X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
What do Westerns have to do with the lives of ordinary people? Is there any way of understanding the basic elements in western stories that could tell us something about the way that people in the twentieth century feel about their lives? Anything about their values, or the way they behave?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Jane Tompkins. She's a professor of English at Duke University, author of West of Everything as well as other distinguished earlier works. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Tompkins. I've noticed there aren't very many churches in the western movies. Is there a clear explanation of that?
JT: Actually, I've started trying to understand why westerns were the way they were, by explaining to myself the absence of religion, at least of a formalized institutional, explicit manifest religion. The western begins by all accounts with Owen ?Wister's 1902 Virginian, and in order to explain what was in The Virginian and what wasn't in it, I decided to look at a book that was really popular just before The Virginian came out, and the book that I looked at was Charles Sheldon's In His Steps, which was an incredible popular best-seller at the end of the nineteenth century. And it's all about religion! It's all about a people becoming saintly and how to save your soul, how to, in this case, how to save your soul by doing good for other people. It was an example of the social gospel. And so it seemed quite odd or needing explanation that a book which was totally preoccupied with notions of faith and piety should have been so incredibly popular and appealing just six years before a book came out that made fun of ministers and any sort of formalized faith whatsoever. So, what I came up with was that the western, whatever else it might be, was an attempt to wipe religion as it was then culturally recognized off the map. That there was something that religious discourse and religious symbols and rituals and everything sort of externally recognizable as Christian, there was something in all of that that the western was determined to get rid of, whatever that might be. So, that was the place that I began, essentially, was noticing that the western hated Christianity.
MP: What was the environment of sort of the Christian popular notions before the turn of the century that may have contributed to this?
JT: Well, if you scratch the surface of popular Christianity in the nineteenth century, what you get is domesticity and women [laughs a little]. The literature that had pretty much taken over the popular fiction market from, say, the 1840s to, hmm, the 1870s or '80s, was largely written by women about women, not just for women, however. It was read by both men and women. And it was pious, it was evangelical in its spirit. It was domestic in the sense that the primary settings were in the home, and it used Biblical quotations, prayers, and religious observance, primarily actually not in church but in daily life. The central, it put those things at the center of human concerns. The western, on the other hand, is a kind of point-for-point refutation of that whole notion of what life might be like. Its settings are always public, never private. Out in the open, either in a town or out on the prairies in some kind of open space. Its conflicts are not internal the way the conflicts of the women's novels were, but men shooting it out in some sort of physical combat, either with each other or with nature. And its conception of reality, perhaps most important, was physical rather than spiritual. Rather than living in a world where the saving of one's soul was the primary goal of human life, it was basically the saving of one's body, that is, literal physical survival, which is the point in the western.
MP: I want to just explore a little bit more of the period before the western, and the western seems to run at least, and maybe it changed its form in the '60s, but it certainly runs up to the current era. We had the Women's Christian Temperance Union. We had the suffrage movement. We had a very extensive social agenda that actually grew out of labor unions and socialist, European socialist notions, and at the same time there was a very broad based sort of what we today would call a communitarian movement. There were agrarian movements, there were urban reformations for improved housing and immigration. This, the western seems to be an absolute direct dichotomy. What are, as we go through a western, what are some of the elements that are so strikingly different?
