This paper was presented at the Western Literature Association’s 2018 conference in St. Louis, Missouri.
Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian and Rockstar’s 2010 video game Red Dead Redemption serve as two juggernauts of the Western genre. Literary critic Harold Bloom said in an interview with The AV Club in 2009 that he considered Blood Meridian as the ultimate Western that “culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have”. Writing for All Tech Considered, Jason Sheehan says Red Dead is his favorite Western because it is all westerns, that “there is no trope, no archetype, no theme or motif that it doesn’t lift, polish and spin into its huge tale of love, violence, revenge and salvation.” While the Western has its fair share of trademarks, it’s important to note that the rules or lack thereof which govern the prairies, frontier towns, and open spaces found in Western fictions remove regulations and limitations on people to show how they act when no one’s watching, no one gets punished and no one gets hurt.
This paper will argue that within the framework of effective anarchy, both Red Dead Redemption and Blood Meridian insist upon violence as a constant quality of the human condition, one which humanity cannot totally extinguish. This idea also opens ups video games as a new frontier by which to judge human action and character.
The Western features prominently in the collective American imagination as a violent, lawless place regardless of the historical accuracy of that claim, which makes the genre as a whole akin to a reskinning of the state of nature imagined by Thomas Hobbes in his opus Leviathan. In fact, the lack of law, or the diminished capability of law enforcement, directly translates to Hobbes’ imagined state without social contracts where he famously said life was, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Blood Meridian espouses these ideals and despite its status as one of the most important pieces of literature of the 20th century, it is also one of the most overtly violent novels ever written.
The novel explores its violence primarily through its enigmatic, seemingly omnipotent, sometimes supernatural, and vicious Judge Holden. Bloom notes “The Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake.” To put the judge’s bloodlust into perspective, his most famous monologue in the book declares the idea that war, that most violent of man and animal’s institutions, is god. When another character named Irving challenges the idea that might makes right, the judge articulates his resolution further with the idea that nature, specifically the rules and laws of nature, supersede anything as frail and flimsy as human morality.
“Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak… 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.” – Judge Holden(McCarthy 261)
Natural law, defined in Judge Holden’s terms, here then sits atop a hierarchy of various forms of law, and this natural law again reifies the idea of the state of nature as an inherently violent place. Holden sees nature as foundational as opposed to human constructs like morality and spirituality which do not have the same staying power. Nature serves as the “higher court” he mentions. The judge has little regard for the temporary quality of human constructs throughout the novel, as seen in his pursuits of the natural sciences, archaeology and geology, preoccupations that hint at his adherence to a nihilistic philosophy rooted in the concept of deep time.
It’s also important to note that Holden sees war as natural rather than a human construct: “It makes no difference what men think of war,” he says. “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.” Not only has war, like the world, existed long before humanity, but it will exist long after the species has gone extinct as well. Violence then becomes inscribed by McCarthy not only as something natural, but as reiterative and eternal. Avoiding violence hardly becomes an option in a Hobbesian state of nature. Here, conflict is inevitable as individual actors scramble to survive in constant competition for resources with no governance created by the individual actors for the regulation, safety and guarantee of certain rights. This state of anarchy then can only be remediated by constructed laws, though the judge insists the underlying code of law – natural law – not only still exists but serves as the suzerain (to use his own words) over any other law codes which we may impose upon ourselves.
Holden executes this twisted philosophy at various points throughout the book with abhorrent instances of violence with little to no reason given for his brutality. In his first appearance, he riles up a mob on an itinerant preacher by accusing him of bestiality. After finding an orphaned boy, Holden takes him in and cares for him only for the gang to find the boy’s neck snapped the next morning with Holden being the obvious suspect in his murder. He buys a basket full of puppies only to throw them into a raging river for another member of the gang to use as target practice. It’s strongly hinted that he’s a rapist and a pedophile as young children often go missing in whatever town he and the gang happen to be travelling through. Holden commits this evil on a whim, solely because he can. But in point of fact, his violence could be described less as works of malintent or evil, but more aptly as misdeeds of pure apathy and sociopathy, as total disregard for the individuals who live in an existence far too large for the tom understand, comprehend or appreciate. But as Holden says, “that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.” The judge alone sees the underlying thread of order within the tapestry of existence, and as such he can now act as any other force of nature: random, magnitudinous and devastating.
Here now, we move onto Red Dead Redemption. John Marston is one of two characters the player uses over the course of the game, and his story makes up a majority of the narrative which takes place in 1911 primarily on the border of fictionalized versions of the United States and Mexico. The US government, represented by two shady figures named Edgar Ross and Archer Fordham, have coerced Marston into tracking down and killing or apprehending members of his former band of outlaws the Van der Linde Gang by arresting and detaining Marston’s wife and son. Over the course of the game, the player learns that Marston committed heinous crimes as part of the Van der Linde Gang, killing hundreds of people, robbing dozens of trains and over 40 banks, and causing untold chaos across the West. However, after one such excursion went awry for Marston, he left the gang with one of the gang’s working girls named Abigail, married her, had a son named Jack, and tried to get away from his life of crime by buying a farm.
