Cormac Mccarthy: The Judge’s Sermon of Fire and Fire

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord thou pluckest me out
O Lord thou pluckest


-T.S. Eliot, The Fire Sermon

The kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth. But men do not see it…Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there.

The Gospel of Thomas

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favour of the weak.  Historical law subverts it at every turn.

-The Judge, Blood Meridian

The Fire Sermon: The Judge’s World of Mystery

Pyrolatreia, or fire-worship, was once nearly universal. The Moloch of the Canaanites, Phœnicians, and Carthaginians, was the divinity of various nations under different names Moloch was not the only deity tormenting simple maids and tender babes with fire The blazing or fiery cross, in use among Khonds of India, was well known in both Ireland and Scotland The Egyptians, with more modern Africans, have reverenced flame.

Zoroastrians worship in fire temples, where a sacred fire is kept burning to signify an eternal flame, and fire is always present during special prayers and ceremonies. Zoroastrianism originated over 3500 years ago in ancient Persia and represents a religious shift in human history, when polytheism began to give way to monotheism. To Zoroastrians, God is known as Ahura Mazda, which means “wise lord.” Zoroastrians recognize a constant struggle between good, represented by Ahura Mazda, and evil, represented by God’s opposite, known as Ahriman. From them most of the dualistic religions of the world descended (?).

They would also become the first Puritans. According to their writings all natural creations of Ahura Mazda are believed to be pure. To Zoroastrians, purity is sacred. The need for purity is particularly evident in funerary rituals. Since death brings decay, which is contamination, corpses cannot touch the ground. If a corpse is to be buried, the grave must be lined to protect the ground. Cremation can also be problematic, because a body will contaminate the purity of fire. While most Zoroastrians now recognize the necessity of cremation, the preferred method has long been the sky burial, through which a body is placed into something called a tower of silence, or dakhma, where it can then be cleansed by the sun, the wind, vultures and birds of prey.

Dualist religions in antiquity sought to redefine, often radically, the interrelationships between the divine, human and natural worlds, commonly by identifying the source of evil in a force or forces in the divine and supernatural sphere. An ambiguous deity or one associated with death and the underworld was an obvious choice to be singled out and enthroned as an entirely evil agency or else an altogether new deity was conceptualized to fill the place of this ‘other’ god. Religions that were monist and henotheistic in orientation could develop the tendency to view this ‘other’ god as the main adversary of the creator god, effectively as an anti-god, but this process was to be accomplished in some of the systems of religious dualism. While during late antiquity Christianity and Judaism naturally strove to deny an actual godly status to the ‘other god’, heretical teachings ventured to identify his functions with that of the creator god, stating that above him, the public, normative god, there existed another, hidden god, the god of the invisible world or the world to come. Such heretical doctrines were promptly condemned for rendering the evil divine, for granting a godly status to ‘another’ god, whether confusingly understood as the oppressive creator of this world or as the ruler of the realm above and of the future.1

The ancient Greek Orphics were fire worshipers, as well as the first to speak of the Cosmic Egg from which the Sun was born. Apion (Clement, Homil., VI.iv.671) writes that: ‘Orpheus likened Chaos to an egg, in which the primal “elements” were all mingled together. . . . This egg was generated from the infinitude of primal matter…’

The judge was standing at the bar looking down at him. He smiled, he removed his hat. The great pale dome of his skull shone like an enormous phosphorescent egg in the lamplight.

-Cormac Mccarthy. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West

Below is only a beginning gesture toward unraveling the strange world of Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian. Going back over some notes and quotes I’d taken I came across a passage delivered by the expriest that speaks of a moment in the Glanton Party’s death march across the vast Sonoran deserts of Southwest Texas and Mexico. The Party has been followed recently by a large group of a hundred or so Apache’s (the tale being related at a later date to the Kid by the Expriest), when they suddenly come upon a  dark sea of ash and obsidian glass, and in the distance they see a lone mountain jutting up out of this shadow kingdom – an extinct volcano – in the distance. At this point  Judge Holden – one of the key members of the gang delivers a Fire Sermon to the elements. Yet, we are not privy to its actual content, it being related only as an event as retold by the expriest to the Kid:

