The Master (2012): Part I

Pax Americana

After the WWII ended in the victory for the Allies, America positioned itself as the leader of the ‘Free World’: it was supposedly the best time to be an American. Jazz was at its coolest, Elvis reigned the chart (sadly, not Chuck Berry, who is now belatedly credited for his contributions as the original rock ’n’ roller) and Hollywood was at its supposed peak. It was in the 1950s when the likes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper starred in the Western movies wherein America’s self-image was established: rouguish ‘good guys’ who came to the aid of innocents, defeated the evil and delivered justice by not following the rules in the wake of the WWII victory. This distinct image of American heroes caught the imagination of the post-WWII Geist in that we have seen the same narrative in virtually every WWII movie made by a Hollywood studio. Whilst America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ was achieved long ago, the decisive influence of the myth of the ‘Frontier’ and Turnerian vision of ‘true’ American Geist was still evident as America’s self-image further developed as it assumed the role of global leader who safeguard ‘freedom’ against the threat of ‘Communist conspiracies’. Americans found the image of free-wheeling cowboys fitting to the way they wanted to tell the story of Pax Americana: Americans were meant to be likeable heroes who defend the ‘freedom’ for all humanity. It is important to note the implications of this self-image of America as a self-proclaimed Messiah in the context of international relations: 1) Americans are ‘good guys’ by definition, and this is the ‘fact’ that makes American victory morally necessary; 2) Americans fight the war away from ‘home’, thereby keeping the civilians only indirectly involved; and 3) They would go as needed, blast enemies and leave as they please. And from then on, this is the way America would fight the war: by means of industrial and military superiority, Americans would go any part of the world to defeat the ‘evil’ as liberators and go home. It must be noted that this is an exceedingly cheerful concept of warfare based on a false assumption that a military conflict always ends in a clear and definite conclusion. Whilst the reality of war should have banished such a self-serving notion as a delusion, the hangover from the victory of the WWII has been difficult to cure, and there have been countless cases of unfounded assessments of a given conflict wherein the affected see themselves as the reincarnations of Winston Churchill or Dwight D. Eisenhower as if they live in their own parallel universes constructed with ‘alternative facts’.

Hence we must see the seminal importance of the era: the decade following the WWII was decisively impactful regarding the formation of American Geist. The 1950s was when America came of age and produced American icons that have since defined America’s self-image, thereby it has become the ‘Golden Age’ of the American Geist. In the wake of the victory against the Axis, Americans projected a sense of youthful optimism for the future in which Americans saw themselves as ‘heroes’. The heinous state-sanctioned war crimes committed by Japanese and Germans made it easy for Americans and its allies to create the narrative of good versus evil. Despite their role as liberators was specific to the context of the WWII, their self-image born out of the outcome of, not the process of, this global conflict was soon to be an integral part of their self-identification. To add to this flattering self-image, America’s economic expansion and its incontestable grip on global market helped its citizens to sweep everything under the bed and collectively fall into a dreamless slumber. Yet, despite the smothering stream of ‘bread and entertainment’ from the colonial cornucopia, all was not well. Notwithstanding the glitter and the sheen of Pax Americana, there was a growing angst within American Geist. Firstly, there was a real anxiety about the future: Americans were living with a growing unease about the threat of Communism represented by the Soviet Union and the Warszawa Pact. As Stalin sealed off the West Berlin and the standoff between the two political ideologies began, the world was aware of the possibility of another global war. Whilst the Britain and the USA did their best to prevent the Soviets from capturing German nuclear physicists, they knew that it was a matter of time for their new foes to join the arms race that could, and still can, end the world as we know it. Secondly, there was an acute angst from the past: many Americans silently suffered the reverberations from the war. Despite the result of the war has created the popular narrative of the 'greatest victory and glory' which dominated the WWII movies, this should not grant the willful oblivion of the actual process of the war: it was the deadliest in human history with an estimated total of 85 million lives lost, and the USA suffered over 40,000 casualties. Therefore it is astonishing to read very little about the WWII veterans’ mental health issues compared to those who served in Vietnam and the WWI. As the following testimony of the daughter of a WWII veteran attests, America chose to look only into future, not the past. Despite the horrific struggles of veterans and their families and associates, PTSD was not officially recognised as a problem until 1980 in the United States, and many veterans found themselves alienated at ‘home’ to which they so longed to return.

"My father was a functioning alcoholic," says Schultz's daughter, Carol Schultz Vento. "It was self-medicating, really." The dominant narrative at this time was relentlessly upbeat, she says. The heroes of World War Two were now building a prosperous post-war society. People who remarked upon the large numbers of marriages in the immediate post-war period tended not to mention the record number of divorces. The fact that veterans' hospitals were full of men with serious mental health problems went undiscussed. The movies of the 50s and 60s did not depict the reality of war. "People did not want to know what it was like," her father told her. Unlike some troubled veterans, Dutch Schultz was never violent and didn't fly into rages. When he was drunk, he was "either goofy or crying", Carol says. But his nightmares continued for the rest of his life. Carol's mother described routinely waking up to find not only the sheets but also the mattress soaked in sweat. After they divorced, Schultz called Carol one night, sobbing down the phone line. His new wife had tried to slit her wrists in the bath and Schultz said he now wanted to kill himself. He had been a terrible father, he said; Carol told him this wasn't true. Years later she learned that he had been holding a gun to his head as they spoke. After this Schultz went into rehab and built a career running anti-alcohol and anti-addiction programmes. He fought continuously to persuade the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognise and treat the psychological wounds he had brought back from the war, winning this battle only at the age of 80 - two years before he died. (A testimony given to the BBC by Carol Schultz Vento)

Whilst the struggles of the WWII veterans and their associates need to be respected and studied further, to have a picture of a society in crisis, we need to turn to an aesthetic representation of a Zeitgeist in a form of an iconic personality who embodies it, because: 1) whilst the stories of individuals who experienced traumas first hand are essential to understand the nature of their sufferings, due to their anecdotal nature, such stories themselves cannot give us a picture that represents the Zeitgeist itself; 2) despite the indispensable role of scientific research in analysing the traumas and assisting those who suffer them, no amount of scientific papers cannot give us a ‘soul’, that is, a character who can give us a crystallised expression of the symptoms suffered by an entire Form of Life; and 3) since a human society requires a symbol to represent its respective Geist in order to create and maintain its coherence, if we wish to gain a clear view on a given Form of Life, it is necessary to curve out an icon that aptly represents the Geist in question in order for us to perform an accessible diagnostics of the falsities, contradictions and paradoxes possibly existing within it. This is precisely what Jim Jarmusch has done with Dead Man in which the Myth of Frontier was comprehensively demolished by the creation of Cole Wilson, a cannibal bounty hunter who took over the place of John Wayne and Gary Cooper as their Doppelgänger. And through the eyes of Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), we saw the true picture of Manifest Destiny: once the colonial conquest was completed, America’s Promised Land turned out to be a Waste Land. Drunk and confused, Plainview gradually came to realise that there is nothing to live for in this destination. Having fought his entire life to reach this shore, the disappointment of his was acute. The resulting self-hatred was projected onto anyone who crossed Plainview’s path, and he came to hold the entire world in vicious contempt. Therefore, in Plainview, P. T. Anderson was able to represent the malady of Industrial Materialism in a specifically American context. To continue the study of American Geist, what we need at this point of inquiry is: a representative character who embodies the forgotten suffering of America’s ‘Greatest Generation’. Thanks to P. T. Anderson’s insightful work, we do have our character ready: the American’s follow-up, The Master, gives us a perfect representation of the Geist of this generation in a form of Freddie Quell. After a long period of neglect, the story of this WWII veteran breaks the silence about the suffering of the veterans at ‘home’. And what a homecoming it is: Joaquin Phoenix’s fearsome performance shutters any possible delusion regarding the nature and the cost of the war that turned America into a global ‘superpower’.

Lost Souls

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). In the first scene, Freddie is on a remote Pacific Island with his shipmates. He climbs on a palm tree, harvests a fruit and cuts it in half to devour the flesh. The moment he appears on the screen, the sense of unease begins to creep. He sits apart from the rest of the crew who appear to enjoy the beautiful environment: the sun is shining, waves are gentle and water is crystal blue; they play on the beach, carefree as if they were on holiday. When the lads sculpt a crude figure of a naked woman with sand, Freddie suddenly places himself on top of it, and begins to initiate an intercourse. The crowd reacts to his antic with a mixture of amazement and disbelief. Then things get really bizarre when Freddie goes to water and begins to ejaculate in public. At this point it becomes clear: he has problems; we just don’t know what they are. In the next scene, he is seen on board a US warship: he cuts a stark figure and projects a strong sense of unease and disquiet. Yet it is impossible to pin down what makes him so different from others on board: he is seen draining ethanol from a torpedo to concoct his moonshine, yet the rest of his shipmates are just as drunk as he. In fact, Freddie checks every box of the list of typical characteristics of military recruits: drunk, horny and absolutely bored with life. Yet none has exhibited such an intensity and disquietude as Freddie does: there is something deeply unsettling about him, and this quality of his proves disturbingly captivating. When the war ends in the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan, Freddie is discharged from the US Navy which conducts psychological evaluation of its veterans to assess the risks of their return to civil society. During the interview, the extent of Freddie’s trauma from the war begins to emerge: he has experienced frequent outbursts, crying bouts and once threatened an officer with a knife. The evaluation ends in failure due to Freddie’s stubborn refusal to cooperate: like many war veterans, he digs in his heels and denies the very existence of psychological trauma. Yet it must be obvious to all: Freddie is going to have serious problems and things are going to get very difficult for him.

Notwithstanding our concerns, he seems at first unexpectedly well-adjusted. He becomes a portrait photographer for a luxury retail store. Dashing and engaging, he wastes no time in getting his first date with an in-store model for a clothing brand. Yet, the sense of relief is agonisingly short-lived. Freddie’s date goes nowhere as he falls into a stupor at the dinner table. Unsettled, Freddie is involved with a violent altercation with his client shortly afterword. For no apparent reason, Freddie decides to set the lighting equipments uncomfortably close to the client’s face despite the protest that the heat generated by lights is too great to endure. As Freddie continues to torture him, the clients has had enough and pushes Freddie back. Soon they engage in a violent confrontation, chasing one another in the store, and Freddie begins throwing glasswares at the man. Eventually Freddie storms out the premise with his distressed ’girlfriend’. So it begins Freddie’s life as a post-war drifter: it is clear by now that he has no home to return. In the next scene, Freddie is seen working as a farm hand. After work, he serves his moonshine to his fellow workers. When he notes that one of the older men reminds him of his father, he generously serves him an extra drink. Later that night, the old man suffers alcohol poisoning and dies. The workers accuse Freddie of intentionally poisoning the man, and the fury erupts amongst them. Freddie escapes his pursuers on foot, running across the field into the distance. Freddie survives this incident and finds himself in San Francisco wherein he randomly comes across a cruise ship upon which a lavish social gathering is taking place: in a blink of an eye, he slips onto the deck and disappears. It turns out that the ship belongs to the organisation called the Cause, which is founded and headed by a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd claims that he is many things: a scientist, an experimental philosopher, a doctor among other things. Dodd takes an immediate liking of Freddie and his moonshine, and invites him to stay on board in exchange of the supply of Freddie’s special concoction.

This is an extraordinary development: Freddie Quell conceived by Paul Thomas Anderson and superbly embodied by Joaquin Phoenix is redefining a quintessential American hero as we watch: like Jarmusch’s cannibal bounty hunter and Day Lewis’ life-loathing California oil baron, Freddie serves as an invaluable counterpoint against America’s self-image, that is, a free wheeling ‘good guy’ who roams as free as a wind with his beloved gun and a sweet ride. Freddie Quell singlehandedly shatters this very narcissistic American icon perfected in the wake of the WWII: a ‘war-hero’ of the ‘Greatest Generation’ turns out to be a traumatised alcoholic drifter with an erratically violent disposition. He is a lost soul and barely holding onto what is left of his humanity. As quoted earlier in this article, Freddie’s behavioural problem is consistent with the conditions suffered by the WWII veterans. Like many from his generation, Freddie finds it hard to be ‘at home’: America has just won the ‘just war’ and is elated with the optimism for its future. No one wants to hear about the human cost of ‘greatness’ and the suffering of those who helped the cause. The general public are only interested in the pursuit of ‘happiness’ by means of attaining the picture-perfect American dream: a house with a green loan, a car that fits the whole family, a yard for kids and dogs, a good job, a beautiful wife and a relaxing weekend with beer and some sport on TV. American heroes are supposed to have their lives easy until the next war against the evil. They are supposed to have a slightest of worries if another conflict arises: after all, ‘good guys’ always win as a rule. Sadly, like many WWII veterans, Freddie finds the taste of the great victory bitter: they are systematically alienated from the very Form of Life to which they served. Whilst the military has been aware of the psychological problems suffered by the veterans, it prefers to be laconic about the negative effect of war, fearing that the public recognition of the veterans’ problems might create some unwelcome challenge for its agenda: the support for war effort may wane and funding could be diminished as a result. Besides, once again, no one is really interested in being reminded of the human cost of one’s life style. The general public choses to keep the skeletons in the closet and continue to enjoy themselves.

Whilst this may be so, there is no denying that Freddie is an odd one out: no one should be surprised if the veterans of war, any war, insist that they are nothing like Freddie, and I have every reason to believe them. That being acknowledged, we must also note that the peculiarity of Freddie as a character does not prevent him from representing America’s ‘Greatest Generation’. If one focus not on Freddie's individual pecuriality but on the Zeitgeist he represents, one must admit that Freddie Quell is the most realistic character about this revered generation: until The Master, no one attempted to show us the human cost of the storied victory in the specifically American context which has been overwhelmingly focused on the result of, not the process and/or the effect of, the war. What is at stake here is: challenging the self-image of America which has been detrimental to the health of American Form of Life. This is of critical importance: when a Form of Life self-destructs, it is often that the members of the given society are collectively blindsided by their unrealistic expectation of themselves. In fact, Americans benefited from this phenomenon during the WWII: both Japanese and Germans made numerous strategical and tactical errors partly due to their impossible self-expectations. Operation Barbarossa ended in a catastrophic failure due to the German High Command’s unreal expectation to destroy the USSR by the end of the summer of 1941: after the Battle of Moscow, German advance stalled, and the invaders were greeted by the hard winter without adequate equipments to survive the cold. The Soviet Winter Counteroffensive followed and delivered the decisive blow to the German military, thereby effectively determined the outcome of the war. As for Japanese, the over-ambitious attempt to conquer mainland China overextended Japanese war effort before entering the war against the USA, and the Kamikaze, that is, mystical ‘God’s Wind’ that supposed to stop American advance over the sea was never going to come. Despite the relentless waves of suicide attacks named after the mystical meteorological phenomenon recorded in the medieval Japan left fearsome impressions upon the opponents, Japan’s defeat was a foregone conclusion. Their respective self-images of being invincible warriors who were 'destined' to subjugate the world at their feet successfully galvanised their military and intensified the public support of war in Imperial Japan and the Third Reich, yet no amount of self-belief cannot change the fact: a war cannot be won by propaganda. By conflating fantasies with the objective state of affairs, both countries inflicted and suffered horrific pains, senseless violence and unnecessary deaths of an unimaginable magnitude. And, despite Freddie’s peculiarities, he emerges as a representative character of the era by giving us the most realistic picture of the world according to a WWII veteran: he effectively subverts the popular myth born out of the famous victory of the WWII and deconstruct the conventional icon of an ‘American hero’ by illuminating the true human cost of the war that made America ‘great’. In succeeding this, Freddie transforms the popular perception of the period and, by extension, America’s self-image.

Borrowed Time

Whilst Freddie Quell illuminates American Geist like no other, the most striking aspect of this drifter is: self-medication as the coping mechanism. Freddie, like his countless peers, is dependent on alcohol to suppress the pains and the angsts. Alcohol consumption is a widely practiced method of coping with all sorts of challenges posed by life, and thus, it is particularly dangerous due to the ease of access as well as the strong social incentive to consume alcohol in peace and at war. As I intend to return to this point later in this article, it is useful at this juncture not to focus on a particular method of self-medication: it is more important to focus on the self-medication as a praxis, especially in military which regards the use of powerful synthetic drugs as an indispensable tactical device. As noted here, military, regardless of nationality, has a long history of substance use and abuse due to the high-stress nature of its functions. Yet, given the advancement in chemistry, the sophistication in the manufacturing process and improved efficiency in the supply chain, synthetic drugs have become indispensable arsenals for military. The substances are divided into two categories: stimulants and depressants. The former is used to increase alertness, reduce the sensitivity to pain, fatigue, and other physical discomfort. It is also used to promote indifference toward one’s safety. During the WWII, the use of amphetamine and meta-amphetamine at front lines was common, and military distributed amphetamine/meta-amphetamine to their troops in quantities. Wehrmacht provided an ample supply of Pervitin, an extremely potent meta-amphetamine widely used by general public before the war, to their troops, and the US Navy supplied amphetamine to its pilots in order to increase their alertness and fight off physical and mental exhaustion. The pilots were told to visit a medic to get the supply of ‘Go-Pill’ (stimulant, a variation of amphetamine) before the mission, and ‘No-Go-Pill’ (a form of depressant) after the return for quick recovery. Whilst the Pentagon maintains that it has been always up to service members’ decision to ‘seek help’, according to testimonies, it was also clear that the use of these pills are considered necessary, and refusing them would result in ‘grounding’, a career ending treatment for a pilot. In fact, a certain US Air Force doctor, himself a pilot, considers these synthetic drug as an integral part of a military operation: according to him, the use of drugs in military is a ‘matter of life and death’, the notion usually reserved for high-quality military equipments and high-value intelligence.

The willingness to justify means by end is consistent with the Geist of Industrial Materialism: the difference is that, with the advent of medical science, humankind has become alienated from its own physical existence: Body has ceased to be a part of ‘self’ and thus has been treated as mere means to an end. As a result, we see our own bodies as a mere vehicle to realise our desired ends. Whilst this particular concept of Body has been helpful regarding the advancement of medicine and science, this attitude toward human body has had some extremely negative consequences. This is the case regarding miliraty: in military, its end is always achieving a certain tactical or strategic objective, not safeguarding the well-being of the combatant. Therefore, each and every personnel is an instrument for achieving an end, and combatant’s body becomes a part of the war-machine. Whilst this way of understanding the place and the function of service members is aligned with the function of military, it is also the case that industrial military complex has been practicing instrumentalism with a morally questionable level of ruthlessness. A pilot’s physical/mental limit, for example, has been regarded as the performance cap of a combat aircraft, and thus such human limitation must be overcome to maximise the tactical effectiveness of a machine in question. Enters amphetamine: the use of extremely potent stimulant should remove some of the performance restrictions imposed by the human operators, and military has seen some success with it; the drug has been keeping frontline soldiers fighting longer and harder. That being acknowledged, as we have seen above, the use of powerful synthetic drugs takes a toll despite the denial by military. The deterioration of combat effectiveness and the loss of lives as the result of the systematic and routine use of such drugs have been reported. Whilst the use of such chemicals increases alertness and combat effectiveness, and thus it may result in saving lives of service members in short term, long-term effects on combatants must be also seriously considered: addiction and numerous side effects are obvious concerns, as well as the impact on a wider society when combatants return ‘home’. Yet, as noted above, military has been focusing on short-term benefits of drugs, and it has been systematically enforcing their applications. The institutionalised use of synthetic substances as a tactical device means one thing: service members have been not only trained in combat; they have been systematically made dependent on some form of medication as the prime coping mechanism. Whilst these substances become largely inaccessible once they are discharged, the habit instilled during the service naturally persists. And, as we all know, the perceived benefit of self-medication is temporary: the relief from the pain lasts only a brief period, and, as one repeats its use, the experience of a solace soon becomes absent altogether.

