I finished Blood Meridian last night. My only regret is that someone wasn’t there to hold me when it was all over.
The last 50 pages of Blood Meridian read like a bat out of hell. The rest of the book, with its startling sudden rushes of violence, and its long sections of journeying, of weather, of food and water, and horses hooves, and campfires, and mirages … works like a hypnotic drug. You are lulled into the rhythm of the journey, the jostling mules, the constant hunger and thirst … and when violence comes, it feels from out of nowhere, sudden and all-consuming, and you no longer have the reserves to deal with … but that doesn’t matter because here it comes anyway … and after the slaughter, everything slows down again, and the men move on. The individuality of the participants is not the main focus. For the most part (with notable exceptions), they all blend together.
The book starts by following in the footsteps of “the kid”, a 16-year-old sharpshooter who joins up with the mission. Soon “the kid” falls away from the narrative. The narration has more of a Biblical omniscient tone than a recounting of a personal journey. However, by the end of the book, we realize that all of that omniscience has just been a respite. A very long bloody genocidal respite. And we realize, by the end, that it is the Kid who has been leading us through all along. It is the kid who is the key to the entire story. He seems indistinct for most of it. Other characters (like Jackson, the black man, and the expriest, and Glanton, and, of course, the Judge) have more vibrancy and specificity. We remember them. We forget that it is through the kid’s eyes we are seeing these other characters.
The similarity to Moby Dick here is obvious. Ishmael begins that book, in an openly first-person sentence, even a request of the reader: “Call me Ishmael.” It’s a simple sentence, but it contains worlds of mystery. He does not say “My name is Ishmael.” He says “Call me Ishmael.” Call you Ishmael? Is that not your real name? It is Ishmael’s journey, his thoughts and feelings and responses that get us into that story. We don’t just meet Queequeg, we meet Ishmael’s version of Queequeg. We don’t see anything that Ishmael doesn’t see. We follow him around. But then, once on the ship, all of that changes. Ishmael fades into the background, and Captain Ahab emerges. Captain Ahab rarely comes on deck. He’s not a Jack Aubrey type of Captain, omnipresent, working alongside his men. No. Captain Ahab stays in his cabin, brooding over his plans of revenge. So there is no way that Ishmael would know about Ahab’s private moments, his nighttime walking on the deck, for example, and yet we hear about it anyway, as though we are privy to the inner workings of Ahab’s mind. Ishmael has disappeared. He does reappear from time to time, and he wrenches the narration back into his voice … but it’s intermittent now. It’s not “his” story anymore.
We meet “the Judge” in Blood Meridian very early on. The kid goes to a revival meeting, before joining up with the mission. Suddenly a man bursts into the tent and begins to harangue everyone who is there, informing the crowd that the preacher up on the stage is not a real preacher, he’s a con-man, a schister, wanted in 3 states. All hell breaks loose. This truth-teller is “the Judge”. We don’t realize how important he will be later, although we know that McCarthy is working on something with the character. He is described in detail. His big bald head, his lash-less eyes … It’s an attention-getting debut, to say the least.
The judge shows up later … he always shows up. He remains a mystery, to some degree (in the same way that Captain Ahab remains a mystery. Madness has gotten him. He has no personality, he is just a desire. He is a need, a want).
If you haven’t read the book and you plan on doing so, then stop reading now!
The slow illumination of the judge’s character, and who he is, his essential nature, is one of the thrulines of the book … and to know ahead of time what’s going on with him, and the role he will play would ruin the book for a newcomer. I can only speak for myself. All David said to me was, “The judge! Holy shit!!”
And so as I read the book, as I participated in the genocide, and followed the men westward, my experience of the judge, and how I put him together (because Cormac McCarthy doesn’t show his hand, not until the very end, although we do get clues along the way) was the conduit of dread and hope that, for me, makes up Blood Meridian. And, in the end, it is my OWN response that I want to talk about here because I think it’s interesting. It’s not just the book; it’s what the book did to me that I really want to discuss right now. So the following is only for those who have read the book.
