An Essay Featured in The Breaking of the Day

Blood Meridian

Inspired by an Other Life Discussion with Justin Murphy

O.G. Rose

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Photo by Ramsha Asad

Negative Theology teaches us that it is better to say, “God doesn’t exist,” versus claim “God exists,” because what we mean by God is so far off from God’s actual being that speaking of God’s nonexistence is closer to the truth. In Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, this logic applies to evil: evil is so much worse than we realize that it’s better to say “evil doesn’t exist” versus say it does, because what we mean by evil is but a shadow and falsity. Judge Holden is clearly a Satan figure, but it is also more accurate to say Holden isn’t Satan, for whatever we think constitutes Satan (perhaps pale, towering, hairless…), Satan isn’t just that. Evil is unknowable, as the Judge sets out to make the universe and everything living accept.

Thanks to Other Life and Justin Murphy for the reading group and discusson on Blood Meridan which inspired this paper! Join the community today for regular discussions on great books and texts of all genres.

So long as there is mystery in the universe and things we don’t know, we can always imagine that evil can be known, it just hasn’t been yet. Judge Holden tells us that ‘[t]he freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos.’¹ All will be known. All will be catalogued and sketched. For ‘[w]hatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,’ the Judge says.² And after the Judge sketches his counterfeits, he destroys the originals, and thus the counterfeits cease to be counterfeits: they are all there is (a copy without an original is “practically” the original, a point which suggest Baudrillard). So it is that once civilization spreads upon the West and urbanizes it all, its as if the West was never a mystery and never savage: there is only the “now,” the present moment (and who can say there was ever a past, ‘for ‘[d]id [we] ever post witnesses?’).³ Is civilization the Judge or is the wildness-yet-civilized? This is the question which the novel leaves us with: is the transformations of all unknown-territories into known-territories through civilization a victory of the Judge or an act of his defeat? If ultimately the Judge is an Apophatic Satan, a personification of the evil unknown in all of us, then the efforts of civilization to know everything will ultimately just lead us to a place where the Judge is alone left standing as unknown and ‘a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgments.’⁴ And so the Epilogue leaves us with a question in describing a fence-layer, ‘a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground.’⁵ Is the laying of fence a victory or defeat of the Judge? Is the well-educated Judge civilization or its opposite (note how well the Judge kills Indians). Indeed, it is hard to imagine World Wars without fences, parents of a Modern blood-line, a blood-meridian of an earth. But the fencer-layer ‘strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again,’ hole by hole.⁶ What networks would there be without fences? Is civilization a Promethean fire which keeps us warm or burns us alive? (How can it be both?)

The Judge tells us that ‘[t]he man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lies in mystery and fear,’ and the Judge also says that ‘the 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.’⁷ ⁸ But the Judge also kills children and “the kid,” those for whom the universe is yet ‘bled of its strangeness [from birth].’⁹ What are we to make of this? Well, that only the Judge will know the universe and understand it. He alone will experience the universe as strange and alien and truly believe and know that ‘anything is possible.’¹⁰ The kid understood this, for he was one who aged and yet the world never lost its strangeness to him, and the kid did not flinch before the universe (like the native child who sat on the Judge’s knee and played). And so the kid had to die at the hands of the Judge, and so there was none left but the Judge to be ‘suzerain of the earth.’¹¹ For ‘[t]here is room on the stage for one beast and one alone. All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name.’¹² And so the Judge kills the kid and there is speaking. ‘He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.’¹³ ‘Neither flesh nor fleshless […] there the dance is […]’¹⁴

‘Only nature can enslave man,’ the Judge tells us, ‘and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.’¹⁵ Indeed, the Judge will make all the universe stand naked before him, but when the Judge is naked before us, guided by an idiot through a desert, we understand nothing. He cannot be made intelligible, for he is an Apophatic Satan. His guide and eyes is not one who ‘put[s] there [any] string in a maze,’ for the Judge seeks to find the unintelligible and unknown to make it known while he himself is ultimately unknown.¹⁶ God knows all, and yet God cannot be known. Satan will be the same. ‘Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which [we] see is that which [we] have put there, like a string in a maze, so that [we] shall not lose []our way.’¹⁷ The Judge seeks no way, for he seeks to go to what is not known so that he might judge it and represent it and make it known. He alone will be unknown. He alone will be unjudgable. He is Judge, a White Whale who stands as incomprehensible and raged. The Judge is the White Whale and Ahab combined. The Judge is an Apophatic Satan, and so there are great stakes in determining if the Judge is civilization. ‘[A]nything is possible.’¹⁸ There is always hope because there could always be a Judge. ‘[A] hat trick in a medicine show.’¹⁹

‘[T]he mystery is that there is no mystery,’ that everything in the universe can be known and yet the Judge be unknowable.²⁰ Evil is in the world but not of it. The world is not all there is, then, and so the Judge is transcendent. He is not bound by the world. He can seemingly teleport, make coins fly, as we can fly through the air in planes and use the internet to contact people around the world (the line between technology and magic is thin). Is not civilization at war with nature? Is not the Judge at war with the universe? To prove everything in the universe is knowable so that he alone can stand before us naked and be unknowable? ‘The arc of circling bodies is determined by the length of their tether,’ and our tether is what we do not know: the Judge will know all and so encompass all and not be compassed.²¹ ‘[A]ll men [know] there are coins and false coins,’ but the Judge will be beyond all coins and the standard according to which truth and falsity will be determined, as civilization is what determines truth and falsity while hiding from us wilderness and nature.²² Where is the counterfeit? Where is the real?