It must be obvious to those who may concern that such dependency will bring devastating effects not only upon the service members themselves, but also upon the society to which they may return. As it is evident from the testimony of Carol Schultz Vento, substance abuse devastates the lives of the veterans and their families. Some suggests that a person’s trauma may be inherited by her/their/his descendants for generations. Therefore it must be clear by now: to know that they have been prepared to become addicts by the very institution whose reason d’être is the safeguarding of the society is to identify yet another contradiction existing within the Geist of modernity. It is, as it were, one attempts to defeat the enemy by becoming the worst enemy of oneself. This point draws a parallel to the way in which the WWII was won: it was only possible by an uneasy alliance against the Axis signed by FDR, Churchill and Stalin. And this alliance was indeed short-lived: before the celebration of the victory, the world was already preparing for another global conflict. Hence the glitter and the sheen of newly established Pax Americana were there to conceal the angst and the paranoia which haunted America’s ’Greatest Generation’. There was a new threat of Communism, especially that of the Soviet Union, which challenged American hegemony both ideologically and geopolitically. The paranoia amongst Americans over the threat of Communism manifested in a multifaceted way: Whilst 1940s and 1950s are celebrated as the Classical Era of Hollywood, there was also a steady stream of propaganda films based on paranoid conspiracy theories. Whilst the collective hysteria manifested as the ‘Red Purge’ has been well documented, and the possibility of total nuclear warfare was quite real, the likes of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) give us the glimpse of the fear of the Other which had become a hyperbolic and dominant ‘reality’ for Americans. Whilst it is not clear how much of this symptom was the result of the fear from the past of or for the future, and whether there is any causal link between the substance abuse by the public and the collective hysteria in response to the perceived threat of the Other, the trip to the dark side of post-WWII American Geist reveals an interesting fact: Americans grossly misconstrued the nature of the darkness that haunted their Form of Life; they must have feared themselves, not the Other, for the malicious aliens were already amongst them. Not only they lived amongst Americans; they had become the prominent figures in American society. Once we study the way in which the WWII ‘ended’, it becomes abundantly clear: the seed of darkness was already planted well ahead of the storied victory.

Americans took a committed move that irreversibly corrupted American Geist at the closing stage of the WWII. In response to the Soviet Union’s Operation Osoaviakhim by which some 2,000 German specialists were forcibly recruited, Truman approved the Operation Paperclip to recruit German experts. As the result, Americans recruited 1,600 German scientists, engineers and technicians. The problem was: many of these Germans were former members of the Nazi party, and some held leading positions in the party or even within the SS. The most significant personality in this regard is Wernher von Braun. He was the man behind the ‘giant step for mankind’, the star rocket scientist for the NASA whose Apollo program successfully sent American astronauts to the Moon. Yet he was also the creator of the feared V1 and V2 rockets, the first operational Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles launched at the Britain by the Third Reich. He was also the member of the SS, and held the rank of Major by the end of the war. Despite his record, von Braun was allowed to lead America’s ‘Space Race’ against the Soviets and the development of the ballistic missiles, including Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile program for the US Army. In short: the shining representation of America’s exceptional status was made possible by von Braun and other Nazi rocket scientists whose contributions proved indispensable. Therefore, the fairytale story of the space as the New Frontier and the great victory of so-called Big Science were only made possible by the very people who provided the means of mass destruction to the regime which engineered the most systematic genocide in human history. To commit to such a move after knowing everything the Nazi regime carried out is staggering in and of itself. Whilst the decision was no doubt made under the duress, it stinks of a tremendous hypocrisy: instead of developing their own based on the seized materials and the intelligence, Americans had given the absolution to the Nazi scientists and allowed them to play the mastermind of many future projects for the rest of their lives. Yet, the fact remains: Americans wanted the fastest track to a certain end, and they were ready to make a deal with the persons of dubious war-time records. This willingness to ruthlessly put the desired results above all else have been also observed in the substance use and abuse amongst military personnels. And this problem in return is symptomatic of Industrial Materialism: once one regards one’s own body as a means to an end, this abstract concept of our ‘essence’ as a mental entity detached from the physical one leads to a view according to which a body is a vehicle to be mede to work in order to fulfil the command, the objectives, and the desire of a mind, a demonstrably false view which is nothing short of a modern industrial iteration of Platonism. As anyone who suffered some form of substance abuse knows, implementing such an abstraction in life means that one is only living on borrowed time. Therefore, one must shudder for the prospect of an entire Form of Life which regards the systematic use of synthetic drugs as a tactical necessity: when the credit runs out, there is no one to bail out the American public.

Home Sweet Home

Whilst these modern synthetic drugs have been problematic, and thus its systematic use must prompt us to question the very nature of modern military itself, we cannot overlook one category of recreational drug whose unmatched social acceptance and availability makes it particularly dangerous: alcohol. Given the universal use of alcohol throughout the human history in all shapes and forms, alcohol abuse amongst active service members and veterans appears inevitable: when the use of a given substance is not only accepted but encouraged in a society from which they come and to which they may return, it is a foregone conclusion that those who bear the blunt of unspeakable experience would heavily rely on some form of self-medication to avoid facing the pains from the ‘past’. The use of alcohol is so prevalent in most societies in that many do not even consider it a recreational drug: whilst it is less available than caffeine, alcohol is nonetheless a part of most Forms of Life, and thus the general public won’t even take a moment to consider its effect on themselves and those who interact with them.

At this point, one might recall the famous one-liner from one of the most celebrated drug-addicts, William S. Burroughs: so long as human existence is found painful, there is a need to escape Weltschmertz; and so long as there is a need to ‘control’ the pains, there will be some means to meet this end. Whilst his remark touches on one aspect of the human condition, it is important to note what the American author did not say: whilst substance abuse may temporarily allow someone to escape from the pains, it also creates painful experiences for those who are related to her/them/him, thereby increases the net total of pains and miseries in the world, and the pains they helped to spread will eventually come back to haunt her/them/him. This points to an inherent and unresolvable contradiction: the means to escape from the pains of the human existence in fact increases the very pains from which one desperately seeks to escape, that is, the human condition to which we all are bound. Burroughs must have known this fact quite well. The American author accidentally murdered his wife, Joan Vollmer; he was estranged from his two children; and Billy, his son, died of internal haemorrhage caused by his lifelong alcoholism at the tender age of 33. And it is very difficult to deny that all of these tragedies were the direct consequences of his addiction. Substance abuse to ease the pain of human existence is thus a representative case of a supposed remedy being worse than the disease, hence one must reject altogether the non-sensical notion of self-medication as a ‘cure’: like all manners of schemes that promise an instant gratification, it solves no problem; it irreparably exacerbates it.

That being the case, we must also acknowledge the fact that the addiction is often inherited, rather than the result of a deliberate choice. There are two kinds of inheritance: family inheritance and societal one. Firstly, the case of family inheritance is alarmingly commonplace: it is well-established that children of addicts also develop their own habit of substance abuse. As recent studies demonstrate the vital importance of parents’ emotional availability to children, it is not difficult to see the devastating effect of absent parental figures in their lives: the parents struggling with substance abuse may be physically ‘present’, yet they are really not there at all. Since children tend to over-identify themselves with their parental figures, not only such an emotional unavailability damaging to their cognitive development, they are likely to follow their parental figures' steps to escape the pains caused by the lack of care. This case is well-demonstrated by the tragic existence of William Burroughs Jr: all evidence suggests that Billy spent his life trying to compensate for the absence of his father. Like his father, he became a Beat writer and an addict, yet the recklessness with which he abused various substances, including alcohol, speaks volumes regarding his trauma. Secondly, we also inherit the habits of substance use/abuse as the members of a society if the use and abuse of certain substances are widely accepted. This point is acute when it comes to the social cost of alcoholism: in many cultures, alcohol consumption is closely connected to masculinity and thus there is a strong peer pressure to drink in social settings. Alcohol consumption is also perceived as effective means to promote bonding amongst peers and a family, and thus it plays a significant part of sociality in many societies. Therefore it is not all together surprising to see that many of us are exposed to the threat of alcoholism both from our family members and the society to which we think we belong: we may inherit alcoholism both as a Form of Life as well as the first trauma of neglect by our parental figures.

This point is particularly relevant to our present inquiry, for we need to see beyond the trauma of war to identify the cause of the need to escape from American From of Life. In short, we need to identify the root cause of addiction, not merely immediate causes. In this regard, it is a pleasure to note that Anderson has seen further than his peers: America represented by Freddie Quell did not begin its descent at war: it had already begun in peace. As he confessed to Lancaster Dodd, he has been alcoholic prior to the enlistment to the Navy. His father was a violent alcoholic and so is he. Having been intoxicated, he engaged with his aunt incestuous sex on multiple occasions. Whilst we know very little of his life before the war, it is clear that Freddie has always been a drifter, a lost soul. The reason for this phenomenon has been already demonstrated in There Will Be Blood: the nihilism inherent in the very notion of America’s Manifest Destiny. The reality of America’s Promised Land instilled a bitter nihilism in American Geist which is represented by Daniel Plainview, the man with a vicious contempt for humanity. There was nothing to live for in this ‘Promised Land’, yet, true to the Turnerian spirit of the Frontier, Plainview simply would not die and refused to loosen his clutch upon the world he loathes so bitterly. Freddie Quell, an alcoholic drifter with an erratically violent disposition, is born in the wake of this California oil baron: it is the industrial-materialist America, the destiny manifested in the eyes of Plainview, wherein Freddie came of age. Yet, unlike Plainview, he has no plan, no ambition, no aspiration. Whilst many are too intoxicated to have such a maniacal drive for success, others have also foreseen the hollowness of the American Dream, as Lou Reed sings:

Men of good fortune often cause empires to fall. While men of poor beginnings often can't do anything at all.

The rich son waits for his father to die. The poor just drink and cry.

And me, I just don't care at all

(Lou Reed, ‘Men of Good Fortune’)

Freddie is a product of American Form of Life in which the lack of meaningfulness has driven him and his contemporaries to temporary means of escape: sex, drinking and drugs to name a few. In this skeleton Form of Life, le jois de vivre has been reduced to a series of neurological stimulations, and thus we have effectively placed ourselves in a position of lab mice who incessantly push a switch to trigger a pleasure response. That being acknowledged, one must note an important detail: Freddie, unlike Plainview, is not from the Frontier. He hails from Lynn, Massachusetts, which, according to Turner, represents the antithesis of American Frontier: for Turner, New England was the sphere of the East Coast establishment which upholds Anglo-European Form of Life, as allegedly opposed to a distinctly American one forged by the bloody deeds of colonial expansion to realise the Manifest Destiny. Yet, Freddie manages to shadow and deconstruct the quintessential American heroes iconised by the likes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper: the archetype of American Geist is now represented by an alcoholic drifter with an erratically violent disposition. Then, we owe ourselves to ask: How a dysfunctional alcoholic from Massachusetts has managed to fit the Turnerian concept of an 'authentic American' even before the war began?

The answer is surprisingly simple: it is the maturity of ad hoc Industrial Materialism, a unique ideological variant surviving in America, has allowed the emergence of a Turnerian character such as Freddie in every part of the United States. Before examining what made it possible to have bred a Freddie Quell in New England, it is useful to spare some time to touch on the ad hoc nature of Industrial Materialism in America. American Industrial Materialism took a unique course of development: due to the public misconception of ‘being democratic’, Americans adopted ad hoc Industrial Materialism and left other elements of its Form of Life unexamined. For example, philosophically, the metaphysics of Industrial Materialism is at odds with religious beliefs, yet they have been compartmentalised due to Americans’ infinite tolerance of incoherentness; American public has consistently disrespected the need to test the rational justifiability of their beliefs. Having shamelessly glorified anti-intellectualism and self-entitled ignorance as defining components of national identity, Americans reject the need for the cohesiveness and consistency in their belief systems: they simply appeal for support of their positions to the notions such as: faith; identity; tradition; integrity; and/or masculinity. In face of contradictions in their belief systems, their likely response is: I am sticking to my gun because it’s a land of the free. This particularly self-entitled mode of irrationality entrenches American Contradictions in its Form of Life, thereby, ironically, accidentally imposes a unique American characteristics to its Geist. Whilst the rest of the world has attempted to establish and maintain some degree of cohesiveness in respective Forms of Life, Americans simply have chosen to overlook numerous inconsistencies in theirs: for once, they are industrially materialistic yet they claim a moral high-ground and/or spiritual superiority as their innate qualities. Yet, as we have seen in There Will Be Blood, Americans have been obsessed with one thing and one thing only: domination. And this singular goal can be only either bought or strong armed, hence they worship profit margins and sophisticated weapons.

Notwithstanding the callous characteristics which Turner would surely approve, Americans have allowed to see themselves as ‘good guys’ due to the storied victory of the WWII. Americans conveniently ignore the fact that their cherished status as the liberator against the evil from the WWII victory is bound to the specific historic contingencies, and thus they have been struggling in vain to repeat the glory of their ‘Greatest Generation’: as in the Britain, there have been numerous wanna-be Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower in the United States. Yet this flattering self-image betrays reality: they are not the ‘good guys’ who roams free and defeat evil as needed; they are traumatised alcoholic drifters with erratically violent dispositions. This is the picture of a realistic American from the ‘Frontier’, someone who arrived at America’s Manifest Destiny. Yet, the fact that these characteristics are represented by an alcoholic drifter from a broken home in New England means: the Turnerian character has somehow taken over from coast to coast. This is not due to mere academic acceptance of Turner’s Frontier Thesis: it is rather the result of the brutal takeover of Industrial Materialism in capitalist America. In the pursuit of ‘happiness’, America has turned itself into a town of Machine (Dead Man), a harsh dead-end wherein everyone but the owner of capital is regarded as mere means, a disposable entity who is employed to achieve the ceaseless production of commodities to increase the capital. Yet the sense of disappointment in the Promised Land cannot be escaped by the accumulation of wealth and power; as we have seen in There Will Be Blood, neither Daniel Plainview nor Eli Sunday had joy in this destination. Whilst these extraordinary characters represented the ruthlessness at the top, the rest of the society has been escaping the pain and the hollowness of their existence by means of self-medication, the method which is consistent with the ethos of Industrial Materialism: we are alienated from our own bodies now by treating them as mere means to an end. Thus, The Master, wherein masculinity, alcoholism, violence, and family dysfunctions come together, points to one fact: America is not the land of the ‘free’; it is an empire of lost souls.

An Empire of Senselessness

Whilst Anderson’s work on the development and the predicament of American Geist has been invaluable, and There Will Be Blood ranks amongst the best in his filmography, with The Master, he brings out another dimension in the picture of disillusioned dysfunction of American Form of Life: a religion. Whilst the false prophet in the Frontier met his violent end by the hand of his nemesis in the form of a self-loathing California oil baron, the writer-director explores the darkest corners of American Geist through the trajectory of Lancaster Dodd. The difference between Eli and Lancaster is significant: whilst Eli was a cynical non-believer, Lancaster began his journey as a true believer of himself. Thus, in the next essay, I shall analyse the full extent of this subject.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

First Deeds

The United States of America, the first ‘democratic republic’, is founded upon a myriad of mistrusts, confusions and contradictions as the circumstances regarding its process of independence from the Britan forced an uneasy alliance of groups with conflicting interests and ideas. Yet, as we have examined through the three-part analysis of Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece, Dead Man, despite the seemingly unresolvable social fragmentation and the resulting cultural, political and social paralysis, there is one thing upon which Americans and non-Americans can agree: America is the land of the ‘free’. Yet, as is often the case, the precise meaning of the word is not self-evident. And the meaning of this particular concept is fraught with a myriad of confusions in this specific Form of Life. And the problem regarding the notion of ‘freedom’ is not a recent phenomenon: it was there at the very beginning.

According to the story, the ‘first’ colonial settlers were English Calvinist who left the initial settlement in Nederland to the British colony in order to preserve their English character of the community. They left England to Nederland in order to safeguard their religious beliefs, yet they came to fear the fast assimilation to the Dutch society and left to the ‘New World’ to preserve their identity. Therefore, the ‘American’ notion of ‘freedom’ understood by the settlers belonging to an English Calvinist cult simply meant: ‘religious freedom’. As I have argued in the second article on Dead Man (in ‘Secularism and Religion’ from ‘American Contradictions’), if this notion is pushed to the extreme, its logical incompatibility with the civil democratic principle, that is, the mutual respect for the rights of fellow citizens and the individual right for freedom within the bound of this respect, becomes glaringly evident: it has been observed, both domestically and globally, fatal to the integrity of a given society. To be succinct, the problem of taking religious ‘freedom’ to its extreme is two-fold: 1) if one takes one’s religious dogma as an absolute notion, then it cannot tolerate differing point of views, hence it could pose an existential threat to others; and 2) if one takes the notion of ‘divine law’ uncritically, one must insist on one’s religious doctrine superseding the civil law and order, thereby posing a potentially existential threat to the very society to which one belongs. Whilst the conflict between religious beliefs and the principle of a civil democratic society has been a major problem, it is not the only confusion Americans suffer. There is another layer of contradiction which is just as destructive.

