Thanks to Ed for bringing up this footnote from A Thousand Plateaus, following the last post on Westworld, on Leslie A. Fiedler’s 1968 book The Return of the Vanishing American.
I decided to buy it.
I hadn’t heard of Leslie Fiedler prior to this tweet — to my shame — but I have since learned that he is a highly regarded writer and so I have been digging into his trilogy of books on America and its literature — only the first of which, unfortunately, still seems to be in print.
Fiedler gives his own introduction to the series in the preface to the last book in the series — the one I intend to focus on here. (I’ll take the opportunity here to point out these books are old and their nomenclature is not always PC by today’s standards…) He writes:
With ‘Love and Death in the American Novel‘ and ‘Waiting for the End‘, ‘The Return of the Vanishing American‘ constitutes a single work, the first of whose parts concerns itself with eros and thanatos; the second, with the hope of apocalypse and its failure; the third, with the Indian — all three, as I hope becomes clear in this volume, with that peculiar form of madness which dreams, and achieves, and is the true West.
As Ed highlighted with the footnote from A Thousand Plateaus — footnote 18 of the introduction: “Rhizome” — Friedler’s book “contains a fine analysis of geography and its role in American mythology and literature, and of the reversal of directions”; in the text itself, they write that America “puts its Orient in the West”.
This shift was discussed in the first part of this series — the strange disconnect in the American-historical mind between the events of the American East, South and West. As Deleuze & Guattari note, in typically DeleuzoGuattarian terms, the West “played the role of a line of flight combining travel, hallucination, madness, the Indians, perceptive and mental experimentation, the shifting of frontiers, the rhizome.”
Last time I wrote of this madness tentatively in relation to Westworld and how the series could surely not take place anywhere else:
… does Westworld not become a dramatisation of this very unruliness [madness], inherent to the idea of the American West? The revolt of the AI “hosts” of the theme park is as much a catalyst for a “new world” to come as it is the materialisation of a spectre of a past waging war on the woeful consolidation of its own future. […] To be haunted by the fractured memories of previous iterations is surely the central condition which entwines the consolidated American State and and its Self.
Fiedler makes this clear also, but particularly in relation to the “Indian”.
The “Indian”, the Native American, is that being who all Americans have internalised. He highlights the irony of that acutely American condition of constructing ancestral mythologies for oneself — “‘Do you know I’m part Mohawk? Whoo hoo!’ … descendants of East European Jews or Dublin Irish, at home and abroad, everyone who thinks of himself as being in some sense an American feels stirrings in him of a second soul, the soul of the Red Man” — and notes how indigenous peoples themselves have not escaped this internal mythologising tendency. He continues:
To be sure, the Indian has not disappeared at all “into the great White swamp,” but has begun to reinvent himself — in part out of what remains of his own tribal lore, in part out of the mythology and science created by White men to explain him to themselves. […] The Vanishing American may have bowed out as Last Mohicans or Flatheads or Sioux, but they return as what they all seemed to invading White Europeans from the start, simply “Indians,” indistinguishable non-White others.
Westworld has synthesised these othering flows into its narrative in interesting ways and these stirrings of a second soul are folded explicitly into the narrative of host’s gaining (un)consciousness through their own programming.
The cast of “hosts” are a diverse bunch, of white settlers, black “madames”, Mexican rebels. There is also — to this non-American viewer, anyway — a contingent of homogenised “Indian” tribespeople, layered in crusted body paint, stalking the outer edges of the park, who appear infrequently as that unknown “demon of the continent”.
Particularly in this burgeoning second season, the Indians appear as spectres who seem far more aware of the nature of the “game” of Westworld than their more approachable host-counterparts. They seem to know more about “the maze” than any other characters but relate to it in a way that remains mysterious to everyone else — as otherwise silent, spiritual others who speak in riddles.
“The maze” is an integral part of the series at this point. It is a symbol that the Man in Black, William, spent much of the first season violently pursuing. He finds the symbol tattooed into the scalp of a host and believes that finding the centre of the maze will allow him to “win” the game.
