“The judge smiled”: The Humor of Blood Meridian

by mans

I.          How to Tell A Joke:

“Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.”

George Bernard Shaw

A joke is a strange and delicate thing.  For a joke to work, the punch-line must be both unexpected and inevitable.  A punch-line is something true and undeniable, yet also something that you can’t see bearing down on you.  Once it arrives, however, it seems as though there could never have been any other end but this.  In this way, a punch-line is not that different from Death.

Because of this, and the fact that jokes also often involve bodily waste and/or personal injury, I think it is fair to consider Blood Meridian a comedy in the manner of Twelfth Night or Tom Sawyer or As I Lay Dying.

The novel contains the stuff of comedy:  witty banter, pratfalls, toilets, dances and clowns.  Once the reader is able to look past the buckets of entrails, or perhaps because of those very buckets, she will find a very funny story made up of the most common comic elements.

Yet, there is a comedy beyond this comedy, an anti-comedy, an absurdity.  Just as the men of Blood Meridian push themselves to the limits of living, the novel pushes the limits of humor, finding a bleak void where only one person laughs.

II.        Comedy Is Meaningful:

“It’s only a flesh wound.”

The Black Knight, Monty Python’s The Holy Grail

As a general rule, for a joke to be funny, it must make sense.  There are exceptions to this, as I will discuss below, but in general this is true.  Comprehension is essential to comedy.  For wordplay to work, the words must be understood.  While humor is often chaotic and regularly turns meaning upside down, at its core, it must still exist within some sort of understandable meaning to be recognized as humor.  In this, humor is essentially conservative as it reinforces and plays off of our collective understanding of the meaning of the world and words around us.


Q:  What happened when the Rabbi fell down the stairs?

A:  Hebrews.

This joke is funny because it makes sense.  We understand the words; we understand the pun.  Humor reinforces meaning.  It comforts us:  while the world may seem chaotic and meaningless at times, don’t worry, it will all come together and we will all laugh in the end.  Everything will make sense when the joke is finished.

There is plenty of straight humor in Blood Meridian.  Consider Toadvine, the novel’s most obviously comic character.

We first meet him when he fights a child in a mud pit by some outhouses.  Take this out of the context of the novel’s parade of violence and degradation for a moment:  two drunks fighting in the mud near toilets are inherently funny.  If it were on YouTube, we would love it.

For that matter:  don’t take it out of the context of violence and degradation.  Violence and degradation are humor essentials.  Turn your mind for a moment to Monty Python.  Monty Python regularly uses violence and human degradation for purely comic ends.  Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life gorges on plate after plate of food, spewing buckets of vomit.  He finally explodes, graphically, after eating a wafer-thin mint, spraying the restaurant in entrails and vomit.  This is funny.  This is also not that different from anything that happens in Blood Meridian.

But Toadvine (blessed with a name that would make both Dickens and Pynchon proud) is not just a physical comedian, but also the sharpest wit in the novel.

Upon entering a cantina:  “What have you got that a man could drink with just a minimum of blindness and death.”

To Judge Holden, upon the Judge’s discovering that one of the scalping party has disappeared:  “I allowed you knowed he was gone.  It ain’t like he was so small you never would miss him.”

Early in the novel, when Toadvine meets up with the Kid again in the Mexican prison, the prisoners are fed cold mush and “fitted with chains,” then “routed out into the streets…stinking” and overseen by a “goldtoothed pervert” carrying a whip and forced to clean human filth and waste out of the gutters, “dragging behind them their sacks of refuse.”  Toadvine turns to the Kid and says, “How do you like city life?”

Throughout the novel, Toadvine appears detached from the horrific action that surrounds him.  He is an ironic observer, untouched by everything.  Of course, humor is a defense mechanism, a tool to keep the comic soul separated from the painful world around him.  It comes as no surprise that Toadvine dies, hung unceremoniously at the end, nearly off-stage (in a manner similar to the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).  The only surprise is that he isn’t given one last joke to tell.

It isn’t just Toadvine’s character that is traditionally comic.  The novel possesses many of the elements of Shakespearian Comedy.  There is a pastoral setting where noble people spin lovely speeches on the nature of life.  There are rustic fools who are witty beyond their meager station.  There is the Kid’s hidden identity (which is never revealed) and there are surprise reunions.  The novel even ends, if not with a wedding, with revelry, celebration and dance.

The riotous celebration follows the scalp-hunter’s first successful expedition, with everyone outfitted in fine new clothes, drinking all of the booze in the town and Jackson “vowing to Shoot the ass off Jesus Christ, the longlegged white son of a bitch.”  The party is as chaotic and comic as anything in a Marx Brothers movie.

III.       Comedy Is Meaningless:

“Humor is another defense against the universe.”

Mel Brooks

There is also, of course, a Fool:  Judge Holden, the giant man-baby; the totally hairless, pale philosopher.  Or as Tobin, the expriest, calls him, that “bloody old hoodwinker.”  Prone to stripping, given to dancing on dainty feet, the Judge seems to marry Lear with his Fool in one strange and very funny maniac.

