November 06, 2009

Johnny Guitar: An Immigrant's Tale

Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray's bizarre and operatic Western, can be read in many different way- as a feminist struggle between two women, as a freudian film about the paradoxes of sexual desire, as an attack on McCarthyism or as a discussion of art and masculinity. Watching it last night though one thing struck me more than anything. For those who do not know Johnny Guitar is the hero of a film in which he has very little to do. The film concentrates on the rivalry between two women- Vienna who owns a saloon bar on the outskirts of town, a bar which sits on the site of a future railway depot and Emma a local cattle rancher. Vienna represents an economic threat to Emma but also a sexual threat as she shares her beer and her bed with the Dancing Kid, a local man whom Emma desires. As a response to these threats Emma leads a posse to kill both Vienna and the kid- I will not go further without getting into the guts of the plot but it revolves around that hatred of Emma for Vienna. Rather than analysing the plot though, I think its worth digging into the nature of that hatred a bit: what Emma expresses in that hatred is the classic hatred of the native born for the immigrant. What Ray does is makes us identify with the immigrant in a classic piece of American cinema- cinema which celebrates the free movement of capital and labour.

Emma's argument against Vienna is an argument against immigration. Imagine, she tells McIvers who leads the posse, imagine if Vienna is allowed to do what she wants the railroad will pass through the town and eventually the life of the cattleranchers will be destroyed. The power of the cowboys will be unmade for they will be unable to stop the 'easterners', the 'farmers' becoming prominent. The story is the same as told in other Westerns about the progress of civilisation and resistance to it- but here that resistance is resistance from the native born, from those who live in the West to those that come there. Its the same song as many sing today about immigration into their communities. Emma's imagination is of women and children fenced in by barbed wire, of dreams of the tyranny of law and agriculture- those dreams impact on family structure, they segment it and destroy it in a tyranny of corn and gold. She makes this case hysterically and it is a case often made hysterically: but it can also be seen in the iconography of the film. Emma has a straightforward Anglo-Saxon name, Vienna's name is anything but. Emma's posse are the gathered democratic forces of the local town, populist and conservative to a man, Vienna dresses oppulently and her saloon is elegantly decorated. Populism confronts capitalism and doesn't like what it sees.

You can pursue this further as well and see the sexual rivalry running through the film between the two women in the light of the agonies of immigration. The terrifying imagery of losing sexual prominence in your community is what Emma is most threatened by. Vienna can 'have' and discard the Dancing Kid, for Emma an infatuation has turned into an obsession and she desires a male honour killing to vindicate her position. Sex is consciously at the forefront of Emma's mind as she attacks the immigrant, but subconsciously some urge, sexual or not, drives her to desire the immigrant's destruction. In moments of destruction, Mercedes McCambridge's face (playing Emma) is almost orgasmic in its pleasure, clenching her fist and her eye shining as she contemplates the ruin of her rival. Again one senses the fact that it is fun to hate the immigrant: it is fun to hate, much more enjoyable to hate than to consider. Emma is able to seduce the posse to hunt down Vienna because she can feed them on her diet of hate: as McIvers at one point discloses when men are hungry and wet, hate can both feed and heat them.

Seeing the film work on the level of immigration allows us one final interesting reflection I think about the film's characters. The final reflection is not about Emma but about Vienna and about Johnny Guitar. Both of these characters are ambivalent about the townspeople- and their ambivalence grows bitter as the film proceeds. Hate feeds on hate. They begin to desire the cultural transformation which will wipe away Emma, not merely because it will be good for them and theirs but because it will wipe away the old community. It is clear that this is the consequence of Emma's hate- but Ray's film is a realist one, immigrants to the old West were hard and tough individuals, meet them with hatred and the same coin is likely to be repaid. The same could be true of immigrants in general: when they are met by hate they are hated in return. A related point is that Ray's film shows the state to be utterly impotent before the power of the self righteous mob, he shows that the veils of democracy are never powerful enough to restrain prejudice. His marshall is impotent, evidence is influenced by Emma's wild anti-foreign imagination and deaths proceed without consequence. In the America that gave birth to the KKK and James Gang, that is unsurprising.

I do not think that Johnny Guitar has to be read in this way, but it is another way to add to the interpretations I noted above. Vienna's story can be interpreted in many different ways- but I think one of the points that Ray makes through his story is about the fragility of community faced with immigration and the way that so easily it can break down, with a Cleon to lead, the mob can rage without check and a legacy of bitterness and hatred bequeathed for the future.

