I was searching for an old email this morning and stumbled upon a paper I wrote in a political theory
class last year. I thought it would be an interesting blog post because it was an unconventional paper.
While most of my classmates wrote final essays about the political thinkers we had studied, I secured
permission from my professor to write an essay analyzing a character from a great novel he had
recommended to me: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. The analysis is political in some ways,
though, since I read into potential metaphors from the book. Blood Meridian is like many Cormac
McCarthy novels: it depicts constant violence and misery in a matter-of-fact way. Blood Meridian is
beautifully written, and I recommend that my readers give the book a chance. Below, I analyze the
character known as Judge Holden, or simply 'the judge'. The judge is a well-read, sophisticated, and
elegant man of countless talents. He is also cruel and cold, and will execute his vision of justice without
hesitation. I hope you enjoy this essay; more than anything, I hope it convinces you that Blood Meridian is
worth reading. Thank you to professor Anthony Kammas for this great book recommendation.
The Judge’s Process
The judge smiles, sketches, fires, dances, conquers, and smiles some more. He is a man who can slip an ace into his poker hand, confess to it, and still take the winnings. He is at once a mystery and utterly transparent. None appear to fully understand what he is a judge of nor what drives him. However, the judge makes his thoughts and desires known quite often in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Here rests the key to understanding this puzzling character. One is compelled to question: Is he a real judge? How did he learn all of these languages and disciplines? Is he the devil? None of these questions have answers. The judge is not a complete mystery, though. By understanding his process of consuming the world around him, one can understand his place in the world. As a quest to understand the judge, the following essay will trace the judge’s process of consuming the world around him. This essay will describe a critical tension between the wild landscape of the American western frontier and the judge’s desire that everything that exists in the world must exist in relation to him. Second, this essay will describe the judge’s process of studying the world and then deciding what to do with his findings based on the initial premise. The third and longest section will use what was learned from the first two to speak to the nature of violence and what the judge represents.
From early in the novel, McCarthy makes clear the coming collision between the treacherous terrain and its conquerors. Never again, McCarthy writes, “in all the world’s turnings will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay” (McCarthy 5). This metaphor of clay is useful and can help clarify how the judge sees the world. To the judge, everything is either clay or glass. He either destroys it or remakes it in his image. He makes this tension explicit at one point, saying about the terrain “This is my claim… And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation” (McCarthy 207). Understood in the context of the premise that the judge sees everything as either within his domain or opposing it, these words are the unspoken yet earnest words of any conquering force or government. In the most strictly realist terms, there is a zero-sum conflict between what is controlled by one and what is not controlled by one, especially in a world of war and violence, about which the judge has much to say.
For the judge, war is not merely an extreme means to be employed only when diplomacy fails. It is, as he puts it “the ultimate trade” while man is its “ultimate practitioner” (McCarthy 259). The judge further states that “moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak” (McCarthy 261). Upon reading this, one cannot help but recall Nietzsche’s first essay in On the Genealogy of Morals, in which he points out the strangeness of claiming to represent objective moral law as a tasty lamb fearing birds of prey (Nietzsche 44-45). Indeed, the judge appears to subscribe to Nietzsche’s view of the impossibility of a universal morality.
When the judge determines that the existence of something or someone serves no purpose or is counterproductive, he feels no compunction in destroying it. In his ledger, the judge sketches precisely and takes notes regarding a series of primitive artifacts he discovers, then tosses them in a fire. After watching this process, a man named Webster asks the judge what he intends to do with the sketches. The judge tells Webster that “it was his intention to expunge them from the memory of man” (McCarthy 147). Out of context, this seems a peculiar, almost mad thing for the judge to do. However, it is reflective of a broader philosophy on the part of the judge. What some might call ‘wonderful mysteries of the world’ or ‘the unknown’, the judge considers gratuitous pockets of fear and autonomy (McCarthy 207). This is no mentality of a person in relation to their environment, but rather, the judge explicitly states, of an aspiring “suzerain of the earth” (McCarthy 207). Surely no man or assembly of men would ever do something so absurd as to tirelessly catalogue the most minute details of their domain (say, oh, once every 10 years?).
The judge recognizes, as any aspiring suzerain should, that trained followers are as valuable as any possible resource. His versatility as a leader combined with his penchant for extreme violence made none question him, other than the kid, whom he eventually destroyed. In response to some of the members of his gang quoting scripture to him, the judge decides to forge some ‘divine’ wisdom of his own. The judge holds up a chunk of rock, saying that these are God’s words; “He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things” (McCarthy 122). The petty bandits in their rags gathered around the judge, “this man of learning, in all his speculations, and this the judge encouraged until they were right proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools” (McCarthy 122-123). The judge knows that as far as he is concerned, he inhabits an indifferent, ugly world, but he amuses himself by spinning tales of the great divine message offered in natural creations.