The Judge is the novel’s central character and embodies what I see as the novel’s central meaning:  there is no meaning to any of this.

Of course, the Judge dos not articulate this position.  Rather, he usually says the opposite.  He goes on at length about man exerting his will over the world and about the primacy of war and blood and death, but as Tobin divines, this is all just a con, a lie, a joke.  The novel’s central meaning is not what the Judge says, but what he does.

When the Judge is first introduced, he appears at a tent revival and before the crowded and stinking congregants, he claims that the preacher, Rev. Green, is on the run from the law of several states for various sex crimes against children and goats.  This results in a melee and a rabid and muddy posse forming to lynch Rev. Green.

When some of the men of the town asks the Judge, who later is sitting serenely at a bar, how he knew about the preacher, the Judge responds, “I never laid eyes on the man before today.  Never even heard of him.”

The response from the men:  “The men looked like mud effigies.  Finally someone began to laugh.  Then another.  Soon they were all laughing together.  Someone bought the judge a drink.”

Here in the Judge we see the novel’s other type of humor: anti-comedy, the absurd.  Anti-comedy works by moving the framework of the joke so that the listener is now part of joke itself.


Q:  What happened to the Rabbi when he fell down the stairs?

A:  I have syphilis.

If this makes you laugh, it isn’t because the joke is inherently funny, but because of the context:  the fact that you were told a joke that didn’t mean anything.  Neil Hamburger is funny not because of his jokes, but because of the reaction of those watching him who are not in on the joke.

The Judge’s condemnation of Rev. Green is not a typical joke.  He does not seek to explain to anyone what he has done.  Only when he is sought and asked does he confess that he doesn’t know the man.  Only then are the edges of the joke revealed are those involved able to see it for what it is and laugh along with the Judge who is laughing at them.

Later in the novel, the Judge gets into a debate with some of the scalp hunters about the Earth’s origins.  “The squatters in their rags nodded among themselves and were soon reckoning him correct, this man of learning, in all his speculations, and this the judge encouraged until they were right proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools.”  Here again, the Judge spends his time spinning elaborate lies, not for gain or revenge or any other productive reason, but only to amuse himself when the others believe him.

Though the Judge’s flights of fancy are never revealed again for what they are, regular and repeated reference to his smile and laugh are made.  See pages 140, 226, 284, 310, and 327 for a few examples.  For the remainder of the novel, when the Judge is present, the Judge is holding forth in the manner of Polonius from Hamlet or Mr. Compson from The Sound and the Fury.

The aphorisms and philosophy of those men are the result of being a blowhard and a drunk, respectively.  How do we read the Judge?  Is he some alien deity, pale and all-knowing?  Some inconceivably learned man?  Death itself?  Do we take his constant, eloquent ramble at face value?  Or do we understand that throughout the novel, the Judge is having one over on everyone, even the reader.

IV.       This Novel Is a Joke:

“Ha ha ha ha ha.”

Steve Winwood

Let me be clear:  when I say that his novel is a joke, I do not mean that in the colloquial sense of “this novel fails and makes me laugh at it.”  What I mean is this:  works of literature fit into certain forms—sonnet, limerick, epic, western, romance.  Blood Meridian’s form is that of a joke.  It has a set-up and it has a punch-line.  It is a joke against meaning, against form, against the reader, against jokes themselves.  It is a terrible and bleak joke that exists out in the dark beyond even the absurd.  But it is still a joke.

Where a joke usually just inverts the expected meaning, and anti-comedy subverts the expected context for humor, Blood Meridian completely perverts.  Consider the tree full of babies.  A horror beyond horrors to be sure, but after fifty-five pages of suffering and pain already, this reader’s response was not that of disgust but a loud, “You have to be kidding me!”

The vision of the West presented here reminds me of nothing so much as a vast, sun-blasted /b/.  Humor pushed beyond funny, beyond so-not-funny-it-is-funny, out to some extreme.  Humor for the sake of pain and suffering.  A tree would usually bear fruit, symbols of life, the fleshy seeds of new trees and new life.  And babies of course are themselves symbols of new life, the new year, the newly born savior.  Yet here, new life hung where new life should be, we only have a grim expression of death and decay.  Yet the novel intentionally under cuts the horror and shock of the tree by placing it as part of the sub-headings for the chapter along with any number of non-events.  There it is: “Tree of dead babies.”  The novel introduces it with a shrug.

V.  Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before

“I’m just getting my LULZ”

Judge Holden

Who is telling this joke?  I believe that the clear answer is the Judge.  He is the narrator of the novel.  Throughout the book he writes in his journal, drawing and cataloguing everything he finds.  He contends that nothing exists that he does not allow to exist.  The novel’s strange stylistic turns of phrase, the faux-biblical speak, mirror the Judge’s own high-flown language that he uses to bullshit people.  Blood Meridian is the Judge’s own joke.

