One of the most fundamental forms of cultural work undertaken by virtually all forms of crime fiction is to assign meaning to murder.
In another piece on Cormac McCarthy that I wrote for The Great Courses Daily website, I concluded that it was neither particularly useful nor desirable to think of McCarthy’s novels as examples of crime fiction, despite the temptation to do so. In this piece, I am going to suspend my disbelief on that issue and return to McCarthy’s work and argue that looking at his novels Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men from the perspective of crime fiction is useful for the way it enables us to answer a question of interest to students of both crime fiction in particular and American literature in general: what is the meaning of murder in a time of war?
I begin from the assumption that one of the most fundamental forms of cultural work undertaken by virtually all forms of crime fiction is to assign meaning to murder. The way in which this work is undertaken varies, of course, according to which subset of the genre one is looking at: in the police procedural and courtroom drama, for example, murder is given a meaning by being placed within the linear framework of investigative and legal procedure. In the classical mystery novel, murder’s meaning is presented in the words of the omnipotent detective, which is why chapter 34 of Agatha Christie’s 1936 novel, The ABC Murders, is simply titled “Poirot Explains.” Even in hard-boiled crime fiction, a genre not necessarily known for regarding murder meaningfully, there is an insistence that a murder investigation is a rule-bound endeavor involving considerations of both professional conduct and ethics, as we can see from Sam Spade’s uncharacteristically lengthy and heated explanation to Brigid O’Shaughnessy of why he intends to turn her over to the police at the end of The Maltese Falcon. In each of these instances, murder is assigned a meaning by being placed at the center of an explanatory framework, as well as by provoking a series of actions both great and small by perpetrators, suspects, and detectives alike.
…one cannot help but think that most crime writers prefer to avoid war because they fear it will either relativize the meaning of murder or render it altogether meaningless in a way that is destructive of both the spoken and unspoken rules of the crime fiction genre.
With this in mind, one should not perhaps be surprised by the fact that relatively few examples of crime fiction are set during a time of war, and even fewer take the opportunity to examine how the meaning of a single murder and its investigation is altered by the fact that thousands, if not millions, of sanctioned homicides are taking place all around the one murder ostensibly at the center of such a narrative. Such examples of crime fiction exist, of course (I’m thinking of the work of such writers as Martin Limón, Philip Kerr, J. Robert Janes, and James R. Benn) but they are few and far between, and one cannot help but think that most crime writers prefer to avoid war because they fear it will either relativize the meaning of murder or render it altogether meaningless in a way that is destructive of both the spoken and unspoken rules of the crime fiction genre.
Cormac McCarthy is not bound by any such rules in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, of course, mostly because he’s not consciously writing crime fiction but also because, I want to argue, the state plays a much larger role in these novels than it does in the majority of crime fiction (in this sense, one might argue that the relative absence of the state joins the relative absence of war as a defining feature of much crime fiction). To put it another way, McCarthy acknowledges the state as a criminal actor that asserts its monopoly over the commission of violence in a way that most crime fiction is either unable to do or uninterested in doing. In their 2004 book Multitude, political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri summarize succinctly the relationship between the state and violence: One of the fundamental pillars of the sovereignty of the modern nation-state is its monopoly of legitimate violence both within the national space and against other nations. Within the nation, the state not only has an overwhelming material advantage over all other social forces in its capacity for violence, it is also the only social actor whose exercise of violence is legal and legitimate (25).
The ultimate example of the state’s overwhelming power in exercising legal violence is, of course, war, and it has long been recognized that war plays a crucial role in state formation, hence Charles Tilly’s classic formulation, “War made the state, and the state made war” (qtd. in Porter xix). What is most interesting about McCarthy’s treatment of the relation between war and the state, however, is that he does not focus on the triumphant use of violence by the hegemonic state; instead, he focuses on the equally well-established fact that war can have a disintegrative impact on the state, either creating or exacerbating a crisis of legitimation for the state.
As used by German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, the term “legitimation crisis” refers to a situation when a governing structure still retains the legal ability by which to govern, but is not able to demonstrate that its practical functioning fulfills the end for which it is instituted. To a greater or lesser extent, both of the states in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men are experiencing a legitimation crisis, a fact that allows me to refine an earlier point: McCarthy’s novels allow us to determine the meaning of murder in a time of war that is characterized by states in crisis. Given such a situation, does the meaning of murder change (and if so, how) from its meaning in crime fiction narratives, and does it even have any meaning at all?
