Novels that change the world, that get people to re-think the way they might live, that make moral grounds shift and that signal new things to come, rely on the use of an enigmatic/outsider character to carry the message of impending change. How does one construct such a character? If his/her role is to signal new paradigms of thought, what elements of personality dominate the construction? Are such representations usually transgressive and subversive? As a ploy are they primarily created as being an opposing force to current moral values or do they embody as well, aspects of being that suggest another world in the process of becoming. This article will argue that rather than see these characters as some kind of disguised villains whose task it is to uncover the pretensions of civilisation, they are actually simply calculating, relentless and cruel. The question that must be asked is how and why they prevail as prime representations of Western culture.

As writers we need to discover ways of being foretellers and rememberers and to do this we must consider the forces immanent in an ‘outsider’ character, what he/she represented in the past and what is being signalled for the future. The processes involved in this creation are complex and can be identified by examining how these anti-heroes are placed within the social and metaphysical world they inhabit across a selection of novels as well as popular films. Such an examination will attempt to see the enigmatic character in as many guises as possible with attention given to the time in which he/she emerges historically, the ways in which the symbolic fretworks invoke place, memory and visions of unknowable futures. In this investigation there will be an attempt to locate specific elements on which writers focus.

Enigmatic characterisation, for example, can be conceptualised as blending the tendency to charm with a predisposition for evil, and many acclaimed texts rely on the power of these types of characters to unsettle their narrative and reader alike, thus enacting a paradigm shift of some kind. For instance, the process of enigmatic construction can be observed in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) through the mysterious figure of Heathcliff. As readers we are drawn to Heathcliff, a pitiful orphaned child with dark curly hair, who enters the Earnshaw family as an outsider. Heathcliff’s brooding and passionate nature has fascinated readers for over a century, as he embodies the qualities of the tortured romantic hero. Through his degradation and intense suffering, Heathcliff emerges from the text as a romantically interesting character that readers find mesmerising and appealing. However, in his return to Wuthering Heights after a number of years abroad, Heathcliff’s malicious intent to wreak havoc on those who humiliated him as a child begins to surface. The vindictiveness and cruelty that Heathcliff inflicts upon the other characters elucidates his depravity, nevertheless readers continue to find him entrancing. These types of charming, yet diabolical, characters also appear within popular culture. Hollywood has produced many renditions of the enigmatic or outsider character across a variety of genres. One of the characteristic marks of an enigmatic figure is their ability to transgress and subvert principles inherent in the time in which they emerged. The Joker, who appears in Christopher Nolan’s filmThe Dark Knight (2008), exemplifies an extreme sense of autonomy. His desire to disturb the social order of Gotham City can be seen as a radical form of individualism. The Joker’s ability to operate outside the prevailing morality is symbolic of the enigmatic figure. Although cast as a super-villain, the Joker’s power of manipulation over Batman and the other characters is highly captivating and magnetising for viewers. It is the Joker’s refusal to conform to Batman’s rule, and his sense of freedom to carve out Gotham City in his own violent image that electrifies and entices us.