He presents us with the Kid, a hero in the epic style, born by a sign, the falling stars, the meteor shower, and we wait through the novel to see what will happen to him, what he will learn, how he will grow, as any good character in a novel should, but the Kid is always occluded from our view.  He does very little.  He speaks even less.  He cannot read or write.  He has no name.  But we wait for him to rise up, to DO SOMETHING.

And then at the end, in an outhouse, yards from a dead dancing bear and midget prostitutes, yards from music and light and dancing, the Kid meets his fate.  The Judge rises up and we realize too late that this is the punch-line, this is the only end there ever could have been to this joke that has been ranging across the West for miles and years, that this is the only way anything can ever end.  That the joke does not seem funny is immaterial, since the joke was only ever for the Judge’s amusement anyway.


  • Thursday WE HAVE Dr. Girlfriend STEPPING up and discussing THE ROLE of the author IN Blood Meridian, in the LARGER LITERARY world, and HOW CORMAC MCCARTHY does or does not “LIVE UP” TO this role.
  • ON FRIDAY, I’ll (this is AN AMERICAN PATRIOT now, by the WAY) wrap THINGS up with SOME FINAL thoughts and AN OPEN forum FOR FURTHER discussion SO BE SURE to keep F5ING.
  • AS ALWAYS, those interested in WRITING FOR Bookgum should email ME AT AnAmPatriot@gmail.com
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43 Responses to “The judge smiled”: The Humor of Blood Meridian

  1. jwormyk says:

    “The vision of the West presented here reminds me of nothing so much as a vast, sun-blasted /b/. ” This is perfect. Mans you truly are the best.

  2. I THINK it’s really interesting that YOU BRING this up, Mans. WHEN WE were all talking ON GMAIL, and you mentioned YOU WERE doing an essay ON COMEDY, I nearly started TALKING about Beckett (particularly GODOT as I feel THIS NOVEL turns us all into VLADIMIR AND Estragon WAITING for some KIND OF a fucking ANSWER) BUT WAS hesitant TO MAKE you clarify the type OF HUMOR you were discussing.

    These points SEEM resonate WITH BOTH hotspur and SHELLBOMBER’S write ups in THAT McCarthy seems to BE cynically burning THE PAGES of history. The old adage “history REPEATS ITSELF” likely means jack SHIT TO him because, AT LEAST this is what I THINK he’s saying, anything THAT happens even if IT IS only a repetition IS JUST SOME absurd dancing BEAR. A joke. AN ANOMALY with NO GREATER cosmic impact whose death, DESPITE ANY IMMEDIATE reactions, will have NO bearing ON THE GREATER universe.

    • hotspur says:

      I agree and yet I disagree! When I was thinking about all the religion, I was thinking it isn’t enough to say McCarthy’s view is that it’s all false, because I think he also throws in a contradiction: the false life is certainly better in some ways. I guess you could argue that, in the big eons-long picture, skewered babies aren’t any worse than hanged Toadvine, but the style/language/vocab in which it all happens are so unique to McCarthy that I think implicitly he is saying: But we are also individuals capable of making a mark (at least of telling a good joke). What the mark means and how long it lasts and how it will get misunderstood or cause problems — that’s comedy, like Mans says. But the Glanton gang lives in the judge’s joke and we the readers get to live in McCarthy’s and McCarthy’s makes the universe a slightly warmer, more meaningful place. Which is funny. Because it also doesn’t.

    • Mans says:

      When I decided to write about the humor in the book, I was afraid everyone would say, “You have gone mad.” But, I’ve been really pleased because both Shell and Hotspur, and everyone’s comments on the prior posts, really accords with my reading.

      I will admit that I did not like the novel at first. I really didn’t like it. In part, my decision to write about the humor was based on my anger at the book, and like Stu says below, a sense that McCarthy was just screwing me around.

      So I was going to write something satiric about the humor, but as I read, the real humor of the book unfolded for me and I started to like it more. I still have some major reservations about the novel, which I will talk about on Friday maybe, but I did think the book was pretty funny. I was reminded of horror movies of the 80s that were both comic and gruesome, like Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive or Return of the Living Death–cheap laughs and gore presented side by side.

      • Napoleon Complex says:

        I totes get what you’re saying, Mans [actually when I heard you were going to be talking about the humor in this book I anticipated major satire] and this has definitely given me food for thought.

        Some of the lines are kinda funny. I say kinda because they’re more like “heh. heh.” funny when they are surrounded by trees of dead babies and necklaces of human ears. Absurdity is the root of humor, and this is absurd in every way. A tree of dead babies? That doesn’t make any sense. Where did it come from? Who did it? Whose babies are they? And WHY WHY WHY DOES IT EXIST.

