Little Steppe of Horrors: Metaphysics, Monstrosity and the Picaresque Trickster in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Wu Cheng’en’s A Journey to the West

©Mary Crockford May 24, 2018

Little Steppe of Horrors: Metaphysics, Monstrosity and the Picaresque Trickster in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Wu Cheng’en’s A Journey to the West

While one is a postmodern Western lauded as an incarnation of the Great American Novel, and the other a Medieval epic still beloved by China’s modern body politic, the protagonists of both Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West bear strikingly similar markers of the picaro of Baroque Spanish nascency. Both stories feature a youthful male – one human and one simian, respectively – destined to spend “his hours and days, his childhood, his youth” wandering through “surroundings…unfavorable to his improvement” in search of security and significance; each fulfills the paradoxical role of both pawn and hero exposing the problem of individual agency and cultural conformity for the emergent citizen in the nation in need of reform and “union…as much territorial as spiritual” (Cuneo 125); and each undergoes the developmental journey or bildungsroman fictionalizing the societal outcast’s “growth, or retrogression, as a mark of social determinism” (Ardila 77) placed upon him by stratified society cyclically forcing and frustrating his quest for individuation.

It is not the purpose of this paper to claim that either novel or protagonist is clearly picaresque in the Spanish tradition, but to examine some of their shared thematic and narrative elements in the context of the Baroque picaresque novel, as well as traits of the picaresque hero and trickster their protagonists possess to varying degrees. Through these elements and the employment of irony, doubling and other techniques of disarming the reader, the origins of each novel can be recognized as purposeful alternatives to national pastorals and chivalric tales enshrouding in myth the narratives of Chinese and American Western transnational expansionism.

As Chengen’s answer to political and philosophical fracturing resulting from centuries of dynastic legalism and imperialism designed to “generally squelch or discourage philosophical expression” (Von Himsbergh), his protagonist Sun Wukong emerges from a multi-millennial process of creation beginning with a dually entropic and inertial “state…called chaos” in which “Everything is dead,” and coalescing in the ascendence of “the three great powers, Heaven, Earth and Man” and a solid “world…divided into four great continents” (Cheng’en 1-2). Sun Wukong’s emergence is not one of human reproduction and birth, nor one arising out of royal succession, but of hatching from a stone egg. He arrives as both untested savior to a pre-enlightenment world ruled by capricious and ineffectual deities, and hominoid trickster “transformed into a stone monkey with the five senses of the body complete, and able to creep and run” (2).

From his emergence, he is a metaphysical force of nature resistant to dogma, so like the protagonist of Aleman’s seminal picaresque text Guzman de alfarache, his entire life story is “largely anti-clerical and dangerous” (Ardila 41). He “astonish[es] the dwellers of heaven” with his reputation for hubris “even reaching the Jade Emperor in his golden palace in the clouds” and his “heavenly ministers.” The Jade Emperor finds the prideful primate “the most incomparable of all living creatures” who is not simply resilient but “[does] not suffer” (2) so he cannot be controlled. The heavenly rulers leave Monkey alone to seek and find pleasure and establish a limited earthly authority in a “true resting place” within the Happy Land of the Flower and Fruit Garden and its Waterfall of the Heavenly Cave (4), but in exchange for his freedom, Monkey is conscripted by the goddess Guanyin to accompany the Taoist monk Xuanzang to India to obtain the Buddhist texts which alone have the power to tame him.

It is at the Garden’s watery portal that one can see that while not purposeful, parallels between Sun Wukong and Renaissance Spain’s Charles I and V provide for fruitful exploration of the role of monarch as its own loose type of national antihero, for purposes of political and existential discourse reflecting “the period in which [picaresque] literature developed.” As it was for Charles I and V, who in “the last half of the fifteenth and the first half of the 16th centuries” was Holy Roman Emperor of Spain and Germany, for Monkey as Song Dynasty monarch “misery reigned about him” in the form of political rivalries, boundary wars, and religious incoherence keeping the citizenry “in a state of intermittent confusion [serving] to exhaust the strength of the nation” (Cuneo 125). Finding his localized kingship insufficient, and plagued by mortal fears of “the world after death” (6), egoistic Sun Wukong interprets his conscription as a noble gesture of volunteerism, pledging before “all kinds of monkeys who were princes, statesmen, and their assistants” (4) to lead the pilgrimage West to obtain the religiously and politically unifying Buddhist scriptures:

In face of these difficulties, suddenly a monkey came forward and cried

out, “I will venture in.” … He shut his eyes, bent his body and rushed into the

midst of the waterfall. Then he opened his eyes and raised his head to see.

