‘Westworld’ And The American West As Locale For Self-Reconfiguration

It is perhaps unsurprising that Westworld is Westworld; if American mythology is to be staged anywhere, the West is a natural locale. In the original Westworld, the West meant a zone in which certain kinds of adventures were facilitated: gun battles mostly, but also sex with perfect strangers who cared little for who you were and only wanted your money. In the new Westworld, an implicit motif of the first becomes more explicit: Westworld is where you go to find yourself–whoever and whatever that may be. In this new Westworld, the landscape, only background scenery in the old, now becomes more prominent; we are reminded again and again of its beauty, wildness, and implacable hostility and indifference. If you want to make a show about self-discovery, reconfiguration, journeys into and across space and time, the American West–for many historical and cultural reasons–is a good call. The physical spaces are vast, mapping neatly on to the immense unexplored spaces of the mind; the beauty is enthralling, sparking vision after vision in us of possibility, and also, as Rilke reminded us, bringing us closer to terror: those cliffs, those bluffs, those steep walls, that burning sun, the rattlesnakes, the dangers of other humans. The deployment of the American West also taps into a deeper mythology that self-discovery takes place away from other humans–in the wild. If we are to traverse our mind, then Westworld–like many other recountings of human experience before it–suggests we need tremendous physical spaces too. We could not do this in a crowded city. Those endless horizons and canopies of the sheltering sky are necessary for the suggestion of infinite possibility.

And then, there is the violence. The American West’s land is soaked in blood, in memories of a people decimated, of massacres, starvation, and rape. If you want to stage a modern day genocide–and the continuing thirty-five year old slaughter of ‘hosts’ is most definitely a genocide, even if an eternally recurring one–then, again, the West is the correct locale. It is significant that in this version of the American West, there are very few Native Americans; there are some ‘greasers‘–cannon fodder, obviously–but very few ‘redskins.’ The makers of the show seem to have wisely decided that it was best to mostly write Native Americans out of the show rather than risk getting their depiction and usage wrong, which they almost certainly would have. (The one episode in which Native Americans make an appearance, they are the stuff of nightmare, much as they must have been for the ‘pioneers,’ their imaginations inflamed by stories of how they had to keep their women safe from the depredations of the savages on the prairies.) This American West is one which has already been cleansed of the Native American; an alternative rendering of Westworld, one whose dark satire would have cut too close to the bone, would be one in which park visitors would get to shoot all the whoopin’ n’ hollerin’ Injuns they wanted.

MedievalWorld, SamuraiWorld would also allow for the exploration of themes pertaining to the possible sentience of robots, but their locales might not, at least for American audiences, suggest the possibilities of our own reconfiguration quite so well.

Wanted: Presidential ‘Leadership’ In North Dakota (#NODAPL)

As I have noted on this blog before (here and here), America is not done with Native Americans yet. You might have imagined that banishment to impoverished reservations was the final insult to historical injury, but apparently much work, like the denial of clean drinking water–the provision of which in certain communities seems increasingly beyond the capacities of our great republic–remains to be accomplished.

Ever since the Standing Rock NODAPL protests began–inviting an impatient, intolerant response by local law-enforcement authorities–a superficial sense of unreality has pervaded proceedings: Are we really, seriously, in the process of yet again violating another treaty with Native Americans? Have we no shame? Matters have worsened, of course. In a delightfully old-fashioned move, one evoking nostalgia for days gone by, as air temperatures have dropped below freezing on the North Dakota plains, police have used water cannon on protesters at nighttime. Some German shepherd dogs and some tobacco-chewing cops speaking in Southern accents were all that were missing from those classic American mise-en-scènes; these provided a salutary contrast to images of policemen chatting with those brave pioneers who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year, and desecrated Native American lands in the process. Sooner or later, the strong arm of the law will descend on the Standing Rock protesters to evict them; their presence is an embarrassment to those who have routed the Dakota Access Pipeline through Native American lands, and to all those who let them do so.

