by Ezekiel Fry
Blood Meridian is a massive work. Its beauty and significance perches atop the rough-hewn stacks of American letters like an angelic vulture, drawing deeply from the foundations beneath its talons while screeching harmoniously up and out to the present moment. It is the type of book that inspires metaphors such as these. It is the type of book that inspires through its domination, its stylistic effortlessness, and its unrelentingly vicious subject matter. It is, as the saying so often goes, an important work. All this is true. I doubt there are many who would deny the power and magnitude of McCarthy’s opus, but the true question lingers. Why does this book, written in the late 20th century and dealing with the murky happenings on the Mexican border lands in 1849, so chillingly touch the American present? Which it most assuredly does, just wait until the movie comes out if you doubt it. The possible answer: In the language of old Puritan lore, it is the presence of what those early Calvinists called “The Black Man,” (the devil) that makes this tale so disturbingly American. (This devil who, as in Melville, is strikingly white.) It is within the duality of extremes, that we, as Americans, are most comfortable. It is only in the company of the Judge that we truly find ourselves, and, since the first terror-eyed denizens of Salem and Plymouth peeped into the dark forests of their souls, it is the only place, these shadowy corners of our soul, that we will never admit to knowing.
There are many different views of the Judge as the tale progresses, but the first vision is seen in the third person, yet effectively through the Kid’s eyes (as the vast majority of the book is). McCarthy writes:
An enormous man dressed in an oilcloth slicker had entered the tent and removed his hat. He was bald as a stone and he had no trace of beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them. He was close on to seven feet in height and he stood smoking a cigar even in this nomadic house of God and he seemed to have removed his hat only to chase the rain from it for now he put it on again. (6)
Here, in the infancy of the tale, but deep enough into our understanding of the world the Kid resides in, the world that will seem to spring up around him, we already see that each new character entering into the drama seems merely window dressing, or, as will become clearer later, merely a living comet racing heedlessly towards a terrible certainty. The Judge, in his physical appearance, his nonchalance, his subtle disregard for the trappings of God, stands apart from this certainty. The Judge, when compared to the hideous visage of Toadvine:
His head was strangely narrow and his hair was plastered up with mud in a bizarre and primitive coiffure. On his forehead were burned the letters H T and lower and almost between the eyes the letter F and these markings were splayed and garish as if the iron had been left too long. When he turned to look at the kid the kid could see that he had no ears. (11)
This description rears its head almost immediately after the Kid’s initial encounter with the Judge. The judge is not a man diminished, mutilated, or malformed. From the outset we see him in the light of power and assurance. He is a hairless oddity to be certain, but it appears, especially when juxtaposed against the description of Toadvine, that the Judge is exactly as he has been from his creation onwards. Toadvine’s hacked ears and branded face indicate not only change, but the course of a human life, the slipping into degradation that so encompasses the characters of the book. That is, with the glaring exception of the Judge. McCarthy goes to great lengths to describe the filthy, matted, and greasy hair and beards of Glanton’s company, while at once impressing again the sheer nakedness of the Judge. As the men sit about the campfire wiping grease in their hair and beards the judge sits shirtless in the firelight (McCarthy 92-3). The separation will continue throughout, keeping the Judge a separate entity to the company itself. He is virtually always present, but he seldom acts as prime-mover.
This separation is unmistakable as the story progresses. Glanton is the captain, while the Judge merely sits as his advisor. In tacitly assuming this and in addition the Judge’s general desire to equate God and war, several critics have asserted that the Judge is a symbol of war, an allegorical representation of war itself. This assertion is true. The Judge stands apart from humanity proper and this must be accounted for. The main problem with viewing the Judge in a war-god light is that his relationship extends so much further than merely the madness of war. The Judge presides over the dance. What is the dance? Most assuredly it is life itself. Who, according to both Biblical and epic traditions, was the first soul to make war in the universe? Lucifer. Now we see the conversation developing. Satan alone can encompass the monumental figure that is the Judge.
It does not seem necessary to spend an overly long time discussing the similarities between the traditional image of Satan and the Judge, for anyone with a working knowledge of Milton and Goethe will begin to see the connections early on. From the tiny size of his feet, to his ability to speak any language, to his immense geological knowledge, to the continual reference to his God-like nature, the parallels between the adversary of man and the Judge are written in subtle bold lettering. Instead of examining these traditional trimmings it may be helpful to look at some of the more troubling—in a book filled with depravity—instances involving the Judge, firstly his seeming predilection towards pedophilia.