There was no water, but there was an iron bridge. (3)

The stone monkey was delighted beyond measure. He shut his eyes again

and doubled up his body and jumped through the waterfall to the outside…

He said, “There is no water at all, only an iron bridge, On the other side of

the bridge is a palace full of treasures.” (4)

Owing to his dualistic nature as supernatural emissary and spiritual pilgrim, Monkey has vision into the opaque boundary between the material and immaterial worlds, crossing them effortlessly through activation of the “destructive-transformative side of the cosmic will” (Perera quote, Fraleigh 150) native to the trickster’s body. He is in a sense the embodiment of metafiction, the Nietzschean ubermensch who is both monster and monkey possessing the Rabelaisian open body “shown as continually undergoing change” (Davidson) enabling him to make gravity-defying leaps and bounds.

Like laws of science, social mores governing class mean nothing to Monkey as he mirrors the bridge on the other side of the falls, his body and imagination transgressing the physical and spiritual so others may emulate and follow the picaro’s “daring reconquest” (Cuneo 126) of traditional narrative boundaries. He persists in seeking “the possible fulfillment of the so-called bourgeois dream” (Ardila 174-175) dangled in monarchically funded ventures into unknown regions for the prospect of advancing national and personal fortunes:

The Monkey King, having no luck in his search for the way of the Immortals,

and having spent eight or nine years in vain, suddenly came to the great

Western Ocean…then he got on a raft as before, and sailed as far as the

borders of the Western continent, where he landed and searched for a long

time. (Weng’en 7)

Monkey’s maritime journey West, first through the Waterfall of Heaven and then by sea on a handmade raft, can be compared to “any sixteenth-century Spanish tale, especially as regards the prospect of [the picaro’s] finding a better life across the Atlantic” (Ardila 174), a category I contend includes the nonfictional accounts of the conquistadors and their female counterparts, conquistadoras or picariscas, Catalina de Erauso and Ines Suarez.

Ignoring his Master’s warning that “danger does not come from Heaven, nor from man, but from one’s own passions” (15), Monkey returns to the Mountain Garden and accepts the worship of the “Ten thousand monkeys, great and small” awaiting him. He does not correct the monkeys’ marveling at him that the “Master has taught you how to perform many wonders” (19) and uses his magic as frivolous entertainment:

They replied, “Show us some of your wonderful arts.” The Seeker said, “Tell me

what you want and I will try.” They said, “Change yourself into a pine tree.” The

Seeker of Secrets recited an incantation, shook his body and was transformed

instantly into a pine tree.

In punishment for his indiscretion and braggadocio, the master expels Monkey, threatening to flay him alive if he credits him as his teacher. In an ironic response to his “constant mischief-making” (Adams 3) in becoming a tree, he is made Stud Master, a glorified stable boy position he perceives as a promotion until his subordinates inform him the position is “the lowest” (Cheng’en 39), an empty post the gods only bestowed in order to surveil him and keep him out of trouble:

How dare they invite me here to merely look after their horses? Is this the way

they should behave towards me? I will not stand it! I will not stand it! I am

going!” In an instant he pushed over, with great noise, the table at which public

justice was administered, pulled out his precious weapon… (Cheng’en 39)

Monkey, as “quick to be offended” in moments of perceived injustice as he is “penetrating in mind and vision” at the prospect of inter-realm travel and adventure, again turns the metaphorical tables by rushing “out through the gate of the Imperial Horse Yamen” and “in no time” (39) returns to the Mountain Garden. Monkey’s quickness to respond to offense, coupled with his ability to wield an arsenal of magic utterances and weapons, and his quixotic nature leads to the picaro’s often violent “metaphorical and literal journey” (Adams 2-3) or bildungsroman filled with embarrassment and conflict, reflecting the earnest but naive alien’s frustration with false establishmentarian promises and arbitrarily erected socieconomic barriers.

