Transcending the Gnostic Duality: Atemporal Existence, Amoral Judge

Judge Holden of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has been identified by Petra Mundik and Leo Daugherty as an archon of Gnostic theology. They propose that he represents the god-like being that attempts to keep humanity from gnosis, or the joining of the spirit with the unknown Godhead. “The Gnostics’ only source of comfort was the thought that although the manifest cosmos may be dark and infinite, it is also ultimately impermanent and illusory” (Mundik 75). Although Mundik and Daugherty put forth a well rounded argument, they fail to understand the importance of one small, but critical aspect of the judge’s philosophy: time, as well as matter, is an illusion. The illusory manifestation we call existence is not merely impermanent, which implies a future salvation state that is permanent; for the judge, the perception of matter within a flow of time is also an illusory manifestation—there are no future states, only an eternal present that is paradoxically and eternally a void state as well as an illusory experiential state. The paradoxical concept of an atemporal existence coexisting alongside our experiential perception of time may seem impossible, perhaps even foolish, but some modern scientists support this claim, notably physicist Julian Barbour. In a suitable metaphor that the judge would applaud, Barbour tells us about the eternal nature of what he calls Nows: “The only evidence we have of the Earth’s past is rocks and fossils. But these are just stable structures in the form of an arrangement of minerals we examine in the present. The point is, all we have is these records and you only have them in this Now” (Frank 302).

If the judge understands the world in these atemporal terms, then the judge is not an archon nor is he based upon gnostic conceptions. Atemporality has removed the dualistic core of  gnosticism and replaced it with a paradoxical, yet unified void state. In this scenario, the judge becomes an Adamite figure, transcending the prison of the illusory material, temporal, and socially constructed world to become aware of his unity with the unknown, unknowable Godhead outside of time. But even so, I hesitate to label the judge as an Adamite figure, a label which implies his separation from other individuals and from other aspects of creation. Due to atemporality, all creation is part of a singularity, a void state that links the eternally present Now with Eternity itself. In this void state, nothing exists individually, no matter how divine or demonic it may appear. In this paper, I hope to refute the theory of judge as archon and to claim the judge as an inhuman, holistic symbol of the transcendence which contains all creation within it: the void consciousness, made manifest, that has attained unity. Below, I will discuss evidence of the judge’s understanding of the atemporal world and its ramifications on morality, the role of war in forcing cosmic unity, the role of individual value judgements in an atemporal world, how the judge acts as Adamite guide, and how his attainment of gnosis is a critique of the perceptual view of time itself. As a word of warning, these arguments will tend to run together, as all things in an atemporal environment tend to do.

Posting Witnesses: Effects of Atemporality on Morality

In his article “Language and the Dance of Time in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian,” John Rothfork denies the possibility of the judge attaining any form of transcendence. He proposes two problems for the judge:

“Language is not his, or anyone’s invention or possession…Holden’s second and related problem is that in using language he necessarily addresses someone who understands the language and cares for the meaning of what he is saying. Total domination and transcendence are not possible because the recourse to language necessitates appealing to an audience” (Rothfork 27).

But Rothfork fails to understand that due to atemporality, the judge contains all discourse within himself; he is a solipsist of the highest degree: “As the dance is the thing with which we are concerned and contains complete within itself its own arrangement and history and finale there is no necessity that the dancers contain these things within themselves as well” (McCarthy 342). The judge is the manifestation of the dance; he contains the arrangement, history, and finale—he contains the dancers themselves and the language that allows communication—therefore he is beyond the issues put forth by Rothfork. For the dancers, a lack of knowledge of the judge’s understanding of the world does not free the dancers from the order that the judge imposes upon them. “But order is not set aside because of their indifference,” the judge tells us (McCarthy 342). Rothfork fails to take into account the atemporal mindset and solipsism of the judge. So total domination and transcendence are possible because for the judge, recourse to language necessitates a self reflective consciousness upon a solipsistic and eternal Now—the judge is the dance, and the dance occurs in Eternity. The judge is an illusion that is aware of his status as an illusion; this realization makes him the eternal void made manifest. As such, he exists outside of time and outside of matter. This is evidenced by his haunting question to the kid in their final encounter. The judge speaks:

Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.

He took up the tumbler the judge had poured and he drank and set it down again. He looked at the judge. I been everwhere, he said. This is just one more place.

The judge arched his brow. Did you post witnesses? he said. To report to you on the continuing existence of those places once you’d quit them?

That’s crazy.

Is it? Where is yesterday? Where is Glanton and Brown and where is the priest? (McCarthy 344)

What is the past, what is the future, if all is part of the eternal Now, the dance of eternity? It is quite clear that the judge exists outside of the limits of time. It is also quite clear that he is not altogether human, but nor is he an archon ruling over the illusory world. The judge is the prime essence of existence, the original Adamite man restrained by neither time nor matter, made manifest in the illusory experience of life.