When the colony split from the British Empire, the newly established ‘republic’ was founded upon a precarious alliance which was plagued by a profound mutual mistrust despite its lofty self-image as the land of the ‘free’ for ‘all humanity’. In fact their ‘union’ was the result of a forced alliance which was favoured based on short-term calculations rather than a common political vision. As we all must know, the ones who brokered this ‘union’ of a motley crew were the Founding Fathers. For them, despite the mutual contempt and conflicting ambitions, there was one thing they could agree upon: the new republic stood for ‘freedom’. Yet, as the feuds between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans demonstrated, they never managed to create a consensus amongst themselves regarding the very meaning of the word. For example: Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist who regarded slavery incompatible with the founding principle of the future nation, yet the likes of Jefferson defended it. Hence it is easy to see that their feud over the fundamental principle upon which the ‘republic’ would be built has been impactful: many of the unresolved political divisions we grapple today were already manifested in their bitter conflict. Whilst Federalists, especially Alexander Hamilton, represented the interests of the coastal urban establishment such as city financiers and argued for the increased power of the executive branch of the federal government for the sake of establishing social coherence and national order out of the chaos in the wake of the war against the Britain, Democratic-Republicans stood for the interests of rural agrarians who favoured increased independence of states and thus fought for the concept of ‘small government’. Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson eventually outmanoeuvred Federalists due to the mastery of party politics and manipulation of public opinions, and finally won the presidency in 1800. Whilst his political agendas such as ‘Manifest Destiny’ and small government since dominated the political imagination of the ‘republic’, this is not to say that the fight was over: the bitter opposition from the days of Hamilton and Jefferson is still continued in the political arena as we speak: urban versus rural, the Coasts versus the Heartland and/or the South, federal policies versus states’ independence, Wall Street versus ‘Main’ street, popular vote versus electoral vote, and the list goes on. Yet, the most notable implication of their bitter struggle and Jefferson’s populist victory is observed in the manner in which America’s self-image has been defined: it had become decisively rural, anti-federal and colonialist.

Since this vision was pushed by agrarians (in this particular context, it means: slave owning white plantation owners) who rushed the westward expansion to gain living-space for more colonists, the notion of ‘freedom’ in America also gained a very specific characteristic which shaped the Geist of colonised territories called the ‘Frontier’. This brand of ‘freedom’ was hostile to any form of a coherent social order and championed: anti-social individualism; ad hoc governance; and violent justice. As I have argued in the second article on Dead Man (in the part titled ‘American Contradictions’), this particular notion of freedom is a contradiction based on a cateogry mistake: it is antithetical to the very notion of civil society whose prerequisite condition for its existence is the mutually respectful observation of one another’s rights amongst its citizens: and, importantly, without a firm establishment of civil social order, a sovereign territory cannot be a proper republic. Contrary to the popular American belief, thus, being ‘free’ does not mean: one has a right to do ‘whatever I want’. To begin with, one’s ‘right’ is a political concept reliant on the idea of social contract, therefore it is fundamentally different from the metaphysical concept of ‘free will’. In short, the concept of ‘rights’ defines what we are allowed to do within the bounds of norms and laws, which are in turn subjects for possible revisions. Yet the misinterpretation of ‘freedom’ based on the conflation of ‘rights’ and ‘free will’ has come to define what it means to be an ‘American’ due to the widespread acceptance of Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis’, which erroneously claimed to ‘explain’ what an American ‘is’, when, in fact, he selected a particular version of American Form of Life as an ‘ought’, that is, the ideal which Turner strongly preferred. Unfortunately, Turner’s thesis found a perfect propaganda in Western movies wherein gun-slinging nomadic outlaws called ‘cowboys’ reduced life to a zero-sum game: either you shoot them first or they shoot you.

Whilst Jarmusch has brilliantly exposed this peculiarly ill conceived Weltanschauung with the inception of Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), a cannibal bounty hunter who shadows Will Kane (Gary Cooper, High Noon) as his Doppelgänger, there is another man who has come to represent the Geist of the ‘Frontier’. His name is Daniel Plainview, a former miner and a ‘self-made’ oil-man who has dug his way into American Dream of ‘success and prosperity’. Plainview arrived at the scene in the early 20th century California, about a half-century later from Wilson’s time. By then, Jefferson’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ had long been realised: through a series of bloody genocides and wars, the ‘republic’ had gained the domination over the vast territory which stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And the portrayal of Plainview has proven terrifyingly relevant today: not only Plainview has proven himself a worthy successor of Wilson, as an industrialist, he was also in the direct line of succession to John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), a shot-gun slinging lord of a colonial outpost called Town of Machine. Now, in the 21st century, Daniel Plainview has re-emerged as a representative figure for the Geist of Industrial Materialism, the dominant Form of Life since the 19th century which has forced its way into the flesh and the soul of humanity in free fall. Thus, in what follows, I shall examine Daniel Plainview’s trajectory to investigate the implications of Jefferson’s ’Manifest Destiny’, for we all live in the wake of the bloody deeds that have made ‘us’ who ‘we’ are.

American Anthropoid

Daniel Plainview is the main protagonist of the acclaimed film, There Will Be Blood, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who adopted the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil!, which was first published in 1926. It follows the 'rise' of a self-made ‘oil man’ (Daniel Day-Lewis), who has become a tycoon in California as the result of a land acquisition which has granted him an exclusive right for a substantial oil reservoir. The subsequent instalment of a pipeline which directly ships the crude oil from his reservoir to the refinery on the coast has broke a new ground in the industry and established his absolute control over the entire process of mining, shipping and sales of the crude oil. A fiercely determined individualist of a humble origin, Plainview began his career as a silver miner who worked alone before venturing into oil business. A small-time operator with a handful of crews, he had sought promising oil reservoirs with some success. Having adopted an orphaned boy of a deceased crew, he was always accompanied by his ‘son’ named H. W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier), and his right-hand man, Fletcher Hamilton (Ciarán Hinds). He was struggling as a small-time operative, yet his fortune saw a sudden turn when he received a visit from a stranger (Paul Dano). Calling himself ‘Paul’, he claimed to have an exclusive knowledge of the location of an oil reservoir beneath his family’s goat ranch. In an exchange of immediate payment of 500 dollars, the mysterious youth offered a detailed account of the land where Plainview and H. W. visited for an inspection on the pretext of hunting quails.

Once arrived there, they met a ghost: a dead linger of Paul approached them and introduced himself as Paul’s brother, Eli (also played by Paul Dano). This ‘meeting’ unsettled Plainview and planted the seed of contempt and suspicion, yet, undeterred, he proceeded with the planned inspection. When H. W. stumbled upon a clear evidence of a promising field beneath the waste land, Plainview met with the hapless patriarch of the ranch (David Willis) and proposed the buyout of his property. Just as Plainview was about to walk all over him and strong-arm a deal in his favour, the ghost spoke and inserted himself between them: Eli demanded 10,000 dollars for ‘his church’. It turned out that Eli was a charismatic pastor who commanded a strong loyalty amongst his cult in the community. Plainview agreed to pay 5,000 dollars if the reservoir produced a substantial amount of oil. Whilst Plainview proceeded to buy out all the land surrounding the target, Eli continued to vex him by his constant attempt to capitalise on this opportunity. Since Plainview needed to garner the popular support from the community to profit from his business in the land, despite his money and the power that came with it, he must have adopted to the norm of the community: he simply could not afford to appear ‘Godless’. In addition, given the fanatical loyalty of the congregation, Eli could not be simply brushed aside: the self-proclaimed ‘prophet’ was someone who must be dealt with, and Eli knew it.

Yet, Plainview was not to be underestimated. Whilst he conceded a few battles to this ghostly upstart in order to win the war, he showed who commanded the power on every opportunity he was presented. On one occasion, he beat and humiliated Eli who came to demand what Plainview ‘owed’ to him. This ferocious outburst of violence is exemplary; he represents Turner’s ‘American’ character with unparalleled clarity and rigour. With his insatiable drive to win the zero-sum game of life, and his deep hatred of ‘people’, Plainview is no ordinary business person. His all-consuming focus to ‘win’ at all cost has alienated him from everyone around him and prohibited him from appreciating life: he has been always working or drinking. Whilst he beared the appearance of a ‘family man’, a widow with a very young son, in his early days, this, he now claims, was a mean to make the land deal easier by inducing sympathy amongst the general public. Despite his ‘modest’ speech on the matter of spirituality, he has no faith: he considers all religions superstitious, and he is contemptuous of sparing his thought on unprofitable subjects. Hence he is a quintessential Industrial Materialist who is set out to exploit everything and everyone around him. And, perhaps surprisingly to some, this savage instrumentalist approach to life is not unique to America; it is in fact the baggage which European colonists brought in to the ‘New World’ with them.

This kind of materialism must be traced back to the shift in metaphysics, namely, Descartes’ sharp distinction between Mind and Body. According to the French philosopher, Body denotes all material entities, not limited to the bodies of animated entities. Mind is a substance capable of mental activities such as thinking, and survives the destruction of individual bodies since they are separate entities. Mind is present only in God and humankind, hence, according to Descartes, animated entities other than humans must be considered ‘things’. Based on this understanding, the French philosopher famously declared: the cries of animals ‘in pain’ are in fact mere mechanical noises in reaction to certain stimuli. If Descartes is right, then, the shriek made by an animal who is about to be slaughtered is no different from the sound of a stone being ground, or the sound of a musical instrument played by a virtuoso. In this light, the world except humankind consists of mere materials which we are entitled to exploit in any way we can/want. Whilst Descartes’ instrumentalism is under certain restrictions, and by no means directly responsible for the brutality which enabled Industrialism that followed, it came at a particular historical juncture wherein Europeans were about to move away from the restrictive measures imposed by ecclesiastical authorities and preparing themselves to embrace the crude reductionism represented by Industrial Revolution which rendered, yet again, humankind without capital as expendables. The eventual domination of Anglophone empiricism means that the crude materialism which has come to shape the Geist of Industrial Era destroyed the metaphysical ‘safety mechanism’ which, despite its destructiveness, unjustness and incorrectness, kept humankind’s ambitions in check. God was soon declared ‘dead’, and humans without capital became expendable entities ‘which’ fulfil given functions (in non-capitalist societies, states alone own capital; hence the officials of the states function as business owners in capitalist societies. The means of controlling the distribution of power may be the only difference between respective systems). (From ‘Happy Birthday, David’)

Whilst there have been many portrayals of the power-that-be in American cinema, Anderson and Day-Lewis’ interpretation of this California oil baron is arguably the most truthfully sinister one to date: Daniel Plainview makes Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane) look naïve and sentimental, and Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale, American Psycho) one-dimensional. His will to win is so compulsive in that he violently confronts anyone who crosses him: he once intimidated the representative of a large oil company, Standard Oil, who proposed to buy out Plainview's well, by threatening to slit the man's throat. And this was just the beginning. Subsequently, everytime Plainview caught the sight of him, he would go over to the man, being up uncomfortably close, and made this hapless fellow repeat him, word by word, in public. Yet, this chap from Standard Oil should have been grateful to be bullied so mercilessly; Plainview has proven himself to be capable of most bloody deeds and he could have follow through with his threat of cutting his throat at night. As we can see by now, Plainview's hatred toward his ‘fellow’ humans is just as chilling as the savage indifference of Cole Wilson. The deep and savage contempt Daniel shows to everything and everyone he encounters is a logical consequence of his world-view: he judges and experiences everything in life as a zero-sum game. In this callous and crude scheme, ‘winning’ is the only thing that matters and the end always justifies means.

Day-Lewis has given us one of his best performances to date as Daniel Plainview; like the substance that lies beneath the surface of a barren wasteland, his character conceals a deep and violent hatred against everyone and everything, the contempt which surfaces now and then as a dark stain on screen. It is a remarkable character study of someone who is representative of the savage and callous instrumentalism which characterises Social Darwinism: it conceives humankind as a mere organism which blindly strives to dominate other organisms in order to increase its chance of survival for no other reason or purpose. What Plainview's Social Darwinism differs from the original Darwinism is: it does not concern the procreation. This is due to the complete lack of what one might call ‘lust for life’: whilst he hates to lose, there is no joy in winning. Like Wilson, the cannibal cowboy who shows mild displeasure for the taste of his 'dinner', Plainview hates his preys for what they 'make him do'. Both have no inclination to mix business with pleasure: Wilson kills and eats because he has to; and Plainview kills and wins because he has complusive need not to lose. Still, in the end, these are the chores and works that dictates them, rather than they have pleasure in doing. They live on not because they appreciate life, just because they hate to 'lose': quite frankly, if they had a choice not to exist in the first place, they would have done so without hesitation, but with one condition; they would only agree to go if they can bring the world down with them. Since they would give up life, no one else should be allowed to live. Thus, all his fighting and striving intensifies Plainview’s deep seated hatred: he hates to see others succeeding in life as if they have robbed what is rightly his. By taking and keeping all to himself, he denies others their chances. This explains the reasons why the capitalists like Plainview hate to give: the likes of Plainview are not necessarily interested in gaining or building something for themselves; rather, they are hell-bent on denying others to do so. In short, their motivation is thoroughly negative; they are in the game not to be cheated, not to be taken advantage of. Winning something or someone means that no one else can have it/her. Plainview thus prefers to disown his ‘son’ than giving blessing to his new business venture; H. W. Plainview is a mere competitor now. Yet no one, in his mind, makes money off this world because he alone does. And he would absolutely do everything to achieve this goal, for he cannot bear to lose. By showing what this Weltanschauung does to a person and everyone and everything around him, Day-Lewis’ portrayal of this nihilistic American predator is a character study per excellence. His portrayal of this profoundly toxic Geist does not reduce itself into a mere caricature: he makes you clench your teeth and feel his breath on your neck. He makes you inhale the air saturated with alcohol, smoke from his pipe and oil fume from his wells. Day-Lewis’ work here is truly a sight to behold.

Yet it is not a set of individual traits that makes Daniel Plainview a standout amongst the list of notable cinematic representations of destructive American white-male characters in power. Rather, it is the way in which Daniel Plainview is situated within the historic, political, cultural and philosophical context of the development of American Geist that distinguishes this movie from its illustrious peers. In this, Anderson cannot be praised enough; although Sinclair’s presentation of American’ Geist inspired Anderson’s vision, and the novelist’s work is valuable in and of itself, Anderson’s decision to liberally adopt the first 150 pages of the book demonstrates his fine aesthetic instinct. Whilst neither Anderson nor Sinclair explicitly mentions Turner’s thesis, Plainview does illuminate the actual implications of what Turner defined as a quintessential American character in an unprecedented manner. Then it is useful at this point of inquiry to clarify what are the characteristics of ‘true’ Americans according to Turner.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1931), a prominent historian known for his ‘Frontier Thesis’ (‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’, 1893), proclaimed that white colonists’ experiences during the invasion of the western territories of ‘North America’ forged the ‘American character’, which consists of traits such as ‘self-reliance’, ‘individual freedom’, ‘egalitarianism’, disregard for high-culture, and a strong predisposition toward violence (Turner relied on the definition of the ‘Frontier’ used by the government census at the time of his writing, and thus his ‘Frontier’ includes parts of the Midwest as well as some parts of the South, as opposed to the contemporary definition of the ‘Frontier’ as the western territory beyond the Mississippi River). (‘The Myth of the ‘Frontier’, from ‘Dead Man, Part 1’)

Quite tellingly, There Will be Blood presents each and every one of ‘American’ trait in a stark light according to the historic facts available today. Much celebrated ‘Frontier’ in California, the ‘Promised Land’ wherein 'American Destiny' should have been revealed in its full glory, is a lifeless wasteland where ‘pioneers' languish without relief. In their harrowing experience, the lofty ideal of Emersonian ‘self-reliance’ merely amounts to the lack of prospect and options; they make do with whatever they can salvage from the land. Drinking salty water and locked in the land where nothing grows, the farmers' ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ bring them no fulfilment; they are surviving for no other reason or purpose. These much celebrated American traits, such as ’self-reliance’, ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, bear no resemblance to the bright picture painted by the likes of Emerson and Turner: these communities appear abandoned rather than ‘self-reliant’, primitive than ‘free’. This secure and stable barrenness is disrupted when Plainview arrives: the ‘self-made’ oil man brings jobs and cash to make more money by bargaining his way into the community who sits upon the land whose resource originates from the massive extinction of once dominant species. The presence of Plainview amongst clueless goat farmers paints a picture which illuminates what American ‘freedom' in ‘Frontier’ entails: it is a zero-sum game in which one is ‘free’ to play one’s hand in any way one can if it is the one that promises the ‘victory’. Since the winner takes all in this game, there is no reason to spare a thought on ‘losers’: it is their fault that they have lost. Then where is the notion of ‘egalitarianism’ in this picture? Unfortunately ‘egalitarianism’ in ‘Frontier’ means only one thing: everyone has an equal status as a ‘player’ in the game without rules. If you ‘win’, your past and origin do not matter. Yet one must note: it does not guarantee that the condition in which players meet is equal, for everyone is ‘free’ to do whatever she/they/he can to advance her/their/his bloody pursuit of ‘happiness’ in this game. If you come from money, use it to your advantage. If you hold certain privilege, based on class, race and/or gender, use it to get yourself ahead. In short, according to the rule-book of this game without rules, you are allowed to do anything to win: in fact it is perfectly fine to cheat or break the law if you can get away with it. Plainview, in fact, gets away with a bloody murder and continues to ’succeed’.

As the story follows the abysmal descent of Daniel Plainview, he reveals how the winning this bloody game should look like: he becomes an anthropoid, someone who resembles human only in appearance. With his relentless aggression, Plainview has been approaching the depth of abysmal nihilism exemplified by the ‘perfect creature’ concocted by David (Alien: Covenant) in his 'devil's laboratory', that is, the ultimate predator which only exists in order to deny others a chance of survival. Whilst Plainview and the David’s creature represent the same nihilistic Weltanschauung, in some ways, our 20th century anthropoid is even more cynical: he even rejects procreation. The only thing that multiplies from his endeavour is: money. Whilst this is consistent with the ethos of Industrial Materialism and Social Darwinism, the slumbering oil baron in his vast, lavish and claustrophobic mansion in his pristine estate paints a ghastly picture: it is a far cry from the ‘freedom’ envisioned by the founders’ of the first democratic ‘republic’ or the author of the celebrated myth of ‘Frontier’. When Plainview viciously parts ways with his ‘son’ by denouncing H. W. as a ‘bastard’ in a basket he picked up to manipulate his public image, he is finally ready to meet his destiny. Alone and joyless in his well-furnished personal echo-chamber, Plainview falls into his alcohol-induced coma before he faces the reckoning. Naturally this very special occasion has everything to do with his nemesis, Eli.

‘Destiny’ Manifested

Eli Sunday, the son of a goat farmer whose property holds the key to Plainview’s American Dream of success and prosperity, demands recognition. He is a dead linger of a mysterious youth who calls himself Paul, the messenger from the impoverished land which, he claims, sits atop of an untapped reservoir of crude oil. Whilst ‘Paul’ disappears from the scene with 500 dollars in cash, his 'brother' Eli takes his place. Unlike his mysterious Doppelgänger, Eli is here to stay. With his eerily knowing smile, he initially unnerves Plainview, and it does not take long before Eli begins to vex him with his meddlesomeness. Eli is a self-proclaimed ‘prophet’ who performs spectacular exorcism of some sort in his makeshift church, and is worshipped by his loyal congregation. Whilst he may appear a hysterical fanatic in front of his followers, Plainview knows better: he is a narcissist who has been exploiting the religious bent of the impoverished and uneducated population to stroke his ‘self-esteem’. Yet, with Plainview’s arrival, Eli sees the way out of this ‘Frontier’; he longs to split from this wasteland with the money this oil baron ‘owes him’. Naturally Plainview holds him with great contempt, and takes every opportunity to bully him. Yet, when the table turns, Eli has his revenge: he forces Plainview to join his congregation and publicly humiliates him. Then, he finally achieves his goal: when he extracts enough money from Plainview by blackmailing him, he abandons his home and his followers for greener pastures, claiming that he is embarking on a missionary work. Eventually he becomes a radio preacher and invests the fund in stock market to satisfy his greed.