As a soteriological journey – one concerned with attainment of salvation – Monkey’s pilgrimage is a manifestation of “a journey to a Chinese monastery or temple” representing “a progression from the outer to the inner…karmic impoverishment to karmic wealth” (Walsh 37) that is central to Buddhist theology. Using the Jungian cosmic dancer’s liminal nature through mastery of magic, Monkey is not only the picaro counted among a “certain class of young men whose occupation was confined to running errands” (Cuneo 125) in the national interest, but he is the “agent of liberation and ally of new creations” (Moore Introduction) able to defy mortal boundaries and facilitate the passage of others for the same purpose. He repeatedly demonstrates to his ordinary compatriots through verbal gymnastics on par with his physical feats, that he can vanquish the forces of evil such as the Demon King and Disturber of the World’s Peace, who “with no weapons” but only a Perraultian dandy’s “red gown and yellow girdle and black boots” and “crowd of little demons” is forever “assaulting [Monkey’s] children” (Cheng’en 18). While as monarch he is believed by his monkey subjects to be an emissary of God, to competing powers he is the picaresque interloper whose “satirical view of the public sphere from ground up” and predictably unpredictable adventures and run-ins with authority provide a “comic break from decorum and normalcy with no long-term repercussions” (Ardila 76) as he undertakes his search for the holy writings “needed to release countless souls trapped in hell” (Chua para 5).

To Wisdom’s inquiry of Monkey as to what he has “been learning all this time,” Monkey boasts that he has “mastered the study of the spiritual nature” (15). But his Master informs the disciple he names Seeker of Secrets that there are still dangers that threaten his spiritual journey – those which Cuneo says for the picaro “len[d] themselves admirably to the carrying out of his exploits” in the quest to obtain the liberating palimpsest only hinted at in the Book of Changes and Wordless Scriptures – the latter which Plaks calls the novel’s “final irony” and “rather transparent joke” (9) at Monkey’s name which means “Aware of Emptiness” (Cheng’en 219). Such irony throughout the novel affirms Kane’s assertion that Monkey’s journey to India “is an allegory…for the individual seeking enlightenment” who must first battle “innumerable demons and monsters” (xiii), ones his Master tells him need to be conquered before he is worthy to liberate his nation:

What I teach you is not an ordinary doctrine, for it controls the forces of Heaven

and Earth and the secrets of the sun, moon and stars. When one has arrived at this

stage, then one is superior to the evil spirits and the ordinary gods. Still after a

time there will come a thunderclap to try your soul and spirit. If unmoved and

unshaken in the deluge, you will be like Heaven itself. If you doubt, then you

perish. (Cheng’en 15)

The immature Monkey King’s ironic, titan-child hybridity manifests itself to the Master’s equally hybrid delight and frustration, such that the teacher in the space of a few moments beats his disciple “three times on the head” and retires to his chamber in consternation. Monkey comically misinterprets the three strikes on the head as an invitation to wait a short time and then resume his pestering for a blessing he hasn’t earned (Chen’en 14). Sun Wukong’s ignorance of his own ignorance, like that of the immature picaro “passing from master to master” without measurable increases in wisdom, reflects “the protean nature” of the early picaresque genre itself (Katona).

Making landfall after his journey to the Southern Continent on a self-made raft, with the aid of his magical staff Monkey assumes whatever identity or form necessary, as both usurper and deliverer of a race casting far and wide but finding no end in their directionless pursuit of redemption:

There on the beach he saw some men fishing…He went up to them and took

the form and motions of a tiger, and so frightened the people that they ran away

in all directions, leaving behind their baskets and their nets. Finding one who was

unable to run away, he stripped him of his clothes, and put them on as men did,

and walked with dignity across the country. (Cheng’en 7).

By scattering those with able bodies, and denuding the invalid among the company and stealing his clothes, Monkey opportunistically robs those without the benefit of his magic whom he previously judged for seeking after “Food and raiment without work” and not “desiring to repent” (7) of selfishness and sin, while professing himself to seek the hero’s objective of “great intellectual independence” (Cuneo 127) and mankind’s betterment.

Monkey is also able to conquer the antagonistic elements of the supernatural realm to protect his subjects. By chewing one of the “84,000 hairs on his body” that can be transformed into a horde of small monkeys, he overtakes the Demon King and Disturber of the World’s Peace intending to leave “not one demon alive” (19). Monkey’s mastery of “the secret forces of nature,” while wearing the purloined clothes of men and learning “how to become human” (20), and abuse of power for the sake of admiration and self-gratification conjoins the picaro’s romanticism and “the inherent anomie of his world also overlaps with the chaos that underpins the picaresque” (Perez Fernandez 11).

