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“What manner of heretic?”: Demons in McCarthy and the Question of Agency

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 386-401 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0015

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Roger Winter. DEVIL’S GARDEN. 1990. Oil on linen. 62″ × 86″. Courtesy of the artist and the McKinney Avenue Contemporary.

In 1812, around the same time that Napoleon was waging his war on the Continent, an eminent French scientist by the name of Pierre Simon Laplace was penning an essay in which he outlined the possibilities of a hypothetical monster. The “demon,” as it later came to be known, would have complete knowledge of the location and velocity of every single particle in the universe.1 If such a monster existed, Laplace contended, then all of humanity’s future could be predicted, since the creature could use the laws of physics—then held to be Newtonian—to chart the entire course of human events: past, present, and future. Thus Laplace gave rise to a theory of causal determinism, known in philosophical circles as “Laplace’s Demon,” making not infrequent appearances in pop culture. One was the memorable image of Maxwell’s Demon in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), where the “beast” could conceivably violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thus disprove the laws of entropy. The beast also makes brief cameos in the writings of Isaac Asimov, Ken Kesey, and in a 1987 video game for Nintendo titled appropriately enough “Laplace’s Demon.” In addition, Maxwell Demon was the name of Brian Eno’s second band. Another recent and no less frightening incarnation is the character of Judge Holden—a monstrous, 7-foot, 300-pound, semi-omniscient albino from Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian.

The first time Glanton’s gang encounters Judge Holden, he’s sitting on a cliff in the Apache Desert. Described as “a great ponderous djinn” and a “great pale deity,” he possesses an authoritative knowledge of physics and astronomy, as well as incalculable foresight (96, 92). One evening, while sitting over a campfire and performing feats of magic, he says to the men: “The arc of circling bodies is determined by the length of their tether. … Moons, coins, men” (245–46).

Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence, then, that in explaining Laplace’s Demon, the philosopher Carl Hoefer offers this analogy, which also involves tethered strings:

In Laplace’s story, a sufficiently bright demon who knew how things stood in the world 100 years before my birth could predict every action, every emotion, every belief in the course of my life. Were she then to watch me live through it, she might smile condescendingly, as one who watches a marionette dance to the tugs of strings that it knows nothing about.


Indeed, strings and puppets make frequent appearances in McCarthy’s fiction, as do the prospects of demonic figures controlling them. If critics like James Lilley are right that “the central question of McCarthy’s fiction has always centered on the possibility of agency,” then examining what these demons mean in his work and how they relate to larger questions of free will and human agency might help unlock some mysteries in his writings (2).

Regardless of whether Judge Holden is specifically seen as Laplace’s Demon, McCarthy’s representation of him and other historical characters engages modern philosophical debates over free will and determinism, specifically the question of whether the two notions are “compatible.” This issue has implications with respect to McCarthy criticism specifically and philosophy generally insofar as it questions whether humans are morally responsible for their actions and what relationship, if any, they have to their environment. A look at McCarthy’s fiction—Blood Meridian, the Border Trilogy (1992, 1994, 1998), and No Country for Old Men (2005) in particular—reveals the extent to which determinism and agency form a running contradiction in each work. Rather than resolving this issue of whether they’re compatible, McCarthy leaves the question open, which might help to explain why his fiction has been so variously interpreted over the years and why it continues to elude critics.

The Travails of Satan: Judge Holden in Blood Meridian

Harold Bloom famously called Judge Holden “the most frightening figure in all of American literature” and not without reason (viii). While nominally based on the historical figure who...

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