Later, on the trail with a volcanic peak ahead, the judge gives a transparently sarcastic sermon, saying that “our mother the earth… was round like an egg and contained all good things within her” (McCarthy 136). Indeed, mother earth is like an egg: one that the judge can smash and turn into something more useful to him. This mockery of a sermon is the pinnacle of the judge flaunting his ability to lie and contradict without consequences.
Throughout the novel the judge speaks of purging the natural world of mystery and excess, and actively carries out this mission by drawing objects he finds useless and lighting them on fire to be forgotten. This ability to lie while being rewarded as a truth-teller is reminiscent of the Ring of Gyges thought exercise in Book 2 of Plato’s Republic. Glaucon describes the exercise as a proof “that one is never just willingly but only when compelled to be” (Plato 1001). While lacking such explicitly magical abilities, the judge is a man of great abilities, including those of deception and rhetoric. This makes the judge’s mockeries invisible to his gang, in a sense, as they shrug stupidly at his contradictions and inconsistencies.
After the sermon, Nonetheless, the judge then “turned and led the horse he had been ridin… (with the others) behind him like the disciples of a new faith” (McCarthy 136). The judge is able to make the gang compliant and useful to his ends, so rather than destroying them, he merely had to tell them tales and make them in his own image as suzerain.
Paradoxically, in the judge’s representation of taming and civilizing the barbarous western frontier of America, McCarthy suggests that it is these so-called vices and the unabating use of violence that actually births civilizations. While the Glanton gang certainly was shaped by the terrain it traveled, perhaps the judge did master the land. But what is more disturbing, perhaps the judge’s use of violence is even more continual than is apparent at first glance.
If violence is to be understood in the way that Walter Benjamin describes it, the massacres of natives and Mexicans are only the start of the judge’s violence. According to Benjamin, violence is a means by which power and the law assert and maintains legitimacy (Critique of Violence, Benjamin 279-280). Benjamin famously stated that “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (On the Concept of History, Benjamin).This latter quote makes clear that the institution of laws and their preservation is a necessarily violent act, especially considering the fact that laws can only be enforced with some kind of violence. Seen in this light, the judge’s continual census of the environment around him via his notes in his ledger constitutes violence. This is not to discount the role of physical violence in coloring the judge as a character.
The physical violence inflicted by the judge is tantamount to the “more original revealing and… more primal truth” against which the comfort of modern life renders us so blissfully ignorant (Heidegger 28). It was the scalping of native heads and forced removal of natives and Mexicans from their land that paved American westward expansion. One could certainly argue that civilization will always require enforcers to maintain the peace. However, one could also argue that civilization will always need censors to maintain the truth. Words can be spun only so well, and the judge is great at it. However, there is no room to deny that the judge’s mission is one of civilizational intent. The inhabitants of the lands of the western frontier of the United States would not behave. The land itself fiercely defied civilized settlement. Though something of an antichrist figure, the judge is also a missionary, and the good word he brings west is as follows: “Die, submit to me, or both.” This message is made clear throughout the novel, but especially when the judge kills and scalps in the night a young Apache boy whom the gang had taken a liking to. The young Apache could just as easily have proved a great asset for the gang in terms of knowledge of nearby tribes and communicating with them if need be. Nevertheless, the Apache boy’s removed scalp was a seemingly greater asset to the judge.
While any strong sense of law is conspicuously absent from the lands depicted in Blood Meridian, this does not mean that the judge teaches nothing about law-making and law-preserving violence. The judge, as a proxy for a civilization’s attempt to institute law in a land resistant to such a project, stands somewhere between law-making and law-preserving violence. The ecosystem in which the judge predates only functions with him as a singularity. His law-making violence and violence authorized by him is the only legitimate violence. His law-preserving violence, namely the sketches and census of his environment, prove equally terrifying to the reader, understood within his broader goal of conquering the frontier with knowledge and force. The relation of these two forms of violence also implicitly calls into question the moral distinctions a reader may make on first glance between the world Americans live in today and the world depicted in Blood Meridian.
If the ceaseless and intimate collection of information amounts to violence, which it does, then the world today may be more violent than ever. What could be more violent than an effectively mandatory demand of one’s most private information by total strangers looking to monetize it? Surely, if he lived in the 21st century, the judge would be a genius with technology, constantly investigating and monitoring the business of others.