While we know that these characters manifest evil inclinations, what is it they hold that draws us into their sphere? As well as possessing the freedom to create their own law, these characters are given an exceptional intellectual capacity. Jonathan Demme’s screen adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) produced Hannibal Lecter, one of film noir’s most terrifying and intriguing characters. Lecter who was a once brilliant psychiatrist has been incarcerated and confined to a solitary cell. As a cannibalistic serial killer who eats the flesh of his victims, Lecter transgresses one of humankind’s oldest taboos. His sociopathic instincts are so depraved he pushes evil to its ultimate extreme. However, Lecter’s first appearance in the film contrasts his evil nature. His sense of culture and refinement are vividly portrayed in his first meeting with FBI agent Clarice Starling, when he chastises one of the other inmates for flinging semen on Starling as she is moving along the corridor of cells. In this scene, Demme uses the austere setting of an underground cell to distinguish Lecter’s calm and composed temperament, and from this moment we as an audience wish to know more about the horrifying yet poised cannibal psychiatrist. The process of creating an enigmatic character involves an ordering of events within the film or novel that constructs the figure in vague and disconcerting ways. In applying such techniques as framed, paradoxical or omniscient narration, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola never give their audience a transparent understanding of their oblique and elusive characters. Coppola reinterprets Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) for his epic war film Apocalypse Now (1979). The film takes place during the Vietnam War, and follows US Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard and his crew of soldiers on a mission to assassinate Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, who has gone rogue. Coppola’s film runs for over two hours and the Colonel only appears for a short time during the film’s conclusion, yet his character is so powerfully constructed through Willard’s narration that his magnetism becomes palpable for viewers. Even Willard, who spends time listening to the Colonel’s magniloquent rhetoric, succumbs to his pervasive nature before killing him. As a purveyor of philosophical discourse, the Colonel’s will to define himself against the failures of the war is emblematic of the strength.

Is it possible to identify stratagems used by writers who create enigmatic characters? Let us look at some these constructions, which appear central to powerful and seminal texts, such as Conrad’sHeart of Darkness and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). This article will trace the creative process involved in the construction of the notorious figures of Kurtz and the judge. As ‘a remarkable man’, Kurtz is evoked as an omniscient deity, whose reverberations within Conrad’sHeart of Darkness echo long after the final page has concluded (1971: 119). Although only vague notions of Kurtz are filtered through the novella’s oblique narration, his transcendence within the text is lucidly conveyed. Reminiscent of Kurtz, the judge constitutes the profound and enigmatic figure of Blood Meridian. As a complete ‘mystery’, espousing a nihilistic philosophy and engaging in devious exploits, the judge is the archetypal literary enigma, and his magnitude is essential to the significance of Blood Meridian (McCarthy, 1990: 252). The imaginative process employed by Conrad and McCarthy in constructing Kurtz and the judge can be mapped through the characters’ manifestation of evil and charisma. In subverting axioms of good and evil, these characters enable a paradigm shift that can be understood in terms of a Nietzschean position of radical uncertainty. In the first section of this article, I will discuss the development of Kurtz’s ambiguous nature, which stems from his mesmerizing speech, supreme intellect, unearthly qualities and return to primitivism. Then, following an analysis of the judge’s enigmatic construction, I will examine the role that these oblique characterisations perform in engendering a profoundly unsettling paradigm shift for readers that exposes the comfortable lie of civilization.

The Enigma of Kurtz

The enigmatic fascination that Kurtz invokes within Heart of Darkness is notorious. At the moment of Kurtz’s introduction in the narrative he imposes an unassailable allure as the object of Marlow’s, our narrator’s, quest. As Patrick Brantlinger argues, it is ‘Kurtz who has centre stage, with whom Marlow speaks, who is the goal and farthest point of the journey’ (1994: 270). Kurtz’s mystery only intensifies as Marlow draws nearer to the Inner Station, where Kurtz is said to be located. Thus, the mysterious nature of Kurtz is in part a consequence of the quest narrative that Conrad offers. However, it is also a product of the novella’s framed narration, which means that the characterisation of Kurtz remains oblique. Through his ambiguous narration, Marlow offers vague notions of ‘the lone white man’ who turned ‘his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home’, and set ‘his face towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station’ (Conrad, 1971: 52-53). The text’s oblique narration nevertheless constructs an increasingly enigmatic image of Kurtz. The declaration made early in the narrative by the Company’s accountant that Kurtz ‘is a very remarkable person’ confirms his central position within the novella, even if it gives very little away (Conrad, 1971: 29). After this, Kurtz’s magnetism only grows, and comes to have a clear impact on Marlow, who concedes, while on route to the Inner Station, that he was ‘rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz’ (Conrad, 1971: 55). On reaching the Inner Station, the novel evokes Kurtz as a god-like figure, as Marlow asserts that ‘[h]is ascendancy was extraordinary’ (Conrad, 1971: 98).