Monkey, “not certain of the degree of his rank” bequeaths himself a number of grand titles, including Equal of Heaven and Old Sun in order to address other rulers “all as equals” (Cheng’en 48). But he “cannot shake off the burden of his lineage” – in his case that of the “low class, fatherless lad” whose lack of a pedigree disallows guaranteed succession so that it appears “upward mobility is not an option” (Ardila 75-76). Haunted by the same specter of social determinism dominating Baroque thinking regarding the poor and working classes, Monkey’s entitlement and impulsivity are formidable obstacles to internal transformation and his “expertise as a deceiver increases with age, as do his audacity and the degree of intricacy and the degree of difficulty of his hoaxes” (76). Lacking the moral compass satirized by the magic needle he keeps behind his ear and uses to make his “loins…as great as mountain ridges” and “his eyes like lightning” (Cheng’en 27), he exasperates authorities attempting to assign a fixed occupation that will cure his aimlessness:

One day he went to the East, another day to the West, mounting on the clouds

without any fixed purpose. Then one day at the morning audience of the Jade

Emperor, an official said, “That so called Equal of Heaven is daily wandering

without anything to do. It is to be feared that some day trouble will arises. It will

be better to give him some work to do.” (Cheng’en 48)

In spite of the vain ranks and titles Monkey bestows upon himself, he is less the sage or god he believes himself to be than the “psychological picaro, one very much concerned with his soul” (Katona 6-7) but lacking in spiritual and moral discipline. Because he views his earthly containment as a form of poverty or imprisonment to be fled, and status something to be grasped at all costs, his aimlessness is symptomatic of the picaro’s “existence without any certainty or truth…full of hypocrisy and instability” painting “a fragmented but valid and realistic picture” of Medieval China as “a society in change” (Katona).

That Monkey is a walking paradox – decisive but impulsive, fleet of foot but wayward of mind and heart – can be seen in Guanyin’s deployment of the golden headband, commanded by Xuanzang as a sort of sword of Damocles should “Aware of Emptiness” become full of himself as he crisscrosses the heavens in the cloud-walking shoes given to him by the Dragon King. Like the proto-picaresque figures Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, symbolizing the dis-integrated hidalgo or Spanish gentleman who is “daring, master of himself” and “capable of enduring the greatest privations,” and the “timorous, discreet, clever, and perspicacious” picaro (Cuneo 127), romanticizing Spanish Baroque conceptions of masculinity, “Restless, rebellious Monkey” (Cheng’en xxvii) possesses a divided nature which “questions authority” (Gasta 38) and “mirrors with his poverty and his adventures, his humor and his sufferings, the spirit” (Cuneo 127) of his time, while also pursuing “the higher aspirations of the soul” of enlightenment and immortality (Cheng’en xxvii).

Though he is not the promiscuous character of Byron’s Don Juan, there is a great deal of symbolism and humor along Monkey’s journey that the picaresque lover would appreciate. The occupation the Jade Emperor gives rogue-hero Monkey in an attempt to fill his idle days is that of tending the Queen of Heaven’s peach orchard in anticipation of her birthday banquet. It is the first instance in the text that female sensuality appears directly, but Monkey as self-styled Great Sage and Equal of Heaven disrespects her feminine dominion and hospitality and seeks to coopt all the longevity and creativity her feminine form represents. Of her peaches he eats all “the ripe ones,” leaving only some “partly eaten remnants” and a few with the suspiciously testicular description of being “hairy and green” (Cheng’en 51). Her narratively imposed silence during such a ravishing pokes fun at his earlier vows to “put off all thoughts of evil lust” (Cheng’en 15), at her expense as he gorges on the plump and blushing fruits meant for her birthday feast. Neither her effeminate fairies or her ineffectual husband are unable to punish Monkey for eating the groves of peaches representing the picaro’s flitting “from one sexual partner to another” (Dudley 101) in pursuit of sensual pleasure:

The Great Sage then pronounced a spell towards the fairies and said, “Stop,

Stop, Stop,” and in this way fixed the body of each of the beautifully robed

fairies. They turned the whites of their eyes and stood transfixed in the peach

orchard. The Great Sage then mounted a cloud and came out of the orchard

and directed his course toward the celestial lake. (Cheng’en 52)

Even after his “climactic battle with the giant of lust in the inn” metaphorized by the Queen’s domain, the “divine provenance of heroes” (Dudley 101) seems to inoculate Monkey-xote against consequences for his penetrations. His flight heaps further scorn on “the false plumage of bestowed honours” and “charitable giving designed merely to keep up appearances” (Ardil 146) contained in the Jade Emperor’s and Queen of Heaven’s assignments and invitations.