Worrisome is the fact that the judge, while endlessly desirous of knowledge for himself, deems it unnecessary for others. “It is not necessary,” the judge says, “that the principals here be in possession of the facts concerning their case, for their acts will ultimately accommodate history with or without their understanding… Words are things. The words he is in possession of he cannot be deprived of. Their authority transcends his ignorance of their meaning” (McCarthy 89). The judge appears to believe that it is his duty to attend to the details of the world while others may simply act out the motions of knowledge without investigation or answers.
In this, but also many other instances, the judge takes on the role of the mythical Grand Inquisitor depicted in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor explains that the masses, if offered freedom, reason, and science, will go into such a chaotic and destructive frenzy that they will beg for the inquisitor and those like him to free them from this knowledge and save them from themselves (Dostoevsky 258). It is the heavy burden of the inquisitor that he must lie to those whom he pretends to serve. However, they are like children to him, and “a child’s happiness is sweeter than any other” (Dostoevsky 259). The judge can be understood as the power and violence from respected institutions, as these institutions dare not divulge all of the information they collect and become aware of. It is the burden of the inquisitor and the judge to know. While intelligence services must constantly prepare for and fear the next cyber-attack, most Americans can spend their days preoccupied with comparably trivial affairs like flipping burgers, delivering packages, or writing college essays.
The judge constantly defies definition. Attempting to define him is tempting nonetheless because he is based on a historical figure (though the spectacular details are exaggerated). He is at once the most civilized and cultured man but also the most barbaric and ruthless one. Perhaps it is best not to understand his pure form at all.
Readers, in desiring a clear definition of the judge as Lucifer or some other kind of demon, are forced into the role of the pitiful many unworthy of the knowledge that burdens the Grand Inquisitor. The character of the judge has received such widespread attention and analysis from the academic community, but there is no clear consensus about just what the hell he is. Readers are teased incessantly with descriptions of him as a great fiddler. He smiles. Oh, he smiles and smiles, more than any sane person possibly could amidst such a brutal existence. “His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die” (McCarthy 349).
The judge ought not be understood as a single figure, deity, or being. He is a force: that of violence in all its forms. Not once does the judge appear uncertain, disinterested, or weak. He stands tall, a monstrosity who looks like no other man does. He constantly observes and catalogues what he sees. He is ruthless in battle: swift and nimble on his feet like a cat but powerful and ruthless like a bloodthirsty shark. No man could possibly prove a match for the judge in battle, for war, according to the judge, contains all other trades, and the judge appears to be an expert in all of them (McCarthy 260).
As an end note, it is worth considering the significance of the kid and the judge. While ultimately nobody, including the kid, could defeat the judge, it seems that the kid successfully resists the deceptions of the judge and sees him as the deceiver that he is. What may be most telling is not the kid’s (and later the man’s) ability to resist the judge, but rather the judge’s reaction to this. The judge never fails to persuade or grab the attention of anyone throughout Blood Meridian, but with the kid, he finds himself either half ignored or regarded with indifference.
In his final conversation with the kid, who had become a man, the judge boasts of how even after war is dishonored, he and honorable men like him will continue to dance the true dance: that of war (McCarthy 344-345). The kid replies with a simple “You aint nothin” (McCarthy 345). The judge persists, explaining that only the man who recognizes and devotes himself to the blood of war dances. The kid responds with fitting final words to the judge: “Even a dumb animal can dance” (McCarthy 345). Having heaved one final glorious insult at the judge, the judge kills the man soon after, in an unexplained but undoubtedly brutal fashion.
The judge values submission to his world above all else. As was stated in the premise of this essay, the judge only sees clay and glass in the world. The kid refused to be clay, so the judge shattered him. The judge in this sense can be seen to represent modern tyrannical governance, especially technologically advanced tyranny, like that rising in China. The ultimate effect of this kind of tyranny is that people cannot exist in contradiction to the society. They are either made into good citizens or killed. This is the logical conclusion of the judge’s mentality. He is limited in his time by a lack of technology, but once everyone and everything can be contained within the ledger, they are made into his subjects, or property.
Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” Totuusradio,
Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” Walter Benjamin On the Concept
of History /Theses on the Philosophy of History, www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear
and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Digital, 2017.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays.
Translated by William Lovitt, Harper Perennial, 2013.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or, the Evening Redness in the West. Vintage
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Ecce Homo. Translated by
Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1989.
“Republic.” Complete Works, by Plato and John M. Cooper, Hackett, 2009.