JT: Well, for one thing, the Women's Christian Temperance Union is symbolic of the movement of nineteenth-century women out of the home and into public life, which could be seen, if you want to look at the western from a gender perspective, which I largely do, as a kind of threat to the male control of public space. So, one thing that the western does is that it simply wipes women off the screen of narrative, so to speak. It puts, it populates its stories with men, a man is always at the center of the story, and his antagonist is always another man or a group of men. Women are specifically marginalized, over and over again, the woman's point of view, which, well, just the other night I saw a western called The Last Day. It was one of the last westerns. I date the end of the western era in 1975. This was a 1975 movie, and, lo and behold, there is the woman, pleading with her man not to go up against the Dalton gang because, after all, he'll be alone since none of the townspeople is gonna back him up, and he hasn't used a gun much recently anyway. I mean, this is a replay in 1975 of High Noon in 1952, where Grace Kelly makes the same plea to Gary Cooper. The woman's point of view is always overridden and, well, usually smashed to pieces. So, whatever else it's doing, the western is in some way trying to demote women from any position of power, and, along with that, this Christian ideology of forgiveness and peacemaking. Now, the other things that you mentioned have to do with the efforts of people to better themselves through collective action: labor unions, communitarianism. The western over against this seems to posit the most radical sort of individualism. Again, I come at this from a gender perspective. I know that there are other ways of understanding it. But, there seems to be, and I don't, I perhaps have an explanation for this, a kind of, a compulsion in the western to define the hero's self as totally autonomous and bounded, so much so that even the opening of one's mouth and issuing, the issuing forth of words is seen as a kind of violation of the boundaries of the hero's self. So it's to the desire for a kind of total autonomy, or sort of a monolithic self-sustained being that I attribute the western hatred of language and the generally recognized taciturnity of the hero, whose Yup, Nope, language is almost a joke. The way I understand this desire for autonomy and for a kind of seamless unconsciousness, almost, on the part of the hero is as an escape from the, some kind, some form of inner turmoil, or mental conflict, anxiety, guilt, feelings of inadequacy, which the hero feels he can overcome by imitating the landscape that he rides through. The hero is a kind of organic counterpart of the buttes, of the stone buttes that rise from the desert, and his ultimate desire is to become like one of them, totally silent, totally immobile, and, as it were, indestructible.
MP: You used the word "bounded" in describing sort of the character of the western cowboy.
JT: Yah? [chuckles]
MP: What's the context and the meaning of "bounded," beyond the description of it? I know, I think in the book you've quoted Octavio Paz as the source.
JT: Yes, I did. I'm not sure where you want me to go with that. I mean, do you have something in mind? What are you thinking of?
MP: Well, from that you derive the language, but the sense was that the, in the book you made certain that there wasn't a core, there was no attempt to create, to have a core. The notion of bounded describes the interaction, the necessity of acting rather than talking. It was, in the sense of bounded, which was an interesting concept.
JT: Mm hmm. For me, the boundedness was a form of self-protection, which ultimately hides some kind of terrible vulnerability. To take this in a direction that I can handle, that's familiar with me, to me, one of the chief, or perhaps the chief characteristic of the western hero, after his, the autonomy I've described, is his ability to endure pain. To not only endure pain that is acute and over a long period of time, but to never express the fact, to himself or to anyone else, that he is in pain. So, his impassivity and his refusal to communicate what he feels is part and parcel of his ability to be stoic and to take it, so to speak. The expression of pain would be considered a weakness, a kind of concession to what? To his relatedness to other people, to his dependency on them, to his need for them, and finally to his implication in some sort of social group, whether it simply be a dyadic relationship with a wife or another person, being a member of a family, or being a member of a community. At the same time, and perhaps ironically, though, ironically in the tragic sense, this numbing of himself with the hero undergoes, and which is his badge, so to speak, which is what earns him the right to be called a hero, is done in the name of community. That is to say, it's done in the name of being able to be strong enough to commit acts which are terrible, in order to protect those who are presumably even weaker than the hero himself. So, there's a kind of paradox here, that in order to maintain intact such community as exists, the hero himself has to become a kind of monad, unrelated to community, and somebody who is unable to in fact, after he has done what he, quote, has to do, is unable to relate satisfactorily to other human beings, and so has to exile himself.
MP: There's one other image, I want to come back to this, because there's a contradiction, as you say, between the cowboy and the working person, of the entire generation. But, what about the relationship between the landscape and these sort of fragile little towns?