Because Monkey “rejoiced exceedingly” (Cheng’en 49) at the queen’s absence and dismissed her loyal workers and his own servants, gorged on the “the ripest peaches” meant for her banquet, miniaturized himself and stripped naked to sleep off his excesses in the trees, and later “drank till he became tipsy” from her wine jars, his defiling of her castle reveals an allegorical fictional landscape intended as the same sort of scathing commentary on “the hypocritical, materialistic standards” (Katona) toward women, labor and the poor that imperial China has in common with the picaro’s Baroque Spanish elite. While comical and transgressive to great reader delight, his ongoing “hilarious tricks” at the expense of leader after leader through locale after locale were likely “not intended to be amusing” at all (Katona), but rather to function as cleverly crafted excoriations of political and royal elites, as revealed in the ease with which he commits and then builds upon his offenses with impunity.

Though Monkey’s escapades appear to be adventures for their own sake, his one undeniable need is to attain the Tripitaka or Buddhist scriptures embodied in the monk Xuanzang, for he and the monk are “two parts of a whole” without which Monkey is “incapable of reaching…the unity of the two selves” (Adams 3) that is the heart of the would-be hidalgo‘s quest. As the picaresque novel is representative of the upwardly grasping scugnizzi or orphaned street youth of the Spanish and Neapolitan lower classes, Tripitaka and Monkey mirror “the metaphorical and literal journey” of the spiritual child or “caricature of a monk” (Adams 2) beset by earthly privations and “defenseless and unprotected against the wickedness of the world” (Katona), who nevertheless remains “committed to Buddhism and dedicated to the journey” (Adams 2) toward enlightenment.

Adams attributes Sun Wukong’s hubris to his “inanimate nature,” having no earthly parents. He argues that this “frees him from attachments and fears” (3), emotions which inform national and tribal myths exalting conformity and blind obedience over individual advancement. Monkey is empowered but also at times stymied by the mini-monkeys of his own creation representing the xin or monkey mind, the internal chaotic state native to the trickster archetype inhabiting national epics from Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, to those of the Pearl Poet and Chretien de Troyes whose Anglo-Saxon grail romances drew deeply from the well of Celtic myth, and whose cycles of repetition and “episodic format…with a chronological sequence” lent themselves purposely to “performed reading in court” (Dudley 62). Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cervantes’ Don Quixote employed the same metafictional juxtaposition of the courtly masquerade with the religious pilgrimage found in Journey to the West’s entourage of miniature monkeys, oppositional demon armies, and indignant fairies. These various mobs arising throughout Journey to the West alternately demand and impede Sun Wukong’s improvement “from his birth to his maturity” (62), attempting through the dialogism of their collective voices to suppress Monkey’s anti-dogmatic and epicurean urges and adjudicate the ‘international incidents’ and skirmishes caused by his enumerated courtly crimes:

You foolhardy monkey, are you not afraid of death? You have committed ten

crimes. First, you stole the peaches, then you stole the imperial wine, and here

you are enjoying these things. Are you not aware that you have committed crime

upon crime?” (Cheng’en 58)

]At that time the Great Sage was drinking wine with his four great generals.

Though he heard these words, he paid no attention to them and said, “This

morning we have wine and we take our fill, and never mind what is outside.”


Monkey King responds to the chastisement of the angry “gods of straw” (58) by transforming three hairs on his head into “a hundred thousand Great Sages” and then recalling “the scattered hair” (59) back again in the cheeky, in-your-face defiance that is the trickster’s stock in trade. That his victorious generals return to him “weeping and laughing” (58) at the same time following his desecration of the divine couples’ home, illustrates that while Sun Wukong wields significant Apollonian administrative and strategic intellect, he also maintains a fragile state of detente over his Dionysian nature seeking pleasure first and then constantly scrambling to turn unraveling circumstances back to his advantage.

McCarthy’s Blood Meridian chronicles a graphically violent, darkly satirical existential journey carnivalizing the romantic myth of the Wild, Wild West. Told through the eyes of the kid, Blood Meridian is on the surface a Western stylization of the scugnizzi or Neapolitan street orphan’s tale bearing “important structural similarities to the Bildungsroman.” It traces the main character’s “moments of self-realization and enlightenment,” “valuable lesson[s] in observation and self-reliance,” and survival by “manipulating or breaking the rules” (Grigsby 26) of institutions of authority under “the ostensibly swaying flag of a colonial manifest destiny” (Holmberg 141). From his birth during the Leonid meteor showers of 1833, and his father’s Miltonic references to the night of his birth as one of “blackness” and “holes in the heavens”(McCarthy 3), his tale suggests a process of initiation into an apocalyptic cosmological landscape through which McCarthy speaks “the discourse of catastrophe and the trope of picaresque survival head-on” (Bartosch 11), specifically that of “a centuries-long campaign of government-sponsored genocide against indigenous peoples” (Alber 8) by both the Mexican and American governments.