In all this time the judge had spoke hardly a word. So at dawn we were on the edge of a vast malpais and his honor takes up a position on some lava rocks there and he commences to give us a address. It was like a sermon but it was no such sermon as any man of us had ever heard before. Beyond the malpais was a volcanic peak and in the sunrise it was many colors and there was dark little birds crossin down the wind and the wind was flappin the judge’s old benjamin about him and he pointed to that stark and solitary mountain and delivered himself of an oration to what end I know not, then or now, and he concluded with the tellin us that our mother the earth as he said was round like an egg and contained all good things within her. Then he turned and led the horse he had been ridin across that terrain of black and glassy slag, treacherous to man and beast alike, and us behind him like the disciples of a new faith.2

Now to set things up we know the Judge is seven feet tall, hairless, bald, and stone cold Albino – absolutely white as a ghost. Throughout the novel up to that point we come to know the Judge as an almost preternatural being, almost inhuman or nonhuman. A man that seems to know things both about the cosmos and the natural earth that are both uncanny and fantastic. In the above quote it suddenly dawned on me what lies behind this almost mythical being. I was reminded of Melville’s romantic tale of the White Whale, Moby Dick, along with the great hunter of that whale, Ahab. It seemed to me that in this paragraph the two figures come together as one in some parallax vision, both entering into relation with the Judge not in fission but more as echo’s and  reverberations as the whiteness of the whale and its stark inhuman power vandalize the inhuman core of Ahab’s undaunted task. The Judge become at once both Ahab and Whale, hunter and hunted, demiurge and blind god of the seas; or, in this case the deserts of the Southwest.

One critic Edwin T. Arnold explains that in all his novels, “McCarthy’s conclusions are ambiguous and openended, mysterious shifts into alternate realities or into parables implying secret truths or gnosis.”  Early in Blood Meridian, the reader comes upon this passage: “The survivors slept with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a namelessness wheeling in the night” (46). Anareta was believed in the Renaissance to be “the planet which destroys life,” and “violent deaths are caused” when the “malifics” have agents in “the anaretic place” (OED entry, “anareta”). Because McCarthy has not placed a comma after “pilgrims,” it is likely that his simile includes the entire remainder of the phrase; yet it is easily possible to read the passage as if a comma were present, thus producing the reading: this is Anareta. Either way, the implication is clearly that our own Earth is Anaretic. And in Blood Meridian, the Earth is the judge’s. (see Petra Mundik; and, Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy by Leo Daugherty here)

The kid looked at Tobin. What’s he a judge of? he said.
What’s he a judge of?
What’s he a judge of.
Tobin glanced off across the fire. Ah lad, he said. Hush now. The man will hear ye. He’s ears like a fox.

-Cormac Mccarthy. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West

Herman Mellville: The Purifying Fires of Gnosticism

We know that Melville developed a counter-sublime against the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Melville would turn toward a darkened, more pessimistic elemental world of forces and processes, almost Spinozian; yet, not the pantheist variety which is a parody of Spinoza. We know that pantheism is the view that rejects the transcendence of God. According to the pantheist, God is, in some way, identical with the world. There may be aspects of God that are ontologically or epistemologically distinct from the world, but for pantheism this must not imply that God is essentially separate from the world. The pantheist is also likely to reject any kind of anthropomorphizing of God, or attributing to the deity psychological and moral characteristics modeled on human nature. The pantheist’s God is (usually) not a personal God.

