The Smile at the Foot of Time: The Enigma of Judge Holden in Cormac Maccarthy’s Blood Meridian

War is the father and king of all, and has produced some as gods and some as men, and has made some slaves and some free. -Heraclitus

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. -Judge Holden, Blood Meridian

Note: Spoilers Ahead!

Reading Cormac Maccarthy’s Blood Meridian is not easy, it’s a bloody death march from beginning to end, a work that doesn’t let you get comfortable, doesn’t allow you to enter into its dark protagonists but rather forces you back on yourself, forces you to take stock of all those deep seated fears and terrors of the unknown that seem to abide somewhere between childhood nightmares and one’s imagined scenes of murder, mayhem, and ultimate war. Maccarthy’s fable, if you want to call it that, is a work that seem to offer no easy solution, no aesthetic pattern to hitch one’s thoughts and emotions on, and most of all it leaves one emotionally dead in the end just like the Glanton gang itself. And, yet, there is that thing – the undefinable Judge Holden who seems like some kind of ancient preternatural creature out of myth or legend who walks away from the novel unscathed as if the whole catastrophe were a mere stopgap in his eternal struggle against time, the elements, and the great unknown.

There’s something hermetic, inscrutable, and meaningless about the judge: this seven foot giant of a man (is he a man?), whose pale white hairless skin and bald pate shine with an alien glow, and those deep in-set impenetrable black eyes that bespeak of an intelligence that has reckoned with every facet of knowledge and found it all wanting. The judge has a peculiar habit that crops up over and over and over again like one of Thomas Mann’s leitmotifs – a smile, a disturbing and innocuous, smile. Over and over we come upon passages from the beginning of the book when he meets the Kid for the first time till then end game when he kills the Kid where he sits in an outhouse. The Smile. It’s eerie, it bothered me every time I saw it jut its ugly lips up out of those pages like some forbidden hint of a knowledge and secret world of evil that one is not and never will be privy too. And, by evil, I don’t mean some moralistic gesture of normativity, no – I mean the evil that comes with life itself, the evil that is other people – their mere presence or vicinity, what Emily Dickinson meant by ‘I wanted to be touched and didn’t want to want it.’ (Collected Poems) This sense that the touch of another is enough to annihilate one, to bring down that curtain of psychic being that one has so carefully built up and constructed against the Real. For if truth be told we all build our own psychic fantasies, our house of being against the truth of the world. It’s this sense of the judge’s smile as obscure, not obscurantism in the sense of rhetorical mystery; but in the sense in which all “expressive relations between entities are essentially solipsistic”.1

The Glanton Gang as Vargrs: The Outlaw as Werewolf

They rode on. The white noon saw them through the waste like a ghost army, so pale they were with dust, like shades of figures erased upon a board. The wolves loped paler yet and grouped and skittered and lifted their lean snouts on the air.

-Cormac Mccarthy, Blood Meridian

How does one enter into incommensurable domains, into those relations that are essentially closed to us: What sorts of relations obtain between entities whose relational being is inherently limited, or proscribed altogether? What is this smile that seems to hide the strangeness of the judge’s inner experience? This obscurity that throughout the novel becomes the ultimate fetish, the enigma around which all other imponderable facets of the novel seem to turn? This hermetic novel inhabits an expressive domain, and the Glanton gang act like an expressive community, almost in the sense of those ancient outcasts and criminals of Norse mythology, the vargrwe read in the Old English Martyrology: he was thaere theode thaer men habbath hunda heafod & of thaere eorthan on theare aeton men hi selfe, ‘from the nation where men have the head of a dog and from the country where men devour each other’; furthermore, he haefde hundes haefod, & his loccas waeron ofer gemet side, & his eagan scinon swa leohte swa morgensteorra, & his teth waeron swa scearpe swa eofores texas, ‘he had the head of a hound, and his locks were extremely long, and his eyes shone as bright as the morning star, and his teeth were as sharp as a boar’s tusks’.2

The term warg may originally have applied exclusively to those guilty of desecrating buried corpses, or perhaps even those who killed in a cowardly manner. The latter, if the etymology of warg is any indication, may have been stranglers – in other words, those who killed by a method normally reserved for human sacrifice. Like those men who are argr, ‘passive’ homosexuals, the warg occupies a marginal position: just as one is a man who acts like a woman, the other is a man who legally is a wolf – and is also, it must be remarked, as good as dead in the eyes of his fellows. Such people are able to travel between the worlds of life and death, like the shaman. (ibid.) It’s this latter sense of traveling between the worlds of ‘life and death’ like shamanistic beings that interests us in this weird tale of war and annihilation.