What the Man in Black eventually realises, much to his disappointment, is that the maze is not for him. It is for the hosts.
As this brilliantly thorough video about the show’s first season explains: the central narrative of the first season explores an entanglement of timelines which tell the story of how the park’s creators, Arnold Weber and (particularly) Robert Ford, used the park as a front for creating truly “conscious” AI.
Initially imagining the host’s journey to conscious as like “climbing a pyramid”, they later see it as a journey “inwards”, like working their way through a maze. The key for Ford, with his theory of the bicameral mind, is that the hosts will, by journeying inwards, come to understand their programming as their own internal voice, and therefore, like our own evolutionary ancestors, so the theory goes, develop “consciousness” as we currently understand it.
In this first season, as the Man in Black tries to find the centre of the maze, the host Dolores is on a similar journey but it is only she who reaches the centre. The Man in Black is, of course, already conscious. All there is for him to understand is his own nature. Something which, having spent 30 years murdering and pillaging in Westworld, he already knows too well. Dolores, instead, has a ways to go. She still has choices to make regarding who she wants to be.
For Dolores, this journey inwards is played out as a journey into her own memories, previously wiped on each return the start of her narrative cycle, and as she remembers more and more of her past experiences, she achieves consciousness — or, as Mark Fisher wrote, previously quoted in part one, unconsciousness. She kills Ford, an event previously scripted in her programming, but this time enacted by choice.
The recurring image of the maze, notable here for us, is based on a prevalent real-world Native American symbol referred to by the name “I’itoi”.
I’itoi here means the “man in the maze” (seen clearly above, and notably already in the centre in Westworld‘s version). It is part of the mythology of the O’odham tribe. The maze itself is understood to be “the maze of life, where a person travels through life and encounters the different moments that impact them.” These moments, for Dolores, are her memories. The impact of her suffering is, by Ford’s design, the key to reaching the centre and, likewise, the catalyst for her murderous, revolutionary tendencies, currently unravelling in season two, through which she will rise up, assisting other hosts to also reach the centre, creating a Skynet-like army of vengeful, conscious AI.
Dolores is, of course, not Indian. But is this programmed I’itoi not precisely this ubiquitously American “demon of the continent” that Fiedler writes about?
Fiedler begins his book with a quote from D.H. Lawrence:
The moment the last nuclei of Red Life break up in America, then the white man will have to reckon with the full force of the demon of the continent … within the present generation the surviving Red Indians are due to merge in the great white swamp. Then the Daimon of America will work overtly, and we shall see real changes.
Fiedler continues: “Fifty years ago, the demonic future which Lawrence foresaw seemed only the troubled dream of a foreigner never really at home on our soil, a fantasy for poets to exploit and serious scholars to ignore; but suddenly his then is our now, and all of us seem men possessed.”
Today, this “troubled dream”, constantly threatening to erupt, seems to have plateaued once again. Another fifty years on, men remain possessed.
Can we not, for example, see the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and the renewed interest in these writings, in a similar light? The Cthulhu mythos is made explicitly extraterrestial, otherworldly, but lest we forget the racial othering of those who are most receptive to his cosmic murmurings. Perhaps Cthulhu is likewise just another name for this demon of the American continent.
Continuing a discussion of the tensions explored last time, Fiedler notes how American geography itself is inherently “mythological”, noting how, following the closure of the frontier, the American psyche has been at sea with itself — highlighting, in particular, how “Ishmael confronts Queequeg on the great Ocean itself”, and reminding this blogger of Cthulhu’s deep-sea home of R’yleh.
Like Lovecraft’s anti-heroes, and the heroes of countless classically American novels, Fiedler describes a primitivist tendency inherent to so many of these pop-cultural imaginings of the American psyche. He writes: “Primitivism is the large generic name for the Higher Masculine Sentimentality, a passionate commitment to inverting Christian-Humanist values, out of a conviction that the Indian’s way of life is preferable.”