In opposition to Monkey’s dramatic birth from a stone egg atop a mountain in the sight of both dragons and gods, McCarthy’s ‘kid’ is 14 years old and “pale and thin,” wears “a thin ragged linen shirt,” and lives in servility to a loveless widower father who “lies in drink” and sees his son as a monster “incubated in [his mother’s] own bosom…who would carry her off” to death in childbirth. The inverse of Monkey’s emergence as a sort of demigod with innate sentience and desire for knowledge, the boy’s father “has been a schoolmaster” who quotes allusions to Miltonic verse, but the kid embodies an obscured historiographic palimpsest in that he “can neither read nor write” and has a face the impassive narrator describes as containing “All history present” and the misdirected scugnizzi‘s “taste for mindless violence” (McCarthy 3). With his face is still “curiously untouched by scars” and his “eyes oddly innocent,” the kid’s flight from home at 14 sets off a succession of disastrous events that prefigure an early and potentially dishonorable demise. As a “solitary migrant upon the flat and pastoral landscape” (4) in the direction of St. Louis, he exemplifies the traditional picaresque adventurer or postwar orphan for whom “there is no home” (Dahlstrom 31) and the unshakeable burden of an ambiguous familial history including a sister that for reasons unknown “he will not see again” (McCarthy 4). He is as yet a “resilient rogue but not a criminal…of low birth or uncertain parentage” moving “from innocence to experience” (Katona) along the bildungsroman or path to maturity.

Among the sea of human faces in St. Louis “whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes,” and siren-like prostitutes – the “whoreson wenches” scorned by Sancho Panza” (Don Quixote XXV) – calling “from the dark like souls in want” (McCarthy 5), he is shot in the back and “again just below the heart” (4) by a grotesquely imagined Maltese boatswain revealing the “refractions of earlier picaresque-like traits appear[ing]” in Homer’s Odyssey as well as Lazarillo de Tormes (Dahlstrom 14). The obliquely sexual ministrations of his wounds and carrying out of “his slops” (4-5) by a tavernkeeper’s androgynous wife are suggestive of the “mean and lecherous hostess of an inn” (Ardila 147) who served Guzman and his companions, and his ensuing boatride to Texas “among other pilgrims” (McCarthy 4-5) are a shadowy promise of the new beginnings the landlocked picaro often seeks “outside his national borders” (Bayliss 388) in order to shrug off the pilgrim’s burdens of generational, familial and national trauma.

Atop a desert signifying the wide ocean upon which the picaresque adventurer might sail, the flawed, formative hero straddles the liminal threshold between subsistence through “petty crime and moral rebellion” for sheer survival, and “striving for self-development accompanied by a quest for a suitable vocation and role in the community” (Golban 130), a theme central to the picaro’s itinerant existence:

He works in a sawmill, he works in a diphtheria pesthouse. He takes as pay from

a farmer an aged mule and aback this animal in the spring of the year eighteen and

forty-nine he rides through the latterday republic of Freedonia into the town of

Nacogdoches. (McCarthy 5)

At this early phase of the picaresque journey, the kid’s dreams appear to be “finally coming true” (Lazarillo VI) as his hard work, “common sense and Castilian sobriety” earn him a “croup of a donkey” (Cuneo 128), a staple beast in picaresque literature. Lazarillo’s cleric employer had also “put [him] in charge of a donkey, four jugs, and a whip,” a swaybacked beast he rode until he could save “enough to buy…a good secondhand suit of clothes” and return the beast of burden in a symbolic act of refusal “to do that kind of work anymore” (Lazarillo).

