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Paul A. Cantor

Critique of Pure Horse Sense

A philosopher makes the case for Hollywood Westerns.

One of the more surprising trends in publishing in recent years has been the "philosophy and popular culture" phenomenon. Three publishers—Blackwell, the University Press of Kentucky, and Open Court—have ongoing series in this vein, with multiple volumes already in print, a few of which have achieved best-seller status, especially by academic standards. Most people think of philosophy and popular culture as antithetical. They view philosophy as arcane and esoteric—the very opposite of popular. And they view films and television shows as mindless entertainment—the very opposite of the thoughtfulness we associate with philosophers. Yet as these three series have demonstrated, examples from popular culture can be used to illustrate and illuminate subtle and even abstruse philosophical issues. At the same time, individual films and television shows sometimes turn out, upon careful analysis, to grapple seriously with genuine philosophic questions. The philosophy and popular culture movement has helped to make a broader audience aware of what is at stake in philosophic debate, while at the same time offering interpretations of individual films and television shows that deepen their fans' appreciation of their artistry.

Robert Pippin's Hollywood Westerns and American Myth makes a significant contribution to the philosophy and popular culture movement. On the philosophy side, Pippin's credentials are impeccable. In his many books, he has tackled philosophical analysis at its most challenging, writing on the likes of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. As for dealing with popular culture, he has the best of all qualifications: he is a fan of the movies he discusses. In a charming admission—unlikely to score points at his home base, the University of Chicago—Pippin confesses: "I doubt that many of my students had Daniel Boone coonskin caps and fake Davie Crockett Bowie knives (I did) … or spent all day Saturday at the movies (10 in the morning until 6 at night), watching one Western after another." At first, this may not sound like proper preparation for producing a serious book, but, in fact, writing as a fan makes Pippin a more astute observer of the Western.

In the first decades of what has come to be known as Cultural Studies, Hollywood largely served as a convenient whipping boy for its academic critics, who were chiefly concerned with showing how capitalism serves up debased forms of mass entertainment to a gullible American public. Marxist critics, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, barely knew the names of the works of popular culture they claimed to be analyzing. Treating individual films and television shows as simply the generic products of a Hollywood dream factory, they dwelled on what works of popular culture have in common, and thus ended up with a "lowest common denominator" approach. They examined films and television shows at their collective worst. If you are not looking for individual artistic achievement in popular culture, it is not surprising when you fail to find it.

The Western is perhaps the most generic of all forms in Hollywood history, and it is easy to dismiss run-of-the-mill Western films as having been churned out according to tried-and-true formulas guaranteed to deliver mass audiences at the box office. But as a true fan, Pippin is not primarily interested in the generic Western. He looks in detail at three superior specimens of the genre: Howard Hawks' Red River and John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers (with some attention to other classics, such as Stagecoach, Shane, and High Noon). In the only way to be fair to a genre, Pippin looks at the Western at its best. He is interested in how the Western develops in the hands of a master, and does not hesitate to take up Westerns in the company of traditional literary masterpieces. He says that he likes to reflect on "aesthetic works of considerable complexity and ambiguity—works such as Shakespeare's history plays, novels by Tolstoy or Dickens or Coetzee, plays by Ibsen or Arthur Miller." Among these works, Pippin unapologetically ranks Hollywood products: "I shall assume that many twentieth-century films are the equal in aesthetic quality of any of these works in their ability to represent the fundamental problems of the human condition, especially our political condition and its psychological dimensions."

As Pippin insists, the Western at its best is above all relevant to political philosophy. In particular, Westerns pose the fundamental questions raised by the state of nature thinking of political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. How do human beings behave in the absence of established law and order? Do they plunge into anarchy and a catastrophic war of all against all (as Hobbes argued)? Or can they find ways of organizing into a community, perhaps one based on shared commercial interests? These are the sorts of questions Pippin explores:

For many great Westerns are indeed about the founding of modern bourgeois, law-abiding, property-owning, market-economy, technologically advanced societies in transition—in situations of, mostly, lawlessness (or corrupt and ineffective law) that border on classic "state of nature" theories. The question often raised is that of how legal order (of a particular form, the form of liberal democratic capitalism) is possible, under what conditions it can be formed and command allegiance, how the bourgeois virtues, especially the domestic virtues, can be said to get a psychological grip in an environment where the heroic and martial virtues are so important.

Pippin emphasizes how the challenges of modernity and modernization play out in Westerns. The Western frontier generally represents an archaic world, especially when compared to the more civilized, developed, and sophisticated East. Surrounded by life-threatening dangers, the westerner is often forced to live by a Homeric code of heroic violence, relying on a six-shooter to protect himself and his family. Pippin explores the tension the Western develops between the heroic, almost aristocratic individual and the commercial, middle-class society that rests on the principle of unheroic safety and security ("check your guns at the town line"). As Pippin writes, the three films he features "raise a question central to modernity—whether the great potential violence and moral anarchy of nature and human nature can in fact be tamed, or whether we can get by, must get by, with only a comforting, mythologically created and sustained illusion that it can." The famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"—encapsulates the basic issue Pippin is raising. Does the Western provide a kind of political theology for the United States?

I will not try to summarize Pippin's argument because he does such a good job of presenting it concisely himself. The book is very well-written, in a clear and readily comprehensible prose, free of the academic jargon that sometimes infects work in Cultural Studies. The book is amply illustrated with stills from the films, which illustrate Pippin's claims and make it possible for him to carry out analysis in terms of cinematic form as well as content. He proves to be a careful reader of films on all levels, with a good eye for seeing how the details of a given film work together to create larger patterns of meaning. For example, in analyzing the "print the legend" scene, Pippin notes how it counterpoints an earlier moment in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "As the newspaper editor crumples up and throws away the notes he has been taking—the 'true story'—we are clearly meant to think back on the drunk and also very brave Peabody, who was willing to pay the price for printing the truth about Liberty Valance. We are meant to recall Valance stuffing his newspaper into his mouth. In effect, the contemporary editor is doing voluntarily what had to be forced on Peabody."

By devoting his book largely to only three films, Pippin leaves himself open to a favorite form of academic cheap shot. It would be easy to claim that he has left some important Westerns out of his account. But with a book like Pippin's, we should dwell on what it includes, not what it omits. Given the vast amount of material Pippin could have covered, he has wisely chosen to focus on a few genuinely representative and significant moments in the history of the Western. Hollywood Westerns and American Myth is one of the best books on its subject, and anyone—from the academic specialist to the general reader—who wants to come to terms with this material needs to confront Pippin's argument. Having recently worked on the Western myself, I had occasion to read a wide range of books in the area. A lot of silliness has been written about the genre. Sometimes one gets the impression that certain critics have seen too few Westerns, while others have seen too many. Pippin strikes a good balance between surveying the whole field and concentrating on its high points. His book thus takes its place among the few that I have found genuinely useful in understanding the Western as an American phenomenon: Leslie Fiedler's The Return of the Vanishing American, Jane Tompkins' West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, Peter French's Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns, and John Lenihan's Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film. And for understanding the real world that Western films reflect, I highly recommend Terry Anderson and Peter J. Hill's The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier. As its title suggests, this book provides an important corrective to the Hobbesian vision of the West in popular culture, and thus helps one appreciate more what Pippin means when he talks about the Western as an American myth.

Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. For his observations on the Western, see his forthcoming book The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV (University Press of Kentucky).

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