Blood Meridian and The Doomsday Machine: Cormac McCarthy as Explanation of the Secrets Exposed by Daniel Ellsberg

On June 13th the novelist Cormac McCarthy died and three days later, on June 16th, Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who provided the Pentagon papers to the Washington Post and the New York times, died. The two men moved in completely different circles with seemingly different interests and temperaments, yet McCarthy’s focus in his novels on the human worship of war and violence, and Ellsberg’s revelations concerning the futile wantonness of the Vietnam War and the nihilistic commitments to nuclear war, both deliver the message that war and destruction are deeply embedded in human political commitments and the human psyche. The political and almost religious need for war arise from an unconscious need, according to McCarthy, or secretive and manipulative political purposes, according to Ellsberg. Both record a nightmare scenario in which violence, war and death are pursued beyond reason and ultimately to the point of extinction to those who bear the germinating need for violence.

Of the two, the facts reported by Ellsberg may be the most dark and incomprehensible in the pure insanity of the doomsday nuclear holocaust scenarios put in place by the United States (which he was to help enable and test). As he describes in the Prologue of his book, The Doomsday Machine, “One day in the spring of 1961, soon after my thirtieth birthday, I was shown how our world would end. Not the earth itself, not – so far as I knew then, mistakenly – nearly all humanity or life on the planet, but the destruction of most cities and people in the northern hemisphere.”[1] This was not in case of an accident or a response to a Soviet launch of nuclear weapons, rather the United States was putting in place plans for a first strike and was willing to pay the price of “a hundred holocausts” or at least 325 million deaths as part of its plan. What neither Ellsberg nor anyone understood at this point was that the plans put into place by the United States, if executed, would result in nuclear winter and the destruction of all human life on earth (his book records the fact that these plans are still in place in spite of this understanding). To win a nuclear war would require the destruction of life on earth. Yet Ellsberg’s actions are hopeful. He puts his life on the line (facing more than 100 years in prison) and has his two children help him in photo-copying top-secret documents and teaches them the lesson, there is a time when following law and order is evil and people must commit to good despite the sacrifice. Ellsberg’s determination to do the good in the face of overwhelming odds, like the evil he describes, is nearly incomprehensible.

McCarthy, in his key novel, Blood Meridian, is unrelentingly dark and nihilistic. Every landscape is menacing, every encounter an occasion of violence, and every character is swept up in a violent destiny. Much of the novel takes place in the desert and the harsh reality of this landscape reflects the existential human condition: “This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.”[2] The edifice of nature as represented in the desert and the edifice of war and violence are made of the same stuff. Both preexist humans and will subsist with their demise. As the Judge, the embodiment of the logic of violence and war intones, “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. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”[3] War, in the explanation of the Judge, is the motive force and meaning of all human activity. “All other trades are contained in that of war.” It is the deepest of motives: “It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.”[4] In fact, war and killing create meaning where it would otherwise be absent:

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.[5]

The Judge pictures war as like a card game between two players in which the loser forfeits his life. In the turn of a card, with life on the line, “What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one.” The meaning is created by the investment and thus agency is lent to otherwise random events. “This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”[6] War provides purpose and meaning and is thus the true god driving the game of life through the valuation created by death. McCarthy verges on theological and psychoanalytic insight.

The darkness of his novel performs in the form of art something like Ellsberg’s exposure of secrets, bringing to consciousness the evil dependent upon unconscious drives. Articulating evil, describing it, exposing it, is the first step in confronting it. Thus, it may be that McCarthy in exposing the imperative for violence in the human condition provides an entry point into otherwise benign looking figures (e.g., the administrations of President Truman and every presidential administration that follows) who have plotted to destroy the world in order to win the war. Naming this evil and describing this darkness exposes the madness, but left as nuclear war plans, government policy, or as Ellsberg describes it, a single graph of destruction, the notion is impenetrable. The interior world of those who could plot mutually assured destruction is out of reach in mere data. That is, the fiction of McCarthy provides the truth, repressed and unconscious in data alone.

