Plain Killing: Scenes of Slaughter in the Work of Goya and McCarthy

In one of the earliest reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Tom Nolan called the novel “a theological purgative, an allegory on the nature of evil as timeless as Goya’s hallucinations on war, monomaniacal in its conceptions and executions” (2). Dana Philips notes that this kind of comparison (to Goya as well as other artists) was a common tactic in early accounts of Blood Meridian, one which sought to evoke the grand scope and shockingly violent imagery of McCarthy’s text through fine art (434). However, while this type of evocation certainly enriches the mental imagery involved in our reading of the novel, by only looking at aesthetic similarities between the works we fail to explore what affinity there might be between both the subject matter rendered by the artists and the techniques involved in doing so. Accordingly, what I would like to do here is provide a comparative analysis of McCarthy’s novel and Goya’s art, particularly his Disasters of War series of prints.

Goya’s Disasters series gives an unflinching account of the brutality involved in Spain’s 1808-14 Peninsular War with Napoleon, as well as the suffering of the pueblo through the famine and breakdown of society which followed the war. While Goya begins the series as a critique of the actions of the Napoleonic army against Spanish troops and civilians, as the prints progress the distinctions between acts of violence committed by either side begins to fade – the uniforms worn by soldiers become indeterminate, and civilians themselves become perpetrators of violence. As such, while the prints begin as an account of a specific time and place, by the time they are complete they have become a much broader catalogue of human suffering, a despairing indictment of man’s inhumanity. As Gwyn A. Williams claims, “the basic message of the series is clear and remains unchanged from the earlier sequence to the final series: the brutal lunacy of war, the murderous inversion of values, the meaninglessness” (148), “we set off on a desperate pilgrimage through killings, rapes, famine and atrocity which becomes increasingly purposeless. In the end, we can’t tell one side from the other, they grow into frightful beasts and monsters” (7).

McCarthy’s novel could be said to trace a very close trajectory. Set roughly half a century after Goya’s paintings, Blood Meridian explores the fallout of the Mexican War of 1848-9 along the Mexico-Texas border. Like the Disasters series’ movement from a specific account of war to wider allegory, McCarthy engages with his subject matter on a mythical level, as the rogue scalp hunters of the novel find themselves engaged in indiscriminate slaughter of both Apache and Mexican civilians, recalling Williams’ description of Goya’s Disasters as “a record of the pitiless inhumanity and more, the purposelessness of war, when all causes and creeds in the end sink into a morass of murder” (5). Of particular interest in a comparative sense is that, as these lines of conflict in Goya and McCarthy’s work become less distinguished, both begin to focus on violence done to the human form, and this transition is signalled by scenes featuring the stripping of uniform from soldiers.

Plate 16, “They make use of them”

Goya’s plate 16, “They make use of them”, shows a group of slain soldiers being stripped nude by what could be either their enemies or compatriots, and this stripping away of political difference, an exposure of the workings of war on the undifferentiated individual, becomes a motif in Blood Meridian. In the section titled “A Burial”, Glanton’s gang disguise their murder of Mexican soldiers: “the bodies of the dead were stripped and their uniforms and weapons burned along with the saddles and other gear and the Americans dug a pit in the road and buried them in a common grave, the naked bodies with their wounds like the victims of surgical experimentation lying in the pit gasping sightlessly at the desert sky as the dirt was pushed over them” (194). The ”Attacked by Comanches” scene further draws this association between stripping of uniform and dismemberment of the human form, as the victorious Indians set about “stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals…” (56). Again, in the “Slain Argonauts” section, this neutering of stripped corpses occurs – pilgrims are found “nameless among the stones with their terrible wounds, the viscera spilled from their sides and the naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts. Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out of their grinning mouths” (161). Goya parallels McCarthy’s methodology in plate 33, “What more can be done?”, depicting soldiers hacking at the genitals of a stripped corpse with a sabre, and this shared process of neutering the dead might be read as a further deindividualization of the victims of this violence: just as the stripping of uniform eliminates distinctions between sides in the conflict, and the lines between civilian and soldier, the removal of sex organs calls into question the boundaries of violence between sexes, prefiguring the extensive accounts of soldiers’ sexual violence against women in both Disasters and Blood Meridian (see plates 9, 10, 11, 13 & 19).

Plate 33, “What more can be done?”
Plate 39, “Great feat! With dead men!”

Goya’s parade of war’s violence against the human body finds its most emphatic expression in what are probably the two best known prints of the Disasters – plate 37, “This is worse”, and plate 39, “Great feat! With dead men!”. Both show the dismembered bodies of men mounted on broken trees, and this juxtaposition of brutal manmade violence against placid nature would seem to accentuate the bestial nature of the acts shown, while also eliminating any lingering idea that such violence could be said to fall within the natural order of things. As Elke Linda Buchholz glosses the second plate:

“hideously mauled, the corpses of three men have been left on the barren plain. Were these Frenchmen or Spaniards? Goya leaves the question open. He reaches back to the traditional image of the martyrdom of Christian saints, but there is no hope of redemption in the afterlife. The suffering of these men is meaningless” (69).