Conrad’s representation of Kurtz as a scholar also contributes to his enigmatic nature. In articulating Kurtz’s superior powers of mind, Marlow contends that ‘Mr. Kurtz was a ‘universal genius” (Conrad, 1971: 45). Kurtz’s propensity for knowledge appeals to Western civilisation’s emphasis on intellect, and operates within an imperial dichotomy of educated and uneducated, which drives his supremacy among the ‘rudimentary souls’ of the Lake tribe who follow him (Conrad, 1971: 85). The ways in which the accountant and the manager’s agent introduce Kurtz in the text suggest that he is the epitome of Europe’s advancement and expansionist thinking, and through these extolments he becomes the unprecedented, white dominant male, capable of ‘great things’ in the pursuit of absolute control (Conrad, 1971: 111). As Benita Parry argues, ‘Kurtz, musician and poet, orator and artist, writer and colonial agent, to whose making ‘[a]ll Europe contributed’, is the embodiment of the West’s secular culture and the incarnation of its expansionist impulse’ (1983: 36-37). Parry also believes that ‘[w]ith the advent of Kurtz, another narrative mode supervenes, submerging the existing discourse in material that originates a new legend for colonial mythology’ (1983: 28).

In presenting Kurtz as a ‘voice’ that becomes powerful and mysterious within the narrative, Conrad employs another strategy to construct Kurtz’s enigmatic supremacy. The grandiosity and mendacity of Kurtz’s report for the ‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’, exemplifies the power he holds through language. Prior to reaching the Inner Station, Marlow recalls Kurt’s report, which he describes as ‘a beautiful piece of writing’ that ‘was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence’ (Conrad, 1971: 84). In addition, the Russian harlequin, whom Marlow encounters when he finally arrives at the Inner Station, is an unambiguous advocate of Kurtz’s predisposition for magniloquent conversation, asserting that he and Kurtz ‘talked of everything’ (Conrad, 1971: 93). During his journey up the River Congo Marlow becomes astutely ‘aware that that was exactly what’ he ‘had been looking forward to—a talk with Kurtz’ (Conrad, 1971: 79). Parry argues that ‘[i]t is language that draws Marlow towards Kurtz … and it is Kurtz’s voice that entices him into his orbit’ (1983: 35). In bestowing upon Kurtz a refined ability for verbal discourse, Conrad is appealing to Western society’s proclivity for commanding vernacular, which resonates with the empowerment of the white dominant male. Moreover, Kurtz’s facility with language and representation are connected to Kurtz’s ability, through his grandiloquent rhetoric, to construct reality in powerful and persuasive ways, something, which the novella explicates as a dilemma. In the colonial encounter, faced with a conflict between European and ‘other’ ways of ordering and understanding reality, Kurtz recognises that every representation of a world is just that—a representation—and this empowers him to reconstruct his own reality. In possessing the autonomy to exist outside the prevailing morality of the time, Kurtz’s power through language means he can name and manipulate the world like a god. After his private conversation with the manager’s top agent on board the steamboat destined for the Inner Station, Marlow declares that ‘[t]he man [Kurtz] presented himself as a voice’ (Conrad, 1971: 79). Indeed, it is a voice that cannot be silenced, as Kurtz’s reverberations continue long after the tale has concluded.

Although Kurtz ostensibly invokes imperialist principles, a number of critics have identified Kurtz’s alleged return to a primordial state as another source of ambiguity and fascination. In examining the disturbing effect of Kurtz’s imperialist enterprise, that as a result ‘ruined the district’ (Conrad, 1971: 97) surrounding the Inner Station, Brantlinger argues that ‘Kurtz does something worse, of course —he betrays the ideals of the civilisation he is supposedly importing from Europe’ (1994: 193). As an educated white male who renounces Western civilisation by ‘going native’, Kurtz is essentially undermining the ideologies of civilisation that valorise progress and modernity. Through his degeneration into a primitive nature, wherein ‘as a rule Kurtz wandered alone, far in the depths of the forest’, Kurtz transgresses a moral boundary embedded within Western ideology (Conrad, 1971: 94). However, in terms of the Nietzschean position of being beyond good and evil, Kurtz’s enigmatic power comes not from imperialism or from primitivism, but from taking up a perspective outside either of those ideologies or systems of order. It is from this position that Kurtz crafts a new world order around himself.