In her article “Blood Meridian’s Man of Many Masks: Judge Holden as Tarot’s Fool,” Emily Stinson explores in detail the atemporality of the judge and the ramifications of that atemporality: “In short, Judge Holden’s all-encompassing role may be that of universal signifier in that he surpasses any one signifier/signified role and exists outside of time and space” (Stinson 9). She goes on to equate the judge with the Tarot’s fool as wanderer, immortal, and the most powerful of Tarot’s Trump Cards. He upsets “the established order [of the cards] with his pranks” (Stinson 13). An atemporal world allows the judge the capacity to upset the order, specifically the moral order in which he operates. Because the fool is thoroughly amoral, “he submits to no discipline and is guided wholly by his experimental attitude toward life” (Nichols 32). The judge is able to shirk the social morality of the late 1800’s borderlands. For the judge, he does not exist on the frontier, he exists in the eternal Now. In transcending morality, the judge reveals the irony of socially constructed morality: only those who have transcended morality (and therefore any label, binary, or social construct) are demonized or canonized. For those individuals, there is no moral compass, there is only the void state that is accessed through the illusory dance of the eternal Now.  Atemporality, for good or bad, has granted the judge a transcendent perspective on existence. There are two routes for the transcendent being to take: worship the illusory manifestation as miracle, or experiment with the experience of life, manipulating it and bringing to conflict the illusory manifestation as some:

“hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning” (McCarthy 256)

The judge has taken the latter course of action.

War as Unification

So how can a transcendent being who knows the world is an illusory manifestation of the void try to unify the illusory manifestation with the void? The judge tells us quite clearly: “War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (McCarthy 261).  Our conception of death within the confinement of the time-space illusion is the closest we can get to understanding the void state, the unknowable God. The judge forces this metaphor to its proper conclusion by bringing war and death to all forms of the illusory manifestation; it is a depraved form of bringing transcendence to the world. In the epilogue, the unnamed man is violently setting the soul-fire free from the material rock to unity in the eternal Now. But the epilogue is not about a new Prometheus who has come to save souls from the archon judge, but about the judge himself, amoral and violent, doing what he has done for all time: unifying the illusory manifestation of existence in the ever-present and eternal Now. In his novel Steppenwulf, Hesse writes: “Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists… in putting too high a value on time… In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke” (Hesse 97). The judge is saying essentially the same thing as Hesse’s immortal, but the Judge would make one change that cracks open the historical jars of morality: “Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for war.”

Individual Value Judgements: Proper Suzerain

Julian Barbour tells us that “The mature brain is a time capsule. History resides in its structure” (Barbour 33). Likewise, the judge’s solipsistic view of experience allows him to understand individuals not as separate autonomous beings with histories and futures of their own, but as parts of himself that are either aligned with his understanding of the world, or misaligned with it. The judge, in effect, is schizophrenic: his mind is split and his life is an attempt to unify these schismatic splinters that manifest themselves as pieces of matter, whether they be artifacts like the armor he sketches or humans like the kid whom he studies. The kid is the most painful splinter in the judge’s mind, and as such, he becomes the protagonist of the story, destined to come to cosmic unification in the judge through violence. To understand the paradoxical way that the judge can apply individual value judgements to what is ultimately a manifestation of the void state we need to look at the kid’s archaic and symbolic dream:

“The fool was no longer there but another man and this other man he could never see in his entirety but he seemed an artisan and a worker of metal. The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a cold forger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile form men’s fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of his becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.” (McCarthy 322-323)

The judge is the judge of value in the illusory manifestation we call life. He determines which of the cold slag brute is stamped with the approval of his mind and may pass into the illusory manifestation of existence—the markets where men barter. But this value is ultimately, as the judge well knows, of no value at all; he judges an illusory manifestation: the falsity that appears as material and time. The Judge knows that the coldforger’s work will never see the light of day; it will never hold any essential value because the night does not end. The judge’s world, like Julian Barbour’s science, is a paradox—existence without existence—and he is the only one who understands this. He stands both within and without the experience of life. He is the one who gives value to that which has no value. But although nothing is of value, the judge is not a nihilist. The illusory manifestations do matter; but they do not matter in and of themselves—they matter in how they are represented in the solipsistic mind of the judge. History resides within the judge’s mental structure, which resides in the eternal Now. Whether the kid lives or dies, despite his being the most painful splinter in the judge’s mind, does not matter. The kid is not an autonomous individual—he is a part of the judge’s illusory manifestation, meant to become unified with the void state through the function of war. The judge describes this paradox of seeming autonomy within a solipsistic mind when explaining the role of the suzerain: “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” (McCarthy 207). The task of the transcendent being made flesh is to bring illusory nature to a unification with the void state by making it stand naked before him; it allows the realization that what stands before him is his—an illusory manifestation—a splinter also made flesh. As the suzerain state contains the autonomy of its lower states, so the judge’s void state mind contains the autonomy of all illusory manifestations, of all individual minds regardless of their appearance as autonomous units.

