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Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy and Blood Meridian first came to my attention back in 2000 when noted literary critic, Yale professor Harold Bloom was interviewed on C-Span’s Booknotes regarding his book, How to Read and Why. Bloom, an eccentric character who owns a personal collection of 95,000 books, gave Blood Meridian and McCarthy, of whom at that time I had never heard, a remarkable endorsement:

….One book in particular, a very great book and I’m very glad you bring it up, Brian, a book called “Blood Meridian,” which I write about at some length at one point in this book. Many of McCarthy’s novels are remarkable, including “All The Pretty Horses,” the first volume of the Border Trilogy. I–I don’t think the second and third volumes are quite as fine. And some of his earlier novels like “Suttree” are very Faulknerian, somewhat derivative, are still remarkable books. But he has written one masterpiece, which I would say is–I mean, of contemporary American fiction, of fiction written by human beings still alive and among us, I would list Philip Roth’s “Sabbath’s Theater” and “American Pastoral.” I would list Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.” I would certainly list Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” and his recent and magnificent “Mason and Dixon.”

But if I had to vote for one novel by a living American, it would be “Blood Meridian,” which is a fearsome story and terrible parable in which I think has a deep, implicit warning for current American society….

….But it’s fascinating to me that you ask that, Brian, because the first two times that I read it, I could not read it. And I admit this to my students and I admit that in this book. I broke down–I don’t know what–after 15 or 20 pages the first time and after 70 or 80 pages the second, because the sheer carnage of it, though it is intensely stylized, is nevertheless overwhelming. It’s–it’s–it’s shocking. It’s–it’s horrifying. And it takes a very strong stomach, but if you break through it, if you–if you read your way into the cosmos of the book, then you are rewarded. You get an extraordinary landscape. You get an extraordinary visionary intensity of personality and character. You get a great vision, a frightening vision of what is indeed something very deeply embedded in the American spirit, in the American psyche. And the more you read the book, I find, the more you will be able to read the book. It is–it’s as close, I think, to being the American prose epic as one can find, more perhaps even than Faulkner, though there are individual books by Faulkner like “As I Lay Dying,” which are perhaps of even higher aesthetic quality and originality than “Blood Meridian.” But I think you would have to go back to “Moby Dick” for an American epic that fully compares to “Blood Meridian.” 

I made a mental note of this despite the fact that Western novels were not my thing. After a while, I read Bloom’s book, which had some interesting, additional insights and then thought no more about the matter until many years later when I watched the film No Country for Old Men, based upon the McCarthy novel. I thought Anton Chigurh was a chilling antagonist, as demonstrated in the scene below:

The screen depiction of Chigurh caused me to recollect Bloom’s commentary regarding the ominous central character and the antagonist of Blood Meridian, Judge Holden, who may or may not have been a historical person:

….And the Glanton gang, an extraordinary group of free booters or filibusters, have with them as their spiritual leader a frightening manifestation, a Melvilleian–a kind of human Moby Dick, Judge Holden, who is a vast albino fellow as round as I am but seven foot tall and who has all languages, all knowledges and who preaches endlessly of the theology of violence and war, and who is still alive and dancing and fiddling and proclaiming that he will never die at the end of the book. And indeed, he has never died. He–he is responsible for those horrible posses we have out there in Idaho. He is responsible for those people who blew up the Federal Building. He is responsible for these mad people who break into schools and shoot children. There is–we–we are a country that has had a kind of perpetual ongoing religious revival since the year 1800, and simultaneously, we have been completely gun crazy for the last two centuries. And in some sense, that’s what McCarthy’s great book is about.

Blood Meridian was inspired by the exploits of the marauding, scalp-hunting, Glanton Gang in the mid-19th century Southwest and Northern Mexico in the years after the Mexican War. The nameless protagonist, known only as “the Kid” escapes massacre and is saved from  abject poverty and starvation in the desert when he reluctantly joins up with Captain Glanton’s mercenary company of Indian fighters. Glanton’s gang is bound for Mexico with a rich contract from a Mexican governor to kill off and scalp the murderous, hated, dangerous Apaches.  Glanton, the leader of the enterprise, is a laconic, impulsively violent, stone-cold, professional killer whose eyes were “burning centroids of murder”; most of his crew of cut-throat vagabonds, renegade Indians and Texan filibusteros the Kid interacts with are cut from the same, if duller, cloth as Glanton, but a few stand out; Benjamin Tobin the ex-priest, Louis Toadvine the outlaw, Davy Brown, who wears a necklace of human ears and repeatedly spars verbally with Glanton’s eerie second in command, Judge Holden.