We know that each of the members of the Glanton gang form a hermetic yet expressive community, each share in certain social underworlds, within the earthly fabric of the novel. In other words, the transitivity of the verbal enigma which shapes this community of outcasts, vargrs, or wargs—its conjoining of destruction and revelation, its apocalyptic nature—reminds us of the possibility of communities that defy the seemingly inexorable logic of transparency and continuity implicit in the social imaginary. We know as well that there is an etymological link between ergot and warg:

Ergot contains a number of interesting substances, chief among which is lysergic acid, from which the hallucinogen LSD is made. Poisoning by ergot (ergotism) used to occur frequently in Europe. Among the symptoms of this virulent, and often lethal, condition are: disruption of motor control functions, causing tremors and writhing, wry neck, convulsions, rolling eyes, and speechlessness; dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, panic attacks, and delusions; extreme thirst, uncontrollable appetite; feelings of extreme heat, or even cold, with itching and tingling, swelling and blistering of the skin. Ergotism was known by a variety of names: St. Anthony’s Fire, and – to the physicians of seventeenth-century England – ‘suffocation of the mother’. In other words, the symptoms of ergotism mimic lycanthropic behaviour, and can often lead to a fairly convincing simulation of death by strangulation (wry neck) or suffocation. In addition, the presence of lysergic acid is capable of taking the victim on a very bad trip indeed. From the observer’s point of view, the symptoms are also superficially similar to rabies. Ergotism or rabies could explain the popular belief that lycanthropy is transmitted through the bite of a werewolf; and in this context ergotism may be the more likely candidate.3

Throughout the novel we come across a peculiar effect, a blue flame that seems to pervade the company of riders as they wander in the ‘changling land’ or ‘demon kingdom’:

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.4

At another time the blue of the ocean and land will take on an ominous sign as a vampire bat feeds on one of the company: “A wrinkled pug face, small and vicious, bare lips crimped in a horrible smile and teeth pale blue in the starlight. It leaned to him. It crafted in his neck two narrow grooves and folding its wings over him it began to drink his blood.”6 The sky is “pale blue, unmarked save where the sun burned like a white hole”.7 Another time they come upon a market where the blue eyes of cows and sheep peer up at them from their deathly pallor:

Small orphans were abroad like irate dwarfs and fools and sots drooling and flailing about in the small markets of the metropolis and the prisoners rode past the carnage in the meatstalls and the waxy smell where racks of guts hung black with flies and flayings of meat in great red sheets now darkened with the advancing day and the flensed and naked skulls of cows and sheep with their dull blue eyes glaring wildly and the stiff bodies of defer and javelina and ducks and quail and parrots, all wild things from the country round hanging head downward from hooks.8

At another time there are “jagged mountains were pure blue” (KL 1485), and another when the moon “overtook them at its midnight meridian, sketching on the plain below a blue cameo of such dread pilgrims clanking north” (KL 1515). Another when the “shadow of an eagle that had set forth from those high and craggy fastnesses crossed the line of riders below and they looked up to mark it where it rode in that brittle blue and faultless void” (KL 1814). In a final quote they come upon a city as they descend out of the high mountains where they

“crouched along a shale ridge in the leeward wall of the gap while the fire sawed in the wind and they watched the lamps winking in the blue floor of the night thirty miles away. The judge crossed before them in the dark. Sparks from the fire ran down the wind. He took his seat among the scrabbled plates of shale out there and so they sat like beings from an older age watching the distant lamps dim out one by one until the city on the plain had shrunk to a small core of light that might have been a burning tree or some solitary encampment of travelers or perhaps no ponderable fire at all.9

The color of ocean and sky, blue represents mystery, depth, and intuition; depression; tranquility; wisdom, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven. Most of all blue is associated with  love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. Yet, its the sense of vastness, emptiness, isolation, disillusionment, and psychological anguish conveyed through distorted forms, that pervades the novel as the company wanders through the Underworld or abyss of this endless desert with its ancient volcanos, sands, monsoons, and deathly white heat.