The novel is based on historical events surrounding John Glanton and his militia who were hired by Mexican authorities to eliminate Apaches in northern Mexico (and what is now the Southwestern United States). The gang were paid according to the number of scalps secured, and they quickly learned that any dark head of hair (whether Mexican, male or female, child or adult, Apache or friendly native) would do. Eventually they are chased out of Mexico and begin a Ferry business in Arizona where they murder potential passengers for their money.

 McCarthy bases his main characters on the historical figures of John Glanton, and his second in command, Judge Holden. The key character, The Kid and then The Man, is presumably based on Samuel Chamberlain who records his exploits with the Glanton gang. The novel begins with the bleak description of The Kid’s origins, which loosely fit the trajectory recorded by Chamberlain: “At fourteen he runs away. He will not see again the freezing kitchenhouse in the predawn dark. The firewood, the washpots. He wanders west as far as Memphis, a solitary migrant upon that flat and pastoral landscape.”[7] In short, Glanton is a mindless killer who is continually conferring with the mysterious Judge, who directs his murderous instincts to full effect, and the Kid is swept up in their violence.

In McCarthy’s one nonfiction article, he suggests that the human subconscious is much older than language and is singularly geared for the individual’s survival. Ordinary functions like talking demonstrate that the unconscious allows for everyday conscious activity: “If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you. Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. Aside from the fact that I am busy this would be to evoke an endless regress. The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.”[8]  The unconscious is responsible for most all activity of survival, from the mundane scratching of an itch to working out problems of life, posed, yet unanswerable by the conscious self. McCarthy, without appeal to Freud, raises the question if the unconscious knows it is going to die? His fiction comes close to the Freudian notion that the unconscious knows no mortality and in this refusal of mortality enter death drive or the devil, according to the ex-slaver who has gotten religion.

No. It’s a mystery. A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.[9]

This self-perpetuating evil machine, posited on page 20, is one the rest of the novel explains. Once the gears are set turning, the murder set in motion, the game plays itself out by consuming its participants. It is mutually assured destruction writ in incremental decisions which ultimately trumps every morality, every law, every form of justice, as war and killing are the reigning logic, morality, and law.

Tobin, or the ex-priest, presumes that the demonic or hell is somehow directing their steps. “Where for aught any man knows lies the locality of hell. For the earth is a globe in the void and truth there’s no up nor down to it and there’s men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoofprints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock?” They are passing through a field of hardened lava and he presumes to have seen the footprints of evil. “I’d not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was little devils with their pitchforks had traversed that fiery vomit for to salvage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world.” He speculates that the hellish world somehow intersects the plane they are travelling. “Aye. It’s a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things this world must touch the other. And somethin put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen them there myself.” The next line of the novel casts suspicion on the Judge, “The judge, he seemed not to take his eyes from that dead cone where it rose off the desert like a great chancre.” Though McCarthy never pins down the provenance of the Judge, his looming height, his voracious desire for knowledge, power and control (as he explains at one point, “The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos.”[10]) and his capacity for evil, along with his soliloquies on violence, suggest early on the Judge is no ordinary mortal.

The Judge uses the example of a duel in which the outcome determines judgment: “The willingness of the principals to forgo further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof.” The argument and its specifics do not matter in light of the broader court of life and death (the trial of the historical absolute), yet the ready willingness to put all at stake in this higher court indicates human willfulness and pride is the determining factor.

Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgements ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.[11]

Historical law (death pitted against life) subverts every form of moral or spiritual law. The last man standing has called upon the ultimate power, the god of violence, and in sacrificing the other has proven his cause according to historical reality. It is not that the dead are somehow proven wrong in their views or their morality, rather they have submitted themselves to the higher court of history by taking part in the duel. Morality or immorality, error or correctness, religion or irreligion, have been submitted to a higher judgment.