Having been hired to kill marauding Apaches, Glanton’s company proves itself Golem-like, to be a cure worse than the disease. With some good fortune, Glanton’s men improbably prevail in their scalping raid despite being outnumbered 500 to 1 by the Apaches. Their fury, goaded by Glanton and Judge Holden, is anarchic and protean, instigating a kaleidoscopic bloodbath akin to a Biblical plague, consuming Mexicans, settlers, women, children, saloon-keepers, whores, herds of livestock and whole villages perish by their guns and bowie knives. Glanton’s men also perish, yet the company fights and murders and rapes and pillages along its way despite ever diminishing numbers until dirt and blood are caked indistinguishably on skin, clothing and horse. In this, McCarthy has captured something of the reality of war, especially irregular war in frontier spaces in a way that exceeds all contemporary fiction. Only reality will do for comparison and we must search for kindred horrors in places like Mexico, the Congo or Iraq. Glanton’s men would be at home with ISIS (or in fighting them), cutting off Zeta heads in Mexican plazas or tearing up Waziristan country, leaving smoking villages and violated mosques in their wake.

Judge Holden figures centrally here. Many critics and fans have commented upon the possibly supernatural nature of Judge Holden, a characteristic that increases and becomes more evident as the novel matures. An albino giant of tremendous size and strength, the Judge is nevertheless nimble and cunning, speaking at need all languages and mastering every art to which he cares to put his hand, the Judge can orate like Cicero, fight like a savage and outdance the Devil.  Judge Holden reflects many different literary archetypes – the trickster, Old Scratch, the mysterious Stranger, Woland and so on, but what Holden is more than any of that is a prophet of war without limit, reason or restraint. The Judge is a Clausewitzian death-god, delighting in the unchaining of chaos and murder:

….The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.

The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.

The judge smiled, his face shining with grease. What right man would have it any other way? he said.

The good book does count war as an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way

He turned to Brown, from whom he’d heard some whispered slur or demurrer. Ah, Davy, he said. Its your own trade we honor here. Why not take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each.

My trade?

Certainly.

What is my trade?

War. War is your trade. Is it not?

And ain’t it yours?

Mine too. Very much so.

What about all them notebooks and bones and stuff?

All other trades are contained in that of war.

Is that why war endures?

No, it endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.

That’s your notion.

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But the trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up the game, player, all.

….This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”

Although he did not see the Clausewitzian absolute war in Holden, Bloom’s analysis comes very close:

The violence is the book. The Judge is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake.

Indeed, as the story shifts for imperceptible reasons, Holden perhaps withdraws his apocalyptic benediction from the gang, Glanton is killed and his men dead or scattered by the vengeful Yuma Indians. The Kid senses the judge is no longer the ally he once was but a dangerous enemy and the ex-priest Tobin knows it and desperately fears what is to come. They take their leave but Holden tracks and hunts them in the desert, seemingly to no avail until, decades later, the Kid and the judge cross paths again, last survivors of the Glanton Gang.

Blood Meridian is a must read book.

ADDENDUM:

Actor-director James Franco is a devoted fan of Blood Meridian and has attempted a video sketch/rough cut of one of the book’s more important scenes. The short video does not make it on all accounts. Their Judge Holden is miscast (if good casting is possible) but the Kid and Tobin are well represented and the dialogue and screenplay are true to McCarthy’s intent. It is worth a watch.

April 19th anniversaries & Hegghammer’s “terrorist culture”

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Thomas Hegghammer has an important new piece out, and today’s anniversaries offer an insight into why it’s important ]
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Waco OKC

upper panel: the end of the siege of Mt Carmel, Waco, TX, 19 April 1993
lower panel: aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, OKC, 19 April 1995

**

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City took place twenty years ago today. Defense attorneys for Timothy McVeigh, who was execute for the atrocity, suggested to the court that the bombing took place on the date set for the execution of Richard Snell, who had earlier plotted to blow up the same building. From the Denver Post:

A white supremacist executed 12 hours after a bomb ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building “was the driving force” behind a plot to bomb the building 12 years earlier, according to a government memo filed by Timothy McVeigh’s lawyers.

The report was filed in U.S. District Court as McVeigh’s attorneys attempted to bolster their appeal of his conviction and death sentence with arguments that people other than McVeigh may have been involved in the bombing.

