Enjoying the Bourgeois Western

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Gray,
dear friend, is all theory,
And green life's golden tree.
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust,
part 1, scene 4.

Almost as much
fun as going to see a good Western is reading commentary on this
film genre. The sociological plausibilities and the sweeping conclusions
pile one upon another, all as gratifying as the quick rush from
eating a handful of jellybeans. I keep reading happily despite the
realization that, hey, this identical film could just as well be
grist for the miller of Freudianism,
Marxist-Leninism,
Feminism,
or any
other
dodge from logic and fact. And, so long as neither art
nor commentary presumes to make science or social policy, that's
as it should be.

I've noticed
about ten different ways of enjoying the Western film, each way
corresponding to a different facet of the genre. To distinguish
these elements is not to deny that most movies combine them; the
list is not a catalog of subtypes.

As “escapism”

The most common
observation about the Western, and indeed many other films, is that
it's “just escapism.” This really doesn't signify much.
Does that mean, “escape to a mindless titillation” or
the very opposite “escape to an ideal world”? But in either
case the Western is watched because the viewer enjoys it, so we
are left where we started, asking: Why do we enjoy it?

As vicarious
indulgence

What many people
seem to enjoy in the “escapist” Western is the vicarious
indulgence it affords. A moviegoer can enjoy a world of violence
and male dominion without ever being accused of actually having
(gasp!) such nasty characteristics. The moviegoer can indulge an
unbridled lust for revenge (John Wayne in The
Searchers
) or unbridled power lust (Gene Hackman in The
Unforgiven
), to be reassured at the end that the restraints
on these emotions are good. In fact, the likely reason that so many
Western heroes are agents the state is that the badge provides good
cover: the lawman can unleash a hail of lead on the bad guys with
a complete “license to kill,” with ostensible justification
for his savagery. And, say, when did that guy ever reload?

As costume
drama

The very opposite
of the foregoing enjoys the Western not as fantasy or caprice but
as photographic realism. The viewer delights in the accurate reconstruction
of events, language, and setting. This costume drama approach to
the Western seems almost prudishly ashamed of having an emotional
investment in this spectacle of rawhide and cordite: really your
honor I wasn't looking at the varmint eviscerated with a shotgun
blast — it was all an intellectual pursuit, I swear. But why
not enjoy it? If you must have an excuse, remember that Murray Rothbard
was possibly the biggest moviegoer of all time. But our whole quest
here is to find out just why we do enjoy Westerns, Miss Manners
be danged.

As nostalgia

A pair of Westerns
that frankly address the issue of longing for a lost era are Larry
McMurtry's Hud
(or his Lonesome
Dove
) and Scott Hale's The
Shootist
. In these films the old West is unabashedly admired,
and the question becomes how to incorporate its virtues into the
modern sensibility. Hud really doesn't give us an answer
except the caution that clinging to it can lead to violence and
alcoholism. In The Shootist John Wayne powerfully sums up
an aspect of survival in the West: “you've got to be willing”
to raise your gun without a second thought and kill another human
being if your life is in danger. And though Ron Howard learns this
lesson in the end, killing his mentor's assailants in the barroom
shootout, he casts away the instrument of destruction with disgust,
as the dying shootist nods in approval. Fine as they are, in both
these films their enjoyment can't rise above a profound nostalgia.

As neurotic
daydreaming

Ludwig von
Mises indirectly offers another appeal of the Western. In section
three of his The
Anti-Capitalistic Mentality
, he cites Professor W. O. Aydelotte's
study of the detective novel. Many of the traits that make it so
popular apply to the plots of many Westerns: a nameless outsider,
smarter than the corporate bosses whose misdeeds have put them in
power, avenges the townsfolk and restores justice. While it may
not be accurate, as we will later show, to draw any broad conclusions
— for example, that such plots appeal to people with “frustrated
ambition,” it seems fair to say that the “little guy”
who wants comeuppance would enjoy Westerns like Clint Eastwood's
High
Plains Drifter
and Pale
Rider
.

As the
heroic

On the other
hand, it is exactly this quality of many Western heroes as lone
outsiders that should appeal to those with a self-motivated “sense
of life,” as the American philosopher Ayn Rand puts it in her
treatise The
Romantic Manifesto
. For her, detectives such as James Bond
and Mike Hammer are heroic models, the very men who exactly fit
Aydelotte's dysfunctional model. They are violent armed men, standing
outside convention, but their violence and iconoclasm are restrained
by reason. But setting aside the exploration of gunslinger as hero
for the moment, it seems to me that anyone who is in the least serious
about art should be fascinated by her notion of sense of life. It
completely dispenses with any prudish bowdlerizing didacticism and
moralizing. (See von Mises
Institute scholar Stephen Cox
if you want to pursue this tangent.)
For her, a perfect criminal can be worth literary and cinematic
treatment if he embodies a self-motivated mind. And this is the
model not just for lone gunslingers in “B” Westerns, but
for some of the greatest creations in literature, such as Goethe's
Faust and Mozart's Don Giovanni.

As monomyth

The heroic
in the service of Jungian archetypes is how I would characterize
Joseph
Campbell's notion of monomyth
. It is an order above Rand's purely
psychological notion of the heroic. Whatever you might think of
Campbell, it seems to me that this otherwise suspect form of reasoning,
the argument from plausibilities, is entirely proper in his study
of myth because it makes no pretense to equivalence with argument
from logic, fact, or authority. Several Westerns might be cited
as fitting the structures of monomyth, but most satisfying to me
is Billy Bob Thornton's All
the Pretty Horses
.