The Night-Sea Journey: Desert Travails in Judge Holden’s Underworld

Carl Jung in the “The Psychology of the Transference,” once identified the “night sea journey” as an archetypal voyage through depression and neurosis, “a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious”. In Mccarthy’s novel it is the desert that is associated with the nightworld of the sea, underworld, and abyss; metamorphosis, daemonic crossings between-the-worlds, and monstrous transformations:

They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.5

Joseph Campbell in his Myth of the Hero would once describe the Descensus Averni, saying “We need not even risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”10 Whether one accepts Campbell’s use of Jungian psychology, mythology, etc. is besides the point, what’s interesting is this notion of the Monomyth or Hero’s Journey that takes the form of a descent (katabasis) into and return (anabasis) from an underworld, whether real or metaphorical, a descenscus averni or “descent into hell” followed by a miraculous return. According to Campbell, this Journey involves three stages: “a separation from the world, a penetration into some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.” These stages correspond to the stages of all rites de passage described by anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep: a separation from the community, a liminal phase of transition, and a reintegration with the community having attained a new status.11

The first time we get a hint of the underworld, of journeys, of this crossing between religious fervor, myth, and the daemonic is the meeting of the Kid, Reverend, and the judge in a revival tent in which the Reverend has just told the audience that Jesus would “foller ye always even unto the end of the road?”12 At this point we meet the Judge Holden for the first time as he enters the tent and proceeds to tell the audience that the Reverend is an imposter, a con man who is wanted by the Law:

Ladies and gentlemen I feel it my duty to inform you that the man holding this revival is an imposter. He holds no papers of divinity from any institution recognized or improvised. He is altogether devoid of the least qualification to the office he has usurped and has only committed to memory a few passages from the good book for the purpose of lending to his fraudulent sermons some faint flavor of the piety he despises. In truth, the gentleman standing here before you posing as a minister of the Lord is not only totally illiterate but is also wanted by the law in the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas.14

From that moment forward the judge follows the Kid throughout the course of the novel as if in direct parody of the Reverend’s sweet Jesus; and, yet, this long and lethal journey toward apocalypse, revelation, and ultimate annihilation is not toward heaven but into the abyss of hell’s maw. Even as the Kid is leaving Nacogdoches after being part of a murder that marks him out he comes upon the judge in passing:

When he passed back through the town the hotel was burning and men were standing around watching it, some holding empty buckets. A few men sat horseback watching the flames and one of these was the judge. As the kid rode past the judge turned and watched him. He turned the horse, as if he’d have the animal watch too. When the kid looked back the judge smiled. The kid touched up the mule and they went sucking out past the old stone fort along the road west.14

This is the first time we see that deadly and eerie smile of the judge, a smile that seems to harbor a mischievous knowledge, a dark gnosis from the other ends of time. Sir James George Fraser in his voluminous The Golden Bough would describe this journey into wisdom this way:

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper into a temple – where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis. Once inside he may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.” (Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough)

Yet, there are no heroes here, nothing but the darkened wolves and outlaws of the underworld, the cage denizens of a prison world who know only death and a disturbed sleep. All but the judge who seems to never sleep, never stop, to have an endless supply of energy and smiles.

Smiles, Wiles, and Hellish Grins upon the World

Through the noon heat and into the dusk where lizards lay with their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks and fended off the world with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates.15

Smiles abound in this weird world below the white hot sun, smiles that seem to wander into things and back again. Smiles like Captain Glanton’s: “The captain smiled grimly. We may see a little sport here before the day is out.” (KL 901) The sport is the predatory scalping of native Americans – men, women, and children in some encampment on the edge of a ravine.

In his memoirs My Confession: the Recollections of a Rogue, Samuel Chamberlain narrates the demise of John Glanton’s gang of scalp hunters, operating in northern Sonora and in New Mexico and Arizona (some of the particulars of this text are not accurate- dates, etc.- but it provides a first hand account of life in a scalping party). Chamberlain had left Boston and had gone West- the beginnings of an eventful life, only a small portion of which can be found here. In 1844 his father died and he traveled to Illinois; in 1846 (at sixteen) he enlisted in the “Illinois Foot Volunteers,” and Private Chamberlain went to war against Mexico. Three months later he was discharged in San Antonio and immediately signed up with the First Regiment of the United States Dragoons. According to Army records on March 22, 1849, he was listed as a deserter- he had left his regiment for Glanton’s gang (Chamberlain claimed that he was discharged in Mexico and had signed onto an expedition to California as a civilian when he joined Glanton). The next documented record of Chamberlain appears at the Alcalde of Los Angeles; on May 9, 1850 the survivors of the Glanton massacre, of whom Chamberlain presumably numbered, arrived there and reported an “Indian uprising” on the Colorado River. (See: John Glanton’s Gang)