It is safe to say that Plainview has met his match in Eli, and his intense hatred toward this particular person generates a violent tension which threatens to erupt in a moment’s notice. Whilst Eli has been a catalyst of Plainview’s prosperity, Eli is dependent on Plainview’s success to achieve his own goal. Naturally Plainview hates to deal with Eli because he hates to give. Eli also hates to be dependent on Plainview for he sees himself above everyone else. Deadlocked in a mutual contempt, Plainview and Eli constantly seek to outmanoeuvre one another. Eli represents everything Plainview hates and despises. Eli is a hypocritical ‘man of God’, a greedy false ‘prophet’ who exploits his followers to satisfy his narcissistic need for recognition. He knows nothing about oil business, yet he makes Plainview work and claims a cut of Plainview’s hard-earned money without himself lifting a finger. Like a stubborn parasite, Eli refuses to let go of his host. What becomes clear from the trajectory of Eli is: there is no supposed opposition between Industrial Materialism and religion. Business and religions are, in short, means to an end, that is, winning a zero-sum game. Therefore, despite the difference in their respective means of exploitation, Plainview and his nemesis do not represent opposing forces in American Geist; they oppose one another in their attempt to ‘win’ this game of domination. In this regard, they are one and the same: they are cynical and contemptuous egomaniacs who happen to be interlocked in their respective descent into the abyss. Naturally, their relationship ends badly and violently: in a fit of anger, Plainview murders Eli in his private bowling alley. It is a savage sight to behold; Plainview’s fury and hatred is exposed with full force in their final confrontation.

At this juncture, we must ask ourselves: What is the nature of Plainview’s hatred? We know that he hates everyone. We also know that his hatred runs deep. He is intensely violent and hates to ‘lose’. Therefore it is easy to see the reasons why Plainview loathes Eli; he is the only person who has ever made him pay more than his willing, forced him into submission and publicly humiliated him. Above all, for the man who hates to give, the fact that he has been blackmailed into helping Eli gaining financial security by paying undisclosed amount alone must boil his blood. Yet we must also note: Whilst Plainview has been intensely violent and homicidally competitive, he has already committed a murder before killing his nemesis. Therefore it is easy to comfort ourselves by thinking: this is just his character: he is a homicidal psychopath. However, whilst perfectly reasonable at a glance, there is a problem with this view: Plainview is not meant to be an exception, because neither Sinclair, Anderson nor Day-Lewis intended him to be as such: he is a representation of the Geist that haunts the land of the ‘free’. This singularly sinister character represents what the logical implications of ‘Manifest Destiny’ must look like. Hence Plainview is absolutely diabolical without allowing the audience to project any sentimentality upon him or becoming himself a caricature. Without a doubt, Plainview is the most accurate diagnostics of American ‘Frontier’ one would come across: every pixel on the screen, and every decibel from the speakers, is haunted and stained with this poisonous hatred of Plainview’s. It is as if the world itself is made of a savage scream. Is this whailing coming from the mouth of victims or the cannibal? It is impossible to tell. One would perhaps never see anyone who is so completely consumed with hatred like Plainview. He commits bloody murder, disowns his ‘son’, and spends his days stone drunk in his luxurious echo-chamber waited by his butler. It is a harrowing picture of American Dream that has come true.

Yet, terrifyingly, Plainview is not done yet. His final confrontation with Eli shows not only his hatred in its full force; it shows its true nature. His hatred toward Eli is singular: it is as if Eli represents everything he hates in this world. Thus we must wonder: What does Plainview see in this young adversary? The answer is simple: himself. As we have seen, Plainview and Eli are the same despite the difference in their respective methods of exploitation. Whilst Plainview strong-arms ‘people’, Eli manipulates them by taking advantage of their religious bent and ignorance. Whilst Eli maintains a pious appearance and speaks softly, he cannot conceal his cold disdain toward ‘people’ whom he has been deceiving as a 'prophet'. Plainview clearly sees Eli’s contempt toward humanity, and he hates Eli for the fact that they are of the same kind: and Eli knows it. It is this contempt that cuts them off from humanity, and this alienation is strikingly embodied by Paul Dano’s Eli: the moment he walks into the scene as ‘Paul’, he fills us with the overwhelming sense of dread as if we are seeing an undead. Not only Eli is ghostly in his presence; he does have a perfect outlet for his well-concealed savageness, the primitive violence whose intensity matches that of Plainview. As a ‘prophet’, he has entitled himself to bring out his anger and hatred toward his fellow humans in a form of unhinged ‘sermon’ at his church, and his congregation loves his showing. This violent narcissism of a ghastly imposter, exemplarily brought to life by Dano, eclipses the entire genre of ‘Horror’ movie: it shows that there is no reason to seek the terror in artificial settings, for the darkness lies right in our own psyche. Hence it is easy to see how Anderson exposes the great hypocrisy of religious aspect of life in America: on the surface, there is no more contrasting character than Plainview and Eli. They are as different as an ant and a grasshopper. Yet, if one looks further, it becomes clear: they are identical in their violent hatred of humanity, of each other, and, most significantly, of themselves. Therefore, Plainview hates Eli because he sees the worst of himself in this false prophet.

It is clear that their respective self-hatred is the source of contempt. And this explains the intensity with which Plainview hates Eli. Yet, the most important question we must ask ourselves is: What is the reason for such a deep and all-encompassing loathing? As the story of Plainview and Eli develop, it is clear that simply believing such a disturbing symptom as the typical traits of certain individuals misses the point in its entirety. It is easier for us to single out a few and avoid interrogating the problems at the root of such developments. Americans are especially prone to this error due to the extreme form of individualism they espouse: Americans overwhelmingly favour retributive justice over restorative one due to their understanding of what American ‘freedom’ entails. Yet, it must be also clear that no one exists in a vacuum. And Anderson’s intention is explicit: the bloody bowling alley set in the basement of a luxurious mansion at the heart of Plainview’s estate is the ‘destiny manifested’. Whilst the life as a zero-sum game has made Plainview an anthropoid reminiscent of the ‘perfect’ creature concocted by the demonic android named David 8, Daniel Plainview is not quite there yet: tragically, Plainview is only able to express what is left of his humanity with his violent hatred that renders him inhuman. The very fact that he hates everyone, himself included, shows that he is not quite like David’s perfect predator who mindlessly devours everything it encounters. If that is the case, there is no need for fury, hatred and despair that drives his self-medication. David’s creature does not destroy the world out of hatred; it does what it is made for. Plainview, on the other hand, loathes himself because he cannot bear the savagery involved in surviving Jefferson’s ’Frontier’, the ‘glorious’ destiny manifested in the vast territory stretching from the ‘Heartland’ to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson’s ‘pioneers’ came all the way to the edge of the continent by the ruthless praxis of Social Darwinism. They grabbed the land by committing a genocide, went to war and built a ‘nation’. Then, they have become isolated, abandoned and languished. Many have attempted to escape this hopeless predicament. The problem is: the only way to the ‘freedom’ leads to a zero-sum game wherein there is only one winner who takes all in expense of others. And no one comes out of this game unscathed; Plainview, like everyone else, has slowly chipped away his humanity and become consumed with self-hatred. There is no joy in this landscape, and there will only be blood, for Plainview has long lost the ability to shed tears. Plainview’s bitter disappointment is inevitable: the 'Promised Land' for a glorious victor is nothing but a well-furnished crypt, a vast echo-chamber which is exclusive to himself, like a coffin. This is only appropriate: ‘win’ or ‘lose’, there is nothing to live for in this destination. The man who adopted and cared for the orphaned infant boy is no more: he has lost his way and cannot go home.

Dead Man (1995), Part III

Introduction

In Part II of this article, we have examined how Jarmusch dismantles Frontier Myth, thereby deconstructing America’s narcissistic collective self-image. Following the opening act of demolishing the idealised notion of the American ‘Frontier’ with a sober representation of a colonial outpost in Part I, Jarmusch exposes the dark shadow of American Geist by creating a double exposure of two cinematic representations of ideal white American men: the quintessential ‘good guy’, Marshall Kane (Gary Cooper) of High Noon on one hand, and Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), a legendary contract killer who is rumoured to have raped, murdered, and cannibalised his parents, on the other. Whilst Cooper’s lone Marshall is the perennial favourite of many prominent law-makers in the United States, Wilson is an incredible embodiment of its shadow, namely nihilism bred by the ethos of Industrial Materialism, which became the dominant feature of American Geist; as extreme as he appears, the killer is in fact the logical consequence of the cold-blooded world-view that is perfectly suited for empire-building with its ruthless instrumentalism. Like the mysterious portrait of a vampiric Englishman, Dorian Grey, Wilson serves as a true reflection of the narcissistic collective self-image of American Geist. The stark contrast of the two characters, and the uncanny resemblance between them, are intended to serve as a reminder of the multitude of contradictions made possible by jarring cognitive dissonance existing within American Geist.

Whilst such a critical achievement is significant in and of itself, it is merely half of what Jarmusch accomplishes with this neglected masterpiece; Dead Man is not a mere cultural/historic/political diagnosis of American Geist. Importantly, it also shows a possible way out of, and a way forward from, the great mess that is American Geist. Jarmusch’s sensitivity to the differences between various Forms of Life, and his observation of how they interact, enable him to explore possible ways for us to break through an initial confrontation, and avoid a stalemate that soon results in discriminations of, and aggressions toward, the Other. In this precise sense, what Jarmusch demonstrates with Dead Man through the friendship between two protagonists is of universal significance. Jarmusch shows: 1) What the prerequisite for creating a possibility for such a friendship is; 2) What the nature of such a friendship is; and 3) The reasons why creating and maintaining the possibility for such a genuine human relation are philosophically significant.

On this note, let us embark on the final part of this voyage.

 

Fantastic Voyage

In the previous sections, we have examined Jarmusch’s critique of America’s narcissistic self-image by analysing how he demolished it with a sober representation of ‘American Frontier’, and a double-exposure of ideal white men by presenting Cole Wilson as a shadow of the quintessential ‘good guy’, that is, Marshall Kane iconised by Gary Cooper. In this section, I wish to examine another significant aspect of Dead Man: Jarmusch’s concept of possible friendship that offers a way out of the great confusion that is American purgatory. Whilst Dead Man must be appreciated for its potential to transform American Geist by deconstructing the icon of ‘American Frontier’ that justifies colonial violence, it is also a film about an improbable friendship between two misfits on the road, a signature theme of Jarmusch’s early works. That being acknowledged, Dead Man sets itself apart from its predecessors in an important way. This is not only because of this film’s significant contribution to the re-thinking of America’s self-image; the bond between Blake and Nobody is far more significant than that of, say, Willie and Ed (John Lurie and Richard Edson from Stranger Than Paradise). Whilst most human relations in Jarmusch’s work are illuminating, they are situational, that is, entirely by chance, and thus transient. On the other hand, the encounter between Nobody and Blake strikes us as fated. The serious undertone of the cinema is enforced by the context in which our protagonists’ journey takes place. Set against a sinister backdrop of America’s colonial frontline in the midst of ruthless industrialisation during the 19th century, this feature offers a somber undertone, the graveness of which reminds us of Werner Herzog’s masterpiece, Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). This comparison is not coincidental. One can argue that Henriksen’s cannibalistic assassin is a cinematic reincarnation of Aguirre, Klaus Kinski’s ruthless conquistador; they both embody violent nihilism that renders them extremely dangerous. To think of Aguirre via Wilson as the exact reflection of Marshall Kane in a strictly Wildean sense appears far fetched at first, yet, upon some reflection, it makes perfect sense: in the context of Americas’ colonisation, the ‘good guy’ who ruthlessly defends his will against the social consent is invented to eclipse the cruelty and the void which lies at the heart of blind aggression. The sole difference is that Europeans do not share the quintessentially American need to claim moral righteousness of their actions; there is no need for the Wildean self-image for Herzog and his audience. In order to dismantle the narcissistic façade that conceals the heart of darkness, Jarmusch needed to introduce Wilson, an American Aguirre, to expose the nature of ‘pioneers’: ruthlessly opportunistic and impossibly amoral, Wilson emerges as a true reflection of an otherwise flawless cinematic icon of an American hero. His entire existence is to prove a point: Nothing matters, and everything is permitted. The celebrated ideal of Frontier Spirit turned out to be an ultimate form of nihilistic survivalism. Such is the darkness that relentlessly hunts down our protagonists to the end, the chronicle of their journey cannot be a typical road movie.

In fact, it does not even fit in a genre which might be called ‘Rogue Movie’. If in doubt, compare Dead Man with classics such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), or Bonnie and Clyde (Arther Penn, 1967). Whilst Dead Man follows the tradition of 'rogue movies' featuring fugitives running from the law, this is where the similarities end. Despite the ample dose of humour and irony, Dead Man cannot be described as ‘lighthearted’. It is clear that this cinema is not meant to be mere entertainment. Despite their receptions and reputations, the above-mentioned classics are exactly that: entertainment. This means that they make use of existing concepts within a given Form of Life, such as Frontier Myth, to create well-executed stories: Nothing more, nothing less. On the other hand, Dead Man follows cinematic conventions in order to expose the spirit which enables them. With its criticism of Frontier Myth and Industrial Materialism that sanction colonial crimes, Dead Man is a work of great scope and depth, hence a well-deserving comparison with Aguirre. In addition, the voyage of the two protagonists is not merely covering physical distance; it is an educational one for both. According to Nobody, his companion, Blake, is already a dead man. Yet, Nobody accepts a great danger for himself by becoming Blake’s guide through the final leg of the journey, and, as a result, they form an unbreakable bond. It is a process wherein both of the protagonists gain invaluable insights and see improbable growth: they both experience a proper Bildung of one’s own, in the company of one another. For Nobody, this is a journey that restores his sense of self through his encounter with a ‘dead man’, a hapless accountant from Ohio with the name of a great English poet. Through the highs and lows of their journey in a treacherous landscape, a lone exile Native American learns to embrace a ‘fucking stupid white man’ as his dear friend. Whilst Nobody plays the part of a knowing guide to Blake, the solace and joy given by the friendship with Blake cannot be underestimated. As for his counterpart, Blake, by the guiding hand of Nobody, for the first time in his brief life, he realises the depth and extent of injustice upon which his country was founded; he begins to comprehend the nature of struggle between the colonialists and the colonised, precisely at one of the tipping points of history wherein one world comes into being, and another begins to vanish. The journey gradually opens his eyes to other Forms of Life, that is, various Native American cultures. At first, Blake responds to Nobody’s utterances with fear, puzzlement, bewilderment, and annoyance. Whilst his inability to fully comprehend or relate to other Forms of Life remains throughout their voyage, he develops an enduring respect toward this ‘strange man’ and his ‘kins’. His voyage with Nobody is transformative in every respect: At one point, Blake is given a chance to take a stand on his own. When a merchant-priest (Alfred Molina) refuses to sell tobacco to Nobody by claiming to have no stock, Blake steps in and exposes his lie and hypocrisy. As the priest realises who this stranger is, and attempts to shoot him for the bounty, Blake shoots and kills him. Then Nobody remarks: William Blake kills white men. And he concurs: Yes. William Blake kills white men. This is a far cry from the timid and neurotic accountant on board a steam train, hanging on to a piece of paper sent from the ‘town’ of Machine. He is ready to take a stand for his friend, and himself.

Remarkably, this friendship begins by an unthinkably basic misunderstanding: Nobody thinks that Blake is the celebrated English poet, William Blake. Blake, to his credit, flatly denies this from the very beginning, and he continues to insist that he is not a poet. In fact, as he candidly states, he has no literary background, and thus has no idea who his namesake is and why this strange Native American is raving about an English man. Despite Blake’s repeated denial, Nobody appears to unwaveringly believe an unemployed accountant from Ohio to be a visionary English poet, and decides to guide, accompany, and see his journey to the end. As for Blake, he cannot make sense of what his friend is getting at; despite his friendship, he remains a stranger to the worlds from which Nobody emerged. Despite the respect he develops, Blake cannot comprehend Native American Forms of Life. Blake also remains ignorant of high-culture; it was Nobody, captured by English and educated in England, who shows him the potent possibility of poetry. Unfortunately, despite developing a limited, yet meaningful relation to a few verses of William Blake, Blake has no opportunity to further his learning: He is a fugitive with a remarkable price tag, in the process of dying from a fatal gun wound, and thus set to remain ignorant of high-art which Nobody learned to appreciate. Still, in Dead Man, the protagonists’ friendship is as genuine as a human relationship can be despite the persistent lack of understanding of one another. This is an affront to a widely accepted notion of friendship: a friend, as they say, is someone who understands you in a meaningful way. Whilst many might see the way Blake and Nobody bond as ‘superficial’, and thus being inclined to dismiss their friendship as a typical ‘Jarmuschian aesthetic pretense’ without giving it a second thought, I consider the way their friendship is made possible by Jarmsuch to be both philosophically and practically significant. And thus, in what follows, I wish to discuss the way in which Jarmusch enables the friendship between his protagonists to be of critical importance for us.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding characteristics of Jarmusch’s attitude toward the multiplicity of Forms of Life is his acute intercultural humility. Whilst Jarmusch is credited for sober representations of American ‘Frontier’, as well as Native American culture, he has no illusion that his is a perspective of a stranger to Native Americans; he is never going to claim ‘authenticity’ in his representation of their Forms of Life. Depp’s Blake is never going to learn to fully appreciate the ways of life which he encounters, despite their tremendous educational effects on his world-view. In this light, it is significant that Jarmusch did not provide translations to the lines spoken in a few Native American languages. The director has been consistently employing this ‘method’; in his debut feature, Stranger Than Paradise, Hungarian dialogues are not translated at all, and it was quite refreshing to experience the multiplicity of Forms of Life existing within a supposedly one Form of Life that is American culture. By providing no translation to non-English dialogues, Jarmusch is expressing his deep appreciation of the world wherein almost infinite variations of human existence, and its experience, can be observed if, and only if, one remains unassumingly open to such possibilities. In Dead Man, Jarmusch provides Native American dialogues in two distinct languages, including ‘in-jokes’, and they are solely aimed at the speakers of their languages. Whilst most American critics were not impressed, Jarmusch’s approach is consistent with his appreciation of the multiplicity of Forms of Life. By unfailingly employing this method, Jarmusch is essentially asking us: Why do you assume that one has to exclusively aim for an English speaking audience? Why does everything have to be translated so that it is appropriated by the dominant cultures? It is a gesture that is at once rare and significant for our time, wherein countless languages, and Forms of Life, are denied its existence (To have a glimpse of the scale and depth of the cultural slaughter, please check following links: [http://www.linguistlist.org/forms/langs/get-extinct.cfm],  [https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/what-endangered-language], [http://www.linguistlist.org/forms/langs/get-extinct.cfm]). And he does all of this with a refreshing understatement; he simply puts his belief in praxis, rather than preaching it. He let the human relations in the scenes speak for themselves, rather than enlightening the audience with smart and well-meaning lines. This is all due to his intercultural humility; he is absolutely clear that he, as a stranger, cannot transcend the distinctness of whatever Forms of life he encounters. Still, that is not to say that he cannot interact with, and even develop genuine friendship with, someone from other Forms of Life. These points are of great philosophical, and practical, significance. For Jarmusch, understanding based on linguistic communications is not an absolute prerequisite condition for a meaningful interpersonal relation to occur. Traditionally, Western philosophy places critical importance to conceptual clarity and explicitness which are only achieved by the ‘correct’ use of linguistic tools. Whilst Jarmusch never denies the importance of clear communications and the understanding it offers, by relaxing the attitude toward misunderstanding by seeing the humour and humanity in it, Jarmusch demonstrates a greater appreciation for the multiplicity of Forms of Life. For Jarmusch, misunderstanding can be a rich human experience, not to be reduced to linguistic ‘misfiring’ (J. L. Austin). From this specific viewpoint, misunderstanding is not always a deal-breaker that must be treated with contempt. In translation of an intricate piece of poetry or philosophical writing, one oft encounters words or concepts that cannot be translated into other languages fully. Instead of trying to appropriate or conquer alien thoughts by forcing an inadequate substitute, Jarmusch wants us to embrace ‘otherness’ as they are. Whilst such an attitude is not entirely novel, given our concern over conceptual clarity in philosophy, such a generosity exhibited by Jarmusch on human relations offers us a fresh perspective and possibly a beneficial turning point in rethinking how one relates to another. His approach on intercultural relation is also of great practical importance. As we, both individually and collectively, struggle to determine how to respond to ever greater contacts with the ‘Other’, Jarmusch’s respectful, humane, and relaxed attitude toward the ‘Other’, who are different from ‘us’ and cannot be fully assimilated, or absorbed, into a familiar Form of Life, can transform discussions surrounding our political struggle over domestic and foreign policies concerning ‘alien subjects’.