The Judge. He seems to have a moral center. His first entrance into the book speaks to a sense of honesty and outrage that I latched onto. He recognizes hypocrisy in the preacher and he is unafraid to put a stop to it. In such a brutal amoral world, such honesty is refreshing. You can be lulled into a sense of complacency. You feel that perhaps the judge will protect the innocent. That is only my own failure of imagination and privileged 21st century life that would make me think such a thing. That’s what I mean when I say it is my own response that most interests me at this moment. I don’t think of myself as a shallow person or as a person who needs happy endings. I obviously was not “looking for” a happy ending in Blood Meridian. But I did find myself looking for hope. For meaning. For reassurance that human beings didn’t just deserve to be wiped off the face of the planet. There’s got to be SOMEONE who “gets it” in the story, someone who sees the insanity of what is going on and has the foresight to say, “We should stop this.” And so I looked to the judge. Slowly, as the book unfolded, I began to realize my grave error. I had put my trust in this man. And he is a monster. But not an anomaly. It’s not like he’s so much badder than anyone else, or more violent, or more bloodthirsty; why he is a monster is that he intellectually “gets it”. He knows what he is doing, he knows what the human race is doing, and he understands the reasons why. He seems, at first, like a reasonable man: educated, curious, interested in ritual and narrative, telling stories around the campfire. Isn’t that how monsters often operate? It is the perfect cover. The Judge is quite different from the illiterate uncivilized drunken bunch of rapists who make up the rest of the group. I gravitated towards the judge. From the first moment. Anyone who busts up a phony preacher’s con-game is okay by me. It was only later that I realized how I had lulled myself into a state of complacency, even in the midst of the horror. I was sure that someone, somewhere, knew that what was happening was terrible and wrong. I assumed it was the judge.
It was not until the last 50 pages of the book that I realized, startled: No. It was the kid.
And the judge saw that in the kid. Even though we, the reader, are not privy to it. They never interact. But the judge saw the kid’s soul. He didn’t even need to witness an overt action of rebellion on the part of the kid; he saw into the kid’s soul, and saw something there that must be killed.
And you gotta wonder: he has a brief encounter with “the kid” at the revival meeting. Was it “the kid” driving the judge along all along? McCarthy doesn’t say, at least not right away. Did the judge sense something in the kid that made him track him down, follow his footsteps, keep the kid always in his sights? The thought is chilling, when you think of the end of the book. But the judge is like Captain Ahab. In his mind exists worlds of connections and recognitions. He forgets nothing. He puts things together in his mind into a grand and terrible conspiracy. You realize, at the end of the book, that the judge sensed a “clemency” in the kid (and there is nothing in the book that overtly suggests this. This is McCarthy’s genius. The kid doesn’t refuse to shoot someone, he doesn’t turn down a mission, he doesn’t stand out as more moral than the rest. On the contrary, he has receded into the group). But the judge, as has been established, has better eyes than anybody else. He looks at you, and he sees. He sees your soul in its weakness and frailty. He knows his way “in” with everyone he meets. That is a great power. I have had acting teachers and mentors who have such a power of seeing, only they use it for good. The judge? He is on another plane. In a way, he is the greatest source of truth in the book, and that is why he is so terrifying. McCarthy doesn’t let us off the hook. Not for one second does he let us off the hook. You know why? Because that would be a lie. The judge knows it’s a lie. He knows that man is a monster. And that killing is what man does.
BUT. The character of the judge is revealed slowly, inevitably, over hundreds of pages. At first we just see what he does. We see him taking out a sketchbook and doing little drawings of the bugs and small animals and flowers and grass that he sees. He appears to be a curious man. I found it endearing, in contrast to the savages he was surrounded by. He is someone who looks at the remnants of the ancient Indian culture all around them and has some curiosity about it. Great cities were once on the plain, inhabited by sophisticated people … all gone now. The rest of the men in the company have no interest in any of that. They are mercenaries. They are in this for the money. They are beyond the pale of regular society, and they know that. What they are good for is killing. They don’t look around at the world and find beauty in it. But the judge seems to. He sits at the campfire at night, and expansively tells stories, parables. Discussions ensue. The judge is self-contained. He does not grapple for position. He doesn’t need to. Even in his singularity, he is the most alpha male of the group. Everyone defers. He’s not the most macho. Glanton, their commander, is that. Glanton has killed so much that he has gone mad. The judge has killed, too. But he has not gone mad. And why not?