In watching Kurtz’s final deterioration, Marlow avows to his audience that ‘I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blind with itself’ (Conrad, 1971: 113). After arriving at the Inner Station, Marlow distantly observes Kurtz being carried on a stretcher shouting with his mouth open wide. Excess and greed are evoked as Kurtz opens his ‘mouth wide’ giving ‘him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him’ (Conrad, 1971: 101). Furthermore, Conrad incorporates a translucent assembly of ‘supernatural’ motifs that augment Kurtz’s uncanny nature. Reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, Marlow’s journey up the ‘snaking’ Congo River culminates at the Inner Station, and, as Brantlinger claims, ‘at the centre of that hell is Kurtz, the would-be civiliser, the embodiment of Europe’s highest and noblest values, radiating darkness’ (1994: 193). In suggesting that Kurtz shares an affiliation with unearthly powers, Marlow observes that ‘[t]he thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own’ (Conrad, 1971: 82). At one point, we see Kurtz ‘crawling’ toward a ‘dark figure’ who, Marlow believes, ‘had horns—antelope horns, I think—on its head. Some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt: it looked fiendlike enough’ (Conrad, 1971: 111). Although Kurtz forms a diabolical alliance with ‘darker’ powers, he is forging an individual path, unlike the masses of men in Europe who comply with the command of secular authority. As Cedric Watts claims, ‘Heart of Darkness had suggested the appalling paradox that whereas the majority of men who lead secular lives are heading for a death which is extinction, Kurtz has at least the significance granted by the intensity of his evil’ (1998: 51). It is this individualism and intensity that provokes the fascination of the reader.

In essence, then, Conrad constructs Kurtz as a ‘hero-villain’ (Watts, 1998: 47) in a way that is at once paradoxically a denouncement and a celebration of his fall from civilisation. Ironically, it is through his ‘fall’ from civilisation that Kurtz becomes a god, allowing him to transcend the realm of the social order and etch out his own vision of the world. With this focus on the outsider Kurtz, Heart of Darkness enacts a paradigm shift that exposes the precarious nature of civilisation and the lie of those humans who make an essential claim to it. In this way, the enigmatic character of Kurtz constructed by Conrad elucidates a universal parable about the ambiguous nature of humanity—a parable that has proven powerfully memorable for over a century now.

The Enigma of the Judge

The enigmatic character of the judge in Blood Meridian, similarly to Kurtz, is constructed by McCarthy as an intellectually exceptional and violent man who continually violates and shows up the ‘lie’ of civilization. The judge’s manifestation within Blood Meridian occurs early in the novel during Reverend Green’s service, in the town of Nacogdoches. With an air of superiority, the judge, ‘smoking a cigar’, enters the tent where Green is holding his sermon (McCarthy, 1990: 6). In his entrance, ‘the reverend stopped his sermon’ and ‘[t]here was no sound in the tent’ as the congregation ‘watched’ the judge (McCarthy, 1990: 6). The judge’s address to the congregation, which informs them ‘that the man holding this revival is an imposter’, sparks a malicious uprising (McCarthy, 1990: 6). In proclaiming that the Reverend violated a code inherent to masculinity, through his ‘congress with a goat’, the judge induces the congregation into a violent riot, wherein gunfire became ‘general within the tent’ (McCarthy, 1990: 7). With this revolt incited by the judge, Barcley Owens claims that the judge’s, like Kurtz’s, ‘power of manipulation is absolute’ (2000: 17). Immediately after Green’s revival the men make their way to a nearby bar, where the judge discloses that he had ‘never laid eyes on the man [Reverend Green] before today’ (McCarthy, 1990: 8). With this confession, an eerie silence pervades the barroom before all the men start ‘laughing together’ (McCarthy, 1990: 8). The ‘strange silence’ that permeates the barroom undeniably invokes the enigmatic impression of the judge that permeates the text (McCarthy, 1990: 8).

