Judge Holden's Philosophy
Today I’m wrestling with disorder, atrocity, Cormac McCarthy, and the meaning of life.
Last year I read McCarthy’s exceptional book Blood Meridian. My Goodreads account says I finished it on October 25. Seven months later, I’m still thinking about it. I think it has stuck with me because of McCarthy’s vivid storytelling, but also because I’m worried. I worry that the violent, incomprehensible world of Blood Meridian was one that McCarthy observed more than created.
Blood Meridian is the story of the Glanton gang, a "historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion.” It is a story about men who are exceptionally violent, even as gangs go — even for a baser era. They kill with guns, knives, ropes, clubs, and cruelty. They scalp indiscriminately — friend and foe alike. And their violence seems to spring from philosophical bewilderment. Every member of the Glanton gang seems confused about the nature of his mission — even of his existence — except one: a hulking, bald, man of science named Judge Holden.
I was so struck by one passage in Chapter 17 that I copied it down. The setting is a campfire on the prairie...
By and by the judge rose and moved away on some obscure mission. And after a while, someone asked the ex-priest if it were true that at one time there had been two moons in the sky. And the ex-priest eyed the false moon above them and said that it may well have been so. That certainly the wise, high God in his dismay at the proliferation of lunacy on this earth must have wetted a thumb and leaned down out of the abyss and pinched it, hissing into extinction. And could he find some alter means by which the birds could mend their paths through the darkness, he might have done with this one too.
The question was then put as to whether there were on Mars or other planets in the void men or creatures like them. And at this, the judge who had returned to the fire and stood half naked and sweating, spoke and said that there were not and that there were no men anywhere in the universe save those upon the earth. All listened as he spoke; those who had turned to watch him and those who would not.
"The truth about the world,” he said, “is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness, it would appear to you for what it is: a hat trick in a medicine show. A fevered dream. A trance depopulate with chimeras, having neither analog nor precedent. An itinerate carnival. A migratory tent show whose ultimate destination, after many a pitch in many a muddied field, is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. The universe is no narrow thing, and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world, more 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."
Judge Holden is a man of learning. Throughout the book, he studies plants, animals and human nature. He practices botany. Keeps a notebook. And rescues the gang using his knowledge of chemistry and local flora. He has studied the world and found no accounting for its disorder. Bad things happen. People die. Do what you like.
Such an accounting for life’s vagaries may be the central question of the book. All of the members of the Glanton gang are asking the same question: what are we to make of a world where evil prevails, suffering endures, and human scalps are sold for profit?
That may be the central question of our generation too. Aren’t we all asking it? Our culture — our world — is mumbling the same query because we’re witnessing the same triggers — anarchy, injustice, violence. Beheadings, car bombings, and IEDs. Drone strikes, race riots, and fear of our neighbors.
This week, someone very close to me was in a car accident that left a 9-year-old girl in ICU. Next week, I’m scheduled to make a hospital visit to a family where injuries threaten to leave two toddlers fatherless. What are we to make of this? What kind of world have we colonized? An iterate carnival? A trance depopulate with chimeras? A migratory tent show whose ultimate destination is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning?
And what’s most worrisome is that we’ve seemed to lose our ability to see any other reality. The philosophy of Judge Holden has never been more popular. We humans are a cosmic accident. We are, as True Detective character Rust Cohle mused, "a tragic misstep in evolution.” This is the non-story we are told in science classes and movie houses, in TED Talks and museum tours. It is pervasive and it is scalping us.
In the last scene of Blood Meridian, Judge Holden ambushes the novel’s main character in a public toilet. Holden is completely naked and kills the smaller man with his bare hands. It is a gruesome and ignoble scene — stark death in the smell of excrement, an embodiment of the destiny of Holden’s philosophy.
My prayer is that our culture won’t come to a similar end. That we’ll see the order in our universe not as a trace string of our own leaving, but as a signpost to the story that can rescue our postmodern philosophy. I worry that, if God doesn’t answer that prayer, we’ll completely lose the most beautiful story of all, and that all our smaller stories will be rendered bloody and meaningless.