Blood Meridian Chapter XXIII, Part II- “This night thy soul may be required of thee.”

dancing bear blood meridian book review dunce academyIntroduction

So here it is, the second half of the last chapter in the book.  The kid, now 45, is in a riotous saloon in Griffin, Texas, known in the area for its whores and evil.  At the center of all of this, probably not surprising to any of our readers, is the judge.  “Watching him across the layered smoke in the yellow light was the judge.” (p. 325).  What will happen?

The kid sees the judge, and in a way, it’s like he is seeing him for the first time.  He is sitting in the midst of all manner of men, from laborers to drifters, gamblers to thieves.  But he sees him like that not just with these specific men in this particular barroom, but as having been among the dregs of the earth for a thousand years, and also among distant rulers.  He sits by them, yet alone, “as if he were some other sort of man entire.”  (p. 325).  Most strange of all, he seemed little changed or none in all these years.  It’s been 30 years, and the judge hasn’t aged a day?  Who/what is the judge?

A Disappearance

The kid turns away and looks at his glass.  The barman is looking at him, and he orders another whiskey.  There is a mirror behind the bar but, as you would imagine in a place like this, it is dirty, and holds “only smoke and phantoms.” (p. 325).  The organ plays and the bear dances.  The man in the costume mills in the crowd and there are garishly dressed whores all around.  The judge is gone.

The man in costume is having a heated discussion with the men the judge had been sitting with and talking to.  The man points towards the bar.  The bear is dancing his heart out.  And we read that the shadow of the bear dancing, cast on the wall by the candlelight, “might have gone begging for referents in any daylight world.” (p. 326).  What a gorgeous turn of phrase!  And indeed, how would you explain the shadow of a dancing bear under any normal circumstances of the normal world? (am I the only one reminded of Plato’s allegory of the cave here?)

But then things get stranger still.  One of the men pulls out a gun, aims it at the bear, and shoots it.  Some duck for cover.  Others reach for their own weapons.  The man shoots the bear again.  The place goes nuts, whores running everywhere, the girl who had been playing the organ unstraps herself and holds the bear’s head in her arms, crying.  A woman appears and says, “It’s all over…It’s all over.” (p. 326).  Then, as if out of nowhere, the judge is right next to the kid, and asks “Do you believe it’s all over, son?” (p. 327).  Scary!

Was the whole bear thing a distraction created by the judge?  Is there anything more to the “son” reference, not a literal reference, but just a few chapters ago, the judge told the kid he would have loved him like a son.  Now they are reunited, what will happen?  What can happen?

The Dance

Is it over?  Check out this next line:

“The last of the true.  The last of the true.  I’d say they’re all gone under now saving me and thee.  Would you not?” (p. 327).  If he’s referring to Glanton’s gang, yes, we know they are all dead.  Except we’re not sure about the expriest, but probably a safe bet.  The judge didn’t like him, so really, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did.  Why would that group be “true”?  True believers.  True non-believers.  True in the single purpose of unchecked violence.  If you believe in the theme of new life springing from violence, a purging, then maybe that’s what he is talking about.

The judge is so huge and so close, the kid can’t see anything past him.  He wants to leave.  Escape?

“And some are not yet born who shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s soul,” quotes the judge. (p. 327).  I am not familiar with the phrase, but a Dauphin is a term for a leader in 14th to 18th century France.  There are some who are not yet born who will have cause to curse a current leader’s soul.  Well, if he does harm to their family or property, certainly.

The woman announces dancing starting in the back.  The judge says “Plenty of time for the dance.”  He is no doubt referring to something else, but what?  The kid says “I aint studyin no dance.”  The judge smiles.  Uh oh.

Everyone is still distracted by the dead bear and surrounding commotion.  The judge reaches across the bar, grabs a bottle, unstops it, and chugs a good portion down.  “You’re here for the dance,” he says. (p. 327).  Is the dance a standoff between these two, as in “okay, let’s dance”?  This could definitely be a Clint Eastwood line.  “Okay, let’s dance…punk.”

