Writing Seeing: Blood Meridian (2)

Continued from the previous post.

If the novel can be said to have a centre, a still point upon which the seer intensifies its focus until it loses interest in other people and other places, that centre would be the grotesque monstrosity known only as Judge Holden. A man very literally larger than life, Holden is a seven-foot-tall albino, “outsized and childlike” and “bald as a stone,” with a command of apparently every language ever spoken and with knowledge of every subject ever considered by the human mind. It is said of the Judge that he is “a hand at anything,” able to “turn to a task but what he didnt prove clever at it.” He can “outdance the devil himself” and he can play the fiddle more gracefully than anyone else who picks it up. “He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer,” and, according to hearsay, “[h]e’s been all over the world.” He is, in addition, a paedophile, a murderer, a man who kills puppies for fun, and he demonstrates a store of supernatural abilities. He seems able to teleport from place to place and to manipulate reality to suit his needs. He can stand in raging flames without doing harm to himself and he can wield a Howitzer cannon as if it is only a pistol. He hurls a downed meteorite an impossible distance through the air, he concocts a fistful of gunpowder from the elements of the desert sand, and, by the end of the novel, he appears to have not aged a day despite the passage of some thirty years. In his presence other men speak “with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.” The seer bestows lavish attention upon him, far more than upon anyone else, and thus enables the Judge alone to articulate a unique worldview that echoes the way in which the seer itself seems to see the world.

The Judge speaks in a voice that shares the seer’s idiosyncratic vocabulary and syntactical complexities. “These anonymous creatures,” he says of the animals for whom the desert is home, “may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man 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.” Moreover, as those words suggest, the Judge hungers for power not unlike that of the seer, a power sufficient to render him an omniscient arbiter of all existence. At one point, “plac[ing] his hands on the ground,” he makes an announcement to Glanton’s men: “This is my claim,” he says. “And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. [But i]n order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.” The logic of this worldview extends to plainly ludicrous lengths — “The freedom of birds is an insult to me,” he declares thereafter, and adds, “I’d have them all in zoos” — but, even so, he continues to subscribe to it and later he even lays bare the principles it rests upon. “The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear,” he says. “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.”

Dana Phillips suggests that Judge Holden, being “loquacious, even multilingual, and an intellectual with a great store of both practical and arcane information,” seems to engage in   a sort of “implicit dialogue with the impersonal, highly detailed, and verbally ingenious narration.” Similarly, for Joshua Masters, the Judge “provides the coherence, the order, the meaning” of the actions of Glanton’s men via “a totalizing [philosophical] structure based on violence, war, and his own textual authority.” How far does this textual authority reach? Is it possible that the voice of the Judge and the voice of the seer are in fact one and the same? Are the words of the seer a formal projection of the philosophical position underpinning the words of the Judge? At one point the two voices merge together as the Judge speaks words that insinuate themselves into the prose of the seer. “[T]he shapes of what varied paths,” says the seer, “conspired here in the ultimate authority of the extant — as he told them — like strings drawn together through the eye of a ring.” But these two entities cannot finally be one and the same because their respective ways of seeing the world also contradict one another. Although the seer has a way of seeing the world which the Judge appears to emulate, the Judge is impelled to emulate it by a desire to overpower all other men around him whereas the seer’s adoption of it reduces the affairs of men to worthless trivialities. In aspiring to make himself “suzerain of the earth,” the Judge both presupposes and promotes a hierarchy of authority amongst worldly things which contravenes what the seer sees as the neutrality of those things. “In the neuter austerity of that terrain,” the seer says of the boundless desert,

all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.

It is on the basis of these remarks that Vereen M. Bell, among others, has described Blood Meridian as “a critique of our culture’s anthropocentrism.” “From [the seer’s] point of view,” adds Dana Philips, “persons are not privileged as subjects. … [T]he human does not stand out among the other beings and objects that make up the world… [and the seer] treat[s] everything and everybody with absolute equanimity.” “Minute details and impalpable qualities are registered with such precision,” Steven Shaviro concurs, “that the prejudices of anthropocentric perceptions are disqualified” and the result is “a kind of perception before or beyond the human. This is not a perspective upon the world, and not a vision that intends its objects; but an immanent perspective that already is the world, and a primordial visibility, a luminescence, that is indifferent to our acts of vision because it is always passively at work in whatever objects we may or may not happen to look at.”

Judge Holden appears to possess some sense of what these readers have pointed out. “The truth about the world,” he says to Glanton’s men, “is that anything is possible. … [M]ore things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.” The difference between the Judge and the seer, however, is that the Judge wants to overcome this “truth” until it is no longer a truth at all. He wants to elevate his consciousness to the omniscient heights occupied by the seer so that his mind, and his mind alone, is not merely “a fact among others” but is instead the supreme fact, a fact that perceives the totality of facts, the world and everything in it, all that is the case. What Judge Holden seems not to realize, however, is that the possession of a consciousness as immanent as that of the seer advances so dramatic a forfeiture of human experience, so extreme a supersession of human scale within the world, that it wholly erodes the very grounds on which the Judge would seek to possess it in the first place. While he hopes to obtain a supremacy over other men sufficient to rival the supremacy of the seer, the seer’s supremacy over the world at large obliterates all conceptions of the hierarchical distinctions between worldly objects on which the Judge’s thirst for it is founded.

The corollary of all this, of course, is that the ambitious and almighty Judge Holden is, for the seer, no more than a joke, an insect trapped in a jar and left to simply rage at the captors who observe it from beyond the glass. And almost as if to breathe life into this notion, Blood Meridian comes to a close with an epilogue that takes a fantastic leap through time to depict the closure and partition of the expanses through which the Judge once led Glanton’s men on their bloody rampage. The final achievement of the seer and its way of seeing, then, is to dwarf and diminish the outlandish megalomaniac who would otherwise dominate Blood Meridian, a megalomaniac whose utmost desires in fact entail an affront to the very nature of the seer. The grotesque philosophy and otherworldly qualities of the Judge may attract the attention of the reader, and the seer is perhaps attracted to him for his wanting to see the world much as the seer does, but the seer eventually undermines the Judge by appending a chronicle of his actions with a vision of a future world in which suzerainty is divided and diffuse rather than distilled into a single man. Perhaps, however, this should come as no surprise, since within the scope of the novel the seer itself denies the Judge his suzerainty from the moment its words begin. “See the child,” it demands. “He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.” The Judge will soon appear, seen by the kid who is seen by the seer, but the first thing the seer sees, and the first thing it instructs us readers to see, is not Judge Holden at all but his adversarial opposite.

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