Richard Wayne Snell was mad at the Internal Revenue Service in 1983 and wanted to blow up the Oklahoma City building as revenge for IRS agents raiding his home, Fort Smith-based federal prosecutor Steven Snyder told the FBI in June 1995.

April 19 1995 was also the second anniversary of the final holocaust in the siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas. Mc Veigh himself told reporters Lou Michael and Dan Herbeck in a letter:

If there would not have been a Waco, I would have put down roots somewhere and not been so unsettled with the fact that my government … was a threat to me. Everything that Waco implies was on the forefront of my thoughts. That sort of guided my path for the next couple of years.

Furthermore, in their book, American Terrorist, Michael and Herbeck report:

The date he chose for the bombing was significant in two ways. Not only was it the second anniversary of the Waco raid, just as important to McVeigh, April 19, 1995, was the 220th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Corncord, the “shot heard ’round the world” that began the war between American patriots and their British oppressors. To McVeigh, this bombing was in the spirit of the patriots of the American Revolution, the stand of a mpodern radical patriot against an oppressive government.

**

I hope to put a post up in which I excerpt from and comment directly on Thomas Hegghammer‘s Wilkinson Memorial lecture shortly. I have been in internet hell recently, having difficulty accessing this site to edit and post, and given the date I thought it would be appropriate to post this first, however, as an example (to my mind) of what Hegghammer is talking about.

April 19 — today’s date — was triply significant to McVeigh, then, in a way that corresponds closely to Hegghammer’s definition of jihadi culture:

I define jihadi culture as products and practices that do more than fill the basic military needs of jihadi groups. This is very close to what the anthropologist Edmund Leach called “technically superfluous frills and decorations.” [ .. ]

Now think of a jihadi group. It has certain “basic needs”, such as the capacity to deploy violence and the ability to muster material resources. These needs can, conceivably, be fulfilled in a minimalist, no-frills fashion: you train, fight, raise funds, purchase weapons, write a communiqué, get some sleep, repeat the next day. To put it simply, these are the “functionally essential” elements of rebellion; everything else is culture.

The Oklahoma City bombing was held on a date that meant a great deal to Timothy McVeigh – in terms of Waco, in terms of the shot heard around the world – and on the very day of the execution of a noted white supremacist who had plotted to bomb the Murrah building, and who lived to see McVeigh destroy it shortly before he died.

Putting that another way, we can see the workings of a sort of poetic appropriateness – akin to “poetic justice” – from McVeigh’s point of view, in destroying the Murrah building on this particular day. The timing is not, in Hegghammer’s terms, “functionally essential” — it is cultural.

And what Leach called the “frills” and Hegghammer “culture” may be easily overlooked because the no-frills functional essentials seem at first glance more important –- but such things are not inessential to McVeigh, nor to Hegghammer’s jihadists who sing anasheed and write poems.

They’re essential – to the terrorists, and to our understanding of terrorism.

That’s why today is important – and Hegghammer’s lecture, likewise. I hope to return to a fuller exploration of his text as soon as my computer woes are ended.

Of morale and angels, Kiev and Ragnarok

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — not to mention crushing Khomeini, lubing your M16, and that Afghan powerpoint ]
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Andrei Rublev, The Archangel Michael

Andrei Rublev, The Archangel Michael

**

In my previous post, Of morale, angels and Spartans, I raised the question of how our increasingly visual and graphical age could visually represent morale. I noted that the Muslims outfought a larger force at the Battle of Badr, and that the Qur’an suggests that this was because thousands of “angels, ranks on ranks” fought alongside them.

Dave Schuler suggested the Archangel Michael — which sent me all over in search of a suitable representation. The icon above, by Andrei Rublev, is the most profound and beautiful work I was able to find, but hardly serves our purpose.

I ran across a politically explicit comntemporary image in which the Archangel wears Airborne insignia:

Archangel-Michael--airborne

— but it was this image from the Maidan in Kiev that came closes to the sense of military power in angelic form —

Archangel Michael Kiev Maidan

— although I’m not sure that military power or prowess is necessarily the same as morale or esprit de corps…

**

Synchronistically — or coinidentally, as sceptics would say — Justin Erik Halldór Smith headed his blog post Ragnarök on the Seine today with an image of Peter Nicolai Arbo‘s Wild Hunt, or Aasgaardreien. Here’s a detail:

Aasgaardreien Peter Nicolai Arbo Wild Hunt detail

And here’s “the big picture”:

Aasgaardreien Peter Nicolai Arbo Wild Hunt 602

That’s probably closer to “amok” than to “esprit de corps” — although the relationship between them is worth pondering.