        I guess where you and I differ is that I found the absurd violence absurd but not amusing. And by absurd I mean simply that it defies logic without being humorous. It was extreme violence, but I wouldn’t say over-the-top, because over-the-top implies that it’s unrealistically violent to the degree that it becomes absurd. The really horrible part is that…. it isn’t unrealistic.

        I mean, I know this is very angsty teenager of me, but fucking horrific things happen every day, things that are just as horrific as trees of dead babies. Every day. And being reminded of that is nothing but grim precisely because it ISN’T outlandish. It’s life.


  3. dr. girlfriend says:

    the novel as the judge’s joke: this is great. blood meridian definitely appealed more to the macabre in me rather than being cognitively scarring like the rape scene in irrreversible.

  4. bill_the_butcher says:

    Well written up my Mans. This is immaculate.

    I can just see 80s McCarthy laughing at us all. But when we see the joke we have to laugh too. I was certainly fooled.

    • IT’S FUNNY that you said 80’s McCarthy IT’LL be interesting TO SEE WHAT to make of this VIEWPOINT when WE HIT The Road. Having ALREADY READ it, but not wanting TO GET AHEAD of the discussion, I’d say it’s ALONG the same theme. ONLY THIS time, it’s the Man and the boy trapped and STRUGGLING in this eternal JOKE which, to ME, MAKES it a much more TRAGIC novel. Here, McCarthy seems INDIFFERENT. In The Road, IT SEEMS like McCarthy having a CHILD has made HIM REALIZE just how cruel the JOKE CAN be.

      • Mans says:

        I am looking forward to The Road now (I wasn’t really before). I am interested to see how McCarthy has matured as a writer.

  5. T-bag says:

    This was brilliant. All three of these write-ups have made the work week so much more bearable. Excellent work by everyone.

    I agree with the idea that the novel is a comic one. I don’t have much to add, other than suggesting that, although they’ve already interpreted one of his novels, the Coen Brothers would be the only ones who could film the humorous subtleties to the nightmares in this book. Otherwise the movie’s just going to be Saw 3D.

    • Mans says:

      I agree. While reading this, I kept thinking, “This will be a great movie. I wish the Coen Brothers were directing it.”

      • stu says:

        Yes, I think in all their dramatic films (including, obviously, No Country) they share some very important similarities to McCarthy in their approach to violence, skepticism about ultimate meaning, and general aesthetic for pacing/dialogue/character.

        I forgot to mention earlier that I liked the comparisons to Faulkner in your write-up. As you probably could tell, Faulker is generally considered the biggest influence on McCarthy’s writing style (who needs quotation marks?), and relating it back to Sound and the Fury and While I Lay Dying flipped the switch in my head.

      • Mans says:

        What got me thinking about humor in the novel is this: McCarthy is usually compared to Melville and Faulkner–two of my favorite writers. To my mind, humor is a large part of their writing.

        I know people don’t think of “Moby-Dick” as a comic novel, but it is really funny. Both in the straight-ahead “ha ha” sense (there are very funny parts), but also in a more subtle, satiric way. Ishmael is not some Hemingway-esque manly-man. Ishmael is a strange, bookish, weirdo. He spends a lot of time trying to reclassify all the types of whales in new ways. He is the opposite of the Kid in that he talks a whole lot and knows a whole lot. Melville’s later work, like “The Confidence-Man” is even more explicitly comic. Bleak, yes, but comic.

        Faulkner too is a comic novelist. “As I Lay Dying” is funny and gross and strange.

        So, when I began reading “Blood Meridian”–my first McCarthy–I was put off because the comparisons did not seem founded on anything but a superficial stylistic resemblance. But thinking about those authors as comic writers made me try to see this novel that way.

      • T-bag says:

        I also got the Faulkner comparisons, but who I kept going back to while reading the novel (which I did not in any way anticipate) was Vonnegut. Just in the way they both can present terrible things with a minimum of commentary. Every time something awful happened in Blood Meridian and then everyone just moved on, I kept hearing these unwritten, “So it goes.” Much like Vonnegut’s books, Blood Meridian has this feeling to me of just being one giant wink-and-elbow-nudge from the author. Like, “Get it?!”

        And yeah, I hated the book when I started it, too. Then I loved it, then I hated it, then I really loved it. EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER MUCH?

      • I THINK comparable to THE “so it goes” line IS A LINE spoken BY the kid a few times. THE TIME I remember is WHEN he’s with Sproule.

        You suit yourself.
        I aim to.

      • Mans says:

        AAP, I think you are right, and I love those bits of dialogue–they come across like little kids.

        “Glanton, tell the Judge to stop looking at me!”

  6. lilbobbytables says:

    Great write up. I hope that you print this out, Mans, put a gold star on it, and hang it on your refrigerator.

    Again, these are things that I did not see during my reading, but I am right now at my desk hitting my forehead shouting “It all makes sense now.” I will let my bosses think I just had a work-related breakthrough.