Within this general framework, it is possible to distinguish two varieties of pantheism. First, pantheism can be understood as the denial of any distinction whatsoever between God and the natural world and the assertion that God is in fact identical with everything that exists. “God is everything and everything is God.” On this view, God is the world and all its natural contents, and nothing distinct from them. This is reductive pantheism. Second, pantheism can be understood as asserting that God is distinct from the world and its natural contents but nonetheless contained or immanent within them, perhaps in the way in which water is contained in a saturated sponge. God is everything and everywhere, on this version, by virtue of being within everything. This is immanentist pantheism; it involves that claim that nature contains within itself, in addition to its natural elements, an immanent supernatural and divine element.2

So are either Melville or Spinoza, then, a pantheist? Any adequate analysis of Spinoza’s identification of God and Nature will show clearly that Spinoza cannot be a pantheist in the second, immanentist sense. For Spinoza, there is nothing but Nature and its attributes and modes. And within Nature there can certainly be nothing that is supernatural. If Spinoza is seeking to eliminate anything, it is that which is above or beyond nature, which escapes the laws and processes of nature. But is he a pantheist in the first, reductive sense?

The issue of whether God is to be identified with the whole of Nature (i.e., Natura naturans and Natura naturata) or only a part of Nature (i.e., Natura naturans alone), which has occupied a good deal of the recent literature, might be seen as crucial to the question of Spinoza’s alleged pantheism (I’ll get to Melville afterwards). After all, if pantheism is the view that God is everything, then Spinoza is a pantheist only if he identifies God with all of Nature. Indeed, this is exactly how the issue is often framed. Both those who believe that Spinoza is a pantheist and those who believe that he is not a pantheist focus on the question of whether God is to be identified with the whole of Nature, including the infinite and finite modes of Natura naturata, or only with substance and attributes (Natura naturans) but not the modes. Thus, it has been argued that Spinoza is not a pantheist, because God is to be identified only with substance and its attributes, the most universal, active causal principles of Nature, and not with any modes of substance. Other scholars have argued that Spinoza is a pantheist, just because he does identify God with the whole of nature.

The debate over Spinoza want be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, there will probably be partisans for one or the other side of the debate for a long time yet. As for Melville? In his great novel Moby Dick we discover the Whale as “though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar…”.6 We’ll encounter the white fire again a little later on the stark plains of the sea:

The wind increased to a howl; the waves dashed their bucklers together; the whole squall roared, forked, and crackled around us like a white fire upon the prairie, in which, unconsumed, we were burning; immortal in these jaws of death! (my italics)

And, then again, as Melville will recite the ancient notion of the fire worshippers as devotees of the Sun:

As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld, even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers. As Ptolemy Philopater testified of the African elephant, I then testified of the whale, pronouncing him the most devout of all beings. For according to King Juba, the military elephants of antiquity often hailed the morning with their trunks uplifted in the profoundest silence. (249)

Even Tashtego, the lone fire worshipping Persian in the chase for Moby Dick “stood in the bows. He was full of the fire of the hunt”. (273) Yet, this pales before the great sermon to the Sun:

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars! (280)

And, yet again, we come upon Ahab just after a sperm whale expires – “that strange spectacle observable in all sperm whales dying—the turning sunwards of the head, and so expiring—that strange spectacle, beheld of such a placid evening, somehow to Ahab conveyed a wondrousness unknown before”. (325) With his disquisition on this wonder:

“He turns and turns him to it,—how slowly, but how steadfastly, his homage-rendering and invoking brow, with his last dying motions. He too worships fire; most faithful, broad, baronial vassal of the sun!—Oh that these too-favoring eyes should see these too-favoring sights.” (325)

Then we come upon the magnificent and fierce fire-sermon by Ahab on the death of the Parsee:

Then turning—the last link held fast in his left hand, he put his foot upon the Parsee; and with fixed upward eye, and high-flung right arm, he stood erect before the lofty tri-pointed trinity of flames.

