Writing Nature Between Orphism and Prometheanism in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Judge Holden, to cite W. Oliver Baker, easily ranks amongst the ‘the most engrossing and violent characters of American literature’.[1] A central character in Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West, Judge Holden accompanies the Glanton gang—a group of genocidal scalp hunters—through the American West, ravaging and de-peopling the land in the process. The below extract, lifted from Julius Greve’s Shreds of Matter: Cormac McCarthy and the Concept of Nature (Dartmouth College Press, 2018), mobilizes Pierre Hadot’s Veil of Isis to suggest that the judge embodies the two conflicting attitudes toward nature that have shaped Western thought ever since Heraclitus defined nature as a secret that “likes to hide”: “Prometheanism” and “Orphism”. Prometheanism denotes the attitude of dominion, that assumes a right to push across into the unknow secret, own nature and make it show itself by force (e.g. experimental science), whereas the Orphic attitude, in the words of Hadot, “penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony.”’[2] The figure of the judge thus at once embodies and critiques the violent tension between the “given” and the “made” at work in both epistemological and ontological assumptions of Western humanism and opens a perspective onto the nonhuman horizon of nature, which, by the same token, directly relates to posthumanist concerns. The present selection first appeared in chapter 6 of Shreds of Matter. It has been adapted for publication in the Genealogy with the permission of the author and the publisher.[3]

  • The editors, December, 2020


In Cormac McCarthy’s novels, allusions to the figure of Prometheus appear not only in No Country for Old Men and The Road but also in the middle period of McCarthy’s career. For example, Scott Yarbrough notes that “the possession and creation of fire is a recurring motif in Blood Meridian; Judge Holden captures fire, in a sense, when he creates gunpowder at the lip of a volcano.”[4] The judge is an expert in all kinds of human practices and disciplines, from scalp hunting to cosmology. He is a scientist and a “great deceiver”, often lecturing his companions and murderers of Indians on topics like geology or moral philosophy, while at the same time playing tricks on them. For instance, when the group of scalp hunters have set up camp, “the judge like a great ponderous djinn step[s] through the fire and the flames [deliver] him up as if he [is] in some sense native to their element”.[5] Along with its technological connotation, “the idea of fire refers to the basic physical needs for warmth and light”, according to scholar Andy Dumont.[6] What is more, the creation of fire (or, in the words of Jack London, the ability “to build a fire”[7]) draws a line between the given and the made, between the drives that are common to a whole range of animal species and the distinctly human features of existence: “Symbolically, fire thus becomes a means of guiding us past the baser instincts that would leave us wallowing in our animal nature.”[8]

Prometheanism is directly evoked in one of the judge’s speeches when he claims that man’s task is to decide about his own destiny instead of living under “mystery and fear”, which he sees as the hallmarks of “superstition”.[9] Even if “nature loves to hide”, as Heraclitus has it — and it is worth noting here that the Greek philosopher was one of McCarthy’s sources for developing Judge Holden’s views on the importance of war for the understanding of humanity, as others have noted[10] — and is concealed from human perception and understanding, this does not mean that the concealment is a permanent state of affairs. Instead, it is a condition that is in constant transformation. Furthermore, if nature is conceived of as immanent and thus all-encompassing, as both McCarthy’s poetics and Friedrich W. J. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie suggest, then, to a certain extent, nature must hide from itself insofar as the ontological priority of process over product, and of antecedence over consequence, is merely the condition of possibility for that constant transformation of natural dynamics.[11] Because he is opposed to any kind of superstition that really is an acceptance of the given, the judge is oriented toward a future in which he is determined “to dictate the terms of his own fate”[12] and unwilling to accept the path he has been put on by divine powers or nature. When he mentions “the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry”,[13] he is expressing the Promethean impulse of imposing the order of the fabricated and artificial onto the chaos of the ostensibly given and natural.

I write “ostensibly given” because McCarthy’s evocation of Prometheanism here reflects that his concept of nature’s identity is not premised on a strict distinction between the given and the made in terms of nature and artifice (that is, between being and thinking), but on the belief that nature exists only to the extent that it analyzes itself. The given is not a natural form but the given formlessness that both is the predisposition of artifice and is perpetually expanded by the fictional, artistic, scientific, religious, and philosophical “rearticulation[s] of [this] reality that, far from being distant from it, [are] what is active in it”.[14] In other words, the Promethean figure of the human, which is part of nature’s processes, can be regarded as “another kind of clay”[15] that constantly remodels itself and acts as one of the most sophisticated agents of or within nature to effectuate the latter’s self-construction.

