Gringo Lost

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How judge Holden (Blood Meridian) explains war

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blood meridian

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West is said to be one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.  It is laden with Biblical references, Greek mythology, filled with allusions to other great literary works – all of which go unbeknown to me.

Despite this, I do find one passage from the novel intriguing for its comparison of war and morality.  The question: is morality sufficient or does might make right?   Typically this might be framed as good vs evil, although it might be more war vs religion/faith in the Blood Meridian context.  Or more accurately McCarthy may be supplanting religion with war, exalting it as the supreme authority.  This is unmistakable when Holden says “war is god”.

Below is the passage but before we get into it,  here’s a short synopsis and overview of the relevant characters:  The book is a fictionalized account of the Glanton Gang which rides along the US-Mexico border shortly following the war in the 1850s.  The Glanton Gang gets paid to kill Indians but in reality just kills almost everyone they come across.  All the characters in this passage are members of the Gang.  Judge Holden has been described as one of the most frightening literary characters in history, he is perhaps the most ruthless of the Gang.  At almost 7′ tall and completely hairless many think that he is something other than human.  Dave Brown is a member of the gang who wears a neckless of Apache Indian ears.  Irving is another member of the Gang.  Tobin, is an ex-priest, who in many parts of the novel challenges judge Holden.

The passage starts with judge Holden (from page 249 in the book),

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification.  Seen so, war is the truest form of divination.  It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence.  War is god.

Brown studied the Judge.  You’re crazy Holden.  Crazy at last.

The judge smiled.

Might does not make right, said Irving.  The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally.

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.  Historical law subverts it at every turn.  A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views.  His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view.  The willingness of the principals to forgo further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof.  For the argument is indeed trivial, but not so the separate wills thereby made manifest.  Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgements ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading.  Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised.  Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right.  In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.

The judge searched out the circle for disputants.  But what says the priest? he said.

Tobin looked up.  The priest does not say.

The priest does not say, said the judge.  Nihil decit.  But the priest has said. For the priest has put by the robes of his craft and taken up the tools of that higher calling which all men honor. The priest also would be no godserver but a god himself.

Tobin shook his head.  You’ve a blasphemous tongue, Holden. And in truth, I was never a priest but only a novitiate to the order.

Journeyman priest or apprentice priest, said the judge. Men of god and men of war have strange affinities.

I’ll not secondsay you in your notions, said Tobin.  Dont ask it.

Ah Priest, said the judge.  What could I ask of you that you’ve not already given?

That’s deep stuff I know, but I thought it was an interesting section of the book.  It also reminded me of the Aztecan Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca legend.  In this story, Quetzalcoatl represented the patron god of earth, while Tezcatlipoca represented the warrior patron.  These two figures battle each-other for supremecy during which Quetzalcoatl prevails and creates Mankind.

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Written by gringolost

July 10, 2009 at 7:18 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Professor Harold Bloom of Yale calls Judge Holden the equivalent of the white whale in Moby Dick, not so much as Ahab or Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

    I think the comparison is appropriate, seeing that Holden himself is an “ungraspable phantom of life” like the whale.

    Stan Geronimo

    July 12, 2009 at 5:02 am

  2. I’m often looking for brand-new infos in the world wide web about this subject. Thanx.

    Reorarorneync

    December 10, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    • One of my favorite discourses in one of my favorite novels. The judge has perplexed and intrigued me since my first read of the book, and continues to with greater effect with each subsequent.

      Johannes Nelson

      February 23, 2013 at 4:52 pm

  3. I would argue against the absolute definition of moral law as a “disenfranchment of the powerful in favor of the weak” because when the weak are many and united, they become the powerful. Consider Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Kurtz was powerful but unable to express his power in modern London. It would have been different in the London of the Roman Empire. Kurtz had to be in a vast wilderness, seperate from the society of London. Glanton had to be in the wilderness of the American Southwest. Had he and his band stayed in Sonora, they would all have hanged. As they reached the civilization of California and decided to prey upon a growing population from a static position, they were destroyed as a group and the survivors fell to civil authorities. Even The Kid was brought down by civilization. There had to be a population to insist upon the presence of jakes.

    The definitions of “the weak” and “the powerful” grow unclear when numbers become a factor.

    Eddie Adams

    March 24, 2013 at 5:53 pm

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