Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden in the Age of American Exceptionalis

Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian (1985) is the story, loosely based on historical incidents, of a gang of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans (among others) in the United States – Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion. Although the gang is led by a former Texas Ranger named Glanton, the figure of Judge Holden dominates the narrative. The Judge, a physically huge and intellectual man depicted as entirely bald, is especially disturbing in this novel of horrific violence, due to the apparent gratuitousness of his murderous actions and his uncanny ability to use philosophical argument to manipulate those around him for ends that remain unclear. The question, “who is Judge Holden?” has attracted a large volume of commentary, but my purpose in this brief comment is neither to answer that question nor to provide an interpretation of the novel. My goal is much more limited: Since first encountering Blood Meridian several years ago I have held the intuition that it is a characteristically American work, and that the depicted violence allows the reader to learn something about American violence. My purpose here is to provide some mere suggestions regarding what there is to learn in this regard.51-fUEeoCvL

Judge Holden is introduced early in the book in a bizarre scene set in a carnival revival tent scene; the Judge enters the tent as the country preacher is delivering his sermon and proceeds to expose the preacher as a fraud, which in turn causes a small riot during the course of which the preacher is expelled by a mob and the tent is consumed by fire. The scene ends in a tavern where the Judge admits that his unmasking of the preacher was not based on fact (he has never been in Fort Smith, Arkansas, has never met the preacher). The scene is ironic because although the Judge’s testimony concerning the preacher’s true identity was false, the narrative suggests that nonetheless the truth is revealed because (presumably) the preacher really was a charlatan and huckster. Trial by fire is resurrected as the only human means of discerning the demands of divine justice. The scene also suggests themes that are explored throughout the novel – that the Judge’s relationship to the world is a relationship of knowing, and that skeptical doubt itself harbors deeper and darker motives than a mere search for truth. However, the question of why the Judge interrupts the sermon and causes the destructive chaos that ensues is not answered (we will return to this). One is left with the impression that the Judge’s action was undertaken gratuitously, as a sort of game designed to momentarily slake his thirst for violent entertainment.

Life is a Game

The idea of human existence as a game is central to the Judge’s discourse. This idea resolves itself in the Judge’s apocalyptic vision of perpetual war:

Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all. (248)i

In games, any action that is part of the game can be defined in terms of rules (which specify how the game is played) or in terms of strategy (which specifies how the game is played well). The Judge’s view ignores the fact that most human actions, especially when seen in their moral dimension, cannot be understood by reference to rules or strategies, and this is part of what makes game-playing special and interesting.

Furthermore, the Judge’s view of life as a game is even more refined, because his idea of human action is limited to games of chance, in whichevery action is fully defined by the rules. In making a move, the player has no alternative course of action; in order to count as a move in the game, the player must perform just this action – casting the dice, drawing a card, etc. Because there are no alternative options for action, games of chance do not allow any strategy, which is to say, there is no such thing as playing the game well. Playing well simply means winning, which is why the judge says that “games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all” – in the absence of the virtues like skill and grace, and the responsibilities that go with such virtues, games of chance are only made interesting by the external incentive, the wager, that rewards the winner or punishes the loser. In that sense, games of chance illustrate a mode of action that excludes the concept of personal responsibility – other than responsibility for playing the game at all. No wonder games of chance are considered either as either trivial pursuits to pass the time, or as inherently sinful.

Accordingly, the Judge’s view of existence as a game of chance leads him to reject the notion that human action can have a moral dimension at all:

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 an 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. (249)

As a critique of morality, the Judge’s formulation is puerile. For one thing, it is unclear how a “view” could possibly count as a moral view if the view could be “proven right or wrong by an ultimate test.” Because nothing could conceivably count as final “proof” that any particular moral assessment is right or wrong – that is, nothing outside of the commitments and responsibilities undertaken by particular human beings engaged in moral interaction – the absence of an “ultimate test” cannot be considered as a lack or defect in moral reasoning.

The Judge’s “new and broader view” seems to imply a scientific conception according to which any and all assessments of human action that are not subject to ultimate proof are to be rejected. But the fact that a moral conversation or argument may end in a duel to the death tells us nothing whatsoever about the nature of moral argument, except that the argument may end before it is resolved, which is grammatically true of any argument. The “willingness of the principals to forgo further argument” doesn’t reveal the inevitable truth of moral interaction generally, but rather the decision of one or both participants to abandon morality altogether in some particular case. We have known since Machiavelli wrote The Prince that morality may be absorbed into politics, and since Clausewitz that politics may be absorbed into war; what may be news, if the Judge is right, is that this has already happened to us.

The Judge is an Incurable Romantic

At the outset of this essay I remarked that the scene introducing the Judge as a skeptic – casting destructive doubt on the country preacher’s testimony as a man of God – suggests that the Judge’s fundamental relationship to the world and to others in it is epistemological in nature, and the Judge’s manipulation of the crowd in exposing the preacher indicates that skeptical doubt expresses a deeper motive than a desire for knowledge.