Adamite Guide

If the judge is not an archon, what then is he? As mentioned earlier, I hesitate to label him (or any illusory manifestation for that matter) as anything at all. As the judge tells us himself, he is a nothingness:

And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?

You aint nothin.

You speak truer than you know. (McCarthy 345)

For the sake of analysis however, I will make an attempt at describing the void made manifest: the judge can be viewed as an Adamite Guide figure, the first man and the every man. The judge is the one who shows others the path to transcendence and freedom from the illusory world; he is the gnostic master with a penchant for violence. But as mentioned, instead of sharing his gnosis with the miraculous world, he drags the splinters of his mind along behind him in a wake of destruction, forcing them to unity through science, violence, and war. He pushes other individuals to the brink of their own solipsistic knowledge of the void state. One of the more interesting examples of the judge as guide is in the relationship between the priest and himself.

Journeyman priest or apprentice priest, said the judge. Men of god and men of war have strange affinities.

I’ll secondsay you in your notions, said Tobin. Don’t ask it.

Ah Priest, said the judge. What could I ask of you that you’ve not already given. (McCarthy 262)

The priest has already come to understand the philosophy that the judge preaches; he has accepted the unity of god and war,  analogous to the unity of the void and the manifestation. The priest has given himself to the void through the teaching of the judge, something that the kid never does: “You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen,” the judge says of the kid (McCarthy 312). The kid’s unwillingness to accept the judge forces the judge to unify, by death, the splinter that denies unity. The judge is that unity, he is the origin and the Adamite, the one who sets individuals free either by rhetoric or by war.

Like the Adamite figure, the judge is said to be without origin; to the kid, this is a mystery. But to the judge, it is truth, for him just as it is for all of existence: he has sprung from the very void state that all being has sprung from. And to spring from a void is to never spring at all. The judge is:

A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing. (McCarthy 322)

He is the Godhead made flesh—the void made manifest with the knowledge of his void state origins: although appearing as man, that is not what he is. Like other Adamite saviors, he is sent into the world of experience, yet free from the world of experience; he lives a paradoxical existence, both within and without time and space. As such, his role, like all Adamite figures, is to guide others to the same gnostic understanding of the experiential world as illusion. He does this of course most notably through violence, but he also shares his teachings through esoteric riddles and scholarly discourse. But sometimes the judge speaks plainly: “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery” (McCarthy 263). Nothing exists in the void; the judge is the void made manifest, he lays the string in the maze, he decides the value of the specie, and he alone understands the “order… that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others” (McCarthy 256).

Critique of Time

In viewing the world atemporally, the judge has shattered morality completely. Life as we know it, as the flow of experiential events in time, is not the truth. What we perceive as autonomous individuals, matter, and time are merely manifestations of a void state become experiential. For the judge, who understands this, forcing material unity is the task of life. The judge has destroyed the conception of life as experience and reconstructed it as a solipsistic battlefield. He has left us with a blank slate smeared with blood: Now is eternal, the void is eternal, and the illusory manifestation of life is just a traveling medicine show of horrors.

The judge lives in paradox: what exists is not, and what does not exist, is. The absence of time in the metaphysical philosophy of the judge allows for a negation of all experience and the assumption of total unity despite material and temporal evidence to the contrary. Life is a game, and the judge has chosen to play it violently. By simply critiquing the assumption of time as real, the judge has destroyed our understanding of autonomy, morality, and divinity. What we are left with is perhaps the truth. What appears as autonomous complexity existing within the flow of time and struggling between the dualities of good and evil is perhaps a single transcendent unity: is that such an evil thing?


Barbour, Julian B. The End of Time: The next Revolution in Physics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Frank, Adam. About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang. New York: Free, 2012. Print.

Hesse, Hermann. Steppenwolf. New York: Picador, 2002. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West. Modern Library ed. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Mundik, Petra. “‘Striking the Fire Out of the Rock’: Gnostic Theology in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” South Central Review 2009: 72. JSTOR Journals. Web. 3 May 2015.

Nichols, Sallie. Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1980

Rothfork, John. “Language And The Dance Of Time In Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Southwestern American Literature 1 (2004): 23. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2015.

Stinson, Emily J. “Blood Meridian’s Man Of Many Masks: Judge Holden As Tarot’s Fool.” Southwestern American Literature 1 (2007): 9. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2015.

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