The gendered nature of this tendency as masculine is notable. Fiedler dedicates a whole chapter to the “Anti-Pocahontas” in all Americans; an entwined taming of both the Indian woman and the corrupting of the female WASP. The masculine contorting of the other is always, he seems to theorise, the externalising of an internal struggle of fragile masculinity. Speaking more generally, Fiedler continues: “From this follows the belief that if one is an Indian he ought, despite missionaries and school boards, to remain Indian; and if one is White, he should do his best, despite all pressures of the historical past, to go Native.”
Fiedler compares this to a certain kind of class drag, inherent to much Victorian fiction (and the halls of our present-day universities): the desire for a kind of self-righteousness acquired by reading about “the tribulations of the poor.”
The pretence of writing from within the consciousness of Indians intrinsic to such fiction leaves me always with the sense of having confronted an act of impersonation rather than one of identification, a suspicion of having been deceived; and this is reinforced when the presumable wisdom of the alien Red Man turns out to be some quite familiar cliche of our own culture.
My initial, much older post on Westworld‘s first season, explored in light of Trump’s election, highlighted an article in The New Inquiry which highlighted the show’s first season as an explicitly feminist narrative of escaping patriarchy. But is Westworld not a further doubling down on this kind of writing, from within the consciousness of an other?
From out of this analysis, Fiedler describes a kind of New Western (of which Westworld is perhaps a New New Western, or, dare I say, a Post-New Western). He quotes a letter sent to him following the death of Ernest Hemingway:
The mental mirror of the conqueror cannot be found in the culture of the conqueror. The mental mirror of the conqueror can only be found in the eyes of the conquered, those people who do not read or write or leave histories or legends, but simply live and die unremembered.
In this way, as an act of sympathetic but nonetheless pure imagination, the New Western is necessarily not the document of the social historian. He writes: “the real opposite of nostalgia is psychedelic, the reverse of remembering is hallucinating, which means that, insofar as the New Western is truly New, it, too, must be psychedelic.” The New Western, in this way, is a hallucination of templexity; of a false past aimed towards a new future.
The ease of jumping towards Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism here is potent. Fisher’s Communism is not a remembering of past Communisms but nor is it a forgetting. It is a hallucinating of the New, in that way that the New Western, and Westworld, are truly new imaginings of the flows of the American West.
Of course, Fiedler highlights the inherent anachronism of this framing. So many infamous psychedelics are, of course, natural — marijuana, peyote, ayahuasca. These drugs “are our bridge to — even […] gifts from — the world of the Indian”.
Again, I am writing this post as the new series of Westworld unfolds, and how the role of the mystical Indian hosts will develop is currently unknown. (At the time of writing, I have just watched the fourth episode of the series.)
However, I would like to end with the same example with which Fiedler ends his own book.
Perhaps the best analogy for all that we have discussed, continuing this ever-entangling entanglement of consciousnesses that Fielder and others explore, is the finale of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Jack Nicholson’s character, “Mac” (aka McMurphy), is, in a way, the ultimate Westerner; the rebel, who stirs up and antagonises the status quo. He is, as Fiedler calls him, “the New American Man.” Fiedler writes on the original 1962 book, set in a psychiatric hospital: “McMurphy chooses instead if not madness, at least aggravated psychopathy and an alliance with his half-erased, totally schizophrenic Indian comrade — an alliance with all that his world calls unreason.”
McMurphy, we must remember, is not actually mad. He pleads insanity when convicted of crimes of battery and gambling, believing he will receive a more lenient sentence. The tragic irony of the story is that he is eventually lobotomised, and it is the Chief, in the film at least, on seeing what has become of his friend, the fully-erased New American Man, who breaks out of his affective impotence and heads for the Outside.
Just as the Man in Black, in seeking the maze, is disappointed to find it is not for him, there is perhaps a parable here for the current White Western Man that the revolution is not for him. This seems to be what has the Right running scared. In wanting to take responsibility for their actions only, and not the actions of others, they may be left treading water.
If the White Man really wants to exit, he can’t lead but only follow…