Along these lines, it is important to remember that the judge is not only a light bringer, deceiver, scientist, and Enlightenment figure (as has been argued repeatedly by scholars of McCarthy’s work), but he is also a great musician and advocate of the Orphic thesis that human discourse in many ways repeats the processes of nature (that is, the language of God). For Holden, “words are things. The words he is in possession of he cannot be deprived of. Their authority transcends his ignorance of their meaning.”[16] Holden says at one point during the scalp hunters’ journey, while he is holding a “chunk of rock” in his hands, that “stones and trees, the bones of things” are the words of God.[17] His claim that the languages and literatures of humankind are prior to the one person using them to his or her advantage illustrates the view that the divinity of physical nature is recapitulated in the psychological scope of the discourses that constitute human culture. This is precisely why language is an expression of what Schelling terms Mitwissenschaft: like physical objects that are the quasi-linguistic units of a sacred form of speech that can never be fully recovered by merely human utterances, these utterances have effects that freely repeat those of their functional predecessors. As Jason Wirth puts it succinctly, “the thought of freedom is a kind of accessory knowing, a knowing with or Mitwissenschaft. It is the real becoming conscious of or aware of its ideality.”[18] Like his fiddle and his dance at the end of the novel, Judge Holden’s speeches are part of a natural (that is, physiocentric) continuum, the products of which are always grounded in a dark past. And this past necessarily precedes the human future that tries to separate itself from its origin and simultaneously repeats that which came before it.[19]

Pile of American bison skulls waiting to be processed outside glueworks (Detroit, 1892). Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Paradoxically, it is Blood Meridian’s rendering of war that brings together both attitudes concerning human identity within a natural cosmos, Orphism and Prometheanism, even though according to the myth, “the influence of Orpheus always tended to oppose bloodshed”, and despite the fact that the Orphic religious cults were “completely opposed to the spirit of war.”[20] For Holden, as well as for the narrator of Blood Meridian, “war is god.”[21] Like nonhuman nature, “it makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”[22] War is depicted in this passage as the final expression of human culture in its recapitulation of nature’s indifference to the moral codes of human societies. It is significant that in the context of war and the kinds of attitudes human beings may have toward it, the judge compares war to stone, which he previously defined as the product of God’s speech. It is also significant that if the antecedence of war is equated to that of nature, human beings as the “ultimate practitioner[s]” of the former are also those of the latter — they are the summit of nature’s self-analysis. On the one hand, then, war is the practice in which the most sophisticated technology decides who wins and who loses. Like the impersonal aspect of the natural sciences in contrast to the poetological discourses of the humanities, war is the ultimate quantification of human life, its most effective instrumentalization and means of annihilation. On the other hand, war repeats the relentless struggle of one force against another in the schemes of natural process, of the brutal antagonisms that give rise to the hierarchical structures of animal species, predatory or not.

If we recall what the Schellingian philosopher of nature Lorenz Oken said about the essence of warfare in his Elements of Physiophilosophy (that it “is the highest, most exalted art”), we need to add that it also has a scientific character, as it contains “all sciences and all arts”. Yet if we take into account the whole passage in which Oken makes this statement, what comes to the fore is the dialectical relationship between the recapitulation of nature’s conflicted forces by means of warfare and the narrative and musical recounting of the agony that awaits those who mourn for the fallen soldiers on a battlefield and, more importantly, all the victims who are to be found elsewhere: “As in the art of poetry all arts have been blended, so in the art of war have all sciences and all arts. The art of War is the highest, most exalted art; the art of freedom and of right, of the blessed condition of Man and of humanity — the Principle of Peace.”[23] Okenian physiophilosophy, the judge’s metaphysics, and Blood Meridian’s narrator all seem to participate in this tension between Orphism and Prometheanism. It might seem contradictory to claim that “the Principle of Peace” is warfare, but only if Oken’s physiophilosophy is not fully taken account of, since the latter derives nature’s God-given creatures from the Nature-Nothing, the zero of contingency, rather than from a principle inherent in the existent world. Thus, according to the metaphysics underlying McCarthy’s first Western, it is necessarily the case that warfare is the ground of tranquility, just as any ethical norm would result from its ontological disposition, and just as that which is not eternally inheres in that which is — existence.[24]

[1] W. Oliver Baker, ‘“Words are Things”: The Settler Colonial Politics of Post-Humanist Materialism in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian’, Mediations 30 (1), 2017 (Open Access).

