Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"What's He a Judge Of?": The Effacement of Agency and an Ethics of Reading in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"What's He a Judge Of?": The Effacement of Agency and an Ethics of Reading in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

Article excerpt

In Franz Kafka's story,"Before the Law," a man from the country seeks admittance to the law from a gatekeeper who stands guard before it. He is not granted admittance. Instead he waits till admittance may be granted him. He waits until the very brink of death without being admitted, and there the story ends (Kafka 249-51). In Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West, the situation is precisely the inverse. Here the protagonist in question, "the kid"/"the man," and as I argue, the reader, is admitted to the law-whether they like it or not. Furthermore, this composite figure of kid-as-reader in Blood Meridian is not even aware that it has been so admitted, that it is on trial, and probably remains ignorant of this fact up to and past the point of its (symbolic) judgment and execution. The agent of this play of violence in three acts is the character known as "the judge," or "Holden."1

The very title of the novel, "Blood Meridian," expresses some of the chief concerns of the work as a whole. If we take its astronomical and geographical definition, "meridian" denotes a line that passes through the poles of the celestial or terrestrial globe ("Meridian, N."). Moreover, this line is entirely imaginary. Thus, when "meridian" is combined with the word "blood," a very real substance, it makes sense to ask: what exactly is the ontology of a "blood meridian"? It is the precise imprecision of this ontology that raises epistemological questions that plague the reader throughout the course of the book. Questions of epistemology also reside in the word "meridian" independently of its relation to "blood," for a meridian is a line we imagine in order to measure the position of a star in the sky, or our own position on a terrestrial surface in relation to the coordinates of certain celestial bodies. The poignancy of all this is that we are forced to imagine the thing we require to order both the world and our place in it. Considering the nature of the book, Blood Meridian, it is ironically appropriate that the word "meridian" also denotes: the "point or period of highest development or perfection, after which decline sets in; culmination, full splendour"; a "midday drink"; and a "proper name for . . . the Devil" ("Meridian, N.").

In her essay, "Blood Meridian's Man of Many Masks: Judge Holden as Tarot's Fool," Emily J. Stinson writes that while "many McCarthy critics have attempted to . . . limit the judge to a single identity . . . none has attempted to assign the judge a role that encompasses everything McCarthy's judge embodies, and rightly so, for the judge seems to surpass any role that could completely define his character" (9). The key word in this statement by Stinson is "seems," for what she precisely sets out to demonstrate in her own essay is that despite appearances, there nonetheless does exist such a role that is "all encompassing of the judge's character," or at least all of the roles assigned to the judge by other critics: those of "creator, destroyer, ruler, and trickster" (20). The work of criticism that Stinson's essay seems most to be in dialogue with is Joshua J. Masters' "'Witness to the Uttermost Edge of the World': Judge Holden's Textual Enterprise in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian," in which Masters provides a three-fold reading of the judge as a trickster, ethnographer, and American Adam. Stinson's criticism of Masters takes two forms: the first (implicit) criticism is that he does not successfully pin down the judge's nature since he assigns the judge multiple roles; the second criticism regards Masters' failure to adequately treat one of these roles-the key role for Stinson-that of the Tarot's Fool (12). It is worth restating Stinson's claims: first, the judge has been called many things and rightly so, for he certainly seems to be many things; second, other critics have attempted to pin him down but have failed because they have given him many names instead of the one definitive name that would establish his nature or role within the book; third, I have discovered the nature of this name that underwrites, perhaps not all the things that the judge is, but certainly all of the things that he has been said to be. …

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