Because it seems to me that the things in Cooper that make one so savage, when one compares them with actuality, are perhaps, when one considers them as presentations of a deep subjective desire, real in their way, and almost prophetic. – D.H. Lawrence
Lawrence was right to pick out the killer motif in his book on Classic American Literature right to find some deep subjective desire there. It is the hunter plot – hunting deer, hunting the great white whale, hunting bear, hunting, above all, Indians – that has such large and prophetic effects on the American imago that Americans are still enthralled by the elements of that primitive story. However, it is LI’s contention that the story is now in its decadence – and that its decadence is part of the larger debauching of the narrative intelligence in these here states – and that the site of its decadence is the action movie. All of these thoughts derive from a trivial and stupid occasion – as some long suffering readers know, LI is trying to put together a graphic novel. To that end, we’ve not only been reading them, we’ve been watching movies made from them. Which is how we explain wasting an hour and ten minutes on The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
Lawrence doesn’t mention Robinson Crusoe in the context of the American hunter, but – borrowing from Marx’s notion of Crusoe as the legitimating myth of the classical economists – surely Natty Bumppo, or Daniel Boone, play the same role in the American climate, are the heroes of methodological individualism American style. As always, of course, history discretely precedes pre-history – these self-made hunters use weapons that represent the cutting edge of the factory and distribution system. Even in the deepest woods of the Six Nations, they are parasitic, in a crucial sense, on the world economy – going in with the gun, coming out with the pelts, or the scalps – whatever sells. And, as Olson points out about Moby Dick, hunting and the factory system combine in the whaling ship. By taking the ship and making it into the vessel of his own vengeance, Ahab departs from the hunter’s program, the telos of the pelt or whale oil that is brought back, and this is a mark of his madness. There’s a nice story about this parasitical situation in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. An expriest tells the kid a story about the Judge over the scalphunters fire one evening. In the story, the expriest and a band of other hunter/desperados are being chased by savages into the malpais, the great salt and quartz wastelands in Sonora or southern Arizona. The band has run out of gunpowder. And then they come upon the judge – just like that. The judge scales flakes of silicon and sulphur from the rocks about with his knife, and mixes it up, and then has the whole company piss on it (“He’d took out his pizzle and he was pissin into the mixture, pissin with a great vengeance”) and kneads the mixture and lets it dry, and the band uses that powder to fight off the surprised savages. This is self-sufficiency, but it is also a parody of gunpowder manufacture, a reminder of the factories and mines behind the Daniel Boones. But even if the hero of methodological individualism ends up pissing into a pile of mineral flakes to survive, you can’t entirely take the aura away from Daniel Boone. Literature happens because myths don’t hold – and so it is with Ahab and, much later, with the boy in Faulkner’s The Bear – but the myths are also fight back.
Then there is the woods themselves – and the ocean and the malpais, other forms of wilderness, easily transformed, by metaphor, into a woods, and vice versa. When the Boy goes into the woods for the first time in Faulkner’s story, the sensation of moving among the immensity of trees is compared to a sensation the boy has much later – the first time he goes onto an ocean going ship. The woods, though, are European as well. After all, Dante as well as Daniel Boone found himself in a forest, and Ortega y Gasset begins the Meditation on Quixote with an essay on the forest. In America, the hunter maps the woods, and the map kills the hunter – for of course he is followed by the world system, the farms and manufactures. In Europe, Ortega y Gasset’s forest is also inhabited by what used to be there: “When we arrive at a small clearing in the verdure, it seems as if a man had been sitting there on a stone, with his elbows on his knees, his hands on his temples, and that just as we were arriving he got up and left…. The forest is always a little beyond where we are. It has just gone away from where we are and all that remains is its still fresh traces. The ancients, who projected their emotions into corporeal and living forms, peopled the forests with fugitive nymphs.” In America, of course, the man was there when the Americans got there – and he was gone by the second, the third, the fourth generation, ‘vanished’ – as it used to be said in the old educational films of my sixth grade. The ‘vanishing’ American Indian. The ‘vanishing’ buffalo. In truth, the hunter’s last real moment in American culture was in the 1870s, when factory, hunting, and ethnic cleansing were put together as the army contracted out the extinction of the buffalo. Here, the peculiar genius of General Sherman showed itself:
“In a letter on May 10, 1868, Sherman mentioned a sardonic method of resolving the conflict, writing to Sheridan that "I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England & America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all. Until the Buffaloes & consequent(ly) the Indians are out from between the Roads we will have collisions & trouble." On June 17, 1868, Sherman wrote his brother John about the buffalo and the railroad: "The commission for present peace had to concede a right to hunt buffaloes as long as they last, and they may lead to collisions, but it will not be long before all the buffaloes are extinct near and between the railroads, after which the Indians will have no reason to approach either railroad..." (Sherman, 1894, p. 320)”
This was the end of the hunter as the classic American hero, the myth inside methodological individualism. It was the end, too, of the hunter’s forest – the American forests of turns, where hunter and prey could switch places. The hunter as a hand is the cowboy -- an entirely different figure.
All of which is a pretty heavy intro to a few remarks about watching a shitty movie. But hey, LI paid 3.50 to rent it, and we do want to get some value for our money. So, next post will be about the action movie.
ps - I was reading last night in Fintan O'Tooles biography of Richard Sheridan, The Traitor's Kiss, and came across this marvelous anecdote:
"On March 6, 1786, the American Company's production of Robinson Crusoe or Helequin Friday was performed in New York 'For the entertainment of the Indian Chiefs of the Oneida nation, now in this city." Probably devised by Elizabeth Sheridan with assistance from her husband, this pantomime seems, from surving accounts, to have been itself a strange fantasy of meetings between European travellers and New World natives. The first half follows the outline of Daniel Defoe's novel. But in the secnd, set in Spain, Crusoe disappears back to England, leaving the black man Friday - played by one of the first black face performers to appear on the American stage - in the arms a white Columbine. The lovers are rescued from various distresses by a black magician and transported back to the island, where "the Piece concludes with a Grand dance of Savages."
And so Robinson Crusoe and the Prospero myth are unfurled before the Indian nation that will provide Cooper with his enemy/models for Natty Bumppo. Oh, how our symbols turn into events and our events turn into symbols in this strange new world! And -- strange little LI world, for those who have read some of our more bizarre posts -- Crusoe was played, in the London debut of the pantomime, by Joe Grimaldi's father. The forest of turns possesses all travelers who enter into it.