Blood Meridian, Chapter 18: “Damn if you aint a sorry specimen.”

night riverThis has got to be the shortest chapter in the book, consisting of maybe just a line or two over three pages.  But there are some profound points to consider, particularly as pertaining to the view of zealous Christian religion and the behavior of the judge.

The chapter begins, and it is night time, coming on early morning, but still dark, and I love all the night/sky imagery, especially here “Cassiopeia burned like a witch’s signature on the black face of the firmament.” (p. 256).  Can’t you just picture it?

cassiopeia Sure enough, the judge and Glanton were conspiring with the Yumas, and the plan is to seize the ferry, for what purpose we don’t yet know, other than to save money and wreak havoc.  They return to camp “talking quietly among themselves like men returning late from a social, from a wedding or a death.” (p. 256).

Upon returning to the camp, it is morning, and it seems the women from the group of pilgrims, who we now come to understand most definitely have some staunch religious affiliation, have surrounded the filthy, stinking idiot and are now looking for his brother so they can “save” him.  The leader of these women, Sarah Borginnis, scolds the brother and instructs the other women to get some soap and clean clothes so they can clean and then baptize him (like as if that is all that’s wrong with him).

They make for the river with him, and pass Toadvine and the kid as they go.  “Where are they takin it?” asks Toadvine. (p. 257).  I love it!  The lady Sarah opens the cage and calls to the idiot by his Christian name, James Roberts.  He comes and clings to her, smearing feces all over her, which she seems not to notice.  She instructs the others to torch his cage, and they do so.  She is here to deliver him!

James Roberts has “dead black eyes,” and he is clearly wild.  He makes a lot of noise and flails about as the cart burns.  “He sees hisself in it,” they say.  (p. 258).  Maybe, maybe not.

The women have him in the water.  If they are baptizing him per se, it doesn’t say, but that is implied.  At the very least, they clean him up, give him nice clothes, fix his hair, and that night his companions see him sitting by the pilgrims’ fire, dressed up, hair slicked, staring into it, outwardly the perfect picture of normalcy and control.

There is a “fishcolored moon.”  The fires cast shadows.  Across the river, the “little jackal wolves” cry, and this agitates the camp dogs.  The Borginnis take the idiot to his pallet under the wagon, kiss him goodnight, and tuck him in for the night.  Or so they think.

The idiot reappears at midnight, naked again, like a “balden groundsloth.” (p. 258) (A “groundsloth” is an extinct terrestrial edentate mammal of the Cenozoic era in America, typically of very large size)(an “edentate” is a mammal of an order distinguished by the lack of incisor and canine teeth. The edentates, which include anteaters, sloths, and armadillos, are all native to Central and South America).  He heads straight for the river, hoots, and then goes right in, quickly losing his footing, and going under, seemingly a goner.

But not so!  The judge “on his midnight rounds,” also stark naked (of course), comes upon the scene at precisely this moment, wades in, seizes the idiot by his heel, holding him aloft (what strength!) “like a great midwife and slapping it on the back to let the water out.” (p. 259).  What does this all mean?  “A birth scene or a baptism or some ritual not yet inaugurated into any canon.” (p. 259).  If the pilgrim women have baptized/”saved” the idiot, what has the judge just done?  Un-baptized him?  A reverse baptism?  And why does the judge care about the idiot?  Why did he save him, when so many others he has just let die, or worse?

The judge takes the idiot in his arms and restores him “among its fellows.” (Id.).  Is this the pilgrims or Glanton’s men?  We’ll see.

Just briefly, going back to the judge being naked, there was a curious line about coming across the judge like that “–such encounters being commoner than men suppose or who would survive any crossing by night–.”  (p. 259).  I don’t know exactly what this means.  It makes it seems like the judge does this regularly (i.e. lurks about late at night completely naked, which seems disturbing and completely abnormal in its own right), but what of this other component?  Is it commoner than men suppose because he does it every night but few men know it?  Or is it just that few men encounter him in such a state and live to tell the tale?  I’m thinking it’s the latter.  Who’s with me?

Again, a very short chapter, but an interesting chapter.  It makes it seem like the idiot was not merely possessed, or if he was, and was saved, he somehow became repossessed.  And the judge’s almost affection for him poses additional interesting questions, I guess depending on who/what the judge is.  If he’s the devil, then why did he act this way?  If he’s the god of war, then what does that mean about the idiot?  Is the idiot innocent?  If so, then what does the judge saving him mean?  All, I think, good and interesting questions.

BONUS QUESTION: What does the description of the women and their behavior say about religious attitudes of the time?  Is McCarthy trying to makes some broader, general, more contemporary commentary/application?

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