Thursday, February 3, 2011

Freemasonry and Death/Rebirth in Blood Meridian

In my last post, I wrote that the Masonic symbolism in the last part of chapter 22 coincides with the occasion of one of the protagonist's several death/rebirth scenes in Blood Meridian, i.e., when the protagonist actually is born or dies, or when the "child" dies in order for the "kid" to be born in the first pages of chapter 1, or when the "kid" dies in order for the "man" to be born in the last part of chapter 22. But Masonic language and symbolism surround also the other occasions. Hence Masonic symbolism could be taken as a sign of his death/rebirth scenes in Blood Meridian.

Masonic "Coffin"

In "Cormac McCarthy Crosses the Great Divide"(2004), Don Williams writes that McCarthy used to live in "a modest house on El Paso's Coffin Street. He could scarcely have chosen a street with a name better suited to his early reputation, and there are those who believe it was a calculated choice ..." This is an indication that McCarthy regards symbolism as significant, in his life as well as in his art. Those whom Williams refers to might readily believe the coffin is a sign of McCarthy's "nihilistic visions", a term Williams uses later in the article, but there is also a Masonic sense of "coffin" that has a resonance in Blood Meridian.

Under the entry for "Coffin" in Mackey's Lexicon of Freemasonry:
Coffin. In the ancient mysteries, the aspirants could not claim a participation in the highest secrets until he had been placed in the Pastos, Bed or Coffin. The placing him in the coffin was called the symbolic death of the mysteries, and his deliverance was termed a raising from the dead. Hence arose a peculiarity in the Greek verb teleutao, which, in the active voice, signified "I die", and in the middle voice, "I am initiated." ancient writer: "... teleutan is to die, and teleisthai to be initiated." The coffin in masonry is an emblem of the Master's degree....
It is interesting that the Greek verb "teleutao" is used to mean one thing as well as its opposite: "to die" as well as "to be initiated", which is synonymous with "to be born", and the Masonic use of this term is compatible with the notion that every death necessarily entails a rebirth, a theme of Blood Meridian.

Traditional Freemasonry, or the Ancient Craft Masonry, has three degrees, consisting of:
first degree - Entered Apprentice;
second degree - Fellow-Craft;
and, third degree - Master Mason.
The notion of death/rebirth in going from one degree to the next allows the correspondence of Blood Meridian's protagonist's three identities with traditional Masonry's three degrees:
child = entered apprentice;
kid = fellow-craftsman;
and, man = master mason.
Freemasonry later added higher degrees, to a total of 33; both 3 and 33 are significant numbers in Blood Meridian.

Masonic "Seeing" And "Recognizing"

Under the entry for "Seeing" in Mackey's Lexicon of Freemasonry ,
Illuminated by its divine rays, the Freemason sees where others are blind; and that which to the profane is but the darkness of ignorance, is to the initiated filled with the light of knowledge and understanding.

Blood Meridian begins with the backstory of the protagonist's birth in "the night the stars fell", which are the "illuminated" "divine rays", as the father "looked in the blackness", which is the "darkness of ignorance". "See the child", the narrator's imperative that starts the novel, takes on the Masonic meaning, "Regard the protagonist as an entered apprentice Mason".

Under the entry for "Recognition, Modes of": Recognizing means presenting some kind of secret test, unknown to the uninitiated, in order to distinguish a Mason from a non-Mason. But there is an alternate sense of "recognizing". The language for rejection of a candidate for a higher degree contains this other sense. Under the entry for "Vouching":

[The] decree [of rejection is to] be uttered in general terms, such as, "I am not satisfied," or "I do not recognize you," and not in more specific language, such as, "You did not answer this inquire ," or "You are ignorant on that point."
In other words, "I do not recognize you" means "I reject your candidacy to the next degree of Masonry". Consider these senses of "seeing" and "recognizing" and note the repetitions of "see" and "recognize", the act of not answering the inquiry, and the echoed wordings in "ignorant"/"ignored" and "point"/"disappointment", in the scene in Griffin when Holden and the man meet (BM 328):

Was it always your idea, he said, that if you did not speak you would not be recognized? You seen me. The judge ignored this. I recognized you when I first saw you and yet you were a disappointment to me. Then and now.

The scene could be read in this Masonic way: Holden asks the kid who has just turned man, the fellow craftsman who has just turned master mason, whether he thinks he could be initiated into a higher Masonic degree if he does not satisfactorily answer the inquiry. The man responds brusquely that since Holden already has an illumined understanding of him, he needs to say nothing more. Holden, offended, responds to the man's obstinacy by reminding him that when he first met him in Nacogdoches as a child who had just turned kid, the entered apprentice who had just turned fellow craftsman, Holden initiated him in spite of his reservations at the time. Now, Holden once again has reservations, except that this time the man has shown disrespect, which is unacceptable to Holden.

Masonic "Beehive"

The man meets his physical death (implied) in the jakes of the Beehive. McCarthy uses the beehive to draw an analogy between the mindlessness of the individual dancer to the communal dance and the mindlessness of the individual drone bee to the swarm. But "beehive" also has a Masonic sense. Under the entry for "Beehive" in Mackey's Lexicon of Freemasonry:

Beehive. An emblem of industry appropriated to the third degree [of Freemasonry]. This is a virtue ever held in high esteem among the craft.... There seems, however, to be a more recondite meaning connected with this symbol. The ark [as in Noah's ark, not the Ark of the Covenant] has already been shown to have been an emblem of regeneration -- of the second birth from death to life. Now in the mysteries a hive was a type of the ark. "Hence," says Faber [in his Origin of Pagan Idolatry, according to the footnotes], "both the diluvian priestesses and the regenerated souls were called bees,..."
The protagonist is in his third identity as the man, and the beehive is an emblem of the third degree of Masonry.

Revelation's Tetramorph At the Death/Rebirth Scenes

As I wrote in a past post, Freemasonry absorbed the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Revelation's tetramorph, with the faces of lion/eagle/bull/man, is present at the death/rebirth scene in chapter 22, and it is present also in the other death/rebirth scenes.

In the beginning of chapter 1, as the child would soon die to give birth to the kid, the backstory of his birth is told: The protagonist was born under the sign of Scorpio during the Leonid showers. Scorpio is a scorpion but is frequently symbolized by an eagle (probably because the nearby eagle constellation Aquila represents the same sector of the sky), and the Leonids are so named because the meteors seemed to originate from the constellation Leo, the lion. Hence, here are the eagle and the lion, two of the faces of the tetramorph.

In the finale scene, McCarthy chooses to set it in Griffin. The mythological griffin is a combination of the lion and the eagle, again, two faces of the tetramorph.

McCarthy chose "Griffin" and "Beehive" for their resonances to Freemasonry, but Griffin was an actual town in Texas, and the Beehive, or Bee Hive, was an actual saloon in historic Griffin, so these choices also have a base in history. Freemasonry too has a basis in the historical background of Blood Meridian ... to be discussed in the next post.

And, Revelation's tetramorph is an iconic foursome which has equivalents in other systems of belief, including astrology, as shown above with Scorpio and Leo, but in other systems of belief as well ... to be discussed in future posts.

And, the Williams article I quoted at the beginning suggests that McCarthy uses elements of his personal life in his art, opening a biographical or autobiographical read of McCarthy's works ... also to be discussed in future posts.

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