by Tom Lee
Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in a work of fiction. The Judge is the brains and the brawn of a group of scalp hunters who navigate the hellish terrain of the American South West in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Holden has been convincingly compared to a devilish manifestation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch (La Shot, 2009); a god of war, trained equally in martial arts and in the sophistry required to make a case for the inherent truthfulness of the outcomes decided in combat.
Holden is a fascinating character, at once deeply considered and seemingly unmarked by any trace of what one would recognise as moral scruple. In fact, the disregard of morals in favour of other commitments is a deliberate, philosophical imperative for the Judge. However, unlike his thuggish accomplices, Holden is learned, cosmopolitan, versed in multiple languages, a dancer, a diplomat of sorts, practiced in oratory, the law and the scientific method. He is the legitimating force around which the motely bunch of bloodthirsty bandits gathers for their dose of rational support and necessary delusion.
Holden does the most morally despicable things (raping and killing children, for example, and unlike the mercenaries with whom he rides, this is done in a seemingly considered fashion, after the madness of battle has subsided) and yet one witnesses him in moments of opportunistic magnanimity, which in the context are very perplexing, such as when he rescues “the idiot” from drowning: “he twisted the water from its hair and he gathered the naked and sobbing fool into his arms and carried it up into the camp and restored it among its fellows” (273). The Judge acts like a fallen angel through whom salvation and ruin are metered out according to a cryptic, endlessly preserved principle that when examined closely is nothing more than mood and opportunity. Like many of McCarthy’s villains, Holden is the twin faces of chance and determinism, what translates randomness into law and law into chaos. In this sense, for the Judge life only attains meaning when it is put at risk, whether it’s his life or the lives of those who by chance-fate he happens upon. In his own words:
Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principles that define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up the game, player, all. (262)
After reading Blood Meridian last summer, I encountered the Judge again, this time stripped of some of his specificity and murderous exaggeration, in the form of a theory about history and a particular kind of psychology said to play a formative role in its rhythms. In his self-styled “grand narrative”, In the World Interior of Capital, Peter Sloterdijk speculates about the psychology of the seafarers and settlers of the long colonial period, beginning with the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, and the material and psychological apparatuses of delusive and rational affirmation that offered the animating support structures for their hitherto impossible conquests. In a chapter titled “The Modern Age and the New Land Syndrome: Americanology 1”, Sloterdijk points to the remark of Thomas Jefferson that adorns the Library of Congress: “The earth belongs always to the living generation. They manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct” (cited in Sloterdijk 2013, 116). In Sloterdijk’s exegesis this is equivalent to “the view of the earth as found property and a resource” (116). Sloterdijk expands on this notion over the course of the chapter, describing the distinctive brand of fortune seeking legitimated by the colonial enterprises in the New World: “Anyone seeking their fortune on the chance grounds of overseas commonwealth must therefore be as much of a chance-taker as goes with being a land-taker…they invoke the right of the supreme moment: in this instant, justice must lie in the appropriation itself, not in fair trade and mutual acknowledgement” (118)—with an eye to the Judge one can read “appropriation” here as equally to do with life as land. Sloterdijk continues: “In the historical gap, people who would be looters in ordinary times are pioneers. Whoever found themselves charged with a crime being jurified, inhibited post-historical years would, in the turbulence of history in action, be considered an adventurer, hero and missionary of civilization” (118).
The Judge is the paradigm of this rationality. If anything he understands his context in a manner that transcends “history in action” in the sense described by Sloterdijk. He sees his deeds as part of a force that encapsulates history itself, war. For the Judge, his actions are legitimated not by the exceptional nature of the context in which he operates but by the belief in a longer history: “Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. This is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way” (262). This is of course the bank of historical inevitability from which those who invoke the “right of the supreme moment”, the right to appropriation by chance, continue to draw.