It is in this account that we find the first mention of the Texan, Judge Holden:

Second in command to Glanton was a Texan- Judge Holden. In describing him, Chamberlain claimed, “a cooler blooded villain never went unhung;” Holden was well over six feet, “had a fleshy frame, [and] a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression” and was well educated in geology and mineralogy, fluent in native dialects, a good musician, and “plum centre” with a firearm. Chamberlain saw him also as a coward who would avoid equal combat if possible but would not hesitate to kill Indians or Mexicans if he had the advantage. Rumors also abounded about atrocities committed in Texas and the Cherokee nation by him under a different name. Before the gang left Frontreras, Chamberlain claims that a ten year old girl was found “foully violated and murdered” with “the mark of a large hand on her throat,” but no one ever directly accused Holden. (ibid.)

All the motifs of the judge are apparent in this passage: size, baldness, hairlessness, education, intelligence, musical abilities, murderous psychopathy, and – at least for Chamberlain, a hint of “cowardice”. This latter is never brought forth in Maccarthy’s novel that I know of, yet one is presented with a sense of the rest of the company’s distancing and fear, as well as trepidation and derision of the judge; a sense that they are both superstitious of and despise this giant monstrous being whom they at times curse under their breaths.

The next time we see the judge smiling he and the company are delivering a tidy catch of scalps to the Governor, where they pass through the streets of this city and the judge smiles:

His cheeks were ruddy and he was smiling and bowing to the ladies and doffing his filthy hat. The enormous dome of his head when he bared it was blinding white and perfectly circumscribed about so that it looked to have been painted. (KL 1367)

The association of his head and penis, ruddy cheeks and filthy hat, the blinding white of its seemingly painted head jutting out of his neck like a bird preening for the women of pleasure. “Secrecy  is,  alas, only  too  easy,”  remarks  de  Sade, “and there is not a libertine some little way  gone in vice, who does not know what a hold murder has on the senses . . .”.16 This sense of eroticism and death side by side as if Bataille were remarking on this passage and the judge’s smile, he’ll tell us:

I do not think that man has much chance of throwing light, on the things that terrify him before he has dominated them. Not that he should hope for a world in which there would be no cause for fear, where eroticism and death would be on the level of  a  mechanical process. But man can  surmount the things that frighten him and face them squarely.17

The next day the Kid and the other members of the gang are in the street scoping out the town, themselves, and the world at large. The kid studies the judge as if he were some kind of alien specimen, and the judge turning and seeing this smiles: “When the judge’s eyes fell upon him he took the cigar from between his teeth and smiled. Or he seemed to smile. Then he put the cigar between his teeth again.” (KL 1375) In psychology we’ve all heard of Asperger’s syndrome, and one of the biggest problems of Asperger people in love is that we can’t tell a false conman’s smile from a genuine nurturing smile. One smile is delivered for the benefit of the smiler; it’s essentially predatory and self-serving. The second is delivered for us, the smilee. It’s true, open, and giving.18 We might wonder if the judge is an early case of autism with his obsessions, his cataloguing and continuous note taking, his meticulous detailing of pictures, descriptions, lectures, etc..

One is reminded of those great tales of con men in Melville (“The Confidence Man”) and Thomas Mann (“Felix Krull”), both novels portray an ambiguous stranger, a trickster type figure who attempts to test the confidence of the fellow travelers, whose varied reactions constitute the bulk of each text. Each person including the reader is forced to confront that in which he places his trust. In a letter to his friend Samuel Savage, Melville would write: “It is—or seems to be—a wise sort of thing, to realise that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he have them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally & impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it.” 19 Although Mann’s novel was not completed, we know it was based partially on the chronicles and memoirs of a Romanian con man: Georges Manolescu’s autobiographies Fürst der Diebe (A Prince of Thieves) and Gescheitert (Failed). That’s Mann’s was more of a comic masterpiece rather than the dire tale of Mccarthy, it like Melville’s seems to enter that ironic grotesquerie of which Blood Meridian exemplifies. We know that the trickster figure is prevalent in many nations ancient lore, and the judge seems to fit that pattern as well.

Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies lest they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise.” —Professor Byrd Gibbens, Professor of English, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. From a letter to George Carlin

  Over and over one is led to believe that the judge may be a Magus or some type of hermetic keeper of lore. There is the passage of the judge atop the battlements of a fort, naked and solitary where “Someone had reported the judge naked atop the walls, immense and pale in the revelations of lightning, striding the perimeter up there and declaiming in the old epic mode.” (KL 2019) There’s the moment when the company is sitting around a fire wondering at life on Mars or other planets, when the judge – who has been out in the night under the stars, alone, returns and says:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. … The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.20

This sense that we are trapped in a maze, ignorant of the truth, befuddled by delusions, and less-than-adequate knowledge; caught in a carnival show of madness, mayhem, and chaos unable to make heads of tails of reality, bound within a fatalistic shadow world that is both malevolent and intent of blinding us from any form of escape: a prison world where the keepers are both invisible and fully present among us without our knowledge or trust. A realm where there is no rhyme or reason for anything, and the only truth is that there is none; all human science and knowledge be based on nothing but whim and delirious forms of misguided intuition.

There’s another time when a witch is brought to the companies fire at night, a woman soothsayer who chants the future for any and all. After listening to the reports from this woman to all who would hear her for a fee the judge returns from the night, steps up to the fire:

El tonto, said the woman. She raised her chin slightly and she began a singsong chant. The dark querent stood solemnly, like a man arraigned. His eyes shifted over the company. The judge sat upwind from the fire naked to the waist, himself like some great pale deity, and when the black’s eyes reached his he smiled. The woman ceased. The fire fled down the wind.21

It’s this blackened sense that the judge is something else, something other, a being separate from men – possibly an archon, or ancient watcher, a dark and abiding lord of death, a mortician of fate walking among men like a son of Lucifer, the Demiurge that seems to awaken in others both fear and derision, terror and uneasy laughter.

Another time the judge is pondering the ores in a cache, speaking to those who would learn the ways of the elements:

In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.22

Again, this knowing smile. There comes a moment when the Kid confronts Tobin about the judge, wondering if he were a god fearing man or a devil in disguise. Tobin will listen to the Kid as he asks: “And the judge? Does the voice speak to him?” (KL 2120) – Speaking of God. Tobin will finally tell the Kid, when asked if everyman has known the judge before the company was formed: Tobin smiled. “Every man in the company claims to have encountered that sootysouled rascal in some other place.” (KL 2122)

On another day a Tennessean named Webster had been watching him and he asked the judge what he aimed to do with those notes and sketches and the judge smiled and said that it was his intention to expunge them from the memory of man. Webster smiled and the judge laughed. Webster regarded him with one eye asquint and he said: Well you’ve been a draftsman somewheres and them pictures is like enough the things themselves. But no man can put all the world in a book. No more than everthing drawed in a book is so.23 The judge answers

My book or some other book said the judge. What is to be deviates no jot from the book wherein it’s writ. How could it? It would be a false book and a false book is no book at all. … You’re a formidable riddler and I’ll not match words with ye. Only save my crusted mug from out your ledger there for I’d not have it shown about perhaps to strangers. The judge smiled. … Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world. (KL 2375-2380)

As if the whole world is a vast Book, a book that the judge alone administers, and – rules. A Book from which he can expunge any and all things from at his own pace and sounding. In another moment and day, they come upon a scene of wild birds parleying in the folds of the air. Toadvine pesters the judge about how they might catch these critters. As usual the judge waxes metaphysical about rulers, suzerains, power and freedom. Then he placed his hands on the ground,  “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.” (KL 3308)

This notion of dispensation goes back to Biblical exegesis (and we know the Bible and its prose is the greatest influence on Mccarthy’s work) in which the final dispensation is that of the Devil himself, Lucifer or Satanel:

But when Satan is “loosed a little season,” he finds the natural heart as prone to evil as ever, and easily gathers the nations to battle against the Lord and His saints, and this last dispensation closes, like all the others, in judgment. The great white throne is set, the wicked dead are raised and finally judged, and then come the “new heaven and a new earth.” Eternity is begun. (See Rev. 20:3,7-15; Rev. 21 and 22.)