After the slaughter of the filibusters by Comanches – a carnivalesque horde “half naked and clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream in animal skins and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners” (55) – the kid takes up with the Glanton Gang, genocidal “banded apes” (154) and self-styled Rough Riders collecting human scalps for bounty as they travel the ostensibly postwar “brimstone land of christian reckoning” (55). McCarthy’s purposeful use of the lower case for both “christian” and “brimstone” place heaven and hell on equal and desecrated ground, indicting as well the Captain’s equating his squadron’s extramilitary campaign of ethnic cleansing with a form of “First Crusade…incit[ing] heroic comparisons to Spain’s ‘holy war’ in the New World” (Ardila 233). Themes of bodily fluids, especially blood, indict through the microcosmic pilgrim party’s actions, American militarism and imperialism culminating in the attempted erasure of the American West landscape of those rejected by its hegemonic vision. Grotesque Orientalist referents of postmortem desecration through sodomy, castration, and scalping present a hyperbolic, sadomasochistic backdrop exposing the “disordered, disintegrating world” (Katona) of the American West during the Mexican-American War:

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 their grinning mouths. In their wigs of dried blood

they lay gazing up with apes’ eyes at brother sun now rising in the east. (159)

Scenes of such graphic slaughter throughout the novel expose the fallacy of the picaro as romantic wild man possessed of supreme free will, or even the Don Juan-esque “Baroque son of a bitch” playing a “part in the epic struggle to save man’s belief in free will.” Rather, the kid is himself the “postcivilized savage” resulting from “society’s mismanagement of human potential,” who by virtue of genealogy remains uncultured, uneducated, and undisciplined so that he “shares a common ground outside of the pale society with the savage” (Dudley and Novak 115) rather than superseding it. The perverse resourcefulness inhabiting the kid’s “sawed down and rebored” (McCarthy 45) rifle beside the Captain’s Spanish dragoon pistols, also resides in the Comanche warrior’s appropriating of “the armor of a Spanish conquistador,” “riding down the unhorsed Saxons” and holding aloft “great handfuls of viscera, genitals” and “blood wigs” (56). By the end of Blood Meridian, the Western soil vomits forth violence from which the young picaro can never be washed, imperialist ground “soaked with blood and with urine from the voided bladders” of animals; the same soil from which springs a tree strung with a garland of babies threaded through their jaws, mirroring the desensitized national body “stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of the war itself” (58).

Following the massacre of the filibusters and seeing Captain White’s “drowned and sightless eyes” displayed floating in a jar (McCarthy 73), he disavows connection to his decapitated former employer and accepts employment with Judge Holden, “a richly composed portrait of human evil” (Cusher 223) who brings him on as a scalp hunter. The judge, like Milton’s Satan, wields an arsenal of linguistic and psychological and even metaphysical manipulations to establish his own dominion in the place of God in the forsaken garden of the southwestern wastes, preemptively eliminating anyone he sees as competition for the hearts and minds of the gullible unwashed masses he seeks to control. In the revival tent scene early in the novel, his twisting of religious doctrine prefigures a time when he will challenge the kid’s moral integrity in a desert showdown mirroring that of the historical Christ over whom he exalts himself:

Ladies and gentleman, I feel it my duty to inform you that the man holding this

revival is an imposter. He holds no papers of divinity from any institution

recognized or improvised. He is altogether devoid of the least qualification to the

office he has usurped and has only committed to memory a few passages…

(McCarthy 7)

The judge claims like the fornicating archpriest of Lazarillo de Tormes to be saving the people of “the good book” from the preacher’s “false piety,” and charges the man with raping “a girl of eleven years…while actually clothed in the very livery of his God” and “having congress with a goat” – the very nature of sexual perversion of which he “the devil” is guilty (McCarthy 7). The judge as a towering figure stands as the oppositional force to “didactic and dogmatic monolith” of the early picaresque novel, and the reverend as a remnant of “Jews or converted Jews” and other religious “outsiders to the mainstream of Spanish society” marginalized by the “vengeful, hypocritical, self-serving moral degenerate [hiding] behind the pious rhetoric of institutionalized religion” (Katona).

The redemption of the kid – of the picaro who perhaps loses a measure of his honor as Guzman did in marrying the archpriest’s mistress – will not be through obtaining “a secure job as a town crier” (Gasta para 2) who announces to post-picaresque posterity in the fashion of Browning’s Pippa that “God’s in His heaven – All’s right with the world!” The irony of such an impossibility is foreshadowed in an ironic serenade “through the narrow walled streets toward the gates” of a Mexican camp by a “watchman at his rounds [who] passed them with his lantern calling softly the hour” (McCarthy 109). In fact unlike Lazarillo, for whom “competition over food” with a priest “likens itself to a religious battle,” there is no clear “illuminative experience” (Lazarillo) before the ex-priest Tobin in which he renounces the scalper’s grotesque occupation. It is in a rare but recognizable moment of mercy when he refuses to shoot the Delaware Shelby in the desert after he “had his hip shattered by a ball,” even though he knows Glanton will likely kill him for it. It is in the next moment when he gives the dying man water, and only rides off when he is “staring up at the sky” (McCarthy 216) in death or resignation to it. Such moments as these in which sparing of a wounded comerade – one arguably doomed to a fate worse than death at the hands of encircling enemies – in their poignancy fuel the pathos by which the reader sympathizes and perhaps even defends the picaro’s actions.

