Blood Meridian: The Dark Nihilism of the judge’s recite…

The judge after reciting a few dark parables of nihilism to the Glanton gang is confronted by Tobin, the expriest:

It strikes me, he said, that either son is equal in the way of disadvantage. So what is the way of raising a child?

At a young age, said the judge, they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions. They should be made to run naked in the desert until …

Hold now, said Tobin. The question was put in all earnestness.

And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.

The judge looked about him. He was sat before the fire naked save for his breeches and his hands rested palm down upon his knees. His eyes were empty slots. None among the company harbored any notion as to what this attitude implied, yet so like an icon was he in his sitting that they grew cautious and spoke with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.

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


The dark insight, the broken truth of this book comes just here:

The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.

This sense that for men the pinnacle of achievement is also the moment of “his darkening and the evening of his day”. Like a Jeremiah of nihilism the judge confronts us with a cosmos at once treacherous and indifferent to human hopes and aspirations, a realm at once impersonal and unconcerned with the petty achievements of the human animal. In the segment that preceded this we learn of the judge’s wide travels; that he is a learned man, a scholar, a draughtsman, an archeologist, a man of deep and abiding curiosity; that he carries with him a book into which he records his curiosity’s, and when asked about why he creates portraits of those he comes across and their artifacts he tells the Tennessean named Webster that “it was his intention to expunge them from the memory of man”. It’s as if the judge were echoing in direct parody of the Biblical injunctions from the Angelic being in The Revelation of St. John the Divine in the new testament:

He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. (KJS: chp 3:5) …

The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.(KJS: chp 17:8) …

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. (KJS: chp 20:12) …

And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (KJS: chp 20:15) …

And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (KJS: chp 21:27) …

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (KJS: chp 22:19)


It’s as if the judge were the Angel of the blotting, the keeper of the shadows, the soul-eater whose task had been set before the foundations of the earth. Yet, the ambiguity of such a stance is that in Mccarthy’s book it is the “memory” of man, not his soul that will be wiped out, purified from the Book of Time rather than the Book of Life, so that this is not a religious but rather a nihilistic fable of the world without rhyme or reason; more akin to his precursors Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) and Shakespeare (Macbeth): “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

What’s interesting about Mccarthy’s books is that they are open to these duplicitous and ambiguous (mis)readings, open to misprisionings that could be construed either in a darkened form of Gnosticism, or in a direct parody of Biblical reception and absorption of tradition, or finally as nihilistic parables that work to destroy our expectations and our cultural ties to this ancient religious world. Mccarthy works against our comfortable and human meanings, subtly undermines our usual expectations and received wisdom. He breaks the vessels of our standard religious or secular expectations and opens us to a cosmic perspective that is at once ecstatic and full of horror.

As that last paragraph suggests:

The judge looked about him. He was sat before the fire naked save for his breeches and his hands rested palm down upon his knees. His eyes were empty slots. None among the company harbored any notion as to what this attitude implied, yet so like an icon was he in his sitting that they grew cautious and spoke with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.

It’s as if these men were looking upon something at once daemonic (“eyes were empty slots”), beatific (“yet so like an icon”), alien (“waken something”), or monstrous (“better left sleeping”) – a power at once preternatural or superhuman; else a power for which there is no name: a namelessness at the core of existence, a power at the heart of the cosmos, something inhuman at the core of Being itself in all its darkening glory and horror.

The legend has it that, in 1633, Galileo Galilei muttered, “Eppur si muove” (“ And yet it moves”), after recanting before the Inquisition his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun: he was not tortured, it was enough to take him on a tour and show him the torture devices … (Zizek, Less Than Nothing)

Is there an answer to Mccarthy’s modern fable? Is the judge Archon or Beast? Butcher or Saint? A creature of the night, or a scholar of one candle; else darkness made visible? A nihilist or Gnostic knower? Impure or pure? A keeper of Time’s declivities or a merry prankster of Disorder, a festive King of Misrule whose world of tricks is built out of subterfuge and a Con-man’s games of false appearances, or a carnival hawker and mountebank with his tribal masks born of a antinomian age of jest and derision parades before the crowd a puppet world of dreams and nightmares? Shaman, priest, or killer? Maybe in the end there is no answer, no recognitions scene, that the fable is a fable against all interpretive strategies, a parable of our times between times when the meanings of the past are all dead, and the future has yet to collapse upon us revealing the posthuman monstrosity or climatological catastrophes ahead. In the end like Galileo maybe this is all we can say: “Eppur si muove” – And yet it moves…

 

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