  7. hotspur says:

    Can I also say I way LOLed at “Did you learn to whisper in a sawmill?”

    On the first read, the ending didn’t strike me as especially funny (Oooh: Mans, when you say it doesn’t end in a wedding — if yesterday’s commenters are right about a sodomizing in the outhouse, then it kind of DOES end in a wedding!), but as I reread the end and puzzled over it I started to laugh. I mean something so horrific has happened that McCarthy refuses to describe it, and here’s a cowboy standing outside the outhouse saying, “I wouldn’t go in there if I was you.” That is straight up Ace Ventura comedy.

    Thanks for this writeup, Mans; it really helps me see the humor more & more.

    • Mans says:

      I think a totally valid read of the end is this:

      The Kid goes out to the jakes to take a leak. He accidentally walks in on the Judge (it has happened to all of us in public restroom). The Judge, who has taken his clothes off so that they don’t get anything nasty on them, hops up, startled. The Kid then decides to just go pee in the bushes. The Judge goes back in to the party, leaving a really nasty mess in the john and the Kid warns the other men who come down the path to not go in there. The men disregard the warning and are confronted with what the Judge has done in the stall and they are horrified (this has happened to all of us).

      Mystery solved!

    • Patrick M says:

      It is sort of funny that after all of the atrocities enumerated throughout the book, McCarthy is like, “Yeah, I can’t tell you this one.”

      There’s a joke about a woman who wrote the world’s dirtiest limerick, and because it can’t ever be published, a reporter goes to find her to hear it for himself. She says, “I can’t tell you it’s too dirty,” and he says, “How about this: any time a dirty part comes up, you just say ‘Blank’.”
      After some hesitation, she agrees to this and recites the limerick:
      Blank blank-blank blank blank-blank blank blank-blank
      Blank blank-blank blank blank-blank blank blank-blank
      Blank blank blank blank blank
      Blank blank blank blank blank
      Blank blank-blank blank fucked in the ass

  8. brrrrrian says:

    Blood Mansridian

  9. stu says:

    Love this take. The comic underpinning you point out weren’t what grabbed me on my first reading (my mind was more in a state of DEAD CHILDREN, CRAZY BIG WORDS, MORE DEAD CHILDREN), but I do remember thinking the two John Jackson storyline was plainly absurd and humorous.

    From the whole name rivalry, to calling them “white Jackson” and “black Jackson” to how it finally ends – beheaded by a Bowie Knife! I think I actually started laughing in that scene, because McCarthy’s depiction of the blood spurting into the fire was just SO over-the-top. It was like, “he’s just fucking with us now.”

    In retrospect, I think the underlying absurdity that leaks through is largely why the book never felt like a dour treatise on the cruelty of man or anything like that. That’s why I like your idea of the Judge as the narrative voice: maybe parts of the book were designed to sicken or shock you, but they never felt built to elicit anything like real sympathy or sadness for anyone.

  10. Patrick M says:

    “The only surprise is that he isn’t given one last joke to tell.”

    But sort of: because The Kid buys the necklace of ears that belonged to Toadvine, and this necklace is what starts the argument with Elrod in the bonepickers scene, and Elrod (if I’m reading this right) ends up being the first person that The Kid kills with anything like malice, and to me it reads like the judge is practically conjured up by this killing for the last scene as a result: like The Kid/Man’s impassiveness had been a kind of talisman against the judge up until this point, but once The Kid/Man killed Elrod, he was basically inviting the vampire into the house.
    (Good joke, but needs more rabbis.)

    • TOTALLY. HOTSPUR and I discussed this AT LENGTH on Gmail. I think it’s A WEIRD message that we can’t ESCAPE this nonsense. ALSO, THE kid he kill’s story ECHOES THAT of one of THE JUDGES (I think) stories (about his father BEING KILLED). DID the judge know OF THESE children or IS IT some grand coincidence? At the VERY LEAST it feels like the joke implies VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE and chaos CREATES CHAOS. Only the source CAN NEVER be stopped.

      • dr. girlfriend says:

        unless you plug the hole on Lost island.

      • Mans says:

        I would disagree in that I don’t think that the Joke of the novel implies anything. I think all of the rhetoric in the book about violence and war and blood and manhood is itself meaningless.

        I think the vision of the world that the novel presents is not one of man coming to terms with the violent nature of the universe, or even death, but that in a fairly ordered world, man can ruin everything, that man can prank the universe.

        Consider this: the world in Blood Meridian isn’t that terrible, disordered and chaotic. The Kid is always shown hospitality. When he gets shot early on, the inkeeper’s wife, I think, nurses him back to health. When he kills that bar tender (which was malicious), he is offered clothes and food by Capt. White. He is given a place to stay and food by the anchorite. The Mennonite warns everyone not to go on their mission. The women at the ferry try to care for the James Robert (the “idiot”) and clean him up. Glanton’s gang is hired to protect the town and they are celebrated when they return. They aren’t double crossed or treated poorly. I don’t have the book, but I feel like there are other places in the novel where the Kid and the gang are given things by people who do not have much to give. This seems to me like a pretty generous vision of the world.