How can someone experience what those men experienced and come out unscathed? It is not humanly possible, and most people, even mercenaries, are touched by what they see, and do. McCarthy shows us that again and again to the point that it almost becomes monotonous. The riders move into a town, their bodies draped with necklaces of human scalps and human ears, and they take over the town, like the bloody savages that they are. They shoot up the place, they rape young girls, they shoot dogs because they bark the wrong way. Look, these men have been living in the wilderness for months on end, massacring whatever is in their way. How are they then supposed to put on a tie and go to a governor’s dinner and dance a minuet with a pretty little lady who has curls down the side of her head? They have X-ed themselves from the world. They have been paid by the government, yes, so in a sense they are legitimate, but they do not fit anymore in civilization.
The kid knows this. His journey at the end of the book shows us that clearly. I was so moved by the section near the end where he sits, no longer a teenager, in his late 20s now, watching a herd of sheep being jostled by on the plain. Some young cowboy types come up to talk to him. The time of genocide is already passing. The Kid wears his necklace of human ears, and the young cowboys ask him questions about it and you already feel that the savagery of that world is receding, no longer necessary. The kid is beyond the pale. He knows it.
And he also knows that he is just biding his time. Until the judge appears again. Because now he knows that of course the judge will find him. There is unfinished business, and with someone like the judge that cannot stand. Captain Ahab can’t say to himself, “Ah, whatever, the white whale took my leg … it sucks … but let me move on with my life.” No. Revenge is his over-arching purpose. He has no other inner life. There are those people who cannot allow “unfinished business” to stand. Stalin comes to mind. Stalin had, like the judge has, two qualities that, when put together, are the most dangerous combination of all: patience and ruthlessness. It is a rare combo, and a killer one. Most dictators only have the ruthlessness. They are impatient, and their impatience brings about their downfall. Stalin was a slow-moving rather lazy man, who was able to tolerate long periods of inaction, of nothing much happening, of him being firmly on the sidelines. The point for him was not to take credit for things (which is what most dictators want, to pump up their egos, which leads to their impulsiveness – their grabbing for too much too soon). Stalin didn’t care about credit, he just wanted to be the last man standing. And so he was. He stands to this day. Look at Central Asia and the craziness that exists. That’s Stalin’s handiwork. He moved stealthily, slowly. He set up grandiose complex structures of plausible deniability. He was the invisible puppeteer. And he could tolerate silence, stillness, and waiting. Patience + ruthlessness? Look out.
The judge is finally revealed, in his horrifying true nature, as the most ruthless and the most patient. He has “seen” the kid. And the kid knows he has been seen. So the 10, 15 years that pass after the judge moves out of his life seem unreal to the kid. The kid knows that what is actually happening in that time is that he’s just waiting. Waiting for the judge to show up again. It is an inevitability. Stalin was able to wait sometimes 10 years to exact his revenge. This is unheard of in a dictator. But Stalin was able to do it. There is a deep eternal mystery at the heart of such a creature.
Because the judge seems to have more recognizable humanity than the other fellows in the group, I found myself hoping. Maybe he’s just interested in bugs and flowers! Maybe he sees himself as a chronicler of an extraordinary time, as awful as that time was. I lulled myself into thinking that perhaps he was one of those “what a work of art is man” types, and who knows why he would choose to be a killer, but money does strange things to us all. Maybe he needed the money. There he sits, sketching the cave drawings they come upon, sometimes prying a piece of rock off of the cliff wall, so that he can have the drawing. He presses flowers in the pages of his journal. He sits off to the side of the group, sitting on a rock, sketching. Who is he? Why is he here? Is he just amazed at all he sees? The thunder, the desert, the constellations? He has traveled farther than most men who lived at his time. He has seen a lot.
But then comes the moment of reveal.
It’s one of the most frightening moments of the book, even with the relentless scenes of slaughter, and blood, and horror. THIS scared me the most. It scares me not just because it’s a scary sentiment, and if you ever met someone in real life who harbors such feelings, your best bet would be to run in the other direction as quickly as possible. It also scares me because I realized how much I had been looking to the judge for answers. He seemed like he knew something. He seemed like he had held on to some essence in the midst of all of that. He was nobody’s fool. He saw the preacher’s hypocrisy and called it out. I liked that in him. I had hopes. I had hopes for the judge. And then comes this:
He pressed the leaves of trees and plants into his book and he stalked tiptoe the mountain butterflies with his shirt outheld in both hands, speaking to them in a low whisper, no curious study himself. Toadvine sat watching him as he made his notations in the ledger, holding the book toward the fire for the light, and he asked him what was his purpose in all this.