“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whencesoe’er I came; wheresoe’er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.” (331)

All these quotes give us the Mellvillean gnosis, the knowing beyond instrumental reason that only the rhetorical figurations of Shakespearean poetry can at once point the way and allow both the darkness and the fire of the Demiurgic flames to bind us with Ahab in that madness that E.R. Dodds once spoke of describing the Greek notion of menos:

When a man feels menos in his chest, or “thrusting up pungently into his nostrils,”  he is conscious of a mysterious access of energy; the life in him is strong, and he is filled with a new confidence and eagerness. The connection of menos with the sphere of volition comes out clearly in the related words , to be eager, and δνσμενήs,” wishing ill.” It is significant that often, though not always, a communication of menos comes as a response to prayer. But it is something much more spontaneous and instinctive than what we call “resolution”; animals can have it,  and it is used by analogy to describe the devouring energy of fire.  In man it is the vital energy, the “spunk,” which is not always there at call, but comes and goes mysteriously and (as we should say) capriciously. But to Homer it is not caprice: it is the act of a god, who “increases or diminishes at will a man’s arĕtē (that is to say, his potency as a fighter).”  Sometimes, indeed, the menos can be roused by verbal exhortation; at other times its onset can only be explained by saying that a god has “breathed it into” the hero, or “put it in his chest,” or, as we read in one place, transmitted it by contact, through a staff.4

It’s this sense of menos as “verbal exhortation” and the volitional enactment of raising the flames of desire and potency, the vitalistic gesture of Ahab’s defiance against the power not just of the literal Whale, but also of his defiance of what the Whale symbolized – the vast and impersonal, indifferentism of the Universe itself: “Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.” This self-lacerating, self-slaying gesture of the child of an indifferent and horrific universal power in his defiance giving back the Promethean flames of his derision and madness to such darkness in the purity of the nihilistic light captures for us a minimal aspect of Melville’s gnostic shock.

Fire has always been a part of ritual and ceremonial systems. We learn from Dodds that  ecstatic dancers in Euripides “carried fire on their heads and it did not burn them”. So does the ecstatic dancer elsewhere. In British Columbia he dances with glowing coals held in his hands, plays with them recklessly, and even puts them in his mouth;  so he does in South Africa; 31 and so also in Sumatra.  In Siam and in Siberia he claims to be invulnerable so long as the god remains within him— just as the dancers on Cithaeron were invulnerable. (Dodds, KL 5424) We know that the ancient theurgists of the Chaldean Oracles would use fire and water both as part of their purification ceremonies. As Dodds states: “We know from Proclus that before the “sitting” both operator and medium were purified with fire and water.” (KL 5917) Or the manifestation in their ceremonies of “luminous apparitions, which promised that by pronouncing certain spells the operator should see “fire shaped like a boy,” or “an unshaped fire with a voice proceeding from it,” or various other things.” (KL 5977)

Death is a festival, a ceremony, a ritual; but it is not a mystery.  Blood Meridian sings hymns of violence, its gorgeous language commemorating slaughter in all its sumptuousness and splendor…

-Steven Shaviro, “The Very Life of the Darkness”: A Reading of Blood Meridian

The Puritan Connection in Protestantism

All this leads me back to the impact of Puritanism on the American psyche, which is well known to have influenced most of the 19th Century poets, novelists, essayists, and religious thought of that era. Melville even in his antagonistic relationship to that tradition shows signs of its deep impact. Dodds will address it in his work on the ancient Greeks this way, saying that “any guilt-culture will, I suppose, provide a soil favourable to the growth of puritanism, since it creates an unconscious need for self-punishment which puritanism gratifies”. (KL 3019) This sense of the self-divided soul, of the person living under the fear of God is given its supreme poetic embellishment by non other than John Donne in one of his Sermons: “no man may be so secure in his election, as to forbear to work out his salvation with fear and trembling”.5

The almost histrionic note of Donne’s Holy Sonnets may be attributed partly to the meditation’s deliberate stimulation of emotion; it is the special danger of this exercise that, in stimulating feeling, it may falsify it, and overdramatize the spiritual life. But Donne’s choice of subjects and his whole-hearted use of the method are symptoms of a condition of mind very different from the mood of La Corona or even from the conflicts which can be felt behind “A Litany.” The meditation on sin and on judgment is strong medicine; the mere fact that his mind turned to it suggests some sickness in the soul. The “low devout melancholie” of La Corona, the “dejection” of “A Litany” are replaced by something darker. In both his preparatory prayers Donne uses a more terrible word, despair. The note of anguish is unmistakable. The image of a soul in meditation which the Holy Sonnets present is an image of a soul working out of its salvation in fear and trembling. The two poles between which it oscillates are faith in the mercy of God in Christ, and a sense of personal unworthiness that is very near to despair. The flaws in their spiritual temper are a part of their peculiar power. No other religious poems make us feel so acutely the predicament of the natural man called to be the spiritual man. Of course the underpinnings of this is an almost Manichean revulsion of the body and the world, a Gnostic motif that seems to arise in most puritanism wherever it has arisen.