Or, as the judge will tell Toadvine.

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. (KL 3311)

Almost on cue Toadvine asks: I dont 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. (KL 3315)

Again, the smile as if the judge was in on that very secret that was hidden from all those who live in fear and mystery. As if the judge held the pattern in his mind of the ways of things, a master of time and the mysteries of the cosmic catastrophe that brought this world into being long ago.

In another of those firelight lectures the judge loves to give he’ll bring up the notion of how ignorant and foolish we are to think we know anything at all:

Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others. (KL 4093)

At this one of the men, Davy, will say: “That’s some more of your craziness…”. And, once again the judge smiles. He produces a gold coin and begins throwing it out and around the fire till it returns to his open palm, then he shows the coin to Davy and the others and proceeds to throw the coin out beyond the rim of the fire and into the darkness of the night. He smiles. They wait. After a while he opens his palm back up and the coin suddenly appears from nowhere moving silently across the fire and back into his palm. He smiles and closes his palm. The men mutter among themselves:

Even so some claimed that he had thrown the coin away and palmed another like it and made the sound with his tongue for he was himself a cunning old malabarista and he said himself as he put the coin away what all men knew that there are coins and false coins. In the morning some did walk over the ground where the coin had gone but if any man found it he kept it to himself and with sunrise they were mounted and riding again. (KL 4108)

Once again it comes down to a trust issue, the notion that the judge is something else, not to be trusted, a stranger in their midst. Which brings us to the first time the Glanton gang met the judge in the middle of nowhere, horseless, alone, sitting in an almost Buddha like stance, legs crossed, smiling: And there he set. No horse. Just him and his legs crossed, smilin as we rode up. Like he’d been expectin us. He’d an old canvas kitbag and an old woolen benjamin over the one shoulder. In the bag was a brace of pistols and a good assortment of specie, gold and silver. He didnt even have a canteen. It was like … You couldnt tell where he’d come from. Said he’d been with a wagon company and fell out to go it alone. … (KL 2141)

In the end the judge is an enigma, the riddle of journey’s end, a tale that has no ending or beginning, but seems to float like the judge smiling in-between two worlds – ours and the dark shadow world below the threshold where the judge sits like some Lord of Misrule. Maybe we might remember V.S. Naipaul in his confrontation with enigmas: I began to be awakened by thoughts of death, the end of things; and sometimes not even by thoughts so specific, not even by fear rational or fantastic, but by a great melancholy. This melancholy penetrated my mind while I slept; and then, when I awakened in response to its prompting, I was so poisoned by it, made so much not a doer (as men must be, every day of their lives), that it took the best part of the day to shake it off. And that wasted or dark day added to the gloom preparing for the night.” (V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival)

Or of that painting by Chirico The Enigma of Arrival of which Naipaul says

…that wicked, hypnotizing city towards which the two cloaked figures walk. For two days they had sailed, staying close to the shore. On the third day the captain wakened his deck passenger and pointed to the city on the shore. “There. You are there. Your journey’s over.” But the passenger, looking at the city in the morning haze, seeing the unremarkable city debris floating out on the sea, unremarkable though the city was so famous—rotten fruit, fresh branches, bits of timber, driftwood—the passenger had a spasm of fear. He sipped the bitter honey drink the captain had given him; he pretended to get his things together; but he didn’t want to leave the ship.24

This sense that we really don’t want to arrive at all, we want the journey to go on and on and on without any resolution. Maybe we want to enter some grand Old West tale, some ancient bar hall in the desert, dance with a bald giant who seems to hold the keys to the mysteries, to the patterns of life and death

And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. 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.25

The judge will offer the Kid a chance, a chance to overcome that mortal fear and terror of being human: “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?” (KL 5513)

Yet, the Kid will have none of it, calling it craziness. Just before the judge kills the Kid he will tell him: “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.” (KL 5548)

Death is inevitable, but how will you face it? How will you go out? Under your own terms or those of another? You’re fate or an other’s? Will it come to you like a thief in the night, a surprise? Or will you come to it wide-eyed and awake, meeting it head on? (I want spoil this: you will have to read the novel to know how the Kid faced his death.) With the death of the Kid at the hands of the judge we are reminded of the lesson on war, war as the only power, the only good, the only god of this dominion:

