August 10th, 2011

flavored with age

Deep Reads #3: What Is It Good For?

From Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.

The British fought the war for four years and three months.  Its potential of ironic meaning, considered not now in relation to the complacencies of the past but in itself alone, emerges when we consider its events chronologically.  The last five months of 1914, starting August 4, when the British declared war on the Central Powers, began with free maneuver in Belgium and northern France, and ended with both sides locked into the infamous trench system.  Before this stalemate, the British engaged in one major retreat and fought two large battles, although ‘battles’ is perhaps not the best word, having been visited upon these events by subsequent historiography in the interest of neatness and the assumption of something like a rational causality.  To call these things ‘battles’ is to imply an understandable continuity with earlier British history and to imply that the war makes sense in a traditional way.  As Esme Wingfield-Stratford points out, “A vast literature has been produced in the attempt to bring [the Great War] into line with other wars by highlighting its so-called battles by such impressive names as Loos, Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele…”  This is to try to suggest that these events parallel Blenheim and Waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning.

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flavored with age

Deep Reads #4: Welcome to Violence

From Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or, the Evening Redness in the West.

They grew gaunted and lank under the white suns of those days and their hollow burnedout eyes were like those of noctambulants surprised by day.  Crouched under their hats they seemed fugitives on sone grander scale, like beings for whom the sun hungered.  Even the judge grew silent and speculative.  He’d spoke of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man but that body receiving his remarks counted themselves well done with any claims at all.  They rode on and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of gray beards, gray men, gray horses.  The mountains to the north lay sunwise in corrugated folds and the days were cool and the nights were cold and they sat about the fire each in his round of darkness in that round of dark while the idiot watched from his cage at the edge of light. 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 indeed count war 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.  It’s your own trade we honor here.  Why not rather take a small bow.  Let each acknowledge each.

My trade?


What is my trade?

War.  War is your trade.  Is it not?

And it aint 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 trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives.  Who has not heard such a tale?  A turn of the card.  The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his.  What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be?  This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate.  The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one.  In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear.  This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence.  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.

Brown studied the judge.  You’re crazy Holden.  Crazy at last.

The judge smiled.

Might does not make right, said Irving.  The man what wins in some combat is not vindicated morally.

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.  Historical law subverts it at every turn.  A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test.  A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views.  His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view.  The willingness of the principals to forgo further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof.  For the argument is indeed trivial, but not so the separate wills thereby made manifest.  Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgements ultimately he must submit them before a higher court.  Here there can be no special pleading.  Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised.  Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right.  In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.

The judge searched out the circle for disputants.  But what says the priest? he said.

Tobin looked up.  The priest does not say.

The priest does not say, said the judge.  Nihil dicit.  But the priest has said.  For the priest has put by the robes of his craft and taken up the tools of that higher calling which all men honor.  The priest also would be no godserver but a god himself.

Tobin shook his head.  You’ve a blasphemous tongue, Holden.  And in truth I was never a priest but only a novitiate to the order.

Journeyman priest or apprentice priest, said the judge.  Men of god and men of war have strange affinities.

I’ll not secondsay you in your notions, said Tobin.  Dont ask it.

Ah Priest, said the judge.  What could I ask of you that you’ve not already given?