“I got to go,” says the kid.  And the judge seems genuinely upset.  But the kid does not move.  “What man would not be a dancer if he could,” said the judge.  “It’s a great thing, the dance.”  (p. 327).  So what is the dance?  Life?  Death?  A dance with the devil?

The judge pours the kid a full glass from the bottle.  The bear is lying there in his costume “like some monster slain in the commission of unnatural acts.” (p. 327).

Here’s another great line: “Drink up,” says the judge, “This night they soul may be required of thee.” (Id.).  This is a biblical reference, Luke 12:20, from the King James version, with a slight twist, the “may” replaced with a “shall” in the Bible verse.  Is the kid going to die?

What follows is one of the best dialogues in the book, and some of the best stuff we see from the judge.  It reads like one of the old Socratic dialogues, in somewhat question and answer form, the kid being the unwitting straw man eliciting the judge’s insights.  What is the dance?  It’s a ceremony, and not only a ceremony, but a ritual.  And as the judge creepily points out, “A ritual includes the letting of blood.” (p. 329).  He speaks of volition.  Reason.  To what degree do men have true control over their lives?  Whether we act with our own purpose or the purpose of someone else, we are acting for a purpose.  Our choices have consequences.  And if we are not acting for our own will, whose are we acting for?  This is starting to feel a little bit like Sunday school, where I was told many times that if I did not choose the right, the devil would choose the wrong for me.  Wait, is that’s what is going on here?  Can you guess who that other might be?  The judge can, and he “know[s] him well.” (p. 328).

Blood.  Death.  “What is death if not an agency?” (p. 329).  Blood and death is a ritual.  That is the meaning of everything.

What is it man wants most in life?  What is life’s greatest frustration?  That other men will not do as he wishes them to.  It feels like life is stacked against us.  Fate.

And it just gets better.  A man seeks his own destiny and no other.  But the end is always the same.  Death.  Life is the desert.  It is “ultimately empty.” (p. 330).

The judge encourages him to drink up.  Encourages to think nothing of the years that have passed since they last saw each other.  “We have dancing nightly and this night is no exception.” (p. 330).  “Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.” (Id.).  Indeed.  Nothing means anything really in the grand scheme, with an eternity of nothing before it and eternity of nothing after.  What memories are real and not really has no significance in this context.

And another fascinating point.  Philosophically.  The kid claims to have been “everwhere”. (p. 331).  The judge arches his brow. “Did you post witnesses?  he said. To report to you on the continuing existence of those places once you’d quit them?” (p. 331).  This reminds me of conversations Dunce One and I used to have back in college.  How can we know the world exists outside of our ability to perceive it?  Answer: we can’t.

War, bloodshed, lies at the center of life’s meaning, at least according to the judge.

Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.

(p. 331).

Only one man can dance forever, and everyone else is destined “for a night that is eternal and without name.” (Id.).  The judge suggests that he will be that one dancer.  The kid says “You aint nothin.”  “You speak truer than you know,” responds the judge.  We are all dancing bears or non-dancing bears.

The Infamous Whores- Finally

The kid drifts with the crowd towards the back.  They pass through a back room where men are playing cards.  He continues to where men are heading to a shed in the back.  The men give a chit or token and proceed.  He has no chit, so he goes to a table, pays a dollar, gets a token, and passes through the door.  He finds himself in a large hall full of prostitutes working the crowd.  In dirty lingerie, they flit through the crowd, “like makebelieve wantons, at once childlike and lewd.” (p. 332).  Childlike because they are young?  I hope not.

