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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?


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.


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.

Guest Post: U.S. Marines, the Forever Tribe by Stan Coerr

Friday, January 30th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

We at ZP would like to thank Colonel Stan Coerr for his permission to reprint this essay, written on the eve of  his retirement last July, after a quarter century of of military service in the Marine Corps Reserve and on active duty.

Stan Coerr is the author of Rubicon: the Poetry of War and is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and works in the federal civil service.   He holds degrees from Duke, Harvard and the Naval War College, has been a fellow at MIT and Stanford, and was recently accepted to begin work on a doctorate at Oxford.  He is finishing a book on his time in Iraq, and his next book will be on the life and work of Dr. Bernard Fall.

The U.S. Marines, America’s Forever Tribe

by Stan Coerr

Today is my last day in the uniform of the United States Marines.

I write this not as a farewell. Rather, this is a reflection on this tribe of which I am a part, and which is inside me forever.

What I remember of twenty- five years inside this brotherhood are vignettes: stories that indicate who we are and why we devote our lives to an organization such as this.

Some happened to me; others I read or saw. All describe who we are as Marines.


What everyone looking in from the outside must realize is that Marines are instant brothers, no matter the situation, no matter whether they have met before that moment.

The Marines are a tribe.

We have our own language, culture, mores and idiomatic shorthand communication.

We have our own distinctive clothing. We cut our hair in a distinctive way.

We paint our bodies with unique tribal markings.

We undergo rites of passage to turn boys into men, the men we need to further the greater good of us all.

We hand down legends of those who went before, who fell in battle, who did great and heroic things.

We sing songs to celebrate them; we memorize what they did.

We listen to the wisdom of the tribal elders, and we turn to them for decisions and guidance.

Ken Schwenke and Mike Dossett are 180 degrees out from one another in style, but those of us fortunate enough to be Marine Options at NROTC Duke, a team forty strong in the mid to late 1980s, to this day benefit from the nurturing and guidance and demanding perfection of those two men.

Bob Dobson was an exceptional battalion commander, a very deep thinker and a man who knew how to train Marines.

I was fortunate to work beneath the finest general officers the Marine Corps can produce. I worked for George Trautman when he was both a Lieutenant Colonel and a Lieutenant General, and his relentless, driving intellect and fearsome demand for detail, analysis and good decisions sharpened me in ways I am still discovering.

I was lucky enough to serve beneath Generals Mattis, Conway and Dunford, in both peace and war, and from when they were Colonels to their positions as four-star generals.

The nation is fortunate that men such as these have set us on the course we follow today.

The Marine Corps is people, and it is stories.


I am marching a platoon down the streets of New Orleans during the Mardi Gras parades in 1989, as leader of the drill team.

I was to the side of the team as they marched, so I was right next to the screaming crowds. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets, screaming and shrieking and cheering.

Marine options in college wear navy uniforms but Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor insignia.

As we marched through the throngs, one man in the crowd, right next to me, saw my EGA and said simply, in a conversational voice and just to me:

“Get it, Marines.”

Never saw him, never spoke to him.

A brother.


I check in to Bob Dobson’s rifle battalion in Twentynine Palms, California in 1994.

Then-Colonel Jim Mattis, the Seventh Marines regimental commander, called for me to come see him. I was not only just a brand-new Captain, but I was an aviator in an infantry regiment: I was not a key player.

Colonel Mattis took his phone off the hook, closed his office door and spent over an hour, just with me, telling me his warfighting philosophy, vision, goals and expectations. He told me how he saw us fighting – and where – and how he was getting us ready to do just that.

America knows him as the caricature: Mad Dog Mattis. Those of us who served with him know that he is a gifted, caring, warfighting general, and the finest of tribal elders.

I am watching a film clip from Vietnam.

Jack Laurence of CBS News, a very talented TV reporter and author of the magnificent memoir The Cat From Hue, was out in the jungle with a Marine rifle company.

Somehow a Marine from another unit was separated from his brothers, and this company had found him.

Laurence rolls tape, and approaches the company commander. This man is wearing filthy utilities. He is exhausted and thirty pounds underweight, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. A man with things to do and the weight of hundreds of lives on his shoulders. A hard, intense man.

Laurence talks about the lost Marine, and asks: “Will you take care of this man?”

The Captain stares at Laurence as if he is insane, and says, as if it should be obvious: “He’s a Marine.”

Laurence: “What?”