The parallels between McCarthy’s character and Sloterdijk’s analysis are particularly apparent if one examines the Judge’s predilection for accumulating, recording (he is an expert draftsman and taxidermist) and then destroying evidence from the new environments through which he travels. His interest in the world around him—and unlike his compatriots he is exceptionally curious—is in the service of his inability to appreciate or even admit the autonomy of other creatures. As the Judge remarks in a conversation with Toadvine, one of the bandits who begins to show a distaste for his crazed orations and demonic behavior: “This is my claim [placing hands on ground]. 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” (209). This attitude is informed by a fear of nature and the imperative to take control of one’s destiny: “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth” (209). For the Judge, a suzerain is a keeper whose rule “countermands local judgments” (209). Thus the internal autonomy of beings and the places in which they reside is subsumed by juridical force that is practiced in the arts of war, diplomacy, administration, the empirical sciences and the organisation of knowledge.
Old habits die hard. While it is tempting to regard the past in this sense as something that has been and will not repeat, it is abundantly clear that the aspects of the colonial mentality identified by Sloterdijk and the logic at the core of the Judge’s program of legitimation, are alive and well, albeit in form that operates by persuasion rather than force. In his recent speech at the ForestWorks dinner in Canberra, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott made the remark that “the environment is meant for man and not just the other way around” and that we should “intelligently make the most of the good things God has given us.” Abbott appeals to the idea that humans and the world (environment, nature) should exist together as though cohabitation were reducible to one formula: because man (to continue his use of the masculine pronoun) has the good fortune of being in the world, the world belongs to man. And while Abbott uses the word “husband” to describe his idealisation of the relationship between people who work with timber and the forest, “people who love what mother nature gives us and who want to husband it for the long-term best interests of humanity”, the word he should really be using is suzerain.
It would be poor form to make a direct comparison between Abbot and one of the most disagreeable villains in literary history, but in terms of the philosophy that underpins the idea that man is entitled to use what God has generously placed before him, the two are compellingly similar.
It is this sense of entitlement (to land or life) and the romance that is bound up with it that is so difficult to expunge from those who think and act through the philosophy espoused by Abbott. “Romance” might seem like the wrong word because as we are so often reminded our transactions with the environment are about livelihoods and economic results. However, it is important to recall that these enterprises in good part began and continue as adventures, and in an adventure without romance one is merely held captive, or in the Judge’s words, enslaved. And in the choice between murderous adventure and enslavement, the former will win out nearly always.
I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in the struggle to relinquish entitlements, but it is a struggle that good people should be having and they should be brave enough to have it publicly.
At the conclusion of Blood Meridian we perhaps see what is the only sign of weakness in the Judge’s otherwise perfectly constructed system of self-delusion. When typically pontificating on the need to give oneself to rhythms and opportunities of war, the Judge poses the following dilemma to the book’s reticent narrator, the Kid:
A ritual includes the letting of blood. Rituals which fail in this requirement are but mock rituals. Here every man knows the false at once. Never doubt it. That feeling in the breast that evokes a child’s memory of loneliness such as when others have gone and only the game is left with its solitary participant. A solitary game without opponent. Where only the rules are hazard…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? (347).
For the first time it is possible to detect a shred of humility in the Judge. His bloodthirsty adventures and his seemingly impenetrable riddles of justification are no more than rituals invented to stave off the condition of loneliness and despair. One might even suggest that the Judge’s desire for bloody rituals stems from his inability to see himself as welcomed by a world, as part of something, as more than one, when he is alone. His deeds in this sense lose the freight associated with historical inevitability and begin to sound more like a psychological maladaptation dressed up as a necessary practice.
Here is a problem worth finding answer for: how do we guarantee to those who believe they are entitled to all and any that despair and loneliness will not come if discipline requires they seek out other means to fulfillment? What’s more, how to do this in a world where God has fled? Perhaps a clue lies in the earlier misconception evident in the Judge’s remarks on games, “that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard”—perhaps if the Judge saw the game itself as something of worth then he wouldn’t be hell bent on wagers of such unsustainable magnitude?
To be continued…
List of works cited
La Shot, Derek N. “A God dances through me”: Judge Holden’s Nietzschean Dance of war in Blood Meridian. Diss.University of Alaska Anchorage, 2009.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. London: Picador, 1990.
Sloterdijk, Peter. In the World Interior of Capital. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.