        Yet in almost each instance, it is the Kid or one of the members of the gang who betray that kindness. They kill, steal, beat, piss, and so forth on everything, but the kindness keeps coming.

      • MANS, I think I MISPOKE (I was typing THAT ON MY phone so I WAS TRYING to think fast). I THINK its less some kind OF “THE JOKE is anything” and MORE that it all just IS. I agree WITH THE idea that MAN CAN ruin ANYTHING, and I think that’s what happens. IN ALL sorts of WAYS.

    • hotspur says:

      I see the kid/man killing the other kid/orphan as still being a case of self defense, because orphan/kid was trying to kill him. And then he lays the body out respectfully with hands folded on chest. And even so, the judge reappears. Now, in a story, such things are cause & effect: the judge appears BECAUSE the kid kills again. But if that’s the case, then the judge has to be supernatural or symbolic, right? And how can he be, in a book that is so much about how there is no real order to the universe? But it is also about how we want to see/make order — so is the judge’s reappearance a coincidence that readers see as cause & effect? Although… the book itself IS an ordered universe, because it has an author and consists of sentences — so McCarthy put the judge there to open up this interpretation, right?

      Whatever the mysterious reality, it is 100% true as Mans says that the kid and the gang are constantly shown hospitality. That civility might be based on lies — but that doesn’t mean McCarthy is calling it worthless. Which is really interesting to me.

  11. shellbomber says:

    When Mans first emailed the group with his idea to write about the humor, I was like WHAAA?!? And now, after reading what he has to say to I’m like HRMMMMM. I’m sure after I follow-up reading I’d be like OOOOH.

  12. Le Fou says:

    I’m not a super involved monster, preferring to lurk from the sidelines most of the time, but I just have to say how much I have enjoyed all the posts thus far (and I’m sure I’ll love what Dr. Girlfriend has to say tomorrow too!) and send a thanks to AmAnPat is for having organised it all. Even if we’re not necessarily posting I’m sure there are other lurkers out there who have been enjoying this just as much as me!

    I found myself really conflict upon finishing the novel, which seems to be something many others have felt. I mean, I read the book at a fairly consistent pace so there was obviously something that was keeping me interested but at the same time I didn’t really experience the ‘cannot put it down’ feeling I so often do. I will say that the posts thus far have enabled me to approach the text from all sorts of angles that I probably wouldn’t have and I’m now sorting of reaching that point where I can say ‘yes I liked this book’ (which I guess mean that bookgum is achieving its purpose!).

    Mans, just wanted say that I loved your description of Judge Holden as both Lear and his Fool- maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time through my studies dealing with the play that it was one of the first things that came to my mind (crazy naked dancing? How can you not think of Lear?) I also agree with T-Bag who mentioned Vonnegut, I also see a connection between the “so it goes” of Slaughterhouse 5 and McCarthy’s ‘this is the reality of the way things are’ approach to Blood Meridian.

    • Le Fou says:

      yikes that was longer than I was planning and my brain is dead so I apologise for the typos (southern hemisphere monster here, and my morning coffee hasn’t hit me yet)

    • T-bag says:

      I’m not a super-involved Monster either (my work computer is visible to ALL in the office, so by the time I have a free moment to check Videogum, everything funny has already been said by everyone else, so then I just keep my mouth shut). But I’m a huge book nerd, and these write-ups have been so damn good that now I can’t stop commenting like crazy.

      Plus it’s just less risky to have my boss sneak up behind me and only see a bunch of words, rather than pictures of Topher Grace.

      • dr. girlfriend says:

        i always figured that too. i’m reading the new york times which is more legitimate than a pop culture blog, so that’s ok, right?

  13. Mark Troutman says:

    Mr. Mans, thinks for this piece. I found myself laughing, chuckling, guffawing, spit-taking — all through the book, and not always comfortably, but hey, sometimes uncomfortable laughter is the best. I had read the “Border Trilogy” and “The Road” prior to “Blood Meridian”, but not of that prepared me for the clash of humanity/inhumanity that is BM. Such contrast, breathtaking contrast, horror, pity, fear, and glimpses of simple beauty and compassion. Can one laugh in the face of the utter hopelessness of humanity? I think yes, but perhaps at a cost, or perhaps if you want to mock existential whining without mercy, really put it in its place, as CM seems to want to do. I also kept thinking that CM was somehow riffing on “Heart of Darkness”, parodying it, spoofing it. Anyway after reading your piece I feel a bit better about laughing my way through one of the most horrific books I’ve ever read. In the end I felt like CM had birthed a new genre of literature, a synthesis of horror, tragedy, and comedy; something illogical, irrational, absurd and unexpected, the very definition of genius, and yet with an off-handedness that is as brutal as the action in the story.