‘Men are born for games. Nothing else,’ but ‘[g]ames of chance require a wager to have meaning at all,’ and the Judge constantly wages his life so that his game with the universe is meaningful.²³ And his game with the universe is a war against it, to prove it all knowable except him, for he is not part of the universe but Apophatic and unjudgable. ‘War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.’²⁴ And the Judge is war with the universe. He is that which isn’t the universe and so can war with it. He is capable of what is unimaginable, and so proves the universe a place where all can occur. The universe is not the same with the Judge in it. The counterfeit and the real are bled into one another, bleeding. ‘Men of god and men of war have strange affinities.’²⁵ ‘God’s blood, do you think you’ll best him any other way?’²⁶

Only the Judge can believe the universe is strange; all else not bled free of this thinking must perish. The kid must die and dies strangely as a testament to what the kid could bear. Did he bear it? He is gone. Vanished. Perhaps the Judge could make others vanish like he could vanish and appear? Speculation. Unknowable, and so like the Judge. Violence is truth, and knowledge is violence against the unknown. Is civilization violent or does it stop violence? Only the unjudgable can be Judge, and only the Judge can say, as only civilization seems allowed to say if civilization is good or bad. Civilization cannot be questioned. It is the standard which makes questions possible. Are the Indians violent because the giant white man comes, or is the giant white man who stops the violence? We must choose as readers. And as we choose ‘the judge [will] visit. Who would come other?’²⁷ The Judge will judge our interpretations of him. Civilization will judge our views of civilization. This does not mean we will be wrong. But so what if we are right? ‘[T]he judge judge and the night does not end.’²⁸ We are each a ‘false moneyer […] who seeks favor with the judge.’²⁹ Will he be pleased of our sketches? Our fences? Civilization proves or disproves of civilization. It cannot be questioned for it is the possibility of questioning. It is better to say civilization doesn’t exist…When ‘[t]he fool [is] no longer there’ there is us making our strings in mazes.³⁰ And we judge what we make and are judged. And there can be only one judge. We make a ‘coinage for a dawn that [will] not be.’³¹

The Judge sketches because ‘it [is] his intention to expunge [the originals] from the memory of man,’ which means all that will be left are his counterfeits — so civilization does the same with the wilderness, erasing it from memory.³² The one ‘who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe,’ but the universe cannot be altered, only replaced with testaments to its knowability.³³ Everything can be known not changed, for only the Judge can be unknown in the end — that cannot change. His sketches and ‘notebooks and bones and stuff’ — all of these are ‘contained in that of war,’ and against the universe the White Judge and Whale rages like Ahab, clever as Iago, for it is cleverness that is needed for knowing and judging all.³⁴ ‘[W]ar is the truest form of divination’ and the supreme example of ‘[h]istoric law subvert[ing]’ moral law: it is conflict which writes history, and civilization is a conflict against the wilderness.³⁵ Where a meridian is drawn, there is blood.

And so we return to our question: is civilization the Judge? I believe it is only the final scene of the dance and the Epilogue which are in present tense, suggesting both are “always already” occurring and suggesting they are either forces in conflict or forces which are the same. ‘It a great thing, the dance,’ the Judge says, and do we dance when we fence or does fencing stop the dance?³⁶ ‘[T]he dance is the thing with which we are concerned and contains complete within itself its own arrangement and history and finale [and] there is no necessity that the dancers contain these things within themselves.’³⁷ Civilization is emergent and presents itself as “the end of history.” Is evil? ‘You aint nothin,’ the kid tells the Judge, and he replies, ‘You speaker truer than you know.’³⁸ ‘He never sleeps, the judge.’³⁹

Satan is what is not “Satan,” as God is not “God.” The more the universe is known and civilization spreads, the more we might reach the day when we cannot deny that evil is ultimately unknowable (a point which brings Lancelot to mind by Walker Percy). If evil cannot be known, does this prove God? We have discussed in The Breaking of the Dawn that much of the Western Canon is a great dialectic and dance between Athens and Jerusalem: in the end, when this dance has stepped over every step and made knowable all that can be known, will we be left unable to know the Judge. Is that all which awaits us? Is civilization a process in service of the Judge that will find the Judge waiting to judge us? We must decide if we believe this today. We must make our Absolute Choice and dance. ‘At the still point.’⁴⁰ ‘[R]ound and perfect.’⁴¹

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Notes

¹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 208.

²McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 207.

³McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 344.

⁴McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 207.

⁵McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 351.

⁶McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 351.

⁷McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 207.

⁸McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 208.

⁹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 256.

¹⁰McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 256.

¹¹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 207.

¹²McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 345.

¹³McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 349.

¹⁴Allusion to The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.

¹⁵McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 207.

¹⁶McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 256.

¹⁷McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 256.

¹⁸McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 208.

¹⁹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 208.

²⁰McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 263.

²¹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 257.

²²McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 257.

²³McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 260.

²⁴McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 261.

²⁵McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 262.

²⁶McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 298.

²⁷McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 322.

²⁸McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 323.

²⁹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 323.

³⁰McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 323.

³¹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 322.

³²McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 147.

³³McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 152.

³⁴McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 260.

³⁵McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 261.

³⁶McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 341.

³⁷McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 342.

³⁸McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 345.

³⁹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 349.

⁴⁰Allusion to The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.

⁴¹McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York, NY: First Vintage International Edition, 1992: 351.

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O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart. https://linktr.ee/ogrose