"He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."
Cormac McCarthy's genius ability to mesmerize while horrifying has made me a reluctant fan. His novels challenge in many ways. Sometimes, as with his novel The Road, he goes a bit too far for me. But for all that, the brutality and horror in his work is purposeful and pedagogical and never, never gratuitous.
I've just finished Blood Meridian (a selection for my book club) and I'm still befuddled and bemused and fascinated by it. There are so many facets to this evil red gem that I'll be thinking about it for years. But for now, I ruminate on one particular element.
In Chapter 20, after the Yumas have massacred most of the Glanton Gang at the river ferry, the survivors of the slaughter are gathered around a water hole in the middle of the blistering desert. Toadvine and Tobin the expriest are there, as well as the kid and Judge Holden with the imbecile. Tobin is urging the kid to shoot the unarmed judge, saying "You'll get no second chance lad. Do it. He is naked. He is unarmed. God's blood, do you think you'll best him any other way? Do it, lad. Do it for the love of God. Do it or I swear your life is forfeit."
Despite these exhortations, the kid declines and opts instead to set off across the desert with the expriest, knowing that the judge will follow and perhaps kill them later. Toadvine has already cut a deal with the judge and remains at the watering hole. So here's the question: Why didn't the kid kill the judge when he had the chance?
To answer that question, let's examine some of the passages that reveal something of the nature of the judge.
Recall Tobin's tale in Chapter 10, wherein he describes the conditions when the Glanton Gang first came upon the judge. The party is fleeing across the desert, with no gun powder and a hundred or more Apache warriors on their trail. The men know that the end is near. "That sunrise we'd looked to be our last," says Tobin. He continues:
Then about the meridian of that day we come upon the judge on his rock there in that wilderness by his single self. Aye and there was no rock, just the one. Irving said he'd brung it with him. I said that it was a merestone for to mark him out of nothing at all. He had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now, all mounted in german silver and the name that he'd give it set with silver wire under the checkpiece in latin: Et In Arcadia Ego. A reference to the lethal in it. Common enough for a man to name his gun. I've heard Sweetlips and Hark From The Tombs and every sort of lady's name. His is the first and only ever I seen with an inscription from the classics.The Latin appellation the judge has affixed to his gun is from Virgil and can be translated as "Even in Arcadia I exist." It is a reference to Death, but in this case I think it is also something more.
Consider this passage. The party has just come upon a burned out wagon train. The wagon train folk have been horribly massacred by a party of raiders who tortured and killed them, then rode away with their loot.
The tracks of the murderers bore on to the west but they were white men who preyed on travelers in that wilderness and disguised their work to be that of the savages. Notions of chance and fate are the preoccupation of men engaged in rash undertakings. The trail of the argonauts terminated in ashes as told and in the convergence of such vectors in such a waste wherein the hearts and enterprise of one small nation have been swallowed up and carried off by another the expriest asked if some might not see the hand of a cynical god conducting with what austerity and what mock surprise so lethal a congruence. The posting of witnesses by a third and other path altogether might also be called in evidence as appearing to beggar chance, yet the judge, who had put his horse forward until he was abreast of the speculants, said that in this was expressed the very nature of the witness and that his proximity was no third thing but rather the prime, for what could be said to occur unobserved?Solipsistic themes are clearly evident in this passage. It's a macabre variation on the old "If a tree falls in the forest..." speculation.
Next, consider this exchange between the judge and Toadvine, (whom some have likened to Starbuck from Melville's Moby Dick). Toadvine has earlier passed up a chance to kill the judge. Now, the party is gathered around the campfire. The judge is examining bird specimens he has collected during the day and making notations in his book. This is a great mystery to the illiterate Toadvine. He asks the judge what is his purpose. The judge responds.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.What a joker, that judge! Here, the judge overtly states his belief in himself as the source of all creation. The judge indeed is a solipsist. That is, he believes that the Universe is his own creation, the invention of his will.
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 judgments.
The judge placed his hand 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 acquaint himself with everthing 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.
So, returning to my question: why did the kid not kill the judge when he had the chance?
Remember, the kid is a passive witness in all these passages. Could it be that the judge, with all his powers of persuasion and his conviction, has delivered the kid to believe that he, the judge, is the center of all creation? Might the kid actually believe that he is nothing more than a part of the judge's vision? Or, put another way, might the kid have accepted the judge as his god?
If that's the case, the kid can't kill the judge. To kill the judge would be to kill the kid himself and to destroy all of creation in the bargain!
Well, as Canterbury says in Henry V: It must be thought on.
I encourage fans of Blood Meridian to avail themselves of the lectures by Yale Professor Amy Hungerford. I found her lectures fascinating. You can view the first one here.
McCarthy's prose is so eloquent and lyrical that I can almost catch its rhythm as I type it on the keyboard. So let me close with the last words the judge speaks to the kid.
The judge and the kid --now, the man --are the only survivors some two and a half decades after the Glanton Gang reached the bloody end of the road at the river crossing. It has been many long years since the kid had his chance to kill the judge. They meet, seemingly by chance (although the judge would scoff at that notion), at a tavern in an ugly little town on a prairie littered with the bones of millions of slaughtered buffalo. Someone has just shot the dancing bear that was entertaining on the stage, at the judge's instigation. It is the last time the judge and the kid will meet, save for that one last horrible encounter.
The judge set his 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.The judge is not a nice man.