  14. lesigh says:


    Regarding the videogum thread today:

    I think it’s funny in the way that all surrealist horror can be “funny”, but I think calling it a joke is pretty far from the mark. I think this would only be a joke to a reader misguided enough to take this as a literalist historical record. The absurd/hilarious/horror/nihilist conversation that takes place in the book is represented quite nicely in this proceeding passage (and I’m building from the assumption that McCarthy was trying with this piece to show that two mutually contradictory beliefs can be simultaneously true):

    “They are rumors and ghosts in this land and they are much revered. The tools, the art, the building- these things stand in judgement on the latter races. Yet there is nothing for them to grapple with.The old ones are gone like phantoms and the savages wander these canyons to the sound of an ancient laughter. In their crude huts they crouch in darkness and listen to the fear seeping out of the rock. All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage. So. Here are the dead fathers. Their spirit is entombed in the stone. It lies upon the land with the same weight and the same ubiquity. For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.”

    Though two things may yield the same result, may tracelessly return to the dust, they are not necessarily the same. Even though they are.

    • Mans says:

      I don’t consider myself a misguided reader, though I may be, certainly. I don’t take the novel as a literal historical record and that doesn’t really play into my position that the novel is a joke. Let me explain (it is just a matter of logic):

      1. The first two or three times we encounter the Judge, he is bullshitting people. He makes up the story about the minister being a criminal. He also makes up some shit about the Bible maybe when they are out on the trail after the Kid first joins (I am working from memory here).

      In both cases, it is plainly revealed to us, the reader, that the Judge is just having a laugh on people. But after that, we are not shown directly that he is just making shit up for fun. However, after that it is impossible to take anything that the Judge says seriously. All of his monologues, which are the bulk of the middle of the novel, are not serious discussions of the Universe and God and Blood and Death but are the product of someone having one over on his audience, both the idiots in the gang but also the reader. To read anything the Judge says as a serious statement is misguided and I think a misreading of the novel.

      2. So we have established that the Judge is liar for his own amusement. The next step is to realize that the whole novel, even when he is not present or speaking, is the product of the Judge. This is his book.

      The high-flown BS language he uses when he speaks is the exact same as the high-flown BS language of the “omniscient” 3rd person narrator. They are identical. There is no shift between the narrator and the Judge.

      Second, the Judge has a book and records everything in it.

      So, it seems to me to not be too far a leap to say that the novel is the Judge’s novel. It shares his language. It is of his creation.

      Now, we know that the Judge is full of shit and liar and just having one over on those that listen, and if the novel is his book, it necessarily follows that the whole book is his joke on us. We are the sub-literate, slack-jawed fools sitting and listening to him go on and on.

      3. Now, as an aside, I will also say, I do not like the language in this book. I do not find it poetic. I do not find it Biblical. It is not impressive to me at all. This is perhaps just my personal taste, but it contributes to my feeling that nothing in the novel is serious. If I had the book, I would be happy to give examples of what I don’t like.

      Again, a matter of taste.

      Does this make sense?

      • lesigh says:

        Let me first say that re-reading that misguided reader bit, I did not communicate my intention properly. I did not mean to say that you are misguided, only to redefine the usage of “joke”. My emphasis in that statement was ambiguous, and I apologize.

        Now, you say you like Mellville. I think the connection between the Judge and the White Whale is a bit obvious (and one of my major problems with the book), but I think it was McCarthy’s intention nonetheless. While your reading of Blood Meridian as being written by the Judge is very satisfactory (probably more so in some ways than my own), I feel that he is instead meant to me a thematic embodiment of the world the characters inhabit, just as the whale is often read to be.

        I think that is why the Judge is so successful in this world, and why there are similarities between the two. I see him to represent and revel in the same wanton malevolence, cruelty, humor and absurdity that runs throughout the novel, but I don’t personally read that to demand that the narrative is HIS narrative. I agree that in such a reading, the story is a joke, a joke on the people stupid enough to suffer through it. But if you allow for separation between the West as represented by the book and the character of the Judge, the result is sickening rather than humorous, and I believe that to be McCarthy’s intention. That’s why I felt like the “joke” designation was inappropriate. The world of this book is the author’s exploration of unchecked humanity and human desire, as well as his condemnation of it, and the Judge is merely an embodiment of this philosophy.

        Regarding the language of the book, I agree that it can be hit-or-miss at times, but when it hits, it really HITS. At least for me.

        In any case, I’m sorry if I misrepresented myself earlier, being derogatory towards someone with whom I respectfully disagree was far from my intention.

      • hotspur says:

        I would say that just because the judge is a known liar, there is no guarantee that what he is saying is wrong. In fact I think this book is presenting the judge’s case to us (there is no order in the universe except what we invent, which is therefore a lie) and this book is also presenting us evidence to doubt the judge (for ex., in the way most everyone outside the Glanton gang is civil, even trusting and kind).