Blood Meridian takes place in the aftermath of the Mexican American war of 1846 to 1848, at a time when the borders between Mexico and the United States were still extremely fluid, and when what was left of the sovereign state of Mexico was still subject to attack by both filibusters from the US and by Apaches and other Indian tribes. It is in this highly uncertain and unpredictable context that the homicidal acts of the Glanton Gang and Judge Holden take place, but it is crucial to emphasize that when we first meet these characters, they are employees of the state. “His name is Glanton, said Toadvine. He’s got a contract with Trias. They’re going to pay him a hundred dollars a head for scalps and a thousand for Gomez’s head” (79). Although the Faustian bargain the Governor of Chihuahua has made with these men will eventually and inevitably backfire, in the short term they are lauded by both politicians and populace as heroes for protecting the state from Indian attacks by any means necessary. Even when the citizens of Chihuahua conclude that, as a piece of graffiti on a city wall puts it, “mejor los Indios” than the Glanton gang and essentially fire them, the gang goes on to sign another Indian killing contract with the state of Sonora before eventually being placed beyond the pale and assuming officially what has always been their unofficial identity, namely, outlaws.
The history of the Glanton gang’s employment illustrates not only how thoroughly blurred the lines between illegitimate and legitimate violence are in Blood Meridian but also how McCarthy uses this blurring to cast doubt on the legitimacy of state violence per se. Consequently, on those occasions when the state tries to punish violence by committing further acts of violence, such as when Toadvine and Brown are hanged late in the novel, these acts lack any conviction or association with justice, appearing instead as examples of after-the-fact and more or less arbitrary punitiveness. Does the ambiguous legal and moral status of the majority of the violent acts committed by the state employees known as the Glanton gang in Blood Meridian relativize the meaning of murder in the novel? To some extent, yes, not least because when one considers the novel as a whole, we seems to be looking at a perfect example of the Hobbesian war of all against all, with the state as nothing more than one actor among many.
I invoke the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes with caution here because, as Michael Walzer remarks in his classic study Just and Unjust Wars, what people describe as the war of all against all is “In practice…really a war of some against some, and one or another of the sides generally has state support—or is, simply, the state” (xii). And yet, if we remind ourselves of the language Hobbes actually uses in Leviathan to describe the war of all against all, we cannot help but be struck by how accurately it describes Blood Meridian:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (78)
After this famous passage, Hobbes goes on to say that another consequence of “this war of every man, against every man” is that “nothing can be unjust” (79), which certainly suggests that the meaning of murder in a time of war is relativized, but is it made meaningless? Not in Blood Meridian, at least. The problem for McCarthy’s reader, however, is that the definition of murder’s meaning comes from the character of Judge Holden. As Steven Shaviro has remarked “whereas all the other characters kill casually and thoughtlessly, out of greed or blood lust or some other trivial cause, only the judge kills out of will and conviction and a deep commitment to the cause and the canons of Western rationality” (13). Shaviro is referring here to the Judge’s philosophy of war, which he explains at length to the Kid at the end of the novel immediately before killing him. Whether we not we agree with the Judge is beside the point; the point is that the Judge offers an explanatory framework within which the reader can situate the violence that drenches this book in blood and in doing so the Judge and McCarthy implicitly suggest a family resemblance between this novel and examples of crime fiction.
Curiously, despite the fact that No Country for Old Men is very different from Blood Meridian in many ways, they share not only the presence of an explanatory framework but also its delivery from the lips of the most homicidal character in the book: Judge Holden in Blood Meridian and Anton Chigurh in No Country. The assassin Chigurh, who normally practices an almost Zen-like tendency to hold his tongue, becomes positively loquacious and Judge Holden-like when it comes time to explain to people why he must kill them: “Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased” (259).
“Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased.” Anton Chigurrh, No Country For Old Men
It is almost as if Chigurh suffers not from a compulsion to kill but rather from a compulsion to explain himself to those he kills. Where does this compulsion come from? It comes in part from McCarthy’s desire to provide an explanatory framework for the meaning of murder in No Country just as he does in Blood Meridian, but that desire is in turn a product of other similarities between the two novels. Instead of the Mexican American war of the nineteenth century, in No Country, McCarthy engages with the drug war of the late twentieth century, an inexact parallel, one might feel, until one considers the other wars that suffuse this novel: the characters of Sheriff Bell, Llewelyn Moss, Carson Wells, and quite possibly Chigurh himself are all war veterans, and Bell in particular wrestles throughout the novel with the meaning of what others see as his war heroism. As in Blood Meridian, forms of legitimate violence organized by the State are counterposed with illegitimate forms of violence on the part of individuals, criminal cartels, and corporations, and once again we find the lines between these types of violence blurring to the point where Sheriff Bell goes as far as to suggest that one might eventually become identical with the other: “You can’t count on em to kill one another off like this on a regular basis. But I expect some cartel will take it over sooner or later and they’ll wind up just dealin with the Mexican Government. There’s too much money in it. They’ll freeze out these country boys” (137-8).
Chigurh’s relation to this violence is analogous to that of the Glanton gang in the sense that he, too, is an employee. But only up to a point and even then, in his own peculiar fashion. In her brilliantly suggestive essay, “Hit Man Modernism,” Lisa Fluet argues that “Hit men often advance from poor or obscure origins to the relative stability of white-collar life via intelligence, talent, and some form of institutional legitimation – usually conferred by the recruitment and training structures of organized crime “family” patronage, youthful gang-families, or (if they are trained as state assassins, before turning freelance) the military.” All this may or may not be true for Chigurh, but because McCarthy gives us so little information about his background, we have no way of knowing for sure. And although Fluet goes on to argue that “lone gunmen are frequently more attached to institutions and other persons than they at first appear,” this is absolutely not true of Chigurh, who not only kills his fellow employees, but also seems to be willing to change his contractual status in a moment and move wherever seems to be most advantageous for him. He is ‘self’ employed in a profound sense, while still providing the promise of reliability, as he explains to his new would-be employer when he returns the stolen drug money at the end of the novel: “I’d say that the purpose of my visit is simply to establish my bonafides. As someone who is an expert in a difficult field. As someone who is completely reliable and completely honest” (251). Whereas the employee status of the Glanton gang in Blood Meridian reflects the state’s inability to monopolize the exercise of violence, thus revealing a type of legitimation crisis, Chigurh’s employee status in No Country reveals an even more profound and far-reaching crisis, namely, an inability to distinguish reliably between state, sub-state, and supra-state organizations at all, as well as the inability of the state to police violence effectively.
The ineffectuality of state law enforcement in No Country is personified by Sheriff Bell, who throughout the novel comments lugubriously and somewhat monotonously on the fact that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. The problem here is not that he’s necessarily wrong, but rather that this emphasis mystifies the causes and possible solutions to violence. Unlike many varieties of crime fiction, resolution and solution are notably absent in these two novels, but this open-endedness comes at the price of supernaturalizing the very same characters that provide some sort of explanatory framework that might give murder a meaning. The Judge is frankly supernatural, being someone who appears never to grow older and is apparently impossible to kill, while Chigurh is all but supernatural, with a mysterious and shadowy past and able to walk away from a car crash that breaks his ribs and leaves his bones showing with nothing more than a slight limp.
I would argue that McCarthy’s use of the supernatural ultimately depoliticizes his treatment of violence in Blood Meridian and No Country and provides a striking point of contrast between these novels and most examples of crime fiction, which typically do not rely upon the supernatural for their impact. This difference may, however, conceal a deeper structural similarity. In his ground breaking essay “Clues,” Franco Moretti comments that “Detective fiction…exists expressly to dispel the doubt that guilt might be impersonal, and therefore collective and social…Because the crime is presented in the form of a mystery, society is absolved from the start: the solution of the mystery proves its innocence” (135, 145). Would it be going too far to argue that, just as if he were writing crime fiction, McCarthy uses the supernaturalized individualism of Judge Holden and Anton Chigurh to absolve a society that is both predicated on and structured by violence? If that is the case, then the precise meaning of murder in a time of war is likely to remain a mystery.