The judge’s ‘power of manipulation’ is immediately identifiable in the above incident, as well as in his influence over the Glanton gang, a violent band of scalp-hunters, and over the novel’s protagonist, the kid (Owens, 2000: 17). The narrative follows the kid’s westward migration, from the pastoral lands of Tennessee to the untamed wilds of the Western frontier. The kid’s journey is suffused with violent conflicts that include barroom brawls and a filibustering mission into Mexico, which evidently leads to his recruitment into John Joel Glanton’s scalp-hunting gang. Within Glanton’s gang of fiercely violent men, the novel’s most mysterious and enigmatic figure emerges, the judge, whose violence and depravity pervades the narrative. With the looming threat of death by Apache Indians and appearing ‘mortally whipped’ (McCarthy, 1990: 125), John Glanton enters the scalp-hunting cohort into ‘a secret commerce. Some terrible covenant’ (McCarthy, 1990: 126) with the judge, which Joshua Masters argues ‘consigns both their spiritual and physical lives to the judge’s jurisdiction’ (1998: 25). The kid, absent during this agreement, forms his own bond with the judge. The union formed between the two characters during Reverend Green’s revival, and the barroom encounter that follows, is consistently strained throughout the text as the kid resists the judge’s sadistic depravity. In vying for the kid’s soul, the judge detects the kid’s aversion to his conviction that humanity is governed by violence. With the kid uneducated and the judge possessing phenomenal intelligence, they emerge as polar opposites in the text. Indeed, in observing the judge’s supreme authority within the novel, Robert Jarett claims that ‘[c]ertainly no other character (all oppressively taciturn) is given sufficient moral, ethical, or intellectual stature to oppose him rhetorically’ (1997: 83).

The judge, perhaps even more expansive in his breadth of knowledge and mastery than Kurtz, is the archetypal ‘universal genius’ (Conrad, 1971: 122). John Cant contends that the judge possesses ‘the skills and knowledge of the archaeologist, psychologist, art historian, conjurer, taxidermist, magician, palaeontologist, and military tactician’ (2008: 170). The ex-priest Tobin, a constituent of Glanton’s murdering and pillaging horde, claims that the judge is ‘a hand at anything’, as he asserts, ‘I’ve never seen him turn to a task but what he didn’t prove clever at’ (McCarthy, 1990: 122). In identifying the judge as multilingual, Tobin claims ‘[h]e’s been all over the world . . . it was Paris this and London that in five languages’ (McCarthy, 1990: 123). Within various episodes of the text, the judge demonstrates he is a master of legal doctrine. As an example, after escaping the Yuman Indian attack toward the end of the novel, the kid and Tobin are aggressively pursued by the judge, who ‘called out points of jurisprudence’ and ‘cited cases’, and ‘expounded upon those laws pertaining to property rights’ so as to persuade the kid to return the pistol he was carrying (McCarthy, 1990: 293). The judge also addresses the troop in such faculties of his expertise as biology, geology and history in a number of scenes within Blood Meridian. For example, he conducts ‘an extemporary lecture in geology’ in the old presidio where the gang take shelter (McCarthy, 1990: 116), and ‘a short disquisition on the history and architecture of the mission’ at San Jose de Tumacacori, which the troop happens to pass (McCarthy, 1990: 224).

