"Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint."

July 20, 1945: The French writer and philosopher Paul Valéry died on this day in 1945. The following excerpt is from “Yalu,” a meditation upon the differences between Eastern and Western ways of thought. Valéry’s criticism of the West is voiced through a Buddhist sage who, after first describing the oriental as one attuned to tradition and duration, turns to the occidental obsession with any quick idea, buck or fix:

You have neither the patience that weaves long lines nor a feeling for the irregular, nor a sense of the fittest place for a thing. …For you intelligence is not one thing among many. You … worship it as if it were an omnipotent beast … a man intoxicated on it believes his own thoughts are legal decision, or facts themselves born of the crowd and time. He confuses his quick changes of heart with the imperceptible variation of real forms and enduring Beings…. You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time.

Cormac McCarthy, born on this day in 1933, used the concluding sentences above (italics mine) as epigraph for Blood Meridian (1985), his fifth novel and the first of his borderland westerns. The novel’s unrelenting bloodshed and dense allusiveness kept it from the best-seller lists, but many critics regard it as McCarthy’s masterpiece, and deserving of a high place on any best-of-the-century list. The book opens with a description of “the kid,” a Dickensian ghost-child raised in neglect and harbinger of worse:


See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folks are known as hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost….

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.