[2] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay of the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, Ma: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2006), p. 96.

[3] This short essay is a slightly altered extract from Shreds of Matter: Cormac McCarthy and the Concept of Nature by Julius Greve (part of Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies), Hanover, N. H.: Dartmouth College Press, 2018, distributed by Chicago Distribution Center; pp. 229–232, cited with permission. Shreds of Matter offers a rereading of McCarthy’s novels in the light of critical discourses such as ecocriticism, geocriticism, and new forms of speculative philosophy that signal a return to German Naturphilosophie.

[4] Scott D. Yarbrough, “Tricksters and Lightbringers in McCarthy’s Post-Appalachian Novels,” Cormac McCarthy Journal 10, no. 1 (2012): 47.

[5] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West (New York: Vintage

Books, 1992), 96.

[6] Andy DuMont, “Luminous Deceptions: Contingent Community and Aesthetic Form in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,” Cormac McCarthy Journal 10, no. 1 (2012): 62.

[7] Jack London, To Build a Fire and Other Favorite Stories (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2008), 7.

[8] DuMont, “Luminous Deceptions,” 62.

[9] McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 199.

[10] Steven Frye, “Blood Meridian and the Poetics of Violence,” in The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy, ed. Steven Frye (2013; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 107.

[11] See Pierre Hadot’s listing of “five possible translations of the enigmatic saying — which shows how difficult it is to understand Heraclitus: [1] The constitution of each thing tends to hide (i.e., is hard to know). [2] The constitution of each thing wants to be hidden (i.e., does not want to be revealed). [3] The origin tends to hide itself (i.e., the origin of things is hard to know). [4] What causes things to appear tends to make then disappear (i.e., what causes birth tends to cause death). [5] Form (or appearance) tends to disappear (i.e., what is born wants to die)” (Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase [2004; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008], 9–10). Hadot argues that “the last two translations are probably closest to what Heraclitus meant, since they have the antithetical character that is typical of his thought” (ibid., 10). While this interpretation makes a lot of sense in general and in terms of McCarthy’s poetics, I would add that the third translation is equally aligned with McCarthy’s concept of nature, since the term “origin” and its stated unknowability recalls the gnostic phrasing of the “No thing,” which Edwin T. Arnold has linked to the mysticism of Jacob Boehme in his reading of The Crossing (“McCarthy and the Sacred: A Reading of The Crossing,” in Cormac McCarthy: New Directions, ed. James D. Lilley [2002; Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014], 224).

[12] McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 199.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Iain Hamilton Grant, “Everything,” The Monist 98, no. 2 (2015): 166.

[15] McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 5.

[16] Ibid., 85.

[17] Ibid., 116.

[18] Jason M. Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 204. It is more than noteworthy, especially in the present context, that Wirth continues: “By ‘thought’ Schelling did not mean a determination, as if the limitless could simply be delimited. One who attempts to locate freedom within a specific domain is like the Orpheus who loses Eurydice because he demands to see her” (ibid.). On a different level, this is also why for McCarthy, as well as for Schelling, nature cannot be regionalized on an ontological level — regardless of the claim that it is, indeed, material through and through, thereby affirming its constant mobility and remoldability.

[19] The Schellingian notion of Mitwissenschaft as well as the tension between the given and the made intersect with posthumanist issues as they have been surmised broadly in this Genealogy: “what is at stake [in critical posthuamnism] is a rethinking of the relationship between human agency, the role of technology and environmental and cultural factors from a post- or non-anthropocentric perspective.” [This is an additional note, which is not contained in Shreds of Matter.]

[20] Bertrand Mathieu, Orpheus in Brooklyn: Orphism, Rimbaud, and Henry Miller (the Hague: Mouton, 1976), 40 and 41.

[21] McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 249.

[22] 248.

[23] Lorenz Oken, Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie (1809–11; Zürich: Friedrich Schultheiß, 1943), 523, and Elements of Physiophilosophy, trans. Alfred Tulk (1843; London: C. and J. Adlard Printers, 1847), 665.

[24] The opposition between “that which is not” and “that which is” is derived from Ray Brassier’s work on Prometheanism. [This is an additional note. Brassier’s philosophical stance is considered more broadly throughout the book and in particular in chapter 6.]