Many readers of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian are often haunted or disgusted by one of the book’s most fascinating and terrifying characters, Judge Holden. His perverted supernatural presence is rife with unparalleled traits of violence, cruelty, power of intellect and selfishness the likes of which are never visibly expressed as a combination in the human race. The Judge’s brutality towards both his human and nonhuman surroundings are rooted in his belief that war is a means for achieving a certain “unity of existence” that provides him with the capability to compete with the forces at play in the determination of his destiny (McCarthy, 261). The idea of being able to alter one’s fate or to “manifest destiny,” was lauded by Americans who in the mid-nineteenth century were proponents of modernization and expansion westward into the wilderness of North America. By hyperbolizing certain aspects of this worldview in the Judge, McCarthy calls on his readers to critically analyze and question the ideology surrounding the United States’ expansion and exploration westward. While the Judge’s warlike qualities may turn many readers away from the novel in revulsion, they can prove to be an integral component in gaining a critical understanding of the fractured foundations of Americans’ perceived task of exploring, modernizing, and taming the west.
The point in Blood Meridian at which the Judge’s stance towards war and predestination becomes most clear follows, fittingly, a long day’s journey for the Glanton gang through a landscape ravaged by death, violence and destruction (the by-products of war). Gruesomely vivid descriptions of decomposing animal carcasses and a crucified Apache Indian fill the pages that lead up to the Judge’s preachy oration, a foreshadowing by McCarthy of what would become the topic of discussion around the fire that night. The reader’s first impression of the Judge at the night’s gathering is one of a bizarrely boisterous and confident anomaly among the company of weary men. Throughout the entirety of the presentation of the Judge’s stance on war, a strange, Buddha-like smile fails to depart from his grease-coated face, a clear indication of the sense of self-assuredness the audience can interpret in his argument, as well as a certain type of fractured enlightenment that permeates his character.
The reader enters the conversation as the men of Glanton’s gang discuss the Bible and its condemnation of acts of war and violence despite the fact that the book itself contains “many a bloody tale of war” (McCarthy, 259). The Judge argues, “War endures…. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner” (McCarthy, 259). The Judge believes that war is not a human concept or creation, rather, war has always existed, and has always pervaded both the human and the nonhuman aspects of our world. Humans, upon sprouting into existence, become war’s “ultimate practitioner[s],” serving as the vessels through which war, by means of an unsettlingly clear obsession, becomes spread across the lands and thus perpetuated (McCarthy, 259). Many of the men hear the Judge’s words here with contempt, and react with a quiet exchange of whispers and slurs, a curious display of distrust towards the Judge not often exhibited by the soldiers until recent chapters. The Judge sees this as an opportunity to flaunt his skills in argumentative rhetoric. Singling out Davy Brown, he points out in a hauntingly congratulatory manner (“Take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each”) that the very trade he is learned in and exercising among others in the Glanton gang is that of war (McCarthy, 260). After the Judge states that his own actions and paths of study, along with all human trades, “are contained by war,” the Glanton gang pauses to digest his words for a moment as the Judge’s smile twists in the flames.
The crux of the Judge’s argument lies in the final section of his speech. Here, the Judge’s understanding of the relationships between war and predestination or fate becomes much clearer to the audience. The Judge begins by describing a game of chance turned deadly as two participants wager their lives on the turn of a card. Much of the Judge’s language in this section clearly points to how he believes in and understands that a certain higher power governs and determines the fates of all. I shall highlight a few critical phrases in which their language illustrates his stance: “The whole universe…has labored clanking to this moment which will tell…”; “This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate”; “The selection…is a preference absolute and irrevocable” (McCarthy, 260). The Judge also believes that it takes a “dull man” to believe that a wager of life, such as that in the example of the card game, is not a “certain validation of a man’s worth,” and thus does not indicate the intervention of higher powers in the determination of a man’s fate.