A “dark little dwarf of a whore” takes his arm and smiles at him.  “I seen you right away…I always pick the one I want,” she says.  They get a towel and a candle from an old woman and head to an upper room.  The next thing we know, she is getting dressed and he is watching her.  She says she needs to leave, and he tells her to go ahead.  She says he can’t stay there (the space needed for the next occupant, no doubt).  She tells him to get a drink and that he’ll be all right.  He tells her he is all right.  Performance problems?  We don’t know.

He descends back to the dance floor, where people are dancing and calling.  Outside he can see the faces of indians, Tonkawas, who we assume either don’t have money or are otherwise simply not going to be allowed to participate in the festivities.

He goes out the back.  It had apparently been raining, but now it had stopped.  The air is cold.  The stars are falling, “speeding along brief vectors from their origins in night to their destinies in dust and nothingness.”  (p. 333).  In the streets, men are calling for the girl who had lost her bear and was playing the organ.  She has disappeared.  Where is the judge?  I bet he knows where she is.

The Jakes

He heads towards the jakes, an outdoor lavatory or outhouse.  He looks one last time at the trails of the falling stars.  He opens the door.  The judge is sitting there, completely naked.  He rises smiling, gathers “the kid” in his immense arms, and locks the door.  Uh oh!

Inside, two men are wanting to buy the hide of the bear.  They can’t find his owner.  All the candles have gone out except one.  A young man has joined to fiddler and is playing spoons.

The whores are dancing around half naked.

Two men head out back towards the jakes.  They encounter a third urinating in the mud.  “I wouldn’t go in there if I was you,” he tells them.  “Is there somebody in there?” they ask.  “I wouldn’t go in,” is his only answer. (p. 334).  They both look, of course.  “Good God almighty.”  What?  What is it?  What have they seen?

Inside they are loading up the bear.  The gamblers continue to gamble.  The dancing continues, and gets more lively, the dancers drunk and in various stages of undress.  The fiddlers grin hideously over their instruments.

“Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant.” (p. 335).  The judge gets the last laugh.  He was right.  He is the solitary dancer.  Why are his feet small?  Are they devil hooves?  Why does he look like a baby?  Is he reborn?  Was his last encounter with the kid an end or a new beginning?

He never sleeps, he says.  He says he’ll never die. (p. 335).  Immortal?  A god?  A devil?  Vampire?  Demon?  It is repeated two more times.  He never sleeps.  He says he’ll never die.  He picks up a fiddle.  Plays, dances.  He is a great favorite, this is also repeated.  He is at the center of all of this.  The center of evil.  The center of the dancing, a ritual, a sacrament, sealed in blood.  It does not say specifically, but we assume the kid is dead, out in the jacks, and that it is gruesome.  The judge literally has the last laugh, throwing his head back and laughing deep in his throat.  The epitome of evil.  The scariest character in all of literature.

That’s not quite the end, ye dunces and dunce academy enthusiasts.  Here lies the epilogue.

Vocabulary

bullwhacker- 1 chiefly West : a driver of an ox wagon or other heavy freight wagon especially in the early settlement of the West

beggary- a state of extreme poverty.

scapegrace- a mischievous or wayward person, especially a young person or child; a rascal.

scions- a descendant of a notable family.
referents- one that refers or is referred to; especially :  the thing that a symbol (as a word or sign) stands for
aggrieved- feeling resentment at having been unfairly treated
anteroom- a small room that is connected to a larger room and used as a place for people to wait before going into the larger room
chit- a short official note, memorandum, or voucher, typically recording a sum owed.
peignoirs- a woman’s loose negligee or dressing gown
wanton- of a woman : having sex with many men
Tonkawa- a :  an Indian people of central Texas; b :  a member of such people
jakes- a lavatory, especially an outdoor one

guttered- a :  to flow in rivulets b of a candle :  to melt away through a channel out of the side of the cup hollowed out by the burning wick; to incline downward in a draft <the candle flame guttering>

canted- running in a slanting direction

jackboots-

a large leather military boot reaching to the knee.
  • used as a symbol of cruel or authoritarian behavior or rule.

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