As Jean Delumeau will suggest in his great work Sin and Fear: The Emergence of Western Guilt Culture 13th – 18th Centuries both within the Catholic and Protestant forms all humans were seen first as “agents of Satan,” and that in addition to the “fear,” the “dread,” the “terror,” and the “fright” occasioned by exterior perils of all kinds (natural or human), Western Civilization was afflicted by two supplementary and equally oppressive causes for alarm: the “horror” of sin and the “obsession” of damnation.5 Out of this fear and trepidation our Gothic and Romantic traditions in art, poetry, and literature would emerge, and later the nihilistic light of a universe born of indifferentism and impersonalism in writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and his progeny.

And it seems that what struck these men most forcibly, as they watched throughout the Egyptian nights, is the dark portion of the sky – the vastness, the omnipresence, the heavy opacity of that blackness. It hangs over us like a veil, a wall of shadow encircling the earth, a tenebrous dome through which appear, here and there, through chinks, faults and gaps, the glittering fires of another world. A gigantic black lid seals in our universe and encompasses us with its opacity.

-Jacques Lacarrier, The Gnostics

The Judge as Fire Bringer and Slayer of Delusions

I don’t have time to delve into all the fascinating history and critical underpinnings of this tradition in this post, which would turn into a book in itself but will rather come back to Mccarthy’s great character The Judge. The motif of the puritanism I’ve been tracing reaches back into the pre-Socratics. In that form of the doctrine which Plato attributes to the Orphic school, the body was pictured as the soul’s prison, in which the gods keep it locked up until it has purged its guilt. In the other form mentioned by Plato, puritanism found an even more violent expression: the body was conceived as a tomb wherein the psyche lies dead, awaiting its resurrection into true life, which is life without the body. This form seems to be traceable as far back as Heraclitus, who perhaps used it to illustrate his eternal roundabout of opposites, the “Way Up and Down.” (Dodds, KL 3023)

Like many late novels that are both quests and sermons Mccarthy’s presents us with a diametrically aligned vision in contradistinction to Melville’s Moby Dick. Rather than the singularly told tale by the lone survivor, Ishmael, we are presented with The Kid in Blood Meridian. Even as the Kid begins his quest into the vast kenoma or emptiness of the Sonoran desert we get a feint echo of Melville’s great work with its fire motif:

A light breeze stirred the fronds of his hat, his matted greasy hair. His eyes lay dark and tunneled in a caved and haunted face and a foul stench rose from the wells of his boot tops. The sun was just down and to the west lay reefs of bloodred clouds up out of which rose little desert nighthawks like fugitives from some great fire at the earth’s end. He spat a dry white spit and clumped the cracked wooden stirrups against the mule’s ribs and they staggered into motion again. (KL 373)

I don’t have space to follow the fire trail throughout this great novel but will scope just a few passages. Already above we hear echoes of war, of apocalypse, of some dire world of fire at the world’s end. The next comes with the Glanton Gang riding at night through a great storm:

That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses’ trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men. All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear. The thunder moved up from the southwest and lightning lit the desert all about them, blue and barren, great clanging reaches ordered out of the absolute night like some demon kingdom summoned up or changeling land that come the day would leave them neither trace nor smoke nor ruin more than any troubling dream. (KL 817)

Here we receive the fantastic summoning of the abyss of the archontes, of a “demon kingdom summoned up” and the “pale blue light” that hovers round the gang like strange beings from that “absolute night”.

