May 22, 2002


Cowboys & Cavemen : The Limits of Modern Mythology (Hank Parnell, Texas Mercury)
Traditional mythologies masquerade as ersatz historical fiction. That is, they tell stories, ostensibly set in the real past, but which really take place in an imaginary past that suits the purpose of the myth, which is to explain or reveal aspects of a given culture's worldview, its morality, philosophy, traditions and cosmology. Myths are metaphorical stories about something, usually something fairly important, like a given people's view of themselves. In a broader sense, myth can embody anything archetypical or stereotypical in a culture. When we speak of a myth in such terms, we are usually talking about what is believed to be true but is not. That's because a myth's value doesn't depend on its literal veracity, but on its ability to express the basic assumptions society operates on.

My favorite historic mythology is the American Western. The essential core of the Western myth teaches that justice can be established by the actions of a lone man armed with a gun. This, I submit, says a lot about America as a nation and Americans as a people. "When arms are drawn," said the Romans, "the laws are silent." (Inter armes, silent leges.) We Americans pride ourselves on living under the "rule of law", but the truth is all our real heroes are outlaws, men who "took the law into their own hands." Our Founding Fathers were rebels and traitors. We are the "gunfighter nation", as one leftist wag dubbed us. Americans believe might makes right, as long as we're wielding that might. It tends to make us naturally arrogant and hypocritical, but we are still the greatest group of people ever to exist on the face of the earth. There is simply no denying that. The actions of a bunch of rebels and traitors, most of them with a high-flown philosophical bent (generally aimed at proving they had a "right", as individuals, to do pretty much as they damn well pleased), unleashed a creative cultural dynamo unprecedented in human history. It is impossible to conceive of the scientific, technological and industrial advances of the last few centuries without the existence of the United States of America. The two seem to go hand in hand, because they do. [...]

Today the Western, as a genre, is pretty much dead. Occasionally a memorable Western film will be made, or a novel published, but the glut of Westerns, which 30 years ago were still dominated books, magazines, movies and even TV shows, is now long gone, and it is hard to see how it could ever come back.

The recent essays of Mr. Parnell afford one more excellent reason to check out the always entertaining Texas Mercury. But I'd differ with Mr. Parnell in one regard--and a significant one for the purposes of his essay. We Americans actually--as the Western and the private eye novel most fully reveal--used to believe that "right" makes might. The point of the lone hero--as in High Noon or Shane or Hondo or Riders of the Purple Sage or myriad other great Westerns--is that, though faced with what seem overwhelming odds, he will prevail because of his moral purity, because he is "right" and his adversaries, though many and strong, are wrong. Likewise, the Declaration of Independence is a search for why we would be within our rights to defy the crown and the revolution proceeded from the seemingly foolhardy notion that this tiny (in population terms) colonial backwater would be able to prevail against the world's greatest power, because we were "right", regardless of their might.

The decline of the Western then can be seen as paralleling the decline in American self-confidence. The genre faded, after all, in the 60s and 70s, as the counter-culture and intellectual elites convinced people that we were not in the right. When Taxi Driver came out, in 1976, America was still a mighty nation--essentially an imperial power, with colonies stretching from the Philippines to West Germany--but it had ceased to believe that it was "right". Bad enough that Lt. Calley had replaced Shane as our image of the man with a gun; with half of America, and almost all of the rest of the world, rooting for the "Indians" rather than the "Cowboys" in the Vietnam War, the Western seemed entirely antiquated. And so, when Robert DiNiro straps on a gun, we see not a hero but a psychotic. America not only wasn't right, it was seen to be deranged.

Despite the subsequent election of Ronald Reagan--no coincidence that he was an old hero of the Westerns and came replete with Western motif--it seems fair to say that this doubt about America, specifically, and about Western Culture, generally, prevailed right up until September 11th, 2001. But, forced to confront the reality of another civilization, Americans appear to have had a moment's respite from the political correctness, multiculturalism, and self-loathing that have plagued us for the past 35 years or so. It seems like this might even be a moment, however fleeting, when you could revive the Western. The eggheads may have recoiled when George W. Bush said that we'd bring back Osama bin Laden "dead or alive", but the American people thrilled to the archetypal image it invoked. It was politics by way of Steve McQueen and hit a long buried chord in the American psyche. I don't know who this generation's McQueen would be, or its Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd (it has no John Wayne), but I suspect that a High Noon variant starring Jim Carey, or a Shane with Denzel Washington, might hit a similar chord. A people that once again considers itself to be "right" might once again thrill to its own traditional myths.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2002 11:13 AM
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