The history of past interactions with the Native American in this land is so sorrowful and shameful, so redolent of betrayal, that the very idea of a paleface not speaking with forked tongue when it comes to land treaties strikes most dispassionate observers as risible. You’d imagine that under these sorts of historical circumstances, politicians would consider it easy to go out on a rhetorical limb, and utter protestations about the need to redress past wrongs, to correct injustice, to suggest there might have been an implicit national agreement–a moral one–to the effect of ‘Never Again.’ Apparently not. For instance, during the election season, Hillary Clinton could only offer a familiar, mealy-mouthed, triangulated response; that attempt at cultivating that mythical creature, the ‘moderate Republican’ failed, and needless to say, it did little to suggest the Standing Rock protests were distinctive in any way. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, perhaps trying not to disrupt his carefully cultivated image as a measured, unflappable, reconciler of extremes, has stayed well above the fray, not deigning to put his considerable presidential authority and prestige on the line in speaking up for the protesters. But time is running out; the Oval Office will soon be occupied by a Wall Street bootlicker; and further waves of exploitation of lands out West will soon commence. The president has nothing to lose, and much to gain. Speaking up on behalf of, and intervening by any means necessary, shouldn’t just be thought of as a political tactic; it should be a moral imperative.

Note: In saying the above, I do not mean to suggest that protests are reliant, dependent on, or cannot proceed without the White House speaking up on their behalf; it would be just, how you say, nice to see a display of moral backbone from those quarters.

Blood Meridian and The Nature of the Universe

Yesterday’s post, in which I excerpted a couple of passages from Samuel Delany channeling Foucault, is followed today by two excerpts from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International, New York, 1992). I’m going to call these ‘theological’ in nature. (The entire novel, I realize, may be termed a kind of theology.)

First, the judge speaks to us about the ways and manners of God’s speaking and how traces may be found, read and heard in the world around us:

[T]he judge took one of the packanimals and emptied out the panniers and went off to explore the works. In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

As the judge’s investigations–careful and systematic and thoughtful–suggest, this reading and hearing is a form of diligent study; God’s ‘words’ are not written in the most straightforward fashion and may require some decipherment.

Second, a passage–again featuring the judge–that suggests the universe is a little less comprehensible than the first claim might have indicated:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

These lines suggest a universe our understanding of which is necessarily limited; our best theories of it rest on assumptions about its comprehensibility and uniformity that are unjustified. We are especially hamstrung in our efforts to comprehend the universe because the very tools we use for its study–our mind included–are themselves part of it, and thus always subject to the mysteries and vagaries that self-reference creates.

The White Rim Overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Last August, my wife and I visited the Canyonlands National Park in Utah. We had driven to Moab the day before and put ourselves up in a small motel on its outskirts. A day’s hiking in Canyonlands lay ahead; we planned to spend in it the park’s elevated northern Islands in the Sky section, taking in the many magnificent views of the canyon overlooks that supposedly awaited us.

The National Park Service does not lie; the views of the park’s deep and wide canyons, carved out by the Colorado River, were as majestic as promised. The following photographs of the White Rim Overlook portion of the Canyonlands offer only an exceedingly small glimpse of the wonders on display; whatever their virtues of representativeness or typicality my reasons for selecting them lie elsewhere, in the very particular responses they elicited in me at the time I encountered them. [Click on the images for a larger view.]

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We came upon these sights late in the day; it had been a hot one, baking the stony, thorny, scrubby, landscape several shades darker of its already dramatic bronze and making our short hikes earlier desperately thirsty ones. As the evening progressed and the sun moved to the west, seeking shelter after after a hard day’s riding through the sky, the winds picked up, and a host of dramatic clouds moved in. If we were lucky, we’d see–along many different spots on the White Rim’s overlooks–a spectacular sunset and storm all at the same time.

And yet, even with the safety of our car comfortably at hand, and civilization easily accessible, a gathering storm out in the southwestern desert wilderness can still provoke a measure of anxiety: nature seems so unbridled, so unhinged. Who knew, out here in this desolation, what wild forces might not be let loose, the kinds that cared little for human arrangements and concerns?

The storm threatened, blustered a bit, sent down a few raindrops and some vigorous gusts of wind; then, inexplicably, it withdrew. While it gathered its remnants about itself and blew its innards out, we waited it out. I drank some wine from a bottle in a cooler in the car’s trunk; the ice had survived and done a smooth number on the wine.

