Sympathy for the Devil. The Characteristics of McCarthy´s Judge Holden

Term Paper, 2011

17 Pages, Grade: 1.7




Please allow me to introduce myself

But what's puzzling you Is the nature of my game

Just call me Lucifer

'Cause I'm in need of some restraint (Jagger & Richards 1968)

I've been around for a long, long year

I shouted out, "Who killed the Kennedy's?" When after all It was you and me

Stole many a man's soul and faith


Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many man's soul and faith
(Jagger & Richards 1968)

With Sympathy for the Devil the Rolling Stones created an everlasting, classic rock hymn. Not only because of the catching rhythm, its guitar solo, or Mick´s voice, but mainly because of the song´s timeless and exciting theme: an evil incarnation within society. Jagger and Richards created an immortal evil which roams through human history to turn the course of time for the worse. Furthermore, the lyrical I in Sympathy for the Devil is supposed to represent Lucifer himself, which creates an even more dense atmosphere when listening to his infamous actions. Parallels to Judge Holden in Blood Meridian can easily be drawn at first sight: his profound monologues, his ostensible immorality and, almost needless to mention, his viciousness. It´ll be shown that a lot more similarities can be found between the song and McCarthy´s novel.

The bad, the eloquent, the powerful, and the immortal figures have always been fascinating to read, to watch or to listen to. Characters like Grendel, Milton´s Satan, and Bram Stoker´s Count Dracula are not only deathless as the characters themselves, but they also still serve as foundations for today´s representations. Stephanie Meyer´s Twilight Sage or Rowling´s Lord Voldemort pulled millions into cinemas and book shops, despite the fact that their characters lack a certain amount of profoundness. On the other hand, McCarthy´s representation, namely Judge Holden, is far beyond the vocabulary of the common known Princes of Darkness. The degree of possible interpretations of Judge Holden is immense, as well as his wickedness. Harold Bloom goes to such lengths to nominate him to be “the most frightening figure in all of American literature” (Bloom 2000: 255).

However, being only “frightening” does not qualify Judge Holden to be a representation of evil. If McCarthy intended to create a devil-like figure and why, will be discussed on the following pages of this paper. To do that, it is first of all necessary to take a deeper look on McCarthy´s foundations of Judge Holden.

Please allow me to introduce myself (Jagger & Richards 1968)

Directly after his introduction of the kid McCarthy introduces an “enormous”, “bald”, and “childlike” man who enters the apparent last bastion of God during the sermon of a Reverend Green in the first chapter:

“[…] he stood smoking a cigar even in this nomadic house of God and he seemed to have removed his hat only to chase the rain from it for now he puts it on again. The reverend had stopped his sermon altogether. There was no sound in the tent. All watched the man. He adjusted the hat and pushed his way forward […]” (McCarthy 1990: 6).

McCarthy immediately creates a powerful and sinister atmosphere around Judge Holden. The judge brings the hellfire (cigar) into the “house of God”. He shows no respect to the Christian ceremony, but all attendees instinctively show respect to him. As if they already knew him. As if they owe him a debt which they wish to keep. Even if they do not, the judge will manipulate them towards badness. By means of a few eloquent and drastic accusations against Reverend Green he eventually turns the last drop of belief in religion into chaos, in form of an angry mob. The reverend accuses Judge Holden to be the “Devil” (McCarthy 1990: 7). Hope, in the form of Reverend Green, dies right at the beginning of the novel through the hands of mad people, aroused by the evil words of Judge Holden. He is in total control of things. He is even able to turn green, the color of life, into the color of decay. On these few pages McCarthy already foreshadows the importance of Judge Holden. He is not only a judge, but a “suzerain” (McCarthy 1990: 198). He will escort the reader throughout the whole novel. He will even outlast the kid. He is an unstoppable force whose motives are rather nebulous and which become more and more complex. Bloom, besides several other critiques, correctly argues that the judge and the kid are the “two central figures” in Blood Meridian (Bloom 2000: 257). Admittedly, McCarthy devotes much more text to the judge. And since the reader is left with almost no insights into the kid´s mind, it is Judge Holden whose speeches get McCarthy´s readership to ponder and to struggle. On the other hand, it should be forbidden to place the judge above the kid in regard to their importance for the text because ultimately it is their relationship which matters most. But Judge Holden is more complex interpretation-wise and more important in terms of entertainment value. Where the kid is only watching a sermon, the judge burns it down.