Then we come upon the Judge at the end of a scene in which a Spanish trickster-juggler and his wife have given a oracle of fortunes to members of the gang:

The judge like a great ponderous djinn stepped through the fire and the flames delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element. He put his arms around Glanton. Someone snatched the old woman’s blindfold from her and she and the juggler were clouted away and when the company turned in to sleep and the low fire was roaring in the blast like a thing alive these four yet crouched at the edge of the firelight among their strange chattels and watched how the ragged flames fled down the wind as if sucked by some maelstrom out there in the void, some vortex in that waste apposite to which man’s transit and his reckonings alike lay abrogate. As if beyond will or fate he and his beasts and his trappings moved both in card and in substance under consignment to some third and other destiny. (KL 1667)

This sense of the Judge as different than other men, a creature of fire and bound to a “third or other destiny”. Yet, later on as the Glanton gang wanders in this vast emptiness we will learn that the fire can be at once purifier and deceiver:

They ate and moved on, leaving the fire on the ground behind them, and as they rode up into the mountains this fire seemed to become altered of its location, now here, now there, drawing away, or shifting unaccountably along the flank of their movement. Like some ignis fatuus belated upon the road behind them which all could see and of which none spoke. For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies. (KL 2052)

This “will to deceive in things luminous,” and the notion that it might lead me not to salvation and redemption but rather toward “fraudulent destinies” works against the Protestant notions of faith founded on fear and trepidation. In Mccarthy’s world there can be no faith, only a nihilistic mistrust of every external authority or sign. For if there is a voluntary will to deceive in things then nothing can be trusted and everything must be questioned.

Later still we’ll learn from the expriest a truth about the Judge:

The Almighty, the Almighty. The expriest shook his head. He glanced across the fire toward the judge. That great hairless thing. You wouldnt think to look at him that he could outdance the devil himself now would ye? God the man is a dancer, you’ll not take that away from him. And fiddle. He’s the greatest fiddler I ever heard and that’s an end on it. The greatest. He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer. He’s been all over the world. Him and the governor they sat up till breakfast and it was Paris this and London that in five languages, you’d have give something to of heard them. The governor’s a learned man himself he is, but the judge … (KL 2099)

The Judge here seems almost a Nietzsche Übermensch a creature of legend and myth. This leads us back to my original quote in the beginning of the essay. The Judge has been leading them to the Volcano (Malpais). The expriest continues his tale just at the point where they reach the crest and look down into the volcano’s furnace:

Where for aught any man knows lies the locality of hell. For the earth is a globe in the void and truth there’s no up nor down to it and there’s men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoofprints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock? I’d not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was little devils with their pitchforks had traversed that fiery vomit for to salvage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It’s a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things this world must touch the other. And somethin put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen them there myself. (KL 2218)

This notion of two worlds touching each other in the extremity of things, of powers flowing out of this great clime of hellish fire, etc. all brings the puritan strain back into the novel through the lips of the expriest.


If we remember in the original quote at the beginning of my essay the Judge gives a small sermon ending it telling the gang that “our mother the earth as he said was round like an egg and contained all good things within her”. We know both the Orphic’s and certain Gnostics would speak of the Cosmic Egg. The Orphic egg is usually represented as an egg surrounded by a coiled serpent. The egg symbolizes the belief in the Greek Orphic religion that the universe originated from within a silver egg. The first emanation from this egg, described in an ancient hymn, was Phanes-dionysus, the personification of light:

“ineffable, hidden, brilliant scion, whose motion is whirring, you scattered the dark mist that lay before your eyes and, flapping your wings, you whirled about, and through this world you brought pure light.”