Then, the wind still gusting about us, we explored the White Rim through a series of walks. The canyons were cavernous, deep, their walls forbiddingly steep and craggy. I marveled at the geological history, the aeons of patient, persistent work done by wind, ice, water, snow, and sand all laid visible to the human eye. Even from a safe distance I could sense my giddy vertigo stir; I knew I would have been hopeless along the rim’s edges.

There is little hope of a photograph capturing the mood: the inexplicable mix of wonder, awe, and fear that is generated by one of the desert’s immense works, its barest particulars effortlessly outstripping our evoked sense of astonishment and delight.

The light faded soon thereafter, ringing a dark curtain over the White Rim. But the images of the day stayed; some on digital storage, others in memories.

Geronimo and the Cruel, Beautiful, West

Yesterday’s post on the continued presence of derogatory team names and mascots in American professional sports was, in part, prompted by my reading of Geronimo‘s autobiography.  It is a short book, an easy read, and comes with an excellent introduction by Frederick Turner. (Geronimo: His Own Story, As told to S. M. Barrett, with introduction and notes by Frederick Turner. Meridian Books, New York, 1996; other than some long quotes in previous histories, this is the first sustained narrative by a Native American that I have read.)

As with most histories of Native Americans, I am left a little numb: the familiar stories of dispossession, a series of betrayals, endless dissembling, and in the case of Geronimo, like some other great chiefs, the humiliations of imprisonment and camp life. By the time Geronimo–after surrendering and becoming a ‘prisoner of war’–has converted to Christianity, started selling bows and arrows at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, and posing for photographs, we are sick of it all.  Death must have been a merciful release from that protracted punishment.

In some previous posts on the American West, I had noted, in passing, the contrasts that that land holds for us: the beauty of its landscape and the cruelty writ large into its history. A couple of eloquent passages  from Turner’s introduction that describe the denudation of the West’s natural inhabitants bring that contrast alive for us.

First, the flora go:

But even the native grasses were being exterminated as the West was made over into farms and ranches: 142 million acres of the continent’s heartland that for millennia had been thronged with big bluestem, blazing star, wild indigo, black Sampson, butterfly milkweed, compass plant, prairie smoke, Scribner’s panicum, golden alexander, shooting star, and prairie dock.

Only the West could inspire descriptions– those startling names!–like that. But it inspired a savage response as well.

And then, writing of California,

In 1848, when gold was discovered in that area, and it was annexed as a state, there were approximately one hundred thousand Indians there; by 1859, that figure had been reduced to thirty thousand; and by the turn of the century there were only a fifteen thousand of the race once described by a devotee of the American way as a ‘set of miserable, dirty, lousy, blanketed, thieving, lying, sneaking, murdering, graceless, faithless, gut-eating skunks as the Lord ever permitted to infect the earth, and whose immediate and final extermination all men, except Indian agents and traders, should pray for.’ To an appalling extent the prayers were answered.

Geronimo died far  from home. In his autobiography he expressed his final wishes:

It is my land, my home, my father’s land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be, I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish at present, and that our name would not become extinct.

His wish was denied.

Redskins and Indians: America Isn’t Done With the Natives Yet

Years ago, on ESPN, I saw a young African-American player on the Washington Redskins‘ roster  interviewed about the periodic controversy over his team’s name.  The interviewer asked, quite straightforwardly,  ‘Do you think the team should change its name?’ The young man, looking worried–perhaps knowing he stood a good chance of offending someone and aware of his own peculiar standing in the debate– replied quickly, ‘If they are offended, then I think we should change the name.’

The ‘they’ in that response are Native Americans, America’s most invisible community. They aren’t extinct–word has it they still exist on reservations–but you wouldn’t know it from the way the Redskins continue to hold on to their moniker. Or the Cleveland Indians their grinning, leering, feathered mascot.  You wouldn’t know it either from the drearily familiar manner in which this debate bogs down every time its embers are raked over: in one corner, those who find these teams’ names and mascots offensive and racist, and in the other, those who shriek ‘political correctness!’ and urge everyone to take the proverbial chill pill. (My posts on this blog should make clear which corner I occupy.)

