Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who is Judge Holden?

The Personification of Evil in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian parts the curtains of human civility to reveal the terrible lust for violence and perversion that lies within. Set during the early days of the American experience, the book follows the exploits and misadventures of small band of bounty hunters as they rape and carve and shoot their way across the American southwest and on into Mexico, collecting scalps and whatever other treasures might come their way.

The book is unparalleled for its unflinchingly detailed violence and its eloquent, matter-of-fact tone. The reader is by turns horrified, challenged and entertained. The truth and reality of the work is undeniable, ineluctable, unforgiveable. We know of too many, too similar tales and events. The Glanton Gang is Vlad the Impaler, Hitler and Stalin; it is the Khmer Rouge and the FDLR in the Congo; it is Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.

The narrative is also deeply personal. Its protagonist is known first simply as “the kid”; some years later he becomes just as simply “the man”. The antagonist is slower to emerge, but eventually see that it is another member of Glanton Gang, Judge Holden, an enormous individual of great vigor and vitality, pale, hairless, and utterly ruthless in his embrace of killing and suffering. Though not nominally the gang’s leader, he is clearly their spiritual essence, and is said to have met and known every single man in the group at some time prior to their joining. Over the course of the book we learn that the Judge is no ordinary killer, but is equally a poet and philosopher, a pedophile, a natural scientist and historian, a rapist, an artist and even a dancer and a musician of considerable talent. Early on he saves the group from certain death by teaching them how to make their own gunpowder, but in the end, it is commonly believed, he not only betrays the entire gang but also delivers the kid into the hands of death via some unspeakable and, even in the wash of all that has gone before it, shocking means.

In course of my own reading I came to see Judge Holden in a very different light, and experienced the book’s ending from an entirely different perspective. For me Judge Holden and the kid are two sides of the same individual, even as Judge Holden is the dark side of every other member of the Glanton Gang, and not just metaphorically but literally so, in keeping with the literal nature of Blood Meridian.

Judge Holden, we are told, has encountered and come to know every single member of the gang at some point prior to their joining; far more than John Glanton he is the one common thread that binds them all together. The judge is not only tireless and physically imposing; he is invulnerable to death or serious injury, eventually outlasting, except for the kid, virtually every other man in the gang.

Where the book seems to hint – and most critics believe – that it is the Judge who is the surreptitious pedophile of the group, I think instead that it is the kid – our hero, our protagonist – who is really the one to blame for these acts – the kid acting out his Judge Holden shadow. Surely it is no coincidence that the first appearance of the judge in the kid’s life coincides with the very first such act described, via the judge’s patently false accusation of Reverend Green.
Judge Holden only begins to emerge as the kid’s antagonist – and therefore the book’s – once he begins to criticize the kid for his human weakness, a condition from which the Judge can never be said to suffer. The judge is particularly disdainful of the kid’s relationship with the expriest, who at least offers the kid some sense of humanity in their friendship, if only via his uneasy acceptance of guilt and remorse.

Later on, when “the kid” has become “the man”, the very essence of that transition seems to be that he has sworn off his Judge Holden side, and is living, at least for a time, a life that responds to violence and killing in a more ambiguous way, with compassion and remorse ascendant. This period begins with his encounter with the judge at the jail in San Diego, where they argue the very question of guilt, and is exemplified later still by the man’s treatment and ultimate killing of the foolishly young bonepicker, Elrod.

Most critics seem to believe that the man’s final encounter with Judge Holden ends with the man’s murder and possible rape. I think this is not the case. “Good God Almighty”, says the man who opens the door of the jakes, but what exactly does he see? More likely it is the man at all, but rather the little girl, the “little girl whose bear is dead for she is lost”, who has been ravaged by the man, who has succumbed to his own personal “immense and terrible” judge and committed the book’s final act of pedophilia. For then suddenly we are in the present tense, dancing to the fiddle of the naked judge, so light and nimble, who “never sleeps”, who says that he will “never die”, and who celebrates not the physical death of the man but rather the man’s final descent into spiritual depravity, his descent to “the floor of the pit”.

Blood Meridian is not an easy read, and certainly not a pleasant one, but its importance is impossible to deny, for its truth is universal, and as near to us today as ever. On some level we are all Judge Holden, we are all the personification of evil, and our willingness to dance Judge Holden’s dance is a near as the next overt expression of war or ethnic cleansing; of Jihad or religious self-righteousness; of terrorism and even capital punishment.