November 05, 2009


One of the emblems of Rome was discipline. I think here it is worth understanding what discipline was: on the one hand it was the assertion of the authority of the state over its citizens, on the other the assertion of the authority of age over youth. The case of Titus Manlius illustrates both principles neatly. Titus commanded in his father's army sent out to battle the Latin forces, summoned in response to events discussed earlier. He rode close to the Latin camp as a scout and was accosted by Geminus Maecius. Insults flew and the outcome was that Manlius and Maecius fought a duel which Manlius won and took the body of Maecius back to his father, surrendering to the justice of the consul who had ordered the entire army not to engage before he had decided it should. His father's response is what interests me here though: the model up till now is familiar, a champion fights a champion for honour. His father's response carved out a niche which was to some extent Roman.

Manlius, the consul, told Manlius the son

You have respected neither consular authority nor your father's dignity; you have left your position to fight the enemy in defiance of my order and as far as was in your power, have subverted military discipline, on which the fortune of Rome has rested up to this day; you have made it neccessary for me to forget either the republic or myself. We would therefore be rather punished for our own wrong doing than allow our country to expiate our sins at so great a cost to itself; it is a harsh example we shall set, but a salutary one for the young men of the future. As far as my own feelings are concerned, they are stirred by a man's natural love for his children, as well as by the example you have given of your courage, even though this was marred by a false conception of glory. But since consular authority must either be confirmed by your death or annulled for ever by your going unpunished, I believe that you yourself, if you have any drop of my blood in you, would agree that the military discipline which you undermined by your error must be restored by your punishment. (Livy VIII 7)

Manlius the son was bound to a stake by lictors, and then executed as a common criminal.

The punishment, Livy tells us, caused a 'shudder' at the time (VIII 8) and there is no reason to suspect that the historian was not aware of its barbaric nature. But it is worth pausing over the consul's argument for it is an argument that reappears in Roman history and in Livy. The argument is basically founded upon a distinction between the public and the private. Manlius divides his personality in two: he acknowledges duties to his child as a private individual but tells us that his duties to the state as consul takes precedence. The second thing that is important here is the prominence that this gives hierarchy: the young aristocrat riding forth and challenging his enemy for honour's sake cannot be bound by hierarchy. Manlius the consul tells us that hierarchy is more important than a personal sense of honour. What we have here is a fusion of the state and the natural hierarchy of age, prudence and civil command. That must, according to Manlius the consul, be backed up even to extremis by actions- a father slaying his son- in other circumstances rightly deemed terrifying. The world may shudder but Manlius the consul operates with impeccable logic.

November 04, 2009

Signs of a Mature Blogging Market

Often whenever you write something critical of the modern British blogosphere, some half witted drone will pop up to ask you why you don't yourself correct the problem. Part of the reason why the current features of the British Blogosphere will endure though is because it is no longer easy just to take up your typewriter and write something different and get readers. I think that is highlighted by the complete lack of collegiality in blogging- people talk about the blogosphere being social and communitarian, it is not. Rather than ressembling a discussion group in which quiet and respectful conversation is the norm, it ressembles a pub in which a set of West Ham fans in one corner yell abuse at a set of Chelsea fans in the other. Importance in the Blogosphere can largely be measured by ability to get linked to by a major media source or by an established blogger- normally someone as with Iain Dale or Guido Fawkes who has ties and influence on the major media and the media has deformed what blogging is about, the concentration on the narrow story as opposed to the analytical piece.

One of the best things about the blogosphere when I got involved at the beggining was the carnival. Blog carnivals basically shift around several websites, and link to submitted articles on a set of topics- I've submitted articles to carnivals on Asia, sexual violence, history etc etc etc. I'm sure there are others. Apparantly over the last year, carnivals though have begun to die or rather have been dying at an increasing rate. There are reasons for that, but I think that it would be incredibly sad if they did die out: I haven't been involved recently in maintaining any as much as I should have been, but I do think its important that such things exist and continue to maintain a way for new voices to be heard and new blogs to appear. I've found several of the best articles and blogs I've read on the net, including one today, through reading through carnivals- and if that route of new material finding audiences dies, then I fear that the real barrier to entry in blogging which is the barrier of finding a significant audience (significant in the eyes of that blogger- anything from 3-3,000,000) will grow bigger.

November 03, 2009

Age and Democracy

Peter Burke in his book on the Renaissance argues that one of the differences between Florence and Venice lay in their attitude to age. Florentines became citizens at the age of 14 and young Florentines could easily take part in politics: Venetians became citizens at the age of 21 and did not become politically active until they had accumulated much more experience. Burke suggests that this may be one of the reasons why Venice, famously according to Machiavelli a republic for stability, was a much more cautious and conservative place than Florence. Burke's induction might be wrong but he is not the only person to try and tie age to political attitudes. George Monbiot suggested today in the Guardian that age may influence the way that people think about global warming: he argues that as global warming is really a threat to life and livelihood, that older people who are more concerned with death than the young (because they are closer to it) may attempt to resist the idea more.