A recurring theme throughout the game is Marston’s goal to do the government’s violent bidding as a way to return to normalcy to become a better person. In short, he wants redemption for the life he once led. He says at one point, he “tried to stop… [he] tried to go straight,” but he also recognizes his nature as a violent man in a different conversation, saying “I’m an uneducated killer, sent here to do all I can do well. Kill a man in cold blood” (Rockstar). Marston has no illusions about his violence, but he also shows a commitment to his status as a changed man, insisting that the killer inside him is merely a part of his past that he has had to excavate to get his family back.
After Marston kills two of the men on his hit list in Mexico and confronts and all but kills the leader of his former gang, Dutch van der Linde, the government returns his family to him and the game ends under the assumption that they will live their lives happily ever after on their ranch, redeeming the previous evils they had committed by living a life of simplicity and industriousness.
Except the game doesn’t end. Instead, the game continues on for another five or so central main narrative missions. But they don’t involve any train robberies or horse chases or gun fights or quickdraw duels that make up the bulk of the game. Instead, these missions are just John interacting with his family doing things around his ranch that are positively pedestrian. Hunting elk, scaring crows away from the grain silo, delivering corn to a nearby town, stopping a bear from eating his teenage son, buying cattle. Just normal farm activities. The end of the game is exceptionally memorable in that it features little violence after a blood-soaked campaign across the Old West.
And then comes John Marston’s final mission. Well over 100 soldiers and federal agents swarm Marston’s homestead with the sole intention of killing Marston. In one of the most memorable scenes in the last decade of gaming, John puts his wife and son on a horse after they get cornered in a barn and sneaks them out. Then, he opens the door to the barn to see roughly 20 soldiers with their guns trained on him. As soon as the player tries to fire a single shot, they release a barrage of bullets into him. John Marston takes his last wheezing, sputtering breaths before dying in the dirt. His wife and son return after the soldiers have left and bury him.
There is no redemption for John Marston. He dies as he lived, with a gun in his hand, gallons of blood in the immediate vicinity, and innumerable men dead by his hand scattered around him. For all of Marston’s talk about his ability to redeem his old life, he never truly gets the opportunity to change. Violence defined him as a person to the extent that the government agents felt they had no choice but to kill him despite the services he did for them. It recalls Marston’s final showdown with Dutch, who believed surrender and transformation were impossible for him despite his own misgivings about who he is as a person. “We can’t always fight nature, John,” Dutch says, just before jumping off a cliff to his death. “We can’t fight change. We can’t fight gravity. We can’t fight nothing. My whole life, all I ever did was fight… But I can’t give up, neither. I can’t fight my own nature.” (Rockstar) For Dutch and for Marston, violence is intrinsic, necessary and all-consuming. It both gives them the means to live their lives and it eventually leads to both of their undoing. But it is also immutable, constant and inescapable. As much as Marston may wish to not be violent anymore, his mere capacity for violence makes him one of the most dangerous men in the West as the hundreds of non-playable characters the player kills over the course of the game could attest.
Yet, the game still does not end there. As the camera focuses on Marston’s grave, it pans to the right only to show Abigail’s grave… with her death year coming three years after her husband’s. The player takes control of a slightly older Jack and goes on a series of missions to find and kill Edgar Ross, the government agent primarily responsible for his father’s death. In this respect, John’s violence has re-embodied itself in his son, further illustrating violence as reiterative, generational, and eternal. It recalls the final paragraphs of Blood Meridian where the judge dances and fiddles bathed in the blood of the novel’s protagonist after Holden has brutally murdered him. Holden says that he will never die and that he will never stop dancing, a chilling omen after coming to understand the judge as violence incarnate.
While both Blood Meridian and Red Dead Redemption occur within the framework of the Old West and obey many of the tropes of the genre, it’s important to remember that both of these are products of post-1945 America, and they share a deep distrust in the capacity for civilization to temper or stop violence. As I noted in my analysis of Blood Meridian, McCarthy doubts the capacity for mankind’s self-imposed ruleset to hold any precedence over the Hobbesian state of nature and its Darwinian metagame: natural selection. Red Dead Redemption’s narrative also questions the ability for civilization to override mankind’s capacity for violence. In his book Violence: A Modern Obsession, Richard Bessel notes that the ampllifcation of concern over violence in our contemporary time is “… Not a story of progress, of an irreversible process of the triumph of enlightenment values led by the West into peaceful uplands where the rest of the world someday may follow. The explosions of violence across Europe during the first half of the twentieth century… have demonstrated that the protective shell that ‘civilization’ provides is less solid than many would like to think.” (280) Civilization then becomes not a mitigating factor in reducing violence in Bessel’s eyes, and in the opinions of many others whom he cites, it is merely another instigator of violence especially when it comes to the supposed need for Europeans and Americans to spread it into lands and among people perceived to lack civility. To feed into this ideal, Blood Meridian in its most basic reading can be seen purely as an indictment of American Manifest Destiny, and Red Dead Redemption heavily criticizes the concept, as well. One admirable character in the narrative calls it “hogwash” and a secret achievement in the game called Manifest Destiny is only granted to the player after the player kills every single buffalo in the game, tying the expansionist belief not to enlightenment or elevation, but to massacre and the destruction of innocence.