The theme of the palimpsest – described by de Groote as “a trope for memory and absolute origins that can not remember its origins” (110) – arises out of “the haze of history” loosely fictionalized throughout Blood Meridian, in the sacred cipher the kid carries into the wilderness confrontation with the judge prefigured at the novel’s beginning:

By now he’d come by a horse and a revolver, the rudiments of an outfit. He

worked at different trades. He had a bible that he’d found at the mining camps

and he carried this book with him no word which he could read. In his dark

frugal clothes some took him for a sort of preacher but he was no witness to

them. (McCarthy 325)

Though the kid is illiterate, his friendship with the ex-priest Tobin (not unlike Monkey’s with Tripitaka), his father’s knowledge of astronomy and eschatological poetry, and his mother and sister’s grief-shrouded “disappearance[s] into time” (de Groot 116) have actually imprinted upon his suffering-seared consciousness the palimpsestic potential for “a perspective on time and memory” replacing the profane with the sacred; one which “in effect amounts to a second possible reading of the palimpsest” of his previous history and “an alternative configuration for remembrance” (122) located in a hopeful world beyond the picaro’s tragically brief and marginal existence.

Blood Meridian’s kid is the violent mirror of America’s romanticized rugged individualist, the neo-picaro who as both agent and casualty of the opening of the West, represents the “post-civilized savage, the result of society’s mismanagement of human potential” (Dudley 115) for its unquenchable internal and external imperialist ambitions. His rape and murder by the piglike Judge Holden outside a saloon and brothel could easily be called a fitting end for the “antisocial force” and walking “confrontation with the problem of savagery” (116) that is the picaro’s darker milieu, or just makes him the inevitable victim-mirror taking into himself in the most dehumanizing fashion “the full force of the trauma inherent in Southwestern history” (Alber 8).

But there is also the possibility that something in the sacred palimpsest found in the mining camp, or in Tobin’s coarse proselytizing, or even his father’s cryptic poetics sublimates the picaro’s “anguish and despair” (Katona) into hope beyond death. For Monkey, the irrepressible national forerunner to Neo-Confucian China, his journey west for the Buddhist scriptures leads to his repentance and deliverance “out of prison” (Cheng’en 19) and into “glory indescribable” (224) in Buddha’s presence.

Their very different outcomes notwithstanding, both protagonists evidence traits of the picaro demonstrating his defiance of both literary and geopolitical limitations. Monkey, who “feared death” and “rejoiced and clapped” to think he could “escape the net of reincarnation by transmigration” (Cheng’en 6), and the kid born amid the heavenly cataclysm who could not kill a man repeatedly calling him a “son of a bitch” (McCarthy 217), both exemplify the picaro for whom “to be alive was the essential principle” (Cuneo 125). Monkey’s lonely raft trip west, and alienated travels between earth and sky, and the kid’s journey through the American Southwest first on mule and then horseback, both reflect the picaresque wanderer’s desire to transcend the limits of human society locked in “a constant state of chaos, war and misery” (Cheng’en Introduction), through resourcefulness and tenacity seizing whatever means available to achieve “Renaissance mobility” (Katona) in pursuit of freedom and existential meaning. The complex national dynamic resulting from the tensions between China’s Taoist and Neo-Confucian traditions, and lingering political feudalism seeking to control both sects, facilitated an intellectual and artistic national rebirthing metaphorized in Monkey’s metaphysical journey through restlessness and worldly insecurity toward enlightenment – the heroic quest to reach the Immortals and rejoin humanity and rescue the conjoined twin virtues of reason and free will amid China’s “synthetic stage of her social-geographical development” toward the “national union….as much territorial as spiritual” (Cuneo 125). Like Lazarillo de Tormes and Guzman de Alfarache, both overcome obstacles and vanquish enemies mirroring their own inner conflicts, and also achieve individual national notoriety en route to fulfilling their culturally heterogeneous conception of the romantic quest. Both are the picaro, a recurring ‘typo humano generico’” (quoted by Willis) owing no allegiance to national, cultural or temporal boundaries.

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