But what's puzzling you Is the nature of my game (Jagger & Richards 1968)

According to Bloom, the judge “seems to judge the entire earth” (Bloom 2000: 258). He tries to get hold of the world, as his name implies. His sketchbook contains all information he can gather. Basically, Judge Holden is an early version of Google. He seems to be obsessed of a need to know everything (McCarthy 1985: 127; 132). “Primarily,” says Moss, “Blood Meridian reveals the world as we have categorized, inventoried, and commodified it” (Moss 2002: 24). Especially the Judge Holden fulfills the role of a determiner. His knowledge of vocabulary is immense. For him rational knowledge is equal to power: “The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down” (McCarthy 1985: 199). Representing America, as the well educated, rational, but also self-righteous country is one possible interpretation of the judge.

But he also thinks that “[b]ooks lie” (McCarthy 1985: 116). All that matters to him, are his own experience and knowledge. A parallel to the limited worldview of America could be drawn here. And as America, the judge was “all over the world” (McCarthy 1985: 123). His religion is war: “Men are born for games. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing unity of existence. War is god” (McCarthy 1990: 249)

“He represents the ideological skeleton of a new imperialist scientific world order sprouting from Enlightenment rationality and the firm establishment of capitalist principles as transcendent in American and European cultures. Through this scientific ordering, Holden attempts to control the world around him. Collection and categorization allow him power over his surroundings through a scientific reproduction of nature and history”, says Moos (Moos 2002: 28).

He is the best or at least one of the best at everything he does, similar to the American self-perception. The rest of the world experiences a highly eloquent Obama, a dancing and singing Britney Spears and a US Army constantly in action. The world may not rank those actions as successful, but probably as highly professional.

“Judge Holden densely delivers extensive exegeses on fate, destiny, and human will seemingly unopposed” (Chamberlain 271). No one in the book is up to Judge Holden´s intellect. He is always in control. He awaits the Yuma attack naked with the “bronze barrel of the howitzer” under his arm (McCarthy 1990: 275). The Judge possesses a superior authority. All though he is second in command behind Glanton, the Judge is the constantly translating, discussing and bargain in the name of Glanton, who highly trusts the judge. Ultimately, the reader never gets the impression a subordination of the judge in any way. And when he explains the meaning of a “suzerain” to several members of the gang, Judge Holden eventually talks about himself in the third person. Because he is the one that wants to “countermand[…] local judgments” (McCarthy 1985: 198).

According to Judge Holden, the unknown, the mysterious, like the kid appears to be, everything that he cannot control shall not exist: “The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I´d have them all in zoos” (McCarthy 1985: 199). Everything that he does not know shall not exist: “[…] everywhere […] are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my disposition” (McCarthy 1985: 199). Maybe that is one of the reasons why his only deliberate kills are those of children and an old woman.

Furthermore, the kid one of the few who resists in becoming another puppet on the judge´s strings. Even though the judge is constantly benevolent towards the kid, the kid somehow feels some sort of badness about the judge.

Just call me Lucifer

'Cause I'm in need of some restraint (Jagger & Richards 1968)

Like many recipients, Joshua Masters finds Judge Holden to be a “protean” and “complex character” who “resists” unidimensional interpretations (Masters 88: 25). With references to the text, a connection of the judge´s figure to metaphors and symbols of death and evil is probably the most obvious to establish. When the gang first meets him he sits on a lonely rock in the middle of the desert: “Irving said he´d brung it with him. […] Like he´d been expecting us. […] Said he´d been with a wagon company and fell out to go it alone” (McCarthy 1990: 125). Again, McCarthy implies that the judge came directly through the earth and out of hell, bringing one of his hell-stones to sit and wait for those henchmen, of which he knew that they would come this way, to join their bloodthirsty journey. And again, a witness feels that there is something gloomy about this hairless albino. McCarthy successfully uses the first-person and third-person descriptions of the judge (as during the sermon scene) to transport this gloomy feeling to the reader.