JT: Hmm. [chuckles]. Well, there is no god in the western in the Christian sense. That is, people don't pray to God, people who pray to God are spat upon or shot at or wiped off the screen, but nature takes the place of deity, and is the transcendent thing in the genre, and you feel it over and over and over again, both in the movies, where the shots of Western scenery are simply breathtaking, or in the novels. Zane Grey and Louis Lamour, my two favorite western writers, and absolutely brilliant describers of the landscape. The adore the landscape, they love it, and their heros love it as they have them move over the terrain as if over the body of a lover. The landscape has this sort of deific, majestic, transcendent look. The western writers choose the landscape of the desert and the mountains, which is barren and imposing, rather than, say, the fertile valleys of California or the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, because it suits their notion of some kind of august, immense power which is finally a deific power. The town seen in relation to the landscape has a kind of sort of puny appeal, sort of it's the symbol of mortality and what is transient and it's a kind of pathetic attempt, the pathetic attempt that human beings make to leave their mark on nature. The town is always a symbol of corruption. It smacks of everything that the cowboy hero wants to leave behind, namely, the difficulty of human relationships, of getting along in some sort of social group. And, as such, finally it always has to be left behind by him. Town is a place that is, that has, that is likely to seduce the hero into some form of givingin to dependency and relationality. So he has got to protect himself against this. Which he does in some of the ways that I've mentioned.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Jane Tompkins. She's a professor of English at Duke University, author of, most recently, West of Everything, as well as numerous distinguished earlier books. What about, and we've got the background, the scenery, the women, the church. What about the horse?
JT: Horses. Well, I was trying to do a phenomenology of westerns. I was trying to figure out what are the basic elements of the genre, what without which is a western not a western. And pretty soon it became obvious that you hadda have a horse, or horses. The question was, What were they doing there? I'm assuming that in a narrative like this that has such enormous cultural power, every one of the major elements in it is doing a lot of work, is sending certain kinds of messages to the audience that the audience needs to hear. In the case of the horse, the messages are many, but the basic one, it seems to me, is that the, well, let me back up a little bit. The western becomes popular at just the time that horses actually disappear from the daily lives of most people in this country. That is, it's the introduction of the motor cars beginning to happen and people's lives progressively through the century become more and more motorized, the horse recedes further and further into the distance, both physical and chronological. The emergence into cultural centrality of a genre which focuses so intensely on horses is no accident. What I see the horse as doing basically is offering the viewer or, in the case of novels, the reader, some way to reconnect with nature, which is to say some way to reconnect with the principle of life that at some level or other people in the culture felt they had lost touch with. The, over and over again at the beginning of the western, you'll see a blank or an almost blank horizon, and then you'll see a couple of tiny little figures way in the distance, and they turn out to be horsemen. And sometimes as the credits are going on or as the cowboy song is being sung, these figures advance toward the camera until they come right up close to you and you feel the power of the animal, you hear the clanking of the bridle and the churning of the hooves and you see the sweat and feel the dynamism and strength of this being. And it's as if by coming into at least vicarious contact with this animal, the viewers of westerns are making some kind of contact with the principle of life within themselves that has been, if not extinguished, at least suppressed. The horse has, though, basically a kind of a double function in the western. On the one hand, it's a way to reconnect with life through merger, that is by touching the horse, by kind of becoming one with it, you become one with nature, the nature that the horse emerges out of. The other function, though, is the horse as object to be conquered. That is, the nature that has to be controlled, that has to be dominated, that has to be in some way made malleable to human purposes. So horses are both sort of wonderful apocalyptic, almost transcendent, beings whose presence is a kind of promise of life to those who are willing to sort of lend their bodies to the bodies of horses. On the other hand, they are also the symbol of everything that something in us wants to be able have power over, to check, to control, to dominate, to discipline. The horse finally is a symbol for our own bodies and for our own mortality, that is, the body of the hero and the body of the horse in the western are treated in very much the same way. Quite cruelly. I think that we as viewers in some way participate in the cruelty that is meted out to horses, unconsciously, simply by sitting there and watching it take place.
MP: The 1902-to-1975 period coincides very closely with the significant, abrupt rise to power and importance of labor unions and what we would probably call industrial America. It may have peaked in the mid-'50s and was clearly in decline by the '70s. How can this man out in the great, wide open, on a horse, away from towns and women, and openly confronting death, and exerting enormous will to cope with pain be relevant to the industrial worker?
JT: Now that you remind me, that was the first thing I began with. Church came second. The first thing was work.
MP: Thank you for being with us, XXX. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was XXX. Our engineer is Dan Gunning through Western Public Radio. This program is underwritten by Friends of Social Thought. Thank you for being with us on Social Thought today. We hope you'll join us again next week.
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Professor TompkinsJane Tompkins, a professor of English at Duke University, most recently author of West of Everything, from Oxford Press in 1992.