As a ‘sootysouled rascal’ (McCarthy, 1990: 124), the judge, like Kurtz, also embodies supernatural forces, which characterise him further as an enigmatic and powerful figure. With a tendency to appear ‘everywhere’ and a penchant for absolute power, Christopher Douglas acknowledges that McCarthy constructs the judge as a superhuman figure (2003: 16). In one of the frequent references to the judge’s partiality to fire, the judge is drawn akin to ‘a great ponderous djinn’, as he ‘stepped through the fire and the flames delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element’ (McCarthy, 1990: 96). Also, in resemblance to an occultist summoning ‘dark’ forces, the judge, squatting on a sandstone ledge, ‘raised his hand and the bats flared in confusion and then he lowered it and soon they were feeding again’ (McCarthy, 1990: 148). Tobin’s recollection of the judge’s introduction into the gang includes numerous references to the judge’s ‘deviltry’, including the ‘devil’s batter’ he manufactures (McCarthy, 1990: 132). During this episode Tobin evokes the judge’s affinity with the volcanic landscape that the gang were roaming, which is reminiscent of a ‘locality of hell’ harbouring ‘little devils with their pitchforks’ (McCarthy, 1990: 130). Tobin’s recitation reinforces the judge’s enigmatic characterisation, describing him as a ‘mirage’ sitting on a rock in a remote region of desert ‘smiling’ ‘[l]ike he’d been expectin” the gang to arrive (McCarthy, 1990: 125).

Ultimately, the judge, very much like Kurtz, despite being profoundly evil, is presented as a kind of god. Throughout their nomadic wandering, the judge announces to the gang that ‘[w]hatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent’ (McCarthy, 1990: 198). The judge’s belief that the foundations of truth originate in ‘stones and trees’ and ‘the bones of things’ and not in humankind’s forged ideologies, resolutely opposes the fabrication of Western civilisation’s systems of belief (McCarthy, 1990: 116). The hollowness of human ideology is revealed through the judge’s philosophy, and is powerfully recapitulated in his declaration about the essential meaninglessness of life. While delivering a lecture on palaeontology to Glanton’s cohort, the judge, ‘holding the femur’ of a large animal, claims that ‘[t]here is no mystery to it’ (McCarthy, 1990: 252). He acknowledges the gang’s ‘desire’ to be ‘told some mystery’, but he claims that the mystery of the world ‘is that there is no mystery’ (McCarthy, 1990: 252). The judge, in the vein of Kurtz, ultimately espouses a rhetoric that opposes the fallacy of all human systems of belief. Both novels thus bring about a similar paradigm shift through their representation of enigmatic characters—a paradigm shift that effects nothing less than a powerful and memorable destabilisation of the foundations of the reader’s world.

Facilitating a Paradigm Shift

Conrad’s and McCarthy’s novels ultimately celebrate the ambivalent heroism of enigmatic characters who, in realising that the world is constructed by a hollow structure of concepts and assertions, are free to build the world in their own design. Kurtz and the judge are beyond ideology, inhabiting ‘[t]he horror’ of meaninglessness and chaos, and the knowledge that reality and truth are fallacies (Conrad, 1971: 119). Using the power of their words to determine reality, Kurtz and the judge reveal that the human world is constructed into something meaningful—and can therefore be deconstructed into something meaningless or reconstructed according to their particular worldview.

With a propensity for total knowledge and power, Kurtz and the judge resonate with the Faustian figure, another enigmatic literary character. As Neil Campbell asserts, the ‘Faustian urge represents a totalitarian wish for omnipotence and to permanently recapture a lost moment of perfection and power’ (2000: 223). The notion of reclaiming a lost moment refers to a prelapsarian state of naming, which Kurtz and the judge exemplify in their recreation and naming of a new world order. Through their individualistic pursuits for authority and complete mastery of the world, Kurtz and the judge are challenging the sovereignty of constructed institutions and doctrines, which include government, religion, history and ideology. Through their effort to demystify the false convictions of Western civilisation, these men recognise, as Campbell argues, that ‘[t]here is no great design … or metanarrative but just the individual struggles of people against the starkness of life and the inevitability of death’ (2000: 225). In acknowledging the strength needed to perceive the tenuous nature of civilisation, Marlow says to his audience: ‘[y]ou can’t understand. How could you?—with solid pavement under your feet’ (Conrad, 1971: 82). It is an accusation that reveals how integral the colonial experience, which involves physically moving away from the ‘solid’ comforts of civilization, is to Kurtz’s and the judge’s move to a powerful position beyond practical moralities.