**

I’m still not convinced that contemporary minds will “get” morale from any graphic image yet devised.. I can’t help remembering the M-16 manual I picked up one day at a library sale or flea market, titled The M16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventive Maintenance:

Treat your rifle like a lady

My guess, however, is that we’ll wind up with something closer to this:

Powerpoint for McChrystal

**

Image sources:

  • Andrei Rublev, icon of Archangel Michael
  • Archangel Michael, Especial Forces graphic
  • Sculpture, Archangel Michael, Kiev
  • Peter Nicolai Arbo, Aasgaardreien
  • M16 manual, DA Pam 750-30
  • Powerpoint, Afghanistan Stability
  • The photo of the Kiev St Michael is by Mstyslav Chernov, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license
  • Paris, the Prophet and his veiled face

    Sunday, January 11th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — the role of iconography vs idolatry within Islam and Christianity ]
    .

    Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tweeted an image of Muhammad today:

    This image, according to Wikipedia, is not merely Persian but specifically Shiite, “reflecting the new, Safavid convention of depicting Muhammad veiled”. It is also non-satirical.

    As such, it is neither offensive in the sense of insulting the person of the Prophet, nor does it in fact show the features of his face, nor is it the product of the Sunni “mainstream” branch of Islam.

    **

    In considering the revulsion that many Muslims feel at the images of their Prophet in Charlie Hebdo, it may be helpful to understand the respect in which the Prophet is held within their faith.

    The Qur’an says of the Prophet:

    And We have not sent you but as a mercy to the worlds.

    Muhammad is sent “as a mercy”, and thus whatever representation of the Prophet, his words and deeds serves to carry human thought towards the divine participates in that divine mercy, whereas whatever representation scorns that mercy or merely distracts us from it is to be avoided.

    The normative manner in which the Prophet is represented within Islam, then, is abstract and calligraphic, with the artist showing devotion and respect for the Prophet through the care with which the work itself is endowed with beauty:

    412px-Hilye-i_serif_7

    Simpler, and in its own way no less beautiful, is this calligraphic representation of the Prophet’s name in tile from Samarkand:

    Muhammad_calligraphy_tile

    **

    Icon or idol?

    One facet of the controversy over Charlie Hebdo has to do, then, with a deep issue in representation, which crops up elsewhere in the jihadists’ relish in destroying “idols” — the Bamiyan Buddhas, yes, but also the tombs of Muslim prophets and saints; there has even been discussion within Saudi circles of the destruction on the Prophet’s tomb and relocation of his remains to an anonymous grave.

    Within Christianity, there have been those who encouraged the painting of icons, believing that they carry the minds and hearts of believers deep into the mysteries of faith — and those who would tear them down, holding them to be “graven images” (via Judaism, Exodus 20.4) that give mind and heart a resting place far short of those same mysteries: iconodules and iconoclasts.

    Wars have been fought in Christendom too over such questions [in both East and West].

    The great Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev‘s most celebrated icon is often referred to as The Trinity — though literally (or should I say, figuratively) speaking, it portrays the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18. 1-15):

    Rublev Trinity icon

    It is significant for our context that Rublev has not in fact attempted to portray the Trinity, a mystery deemed beyond human comprehension — the Athanasian Creed, speaking of the Three Persons in one God says explicitly “there are not three incomprehensibles .. but one incomprehensible” — but these three angels, considered as “types” or foreshadowings of the Trinity, which can therefore both veil and represent it.

    Paris: pen and sword

    Thursday, January 8th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — my father was a gunnery officer & I’m a writer — sword > word > world? ]
    .

    The pen and sword issue is fundamentally that of word and deed, isn’t it? Only in this case, the “pen” is “pen and paint”.

    **

    and then again:

    **

    Will we ever get to the bottom of this complex of koans, in which our thoughts are part of the very reality they purport to represent?

    You remember Goethe‘s Faust wanted to translate In the beginning was the Word as In the beginning was the deed?

    In the beginning was the..

  • hush
  • thought
  • image
  • word
  • deed
  • fact
  • The relationship between thought and world — word and world, image and world — is of utmost importance and, I suspect, far from easily grasped by anything less than battering one’s head against reality.


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