To outline the contours of that deeper motive, assume that skeptical doubt as practiced by Descartes in the early 17th century opened a seemingly irreparable rift between consciousness and the things that constitute the world – we can never be certain that our consciousness isof the world, or of anything at all. Kant’s transcendental philosophy attempted to heal the rift by proposing a kind of settlement with skepticism: We can know the world with certainty provided that we acknowledge that what we know are appearances, so that we can legitimately claim to know the world insofar as the world is accessible to the five senses. Acknowledging that the world we know is that of appearances means giving up any claim to know a world beyond or behind appearances, which Kant called the “thing-in-itself”.

Nineteenth century Romanticism expresses a gnawing dissatisfaction with Kant’s settlement, a sense that if what we can know of the world is limited to what our minds have as it were inserted into the world, then the world itself has withdrawn from our grasp.ii To restore the world, meaning the world as it is independent of our minds, we must reach out beyond mere appearances, and in Romantic art and literature the creative imagination provides the primary organ for such extended reach. Judge Holden expresses his own American Romantic sense of the world withdrawn in this passage that recalls his unmasking of the carnival preacher early in the book:

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 the medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning … Even in this world more things exist without out 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 encompass, that mind itself being but a fact among others. (245)

There is much to unpack in this passage, but for our purposes there are two important aspects. First, the fact that the only order in the world that we can grasp is that order that we ourselves “have put there” means from the Judge’s perspective not just that the existence of the world is subject to skeptical doubt, but that the world itself is fraudulent (like an itinerant carnival or migratory tentshow), and therefore worthy ofcontempt. (This explains the apparent lack of motive in the Judge’s cruel exposure of the carnival preacher in the introductory scene; the motive to expose the fraudulence not just of this or that thing in the world but the fraudulence of the world as such is a motive beyond all motives.) Second, if the things of the world amount to a “hat trick in the medicine show”, then the mind itself is such a trick because “the mind itself [is] but a fact among others” in the world. This second point suggests that Judge Holden’s campaign of violence throughout the course of the narrative is his way of giving substance to his otherwise illusory presence in the world, of proving his own existence.

In order to bring out how Judge Holden’s war against the world might provide proof of his own existence I cite a well-known passage in which the Judge explains his interest in scientific pursuits such as archeology and the taxonomy of plant life:

He pressed the leaves of trees and plants into his book and he stalked tiptoe the mountain butterflies with his shirt out-held in both hands, speaking to them in a low whisper, no curious study himself. Toadvine sat watching him as he made his notations in the ledger, holding the book toward the fire for the light, and he asked him what was his purpose in all this…

Whatever exists, [the Judge] said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, 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…

The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.

Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everything on this earth, he said.

The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. 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. (189-90)

In this passage more than any other in Blood Meridian, the Judge reveals the source of his compulsion to destroy. What threatens – and must therefore be annihilated – are not things with certain threatening qualities but rather things as such: “…the smallest crumb can devour us.” It is the mere existence of “anonymous” (unnamed) things, the existence of a world apart from the Judge’s mind that threatens and affronts him. Let us say that what the Judge finds intolerable is the world’s being “autonomous” or separate from himself. The autonomy of things shames the Judge – shame in the sense invoked by Emerson in “Self Reliance” when he writes that modern man “is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose … they are for what they are; they exist with God today”. According to the Judge’s way of thinking, the separateness of things is defeated in knowing them, naming them and thus bringing them under the sovereignty of concepts, so that knowing becomes a way of appropriating and dominating the world, incarcerating all living things within a zoo (“The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos”).

But if the taxonomy passage is juxtaposed with the later itinerate carnival passage (page 245) quoted above – the passage in which Judge Holden explains that the only discernible order in the world is that which has been put there by our discerning minds, such that each thing we perceive is by that fact fraudulent (a “hat trick in a medicine show”) – and further that the mind itself is but a thing among other fraudulent things, it follows that the Judge’s collection, naming, classification and study of natural specimens in his ledger cannot reach far enough to penetrate the world of things as they exist apart from us. Indeed, it would appear that if the knowing of things is to be a means of capturing and subjugating the world, then the project of knowledge must necessarily be a self-defeating enterprise, because the classification of things perpetuates that fact of separateness that remains a standing rebuke to the Judge’s existence.

It is as if mere words and names and concepts and sketches – the tools the Judge uses to capture and subjugate things by classifying them in his ledger – cannot take him far enough toward his goal of overcoming the separateness of the world. The nature of his project, which is his madness, demands that the violence of concepts be literalized in the guns and knives he uses to slaughter Indians and Mexicans and children and puppies alike, as if grasping the things of the world entails the destruction of the world itself, because separateness is only overcome by the annihilation of what is separate. Thus, I interpret the Judge’s compulsion to senseless violence and destruction as his only available means of proving his own existence, which now means seizing or enacting his existence as an annihilating force that obliterates everything that, simply by existing, reduces his own existence to a fact among others.iii

The Judge is an American Exceptionalist

Judge Holden shares certain character traits with tragic heroes from King Lear, Othello and Coriolanus through Captain Ahab. In particular, these are all human beings who, in refusing to acknowledge what they know to be true (that your loving daughter loves you, that your imagination has sparked the desire of a beautiful young woman, that however exceptional you are, you are still a human being like others gathered in a human community), seek to exempt themselves from the claims of the world and of others in it, which is to say, from the conditions that define human existence. It is therefore noteworthy thatBlood Meridian is not a tragedy; at the end of the book the Judge does not die but dances. The ending suggests that the Judge lives on today as the dark underbelly of America’s national mythology and that the tragedy has not yet and need not occur.