The judge smiled, his face shining with grease. What right man would have it any other way? he said. … It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way. … This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.26

(Note… Hopefully this will be my final foray into Mccarthy’s work for now. )


  1. Tiffany, Daniel. Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (p. 9). University of Chicago Press – A. Kindle Edition.
  2. Cited by Sam Newton (Cambridge, 1993), The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, p. 6.
  3. Mary R. Gerstein (Berkeley, Ca., 1974), ‘Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werwolf’, in G.J. Larson (ed.), Myth in Indo-European Antiquity, p. 132.
  4. Cormac Mccarthy. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (Kindle Locations 817-823). Modern Library. Kindle Edition.
  5. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1870-1876).
  6. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1149-1151).
  7. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1180-1181).
  8. (Kindle Locations 1272-1276)
  9. (Kindle Locations 2934-2939).
  10. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  New World Library; Third edition (July 28, 2008)
  11. Arnold van Gennep. The Rites of Passage.  University of Chicago Press (June 22, 2011)
  12.  ibid. (Kindle Locations 81-83).
  13. (Kindle Locations 97-101).
  14.  (Kindle Locations 237-240).
  15. (Kindle Locations 1079-1080).
  16. de Sade, Marquise. 120 Days Of Sodom. Wilder Publications (June 10, 2015)
  17. Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. City Lights Publishers (January 1, 1986)
  18. Robison, John Elder. The meaning of a smile. Psychology Today Dec 14, 2010.
  19. Lynn Horth, ed. Correspondence. The Writings of Herman Melville: The Northwestern-Newberry Edition, Vol. 14, p. 203 (Letter of August 24, 1851). Evanston, IL and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1993.
  20. ibid. (Kindle Locations 4088-4095).
  21. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1593-1595).
  22. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1990-1993).
  23. ibid. (Kindle Locations 2369-2373).
  24. V. S. Naipaul. The enigma of arrival: a novel (Kindle Locations 2671-2676). Vintage Books. Kindle Edition.
  25. ibid. (Kindle Locations 5604-5610).
  26. ibid.  (Kindle Locations 4165-4169).

4 thoughts on “The Smile at the Foot of Time: The Enigma of Judge Holden in Cormac Maccarthy’s Blood Meridian

  1. Thumbing through my copy I see only two marginalia of my own inscription. The first one brackets a pronouncement of the Judge: All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins. The second marking flags an observation proffered by the narrator: Notions of chance and fate are the preoccupation of men engaged in rash undertakings.

    In his exchange with Webster the Judge manifests perhaps every writer’s fantasy, his words creating and destroying whole worlds. Webster’s name immediately brings to mind the American dictionary — another way of writing the world into existence. Webster objects to the Judge’s conceit: But no man can put all the world in a book. Well said, Marcus, spoke the judge. Marcus — a classical name, a philosopher’s name. I’m no philosopher, but didn’t Marcus Aurelius set himself the task of understanding the world stripped of judgment? Webster hails from Tennessee; so does the Kid; so does McCarthy.

    Excellent observations about the blueness that permeates so many scenes which, as you point out, co-exists with the “deathly white heat” of the desert abyss. The third color of course is red: the blood meridian, the evening redness in the west. American flag colors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yea, there’s a never ending supply of details and marginalia that could spin off other types of essays, and the one above is a mere first draft in one I may publish in some journal or other. It’ll need a great deal of filling out, compression, and rewrites, though. 🙂

      Yea, hadn’t thought of the Aurelius or American colors, Tennessee angle, etc. More grist for the mill… the two angles I’ve been pursuing in a first reading is my favorites: nihilism and Gnosticism. In several essays, especially one by Steven Shaviro (the nihilist angle: “”The Very Life of the Darkness”: A Reading of Blood Meridian”) and, Leo Daughtery (“Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy”) in a group of essays: Perspectives on McCarthy.

      Another work is Petra Mundik’s ‘A Bloody and Barbarous God: The Metaphysics of Cormac Mccarthy’ which explores both the nihilistic and Gnostic angles as well. I have several other books of essays and guides, etc. Working through each of Mccarthy’s later works… I read him a few years back, but a lot of new critical and philosophical thought seems to force me to revise and take a second dipping into his oeuvre.

      Like

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