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He says that he will never die

July 14, 2011

It’s time for the first of (perhaps) many commentaries. This one is on the last paragraph of the last chapter of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which runs as follows:

And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling all at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

Anyone who has read Blood Meridian properly will find this passage sending shivers down their spine. But someone who has not read the book might find it somewhat absurd, offering only a bizarre image of an enormous hairless man dancing in a carnivalesque bar. What’s the point of that?

The answer to this question, I suggest, does a great deal to justify the much-objected-to violence of the novel. To understand the significance of the judge dancing and fiddling at the same time, you have to understand the connections the book draws between war, dance, intellect, volition, and self-deification: the judge claims he will never die because he can dance; he means by this that he is god because he can make the world conform to his own will through the well-timed application of violence, the art of war. But it is not enough to understand this claim in propositional form; we must witness it, by witnessing the judge’s well-timed violence, before we can believe it.

But why does the violence have to go on for so long? The book is 337 pages long, and they seem very long pages, with all but a few dominated by senseless violence. And yet–this repetition, too, seems part of the point. The judge’s violence, after all, is well-timed; it approaches the condition of dance. It is necessary to see it repeated, in different circumstances, in shifting keys and tempos, before we can recognize it fully as a dance. The novel has to be as long as it is so that it can create an imagined world in which the judge’s final dance is possible.

This is part of what I think is so brilliant about the final paragraph of the final chapter–it recapitulates the technique of the novel as a whole. When it begins, we see the judge dancing and fiddling and saying he will not die, all things we have seen him do before, and we have never fully believed him. But through McCarthy’s extraordinary use of repetition our incredulity is stripped away. These are not simply run-on sentences; they are a rhythmic, lyric incantation, through which we gradually recognize the judge’s prowess at dancing, admit the connection between it and godhood, and find ourselves convinced that, just as he says, he truly “will never die.”

Of course, there follows after this the epilogue, bringing something completely different, often read as a deconstruction of all that has come before it. And it would be nice indeed if we could conclude from the epilogue that all the violence the novel showed us doesn’t really matter. But I don’t think that’s what we get from it. It’s more subtle than that. The judge’s dance, by the end of the last chapter, has established itself as the status quo, with the last paragraph leaving us with a sense that only the dance is real. What the epilogue offers is not proof that it is not real, but only a suggestion that it is not all that is real. Not a completely deconstruction, only a rejection of finalization.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2011 10:38 am

    Was the Judge supposed to signify the Hindu god of death? He is often portrayed as a golden, bald and hairless figure dancing. At the end of the book, Holden tells the boy that he recognized him early on. Who was the young man supposed to signify? Thank you. Tom Callahan callahat@moderngroup.com

  2. October 16, 2011 1:09 pm

    It’s true that the Judge bears some resemblance to Siva (and I know Cormac McCarthy has an interest in Hinduism, though I don’t know how deep it goes), but I don’t think it’s right to say that he “signifies” Siva. Rather Siva is one figure from whom McCarthy drew inspiration for the Judge, along with Yhwh, the Buddha, Shakespeare’s Iago, Milton’s Satan, Melville’s Moby Dick, etc. The book wants you not to think of the Judge as a symbol for Siva, but rather, to think of each of these figures as a “type” of the Judge, in the same way that various Old Testament figures are “types” of Jesus Christ.

    As for the boy–that’s a more complicated question. He seems like an Everyman but is strangely dumb and impotent. Perhaps that’s McCarthy’s vision of what man looks like when facing the terrible figure of the Judge.

  3. chris permalink
    November 14, 2012 2:07 pm

    by the boy are you referring to the kid? The kid is the four of cups. He is also extremely lucky, e.g. pulling the arrow from the man’s leg. The opposite of the young doppelganger he kills in the buffalo field, another orphaned child who was born during a meteor shower but who only had bad luck if any at all.

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