There is a logic of sorts to the visible, persistent indifference of sports teams–multi-million dollar corporations, each and every one of them. Why should the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians bother? Are there any Native Americans on the boards of the corporations that sponsor them and that might initiate a withdrawal of monies? Are there any Native American Senators or Congressmen who might speak up against them? Heck, do these teams have any Native American fans who might be offended and be able to enlist political and economic support for their complaints? There is no constituency to be offended, no demographic to be consulted.

There is, in short, no commercial imperative to change. There is plenty of incentive not to: the Redskins and the Indians, might, god forbid, look like they had caved; they might look like they weren’t ‘man enough’ to resist the forces of complaint and ‘victimhood.’ Their fans, those who happily buy their tickets and merchandise, and fill their stadiums, all the while emptying their own wallets, certainly don’t care.

It says something about the lack of political visibility, power and reach of the Native American community that this debate persists, that these descriptions still pervade American sporting life. In the extensive catalog of insults directed at that community, these caricatures and derogatory terms are merely the latest entries; the cries of ‘get over it and play the game’ just the latest version of ‘keep your head down, shut up, and keep moving.’ And besides, a community confined to impoverished tracts of land, and battling with poverty, alcoholism, and some of the highest murder and rape rates in the country has much else on its mind.

From displacement to betrayal to humiliation to massacres to insults; America isn’t quite done with its indigenous people. Stick around a while folks, there may be yet another trick up its sleeve.

Meek’s Cutoff and the Terror of the Beautiful

In the summer of 1998, during an epic road-trip out to the American West, I drove from Idaho into Oregon, heading for Eugene. I was still recovering from the surprise of having found out that the landscape of Idaho had been nothing quite like I expected it to be. (Idaho; potatoes, right? So, flat fields, you’d reckon? Well, no. Try pine forests, foaming rivers, and mountains instead.) Another surprise awaited me as I entered Oregon. I associated that state with the Pacific Northwest, with lush green forests, grey skies, cold and damp days, and much of the scenery that I had just passed through in Idaho. But eastern Oregon was arid, stark, parched landscape dotted with scrub and brush, rocky and often thorny.  I realized the Pacific coast was a long way away, that the visions of the Pacific Northwest that had so entranced me and brought me here were still a day’s drive away.

I wonder if my surprise was a much milder version that might have afflicted travelers like those portrayed in Kelly Reichardt‘s Meek’s Cutoff, as they wander, lost, disoriented, and thirsty, through a landscape that must have seemed nothing quite like that promised them before they set off on their journey to the magical West. As we watch their trials and travails, transfixed by our present knowledge that a straight journey west will bring them to the unimaginable lushness of the Oregon coast, we are also daunted by the knowledge that their journey is one infected and crippled by uncertainty and fear: our hapless journeyers do not know where they are, they are not sure where they are heading, they do not trust their guide, and they are ever so conscious that for the original inhabitants of this land, their presence is not a welcome one.  They might be, as often described, ‘pioneers’ but for now, they seem to have taken on a task of now unimaginable complexity, one requiring physical and mental fortitude that might be beyond many, if not most of them.

I have written before on this blog, on the beautiful and deadly combination of the cruel and the sublime that characterizes the American West (for instance: here and here). Meek’s Cutoff is a stark cinematic testament to that: we are riveted by the land’s colors that change through the day as the sun describes its merciless march through the sky, by its stark expanses, its brooding silences. But we are also made uneasy by its utter indifference to human plans and bonds: whether water will be found and parched lips assuaged, whether loved ones will live on or die by the wayside, whether dreams will be sundered or realized, these are all of little interest to it. It merely provides the canvas; the humans describe their fates on it. And then, of course, there is the violence: we are reminded that when strangers met strangers in this land, the resulting encounters were often fatal.

Meek’s Cutoff is not an easy movie to watch, but it is rewarding all the same; the landscapes are entrancing, the human tensions are real; most importantly, the pace of the movie keeps step with that of its characters and reminds us of their daily state of being: slow, painful, grinding onward movement, all the while not knowing whether each step onward is progress or not.