Through the infernal journeys into the Congo and the Western frontier, which the enigmatic characters of Kurtz and the judge enact, the novels literally move away from civilisation. The judge recognises that humanity is consigned to nature and not governed in any essential way by manufactured ideologies, asserting that the ‘desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty’ (McCarthy, 1990: 330). Perhaps this is what Kurtz is suggesting in his ‘cry that was no more than a breath’, wherein he articulates through a whisper, ‘[t]he horror! The horror!’ (Conrad, 1971: 118). ‘After all’, Marlow declares, ‘this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper’ (Conrad, 1971: 119). The meaningless of life, articulated by Kurtz upon his death, becomes something terrible—whereas before it had been the occasion for building a new world based on his own principles. As a preface to his lie to Kurtz’s Intended, Marlow contends that ‘[t]he dusk was repeating’ Kurtz’s verbalisation of ‘the horror’ ‘in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind’ (Conrad, 1971: 131). Here, ‘the horror’ seems to signify the ‘hollowness’ of not only Europe’s civilising mission but of any concept or order of civilisation.

While in his death Kurtz finally balks before the horror of meaninglessness, the judge remains immortal, and continues to embrace the chaos and uncertainty of civilisation as the ultimate enigma. In resisting man’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ (Blake, 1976: 97) in which mortal law and the tenets of imperialism are nested, and claiming an unprecedented authority on the world, the judge ‘says that he will never die’ as he continues his ‘dance’ (McCarthy, 1990: 335). The judge’s ‘dance’ symbolises his defiance of social and moral order. In proposing that humanity is consigned to the land and governed by war, as ‘[w]ar always was here’ waiting for ‘man’, the judge debunks humankind’s contrived synthesis of law and order (McCarthy, 1990: 248). With a nihilistic doctrine that disparages all distinctions in moral value, Kurtz and the judge are aware of the deception and futility rooted in civilisation, which allows them, as god-like men, to forge the world in their own image. The judge, at one point in McCarthy’s novel, is described as a ‘suzerain of the earth’ (McCarthy, 1990: 198). In a response to Toadvine’s inquiry, another member of Glanton’s gang, to the purpose of his Darwinian study, the judge asserts that ‘[o]nly 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, 1990: 198). As a ruler over ‘other rulers’, whose ‘authority countermands local judgements’, the judge moves beyond the confines of social order, taking Blood Meridian with him (McCarthy, 1990: 198). The novels themselves seem to have been suzerains of literary criticism, commanding, through their immense ambiguity, constant debate and discussion. The judge surmises that it is the ‘man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate’ (McCarthy, 1990: 199). In drawing out ‘the thread of order’ inHeart of Darkness and Blood Meridian, Kurtz and the judge take control of the narratives, binding the texts to their visions of the world. Through their intensity and transcendence of social and moral order, Kurtz and the judge, as the central figures in Heart of Darkness and Blood Meridian, enable a paradigm shift that reveals the fundamental meaninglessness underlying civilisation, something that might be dismissed as the ultimate enigma or if confronted directly may signal a dire state of arriving at the end of the road.


Writers desirous of crafting powerful and lasting literature, following Conrad’s and McCarthy’s example, or dominant characters in popular films, might choose to represent a character whose construction is enigmatically framed and lies outside prevailing ideologies. It is a fact of modern and contemporary literature that the characters that matter – the ones that attract our attention are cold, clever and destructive. Seductive characters are forgiven their human atrocities as long as they are cultured, duplicitous and angry. We belong to a civilisation that will only listen, at least in fiction and film, to those who in seeking power wish only to destroy. This is the enigma: that aberrant behaviour characterised throughout this article as outside prevailing systems of belief have become inside, and characterise the end of an ethical road.


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