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On writing the sublime
"They were watching, out there past men's knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea."
I have been wanting to write of Blood Meridian; it is a prophetic work in the line of Melville and a worthy topic of exegesis. Here the symbolic equivalent to Moby-Dick is Judge Holden; and as with the whale that stove that boat, so also was the Judge first dreamt up by the world itself. He is recorded in the autobiographical account—My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue—of Samuel Chamberlain’s time (c. 1850) with the Glanton Gang, mercenaries and scalp-hunters that rode the Mexican borderlands collecting bounties from local governments for the Apache scalps they gathered.
Chamberlain describes the Judge thus:
The second in command, now left in charge of the camp, was a man of gigantic size called “Judge” Holden of Texas. Who or what he was no one knew but a cooler blooded villain never went unhung; he stood six feet six in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression. His desires was blood and women, and terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name, in the Cherokee nation and Texas; and before we left Frontreras a little girl of ten years was found in the chapperal, foully violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed him out as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand, but though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime.
Holden was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico; he conversed with all in their own language, spoke in several Indian lingos, at a fandango would take the Harp or Guitar from the hands of the musicians and charm all with his wonderful performance, and out-waltz any poblana of the ball. He was “plum centre” with rifle or revolver, a daring horseman, acquainted with the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, great in Geology and Mineralogy, in short another Admirable Crichton, and with all an arrant coward. Not but that he possessed enough courage to fight Indians and Mexicans or anyone where he had the advantage in strength, skill and weapons, but where the combat would be equal, he would avoid it if possible.
There is something terrific in this image, that is certain; but it is not yet the sublime, at least to the reader; it is, however, a factual report that strays into the borderlands of reality. Such cases seem as though the world, by some fevered dream, brought forth a thing beyond the pale. But they remain at a distance, are rendered smaller by this: the image as yet represents only a notion. Something more is required for this hint of a symbol to be honed to its true significance.
Yet there was a further dream, that of McCarthy; it is here that the Judge, once mere man, is now found dreamt sublime—somehow now of cosmic significance. This not a logical but an aesthetic effect; it is found in McCarthy’s artful craft of figure and ground. Such an idea as the Judge cannot even be thought in logical terms. The truth here is found only in its proper presentation, as for instance to report a genocide in statistical terms tells you nothing of its true terror; so here the reality presented requires more of its author than mere description. We could not take the Judge seriously were this not so.
This is why I have been unable to write of the Judge, for it is only in the full narrative of figure and ground that the sublime can adequately be rendered; it is impossible by way of literary criticism, or whatever this is; it is only possible by way of literature. There is something in the Judge's bearing, something which reckons closely with the occult of This World; it is an aspect of the ‘figure in the carpet’—that is why it must be read.
He poured the tumbler full. Drink up, he said. The world goes on. We have dancing nightly and this night is no exception. The straight and the winding way are one and now that you are here what do the years count since last we two met together? Men's memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.