for whom the novel is primarily historical fiction; the cultural readers like Dana Phillips, who read the novel in broadly narrative/textual terms— literary, historical, and philosophical; and the literature readers like Bernard Schopen, who argue that the novel’s signifi­ cance is experientially literary rather than historical or cultural. A fourth group would consist of those who, like Peter Josyph, don’t finally know what to think about the novel since it seems to be about almost everything.* Cormac McCarthy’s work is of course both literary and histori­ cal, the combination Emerson wishes for in “The Poet” when he W A L 3 3 (1 ) SPRING 1 9 9 8 criticizes Milton for being too literary and Homer for being too his­ torical. But if Blood Meridian is about everything, then it risks being about nothing in particular. It moves like a narrative whirlwind, sucking us in and whirling us out, hollow at its eye. But there is the language, vehicular and transitive, as Emerson wanted it in “The Poet”— riding on. If there’s anything the various reading groups agree upon, it is that the narrator of Blood Meridian is the most interesting aspect of the novel even though he/she is nameless, disembodied, and seemingly very cold-blooded. The nar­ rator sees everything in exquisite detail but has nothing much to say about it. With less of a presence, a silent, omniscient narrator would be transparent and unremarkable. But in Blood Meridian the narrator is neither transparent nor, in postmodern fashion, opaquely reflexive. Why? In this essay I will argue that McCarthy’s novel is a parable of American seeing, a critical account of the “American religion of vision.” If Blood Meridian seems to be so strangely about everything, that is because the novel is about the tyrannical ambition of the American eye to see all. Here I will be arguing with readers such as Schopen, who see the novel as a cautionary tale of religious significance. Christian moral­ ity is certainly an aspect of the narrative point of view. But in Blood Meridian this morality must be understood as part of the American narrative lens, joined as it is so seamlessly with the optical drive to see what’s over the next hill. In this American religion of vision, Christian morality is tied to the perspicacity of a uniquely American power to see both panoramically and particularly.2 The more precise and expansive our vision, our tyrannous eye, the more godlike and thus moral our judgments. But the more godlike our judgments, Emerson warns, the more we are unable to see unity in its variety. We see all, but we must also see all things in their particularity. If the narrator of Blood Meridian is an Emersonian transparent eyeball, universalizing itself in order to see all, what happens when the eyeball...


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pp. 6-26
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