What is particularly interesting about “This is worse” is that the skewered body of the man appears to be based on a much earlier sketch by Goya of the ancient Greek Belvedere Torso. Taking this into account, the classical beauty of the marble figure and the natural loss of its limbs over the course of centuries provide an implicit critique of the crude violence committed in the here and now of Goya’s prints. Once again, here we find the techniques of Goya and McCarthy in step with one another. Like Goya, McCarthy grounds his depiction of war in Hellenistic and biblical allusion – the “Attacked by Comanches” scene clearly echoes the rhythmic brutality of battle in The Iliad, and preachers, crucifixions, bibles and baptisms all make appearances elsewhere in the novel.

Goya’s sketch of The Belvedere Torso

McCarthy also creates tableaus of the dead mounted on trees, which undoubtedly bear a resemblance to Goya’s prints. At one point the group come upon “a bush that was hung with dead babies. They stopped side by side, reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them, had holes punched in their under-jaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of a mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky. Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being” (60-61), and much later they find “lost scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung grey and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes. Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down on their chests” (239). Like Goya, McCarthy mounts these corpses for public display as if they were works of classical sculpture, grotesque monuments to the cruelty of the fallen world that surrounds them.

Plate 37, “This is worse”

Setting aside the Disasters for a moment, we might also consider how the metaphysical themes of Goya’s Black Paintings (among others) overlap with those of Blood Meridian. Fight with Cudgels features two men battering each other with sticks, seemingly unaware or unconcerned that they are both sinking in quicksand. This imagery of two men’s thirst for blood blinding them to their immanent doom is strongly echoed in the kid’s first encounter with Toadvine in McCarthy’s novel:

“He went off the boards into the mud and the man lunged after him with the jagged bottleneck and tried to stick it in his eye. The kid was fending with his hands and they were slick with blood. He kept trying to reach into his boot for his knife. Kill your ass, the man said. They slogged about in the dark of the lot, coming out of their boots. The kid had his knife now and they circled crabwise and when the man lurched at him he cut the man’s shirt open. The man threw down the bottleneck and unsheathed an immense bowieknife from behind his neck. His hat had come off and his black and ropy locks swung about his head and he had codified his threats to the one word kill like a crazed chant. That’ns cut, said one of several men standing along the walkway watching. Kill kill slobbered the man wading forward. But someone else was coming down the lot, great steady sucking sounds like a cow. He was carrying a huge shellalegh. He reached the kid first and when he swung with the club the kid went face down in the mud. He’d have died if someone hadn’t turned him over” (7).

Fight with Cudgels

As they dance their courtship crabwise in the sucking mud, each unspools his fate to an entwining, much like Goya’s cowherds frozen for eternity in their near-embrace. Elsewhere in McCarthy’s novel, after he is seen “naked atop the walls, immense and pale in the revelations of lightning, striding the perimeter up there and declaiming in the old epic mode” (105), it is implied that Judge Holden murders a boy, who is found “lying face down naked in one of the cubicles” (106). The associated image, of the Judge “picking his teeth with a thorn as if he had just eaten” (106) naturally recalls Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son – the gargantuan and bestial man ripping apart the pale flesh of the child perfectly evoking the grotesque Judge’s appetite for the death and suffering of the innocent.

Saturn Devouring His Son

Since we have once again fallen into the trap of evocation, rather than interpretation, we might as well conclude by adding the work of a third artist to our comparison. John Gast’s American Progress is perhaps the ultimate idealisation of 19th century America’s faith in manifest destiny. Here, as Colombia leads the way across the plains, American expansionism is given divine writ, and the settlers moving westward bring with them the illuminating light of progress to the darkened savages on the frontier. However, this passage from McCarthy’s novel would seem to shed a different light on such a scene:

American Progress

“in the long light of the evening he saw from that high rimland the collision of armies remote and silent upon the plain below. The dark little horses circled and the landscape shifted in the paling light and the mountains beyond brooded in darkening silhouette. The distant horsemen rode and parried and a faint drift of smoke passed over them and they moved on up the deepening shade of the valley floor leaving behind them the shapes of mortal men who had lost their lives in this place. He watched all this pass below him mute and ordered and senseless until the warring horsemen were gone in the sudden rush of dark that fell over the desert” (225).

Rather than Gast’s idyllic Americana, what McCarthy’s passage evokes much more strongly is Goya’s The Colossus – a grim scene of war and chaos, as the people below on the plain are abandoned by the ancient giant. In concert, these three scenes reveal McCarthy’s depiction of America as a godless land consecrated in blood, and the rhetoric of progress espoused by the Judge as nothing more than the seductive call of base and brutal instinct. Gwyn A.  Williams said of Goya’s Disasters “it could be anywhere. It could be My Lai” (1) – perhaps it could be America too.

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The Colossus

Works Cited

Gast, John. American Progress, 1872.

Goya, Francisco. The Colossus, 1808-1812.

Goya, Francisco. The Disasters of War, 1810-1820.

Goya, Francisco. Fight with Cudgels, 1820-1823.

Goya, Francisco. Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West, Picador, 2010.

Nolan, Tom. Review of Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy. Los Angeles Times Book Review, 9 June 1985, pp. 2.

Philips, Dana. “History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian“. American Literature, vol. 68, No. 2 , 1996, pp. 433-460.

William, Gwyn A. Goya and the Impossible Revolution, Harmondsworth Penguin, 1984.