Joseph de Maistre was a fiercely conservative critic of the French Revolution whose work was eclipsed by his more famous and less contentious contemporary Edmund Burke. Without contesting Burke’s genius, it’s unfortunate that his star outshone Maistre’s, as the latter’s counter-Enlightenment screeds were masterful condemnations of human rationalism and freedom that became central to the crankiest tradition of counter-revolutionary thought.
Yet Maistre also offers a perspective of a completely different sort: when I recently read his Les Soirees de St. Petersbourg I experienced an immediate understanding of Judge Holden, the Mephistophelean character who haunts Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
The Judge is a famously elusive literary figure, but if there’s one aspect of his character that seems to unite his critics it’s the common claim that he’s a blood-lusting psychopath. Traversing a desiccated post-war borderland, Judge Holden scalps Indians for cash and cracks the heads of infants as if they were melons. He concocts an explosive daub from his own urine and with it sets ablaze a charging horde of Delawares, taking cool pleasure in the murderous bent of his ingenuity. He rapes. Beheads. Incinerates. Disembowels. He does it all as if these actions were perfectly reasonable responses to the ebb and flow of a daily reality gone just a tad off plumb.
Maistre, for his part, comprehends this sort of violent universe. He vividly captures its essence in Les Soirees, explaining, “In the whole, vast dome of living nature there reigns as open violence, a kind of prescriptive fury which arms all their creatures to their common doom.” He adds, “The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar upon which all that is living must be sacrificed.” The McCarthyesque tenor of this rhetoric is truly arresting—“dome of living nature,” “a kind of prescriptive fury,” “the decree of violent death”—as well as indicative of the way Maistre weirdly presages the high Homeric angst of McCarthy’s voice. But the point for now is only to note that the Judge’s evident predilection for violence—not to mention the entire theme of violence in Blood Meridian as a whole—is a phenomenon that Maistre would surely have accepted as deeply necessary to the human condition.
But Maistre’s work ultimately enables us to see beyond the blood in Blood Meridian, and it is there that the Judge starts to make sense. Les Soirees unveils an early modern intellectual landscape marked by the death of royal prerogative and the emergence of human rationality. When superimposed on the Judge and his men scouring the scorched earth for their human bounty, Maistre recasts the Judge—that “saltland bard”—as a counter-Enlightenment figure from hell. Maistre’s defining mission was to illuminate the human need for implacable authority in a chaotic world defiant of rational comprehension. This was the grand lesson that the French Revolution taught him as it unspooled into head-rolling mayhem, leaving him committed to the idea that violence symptomized a breakdown of authority, rather than revealing an inevitable necessity in an anarchic dystopia. The Judge, for all his overt cruelty, embodied this distinction.
He knew that violence erupted with the onset of freedom. Freedom—symbolized most obviously in the “noble savages” he spends the book hunting—might be a quality we instinctively wish to celebrate. But freedom, as both Maistre and the Judge understood it, flouted authority and gradually sustained horrific bloodshed because it left humans, in the Judge’s experience, aimless in a desert wilderness over which they lacked control and comprehension. This dilemma—a world beyond apprehension populated with people who think they have it all figured out—is the driving idea of Les Soirees and Blood Meridian.
“Existence has its own order,” writes McCarthy, “that no man’s mind can compass.” The Judge is continually explaining to his followers how it was exclusively him (“as if the world were pleasing even to him alone”) who could resolve the dilemma of freedom and authority in a world of chaos. He’s surely describing himself when he says: “the man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry [of the earth] will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world.” Likewise, when he says: “the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like string in a maze.” And yet again, when he says: “Books lie.” These are less the sentiments of an evil genius than a counter-Enlightenment bard.
The Judge thereby swallows whole Maistre’s critical precept that the confusion humans confronted when they unmoored themselves from divine order justified their subsequent re-submission to an awe-inducing power. God and Kings once served the purpose of keeping order. Now it was a Judge’s turn. Much as Masitre believed in the Divine Right of Kings as an antidote to mob violence, so the Judge understands himself as a singular authority of ineffable power wandering across a scorched hardtop of Indians and Mexicans in need of recalibration.
“He sat,” writes McCarthy about the Judge, “with his hands cupped in his lap and he seemed much satisfied with the world, as if his council had been sought at its creation.” Secure in his self-assumed authority, the Judge believes that “whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” Of the birds whose freedom “insults” him he states: “I’d have them all in zoos.” He tells his followers, “In order for the [the earth] to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.” It’s no coincidence that the only person toward whom the Judge shows a hint of sympathy is a mute “idiot” he rescues from drowning and hauls around in a cage.
With so much invested in his own suzerainty, the Judge never defers to competing authority—ever—not even to God: “If God meant to intervene in the degeneracy of mankind,” he asks, “would he not have done so by now?” Nor to history: “acts will ultimately accommodate history.” And certainly not to any other man. To the contrary, the Judge inspires something close to worship among his men. As the ex-priest Tobin says in reference to the Judge, “The gifts of the almighty are weighted and parceled out in a scale peculiar to himself.” Then, shaking his head in sudden realization about the “great hairless thing” that stood before him, Tobin grasps the Judge’s true identity: “The Almighty, the Almighty.” The only character to question the Judge,“What’s he a judge of?,” is “the kid.” In the last two pages of the book, the kid is raped and killed in an outhouse next to a whorehouse. By the Almighty.
In the end, the Judge quests for order. When he finally gets it, however ephemerally, a celebration ensues. The last paragraph of Blood Meridian captures the scene. A throng dances in the saloon. “Towering over them all is the judge.” He is in full thrall. “He never sleeps.” Writes McCarthy. “He says that he will never die. He dances in light and shadow and he is a great favorite. He says he never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing.” The dancers move in time. The Judge orchestrates it all with a fiddle—“he the greatest fiddler I ever heard”—and he is “grinning hideously” upon a stage because he and he alone has, in this moment, imposed order on chaos. He has shown alas, that he can “outdance the devil.”
If Joseph de Maistre was right about the nature of power and the necessity of authority, then every detail here holds an immensity of truth, especially the last line: “He says that he will never die.” Our freedom, if nothing else, ensures the Judge’s immortality.
James McWilliams is a writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic. He’s a professor at Texas State University.
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