It’s fitting too that one of the “defenders” of civilization in Red Dead is a primary antagonist of the narrative. At one point late in the story, Ross digresses with a tangent that feels as though it’s pulled straight from the pages ofs Leviathan. He says, “While the rules may not be perfect, they’re really not so bad… I’ll tell you what the alternative is. It’s not complicated. It’s about one man and his gun versus another man. Sure, civilization may be dull, but the alternative, Mr. Marston, is hell.” Civilization has not prevented Ross himself from becoming an incredibly violent man. While he seeks to protect the provenance of civilization, he also commits barbarous acts throughout the narrative, including the cold-blooded murder of Marston despite the latter no longer being a threat to that which Ross cherishes. And throughout the rest of the narrative, Rockstar’s writing staff seems hellbent on denouncing the transformative capacity of civilization.. Even John Marston falsely believes technology, progress and civilization will redeem people and keep them from violence, saying that the coming of a new age will prevent his own son from following in his footsteps. “He’s a good kid. He can be whatever he wants to be. He ain’t gonna be no frontier gunslinger, killing and running in no gang though. That way’s over. Railroads and government and motor cars and everything gone and done away with all of that.” However, we know by the end of the game that Jack has become exactly what his father is: a violent man, driven solely by revenge. Civilization could not even save him from what his father was.
However, Red Dead Redemption not only explores this theme from a narrative framework, but it also examines the relationship between violence and the player, the participant in the game. Video games are a fairly unique medium in that those who imbibe the physical product do not have the passivity of a novel reader,a music listener or a film or TV viewer. Instead, the player takes an active role in the narrative, and Red Dead pokes fun at the player’s own violent acts and tendencies throughout the game. One piece of dialogue between Marston and his son underscores this metacommentary of the game.
Jack: “Is there anything you don’t like shooting, pa?”
John: “Well, I ain’t met the thing yet, but soon as I do, I’ll let you know. You can even put it in one of them books you read.”
Jack: “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that… ‘The Day John Marston stopped shooting’.”
John: “Now, I ain’t no literary man, but I don’t think that’ll sell. People like shooting in them things.”
Jack: “I think you may be right, there, pa.”Rockstar
Both the older and younger Marston men come to the conclusion that people like violence in a fictionalized setting. Red Dead, like Blood Meridian, posits questions about the human condition using a setting, the Old West, where less overt and present forms of law enforcement grants the characters within them near total freedom to make choices they would not make with so many moral or legal limitations that another setting would place on their actions. Video game spaces act in the same way as the frontier. Gamers, especially in a game like Red Dead Redemption but in several other games and genres as well, exercise their capacity for violence much more willingly than they would in the real world. Take a game I’m playing now, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey which shares many open world elements with Red Dead. When I’m approaching a fort filled with 20 enemy soldiers, the question is not whether or not I should kill all of them, the question is solely how I should do it.
This isn’t to say that video games make people violent though. Bessel does not believe that an increased spectacle for violence has resulted in more of it. He writes, “People in recent decades may have viewed increasing quantities of simulated death and fake blood, but this does not seem to have been paralleled by enthusiasm for participating in ritual murder or viewing real blood. It is one thing to watch a scripted and staged spectacle of violence… however… it is quite another to watch someone being beaten to death” (35). Instead, the much more damning conclusion of why we like violence in our games, our movies, and even our novels is that violence has existed in the hearts of humanity for a long time. Well before there was violent media, there was violence of scale and severity which few works of fiction could ever touch. I said earlier that Blood Meridian is one of the most violent books ever written, but it pales in comparison to the brutality executed upon the Native peoples of this continent or the Holocaust or the brutality of Genghis Khan or the mass human sacrifices of the Aztecs. The sports we see as violent now — even MMA, boxing and American football — are nothing compared to the sport killings of men and animals in the Roman Colosseum. If we can manage to confine our violence to a virtual space where the repercussions and consequences of violence are meaningless, not only for the perpetrators of violence but its victims as well, that’s a damn sight better than allowing it into the real world. As people, we need to recognize violence not as a separate entity, but that the capacity for violence is an integral part of the human condition. As John Marston teaches us, there is no possibility for the redemption of our shared violent past. It is a part of ourselves we must live with, and only through recognition, understanding, and acceptance can ever hope to contain it. Because the truth of the matter is that there’s a piece of Judge Holden inside all of us. And he will never die, and he will never stop dancing. But that doesn’t mean we have to play his song.