The benefit of Jarmuschian openness is not limited to intercultural relations; it can be equally applied to interpersonal relations. Jarmusch’s two protagonists, Nobody and Blake, despite the fundamental misunderstanding (Nobody) and the lack of comprehension (Blake) of one another, form an unbreakable friendship. By embracing the inevitable fallibility and misunderstanding in our interpersonal relations, one invites a possibility of forming a genuine friendship with someone whose thoughts and attitudes remain difficult to understand. In addition, in this particular case, one of the pair is not a native English speaker, and thus there is noticeable incompleteness in their conversations. Whilst one might wonder how this hindrance may affect their friendship, upon close viewing, one is struck by a revelation: Ultimately, the incompleteness does not matter at all. Interestingly, it is at the beginning of their friendship, that is, at the state when they are unsure of their companion, when there is a greater need for verbal communications. Confusions arise due to the lack of understanding, and they both have second thoughts about their respective partner. Yet, as their friendship deepens, the need for linguistic communication begins to lessen. Whilst this may be partially due to the increasingly weakened state of Blake, the looming death does not tell the whole story. There is a moment late in their journey to support my point. After reuniting with Nobody, upon hearing one of Nobody’s spiritual utterances, Blake looks at Nobody with great affection and spoke: You are a strange man. This statement marks a watershed moment in our understanding of possible human relations. Blake is embracing Nobody as his friend, despite everything about him that eludes his understanding. Such a relating is enabled by an implicit and inter-subjective understanding about a person. It is critical for us to note that Blake’s appreciation of Nobody’s opaqueness is not relied upon a subjective understanding; his embracement of Nobody is based on real interactions he has with Nobody, and thus it is neither pure imagination or delusion. And yet, it is not a mere objective understanding; the totality of the facts which Blake knows about Nobody amounts to so little that exclusively relying on such information, however concrete and objective they may be, means reducing a person into a set of data. And thus, whilst Blake’s understanding of Nobody is incomplete, it is formed by real interactions between two agents. The fact that we can recognise the possibility for us to obtain such inter-subjective understanding and develop a genuine friendship with a ‘strange person’ comes as a revelation. Once adopted, such an attitude invites a possibility for us to develop an open and more respectful friendship with persons from a wider range of Forms of Life, thereby contributing positively to the improvement of our understanding of our selves and the world around us. In the end, one must realise that such a generosity is necessary for all interpersonal relations to occur. As I have elaborated in the article on Ex Machina, respectful acceptance of a certain opaqueness that denies our full access to the thoughts and feelings of another person is a prerequisite condition for a fair and meaningful relationship. In this sense, the concept of friendship that solely relies on clarity and explicitness in communication is mistaken. Jarmusch is correct in his embracement of interpersonal relations which are open to misunderstandings and lack of comprehension not only because of our inherent fallibility, but also due to the very nature of personal agency that requires a certain degree of impenetrability. And thus, despite the outward absurdity, Jarmusch’s representation of friendship is not only more open and generous, but also more precise.

 

The Paradise of Strangers

We have discussed ways in which Jarmusch refreshes our idea of how to build a genuine relationship and what the prerequisites for such a liaison are not to occur. Jarmusch shows us a greater potential for our capacity to relate by demonstrating his embracement of our fallibility through his protagonists, who forge an unbreakable bond despite Nobody’s complete misunderstanding about who Blake really is, and Blake’s inability to comprehend his friend’s world. Whilst clear communications, and understanding based on them, are generally helpful, according to Jarmusch, they are not necessary for a great friendship to begin and endure. This is because Jarmusch recognises the roles of non-linguistic elements in our relationship; we are far more susceptible to irrational and non-linguistic aspects of our experience. As we have seen in Dead Man, even the most clear and simple statement, such as Blake’s flat denial of being a poet, cannot always dispel misunderstandings. Humankind’s fallibility is such that one oft fails to adjust one’s view despite the overwhelming body of empirical evidence and/or the force of reasoning and arguments against it. And thus, it is safe to say that the friendship between Nobody and Blake is based on a certain mutual recognition that drew them together, and a shared experience of the journey that strengthens their bond. In order to determine what each of the protagonists recognised in the other, first one must examine each of their footsteps that define who they are.

Nobody, who contributed to Dead Man’s reputation as one of the very few cinemas which offer representations of Native Americans without relying on clichés, is a Native American person with an eventful past that shapes his painful present. He was captured by the British during their violent raid against his tribe when he was fairly young, and remained captive for a very long time. He was sent to Britain and exhibited as a caged ‘animal’, and paraded through the streets to satisfy the curiosity of spectators. Eventually, he was relieved from his cage, sent to a boarding school and educated as an ‘normal’ English pupil. Amid the pain of homesickness, discrimination, and isolation, he encountered the verses written by an English poet, William Blake. By his admission, he was so taken by Blake’s poetry that they became his life-line; he endured and survived the painful existence by reading and absorbing these ‘powerful words’. Eventually he took his chance to escape from Britain, and returned to the land of his people. When he shared his account, however, nobody believed him; he was named Exaybachay, meaning ‘He who speaks loud, yet says nothing’. This is a painful form of excommunication that defines who he is for the rest of his life. For no fault of his own, he was forced to become an exile; neither the British nor his ‘fellow’ Natives accept him as their own. Being alienated from both sides of the conflict, that is, advancing Anglo-European colonialists and diminishing Native Americans, he decides to live his exile by his own terms by rejecting the name he was given, Exaybachay, and adopts an English name: Nobody. Whilst his new name, in ‘enemy’s tongue’ no less, is an expression of defiance, it is also an acknowledgement of his new status: whether he likes it or not, he is now forced to live as a shadow. He no longer stands for either side of the conflict, despite his strong, at times passionate, disapproval of European colonists. As an excommunicated, Nobody is no longer able to take part in the Natives’ struggle against white colonists; he can only watch the inevitable as a non-entity. Despite his feelings and verdicts on who is in the wrong, Nobody has become a voyant; not unlike the author of Une Saison en Enfer, he is a bewildered, yet disinterested observant, who starkly follows the cruel fate: the destruction of Forms of Life and the rise of ‘civilisation’. He senses the sinister nature of the ‘new power’, yet is restricted to observe humanity’s self-destruction as it unfolds.

As for Blake, his life before the fateful journey was utterly unremarkable. A timid and neurotic accountant from Ohio is driven out of his comfort zone after the break-up with his fiancée to seek fortune elsewhere, only to realise when it is too late that he is on a one-way trip to ‘Hell’, that is, the American ‘Frontier’. He has received a letter from Dickinson Metal Works in the colonial outpost called ‘Machine’; it says that he is offered a position as an accountant. Despite the warning from the stoker (Crispin Glover) of the train, who predicts Blake’s demise and describes his final moments on water, he arrives at Machine due to a lack of means to reverse course; he bet everything on the prospective job and he has no money left for the return train. Once arriving at Machine, Blake finds out that his post was taken by someone else. He tries to settle the matter directly with Mr. Dickinson, a despotic owner of the business (and the town), yet is quickly booted out of his office with a shot gun aiming at him. Distraught, Blake goes to the one and only bar and buys a drink. As he sits outside and downs alcohol, he sees a woman, Thel Russell (Mili Avital), being pushed out on the street and falls into the mud. Blake helps her and Thel asks him to walk her to her room. Thel is a quietly strong woman; she quit prostitution, the only job available for women in colonial outposts like Machine, and took up making paper flowers to sell, and dreams of pursuing a career as an artist. Chemistry soon turns into attraction, and the pair soon ends up in bed. When Thel’s former lover, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) visits her to declare his undying love for her, Thel stands firm. In despair, Charlie shoots at Blake, and Thel covers him and dies from the shot. Blake takes Thel’s gun and randomly shoots at Charlie in panic as Charlie silently awaits his death. Eventually Blake shoots him dead, and discovers that the bullet pierced through Thel and fatally wounded him in his chest. Desperate, Blake steals horses and escapes into the night. It turns out that Charlie was a son of the boss, and Mr. Dickinson orders three bounty hunters, including legendary Cole Wilson, to hunt down Blake. In short, Blake is forced to be in exile from a seemingly innocuous decision to accept a job offer, and with a cruel twist of fate, becomes an outlaw. And he becomes one in the country to where he is supposed to belong; for the first time in his life, Blake encounters the savageness of the colonial empire, and, shellshocked by his brief encounter with the dark underbelly of the nation, like Karl Roßman (Der Verschollene by Franz Kafka), he soberly realises that he has nowhere to go.

It is not difficult to see what made our protagonists from very different Forms of Life kindred spirits: they are both exiles in this brutal no-man’s land wherein money and bullets reign supreme. Despite obvious misunderstanding and incomprehension from both sides, the two of them realise that they are exactly alike: alienated, purged from Forms of Life, each of them has obtained a unique, and unobstructed, view on the state of affairs: a rising Form of Life of white colonialists is in the process of systematically degrading and annihilating other Forms of Life. As exiles, Blake and Nobody, coming from opposite directions, have found a space wherein they can look each other in the eyes and recognise one another as their counterpart, a companion, without the restrictive influences of whatever prejudices they might have had. And, interestingly, it is Nobody’s mistaken idea of Blake’s identity that plays the decisive role in overcoming the peril of killing off the possibility of mutual recognition; without this misunderstanding, Nobody might have left this ‘f*ing stupid white man’ to die. This probably comes as counterintuitive to most; without second thoughts, one might simply dismiss this turn of event as a typical Jarmuschian twist. As we have discussed, this is far from the truth; if one is receptive, it signifies the fundamental shift in our understanding of interpersonal, and intercultural, relationships.  A Jarmuschian concept of friendship is considerably more expansive, and potentially more rewarding than a strictly linguistic concept of human relations. Yet, in order to begin the process of relating, one needs to be unassuming to whatever one might encounter, and Jarmusch, like David Bowie before him, thinks that one must enter into a certain space wherein one can maintain a great distance from all the Forms of Life one has become familiar with (To recount Bowie’s philosophical embracement of alienation, please read my articles in the section, The Promised Land in the page Shadow Play, and the articles in the section, Black Star in the page Silent Age). Whilst the forced exile from one’s own Form of Life as seen in Dead Man is an undoubtedly an extreme proposition, it certainly highlights how a critical distance from one’s own Form of Life is necessary to allow a proper agency, and thereby enabling one to encounter another without a set of restriction to one’s understanding imposed by whatever Form of Life to which one thinks one is belonging. In this respect, Nobody has taken a significant step toward the path of voyant; instead of meekly accepting the forced condition of an exile, he rejects a given name, Exaybachay, and adopts an English name to define his mode of being in this world. Following his example, Blake eventually catches up with his friend; realising the powerful effect of verses written by his namesake, Blake opens himself up for the poetic and aesthetic aspects of the life on earth. And thus, in the end, the no-man’s land called the American ‘Frontier’ becomes the space where one can reinvent oneself, not merely lands to conquer and to impose one’s savage materialism. In this paradise of strangers, one can finally meet and develop mutual recognitions as a pretext to develop a possible friendship. Whilst one might find such an individuality, the degree of autonomy and separateness, unwelcome, or even terrifying, it is a necessary path to consider if one ever dreams of developing a genuine relationship with another human being.

 

Conclusion

Whilst what Jarmusch achieved with the double-exposure of an American portrait with Cole Wilson is momentous in itself, if this is all there is, Dead Man falls far short of what it is. It is a masterpiece of a rare kind, sardonically comic yet sincerely reflective, awkwardly self-conscious yet fearlessly objective and poetic, a unique feat which only Jarmusch can achieve. Dead Man is more than a deconstruction of America’s self-image; it offers a glimpse of what lies beyond the cultural blindfold represented by ‘Frontier Thesis’ through the fantastic voyage of two characters: Nobody and William Blake. And, as we have noted earlier, their journey together is of a rare kind; it is a philosophical journey which traces Blake and Nobody’s encounter with one another, their experiences of a Form of Life, that is, the savage Industrial Materialism of the 19th century, and the formation of a new perspective through their growing appreciation of one another. At first glance, it is all too easy to get lost with Jarmusch’s masterful storytelling and find his protagonists’ relations as an expression of typical Jarmuschian off-beat humour without realising its true significance. Yet, upon close inspection, it becomes clear that Jarmusch’s idea of a possible relationship and its implications are philosophically significant. In fact, it offers an important improvement to the Western conception of appropriate human relations, which considers correct understanding based on clear linguistic exchange as a necessary condition of meaningful relationship. By busting open this restriction, Jarmusch achieves a re-thinking of possible human relations.

As we have noted, Dead Man is a complex cinema with many nuances and layers to appreciate. Its significance is at once political, historical, and philosophical. It singlehandedly changes the view on America’s self-image, its historical origin, and its development. By having a clear and sober understanding of the historic context of the concepts that define how we see ourselves and how we think we should act, this must have a transformative effect on our daily lives. In this respect, the way Jarmusch shattered the self-image of America, which is entirely based on a narcissistic picture of American ‘Frontier’, and replaced it with the representation of the savage reality of colonial outposts, is significant. In addition, Dead Man refreshes our concept of genuine human relations by pointing to the significant role of non-linguistic elements of our relating. Rather than imposing our preconceived concepts upon everything around us, Jarmusch prefers to allow the story to unfold on its own, thereby embracing misunderstandings, incomprehensions, amongst other human fallibilities. Jarmusch’s non-dogmatic approach to life and art is a gift for anyone who is willing to see the familiar with the eyes of strangers. In this age of uncompromising confrontations with rigid dogmatism and identity politics, Jarmusch’s non-pessimistic quietism allows the story to unfold on its own, rather than imposing one’s ideas and forcing a judgment that satisfies one’s need for a definite closure. It is a rare and precious example for us to consider; if we are successful in this endeavour, we might allow ourselves to entertain a hope to safeguard ourselves from the crippling paranoid and all-consuming hysteria of our time.

Dead Man (1995), Part II

Introduction

In Part I, we traced the way in which Jim Jarmusch challenged the idealised notion of the ‘American Frontier’. By offering a sober representation of life in colonial outposts, Jarmusch effectively destroys the idealised image of ‘The Frontier’ wherein America’s alleged ’Manifest Destiny’ was to be fulfilled. The notion of ‘The Frontier’ is central to America’s self-image, and thus we followed our inquiry by examining the beginning of the Frontier Myth, namely Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ (Turner, 1893) has been celebrated as the single most influential work regarding the formation of American identity. Whilst Turner’s theory has been widely accepted by academics and prominent politicians alike, many of his contentions remain suspect. Notwithstanding its many flaws, his contentions struck a chord with American intelligentsia, and soon his theory became an orthodox view amongst historians. Yet, such a theoretical work, however influential, is not enough to create a defining moment for a collective consciousness, especially in a society which holds ‘high-culture’ with toxic suspicion and bitter contempt; an academic work such as his has a very limited influence in a society characterised by anti-intellectualism, and thus, there had to be something else in the works to transform a theoretical exercise into a cultural orthodoxy accepted by the masses as the self-evident truth.

What made his theory the defining feature of American Form of Life is not found in the strength of Turner’s argument; the decisive moment of its popular acceptance was delivered by a particular genre of popular culture: Western films. This is where American masses found the Turnerian concept of ‘Frontier’ and ‘freedom’ represented in an accessible form. As we have seen often, cinema played a prominent role in the construction and the maintenance of collective self-image. Its potential for propaganda was first realised by an American director, D .W. Griffith. Although the first feature length film in history directed by Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915), met strong opposition, it predicted many cinematically accomplished works produced during the 20th century and beyond. Whilst the likes of Leni Riefenstahl readily comes to mind as examples, cine-propaganda were produced by authors of great diversity. Under the reign of Stalin, many Soviet cineasts, such as Sergei Eisenstein, created cine-propaganda of epic proportions, and so did the Japanese, British, Italians, Americans, etc. Whilst it is hard to see Westerns as propaganda films, especially in comparison to other obvious examples such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), they perfectly fit this description when one places them in the context of Turner’s thesis and the construction of America’s self-image. Hence, I shall examine the central role of cinema in the construction and the maintenance of America’s self-image, the particular role played by Westerns, and Jarmusch’s response to the image which iconised American Exceptionalism. In addition, I shall dedicate the second half of the Part II for an overview of unresolved contradictions existing within American Form of Life.