Captain: “He’s a Marine. I’ll take care of him.”


I am with Paddy Gough in a Cobra over 29 Palms in December 1992.

We are at one hundred feet, flying back from a mission. It is bitter cold on the desert floor, below freezing, and a dark, ugly cloud layer sits low on the sand.

A line of exhausted Marines below us is marching back to their camp after a week of training. They string out like ants, hundreds of them in the cold. They are bent under their equipment: heavy weapons, mortar tubes, ammunition, packs, helmets, flak jackets.

We fly in silence, watching them, until Paddy comes up on the intercom with me, and says quietly:

“This country does not know how lucky we are to have such men.”


I am a seven-year-old boy, and my father is putting me to sleep.

I am sleeping in a Marine Corps-issue jungle hammock, which of course to a boy is the coolest thing ever.

I need something to read, so he disappears into the study and returns.

He hands me a book I read cover to cover and which I am holding right now: the 1962 Guidebook for Marines.


I am giving a speech in El Cajon, California in July 2003.

I was one of the first people back from the invasion of Iraq, and I was therefore much in demand from local groups who wanted to hear about this campaign in Mesopotamia.

I was outdoors at a Fourth of July street festival, speaking to a crowd of several hundred people and telling them how magnificent our fighting force was, and what I had seen.

I told these people that their Marines were in the fight in the desert, winning, doing it right for the people back home, representing the best of who we are as a nation.

Standing far to the back of the crowd was a motorcycle gang. Huge, hairy guys, dozens of them, in beards and bandannas and wraparound sunglasses and leather and boots, leaning on their Harleys.

As I came off the stage, they came to me as a group. The first of them grabbed me and I now saw the EGA sewn onto his vest, right next to his Vietnam campaign patch.

He embraced me, tight, and said:

“Right on, brother. Right on.”


Karl Marlantes was in the best position imaginable in 1967.

He was on a Rhodes Scholarship, comfortable in Oxford, immune from the Vietnam War and the vagaries of the draft. He was immersed in the world’s premier academic institution on a full ride, the goal of every serious college student.

But Marlantes had been to Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in 1964. He had been inducted into the tribe. And his brothers were at war. He says:

“I couldn’t go to a party without thinking of my Marine friends, terrified in the jungle while I was hanging onto my girlfriend’s warm body with one arm and holding a pint of bitter in the other. The one choice my conscience would not allow was to sit it out in college.

I pulled all my scholarship money from the bank…and Second Lieutenant Karl Marlantes USMCR reported for active duty. “


Or from Phillip Caputo in 1961:

“I wanted to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically.

Having known nothing but security, comfort and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges and violence.

The Marine Corps was more than a branch of the armed services. It was a society unto itself, demanding total commitment to its doctrines and values. We were novitiates, and the rigorous training , administered by the high priests called drill instructors, was to be our ordeal of initiation.

At the end of the course, the DIs honored our survival by informing us that we had earned the right to be called Marines.”


I earned that right, as did many of you. As did millions before us, and the millions to follow.

I feel no sadness about taking off the uniform for the last time. The Marine Corps does not care about me….nor should it. The organization will always be there, and it will always hone and harden the finest our country has to offer.

I was only one of many…but at the same time, I was one of the few.

The Marine Corps serves the nation, and those of us who are called serve the Marine Corps.

We serve the unit.

We serve the tribe.

Most of all, we serve our brothers.

Semper Fidelis.

A woman, a ladder, four goats, and a cow named Bessie.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the four goats go with the woman, the cow called Bessie belongs with Hiyakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction ]


My friend the anthropologist Peter van der Werff recently wrote this paragraph about a woman he met in India:

The very poor woman explained me she and her four goats needed the shadow of a tree to escape from the blistering afternoon sun in their semi-arid part of India. There was a tree at the edge of the village, but the owner did not allow her to come near that tree. Therefore, she and her goats suffered from the heat, at the cost of her health and the productivity of the goats.

I was reminded of SI Hayakawa‘s Ladder of Abstraction.


Caution: you really do need, as it says, to “read” this image from the bottom up…

See Bessie, the Cow, in SI and AR Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, pp. 83-85, 5th ed..


Why did I think of Hayakawa’s ladder?

Here are two other things m’friend Peter had to say about the woman and her goats, the merciless sun, and that tree with its abundance of merciful shade:

As long as economists don’t include oppression and exploitation in their models, they cannot understand poverty.