In the final lines of his lecture to the Glanton gang (who are at this point lost in the sea of the Judge’s dense and highly academic language), the Judge explains to his audience how acts of war can allow for individuals to ascend to a certain heightened state of existence at which they may compete with the forces which devise their ultimate destiny. Here, his language begins to take on a more religious or enlightened tone. “This is the nature of war,” proclaims the Judge, “whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification” (McCarthy, 261). Essentially, that which is wagered by the “players” of the “game” of war includes the contest itself (the game), the power to alter the outcome of the contest (the authority), and the reasoning behind the choice of such an outcome (the justification). War places “one’s will and the will of another” at odds, forcing the “larger will” that governs fate and also binds these two lesser wills together to make a selection between the two (since one body must emerge victorious and the other defeated) (McCarthy, 261). Individuals who, through the devices of war, push the greater will of destiny to cut short the fate string of the defeated become participants in “the truest form of divination” that the Judge describes here (McCarthy, 261). War becomes both “the ultimate game” and “god” for the Judge, raising him to a state of authority deeply rooted in physical and intellectual violence. This “unity of existence” has benefits that the Judge alone may reap (McCarthy, 261). It is important to highlight in this passage and others surrounding it the sadistic quality of the Judge’s language, particularly his usage of words like “games,” “wagers,” and “play” when discussing heavy topics of war, death, and violence. Davey Brown speaks for the gang as he again criticizes the Judge, whose last words on the topics of war and predestination leave the men in shock. As Glanton’s men and readers ponder the Judge’s dense lecture, both audiences are left hanging on a haunting image: the Judge’s smiling face gleaming with grease and indifference in the firelight.
The Judge’s selfish employment of violence and war as a means for gaining the power and knowledge necessary to pursue personal gratification has served him well. The types of war that the Judge makes with his surroundings are both physical and intellectual. On one hand, he has mastered the art of killing, and flaunts these skills voraciously throughout the novel. On the other hand, his endless scribblings, multilingual abilities, and prowess in intellect illustrate to the audience how he has waged a certain type of “intellectual war” on his environment by pursuing a very human understanding, structurally speaking, of nearly everything that surrounds him.
In an interesting relationship, the Judge’s desires to control or alter the path of his destiny directly parallel those of many American pioneers who championed the concept of “manifest destiny.” These men see it as their duty and their destiny to refine and shape the western wilderness of North America to meet their needs by asserting their authority over its peoples and its landscapes through acts of both intellectual and physical violence. McCarthy chooses the Judge as an individual so deeply seeded in sadism and hyperbole because the most effective way for his readers to grasp the unparalleled cruelty and selfishness of “manifest destiny” and the modernization of western North America is to have these traits become amplified and aggregated in one character.
The Judge represents the antithesis of what many celebrated and published environmentalists, including Paul Shepard, understand as a proper relationship between a human being and his or her surroundings. For Shepard, the nonhuman world is full of patterns and structures that are inherently impossible to grasp in human terms. However, Shepard believes that if the foreign qualities of the natural world are read as metaphorical, they can potentially speak volumes to the mysteries of the human condition (Shepard, 107). The Judge’s physical and intellectual war on nature can be read as the “rage for order” that results from an understanding of the universe as inherently chaotic and violent (Shepard, 106). This manipulation and documentation of both the human and nonhuman leads the Judge to a certain type of fractured enlightenment that garners no symbiotic benefits whatsoever. His power and knowledge blossomed from what Shepard understands as the problematic process of “taking charge of the inner and outer world, either as a tyrant…or as God’s steward” (Shepard, 105). “The symbolic use of nature for conceptualizing human affairs vanishes” for the Judge, causing him to selfishly and violently take advantage of his surroundings strictly for personal gain (Shepard, 105). The Judge, as a steward of his God—War—approaches his relationship with the nonhuman world in a completely backward manner when compared to Shepard’s ideal human being. Where the Judge is selfish, Shepard’s human is selfless. Where the Judge is violent, Shepard’s human is peaceful. Where the Judge mercilessly documents, Shepard’s human meticulously seeks metaphor, poetry and harmony.
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian contains vast depictions of war, selfishness, and manipulation that permeate the actions of the entire Glanton gang. The Judge, perhaps one of the most horrifying and inherently evil characters of twentieth century literature, strikes readers in a different way than any of his counterparts, however. His obsession with intellectual and physical war has driven him to a state of corrupted and self-centered “enlightenment” that places him in a position of absolute authority at the expense of both his human and nonhuman opponents. When analyzed closely, the Judge’s character traits and personal ideology can be read as parallel to manifest destiny and the philosophies that saturated the westward drive of the American spirit in the mid-nineteenth century. From our understanding of the stance of celebrated environmentalists and philosophers such as Paul Shepard, we may gather that the Judge, and thus the collective mindset he represents, both have operated under a flawed understanding of the true “unity of existence” that pulls all things living and not living, human and nonhuman, together in an ultimate symbiosis that benefits all.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York: Random House, 1985.
Shepard, Paul. Nature and Madness. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1982.