In the Judge’s description there is only one game or one dance and one tune and the price of entry is everything. The Judge maintains that in the end, he alone will be left dancing. Only the one who offers up himself entirely can join the dance, but finally only the annihilating power itself will be left. “And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?”  The Kid feebly tries to resist the logic of the Judge, “You aint nothin.” But the Judge admits as much: “You speak truer than you know. But I will tell you. Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.” But each man’s dance is but for a moment until each is ushered off the stage: “There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone. All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name. One by one they will step down into the darkness before the footlamps.”[12]

The Judge turns to the one he dubs the Priest to illicit a counter opinion, but the Priest refuses to argue. “The priest does not say, said the judge. Nihil dicit. But the priest has said. For the priest has put by the robes of his craft and taken up the tools of that higher calling which all men honor. The priest also would be no godserver but a god himself.” The Priest points out that he was only a novitiate and never ordained, but Holden counters, “Journeyman priest or apprentice priest, said the judge. Men of god and men of war have strange affinities.” The Priest tells Holden not to look to him to confirm his argument but the Judge says he has already done so: “Ah Priest, said the judge. What could I ask of you that you’ve not already given?”[13] The Priest is embodied proof, by his presence in the violence, that his true religion is that of war, and in laying aside his robes to do battle he has bowed to the god of war – “the higher calling which all men honor.”

 The court of annihilation and survival is final, the ultimate justification, and as McCarthy’s novel slowly reveals, this is the impetus behind mutually assured destruction. Only those willing to put everything at stake, to bring down the world, can enter the game, and by entering the outcome is decided. The Judge argues the Anasazi, those people completely annihilated in the past, represent the destiny of those who play the game. These people left the remains of a culture superior to the natives who follow, and yet their achievement marks their end: “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.” These vanished people mark the way of those who play the game. “He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.”[14]

The one hope throughout the novel is The Kid or The Man, as he seems to withhold himself from the bloodlust of his peers, and the Judge notes as much. He accuses The Man of thus missing out on the fulness of life’s meaning. “If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay. Even the cretin acted in good faith according to his parts. For it was required of no man to give more than he possessed nor was any man’s share compared to another’s. Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not. Can you tell me who that one was?” The Man turns on the Judge to suggest he was behind everything, including the destruction of the group. “It was you, whispered the kid. You were the one.” The Judge suggests The Man has misunderstood: “What joins men together, he said, is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies. But if I was your enemy with whom would you have shared me? With whom?” Violence cannot be refused, war cannot be made an enemy, as there is no fellowship in this refusal. “For even if you should have stood your ground, he said, yet what ground was it?”[15] War and violence were the only choice, the only holy ground, and this both constituted the group and its destruction.

The conclusion of the novel makes the point, after The Man has been eliminated by the Judge, only the Judge remains out of the original party, but it is not clear that the Judge is anything other than the embodiment of violence. His survival is not human survival, but the triumph of the logic of destruction left dancing to the tune he plays:

Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.[16]

In conclusion, Ellsberg’s exposure of the Pentagon papers demonstrates the insanity, hubris, wanton destructiveness, and near perfect nihilism connected with secret violence and covert plans. McCarthy’s fiction demonstrates the pure horror and evil which roots the human need for violence. As his novel unfolds, violence might be seen as a means to an end (opening up new territory, exterminating the savages, making money) but by the end of the novel violence is its own purpose and end and the violent inclination represented by Judge Holden literally embraces and squeezes life out of the main character.

There is another who has borne this fate and exposed the lie of its finality. The revelation of Christ directly and singularly addresses war, violence, and the self-destructive instinct – exposing what is unconscious and bringing it to consciousness or addressing what is hidden and exposing it in light of Truth and peace. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”


[1] Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017) 1.

[2] Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group) 348.

[3] Blood Meridian, 262.

[4] Blood Meridian, 262.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Blood Meridian, 262-263.

[7] Blood Meridian, 3.

[8] Cormac McCarthy, “The Kekulé Problem: Where did language come from?” in Nautilus (April 17, 2017).

[9] Blood Meridian, 20.

[10] Blood Meridian, 209.

[11] Blood Meridian, 263-264.

[12] Blood Meridian, 349.

[13] Blood Meridian, 264.

[14] Blood Meridian, 154.

[15] Blood Meridian, 323.

[16] Blood Meridian, 354.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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