Yet, as Steven Shaviro will say of Mccarthy’s fable:

We are called to no responsibility, and we may lay claim to no transcendence. Blood Meridian is not a salvation narrative; we can be rescued neither by faith nor by works nor by grace. It is useless to look for ulterior, redemptive meanings, useless even to posit the irredeemable gratuitousness of our abandonment in the form of some existential category such as Heideggerian “thrownness” (Geworfenheit). We have not fallen here or been “thrown” here, for we have always been here, and always will be. Only the judge seems descended from another world (125).6 (Bloom, 12)

Whatever Judge Holden is, the narrator in Mccarthy’s tale tells us, he cannot be
adequately explained through science or logic. We might, in fact, read the passage as a refutation of scientific thinkers like Freud who believe there is always a discoverable point, an identifiable action that ultimately explains.This is what the judge maintains: “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery,” he tells members of the gang. “The mystery is that there is no mystery” (252). Yet, as Tobin responds to the kid, the inexplicable judge is by his very existence proof of the mystery in the world he intends to deny. And as McCarthy himself has said, that we do not ordinarily apprehend this mystery is the larger question (Wallace 138).8

This notion of a mystery that disturbs the Order of the World, that shocks us from elsewhere, a paradoxical power that seems both marvelous and uncanny at the same time, a fantastic being that we can neither accept nor reject but stand befuddled not knowing whether it is real or unreal, that forces us to stand in the place of no place, the empty place of power where neither God nor man is or is not, and binds us to both silence and the ineffable; yet, also breaks us by its nihilistic light and awakens in us some old and deep within ourselves that is neither presence nor absence, but rather a knowing between two distinct beings who are neither fused nor separate, shaped by the very medium within which they both are fixed and in process: the fire that fires the very core of our inhuman life. Neither transcendent nor immanent but in-between, caught in that strangeness of the weird that cannot be reduced to rhetorical gestures nor dogmatic sermons.

This Kid for whom we know almost nothing, who has wandered in the shadows of the beast of a novel will have a dream.

In the dream the kid next looks into the judge’s “small and lashless pig’s eyes” (310), but what is it he sees? On the one hand he appears to see his fate, his name written in the judge’s ledger, suggesting that he has already been enslaved by the judge, fated to his doom. In it he seems to perceive the darkness of that fire in the abyss of the Judge’s eyes, seems to perceive in these eyes the unfathomable nature of evil, perhaps to realize that evil is not an individual, separate thing but very much an essential part of the system of existence. This is a profoundly metaphysical moment for the kid, and he is eventually changed by it. One might compare it to Job’s ultimate perception of God’s awful grandeur that joins fortune and misfortune, good and bad, in one inexplicable whole; or to Jacob Boehme’s vision of the “Byss and the Abyss” of which he wrote, “For I had a thorough view of the universe as in a chaos, wherein all things are couched and wrapt up, but it was impossible for me to explicate the same” (quoted in James 411). (Companion, 59)

The Vastation, guardian of all destiny, all becoming, retainer of all seeds, powers, and
potentialities; the purely intelligible fire which held, and still holds, the seeds of everything that exists in the inferior circles; animate and inanimate matter, forms, incarnations, stones, trees, and flesh – here below in the world of ash and mud.

Gnostic Hymn

Mystery of Mystery: The Uncanny Guest In-Between

Yet, Mccarthy will not allow us to make of this novel either a metaphysical parable, nor an atheistic fable of nihilism. He seems to leave us in-between in that circle of fate where we have to choose for ourselves. Mccarthy will not hold our hands, will not guide us beyond and into some Faustian bargain nor will he burst our bubble, our delusions, but instead offers only the mystery of the mystery. One is reminded of that other great Southern Gothic novelist or fabulist, Flannery O’Conner who would state it this way,

In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense co­incides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of  seeing, and  he  is  free  to  use it.  I  have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hin­drance  to the writer,  but  I myself have  found  noth­ing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the story­teller  to  observe. It is not a set  of  rules which  fixes what he  sees in the world.  It  affects  his writing pri­marily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery. (31)9

We know that Mccarthy like O’Conner was raised Catholic. Cormac was raised Roman Catholic. He attended Catholic High School in Knoxville, then went to the University of Tennessee in 1951-52. His major: liberal arts. McCarthy joined the U.S. Air Force in 1953; he served four years, spending two of them stationed in Alaska, where he hosted a radio show. We know too that in The Sunset Limited, commissioned by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, which premiered in May 2006, with publication thereafter. The play takes place in a shabby tenement apartment, where Black (a former convict) and White (a university professor) discuss “big questions” about God, faith, life, and death following Black’s saving White, who had attempted to commit suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming subway train. HBO subsequently produced a successful adaptation of The Sunset Limited starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones (directed by Jones).