Consider that just as the theme of separation pervades Blood Meridian(the separation of the kid from family and then from the U.S. Army, of Glanton’s gang from humanity, of the Judge from the gang, of the gang from itself), so the theme of separation pervades America’s history and collective imagination. The United States was created by separation from England and once created, fought a civil war to prevent separation from itself. This suggests that America’s concern is above all with its identity, that its identity has not yet been firmly secured, and that America’s insecurity about its own identity (a problem not shared with European countries, whose identities are established through inheritance) instills in it an ongoing worry about its own mortality. What began in 1776, because it began, can also end, and because it was discovered, it can be lost, but we don’t know how or when or why.iv

One reason why the question of national identity lingers unresolved is that the creation of America entailed the complete destruction of another civilization, a story that is partially told in grotesquely lurid detail in Blood Meridian. So the high ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are built on a foundation of blood and the ruined villages of people whose names are mostly remembered today as the mascots of professional sports teams. As much as it is repressed and distorted in high school history classes, as much as it is drowned out by the endless stream of grandiose, self-flattering clichés eloquently flowing from podiums during election season, the violent history of America, past and present, lives on as an unspoken rebuke to our national narrative. The excessiveness of McCarthy’s descriptions of horrific violence matches the excessiveness of America’s claims to exceptionality, and McCarthy’s refusal to adopt a tone and manner compatible with America’s institutional voices makes his an essential counter-voice reminding us of what we refuse to know, which is that the Judge is one of our own, for whom we remain responsible as our government decimates native villages in distant places in ways that are at least as savage and cruel as the methods employed by Glanton and his gang, and for purposes just as opaque as the Judge’s.

Judge Holden’s voice rings loudest in the words of those politicians who flatter the population with rhetoric of “American Exceptionalism”, telling us that we Americans are inherently more virtuous and thus entitled to ignore the norms of civilized behavior that bind countries less burdened with higher purposes. When I hear this kind of rhetoric, I want to ask: Why would the notion of being (metaphysically) exceptional appeal to anyone? On the level of the individual it seems exactly the wrong kind of claim, because to claim exceptionality, which means exemption from the rules that bind others, I specifically deny that there are others. I seal myself within my privacy, and allow no way in or out. By contrast, to acknowledge separateness is to take on my life – mine, not yours because you are other to me and I other to you. You are other because you are separate from me, which seems an essential condition to our communicating, to our not being alone, each of us. In exceptionalism, difference replaces separateness, which is thereby denied, and identity remains unresolved. Is exceptionalism more attractive when collectively claimed on behalf of a nation? Does America proclaim its exceptionality as a way of claiming exemption from history and thus warding off intimations of its own mortality?

A U.S. President who proclaims American Exceptionalism is appealing to what Judge Holden refers to in the game of chance passage (page 248) cited earlier as the “new and broader view” of human affairs – a view that excludes all possibility of moral assessment. The exceptionalist “petition[s] directly the chambers of the historical absolute”, thus demonstrating willingness “to forgo further argument as the triviality it in fact is” in favor of this higher authority. Contrary to the pious rhetoric of our contemporary politicians and of their caricature in the figure of the carnival preacher in Blood Meridian, that higher authority is not that of God (whose purposes are in principle inscrutable) but the authority of force, which is characterized by Judge Holden as the “higher court” that decides all disputes from which the moral commitment of human beings has withdrawn. Thus, in the age of American Exceptionalism we must acknowledge the pertinence of Judge Holden’s conclusion that “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.”

Carl Kandutsch ( holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University and currently owns and operates the Kandutsch Law Office ( in Plano, Texas.

i Page references to Blood Meridian refer to the First Vintage International Edition (May 1992).

ii Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary, p. 29.

iii The sentence in Emerson’s “Self Reliance” that precedes the remark concerning man being ashamed before a blade of grass says, “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say, ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.” The Judge’s way of proving his existence by enacting it in violence is quite the opposite of Emerson’s way (exemplified by Henry David Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond, which means his writing of the book called Walden), but it responds to the same need.

iv My remarks on America’s fear of separation and worry over mortality paraphrase a passage from Stanley Cavell’s 1969 essay, “The Avoidance of Love”, in Must We Mean What We Say?, pp. 344-45. However, I believe that Cavell’s view – that America’s failure to acknowledge separation (as manifested in its destruction of Vietnam) expresses its inability to “admit its helplessness in the face of suffering” – is naïve and that now in 2014 this failure to acknowledge separateness is more accurately viewed as a compulsion to deny otherness by means of domination.

Carl Kandutsch ( holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University and currently owns and operates the Kandutsch Law Office ( in Plano, Texas.