The judge’s quill ceased its scratching. He looked at Toadvine. Then he continued to write again.
Toadvine spat into the fire.
The judge wrote on and then he folded the ledger shut and laid it to one side and pressed his hands together and passed them down over his nose and mouth and placed them palm down on his knees.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.
What’s a suzerain?
A keeper. A keeper or overlord.
Why not say keeper then?
Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.
The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. 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.
Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can aquaint himself with everything on this earth, he said.
The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But 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.
I don’t see what that has to do with catchin birds.
The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos.
That would be a hell of a zoo.
The judge smiled. Yes, he said. Even so.
And so. He is revealed. For the first time. On page 198.
The veil was ripped from my eyes, and I realized I had been putting my hope in a moral monster. I had been hoping he was an amateur herbalist and scientist, a man whose curiosity about the natural earth contradicted and also informed his pursuit of the Indians. Yes, he was paid to kill as many as possible. But oh, what a grand people they once were … That is how I hoped he felt. I looked to him to be human. No. That’s not what is going on with him at all. Anything that exists without his knowledge exists without his consent.
The Judge looks at the kid. And he sees something there that exists without his consent.
He will “capture” that thing and smush it between the pages of his sketchbook, if it is the last thing he does.
In the final standoff between the judge and the kid, in the sanddunes, the judge says:
There’s a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. Do you think I could not know? You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen.
The judge’s devotion to his actions are so much more intense than those of the mercenaries, who are in it for the money, or who are so war-crazed that war is all they can do. The judge is beyond everyone, we realize that now.
Only too late. I had gotten caught up in the judge, I had invested in him, and had been duped by him … and found myself trying, desperately, to extricate myself for the remaining 200 pages of the book. No, no, no, get away from me … you monster … you scare me! But he already had trapped me. I was like the kid. I had harbored some corner of clemency and the judge could see me too.
The judge says, near the very end of the book, when he finally meets up with the kid again:
One could well argue that there are not categories of no ceremony but only ceremonies of greater or lesser degree and deferring to this argument we will say that this is a ceremony of a certain magnitude perhaps more commonly called a ritual. A ritual includes the letting of blood. Rituals which fail in this requirement are but mock rituals. Here every man knows the false at once. Never doubt it. That feeling in the breast the evokes a child’s memory of loneliness such as when the others have gone and only the game is left with its solitary participant. A solitary game, without opponent. Where only the rules are at hazard. Don’t look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar which bonds? The judge leaned closer. What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man’s jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward?
Reading the last chapter of the book made me feel an increasing sense of entrapment. My rationality kept wanting to intervene, to say, “Judge, look … just chill … ” and wanting to tell the kid, “Either run for your life, or shoot that motherfucker. Those are your only choices when you are confronted with a Creature such as the Judge.”
But McCarthy is getting at something deeper here, obviously. My response, my yearning for things to make sense in the midst of chaos, is part of it, a huge part of it. The Judge would understand that completely. He would see it.
The judge says:
That man there. See him. That man hatless. You know his opinion of the world. You can read it in his face, in his stance. Yet his complaint that a man’s life is no bargain masks the actual case with him. Which is that men will not do as he wishes them to. Have never done, never will do. That’s the way of things with him, and his life is so balked about by difficulty and become so altered of its intended architecture that he is little more than a walking hovel hardly fit to house the human spirit at all. Can he say, such a man, that there is no malign thing set against him? That there is no power and no force and no cause? What manner of heretic could doubt agency and claimant alike? Can he believe that the wreckage of his existence is unentailed? No liens, no creditors? That gods of vengeance and of compassion alike lie sleeping in their crypt and whether our cries are for an accounting or for the destruction of the ledgers altogether they must evoke only the same silence and that it is this silence which will prevail?
Mr. McCarthy, I bow before you.
I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?
You ain’t nothin.
You speak truer than you know. But I will tell you. Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.
Even a dumb animal can dance.
The judge set the bottle on the bar. Hear me, man, he said. There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone. All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name. One by one they will step down into the darkness before the footlamps. Bears that dance, bears that dont.
As I read it the final exchange between the judge and the kid, I felt I was encountering a great and awful truth. I wanted to hide from it, and talk it away, and maybe argue with it a bit. Instead, it just sat there with me. And it’s sitting here with me still.
It’s going to take me some time to shake off Blood Meridian.