 

Amerika ‘the Beautiful’

Cinema has been playing the central role in constructing and maintaining America’s self-image. When one considers cinema as a propaganda tool, one cannot avoid mentioning one of the most prominent, and notorious, American directors, D. W. Griffith (1875-1948). He directed the first feature length film in the history of cinema, The Birth of a Nation. For this historic standing alone, it is generally regarded as one of the most important films of all time. It is also one of the most notorious, for The Birth of a Nation is a propaganda film with a white suprematist agenda. With this movie, Griffith grotesquely distorts the perception of American Reconstruction Period, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and demonises African Americans as ‘rapists’ and a threat to ‘civilisation’. The main theme of the movie was a call for reconciliation between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ to safeguard alleged ‘Aryan-supremacy’ against the perceived ‘threats’ of non-whites.  This piece of white suprematist propaganda is nonetheless praised for its technical accomplishments, and universally considered to be the first ‘great American cinema’ by film historians and critics. Despite the long history of protests and condemnations for its content, in 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed it ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’, and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry, thereby declaring it an American canon. Whilst Griffith’s film failed to find support for its message, it had set a text book example both technically and practically; the American revealed cinema’s potential as a tool for propaganda with his technical excellence. His footsteps were soon followed by directors with diverse political views, from Leni Riefenstahl to Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein to Fritz Lang. Given its dynamism and mass appeal, cinema’s influence upon the public has been pervasive.

Whilst cinema has been used as a propaganda tool by both modern and contemporary politics as well as business to meet their ends, in America, it has been playing a central role in defining its national self-image. The reasons for the prominence of the motion picture in American Form of Life are historic, and thus contingent; it happened that cinema was the newest form of aesthetic expression. Whilst all other art forms preceded the birth of America and owe their developments to the ‘Old World’, and thus were met with hostile contempt as high-culture, cinema, as a recent phenomenon, was embraced not only as a novelty, but as a form of art and entertainment which uniquely suited the young republic. Despite the social fragmentation arising from the complex segregations amongst races, classes, and genders, and the resulting lack of social cohesiveness, there was one notion which took hold of popular imagination and swept away the masses: America as the ‘New World’, which is supposedly independent of the past. Quite obviously this is a false notion: its founding political principle, representative democracy, originated in Europe; its most dominant religion, Protestant Christianity, is also of European origin, although Christianity itself is one of the most ancient surviving religions which originated from the Middle East; and its dominant ideology, Industrial Materialism, is a crude appropriation of Cartesian metaphysics.. In short, the alleged newness of the so-called ‘New World’ does not present anything new or original; the only unprecedented aspect regarding America was the attitude of colonists who saw themselves as the vanguards of a new era, the notion which is later refined and articulated as American Exceptionalism. By the proclamation of the beginning of the ‘New World’, they were merely expressing a belief that everything from the past was wrong, and only they could correct it by ‘starting anew’. In any case, for Americans, cinema, as a ‘new art’ with unprecedented mass appeal, became the most important medium, and, despite stiff competitions from TV and on-line entertainment, it still plays a commanding role in determining America’s self-image. And it must be noted that there is one genre of American cinema which contributed more than anything in popularising Turner’s Frontier Thesis, and thus developing America’s self-image: Western films.

During the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of Hollywood, Western movies exerted a decisive influence both on film making and American identity. For example, John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is lauded as one of the most influential films ever made, and the likes of Orson Wells studied it as a textbook model (Wells stated that he watched the film more than forty times in preparation for the filming of Citizen Kane). Whilst there were other, and arguably better candidates than John Wayne as a prototypical American ‘tough guy’, such as Philip Marlowe made famous by Humphrey Bogart, it is simply undeniable that a lone rogue gunslinger typically featured in Western films became the indisputable archetype of American heroes. From the perspective of directors and script writers, the reasons why these men of the ‘Wild West’ prevail against stiff odds comes down to their hardiness and resourcefulness; they are unorthodox men of action, and they can take down their far more well-organised opponents with their courage, will, and creativity. Yet, for most Americans, their heroes ‘win’ because they are ‘good guys’; it is as if to say that claiming moral high-ground guarantees God’s favour. The significance of such a characterisation of their ‘heroes’ cannot be overestimated; it in fact reveals the most essential aspect of American psychology. Americans suffer from this peculiar and overriding need to claim moral righteousness, a symptom uncommon amongst their colonial counterparts; Europeans generally need to feel superior, but not necessarily ‘good’. English philosopher John Stewart Mill, for example, simply deemed non-whites unworthy of humanitarian concerns for which he is still admired, and thus implicitly acknowledged and sanctioned the heinous crimes practiced by the British empire. Modern totalitarian regimes proved that this is not a unique trait for Europeans. Imperial Japan, for example, committed war crimes of comparable scale and seriousness to its German counterpart in the occupied territories during WWII, and the extreme violence was sanctioned by the belief in their innate ‘superiority’. In such instances of extraordinary violence, the perpetrators regard certain conditions, such as the state of war or the perceived difference such as race and gender, as the signal for the desired gratification of the ‘license to kill’, that is, the permission to ‘unburden’ themselves from moral and humane considerations. Such an attitude presupposes the criminals’ awareness of the evilness of their actions; they know that they cannot behave the same way toward their own. They commit great atrocities to the Other based on the belief that their moral standing remains intact once they remove themselves from the specific conditions that permits, or demands, them to act violently. And thus, the belief in their innate superiority and the compartmentalisation of their modes of existence proved to be sufficient for most groups of humankind to savage one another.

However, for Americans, the notion of superiority proved to be insufficient. As the first democratic republic, Americans see themselves as the bright beacon of hope for ‘humanity’. They refuse to see themselves as colonists, the mere equal of their imperial counterparts. As we have seen in the previous section, ‘The Frontier Myth’, Americans entitle themselves the rights to lead, not merely to rule. Yet, this Enlightenment aspect of American Exceptionalism was betrayed by the very way this nation began, expanded, and thrived without proper atonement: like its European counterpart, Americans have never properly addressed the colonial legacy, and the history of slavery in particular continues to plague the society. Whilst the narrative that emerged after WWII briefly justified the main tenet of American Exceptionalism, its ideological equilibrium was shattered soon afterwards. What remains from the traditional Exceptionalism is self-aggrandisement without reason; America claims its ‘rightful’ place of moral high-ground without properly appreciating its colonial past. To make matters worse, there is another confusion to add to this already convoluted American Geist; in America, the concept of a secular democratic republic is also fused with the religious element of the society. One cannot overlook the fact that the ‘first Americans’, or the Pilgrims, arrived to the ‘New World’ as the result of a religious exodus from England. Like political ideologies, religions sanction atrocities against the Other, yet, unlike the former, religions also demand the observation of moral righteousness. Conveniently, moral high-ground in religions is readily obtainable, for righteousness, like the notion of superiority, is in truth a question of membership and identity when it is applied to a group. And, as Dead Man shows in one scene wherein a missionary (Alfred Molina) demonstrates vicious racism against the character Nobody, Christianity, despite its teaching, sanctioned racism (White Christians retained their power over their ‘black brethren’ and other non-white Christians), colonialism (violence against ‘heathens’), and capitalism, as God rewards the hard-working and pious with financial gains in Protestantism, a dominant strand of Christianity amongst Americans. Seeing themselves as Christian, and thus morally ‘good’, Americans adopted a patriotism of a peculiar kind, according to which America is implicitly ‘good’, for, as Bob Dylan noted, they ‘know’ that ‘God is on their side’. Religious terms and allegories were purposefully employed not only by the religious, but also by self-proclaimed ‘Enlightened’ Americans, in order to pursue their colonial agendas. Take the notion of the ‘Manifest Destiny’, which declares that America is ‘destined’ to occupy the territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The very notion of destiny presupposes some sort of ‘divine sanctions’, the concept which is at odds with the Enlightenment project itself. Yet, Thomas Jefferson, a self-proclaimed ‘man of science’, was one of the most prominent proponents of this notion, and he employed it to great effect. Whether he actually believed this notion, that is, America’s divinely sanctioned right to invade foreign territories to suit their desires, is irrelevant. What matters here is that there was this peculiar need for Americans to be righteous, and Jefferson was fully aware of it when he appealed to this religious metaphor. And this peculiar need of American Geist to claim absolute moral high-ground, which can be only bestowed to them by the absolute being, creates a serious problem: since the ‘love of country’ becomes a matter of ‘Faith’, rather than a belief, which can be challenged and/or disproved, American patriotism disallows the process of rational self-examination performed individually, or the dialectical process of collective self-examination, to take place. This curious trait is the root of one of the most pronounced American Contradictions: Despite being founded on the modern philosophical principle, and being the champion of Industrial Materialism, American Geist remains stubbornly archaic. (It must be noted that the philosophical principle of Enlightenment is at odds with Industrial Materialism, which overrode the former. Yet, this contradiction is inherent in modernity itself, and thus not unique to America.) This contradiction was there from the very beginning, and, to the bafflement of observers abroad, it remains unresolved.

Given their need for moral righteousness, it is no wonder that slick and cunning operators of American noir, such as Philip Marlowe, stood no chance against cowboys; despite the popularity of ‘Bogie’, and the fact that The Big Sleep (Howard Hawkes, 1946) was selected for the National Film Registry, the moral ambiguity explored by American noir writers of 1930s only confirms American belief in rural values and their suspicion of a modern, urban Form of Life. Hence Western movies proved to be the perfect platform to construct and maintain America’s idealised self-image; it at once enforces the Frontier Myth by giving the audience a simple icon to entertain them, and offers a moral affirmation by representing an American patriarch as the ‘good guy’. Eventually, the American quest of the iconic representation of their ideal self-image met its end: it was Gary Cooper’s lone Marshall who stood his ground for justice against social consent. Whilst the Ringo ‘Kid’ (performed by John Wayne in Stagecoach) remains a symbol of fierce individualism, and Wayne still represents the entire genre of Westerns, the moral righteousness which American Geist desperately craves is exemplified by Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). It cannot be overestimated just how deep and pervasive this film’s impact has been to America’s self-image; it was the very first film canonised by the US Library of Congress when it launched the National Film Registry in 1988. The lone individual who chose to face adversaries despite lack of public support is the perfect representation of the American ideal. He is a ‘real man’, a ‘good guy’ who stands alone on his ground in the face of overwhelming adversary, overcomes the ‘bad guys’ by strength (read: his beloved firearms), and converts his pacifist wife to violent retributional justice in the process; seeing the danger, Amy, Kane’s Quaker wife, takes a gun and kills one of the gangs. There are many who regard High Noon as the quintessential American film that perfectly expresses the ‘American way’. Yet, more importantly, High Noon’s Gary Cooper became the icon of American Geist. He is a ‘good guy’, and he ‘talks straight’, ‘goes his own way’, and ‘stands his ground’ with a gun in his hand. Despite the initial disapproval, most notably by John Wayne and Howard Hawkes who preferred to represent the ideal of American ‘man’ as an invincible‘superhero’ and thus immune to doubt and fear, Cooper’s Kane became the prototype of the American hero, and ‘he’ has been praised by both liberals and conservatives. Unsurprisingly, several US Presidents became enamoured with this character; Ronald Raegan and Dwight Eisenhower cited High Noon as their favourite movie, and Bill Clinton screened it seventeen times at the White House. It is only natural that every Geist preserves a work of art that manifests their idealised self-image. In terms of cinema, what could be La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) for Italians, or Alexander Nevsky (Segei Eisenstein, 1938) for Russians, it is High Noon which gives ‘true expression’ of the American soul. And it is precisely this celebrated image of ‘American freedom’ which Jim Jarmusch cooly exposed.

In Dead Man, the ‘ideal’ of a white man is represented by none other than Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), a cold-blooded killer with a distinct aura of invincibility. He is an outwardly stoic man of few words, and his killer instinct and peerless shooting skill earned him the status of a legend. He is at once feared and revered, and many see him as a supernatural existence, like Death itself. In the context of American history, Wilson must be considered as a sardonic expression of Industrial Materialism; his cold-bloodedness in his exploitation of everything elevates him in the eyes of white colonists. He is no ordinary killer; whilst he does not express any positive beliefs of his own, he strikes us as a man of principle. Elusive at first, we eventually discover that his is an absolutely negative one. His world consists of the fact that everyone dies, and, for Wilson, this entails: there is no significance to our existence. We live in the world without ends, only means, and his are guns and bullets, for they give him everything he needs: contracts, money, and even food (he calmly cannibalises one of his ‘fellow contract killers’ at one point). Whilst money and contract can buy his service, one should expect no loyalty from Wilson; against the contract, he kills two of his ‘colleagues’ without blinking an eye, and, if it is proved to be more profitable, he would show no hesitation in shooting Mr. Dickinson himself. The only reason d’être of Wilson is to prove a point: Nothing is sacred and everything is pointless, and thus he will do whatever he wants. He is even rumoured to have raped both his parents, murdered them, and cannibalised them. He is an ultimate survivalist; he has no reason to live except that he cannot be killed. The complaint that there are very few of us who are prepared to go this extreme misses the point; Wilson gives a sardonic expression to a logical implication of celebrated ‘Frontier Spirit’; the ruthless materialism which fosters instrumentalism manifested as extreme individualism and opportunism, which in turn deny the formation of basic trust amongst the members of a society. Such a society is a paranoid one, and thus, rife with mutual mistrust and becomes socially incoherent. Neither Jarmusch nor Henriksen miss a beat in portraying this iconically sinister character; Wilson offers a logically perfect expression of Industrial Materialism to the point of being both fearsome and comical. Thus, Jarmusch achieves something important: a double exposure of America’s self-image. Through his lens, suddenly, a vicious cannibal emerges and eclipses Cooper, the quintessentially ‘good guy’ who safeguards the principle of law, order, and morality. And this feat was made possible by Jarmusch’s cooly objective deconstruction of Frontier Thesis. Jarmusch presented an utterly unflattering image of America’s colonial outposts as they used to be, as well as what the world has lost in the process of colonisation by the non-stereotypical representation of Native American Form of Life. And thus, the implications of Jarmusch’s achievement with Dead Man, if properly appreciated, must mark a watershed moment of American Geist. Unfortunately, it was not to be. And there remain many contradictions in American Geist, tightly knit and impossibly convoluted to the point of being beyond recognition as a coherent Form of Life.

 

American Contradictions

At this point of our inquiry, it is important to have an overview of various contradictions existing within American Geist. As we have seen, American Form of Life consists of a multitude of unresolved contradictions which must be traced back at least to the 19th century when the nation building accelerated due to the rapid industrialisation. As noted in the section on Turner’s Frontier Thesis, by the late 19th century, Americans were ready to establish a national identity independent of European roots of colonists. As a young republic with rapid territorial expansion in remote areas, America lost a social and cultural coherence, and thus Turner answered the need for a new national identity with his celebrated thesis. Yet, despite the academic success of Turner Thesis, the fragmentation of American Geist persisted, and thus, in order to gain any insight into current problems existing within American society, we must critically analyse them in a historic context rather than blindly accepting the persistent narrative perpetuated by political oppositions for their respective political gains. And thus, in this section, I tried my best to be as objective as possible by limiting myself to the analysis of logical inconsistencies existing within popularly accepted statements on various topics. Whilst some of the contradictions listed here are not uniquely American, the way it affects American Form of Life is distinctly so.

Selective Humanism: Selective Humanism is a contradiction suffered by every Form of Life which imposes a double standard: its proponents advocate to implement a higher humanistic standard for ‘their own’, whilst denying the same treatment for the Other. In this sense, Selective Humanism is a modern contradiction rooted in the Enlightenment project; whilst the impassioned pursuit of realising the highest potential of human reason by the Enlightenment thinkers are undoubtedly praiseworthy, naturally these thinkers themselves suffered various prejudices, and thus, the project itself was deeply flawed at its inception. Proponents of Selective Humanism achieve the awkward selectiveness by denying the humanity of non-members. In order to achieve and maintain desired effects, Selective Humanism imposes arbitrary discriminations in order to differentiate one group from the Other. Membership criteria can be based on sex, gender, race, class, religion, nationality, spoken language, taste in music, preference of colours, and/or hairstyles. Whether they are positive (e.g., being a member of a glorified community) or negative (e.g., being a member of the Other), such discriminatory criteria are considered essential to the collective identity of a group. The problem is: such criteria are based on matters of facts, and thus, they are descriptive. The description of what is cannot be, and should not be, conflated with what ought to be. Thus, at least logically speaking, description of sex or gender cannot, and should not, be loaded with a value judgment. Being ‘white’ or ‘homosexual’ is a description of a matter of fact. And thus, being ‘white’ cannot be judged as the sign of ‘innate superiority’ just as being homosexual should not be the subject of moral judgments. Committing this fallacy is equivalent of saying: Drought is God’s punishment. Such a statement is false in many ways. Firstly, by appealing to the transcendent entity (God), that is, the subject of which human reason cannot legitimately claim any knowledge or understanding, the above statement is meaningless. Secondly, this statement violates the distinction between is and ought. The description of the state of affairs about the weather condition cannot be, and should not be, the basis of moral judgment. It is also useful to note just how irrational the statement of Selective Humanism is. By applying arbitrary membership criteria to deny the humanity of a certain ‘category’ of humankind, the belief of Selective Humanism is described as: Not all P is P. The above statement is simply as wrong as wrong can be. Still, this is one of the most frequently committed fallacies.

Since Humanism is a modern concept, Selective Humanism is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Whilst there can be numerous membership criteria to discriminate non-members, Europeans and others are satisfied with the notion of their alleged innate superiority. Not Americans: they feel the curious need to assert their moral superiority. As noted in the previous section, America’s supposedly exceptional moral standing above all others is allegedly justified with a few matters of facts: 1) America happens to be the first democratic republican nation; and 2) Americans decided to set the beginning of their story with the arrival of English Calvinists. As the first fruit of the Enlightenment project, America as a nation is thought to represent the hope for all humanity as the blueprint of fair governance which promotes and protect ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, and ‘justice’. The problem is, the alleged moral righteousness is at odds with the nature of American colonial enterprise which was advanced at the expense of Native Americans and slaves. In addition, the religious aspect of American Geist relies on the innate moral righteousness of the nation. So long as America observes ‘religious freedom’, its moral righteousness is guaranteed by God. The problem is: 1) Religion for most Americans is various strands of Christianity, and thus, the notion of religious freedom is not practiced universally; and 2) Despite Christian belief, that is, all humankind is equal in front of God, America is founded on Selective Humanism which justified the brutality exercised by white colonists against Native Americans and Slaves. Again, such a contradiction states: Not all P is P. By adding an additional layer of falsity, the contradiction between their alleged moral righteousness and the actual praxis of colonial expansion, Americans greatly complicated matters for themselves. (If you are interested in just how vague the membership criteria is of ‘humankind’, please read my analysis of Ex Machina). In Dead Man, we shall witness Selective Humanism in motion; the expansion of the colony was justified both by Christianity and the Enlightenment; Native Americans are sacrificed to establish the ‘greatest nation on earth’, and since they were supposedly inferior as well as being heathens, colonial brutality practiced by ‘pioneers’ is ’justified’.