        I think one thing that this book does NOT leave open to question — something that is true in both the “there is no meaning to the cosmos” reading and in the “maybe that idea is just Satan trying to keep us at war forever” — is the idea that beautiful artifice has some intrinsic value. I think this is why McCarthy spends so much time on the ornately engraved shotgun that gets sawed in half over the protests of a smith: the ruin of that gun upset me more than the baby tree, to be honest, because so much was invested in the gun’s description whereas the babies were not anyone we’d come to know. That had to be a purposeful choice by McCarthy: by making us (or at least me) care, he emphasized how important artifice and art are. He was saying This is what we have. A stylus. To make something perhaps wonderful. And that’s why he writes in a style that is so, well, I guess you could call it self-consciously Biblical; mythical; he does not write in transparent language, because it is the ornately engraved language that best mirrors his favor of artifice and stands this book up as an example thereof.

        Even if the book is straight blasphemy; even if the most beautiful work of art to appear is only a weapon.

      • Mans says:

        I love ornate, overripe language. I love Nabokov and he is a very ornate writer. I love Pynchon and DFW. I am not looking for Raymond Carver. I don’t like that. I just don’t think that McCarthy does ornate well.

        Here are sentences that I do not like:

        “His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.” pp. 4-5

        “The night sky lies so sprent with stars that there is scarcely space of black at all and they fall at night in bitter arcs and it is so that their number are no less.” p. 15

        “He waded out into the river like some wretched baptismal candidate.” p. 27

        As for the Judge and Moby Dick, there is no connection. McCarthy may be trying to make a connection, but there is none. Moby Dick is not malevolent or evil or anything. It is just a whale. Ahab is mad.

        Now, of course, there are obvious parallels: the Kid and Ishmael, Ahab and Glanton, the Judge and the Whale, Toadvine and Queequeg. I get it, but I don’t get the point. What is the commentary on “Moby-Dick” here? The Kid and Ishmael are opposites–one the most boring and unimportant character, the other the most interesting and important; Glanton and Ahab both seem mad, but Glanton is not important it doesn’t seem; the Judge creates meaninglessness but Moby Dick is just meaningless. I don’t know.

        The novel and there is lots of love for surface and artifice in the novel, but I found that unsatisfying. I mean, in the struggle for life and death, should we not be searching for the true and the real and the essential. Shouldn’t facing death face us to accept what is important and put away our fancies? In this vision, isn’t destroying the gun, which is beautiful but only another weapon, a good thing? Isn’t its beauty a lie covering its real purpose? Shouldn’t we get to the core?

        The Judge would say, “There is no core, only the surface that I create.” Is he correct? Is this how life is, or how McCarthy sees it? If so, does death or life even matter? Is McCarthy fucking with us when he says that he cares about life and death and doesn’t care for writers, like Proust, who don’t deal with “life or death” in the way he likes?

  15. Joshua says:

    The point, I discovered, of reading this novel……is to find out if you are strong enough to avoid being completely hoodwinked, “trolled”, or beriddled by the judge and his grand comedy.

  16. Marchcool says:

    If you have ever seen the spagetti western movies, this novel has somehow the same kind of humor. The characters in those movies are always of three kinds, the “goods”, which are not really good, inherently good, but rather anti-heros, which only become good because they’re fighting the “really bad”, which are the second kind. These latter aren’t either completely bad, maybe some of them. Finally, the third kind are the “fools”, those character that are kidding by the first two. They aren’t smart enough to understand the purposes and actions of the goods and bads. They are naive. They see the goods and bads as semi-gods that can destroy them with an eye’s blink. This is no other than, the good, the bad and the ugly. In BM, the goods and the ugly are of course the Glanton’s gang. The goods are the Judge, the Kid, Glanton, etc, and the ugly ones are Toadvine, Bathcat, etc. The bads are the indians and all the militias running behind our “heros”. The fools are legion in this novel, like the congregation lynching the reverend, the people from towns visited by the gang, the governors and militars, etc.
    The jokes come always with a message, a moral. They are never free. Like in the Marlboro man and Harley-Davidson movie. They are not supposed to be funny, but because of that they become even funnier. We audience laugh about how the goods laugh from the bads and fools.
    By the way, perhaps the most blattant joke of the novel is the “idiot”. He’s grotesque but becomes like a moral figure. He’s like Faulkners Benny, full of sound and fury.
    Of course the moral of the novel is that only the judge was the real good. The rest were his puppets needed to amuse himself. He always knew that all of them were going to die eventually. Like a cat playing with a mouse. He even save them in order to gain credibility vis-a-vis the gang. He’s the real semi-god and the gang members become also fools. Perhaps it’s just Glanton who knows the judge’s aim but he cannot escape his fate. He knows the judge is a pedophile, but he cannot stop him, he cannot destroy him. It’s the judge, afterall. Glanton must assume his sins and the judge is the angel of dead that will lead him to his final destination, like the rest of the gang.

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