It is not overtly stated that the Judge kills the first dead boy found in the squalid compound of the American squatters, but it is deeply suggested. The Judge asks about the boy upon initially seeing him, and then the night the boy is slain he is seen in a grandly lurid light, “Someone 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 (118).” This description is quickly followed by a brief and unsettling exchange between Toadvine and the Judge, and then the finding of the dead boy:
He was lying face down naked in one of the cubicles. Scattered about on the clay were great numbers of old bones. As if he like others before him had stumbled upon a place where something inimical lived. (118)
By this time in the tale it is evident that the company itself is “inimical” in nature, but it will not be until much further along that we see that this particular word, this particular type of evil, is specific to the Judge only. The something that destroyed the boy also destroyed the former possessors of the “old bones”, and the “place” where it lives is ubiquitous. This hindsight after we have seen the Judge specifically murder children and engage in sordid dealings with others brings the terrifying nature of this first incident into a new light. He has been there all the while, destroying the young systematically, or by use of no system at all. In this desire to destroy, the Judge is not exclusive, but it is only in his dealings with children that we see anything resembling a sexual nature within him. And it is through sex that true violence is expressed in the lurid world of Blood Meridian. When taken at face value this is at once shocking and disturbing, but if the nature of Satan and his envious nature is brought into play the situation becomes even darker. Satan, the prince of our world, the master of man’s fall, the adversary of mankind, envies Man’s placement as God’s favorite. Much in the same way that he initially helped in the destruction of the first two humans, he now destroys the young outright. Youth represents man before the fall, and in deliberately and brutally destroying youth the Judge reenacts the events of Genesis. Each innocent life forcefully ripped from existence by Satan’s own hand reenacts that single moment of triumph in the garden. It is telling that while the Judge deliberately destroys youth, he allows Glanton, Brown, Toadvine, and the rest to exist towards their certainty. The only member of the company whose destiny he corporally exerts his force over is the Kid.
The entire interaction between the Kid and Judge works as a strange inversion—or surreal adaptation—of Satan’s work in the book of Job. The author of the book of Job writes:
And the LORD said unto Satan, From whence comest thou? And Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause. And Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life. (2.2-6)
This passage serves as a framing device for Satan’s subsequent harassment of Job, at the bidding of God. It is a microcosm of Man’s fallen existence upon earth. Satan goes “to and fro in the earth” and touches Man at every turn. Job serves as everyman. With omnipotent God’s permission, Satan reaches out and touches everyman with his earthly presence, with what men call evil, but is truly Man’s inherited Satanic nature, that is to say, his humanity. God does not touch everyman unbidden. In this passage we see Satan goad God into action, or inaction as the case may be. Throughout Blood Meridian, the Judge, using divinely given abilities, attempts to keep each member of the company steadfastly within his camp, cursing God and attempting to cheat his own mortal existence. Of course, the advice and support of the devil is poor at best, and each member of the company falls into his own certainty—his own death. All save the Kid. He stands like Job, thwarted from all sides by the enemy, who is given free license to conduct the dance here on earth, but still holding something of himself back. This piece of himself, his personal soul, is what brings the Judge back into his life so many years later. Just like Job, the Kid has resisted to the very best of his ability the desire to throw over, to give all that he has for his life. This is perhaps best illustrated in the desert when both Toadvine and Brown sell their possessions for the Judge’s gold—earthly existence. The kid resists. Where it appears that both Brown and Toadvine will be destroyed by the Judge it is they themselves, in their folly, who meet their own destinies, and the Kid instead who must face the unmitigated wrath of Satan. Where Job is redeemed, the Kid finds only the broken husk of salvation (315). In the world of Blood Meridian there is no hope for redemption, merely a final reckoning. It is as if, and this too is reinforced throughout, God, having given the devil sway over millions of Jobs, has either fallen asleep or died. The divine which touches earth is all that is left, and that divinity is tainted and warped, just in the same ways as man himself. The Judge questions the Kid shortly before the end, “Was it always your idea, he said, that if you did not speak you would not be recognized (328).” The lamentations of Job are not present. The Kid merely held back, thinking that would save him from his destiny but in the end it is not enough. The world is populated more heavily by the dead than the living, as Faulkner put it, and each Job must finally meet his end, while the dance shuffles on.
In the characters of the Judge and the Kid we see the folly, fallacy, and depravity which bubbles inside the constantly swirling condition that manifests itself in living humanity. Each person touches both places—the Satanic and the patient, Job-like—in their circuit through the mortal world, but the sublime question that McCarthy poses, which stings long after the reader closes the book on Blood Meridian, is whether it is possible for man to touch, to even see, God. The melancholy truth may lie in the simple belief that it may not matter in the end. The dance will go on one way or the other.