I do not know quite frankly whether either idea is true: but leaving aside obvious questions like pensions and healthcare, the aging of a population must change the way that a population responds to risk and to decision making. One interesting thing for example is the predeliction for younger populations to choose older leaders, whereas as the proportion of the old increases in the west, the desire for youthful leaders (Clinton, Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron) has never been stronger. If you regard, as I do, government as a mechanism to take decisions the changing age profile of the population and of politicians must change the ways that those decisions are made. I don't know enough about the scholarship in this area: but I do think one of the fascinating dynamics of the next century will be that as in China, the US, Europe and eventually the rest of the world, the population becomes older, we may need new models for the ways that states behave.

November 01, 2009

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser deals with a true story. In 1828 in Nuremberg a seventeen year old boy was found in the middle of the town carrying a letter addressed to the local cavalry captain, who did not seem to have either a history or the rudiments of social knowledge. Werner Herzog's film presents the story as the boy later told it- he was kept in a dungeon and a mysterious benefactor came to feed and clothe him. This benefactor then for his own purposes escorted him through the streets of Nuremberg to where he stood when he was found. He became a ward of the city, staying first within a tower and later, as Herzog simplifying events tells us, with an educational Professor Daumer. Daumer taught Hauser how to read and write. Whilst at Daumer's Hauser was attacked mysteriously by an assailant he believed was the man who had tended him in his youth. Later on, Hauser was patronised by a British nobleman- the Earl of Stanhope- and then he was attacked again, this time fatally and died at the age of 21. The story has provoked many people for years to speculate who Hauser was: some including Stanhope believed that he was an imposter, others conceived that he was the inheritor to a European throne- normally that of Baden- and a wild child.

Herzog does not take a position on these wider debates. The film deals with what we know about Hauser- his period in the light of society so to speak. Herzog's interest is in the process of socialisation- the way that Hauser is introduced to religion, philosophy, science and logic and to other human beings. What Herzog tries to show is through the eyeview of a 'natural' human being how artificial several of our conceptions are. For example when Daumer tells Hauser that apples do not want to lie in the grass and have no agency, Hauser disagrees. In order to prove that he is wrong, Daumer suggests to the boy that apples cannot act and to demonstrate it picks one up and throws it at his friend's foot. The apple though bounces on the stone path and runs over the foot and Hauser tells Daumer that he is wrong because the apple jumped, the apple was wiser than Daumer. Obviously Hauser's interpretation is wrong but it is a natural alternative to our normal interpretation: the apple might be jumping and it might not be, we believe that it is not because we attribute its action to external agency, bouncing on the stones.

The example of the apple is important because Herzog shows this process of 'natural' versus conventional knowledge in other settings. So Hauser sits down with a logician and cuts the gordian knot of a logical paradox in a way that does not obey philosophical rules. In a similar way he cannot understand the concepts that the religious men of the town try and explain to him: that three Gods are somehow one God, that life exists after death etc. Hauser's naivity demonstrates that these things are not natural to us- they do not arise by light of nature but by convention and are created explanations for the world around us. What Herzog is showing us is that knowledge is a social convention: that does not mean that it is illegitimate- the apple is not jumping- but it does show us that it does not arise from our first anticipation of the world. We gather data and interpret it according to rules: Kaspar does not which is why his explanations do not fit into ours.

The response of the community to Kaspar's inability to know is the core of the film. The community responds in four distinct ways. Daumer attempts to educate Kaspar and laughs off the boy's conventional confusion. The philosopher reacts with fury to the boy. The priests attempt to persuade as though it is his moral duty to understand and at the end of the film, they assume for his own good that he is wrong and perform a funeral service over him. Lord Stanhope condescends, presenting Kaspar as a witty joke. We have here three distinct bad reactions (Daumer is presented sympathetically) and to some extent I think Herzog is making a sociological comment. The intellectuals are arrogant- hence the philosopher's fury. The religious tend to presume that they know other people's goods and think that their knowledge is appropriate for those who do not share their views. The inhabitants of society are only interested in laughing not in listening. I also think that the purpose of the film is didactic- these are not for Herzog productive ways of responding to people: and so he critiques them.

Kaspar Hauser becomes an analogy for Herzog of knowledge within society and the mystery within life. The last point is that none of these men- philosophers, Christians, wits or scientists- can provide Hauser with a working explanation for where he has come from or where he is going. Hauser's problem is though only our own writ mysteriously: for we do not know where consciousness comes from or is going to. All they seem to do in this film is tell Kaspar how to think, not listen to his story and try and understand it. In that sense- Herzog's last point seems to be- that we risk forcing our natures, our mysteries (including that of who we are and what consciousness is) into artificial patterns.