We also know that his favorite novel is Melville’s Moby-Dick; he doesn’t care for the work of Henry James, he doesn’t like to talk about writing, etc.), that’s more or less what we know about Cormac McCarthy.

Which brings me to final epiphany from Blood Meridian that seems to sum up the power of fire :

They rode on into the darkness and the moonblanched waste lay before them cold and pale and the moon sat in a ring overhead and in that ring lay a mock moon with its own cold gray and nacre seas. They made camp on a low bench of land where walls of dry aggregate marked an old river course and they struck up a fire about which they sat in silence, the eyes of the dog and of the idiot and certain other men glowing red as coals in their heads where they turned. The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be. By and by the judge rose and moved away on some obscure mission and after a while someone asked the expriest if it were true that at one time there had been two moons in the sky and the expriest eyed the false moon above them and said that it may well have been so. But certainly the wise high God in his dismay at the proliferation of lunacy on this earth must have wetted a thumb and leaned down out of the abyss and pinched it hissing into extinction. And could he find some alter means by which the birds could mend their paths in the darkness he might have done with this one too. (KL 4075)

Just here the Gnostic strain comes through as humans are both part and partial of that “fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be.” But what origins? Exiled from where? Can we posit a metaphysical or Platonic Other realm? Or is this a more immanent exile from the world of cultural and symbolic forms? Are we awakening to something transcendent, or just to the early and more immanent need to discover another world right here within our own? Is it possible this is neither as Shaviro surmises metaphysical nor existential, but a more pragmatic and psychological realization of our responsibility to forgo such fables and fabulist tales of redemption and salvation? Is our fate to discover in the very ruins of Time a new path forward, a new world to be decided and constructed out of the ruins of the present one?  Is this after all a political rather than religious tale the Judge has been telling us all along? Or is he rather an alien guest at the banquet seeking new members of his mystery cult from the Stars? How can we tell? How can we answer?

Caught between competing visions, competing rhetorical stances, metaphysical, existential, and something else, a third way, a “third destiny” – we are left holding nothing, no key to the mysteries; nothing, even less than nothing. And, yet, a mystery remains. At the end of the book we are left with an image of a lone being wandering in the emptiness of things:

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search… (351)

  1. Yuri, Stoyanov. The Other God (Yale Nota Bene) (Kindle Locations 90-99). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Cormac Mccarthy. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (Kindle Locations 2205-2211). Modern Library. Kindle Edition.
  3. Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <;.
  4. Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick [with Biographical Introduction] (p. 124). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.
  5. Dodds, E. R.. The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures) (Kindle Locations 202-212). University of California Press – A. Kindle Edition.
  6. Delumeau, Jean. Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries. St Martins Pr; First Paperback Edition edition (April 1991)
  7. Bloom, Harold.  Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Cormac McCarthy. “The Very Life of the Darkness”:  A Reading of Blood Meridian Steven Shaviro. (2009 by Infobase Publishing)
  8. Edwin T. Arnold (Editor), Dianne C. Luce (Editor). A Cormac McCarthy Companion: The Border Trilogy. University Press of Mississippi (October 3, 2001)
  9. Flannery O’Connor. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (January 1, 1969)

5 thoughts on “Cormac Mccarthy: The Judge’s Sermon of Fire and Fire

  1. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before Yahweh. And behold, Yahweh passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains and brake in pieces the rocks before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? (I Kings 19)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Still plugging away here in the NC dog days. Your McCarthy posts remind me that when I first started writing fictions I regarded McC as my most significant influence, even though I knew I couldn’t hold a candle. His prose resonates with the Old Testament cadence: this and this and this and this…

    Liked by 1 person

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