During this first meeting with the gang Glanton makes “a secret commerce” with the judge, “[s]ome terrible covenant” (McCarthy 1990: 125). Even though, the reader will never find out about this “commerce” directly, it is obvious that Glanton and his gang are doomed from now on. They reached a certain “meridian” of their lifespan. Glanton only buys a few more days of lifetime for himself and his gang from the judge, before he finally ends up beheaded by the Yuma. In fact, except for the judge no one will end up alive. Glanton made a deal with the devil. By using a member of the gang, namely Irving, to recapitulate their first encounter with Judge Holden, McCarthy makes the reader aware that the rest of the gang at least senses that their life is going to end sooner or later since their encounter with the judge. Consequently, the judge fulfills the devils main function: to remark that life has to end one day. At this point, it is necessary to mention that McCarthy once said to a New York Times journalist that "`good writers deal with issues of life and death.´ Proust and Henry James don't make the cut. `I don't understand them´, he says. `To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange´" (Woodward 1992).

The inscription on the judge´s rifle, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, is another hint towards his origin and his function in the novel. Literally translated it means “and in Arcadia I”. According to Megakles Rogakos, art historian and art curator of The American College in Greece, the phrase can also be translated as “even in arcadia I exist” (Rogakos 2009). Arcadia is a landscape in Greece. It is a synonym for sentiment and creativity, but also for a place of natural harmony. Therefore it was put on a level with the Christian paradise during the 16th century (Ritter 1971). It is to assume, that McCarthy uses this phrase to indicate Judge Holden´s supernatural abilities once again. Simultaneously, the complexity of possible interpretations is immense. One possible interpretation of the phrase is that the judge has once been in Heaven, like the Lucifer he stands for.

Greenwood writes in Reading Cormac McCarthy: “The loose translation is `And I am also in Arcadia.´ Arcadia is the original locale of the pastoral life for the Greeks. This Latin allusion to the eternal presence or threat of violence is a part of the novel´s allusive aesthetic and also shows another stage in the development of McCarthy´s interest in the American pastoral” (Greenwood 2009: 52). Greenwood´s focus lies on the setting of Blood Meridian: The wide land of the American frontier and it´s violent landscape. He further interprets Judge Holden´s violence to be “a grotesque manifestation of the `whiteness´ that will forever be linked to the genocidal aspects of the Westward expansion” (Greenwood 2009: 51). Both, the aesthetics of the American landscape and the violence of the American imperialism during the 19th century, are certainly important parts of McCarthy´s composition. However, there is more to this mystic Latin phrase and therefore more to Judge Holden than sheer wickedness. Especially due to the fact, that McCarthy considers only those as “good writers [that] deal with issues of life and death”.

Sepich, like Bloom and many more critics, call Blood Meridian a historical novel: “McCarthy confronts critics […] with a well-researched and solidly presented - yet no less grotesque - historical novel” (Sepich 1991: 30). According to Greenwood, “McCarthy received grant funding from three different foundations to write Blood Meridian [.] […] [W]ith the grant monies, he conducted extensive historical research” (Greenwood 2009: 50). Considering all the research that McCarthy must have accomplished, it can be assumed that he at least stumbled upon two paintings by Nicolas Poussin and Guercini from the 17th century, both known by the name Et in Arcadia Ego. Poussin´s painting shows three Arcardian shepherds examining the Latin phrase on a grave. The shepherds seem to realize that even a resident of Arcadia is not immune to death. The fourth person on Poussin´s painting is woman, laying her hand on one of the shepherd´s shoulder, as if she contributes solace to the men who just found out about their mortality. Guercini´s painting shows two Arcardian shephards, who just discovered a skull under which “Et in Arcadia Ego” is inscribed into stone.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Sympathy for the Devil. The Characteristics of McCarthy´s Judge Holden
University of Cologne
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
538 KB
Cormac McCarthy, Judge Holden, Blood Meridian, Rolling Stones, Devil
Quote paper
Jens Stuhlemer (Author), 2011, Sympathy for the Devil. The Characteristics of McCarthy´s Judge Holden, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Sympathy for the Devil. The Characteristics of McCarthy´s Judge Holden

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free