Oct 4, 2010

Looking at the Kid

There is no Kid in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Check Spelling

There's a kid. Who's the kid. And sometimes he's he or He, when punctuation demands it. He is the boy, in the book, and the boy who's the kid who's he (and is later the man) is locked in a struggle that seems like a fated struggle with the judge, who isn't, also, the Judge.

Mistaking the kid for the Kid is so common, though, in writing about Blood Meridian, that I wonder if there's not something more going on here than mere misreading. It's almost like a tic, or an optical trick: we look at one thing and think we see another.

Harold Bloom, with his permanent aura of venerability and in his role as authority and canon-maker, makes this mistake in the introduction to Modern Library edition of the book. He refers, throughout, to the Judge and the Kid. This has the weird effect of placing the error in the same book as the book, of making the misreading seem definitive. When you notice how he's turned the kid from a character into an archetype, too, it's hard not to read the introduction as if it's an introduction to some other story, some other book -- the statements seem authoritative, but can't be about Blood Meridian. Bloom says the "the novel turns always upon its two central characters, Judge Holden and the Kid," and the question comes: In what novel?

I might attribute Bloom's poor reading to his Bloom and this being how he reads, but the mistake, the misreading, is actually quite common.

In the New Canon, Ted Gioia, who seems like pretty good reader/reviewer, enshrines the mistake in quotes: "The story of Blood Meridian follows the exploits of a young man—unnamed in the book and merely called 'The Kid.'" He's not called "The Kid," though, merely or otherwise, and I don't know what Gioia is quoting when he puts that in quotes.

At Biblioklept, where a series of blog posts celebrated the 25th anniversary of McCarthy's masterwork, they get the quotes right, always lower casing the word within the quotes, but then make the mistake outside of quotes throughout the (otherwise interesting) article. The article with the apparently unconscious juxtaposition of kid and Kid: "Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian begins as a strange, violent picaresque bildungsroman, detailing the adventures of a teenage runaway known only as “the kid.” When the Kid falls in with John Glanton’s marauders ...."

I assume it's unconscious. It's possible the change is being made intentionally. I can imagine two arguments for that, though they both seem wrong. One is that "kid" acts as a proper name for the kid, and so should be capitalized. It doesn't though. He isn't, for example, ever addressed as "kid," it doesn't act like a name in the novel, like a mark that stands for a signature, but instead marks the absence of a name. For example, "He seemed to be waiting for someone to come for him and after a while four soldiers entered and arrested him. They didn't even ask him his name." Or, for example, when he's signed up to join Glanton's gang and twice is asked where he's from (Tennessee), but never his name, though he does agree with the statement, "you mean to make your mark in this world."

The second argument I could imagine is that the two characters, the judge and the kid, should be read as archetypes, as symbols. That idea, though, is seriously undermined by the fact that reading the characters as symbols requires one to misread the judge as the Judge, and the kid as the Kid. It seems that this construal of the text ought to be based on the text, and I don't know how one is supposed to justify a miscontrual based on a construal, as if reading the text right requires reading it wrong. But how can a reading justify a misreading?

It doesn't read like a conscious move, though. It reads like a slip, a typo, a mistake. The question, then, is why.

Amy Hungerford, a professor at Yale, commenting on Bloom's misreading, says, "he capitalizes the Kid," in calling the kid "a hero against the heroic evil of the Judge, "and she says it's "quite indicative of a mistake in reading."

Which doesn't quite answer the question why.

My suspicion is, and I don't know if I can defend this, that it's a mistake we make to protect ourselves from the violence. We shield ourselves from Blood Meridian's all pervasive and unrelenting violence, the violence that starts, in the epigraph, with the 300,000 fossil skull and manifests in us as "animosities ... formed and waiting before ever we two met," as the judge says to the kid, and continues until it dominates everything, even us, even language, even civilization and social communion between men and even life itself. Against this total violence, it seems, we protect ourselves by making this mistake.

If we make it the first way, reading "kid" as "Kid" to make it a name, it's a move that exempts us, the readers, from the violence that always anonymizes. No one else in the novel knows the kid as the Kid because we are different from them: the misreading marks us as different, as innocent of the violence we're reading.

If we make the move the second way, reading "kid" as "Kid" to make it a symbol, it's a move that makes the violence unreal, since we're now in a realm of symbols and metaphors, and the indiscriminate bloodiness is okay with us since it's symbolic. We're innocent, again, of any violence or participating or consenting in any violence since the violence isn't "real."

Both errors, interestingly, both mistakes, actually work to lure us into repeating the machinations of violence presented in Blood Meridian. Both moves function and are presented in the novel as functioning as justifications of violence, justifications that shield us from the violence and, exactly in doing that, guarantee the violence can be perpetrated forever. The kid is made anonymous exactly by the move to make him less so, allowing the violence with this feint of innocence; the violence is real precisely when it is made unreal, occurring because it has been abstracted into a struggle between good and evil, the struggle that justifies whatever violence we want to do.

The mistake is important because it actually takes us, like a slip into an undertow, into what seems to me to be a central moral struggle, of the book, a key question for readers: can we confess to all-pervading violence?