John Grady
Cole (Matt Damon) and Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) are young Texans
who set out for Mexico from San Angelo in 1949 on a quest to reenter
the lost world of Old West as cowboys. Cole feels forced into this
quest by the anguished discovery that his mother has sold the family
ranch. At the Threshold of the Mexican border they encounter the
Supernatural Aid-Giver (and Trickster) in the form of Blevins (Lucas
Black), who possesses a hereditary mystical curse of attracting
lightning. Their Road of Trials begins with earning jobs on a big
estate owned by Don Hector (Ruben Blades) by breaking 16 wild horses
in a single day. Cole falls in love with the Goddess and Temptress
Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), Don Hector's daughter, knowing that discovery
of their affair could destroy him and his friend. Their world is
indeed shattered, but unexpectedly, through their association with
Blevins, who has implicated them in his theft of money from a Mexican
he has killed. The pair enter the Belly of the Whale (a Mexican
prison), where more trials await them, including Cole's ferocious
fight to the death with knives with another inmate. These trials
passed, Cole experiences an Apotheosis in a nightmarish dream sequence
in which he asks Blevins what it's like to be dead, receiving the
reply “It's like nothing at all.” Cole is then Reborn
through his release from prison and his discovery that his friend
Rawlins, who he had thought had died in the prison, truly lives.
They cross the Threshold again into Texas, meting out justice to
the Mexican sheriff responsible for the torture and death of Blevins.
Arrested for suspected theft of the horse he's riding, Cole receives
Atonement with the Father, through his acquittal by the judge (Bruce
Dern).

As a
portrayal of the noble savage

Taking another
route of access to the mythological archetypes are those Westerns
portraying the American aboriginal as the noble savage. These films
appeal to Mircea
Eliade's
“myth of a golden age in eo tempore.”
The noble savage is the ultimate hippie, the embodiment of a world
without an Establishment, at one with nature. He appeals to that
perennial illusion, of which Rousseau is but one spokesman, that
if only we would cast aside convention the Revolution would at last
come and heaven would descend to earth.

In this vein
are writers who owe much of their success to their portrayals of
the noble savage. The greatest selling German author of all time
is the writer of Westerns, Karl
May
, with over 100 million copies of his novels sold. One of
the greatest selling authors in English, with 225 million copies
sold, is the writer of Westerns Louis
L'Amour
. Tom Selleck has starred in L'Amour's Crossfire
Trail
and The
Shadow Hunters
; John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda,
Yul Brynner, Tab Hunter, Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, Keith Carradine,
and even Sean Connery and Bridget Bardot have starred in his other
films.

Possibly most
typical is Kevin Costner's Dances
with Wolves
. Given the number of fatuities in Dances
with Wolves, I can only suggest that it is by appeal to this
archetype that so many people enjoy this Western.

As the
spirit of the frontier

We see that
the Western can engage storytelling and myth at the profoundest
level. But it is something about the idea of the frontier that makes
Westerns so distinctively enjoyable. What is it? The best definition
of the frontier comes from a Texas historian admired by Jacques
Barzun (Essays
on Walter Prescott Webb and the Teaching of History
) but
in many ways limited (see Larry McMurtry's In
a Narrow Grave
for a few of the reasons). Walter Prescott
Webb points out in The
Great Frontier
that the frontiersman (including the cowboy)
is the personal embodiment of the traditions of the West.
It's not so much the fact that the frontiersman carried the Bible,
Bunyan's Pilgrim's
Progress
, and Blackstone's Commentaries
on the Laws of England
; it's the fact that his very life
meant the success or failure of the Western ideals, a contingency
sharpened by constant threat from Indians and unforgiving terrain.

There is a
second element that makes the frontier hero a hero different from
all others. These tales arouse a memory of nomadic hunter-warriors
predating agrarian domesticity. It is for this reason that they
concern masculine, often violent men in an arid landscape. It is
a memory of the struggle between Esau the hunter and Jacob the agrarian,
whether that takes shape explicitly as in the film Shane,
nostalgically as when the last of a herd of longhorns is destroyed
in Hud, or in some other way when the nomadic cattle driver
is the sublimated agent for settled civilization.

It is these
two elements that make the struggles of the Western frontiersman
titanic and primeval. His throes join life against death, Jacob
against Esau, civilization against savagery. It is for his embodiment
of the spirit of the frontier that children are playing Cowboys
and Indians in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and in every country in
the world, and will do so for as long as the West has a memory.

Conclusion

B.F. Skinner
in Beyond
Freedom and Dignity
derided “the literature of freedom,”
by which he meant the entire heritage of works portraying man as
a free moral agent. But to freeze-dry art with some tendentious
agenda supported by plausibilities, whether it be the agenda of
Jacques Derrida or anybody else, denigrates this literature in a
more subtle way. It misuses categories of proof. Science defines
its principles by arguments from logic, fact, or authority; literature
must make its case mainly by argument from plausibilities. This
error is one reason that so much anti-intellectualism resides today
not in the economic or science departments but in the English departments
of all the universities. Reference to plausibilities makes reading
Freud so racy, but unfortunately it proves nothing about the preconscious
experiences of a child. Reference to the Western Stagecoach proves
no scientific truth; but literature (including film), following
its own method, remains green and seminal and free.

There isn't
a forthrightly bourgeois
aesthetic
, although there should be. Well over a century ago
more than one great mind realized that capitalism had changed everything,
and self-consciously set out to change art accordingly. Possibly
most abstractly of all it was Gotthold
Ephraim Lessing
who made this effort, with artists at least
through Franz
Grillparzer
joining the battle. Where would this battle begin
today? Possibly with a little story like Calumet
K
— or even with a retelling of the humble Western.

November
4, 2005

Terry
Hulsey [send him mail]
is a writer living in Fort Worth, Texas. His latest book is Heroic
Tales and Treasures of the Lonely Heart
.

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