Such cruel relationships occur in many of the 750,000 villages of India. Without including those oppressive and exploitative realities, real poverty is not captured. We may invite economists to fit this reality in the computer.


We humans can do it. But how do we configure models that can hold those levels of granularity and abstraction — of individual human concern and global decision-making necessity — close enough together to give our grand plans humane flexibility?

I suspect writers such as Lawrence Wright know more about this than the number crunchers — and that the well-selected anecdote must become as significant as the well-chosen statistic

High Ground in Chicago at the Siskel Center 2/21- 2/23

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013


Hat tip to Kanani Fong of Kitchen Dispatch 

At the Siskel Center, 164 N State St, Chicago. IL. 60601
(312) 846-2600

The award -winning film HIGH GROUND :

Since 2002, almost 50,000 U.S. soldiers have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan with their lives radically altered by war. With the improvement of battlefield medical treatments, these soldiers return alive yet not whole, and face long painful paths to recovery.

Full integration back into their community and the civilian world is a treacherous road, fraught with obstacles and pitfalls. After initial rehabilitation, these veterans are often left to fend for themselves, and struggle with physical and mental roadblocks, depression, and alienation.

This issue affects every aspect of society, not just families and hometown communities, but our national character and our legacy. How these wounded soldiers transition is one of the most important repercussions of these wars and an adversity with which we will contend for generations.

igh Ground was a showcase expedition bringing together disabled war veterans with world recognized mountain climbers to demonstrate what could be achieved by climbing a Himalayan giant. A key outcome of the expedition was to produce a documentary film that would tell the inspiring stories of these heroes and spread a healing message to a national audience.

This film, featuring stunning cinematography and capturing powerful emotions, will touch the hearts of concerned citizens, military families, outdoor enthusiasts and most of all, soldiers who find themselves wondering how to face the days and months and years ahead. It is an honest and gripping portrayal of our American warriors, telling an action packed story that unfolds in unexpected ways as the team makes their way high into the mountains, through the villages of Nepal, over raging rivers and up terrifying steep terrain risking injury and death for a chance at the summit.

A second and equally important goal is to continue to impact those thousands of injured soldiers in the midst of their own daunting recoveries through the use of the film at veteran’s hospitals and military bases around the United States. In the fall of 2011, a multi-city nationwide tour will be launched to welcome our soldiers home, celebrate their spirit and sacrifice, and to encourage them to pursue their dreams.

Efforts are currently underway to assess the potential of additional expeditions and to create a long-term strategy as a non-profit organization. By getting involved and supporting this project you can participate directly in this vital process and connect your company to the message that our soldiers can indeed… return home to live again.


The Sufism of Zen

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — double-quoting a remark taken from Zen’s most recent post with a Sufi teaching tale out of Idries Shah ]


Zen Zenpundit, Mark Safranski (above) that is — had a powerful comment about “the emaciated Somali followers of a two-bit warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, gleefully swarming over and looting our military’s former…. garbage dump” tucked away in his recent post on Strategy, Power and Diffusion:

When the enemy has a land so poor that he treasures and makes use of the crap you throw away, the economic spillover of your logistical supply lines will fund his war against you.

That’s a pretty profound statement about different levels of disparity, if you ponder it a bit. And worth pondering.


And it reminds me of Idries Shah‘s lovely story The Food of Paradise, in which a fellow named Yunus, son of Adam sets out to find the source, the original source, of food.

Sitting by a riverbank to consider the matter, he spies a package floating downstream, rescues it, and find that it contains a delicious halwa “composed of almond paste, rosewater, honey and nuts and other precious elements” – surely a gift of providence — which he then eats. The next day, at the same time, a second package appears – and each day thereafter he wades further upstream, in search of the miraculous giver, each day receiving and appreciating the gift.

In time he comes to an island with a high tower, from a high window of which a maiden is casting out, each day, the packaged halwa which is to him the food of paradise. After considerable efforts involving a mirror stone and an army of jinn, he manages to present himself to this princess, and asks her:

How, and by what order, is the Food of Paradise, the wonderful halwa which you throw down every day for me, ordained to be deposited thus?

to which she replies:

Yunus, son of Adam, the halwa, as you call it, I throw down each day because it is in fact the residue of the cosmetic materials with which I rub myself every day after my bath of asses’ milk.


You can read the whole tale with many others in Idries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes, or here on the alhaddad blog.

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