This essay originally appeared in Unwinnable Monthly Issue 82 (August 2016).
In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy crafts a fictionalized account of the campaigns of the non-fictional Glanton gang, a group of bounty hunters tasked with the slaughter of indigenous Americans throughout northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States between 1849 and 1850, in the months following the end of the Mexican-American War. The governor of the state of Chihuahua enlists John Joel Glanton and a few dozen other men (mostly Americans) to eliminate Apache Indians living in the region. Compensation for the Glanton gang’s services comes only upon the presentation of the scalps of those killed. Glanton and his men soon begin murdering other Native American peoples and Mexican citizens, initially scalping the dead to provide false evidence for increased profits. Eventually, they drop even this reprehensible pretense, as the gang raids and plunders settlements throughout the region in a sustained massacre. There are almost no survivors; they leave no children orphaned.
The scalp hunters operate without any coherent doctrine. The pursuit of profit informs their initial outings, but this justification soon evaporates and an apparent thrill surfaces in its place. The gang seems driven by its own savage victories, propelled from one slaughter to the next on ugly adrenaline. Within this chaos, McCarthy places one character who distinguishes himself through his intellectualized approach to these events, as well as through his actions.
Judge Holden leaves an immediate, distinct impression on the reader due to McCarthy’s description of his physical appearance: he stands seven feet tall and is totally hairless, and the author details the intimidating effect of the judge’s presence in a room. The judge inhabits an enigmatic place within the narrative, as McCarthy offers little background or personal history for the character, and the judge never speaks of his personal life. However, the judge has an imposing intelligence. He speaks eloquently, is fluent in a number of languages, seems impeccably educated in fields like history, science and philosophy, and displays a keen understanding of strategy. He is also guilty of murdering many innocent people. McCarthy implies that he abuses a number of children. He is, even among Glanton’s gang, unique in his commitment of atrocity, at times earning shock or scorn from his companions for his behavior.
Throughout the novel, the judge otherwise fills his time with the documentation of natural phenomena encountered on the group’s travels, recording observations about animals, plants, insects and non-living material in a journal. Whenever possible, he writes down, apparently with great specificity, all he can discern from the environment around him. His appetite for knowledge seems insatiable. One evening, while engaged in this process, another member of the gang, Toadvine, asks him why he does this:
Toadvine sat watching him as he made his notations in the ledger, holding the book toward the fire for the light, and he asked him what was his purpose in all this.
The judge’s quill ceased its scratching. He looked at Toadvine. Then he continued to write again.
Toadvine spat into the fire. The judge wrote on and then he folded the ledger shut and laid it to one side and pressed his hands together and passed them down over his nose and mouth and placed them palm down on his knees.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
It’s in this statement that the judge’s hateful philosophy is revealed in its leanest and coldest expression. It is a terrifying sentence. As the judge’s actions demonstrate, for him, knowledge always implies violence. The acquisition of knowledge is an act of destructive consumption that offers benefit to no one but himself. His naming of “consent” indicates that he recognizes the rights of nothing else, that consequences are irrelevant, that his desires supersede everything. For the judge, the right for anything to exist is, itself, conditional. Where the rest of the group acts on unrestrained impulse, the judge maintains the philosophical engine of the Glanton gang’s conquest, giving their rampage shape and justification in the process.
Later in the conversation with Toadvine, the judge expands on this thought:
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.
For a book grounded so thoroughly in American history, the reverberations of these statements are significant. The judge’s hyper-rationalization reflects the spirit of the philosophy that fueled American expansion, the spirit of government and business interests that perceived the entire continent that surrounded them, and the peoples that populated it, as subject to their financial and political desires. It’s the ideology of the individual-over-all, the pioneer of American myth who earns, and deserves, his supremacy through determination, through willpower. In the judge’s reckoning, and as evidenced in this country’s history, there is no challenge that cannot be overcome and no crime that cannot be excused in pursuit of true agency. There is no greater indignity than to be accountable to someone or something else.
American interests, ultimately, were not satisfied once the country’s borders reached the West Coast and did not expire at the close of the 19th century. This philosophy remains relevant today, always adapting to changing structures in technology and capital.
If Judge Holden’s statement is surprising to the reader, it’s only because he expresses it without reservation or evasion. He asserts his justification for the subjugation of other peoples without any regard for the kind of equivocation typical in political messaging. The elegance of his phrasing invites the reader to consider his perspective rather than dismiss it outright. As he does throughout Blood Meridian, the judge constructs his argument with a striking rhetoric that belies its spurious character.
McCarthy, then, places the judge within a deep cultural tradition that allows audiences to respect or even revere hateful characters and villains. I have no idea how far back this tradition goes, but it persists today in modern forms like comic books, videogames and blockbuster movies. The specific reasons that a villain might earn respect vary from iteration to iteration, but often, these characters display a purity of vision that invites admiration. Though their motivations are misguided, their conviction is unassailable.
I think there’s an impulse within writers and audiences to use these kinds of characters as a means of discovering something about our own condition, as a way of learning something we can’t find in virtue or heroics. Through their inversions of the expected moral framework and their distorted perspectives on the world around them, we might be able to reveal some uncomfortable but necessary truths about ourselves. Some audiences then hope that we could use this understanding to suggest ways in which we might address real personal or societal problems.
Judge Holden may be among the most extreme examples of this fictive tradition and, as a result, McCarthy demonstrates the risks inherent in it. There is merit, of course, to the idea that we can’t ignore the ugliest realities of humanity. The judge is so intimidating and impressive a figure, though, that the book tempts generating an awe that overwhelms the recognition of his misanthropy.
There are times while reading Blood Meridian where I wondered if, by committing to the page such a comprehensive portrait of the venerated antagonist, the book might be riding the line between observation and indulgence too carelessly. In its recounting of the horrors perpetrated by the Glanton gang and sanctioned by the judge, Blood Meridian welcomes questions about the gratuitous. Perhaps, as we read through its miserable events and wrestle with the judge’s fascinating logic, we aren’t attempting to glimpse something of ourselves but thrilling in our worst impulses vicariously. Perhaps the real value of the judge is that he displays what a farce it is to think we can play with fire and not get burned. Abhorrent actions backed by well-developed reason are abhorrent regardless. To respect this kind of logical exercise too much, to spend too much time grappling with the mechanics of it rather than acknowledging what it wants to obscure, risks legitimizing the indefensible.
Toadvine says little during his campfire conversation with the judge, but his responses are important. After one of Holden’s declamations about the necessary quest for omniscience, Toadvine takes a beat and says only, “No man can acquaint himself with everthing on this earth.” This is the kind of dismissal the judge’s proselytizing warrants. It resists the temptation of false profundity and clever rhetoric. Toadvine is as guilty as the rest of the Glanton gang, but at least he knows bullshit when he hears it.