Secularism and Religion: This is perhaps the most pronounced contradiction existing within American Form of Life. Founded upon modern Enlightenment principles, America has nonetheless retained its religious aspect to their Form of Life. This is evident by the way in which its genesis is recounted: according to the popular story, America has two distinct instances of inception. Firstly, the religious exodus from England arrived at the place later known as Plymouth Rock. Secondly, the colonists’ independence from the British Empire results in the establishment of the first democratic republic. The fact that Americans revere the colonial outpost started by English Calvinists, who did not play a role in the founding of the nation, reveals just how established Christianity is within American Geist; the majority of Americans do not question why someone who did not participate in the nation building, such as the war for independence and the drafting of the constitution, must be granted a special status as the ‘first Americans’ (After all, one of the major reasons that made the ‘Pilgrims’ leave the Netherlands is their desire to preserve English Form of Life). The extent to which American society remains religious is quite unusual compared to other developed industrial nations, and it has been one of the causes of serious bafflement amongst them. Whilst Jeffersonian secularism guarantees the religious liberty within the republic, this modern solution, which secures freedom of religious worship by excluding religions from the political process, has been met with suspicion and contempt by those who regard their respective religions as the central components of their lives. For one who refuses to ‘compromise one’s faith’, there is only one true law: the religious doctrines prescribed to all humankind by God.

It is plain that such a position cannot be reconciled with democratic principle: citizens of a democratic society must be prepared to accept the bounds of law and appreciate differences of views by maintaining mutual respect to one another. The problem with so-called religious fundamentalism is two-fold. Firstly, by placing so-called ‘divine law’ above the secular law, it denies the fundamental principle of humanism, that is, humankind has an ability to better themselves and limit unnecessary injuries both to themselves and to others by harnessing the power of human reason. By rejecting the self-governance of humankind, ironically, religious fundamentalism bestows the despotic power to a select group of humankind: the heads of religious orders. Since the religious authority is by nature unquestionable so long as one remains as a member of such a group, regardless of the scale of the given organisation, it is essential for religions to secure the absolute status for certain individuals within such an organisation: someone must be revered as the ‘mouthpiece of God’. Secondly, by appealing to the unconditional authority of ‘divine judgment’, religious fundamentalism denies the authority of government; even within a theocracy, there are always possible denials of the authority of governing bodies by breakaway factions. Ironically, such factions ultimately preserve the identical distribution of power within their respective organisations. Thirdly, by claiming the ‘Truth’ of their beliefs, the proponents of religious faiths are always going to dispute against one another. Since religious doctrines are ‘divine’, and thus absolute, the disputes amongst them are ultimately irreconcilable. Without the mediation of a secular authority, this dispute can soon become beyond the bounds of theological squabble; it becomes existential. All these phenomena point to social instability. Whilst such a turmoil is precisely what the Enlightenment project sought to remedy by means of secular democracy, despite being the first example of such an experiment, America has failed to reconcile the need for religious freedom and the secularity that guarantees its survival. This is simply due to the basic misconstrual of the very notion of ‘freedom’; Americans tend to conflate metaphysical notion of ‘freedom’, which is purely abstract and thus merely hypothetical, and civil freedom which grants freedom in exchange of civil duties and social obligations. Without grasping the most basic conceptual distinction such as this, one must suffer false statements such as: I am free to do wrong. Given the prevalence of such a confusion, this contradiction will survive within American Form of Life for the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding the lack of social coherence resulting from this contradiction, Americans found one common ground upon which a society might function: money. The rule of money over all the differences imaginable amongst the populace is clearly represented by Jarmusch with his depiction of American ‘Frontier’. Still, as we have seen, the contradiction within American Geist remains unresolved, and its ills have been in a full display.

Extreme Individualism and Absolute Subjectivity: Arguably, one of the significances of the introduction of Protestantism in Christianity is the shift of emphasis from theology and metaphysics, which are verified and contested within ecclesiastical order, to the notions of conscience and faith, both of which are highly individualistic and thus subjective. Whilst various strands of Protestantism do have their own theology and metaphysics, this shift of emphasis toward subjectivity and individuality in religion has had a significant impact. Whilst individual autonomy in interpreting the religious canon decentralised the religious authority, we observe two distinct implications of this phenomenon: whilst in Protestant Europe, the combined effect of individualism and the Enlightenment led to the decline of religion in general, in America, by encouraging a ‘personal’ connection to Jesus Christ, it bred what one might call hyper-subjectivity in the name of faith, and thus helping the establishment of extreme individualism of American Geist. Prior to examining the implications of hyper-subjectivity in American Form of Life, it is necessary to understand properly how and why this kind of subjectivity is deeply problematic.

The kind of individualism represented by Frontier Thesis and Western movies, and enshrined by many Americans as a ‘core value’ of American Geist, is contradictory to the most basic principle of civil society. As mentioned in the previous note, the notion of ‘freedom’ is completely misconstrued in the United States. Since every individual of a civil society must observe the law and engage in social and political process as a citizen who is respectful of the rights of others, ‘freedom’ as a right is never about ‘doing whatever I want’. When one fails to grasp such a basic conceptual distinction, there are severe implications. Firstly, a society plagued with such a confusion is paranoid in nature. Since everyone is only interested in fulfilling one’s desire and/or whim, no one can expect others to speak and act in good faith. We have seen the result of this collective paranoia everyday in the news: it appears that Americans have lost the ability and/or will to distinguish the truth from the falsity. The constituents are willing to swallow ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories, and/or propagandas in so far as they fit their respective world-views. From ‘Pizza Gate’ to the denial of human effects on the ecosystem, the evidence of cognitive dissonance in American society paints a staggeringly bleak picture. Secondly, this lack of basic trust in one another leads to the impossibility to establish a social coherence. For a society to maintain healthy function, its members must be entitled to enjoy a certain level of expectation in one another; one must be able to expect that one’s fellow citizens are going to respect one’s rights and appreciate social norms and the bounds of law. The loss or lack of such trust thus results in a given society’s inability to create a consistent narrative that defines its identity and its fundamental values. Whilst it is natural to have a certain degree of diversity of views about the identity and the values of a said society, the kind of Extreme Individualism adopted by Americans fragments a society into an aggregation of cults due to the impossibility to initiate a proper dialectic by its constituents. When each sect defends their beliefs as faith, not by proper arguments, the disagreements become existential confrontations. When every member of a given society is entitled to this kind of subjectivity, that is, the alleged ‘right’ for everyone to take justice into one’s own hand without, or possibly against, social consent à la Marshall Kane, the result is absolute nihilism: one becomes a cold-blooded survivalist like Cole Wilson. The logical implication of such a nihilistic survivalism is an absurd armed race against all.

Patriotism as a Faith: Whilst hyper-subjectivism suffered by Americans has many implications internally, one must also consider the external implications of this tendency. Yet, before examining them, one must understand how Americans overcome, however artificially, the resulting social fragmentation in order to maintain its ‘unity’ enough to function as a sovereign entity within the world. The key to binding the aggregation of these cults together as an individual entity is patriotism. Whilst money is a common language in America, the world of finance and trade does not know nationality, and thus cannot bring about the ‘unity’ which Americans seek. In order to gloss over a multitude of contradictions existing within American Form of Life, Americans tend to appeal to passion: patriotism, or ‘the love of country’ as commonly referred, is regarded as an unquestionable value for each and every American. Yet, what exactly means to love one’s country is vague. Given the severe social fragmentation observed in America, this question is outstandingly difficult one to answer for its citizens: no one can clearly and satisfactorily define ‘America’ for everyone. Americans bypass shaky standing of their beliefs by appealing to the notion of faith; since faith is a subjective belief, it is ‘private’, and thus, supposedly ‘immune’ to the interrogation of logic and reason. And it is only under the duress of patriotic passion that Americans come together as constituents of a Geist, however incoherent it might be. Since their patriotism is a faith, rather than a mere belief, America remains susceptible to a kind of Totalitarianism described by Carl Schmitt in his notorious work, Political Theology (1922), in which he defines sovereignty as the power to declare exception, that is, the state of emergency which nullifies civil rights and transfers great, if not absolute, power to the ‘ruler’. The irony is that Hyper-Individualism in America enables the absolute patriotism which in turn enables the power-that-be to cancel all civil liberties.

Anti-Intellectualism: To Turner’s delight, America offers a perfect environment for hyper-subjectivity to thrive. Since Americans have long embraced Turnerian notion of American character, one of its components, namely anti-intellectualism, puts an end to all attempts to interrogate the legitimacy of any personal beliefs, such as patriotism and American Exceptionalism. The problem is that modern democracy relies on the rationality and the intellect of its constituents for its healthy functions, and thus, anti-intellectualism cannot coexist with democracy without severely undermining the latter. And thus, the notion that the ‘democratisation’ of America has been achieved by anti-intellectualism is confused at best. And yet, by embracing the Frontier Myth advanced by Turner, America prepared itself for the path to populism from the early stage of its democracy. Yet, as seen in Dead Man, Frontier Myth is just that: a myth. The condition wherein bullets decide who lives and dies daily is a far cry from the most basic form of democracy.

Imperialism and Isolationism: Being a global empire, there is always a need for America to form a coalition; to be a global player means having stakes in every part of the world, and thus, in order to protect their national interest and further their agendas, it is impossible not to work with others. Yet, America, like its ‘heroic’ archetype of Western movies, oft leans towards Isolationism and likes to entertain the thought of ‘going solo’, even though it is never an option. Still, it is important to note the contradiction between America’s desire for Isolationism and its objective of global domination. This particular contradiction between its isolationist fantasy and its imperial agendas causes a strange inconsistency in its foreign and domestic policies: Americans simply cannot decide how they want to engage with the rest of the world. America is at once an Interventionist (e.g., World’s Policeman) and an Isolationist, the sometimes anti-immigrant nation built by immigrants, the leader of ‘free world’ while practicing Selective Humanism, and preaching the value of democracy to the world while domestically undermining its own by letting populism thrive. Given the hyper-subjectivity of Americans and the paranoid nature of their society, America is socially fractured, and it is no surprise that America has difficulties in establishing a coherent engagement policy with the rest of the world. In short, America remains confusing by being hopelessly confused.

Morality, Capitalism, and Industrial Materialism: Americans suffer a peculiar need to claim moral superiority. Whilst Europeans and others only feel the need to be superior, Americans need to appear ‘good’; like their ‘superheroes’, Americans must be the ‘good guys’ as their opponents are, naturally, ‘bad guys’. As Bob Dylan observed in his song, ‘With God on Our Side’ (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964), Americans believe the innate moral high-ground of their nation. The problem with this attitude is obvious: it fosters a fanatic patriotism which encourages unnecessary military adventure, Isolationism, Protectionism, xenophobia, and potentially leads to the establishment of an absolute sovereign through the declaration of the state of emergency which lasts indefinitely. Whilst patriotism of this sort is available for all Forms of Life, and human society in general must safeguard itself from its dangers, for Americans, their faith in their nation’s moral nature creates a unique contradiction. We have already noted that this faith originates from two sources: American belief in the ‘Christian character’ of their nation; and being the first democratic republic in human history. Whilst religious and the Enlightenment aspects of American Geist presents a contradiction of its own, their faith in their nation’s moral character creates another; the claim of morality contradicts with two ideologies which are essential to Americans: Capitalism and Industrial Materialism.

As I noted in my article on The Big Short,, Capitalism eventually starts to create needs to increase profits for free enterprises. As Deleuze and Gattari observed, Capitalism is ‘schizophrenic’ in this precise sense; with Capitalism, not only all desires need to be materially satisfied, it is necessary for it to create wants. As a result, in a matured capitalist society, one can easily observe how the world becomes the distorted mirror of ‘Desires’; nobody exactly knows why one desires what. At this point, one can only see ‘Desires’ spilled over to the world around us which has entirely distorted its picture. Now, it must be clear that such desires know no morality. If one insists on America’s innate moral superiority over others, one must somehow successfully argue that capitalism, and the ‘Desires’ fostered by it, are moral by their nature. The same contradiction applies to Industrial Materialism. Based on a crude interpretation of Cartesian metaphysics, Industrial Materialism encourages us to exploit the world as a source of material gain. Since its ethos is fundamentally Instrumentalist, and thus encourages us to treat everything as means, not ends, it has nothing to do with ethics. In fact, it is just the opposite: by encouraging us to exploit everything around us, Industrial Materialism is unethical by its nature. In Dead Man, the logical consequence of capitalism and Industrial Materialism is represented by the ‘town’ of Machine and the ultimate survivalist, Cole Wilson.

 

The Real Frontier

As we have seen, American Form of Life consists of a multitude of contradictions and thus it is impossible to capture and preserve a concise statement which represents American identity for every American; whilst this fact itself is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of itself, without properly appreciating the state of affairs objectively, dire confusions arise from forcing a false unity by glossing over the diversity and the difference existing within American citizens. By insisting to establish a sweeping notion of ‘America’ and ‘Americans’, the focus of American politics is on the squabbles on collective identity, rather than resolving urgent and specific issues at hand. This is not to say that Americans, and all of us, should sweep aside unjust discriminations past and present. Understanding and resolving unresolved contradictions within a Form of Life by staying as disinterested as one possibly can must be the utmost priority to all agents, regardless of one’s perceived membership. And, remarkably, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man offers us a glimpse of such a possibility through an unlikely friendship between Blake and Nobody. In Part III of this article, thus, I shall examine how these two lost souls come together as companions and transcend the historic boundary erected between the two people. The path to realise one’s agency is indeed narrow and challenging, yet, if one truly values one’s liberty and autonomy, one must not shy away from embarking on it. For, in the end, the only Frontier worthy of pursuing for any of us is not within the realm of the material world; it is the arbitrary limit of our understanding wherein we tend to dwell all too comfortably. Yet, in order to pursue this direction, one must confront and resolve unresolved contradictions existing within one’s Form of Life. (To be continued)

Dead Man (1995), Part I

Preamble

On the 8th of November 2016, the Nobel laureate for economics, Paul Krugman, wondered whether the USA had become a ‘failed state and society’. The statement found in a brief article written for the New York Times is a crystallised expression of his utter bewilderment, disbelief, and despair not only about the result of the election, or what could only be described as a ‘dumpster-fire’ of the campaign itself, but also about the elements of US society which had unfailingly made their presence known despite the alleged unintelligibility of their beliefs. Krugman, of course, had known of their existence and views. Yet, when their candidate was about to prevail, he admitted that he no longer knew anything about the country which he still probably considers his home.

Whilst Krugman is justified to express his shock, exasperation, and despair, the above statement makes one wonder whether the perceived ‘Great Divide’ of American society is only a recent phenomenon. It also makes one question whether the traditional understanding of American politics as the contest between opposing ideologies, that is, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, or ‘progressives’, is a correct one. Whilst it is certainly interesting to pursue these inquiries, they are beyond the scope of my project. Instead, I wish to reevaluate the story of the United States through the critical examination of select films which I find particularly illuminating. I am specifically interested in examining the nature and the origin of what we might call ‘American Contradictions’. Each of them is unique to America, either in theory or in praxis, and the Gestalt of such contradictions defines what America was, what it is now, and what it is going to be. Whilst each film in this series, ultimately, must be judged by its own merit, it is my hope that, together, as a whole, they may present a coherent portrait of the United States, not necessarily flattering, yet fascinating nonetheless.

 

The Waste Land

To begin our inquiry, there is no better place than Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece, Dead Man (1995). This film enjoys many distinctions regarding the ways in which it comprehensively shatters the narcissistic notion of the ‘Frontier’, which is universally accepted, both by Americans and non-Americans, as the defining feature of American Geist. Jarmusch’s sixth feature is an ambitious project which aims to transform America’s self-image, and suggests a different attitude toward its past and present, as well as its future. Dead Man is a truly important film not only because of its theoretical scope; it is a cinema of astounding beauty with considerable depth and complexity. It is a singular achievement both for Jarmusch as well as American cinema; never has an American film been able to produce a work that contains the potential to initiate a seismic shift in a given society’s self-consciousness with a profound philosophical, poetic, and comedic effect of this magnitude. And thus, Dead Man is at once a triumph and tragedy for American independent film. Despite, or because of, its magnificent quality, it failed to reach the majority of American audiences, and it was dismissed by critics as a typical ‘art-house’, ‘post-modern’, movie. America has a long tradition of punishing its bests, and once again, it cast one of its brightest offsprings into exile. The film has been a critical success internationally, yet its promise has never been materliased at home.

Set in the 19th century, Dead Man follows the fate of a quite ordinary chap, William Blake (Johnny Depp). Hailed from a town near Cleveland, Ohio, our protagonist is on his way to a colonial outpost, or the ‘town’ called Machine, to take up a position of accountant at Dickinson Metal Works. The journey starts uneventful enough; Blake sits in a crowded car with urbane passengers who are determined to avoid any form of contact with one another. Yet, as the steam train hurries along, the landscape begins to show the true nature of his journey; the forest becomes dark and dense, and Blake spots an abandoned carriage, as well as a destroyed tepee, the sights of which give stark forewarnings to our helpless protagonist. Across the desert, and over the mountains, the train flees into the unknown. The changes are not limited to the landscape; his fellow travelers apper different. Gone are the urban middle class to which Blake belongs. First, Blake acknowledges the presence of the rural population with whom he has had little or no acquaintance to this point. Then, awoken from a restless slumber, he found himself in the midst of a ‘wild bunch’; gun-slinging fur traders of the West, who confront the stranger with a mixture of naked contempt and savage indifference.

At this point, someone finally takes interest in Blake and speaks to him. The stoker of the train (Crispin Glover) appears and takes an opposite seat from Blake. Despite being the only person with whom Blake can converse, there is something unnerving about the stoker. Emerging from the infernal fire and black smoke bellowing from the furnace, he asks Blake to look outside the window. The stoker continues dreamily by uttering a strange observation: the way the landscape rushes by the train window reminds him of an experience on water; when one lies against the vast open sky in a boat on still water, despite the lack of motion, the landscape slides away, and one struggles to explain why. This strange utterance impresses the stoker to us as a mythical figure, despite that we won’t know his significance until later in the film. Then, suddenly, he initiates a seemingly normal conversation with Blake and inquires into his personal life. Blake reluctantly reveals his recent losses; the departures of his parents, as well as the split with his fiancée. The stoker insists that, though grave as they are, such losses cannot be enough reasons for Blake to come all the way down to this ‘Hell’. As Blake shows a letter from the ‘town’ of Machine promising a job, the stoker, though he cannot read the document himself, warns him not to trust no words written in no piece of paper out here. He emphasises with great fear that the ‘town’ of Machine is the end of line, wherein the only thing Blake is going to find is his own grave. At this point, it starts to dawn on us that this train is not taking Blake to an earthly destination; it is taking him on a mythical journey, and the stoker (an obvious nod to Kafka’s Amerika) is a modern day steward who brings our protagonist across the River Styx. Despite being unable to alter his passenger’s destiny, the stoker shows humaneness with his desire to know why Blake is on this one-way trip. In fact, he is the first of (only) three who demonstrates empathy and decency toward our protagonist, as he wanders the vortex of lust, greed, and violence.

