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Violence and Redemption in Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be

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Violence and Redemption

In the profound book The Powers That Be, author Walter Wink reflects on the theme of “redemptive violence” and states that: “The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right”. McCarthy’s intense Western novel Blood Meridian reveals that violence cannot save someone from evil, and the belief in “redemptive violence” is unrealistic and absurd. McCarthy’s world is a world without God. Without the basis of a faith, there is no possibility of redemptive violence. Many reviewers have determined that McCarthy’s violence is shown in a way that cannot be described as just “evil”, but McCarthy presents his violence in a context that shows that violence is not necessary for or rewarding to human beings. It is not possible for violence to be redemptive, and there are many events within Blood Meridian that prove violence to instead be destructive. When all the context of violence disappears, the violence is neither redemptive nor destructive. Through the characters of Glanton, Toadvine, and the Judge, Cormac McCarthy shoots down the possibility of violence being redemptive and emphasizes that when all is said and done, violence just is.

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Through the character of John Glanton, ex-soldier and leader of his gang, McCarthy proves that violence is not redemptive. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is set in the era of manifest destiny, which represents the idea that American settlers were fated by any means necessary to expand and colonize the western part of the continent. However, through Glanton, Cormac McCarthy shames the idea of manifest destiny. Glanton and his gang kill for survival. Walter Wink writes in The Powers That Be, “Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts.” The origins of Glanton’s violent actions have no correlation with westward expansion. It is not possible for violence to be redemptive without context. Glanton’s violence is simply “what works”. There is no reason or factors that back up his rampant killing and merciless scalping except for the occasional survival. During the gang’s journey, Glanton and his men pass through the Gileños camp. The Gileños act peaceful, do nothing to provoke Glanton and his gang, and yet the men ruthlessly raid the campground. McCarthy describes the scene: “Women were screaming and naked children and one old man tottered forth waving a pair of white pantaloons. The horsemen moved among them and slew them with clubs or knives… Glanton and his chiefs swung back through the village… hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy” (162). The motivation behind Glanton’s random violence is lost. Manifest destiny, faith, or survival plays no part in the gang’s killings. Through Glanton, McCarthy proves that without context violence just is.

Through the character of Toadvine, another member of Glanton’s merciless gang, McCarthy confirms that violence without context is insignificant. Toadvine, unlike many of the other criminals that he travels with, in fact shows a slight sense of humanity during his time with the gang. But even with the small portion of compassion, he does nothing to stop the violence or remove himself from any violent situation. This emphasizes McCarthy’s ideas that violence cannot be redemptive, and that violence just is. One example of Toadvine’s strange appearance of sympathy is his interaction with the small Apache boy that the men take into their care. McCarthy describes the scene: “The Judge sat with the Apache boy before the fire and it watched everything with dark berry eyes and some of the men played with it and made it laugh” (170). Toadvine and the men enjoy the stranger’s company but, “in the morning the Judge was dandling it on one knee while the men saddled their horses. Toadvine saw him with the child as he passed with his saddle but when he came back the Judge had scalped it” (170). This casual act of violence strangely upsets Toadvine, and he pulls out his pistol and says to the Judge, “Goddamn you, Holden” (170). Toadvine seems furiously confused as to why the Judge had killed and scalped the innocent young boy. When the entire context is stripped away from the scene Toadvine simply lets random violence happen, and he soon forgets about the instance and, at the Judge’s orders, puts his gun away. The Judge is also representative of the myth of redemptive violence.

Judge Holden, perhaps the most vicious killer traveling alongside Glanton’s gang, is a character that enriches McCarthy’s argument on the myth of redemptive violence. Holden keeps the gang together. He, in fact, believes that violence is redemptive and he preaches this conviction to his followers. At the base of Judge Holden’s sermons is the idea that war is God. In Blood Meridian, the characters reside in a world without God, so it is easy for Glanton’s gang to believe what the Judge preaches. Walter Wink reflects on this idea, writing that, “In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favor those who conquer.” The Judge believes that the only way to survive and prosper is through violence. He examines the idea that by knowing everything, one conquers everything. Wink also writes, “If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.” To know is to control. Through the Judge, McCarthy shows the destruction of violence.

Many critics argue that the McCarthy’s portrayal of violence in his novel Blood Meridian is shown to be redemptive and necessary. However, set in the era and the ideology of manifest destiny, Blood Meridian implodes the idea of redemptive violence. With the context of religion stripped away from every action in the novel, there can be no possible way that the violence could have a reason or justification. The actions of McCarthy’s characters in his novel prove that the myth of redemptive violence disillusions these warlike men. Walter Wink writes in his book The Powers That Be, “Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our genes. Humanity is not the originator of evil, but merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it.” Wink’s idea parallels with McCarthy’s belief that man is an evil being. Through his characters, McCarthy proves that violence cannot be redemptive, and when all context is taken away, violence simply is.

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