As if the starkness of warning from the stoker is not enough to make a point, fur-clad, bearded men soon start firing their rifles through the windows; according to the stoker, they are shooting at a herd of American bisons, whose casualties reached a mark of over one million in the past year alone. This scene refers to the main reason why this formidable animal quickly approached a state of near extinction: violent senselessness. As this scene amply demonstrates, white settlers did not always kill them for profit; whilst the meat, bones, fur, and skin of American bisons were prized commodities, colonists shot them whenever possible, even when they could not gain anything from the killing. In just one scene, Jarmusch makes it absoutely clear: the so-called ‘Frontier’ is a territory of vicious absurdity. These ‘wild men’ demonstrate no sign of humaneness or civility; they are crude, violent thugs with guns, and these are the ‘people’ amongst whom our hero must exist from now on. Unfortunately, Blake is no longer able to turn back; he bet everything on this prospective job, and thus he has no money for the return journey. He soon discovers just how true the words of the stoker were. The destination, the ‘town’ of Machine, is one of countless white colonies, built around a specific enterprise, whose ‘boss’ (in this case, it is Mr. Dickinson, delightfully performed by the late Robert Mitchum) commands absolute power, and literally decides who lives and who dies. Typical of such a colony in the West, Machine exists to supply the needs of the enterprise by catering its workforce to alcohol and prostitution. As Blake walks into town, hard, hostile, and shameless stares stab him. The ‘street’ is ornamented with skulls of animals and humans, and Blake witnesses a woman being forced to perform oral sex on a thug in the open at gun point; noting a spectator, the beast points a revolver at him, as if weapons do all the talking in this wasteland.

Remarkably, all of this happens in the first twelve minutes or so (including title credit) of the movie. Utilising a seemingly ingenuous method of telling a nuanced story by frequently inserting blank moments provides Jarmusch a significant creative benefit in Dead Man; it enabled him to condense what must be normally a tedious process of reevaluating the notion of the ‘American Frontier’ into a dozen minutes at the very beginning of the movie, thereby freeing himself and the audience to explore hidden and willfully forgotten stories of America at its infancy with a rare clear-sightedness. Jarmusch’s swiftness in demolishing the idealised notion of the ‘American Frontier’ also owes to the painstaking accuracy with which the director represents the period. Dead Man is widely acclaimed for its objective description of the life in the ‘Frontier’ of the given period. This accuracy was not only applied to the way in which white settlers’ lives are represented; Dead Man is widely acclaimed for its non-stereotypical representation of Native Americans, and it is one of the very few films which feature a Native American as one of the main protagonists. (In Dead Man, Nobody, iconised by Gary Farmer, is one of the three main characters alongside William Blake and Cole Wilson, performed by Lance Henriksen.) Jarmusch's effort to represent Native Americans as agents is genuine and sincere; Dead Man features at least two distinct Native American languages, the Cree and the Blackfoot respectively, and some of the speeches in these languages include in-jokes exclusively aimed at Native American audiences and presented without English translation. Hence, despite its fantastical storyline and its characters, through the visual and sonic experience of the film, Dead Man not only escapes stereotypes, but also destroys them; these images are so powerfully different from anything we have previously known. Through the rest of the movie, Jarmusch continues to demolish the narcissistic notion of the ‘American Frontier’, the concept which fundamentally defines America’s self-image. From a political/cultural standpoint, every Geist must be represented by a grossly simplified notion, or better, an iconic image, in order to appeal to the imagination of the masses. History, art, and political theory are employed to create an appearance of coherence within a Geist, so that the members of a society may have a ‘rallying point’, if you will. The masses take such a collective identity for granted, and generally feel fiercely protective of the idea of what makes them who they are. There are two aspects of the construction and the maintenance of a collective identity: a theory and its aesthetic expressions. As we can observe in mythologies, theorising and its aestheticisation are oft manifested through one instance of expression. For Americans, however, there are two historically significant instances which are worth investigating. And, for the construction of American identity, one theoretician’s work proved to be decisive.

 

The Myth of the ‘Frontier’

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1931), a prominent historian known for his ‘Frontier Thesis’ (‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’, 1893), proclaimed that white colonists’ experiences during the invasion of the western territories of ‘North America’ forged the ‘American character’, which consists of traits such as ‘self-reliance’, ‘individual freedom’, ‘egalitarianism’, disregard for high-culture, and strong predisposition toward violence (Turner relied on the definition of the ‘Frontier’ used by the government census at the time of his writing, and thus his ‘Frontier’ includes parts of the Midwest as well as some parts of the South, as opposed to the contemporary definition of the ‘Frontier’ as the western territory beyond the Mississippi River). Unsurprisingly, Turner enshrines the above characteristics; with his celebrated thesis, he sought to make a distinction between traditional European, more specifically English, character, and the ‘national character’ of the new republic in the latter’s favour. Such traits were ‘hard-earned’ by the ‘pioneers’, or white colonists who were motivated to move westward by the promise of gains through ruthless land grabbing. Turner went so far as to proclaim that each of such traits contributes to the establishment and the progression of American democracy. This is a controversial statement to say the least. Since his concept of America and its democracy consists of so many layers of contradictions, I shall consider some of them in a section reserved for the analysis of various contradictions affecting American Form of Life. Thus, at this point of inquiry, I shall only make one observation: As Turner was keen to make a distinction between Imperial Europe and democratic America, Turner’s theory leaves us with many questions. For example, Turner cannot explain the reasons why some ‘Europeans’ in America adopted the alleged ‘American character’ whilst others did not. Turner’s sweeping assertion of the singular importance of ‘Frontier’ is also suspect; ’Americans’ fostered diverse sets of regional cultures, and thus it is difficult to justify Turner’s selective bias for the ‘Frontier Form of Life’ over all others. Furthermore, Turner has no explanation whatsoever why Americans alone developed these particular traits; other colonial settlers world-wide did not develop what Turner considers as specifically an American character. Australians, for example, are known for their ‘mateship’, the opposite trait to the extreme individualism with which Americans identify themselves. Turner offers neither the explanation as to why some ‘Europeans’ developed the traits he declared American, nor the reasons why other European colonies did not develop similar characteristics. And thus, one must seriously question whether Frontier Thesis is what it aspires to be: an explanatory theory of the origin of alleged ‘American character’ and the nature of ‘American democracy’.

As Turner’s thesis quickly became dominant amongst American intellectuals, there have been some competing views on America’s national character. Whilst Turner embraced the violent and lawless aspects of ‘Frontier Life’ as American ‘liberty’, Americans generally prefer not to face this aspect of their history objectively. This fact seems to suggest that the desire, or necessity, to construct a ‘positive’ self-image for Americans stems not only from the routine legitimation of its national sovereignty, but also from the determination to legitimise their ruthless colonial expansion at the expense of Native Americans as the means to achieve an (allegedly great) end. Whilst there are quite a few ways to construct a believable narrative to legitimise the birth of a nation, a particular concept has been enlisted by the establishment of the republic, such as the ‘Founding Fathers’ and their successors, for the defence of America’s colonial agendas: the ‘newness’ of the country which supposedly marked the new beginning for ‘humanity’. Despite the fact that the concept of a republican government originates from Europe, and that it is not the only form of democracy, Americans decided that the birth of their nation deserves a special credit: America must be a beacon of hope for ‘humanity’ as the first, and the original, democratic republic. Seeing their nation as the blueprint of future ‘human’ progress, Americans also regard their ‘newness’ as a unique virtue, that is, it is the declaration of a complete break from the Past. Energised by the new philosophy which signaled the break from ecclesiastical authority, the ‘new’ scientific advancement, and the brute force of Industrial Revolution, American intellectuals, like their European counterparts, were confident that the new dawn of 'humanity' was within their grasp, and, as the ‘people’ of new beginning, they wished to position themselves as the vanguard of progress. (The cultural significance of America’s self-identification with this concept is quite visible. For example, America’s obsession with ‘youth’ can be partially explained by their identification with the notion of ‘newness’, which they tend to regard as a virtue in itself.)

As I shall elaborate later, this Enlightenment aspect of America’s genesis creates a tension with its religious element. This stark opposition was evident from the very beginning, as the religious held some of the founding members of the government, most notably Thomas Jefferson, in suspicion and contempt, and the continuation of this narrative is very much at front and centre of American politics even today. The religious aspects of the nation fight to ensure that the ‘Age of Reason’ and materialism would not triumph, yet, the ideological opposition that supposedly divides ‘us’ and ‘them’ is blurred with confusions. Except the Amish, Americans, including the religious, embrace the ‘newness’, the concept which is confusedly tied to America's national identity. ‘Confusedly’, because the alleged ‘newness’ is sometimes about various modern concepts such as democratic republicanism, non-traditional thinking and behaviours, or novel innovations in science and technology, yet other times, it is really about ‘new’ things, such as new weapons, new territory, new gadgets, new… anything. (There is also a religious element to the notions of ‘newness’ and the ‘New World’, and thus further complicating the matter. I shall postpone the discussion of this point to the Part II.) This is due to a certain historic contingency; America’s westward expansion was accelerated by one of the most significant technological advances of the day: the railroad. The ‘progress’ of the ‘New World’ was enabled by the industrialisation and capitalist economy, and thus capitalism and Industrial Materialism are indispensable parts of America’s self-consciousness: Despite the religious aspects of their Geist, these ideologies represent their ‘core values’. That being acknowledged, it must be noted that neither of these ideologies began in America; Europeans, especially British, must be credited for setting both capitalism and Industrial Materialism in motion by igniting Industrial Revolution. And thus, despite being the first democratic republic, from theoretical standpoint, there is nothing ‘new’ about America; it is a product of European experiment. And, like its future counterpart, the USSR, it was on course to overshadow its inventor, become the champion of Industrial Materialism, and carries the legacy of global imperialism inherited from their European counterpart.

It is interesting to note that, despite his belief in the uniqueness of American Geist, Turner appears to appreciate the notion of ‘newness’, the notion embraced also by pre-Frontier colonists. Given his rejection of all things ‘civilised’ and 'European' as non-American, this strikes us as a curious phenomenon. Hence, it is important to note what the concept of ‘newness’ specifically meant for Turner. Whist Turner accepts the notion of America as the ‘New World’, he applies a different understanding to this concept. For Turner, ‘newness’ has nothing to do with an advancement of ‘humankind’, whether speaking philosophically, scientifically, technologically, or even morally; it is only about the rebirth of European settlers into a new people: according to Turner, they were born again as American people through their colonial struggles. In fact, he vehemently opposes the modern, Enlightenment narrative of humanism; he famously argues that European settlers became Americans for the first time in the wilderness of the ‘American Frontier’, wherein lawlessness reigned and thus conflicts were primarily settled with force and violence. Turner proclaims that American democracy is not the end result of the work of European philosophers and political theorists; it was forged by the bloody colonial struggles in the ‘Frontier’, and thus it bears the weight of its particularly American heritage. He even offers a warning that, with the completion of territorial expansion in the North America, the ‘American Frontier’ will cease to exist, and the stifling influence of ‘civilisation’ and the government institutions might annihilate the newly discovered American ‘freedom’, which thrived without the ‘interference’ of the government or other established social institutions. White colonists of the ‘Wild West’ relied on ad-hoc organisations which ‘performed’ many governmental functions such as law enforcement and judiciary, in the form of ‘rough justice’. For Turner, such a primitive form of society observed in the ‘American Frontier’ was a prerequisite condition of American ‘liberty’. His concerns about the survival of American ‘liberty’ and democracy have been addressed by many, and some sought to apply the concept of ‘Frontier’ by setting America’s territorial ambitions to overseas, space, and cyberspace. Unsurprisingly, Turner does not reject Industrial Materialism so long as it furthers the interests of white colonists. Turner simply regards the power of industry as an integral part of American Form of Life, and does neither question Industrial Materialism's origin nor its role in the formulation of American Geist. He was only interested in constructing an effective narrative for the case of American 'Frontier' as the singularly most important influence on the birth of 'new people' and 'new civilisation'.

For Turner, thus, some Americans are mere ‘Europeans’. The ‘Founding Fathers’ are mere 'European' theorists. He also discredited the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, a group of Puritans who fled England in seeking their religious freedom; for Turner, they are English, not Americans yet. Generally these two groups of colonists are regarded as the first ‘Americans’, yet Turner exhibits uninhibited hostility toward them. His open contempt towards the organised civic society of Europe and New England, and his peculiar definition of American character, are eerily familiar. One can readily recognise the manifestation of Turnerian disdain of civic values in contemporary ‘democratic’ grassroots movements in the United States (I shall elaborate on why many populist movements in the US, and elsewhere, are ‘democratic’ only on paper in the later section about American Contradictions). Whilst it is hard to understand many Americans’ irrational rejection of basic social programs such as healthcare and retirement pension as ‘government overreach’ and ‘overregulation’ by the Washington élites, once one traces their rejection of the civic society back to Turner, despite its irrationality, these American reactions begin to make sense. Whilst there is no way to precisely measure the influence of Turner’s polemics, given what we see today in the United States, it is permissible to think that Frontier Thesis may have been the most decisive factor for the determination of American Geist. Hence, we must ask ourselves: Why has Turner’s thesis been so influential? Whilst there are a few reasons for its enduring popularity, two factors must be noted in order to diagnose one of the most dangerous elements of populist narratives: There is a certain vagueness and crude simplicity in Turner’s thesis. Because it is vague, it is easy to interpret as we please. And due to its oversimplification, it is also very easy to follow.

By seeking to vindicate the white settlers’ experience through the colonisation of vast territories which was to become known as North America, Turner’s thesis created a simple image according to which Americans still wish to be defined today: rugged, resilient, and fiercely independent ‘people’. Turner’s description of so-called American character proved to be highly effective and soon became the cornerstone of American history courses. The sweeping success of Frontier Thesis owes to its simplicity and vagueness. Being a historian, Turner relied on his observation of contingent matters of fact, that is, the reported facts on the ‘American Frontier’. Yet, Turner was very discriminating; remarkably, he ignores some elements of white colonial life, such as religious orientations (or its lack thereof in some quarters), social classes, and economic developments, and implicitly allows one prerequisite condition for the entitlement of this character: whiteness. Since Turner’s theory is intended to be an explanatory theory, Frontier Thesis supposedly explains the origin of an already existing phenomenon: America’s national character. And thus, there is no need for one to have an actual experience of participating in the colonial expansion in the 'Frontier' to adopt 'American' character; yet, still, a Turnerian American is expected to be white. This means one thing: so long as someone fulfills a sufficient condition of being a white American, one could adopt and identify oneself with Turner’s characterisation. Yet, Frontier Thesis and Turner’s American character have been embraced by all spectrums of American society as a national identity, and, logically speaking, quite justifiably so. Whilst white suprematists regard whiteness as a necessary condition to fit the category of ‘American’, and Turner himself might have agreed with them, this assessment is based on a category mistake; given the nature of the theory, which is based on matters of fact, the observed whiteness of colonists is contingent, not necessary; these colonists happened to be whites, yet there is nothing to tell us that they absolutely had to be so. Whilst the colonists to whom Turner referred were whites, and thus his thesis strictly colonial in nature, the whiteness is, again, a sufficient condition based on the observation of a contingent matter of fact. The lack of necessary condition for the entitlement of 'American character' adds a certain vagueness to the membership criteria of being an 'American', and thus allows loose interpretations of his theory; at least in principle, regardless of race, gender, social class, and religious affiliation or its lack thereof, all Americans can identify themselves with the alleged national character, hence the popularity. Additionally, Turner’s theory is crudely simplistic; it is in fact a sweeping conjecture in a strictest sense of the word. Whilst his observation of the ‘American Frontier’ and its influence is useful in explaining certain American attitudes of the past and the present, Turner attributes too much credit to the influence of the white colonist experience in the ‘Frontier’. Whilst Frontier Thesis captured the imagination of an American populace, and it has been generally accepted as a self-evident truth, American society is too complex to be summerised neatly by a single theory. It is oft described as an ideologically ‘divided’ society, yet if one carefully considers, it becomes clear that American society has been made up of wildly complex segregations that is better described as a fractured, not divided, nation. And thus, despite its popularity, the alleged ‘American character’ must be considered as a popular myth. It is a story fabricated by a white settler to glorify his country's colonial origin, and thus, it is inherently and unprohibitedly narcissistic.

In truth, there is nothing to understand in Turner’s thesis. As an explanatory theory, Frontier Thesis is a complete failure. In fact, notwithstanding Turner’s intention, Frontier Thesis does not explain the origin of American character: It created it. Turner merely answered the need for Americans to establish a unique national identity, as all social groups strive to do. His work was timely, and his thesis proved to be very pleasing to Americans. As William S. Burroughs oft quipped: Tell them what they want to hear, and they will believe anything you say. Turner’s Frontier Thesis was a propaganda piece which created the national character of the United States by weaving a seemingly coherent narrative based on some matters of facts, rather than what it pretended to be, that is, an explanatory theory of an already existing ‘American character’ as such. And what Turner achieved with his thesis is critical to the formation of American identity, for Turner managed to create a narrative which at once justified American society, with its lack of cohesiveness and its many contradictions, as a new form of civilisation. And this formula proved to be powerfully and enduringly appealing to Americans. Even today, despite academic scrutinies, Turner’s thesis remains dominant, and the popularity of Turnerian American identity has always been relentlessly exploited by politics, commerce, and media to a nauseating effect. Whilst historians and politicians have been keen to benefit from Turner’s story, and have been spinning it for all its worth, it still needed an external support to capture the imagination of the masses, and it was a particular genre of American cinema, that is, Western movies, fulfilled such a role. Whilst Turner's thesis has been dominant in history courses, in a society with anti-intellectual attitude, a single theory, however respected, cannot have a powerful influence on the society at large. Fortunately for Turner and his thesis, Western films made Turner's view accessible to the masses, and successfully popularised it. This is precisely why Jarmusch chose to deconstruct this genre in his sixth feature film as a way to confront America’s self-image. In order to comprehensively debunk the celebrated image of ‘American people’ represented by this genre, however, Jarmush needed to do more than the objective representation of the ‘American Frontier’. He must identify its living icon, and expose what it really represents. (To be continued)